The Balance of Power

Today I was asked to sub for a Shakespeare class.  The kids were supposed to watch “10 Things I Hate About You,” which meant I could sit and do whatever the hell I wanted while they were entertained.  That’s a good way to earn twenty bucks. 

I was happily checking my email and reading “Catcher in the Rye” so I won’t have to lie so baldly when my students are reading it next quarter when the damn movie ended.  Just ended.  Apparently they had already watched most of it  the previous day.

I looked at my watch and there were 20 minutes left in class.  I’m not trying to set up a 20 motif here, this is actually the amount of time.  Way too much time to say, ah, just hang out a minute, and class is almost over.  At least, for me, in my compulsive workhorse mode.  The minute those kids saw I was their sub, they moaned, “Oh no!” and the seniors said, “I thought I’d never have to see you again!” in the half-agonized, secretly pleased way of adolescents.

So I stood up and got them to spit back the plot of “10 Things,” and then explained about how “The Taming of the Shrew” was sexist, and what a shrew is, and why taming a woman is offensive.  All this in between, and sort of half over, their side conversations and yelling at each other and staring into space apathy.  I could win about 1o seconds of auditory real estate in this room.  If one of my words was “race” or “sex,” I had a better shot.

I got them to vote on whether the play should still be performed.  It came out 50/50.  I got the smartest kid in class to tell everyone that race is addressed in Shakespeare, in “Othello,” and he mentioned that they refer to Othello as a moor, and and as “uncircumcised.”  Apparently that made an impression on him. 

But they never really shut up completely, and as I moved the discussion to race, and another kid declared that Abraham Lincoln had slaves, someone else said, “Why are we talking about slaves?  What does that have to do with Shakespeare?”  And for the hundredth time, I asked, “How did Lincoln have slaves?  He lived in a free state.”  “He just did.  Those other white people didn’t care.”

Right before the bell rang, I stood up in front of the door.  Most of them were used to this trick.  I said, “I’m just going to add one thing.  But not until everyone’s quiet.”  This took a minute.  I wrapped up with something about considering the culture of the author, and how we should accept them or deal with offensive parts of their work, and how they would look at this more in their college English classes, while they thought about what they were about to have for lunch, and then I let the floodgates open. 

“You the only one I ever heard talk about slavery and Shakespeare,” one of the sophomores said.

As I walked upstairs, I was annoyed and worn out.  A kid on the stairs had her cell phone out.  I held my hand out to confiscate it.  She refused to give it to me. 

I encouraged her to do this the easy way and not get into deeper trouble, and she said, “I’ll do what I want,” all snotty.  This kid was on track to be valedictorian of her class, and I’ve been worried about her getting careless and rude. 

So I asked her to step into the chemistry lab.  “This isn’t like you.  This isn’t who you are,” I began. 

“You don’t know who I am,” she said.

Well, fair enough.  “I know you have made lots of smart choices in the past, and I’ve noticed that your choices lately are not smart.”  This seemed worth a try.

She looked at me, infuriated, and I thought, Well, whatever.

Then she gave me her phone and stormed off.

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I Used To Feel So Uninspired

Barack Obama makes me feel like a natural woman.  Especially this morning.

I’ve been preaching for years that education funding should not be locally funded.  If our goal in education is to equalize opportunity, it makes no sense to let poor kids in poor areas go to poorly funded schools and rich kids in rich areas go to lavishly funded schools.  (I say this, ruefully, as a child of one of the richest counties in America.  People there were willing and able to tax themselves like crazy to give me a great education.)  This additional federal funding is one more step toward equalizing some shocking gaps.  If it comes with additional federal oversight, I have faith that  it could be worth the annoyance.

And adding funding to Pell Grants?  I can’t imagine a better investment in our country.  Of course we should fund the college education of people with drive and skills but no money!  My fear about educational inequality is that some kid somewhere is born with the brains and creativity to cure cancer, and instead of going to med school, the kid is changing my oil at Jiffy Lube.  (Yes, very honorable work, but inappropriate.) 

Equal opportunity is not about compassion, or fairness, or any touchy-feely stuff like that.  It’s about cultivating the knowledge and talent we have in our country.  We’ve got to build up what we have.  (And incidentally, I don’t think anyone’s going to reject that cancer cure if the lead researcher was an illegal immigrant’s kid.) 

People from all over the world still come to the U.S. seeking education.  The fluidity and creativity cultivated by our educational system are unrivaled.  (To those people who felt stifled by their American education, I have to say: at least you weren’t born in Europe.  Or Asia.  Or Africa.)  The government here doesn’t control your major or your track in high school, and your studies here aren’t all about memorization and obeying authority.  That’s our weakness, but it’s also an incredible strength. 

Americans are a wildly creative bunch.  We might lag in math and science right-and-wrong tests, but we invent things like nobody’s business, gobble up and regurgitate everyone else’s languages, and mix cultures without killing each other a whole lot of the time.  Also, we’re good dancers.  That’s just my opinion.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/education/28educ.html?_r=1&hp

Finally, merely because I have been brainwashed to think in threes: does Obama’s election really change anything?  Could having a black president really influence ideas of race in a meaningful way?  If I hadn’t seen these researchers’ theories in action myself, I would think they were silly.  Here’s what they found: the black-white achievement gap disappeared in two sets of tests that was administered before and after Obama’s election.  I know.  It sounds nutty.   Again, touchy-feely, self-esteem worksheet crap.  Still, on my final exams, I always have students (all of mine are African-American) write something positive about themselves before they start the questions.  How silly.  Or maybe not.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/23/education/23gap.html

Robots Are Sexier than Brad Pitt

If “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” wins Best Picture, I’m moving to Canada.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the film, I don’t understand how you could give Best Picture or (heavens!) Best Director to a movie that could be thematically improved by the discussion in my mother’s Corolla in the Chili’s parking lot.  Seriously, the committee of my family made some great suggestions. 

The Katrina framing device does not work.  We’re all worried about what happens to that daughter and those nurses.  The whole Luke-I-am-your-father thing does not work.  Why does Benjamin Button not grieve the loss of his mother, or his family home?  How come Brad Pitt plays him like an eerily emotionless Ken doll?  Isn’t the interesting thing about this character that he experiences life in this unique way?  We need to see how he feels about that.

How come it’s not sexy to see Cate Blanchett in bed with him (sigh)…?  Why does Benjamin seem to not even know his sister?  Is his adoptive mom married to that guy she sleeps with, or not?  And why not?  What about that clock motif?  Time goes backwards, but then it doesn’t, and why does it stop going backwards? 

When the movie was a great popcorn fest, like the last Indiana Jones, these discussions were just for fun.  Fine: I accept that a man could survive a nuclear blast inside a refrigerator.  But “Benjamin Button” is supposed to be a serious movie telling us about the meaning of life and time.  It’s all Katrina-ed up, for heaven’s sake.

“Frost/Nixon” is perfectly well-intentioned, if a little distant and dry.  It’s a lot more laughs than you might expect.

I’m trying to bring myself to watch Sean Penn go gay.  Why oh why is playing a gay guy such a spectacular transformation?  Is it really harder to pretend to want to kiss boys than to pretend to be a serial killer or Richard Nixon?  I’m not impressed by straight men pretending to be gay.  This annoyed me with “Brokeback Mountain,” too.  I liked the movie fine, but to me, pretending to be in love with someone you’re not in love with is the trick, not the gender of your pretend lover.

I’m also having a hard time psyching myself up to see Kate Winslet’s Holocaust/statutory rape film.  Honestly, these aren’t topics I want to focus on in my free time.

I’d also prefer “Doubt” to get a Best Picture nod over “Benjamin” or “Frost/Nixon.”  The subject matter really appeals to me– schools, power, faith, skepticism, hierarchy– and I enjoyed the visuals and performances, especially Philip Seymour-Hoffman.  He’s tricky, tricky, tricky, and, while not my favorite actor, worth a thousand Brad Pitts.  The debate between the old-school discipline and the new-school warm fuzzy hippie love is oversimplified, but I liked seeing it played out anyway.  Those mean old nuns! (I am an aspiring mean old teacher myself.)

But how could the Academy have pleased me?  Why don’t we go “Beauty and the Beast” style and nominate “WALL-E” for Best Picture instead of leaving it in the Animation ghetto?  I was enthralled by the visuals in “WALL-E,” I laughed at its silent-movie-style humor, I smiled at its simple optimism and morality, and WALL-E reaching out to hold hands with EVA is sweeter and more romantic than any scene in “Benjamin,” Brad Pitt be damned.

Post-Inaugural

My students were less moved by today’s speech than by the election (as was I).  It was a big moment, but nothing compared to that night. 

They remain deeply concerned about Obama’s safety, suggesting that he is in danger from “all the white people who don’t like blacks.”  I ask them for evidence, and apparently one crazy woman falsely accused Obama supporters of attacking her.  That’s all they got.  I emphasize that all presidents get death threats, and that I haven’t heard anything about Obama being an unusually popular target.  It’s a common thing for these guys to worry about physical safety in situations I expect to be reliably safe.  Every time we go on a college visit, they ask about security right away.  Someone always asks if guns are allowed in the dorms.  Another thing I say again and again is, “College campuses are really safe.  The reason these college shootings get so much attention is that they are RARE.” 

We had some nice discussion provoked by the kid who says, “Why you like Obama?  Just cause he’s black?”  And by another kid who says, “Every president is great at first, but then people start to get mad at them.” 

All of them are choosing a quality that they share with Obama and signing their name underneath it.  Then they write and draw a little about this quality, so we can display them around the room.  The qualities are: raised by a single parent, in need of scholarships, inspired by Shakespeare, faith in the United States, able to overcome obstacles, religious, diverse background.  I do solemnly swear to promise to look at these names, and these qualities, next time I want to kill one of them.

The Last Frontier

On a day like today, I think about Going To Alaska.  I escaped work by trudging over to the gas station on the corner.  Slowly.  Slowly.  Keeping the snow below the edge of my sneakers, and keeping my feet under me.  I drive a stick.  I live upstairs.  I can’t be breaking my ankle.  It was cold, but I was bundled up well.  I stepped in someone else’s footprints, down the sidewalk.

One of my favorite wintertime games in elementary school followed this agenda: walk in large circles, following a pretend route on a pretend map, and speak solemnly of our preparation, progress, and hope for Going to Alaska.

My friend Eric was a valued member of our expedition.  I still see him occasionally, and he is probably also imagining himself Going to Alaska today.

In those days, children were sent outside for recess every day.  There was some windchill rule (which I never remember being enforced), and if you did not have snowpants and boots, you were not allowed out in the field on certain days, but everybody went outside.  It kept you healthy, all that fresh air.  No one was allergic to snow.  No one had asthma.  The athletic among us played soccer and softball, and nerds like Eric and me, we went to Alaska.

We learned a lot of valuable lessons on these days.  We learned to make our own meaning.  We learned to pretend like we knew where we were going.  We practiced complaining.  These are critical adult skills, whether you are Going To Alaska or Going to Buy a Snickers, as I was today.

Today’s Good News

We need good news at the beginning of January.

Several items today in New York Times pleased me.  First of all, I smiled at the article describing the ad campaign put up by atheists in Britain.  I have a soft spot for atheists.  It’s a very reasonable position, often taken up by smart, sensitive people who just can’t swallow that any God would let the shit go down that goes down.  I admire that, although I usually believe in God.  The ad, featured on London’s city busses, says, ” There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  Which also made me smile.  It really makes no sense.  Whether or not you believe in God, you could worry like crazy.  Worry that if there is no God, you are totally responsible for making the best of things.  Worry that if there is a God, you can’t figure God out.  And if there is no God, that doesn’t naturally lead to enjoying life.  Maybe the thought of no God is so depressing that you can’t enjoy anything.  Regardless, I love that atheists are getting their message out there.  Especially British atheists.  All those Europeans think Americans are nutty for being religious.  God bless them.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/07/world/europe/07london.html?em

Also, hey, we can copy our iTunes.  I believe in paying for music, and I faithfully and regularly pay for music, but I was always annoyed that iTunes kept me on such a short leash.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/07/technology/companies/07apple.html?em

Finally, some guy wants to open a “civilian service academy,” where you “pay” in five years of community service.  I don’t know who works for the government, but I do know that lots of us here at my urban public high school had to bury ourselves in outrageous debt in order to teach.  It’s one thing to sacrifice salary for public service.  When you have to pay back student loans on that salary, it’s an additional burden, and it keeps a lot of people from working in urban schools, as public defenders, or in other low-paid government position.  It hasn’t always been this way– people in my parents’ generation didn’t take on this kind of college debt.  That’s another complaint about lack of state funding for education…. And I mean this as good news.  Maybe his civilian academy won’t work, but it seems like it might be worth a try.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/07/us/07academy.html?ref=todayspaper

Nuclear Football

I enjoyed several bits of “SNL” last weekend.  There was a bit with a family that shoots off into grudges and attacks and fury without any provocation– specifics of the conflict were left out completely, all that remained were the common elements of neurosis, which, in a vaccuum, are quite recognizable and horrifyingly funny.

And then they did a bit about the Illinois governor on “Weekend Update” that was not as funny as it could have been, considering the fact that my fetish newspaper, The New York Times, has this to say of him:

…Mr. Blagojevich, 52, rarely turns up for work at his official state office in Chicago…is unapologetically late to almost everything, and can treat employees with disdain…for failings as mundane as neglecting to have at hand at all times his preferred black Paul Mitchell hairbrush. He calls the brush “the football,” an allusion to the “nuclear football,” or the bomb codes never to be out of reach of a president.

Then again, is must be challenging to satirize a man whose behavior is this absurd. 

I immediately recalled my old friend Jo-Megan (that was her name, and it’s not as odd as the governor’s).  Jo-Megan had a Paul Mitchell brush that she loved, too, and I remember her at one of my slumber parties, holding that brush up in the air after she ran it through her long brown locks, quipping, “Paul Mitchell Systems,” just like the commercial.  The thing is, Jo-Megan was ten years old at the time. 

The full article can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/15/us/politics/15blagojevich.html?_r=1&hp