California Engish Journal
I received a terribly stylish leather flight jacket for Christmas last year, something I would be too embarrassed to buy for myself because, like any veteran bomber pilot, I don't like to attract too much attention. The smell of it though, the heft of it, transported me back to a time in my life when I wanted nothing more than to become a soldier. Now, after 27 years as a high school English teacher, I'm beginning to feel like one. I was wearing the jacket and feeling rather jaunty that Christmas morning when I took off from Huntington Beach, California, for my mother's house in Ontario. I took the long way because in my new jacket I felt like buzzing the old Chino Airport. The airfield is especially significant to me because if it had never existed, neither would I. It was there during the early days of World War II that my mother first met my father, who was serving as a medic with the Army Air Corps. I was born just three years later in 1945, a few months before my father abandoned my mother and me forever. But I wasn't thinking much about the man whose sense of paternal responsibility was satisfied once he had provided me with his name. The man I found myself thinking about that Christmas morning was my fifth grade teacher who, on one particular day in 1955, gave me much more than my father ever did. It has been 45 years since Mr. Pence took our class to the library and asked us to choose a book to read. Until that time, I had never read a real book and so had no sense of the tremendous power they contained or how they would permanently alter the course of my life.
I grabbed a copy of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Captain Ted Lawson, attracted perhaps by the title's simultaneous promise of adventure and brevity. The book turned out to be a first-person account of General James Doolittle's 1942 bombing raid on the Japanese capital. At a library book sale recently, I picked up an old, frayed copy of the book, a "DISCARD," printed in 1953, the same edition I suppose that I had read years before. I turned to the dozen or so black and white photos near the end of the book. The first one, taken a few months before the raid, was a portrait of a young Captain Lawson, goggles cocked up on his leather flying helmet like a knight's visor. He is smiling broadly and looking up and away from the camera at some distant point, confident and hopeful. The last photo was of Lawson again taken no later than 1943 when the book was first published and a year after the attack on Tokyo. Even though no more than two or three years could have separated the first and the last photo, Lawson looks at least ten years older. He is in dress uniform, seated, with medals and wings on his chest, and he looks as though he is trying without much success to smile. And there is something dark in his eyes that is missing in the earlier picture.
I turned to the first page and read, trying to remember how these words must have inflamed my young mind.
I helped bomb Tokyo on the Doolittle raid of April 18,1942. I crashed in the China Sea. I learned the full, deep meaning of the term "United Nations" from men and women whose language I couldn't speak. I watched a buddy of mine saw off my left leg. And finally I got home to my wife after being flown, shipped and carried around the world.
I don't know what became of Captain Lawson after 1945, but no matter where the old pilot landed in the end, my guess is that it's not a place he could have envisioned with the bright eyes in that young pilot's face which had not yet smashed through the Plexiglas windshield of a B-25. Unlike Lawson, nothing has ever happened in my life that could even remotely be construed as heroic. But I know that because of Lawson's book I, as a 10-year-old child, set out for a destination that today seems foreign and alien. I'm more or less satisfied with where I've landed and what I've become, but it's unsettling to think that I might never have arrived here if I had not set out for the wrong place.
After Lawson's tale, I began immediately to read one war story after another with a great deal of verve and a kind of longing which troubles me even now: books like James Jones's From Here to Eternity and Leon Uris's Battle Cry. When I wasn't reading about war, I was playing at it. I built scale models of World War II planes and in frenzied fantasies strafed helpless toy infantrymen frozen in their ridged, bellicose postures by fear and plastic.
I walked away from all of these battles without a scar, but I had been hit just the same. As I aspired to warriorhood, I inadvertently became a reader, not perhaps, of first rate literature, but literature nonetheless. For a very long time though, I wanted nothing more from life than to slit foreign throats in the service of my country. This impulse drew me when I was in junior high school to the Devil Pups, a program sponsored by the Marine Corps and created to reinforce patriotism in the young. Although the momentum of my enthusiasm for things military carried me well into my late teens, the two-week hazing that I endured, what with the 5 a.m. three-mile runs and the sadistic obstacle courses, certainly gave me pause.
In a weak moment, I once told my wife about my brush with the Marine Corps, and she has never let me forget it. Whenever I begin to wax a bit heroic in groups small or large-start, for instance, to quote Hemingway gratuitously or rattle on about my sailing adventures-all Michele has to do to rein me in is to lean into the crowd and quietly intone, "Harry was in the Pups, you know."
My interest in Hemingway and sailing began in high school when I came under the enduring influence of another teacher, "Terrible Ted" Toomay, my redoubtable English instructor, football coach, and, finally, friend with whom, many years later, I would sail to Tahiti. Ted had himself seen action during World War II in Europe, but he seemed reluctant to talk about his wartime experiences. Instead, he pressed into my hands copies of The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, and A Farewell to Arms. These books had a strange, disquieting effect on me. Crane's hero, Henry Fleming, runs in the face of battle, and even after he has apparently redeemed himself, doesn't seem to understand the inherent whimsy in his redemption. Paul's death in the end of Remarque's tale disturbed me deeply in part because the young man whose passing I mourned was a German, a Hun for Christ's sake! Hemingway's "hero" shoots one of his own men in the back, is himself nearly executed by his own troops, and finally makes "a separate peace" by deserting. At one point he says that he was "embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice" and that in war he had seen "nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it." Something very different was going on here. Books, which had initially attracted me to war, now made the experience seem repellent. About this time I read Joseph Heller's Catch-22, which did nothing to assuage my growing ambivalence about war in general and that incipient tumor, the Vietnam War in particular. By the time the draft began blowing my way, I wanted no part of the U.S. Army and so, in self-defense, I joined it.
I reasoned that if I was drafted, they could do whatever they wanted to me for two solid years and that they would probably do it to me in Vietnam. If I joined, on the other hand, for the minimum three years, I thought I might exert some control over my fate because the Army guarantees volunteers training in a military specialty. So I bravely volunteered for journalism school and afterwards spent three years writing for the 8th Infantry Division newspaper and the Stars and Stripes in West Germany.
I know now that I was very lucky to have served where I did, doing what I did during the Vietnam War. I lived off base in an apartment with my first wife and newborn son. I worked with intelligent, talented college-educated people. The only genuinely unpleasant experience I had was with the NCO who was, for my first year on the newspaper, in charge of our office. A squat, sadistic, pig-eyed troll, Sergeant Bader loved nothing more than to ridicule and harass defenseless privates. Still, nothing this nasty little martinet could do to me or my friends was anywhere near as bad as watching someone saw off your leg or stepping on a punji stick that "Charlie" had not scrupled to befoul. It seemed strange to be a soldier reading about the violence at home--the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the assassinations of both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King-while I was safely tucked away in a little storybook village hardly more than a longbow's shot from the Rhine. While men died hideously in Vietnam and anti-war protesters and civil rights demonstrators were violently clubbed in the streets at home, my comrades and I only played at war. I remember Bader reminding us that we were infantrymen first and journalists second, but this axiom was the source of considerable mirth outside the sweep of his ken and wrath.
During our monthly practice alerts, my editor Ben Post and I were dispatched to a window in the third-floor latrine with an empty 50-caliber machine gun, which neither of us knew how to operate. We would sit looking northeast out over the base and the town and blackly joke about our chances of stopping the Russian tank divisions if they were ever to descend upon us through the Fulda Gap. All we ever fought though was boredom. One time we got Bader in our sights as he walked unknowingly across the quad below, but that's about as close as I ever came to my childhood dream of becoming a real warrior.
The army did, however, expose me to the profession I had decided to pursue and had even given me the experience I needed to land my first job on the outside as a journalist. I worked for a year as a reporter for a small newspaper in Pomona, California, covering, in addition to many other subjects, the military news. It was much more dangerous than my Army service. I remember being nearly trapped once in a ravine while covering a brush fire, and on another occasion, lying flat in a street behind a curb while the police waited to see if a sniper was going to shoot at us or surrender. I'd finally got a taste of war but I was home and wearing mufti. I liked the work, but I felt handicapped without a college degree, and so soon I found myself in what seemed like a war zone at the University of California at Santa Barbara just after anti-war activists burned down the Bank of America. There I was, studying anti-war novels and taking part in peaceful protests all the while supporting myself in part on funds provided by the GI Bill.
In the summer I worked at various odd jobs: construction worker, security guard, bus driver. More than once I shared the work with Vietnam veterans who eventually got around to telling me war stories, tales as agonizing and dissonant as a late John Coltrane solo. Rudy told me how he and his buddies liked to race down a dirt road in a deuce-and-half truck and smack a native in the back of the head with a can of C-rations. Pat told me that as a helicopter pilot in the DMZ his crew chucked prisoners out the door at three or four hundred feet. When his troops refused to fire across a field into the enemy positions because a stubborn, confused old Vietnamese farmer was in the way, Bill, then a 19-year-old infantry lieutenant, took out his pistol and executed the old man. Their stories horrified and revolted me, yet the more I heard, the more I felt perversely drawn to the subject and the experience just as I had been as a kid, and somehow I felt left out. Here were men who had dangled a light into the black hole of their souls and had watched something grotesque and primeval crawl out. I was never again drawn to the popular American war myth perpetrated in jingoistic Hollywood movies like Back to Bataan and The Sands of Iwo Jima starring that old draft dodger John Wayne, but rather to that aspect of war which, as Philip Caputo put it in A Rumor of War, "can arouse a psychopathic violence in men of seemingly normal impulses." If it was too late to test the depth of my own dark potential in combat, perhaps I could instead catch a glimpse of the abyss reflected in pictures painted by others.
When I graduated with a degree in English in 1972, I could not find one newspaper this side of a "throw-away" interested in my modest talents as a journalist. On a whim, I arranged to meet the English credential advisor, but he was late, which gave me a chance to reconsider. When Dr. Sheridan Blau finally did show-up-his hair askew, a half-a-dozen books under his arm-I was halfway down the hall. He apologized and tried to nod me into his office. I explained that I'd changed my mind; I didn't really want to be a teacher.
"Really! That's terrific," he said. "Come on in. I want to talk to you. You're just the kind of guy we're looking for."
Sheridan (who much later became the president of the National Council of Teachers of English and an abiding influence in my life and the lives of many others) felt that teaching was a profession well-suited to people who were a bit uncertain about things. That was me, all right, so I stayed, but we didn't talk about teaching that day. We talked about Hemingway, Crane, Heller. We talked about war stories, which I'm still doing today in my classroom. I had begun by wanting to live in the books I read; instead, I wound up teaching them. But even now in class when we discuss war and I let it slip that I was in the Army back in the sixties, a student eventually asks me if I fought in Vietnam, and I am always a little ashamed when I admit that I didn't. That I guarded a toilet in Germany instead. Why do I feel guilty about not going to a war that I had come to oppose? Maybe it's the way some women feel afterward about choosing not to have a baby. I felt as though I had missed out on some kind of gender-defining experience even though I really didn't want it. And it certainly isn't that I felt less a man for never having had the chance to bean a Vietnamese pedestrian with a can of U.S. Army issue limas. Quite the contrary: I would like to know absolutely that I am incapable of such an act.
In The Things They Carried, a complicated riff on his Vietnam War experiences, Tim O'Brien claims he went to a war he opposed because he was too embarrassed not to. He couldn't "endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule." And he has come back tortured by his memories, the things he did, the things he still carries. Had I been ordered, I too would have felt compelled to go to Vietnam and might have returned haunted by things I had done. As it is, I did not go, and so am haunted by things I might have done. Unlike O'Brien, I must accept the fact that a part of my geography shall remain forever unexplored, in perpetual darkness.
About the author
One of the most frustrating experiences I ever had teaching revision was mentoring a phenomenally gifted 8th grader who thought revision meant revolution; why bother with reform when you can overthrow the whole structure? She was working on an allegorical tale about a black ant fighting to survive a genocidal campaign launched by imperialist red ants. High stakes stuff. Worth a couple of drafts, no? Scribbling in the margin, I'd write a few comments in a non-threatening number two pencil. "What is the politically correct ant thinking here? Can you remind us of where we are? Bring us back to the underground tunnel, etc." She'd nod, smile, tell me she knew exactly what needed sculpting. Fast forward. Same time. Following week. "I spent hours revising," she'd tell me. "Look. Read." Her writing was voluminous, reams upon reams. So what was the problem? The second draft bore no resemblance to the first. "What happened to the black ant fighting to survive?" I'd ask.
"But I liked him."
"How can you delete your main character?"
Easily when the teacher isn't looking.
"I decided to change the whole story," she assured me. "I might even get rid of the red ants, too. Kill them all."
Who among us hasn't been tempted to rip up what we've written? Anyone with an ounce of perfectionism has experienced the urge to start over, but most of us know that starting from square one doesn't produce a final draft. Writing is rewriting, not restarting, so best to temper one's revision suggestions lest the writer become hopelessly discouraged and enter a cycle of endless first drafting.
Having learned my lesson, I now give students one or two teaspoons of revision suggestions per dose and set aside class time for them to revise in front of my eyes, while I'm revising my own writing. Then we share our revisions with the entire class or in small groups. Eventually young writers should be able to revise independently for homework, but not until they've seen the process modeled a lot and received immediate feedback on the success of their revisions. My colleague, Gloria Louie, developed a wonderful prompt we use when we teach S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. While discussing the physical and emotional scars of the characters in the novel, we ask our students to map their bodies and write about one of their own scars. Before they take a critical look at their first drafts, I share a paragraph I wrote about an adolescent crisis when I sliced off the tip of my index finger, having forgotten I parked a razor blade between two bars of soap. (Students love this story. It's got blood and fainting and the visceral musts of middle school.)
But my paragraph reads like a list of events, leaving lots of questions unanswered and failing to reveal what I'm thinking when I see my fingertip sitting in the sink. I ask my students, "What would you like to know more about? Where in the story do you want to know what's rumbling in my brain?
"When you're lying on the kitchen floor."
"You mean when I'm comatose? Pick a time when I'm conscious."
And so it goes with students eventually instructing me to add dialogue and character descriptions to flesh out the story. Miraculously, I whip out a second draft two seconds later (just happened to have one in my file drawer) and ask them to identify where I added thought-shots; where I slowed down the moment, built up to the climax with blow-by-blow action; where dialogue enhanced the story and made the characters jump off the page. Next they revisit their scar stories and find at least two places where they can add thought shots and conversation. Sometimes students know intuitively where to inject these elements; other times it's helpful for them to pair and share. We read our revisions aloud and publicly acknowledge the improvements in our writing. Amen.
Students need this public acknowledgement and support before they'll internalize the process. They also need to know that revision is not something they simply do to please a teacher. In an effort to show them how revision is part of an authentic writing process, I share two drafts of a scathing letter I wrote to Cineplex Odeon about the violent video games stationed in the theater's lobby. (Imagine emerging from a romantic comedy under a hail of machine gun fire!) Scribbled in the margins of the first draft are my husband's comments i.e., "Make a connection between violent video games and violent behavior. Give specific cause/effect examples. Got statistics? Got milk?"
All kidding aside, this inevitably leads to an explosive discussion about the roots of violence in American culture and pretty soon those guys who ten minutes ago were wishing they could flip pinky-sized skate boards on the desk are chiming in with, "I love Mortal Kombat. Don't take it away!" and debating the vegens who argue video violence is almost as insidious as leaf blowers.
With everyone awake, charged up, and ready to breathe fire on their philosophical nemesis, we return to the subject of revision and discuss the improvements in the second draft of my letter. During this discussion students typically ask, "Why do you use all those big words like scurrilous and panderers? Will the person reading your letter have a clue?"
"They better if they're running multi-million dollar companies."
Thus a discussion ensues about writing for a specific audience. C.E.O's can handle polysyllabic tirades. In a letter to a friend, a middle schooler might say, "Those video games are messed up." But in a letter to the head of Cineplex Odeon, scurrilous sounds better.
Onto the next subject. My husband.
"Do his comments ever piss you off?"
"No, because he always begins with a word of encouragement and we all need validation as writers before we can accept constructive criticism. Tell your peers what works or what you like in a piece of writing before you talk about what doesn't work."
You know what's coming next. "What if it SUCKS? What if it's really BOOOORING?"
"If it's boring, it lacks conflict or tension. Ask where the conflict is between and how it can be increased."
"But what if you don't like anything about the person's story?"
"Find something to like, even if it's just a kernel of an idea."
"But ... "
No but's. Beginning on a positive note increases the likelihood the writer will consider revision suggestions, so when we're breaking up into groups or pairing off for peer revisions of autobiographical incidents, I typically write three or four suggested responses on the chalk board.
"I really like the part about ... "
"This works because ... "
"I want to know more about ... "
"I was confused when .."
Revision lessons can also be incorporated into a poetry unit, even though many students think poems are either free-association scribbles or aerobic exercises where they stretch to Mars to try to come up with a word that rhymes with the last word in the previous line.
Midway into a unit on poetry, I write the following paragraph on the overhead:
We were eating a big meal. Everything smelled great. There were flowers in the middle of the table. The garden outside was pretty. I could hear the crickets. I was really having a good time until something bad happened. Suddenly everything was ugly and no one would eat anything.
"Is it a poem?"
"Make it a poem and revise it. Include sensory details; decide where the line breaks will be; explain what turned this celebration into a nightmare; leave your reader wondering what will happen next.."
Here's what one student produced:
Mashed potatoes, honey ham, carrots broccoli
All smell so tasty
Pungent smell of wild flowers
Which decorated the table's center
Crickets chirping in the night
Smells of the dew-drenched garden filled the room
"Crash!" disrupting the night
Plates shattering on the tiled floor
"Get out!" Mom screams
"Bang!" door slams
Dad leaves screeching down the street.
Garden scents no longer fill the room
Crickets no longer chirp
Frightened by the noise?
Dinner sits on the table, untouched
I throw my plate on the floor
Who cares if another one breaks?
Giving Elizabeth a structure for revision allowed her to explore her deep voice, while also learning the basics of poetry; sensory details, deliberate line breaks, underlying tension.
For expository assignments, we usually design a peer revision sheet based on the rubric which address the essentials - Does the writer have a strong central thesis, supporting evidence, transition words, a conclusion which tells us what difference any of this makes? Additionally, I share a poorly written essay I wrote on the topic, "Would you want to be friends with the protagonist of your outside reading novel?" The thesis of this essay affirms the animal-loving virtues of the central character while the supporting evidence indicts the character for being too compassionate. "She loves animals more than people. What a jerk! Who would want to be friends with her?" reads the essay. Once we've all shared a few laughs, students write me a letter explaining what I need to revise in this pathetically flawed excuse for a five-paragraph essay. Students love the idea of telling the teacher how dumb she is and, in so doing, they learn the cardinal rule of persuasive essay writing. Don't undermine your thesis.
Students also need an opportunity to explore the concept of revision; not just what it means to revise an essay, a poem, or a narrative, but what it means to revise a life. One of my favorite prompts for a quick write is a quote I found in a little book sitting at the check-out counter at the book store. "It's never too late, in fiction or in life, to revise."
One student wrote, "Even though you may have made many mistakes in your life, you're still able to change the future. It's easier to change your writing, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to change your life." Another wrote, "You need to be motivated and determined. You need to have someone who cares about you and is helping you change."
After all this modeling, sharing, debating, and in-class revising, do students race home itching to rewrite their first drafts? Some do, if highly invested in what they're writing, be it a poem about their first love, a mystery with a red herring, or an essay which addresses a theme in their own lives. That's why it's imperative we begin our revision lessons with assignments sure to hook students; otherwise we might find ourselves competing hopelessly with video games breaking the sound barrier in the lobby of the local theater.
For the past two years Marcy Winograd has chaired the English department at Paul Revere Middle School in Los Angeles. She is a National Board Certified teacher who revised her life when she left the world of broadcasting and entered the malestrom of middle school seven years ago.
"Those who can do, those who can't teach," The epigrams of one age often become dangerous doctrines in succeeding generations. Every teacher has at one time or another been accused of being a fugitive from a practical job, but this has never been less true than it is today. With the changing role of education, the teacher has assumed a new importance.
Education in our society has been undergoing a subtle change in the past fourteen years. In the last few years the rate of change has become so rapid that even the least astute of observers cannot help noticing the transformation. Education and teaching have suddenly become a central concern of the community as a whole. Investigating committees enter the field, scientific education is compared disparagingly with that of Russia, the American Legion hears pleas from Admiral Rickover that it concern itself with the education of our children, financing the school system becomes a major concern of taxpayers, new classrooms are being built at the rate of hundreds a day, new teachers are being hired by the thousands each year. In short, American education has come forward as a means for progress second to none.
What are the opportunities in education today? What demands are made upon the teacher? The best way to answer these questions is to consider what a prospective teacher might look forward to meeting in a new job. It is the hubbub of activity in education which leads me to warn, don't teach, unless you have the energy to concern yourself with a field that is so broad that it does not know where its boundaries are. In a classroom a teacher is called upon to perform many tasks besides the basic one of teaching. He must be ready to devote himself to the many correlated fields of the education of a young person. The problems of curriculum, reading materials, visual aids, supervision of non-study activities, administration of tests, analysis of personality and employment interviews, formulation of school policy, professional standards, educational law, educational and personal guidance, financing and related duties are all a part of the profession of teaching.
The profession is still in its formative stages and the teacher must meet new challenges every day. Many specialists are needed to handle all the jobs which are part of the process of education. The field of school guidance offers rich opportunities to study a variety of problems. The pure philosopher can have the opportunity to see his ideas in a material form in education. The administrator can be responsible for a staff of several thousand people who spend millions of dollars every year. But it is the very broadness of the field which saps the energy of the single teacher. He can easily become overburdened by the task of trying to perform too many jobs. Unless you have the strength of body and mind to carry on in many different capacities at the same time, don't teach.
DON'T TEACH, unless you are sincerely interested in trying to stay young. It> is very hard to grow old while teaching. The constant pressure of new ideas and attitudes which students force upon you never allows you to become set in your ways or permits one single idea to solidify. When you teach young people you are colored not only by their way of talking and acting, but by their way of thinking and dreaming as well. You must be prepared to defend yourself at any moment against the most powerful weapon in the world, new ideas. A hastily erected barrier is not effective, for the incessant questioning of youth is able to batter down all but the strongest. You will be required to prove yourself as a teacher every single day that you teach, and it would be naive to say that you are always successful. In dealing with people there are too many areas where mistakes are possible for a teacher to always succeed. Perhaps it is better to fail in a difficult job than to succeed in an easy one.
The very interest in education which has been evoked in the past few years has put an added challenge to the teacher. Don't teach, unless you are willing to have your work submitted to the severest critics that our age has produced. There have been times when the teacher was relatively secure in his tower of learning. Parents would send their children off to school and welcome them back home at night with a few perfunctory questions. This was often the extent of their interest.
Today's parents are no longer content with such a cursory examination. They are coming out in greater numbers than ever before, armed with the latest books and magazine articles on education, ready to attack any method which does not stand up under their scrutiny. A patient wouldn't dream of telling a doctor how to remove an appendix, but a parent doesn't hesitate to inform a teacher of the proper method of teaching, a task which is at least as difficult as an appendectomy. Thus the teacher must constantly justify himself to the community in which he teaches. It is not enough that he does a satisfactory job; nothing less than excellence is acceptable to today's parents.
Criticism of the schools has also been accompanied by the reward of community recognition for a job well done, and it is a balm to any teacher to hear that his efforts have been appreciated. In many communities the reward is more than a few words of thanks. The financial support given to schools which the community recognizes as good schools has been increasing. The people of San Diego, for example, have not failed to pass a bond issue for school funds since 1933. They have been willing, as have other groups, to support a good school system with adequate money to construct new classrooms, to permit the use of top grade materials and supplies, and to pay adequate salaries to the staff. There has been a trend in recent years toward more and more state and federal participation in the financial support of the schools. Although the prophets of doom predict greater state control as the price the schools must pay in return for the money, so far this control has failed to materialize to any extent. The money obtained from the state and federal government has played a large part in raising the standards of education.
Still a further result of the interest in the schools is that the teacher today must be better prepared to teach than the teacher of twenty-five years ago. Don't teach unless you are prepared to undergo intensive training in the profession of teaching and are prepared to continue this training throughout your career. Colleges and universities throughout the country are recognizing the need for a highly trained group of educators. The old premise that if you once took a subject as a student you were qualified to teach it has nearly disappeared. Today the recognized necessity for the teacher to know not only what he is teaching, but also how to teach it, has resulted in the establishment of educational curricula in many of the leading colleges and universities. On the graduate level education is rapidly becoming a field of importance, not just another step to a higher degree and a higher salary scale. Universities, such as Harvard, Yale, Wesleyan, Brown, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Colgate and Yeshiva, have rapidly growing schools of education, which are directed, not at the castoffs from the other fields of study, but at the ablest students.
It is no longer true that a course in education is empty of all intellectual content. Not only has education itself progressed to the point where its theories and practices have reached a point of great intellectual refinement, but most schools of education recognize the dangers of sending out teachers who are inadequately prepared in their fields of instruction. The result is that graduate programs in education, such as the one at Harvard, require that students take a significant percentage of courses in their major field of interest. In addition, the schools of education are eliminating the stifling duplication which is so frustrating in the education curriculum. The opportunity to bypass required courses if the student's background shows that he has covered the content of the course is one which makes the field of education more inviting.
On the other hand the education of educators still has faults. State requirements often lead a prospective teacher to take elementary courses when he has already completed more advanced work in the same field. It is certainly a good thing for the states to have requirements which assure a high level of training and competence for their teachers, just as they do for doctors and other professions, but it is unfortunate that the requirements are often stated in such definite terms that they require unnecessary duplication or the passing of trivial requirements. This will change. The pressure groups influencing education today are so great they include educational law under their scrutiny and the basic laws will be changed where they are found wanting. On the national level the National Education Association is one of the major forces which influences legislation in Washington. The California Teachers' Association on the state level, for example, is the largest single lobby in Sacramento.
In general the opportunities for professional education are becoming more and more challenging and more and more useful to the teacher. The cycle is always a little slow to turn, but as more qualified students enter the profession, improved courses are developed to meet the challenge of these better students, and in turn these courses will attract still better students.
If you expect to be paid precisely what your abilities are worth on the open market, don't teach. Teachers' salaries have always lagged behind the salaries of comparable positions in industry, and if money is your sole aim, stay out of teaching. But on the other hand, do not go into teaching expecting to starve or to work week ends in the gas station down the street in order to earn a living. While teaching salaries are not high, they are satisfactory and are even becoming good. They differ, just as industrial salaries do, from one section of the country to another. Top salaries for a nine-to-ten-month school year have already reached the $9,000-$10,000 range in many communities, while average salaries run from $6,000-$7,000. You can live comfortably on such a salary, although not luxuriously.
If you are interested in specializing in one of the many related fields in education, your labor is even more amply repaid. The specialists in counseling, in testing, in financing, in curriculum development, and in administration will receive a proportionately higher compensation. The road to these fields is often a brief one because of the amazing expansion which the country's school systems are undergoing. In the field of administration, thousands of new openings occur every year to staff newly constructed schools. The shortage of qualified and capable administrators, especially in the field of elementary education (no longer just the province of women ), enables the rapid advancement of newcomers. A capable man, four or five years out of college, may be principal of an elementary school. Such a position not only brings an increased salary, but also increased prestige in the community, an important by-product in any profession.
One of the most crucial problems in American life has been the apparent lack of a guiding philosophy.
"Education for what?" is a question which is in the process of being answered. We have tended to let the answer take care of itself, but this is no longer possible in a world in which the challenge of existence has become so great. It is the opportunity to make basic decisions that makes education so interesting today. Competent teachers and administrators are beginning to accept the challenge created by the problems of our society and to develop a coherent system of training for the children of our country. Out of this system will come the answer to "Education for what?"
The opportunity to work with a group that is both well trained and dedicated to finding the solutions to the most basic problem our country faces today is what makes teaching such a fascinating profession. The importance of education is reaching the point where we will one day be able to say, "Those who can, do, those who can do better, teach."
About the Author, About
Punky Fristrom survived these early days and went on to become President of CATE from 76 to 78 and is now beginning his 23th year on the CATE Board of Directors.
I can see them now, even in summer as I write this--rows of faces on that first morning, their makeup exquisitely in place, their ancestry and influences already etched behind their foreheads--closed or eager, indifferent or supercilious or willing but doubtful, bored before I begin, sizing me up.
Teach me something, they say with their lightless eyes, even the defiant ones, their gangling legs stretched into the aisles. A challenge. I dare you to open me. As soon as they're out the door, they'll compare their predictions.
A few weeks later, when routine sets in, a restless one asks, "Why do we have to do this?" A braver one might ask, "What good is a poem or a story anyway?" A reflective one wonders but distrusts his question, "Is it dumb to care about fictional characters? About people we don't know? About other times? About words?" If they were already open, they would ask, "I have but one life. How should I live it?"
What they don't know is that it's all the same question. Stories deal with human interaction, the very thing that comprises the majority of our waking lives. Stories invite us to see situations from a viewpoint other than our own. Without doing so, people will suffer in some way for that ignorance.
The tragic hovers where human isolation occurs. Poems and stories help us to develop compassion, to become broader, encompassing all in the Whitman sense of "I contain multitudes." They help us not to fail as human beings. Yes, we have but one life to live. How crucial we not indulge ourselves in waste--of time, of passion.
I ask myself,
is it any different for a reader or a writer?
I tell them I don't remember the last words my father said to me before he died twenty-five years ago. I tell them that such neglectfulness hurts me now, makes me ashamed. It matters because I lost more than I needed to. If I had written a poem that week, or even a paragraph, I would have more of him now. I hold up a poem on a trembling piece of paper and tell them I wrote it just after I thought I was cured of cancer and it came back, wrote it the very day I lost my hair the second time from chemotherapy. They know enough of life to understand that.
The room hushes to silence as it does whenever a teacher reveals herself. I know ahead of time it will. People are drawn to drama, pain. The immediacy of that quivering paper is irresistible. I ask them if they want me to read it. They say yes, as I know they would. I feel a tiny victory: They are asking for poetry.
Immaterial to them whether the poem is good or bad. It is the revealing that matters. For the flash of a second, they imagine what I looked like without hair. For those whose sensitivity hasn't already been beaten out of them by fast-action visual thrillers, they imagine what it would be like for them.
Some might imagine the love behind the line, "Pull out my hair," said to my husband, the proof of that love in his methodical thoroughness, performing the task "gently, as our first lovemaking." They are stepping into someone else's skin.
Inability or unwillingness to do that is a move toward isolation and the ultimate failure of a human being. That failure on a sweeping scale results in holocausts. Where there is no imagination, there is no connection. Where there is no connection, life, purpose, beauty, meaning shrivels. Man is left alone to suffer.
I could have recited Williams' poem to them. Or I could have read my own. It amounts to the same thing. But as a writer, I follow the dictum: show, don't tell. They know now, by the quaver in my voice when I read my poem, that the act of writing it reaffirmed the love between my husband and me, that shaping the experience with words allowed me opportunity to ponder it, cherish it, relive it until it became indelible, so that I will not forget my husband's whispered words that day as I had forgotten my father's.
Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another is a small step upwards in the elevation of the race. We can do so as readers, as teachers, or as writers ourselves.
Imagination is the sweet milk of writers, and it is what allowed me not to lose myself in self-absorption during my illness. Instead, with the gift of hours of uninterrupted solitude, I was able to live the writer's dream of stretching my sensibilities to walk the earth of another place and time, in another skin. Because I wanted to discover something of my roots on this earth in case I had to leave it, I turned to Dutch art as a means to learn my heritage. I found myself poring over the National Gallery catalog of the 1995-96 Johannes Vermeer exhibition, imagining my way out of my uncertain circumstances by imagining my way into these paintings.
In his images of women in their homes--as I was--caught in a reflective moment, bathed by that gorgeous honey-colored light which also touched with significance the carefully chosen items in the scene, I found a healing tranquility. They reminded me of Wordsworth's line: "With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony and by the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things."
I saw that Vermeer had the same reverence for hand-made things that I felt. He, too, was a lover of the qualities of things: the pale luminous colors in a hand-dipped window pane, a woman's silk jacket with fur trim, the rough nap of a hand- knotted Turkish carpet, a hand-drawn wall map.
That a thing made by hand, the work and thought of a single craftsman, can endure centuries longer than its maker, can survive catastrophe, neglect, even mistreatment, had always filled me with wonder. In museums, looking at a humble piece of pottery from ancient Persia or Pompeii, or a medieval illuminated manuscript, or a painting of a person from a different age but with yearnings just like mine, I am moved with awe and tenderness. Vermeer renewed that sensitivity for me.
Flannery O'Connor speaks of "the habit of art" as "a way of looking at the created world and using the senses so as to make them find as much meaning as possible in things." Vermeer was offering the things in his interiors as suggestions of stories, of people living decades, centuries ago, but not yet brought to life. The cords of connection tightened, and I felt free to partner with him in the act of creation.
His images fed my imagination. Who sat as model for the artist? A daughter? How did they relate to one another? Was the painter sick with dread over how he would feed his family? Was he contented with his work? What did his children want from him the day he worked on this? The daughter seemed reflective. Was she unhappy? Why was she looking out that window?
The painting survived, as I hoped to. What did owners through the centuries think about this young girl? What actions might she have motivated? What yearnings did she come to represent? What moral decisions did the painting necessitate?
The result of such desultory pondering was the composite novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue.
What novels and poems remain unwritten? What do you have curled up like a tiny fist held close to your heart, a hopeful suspicion about yourself?
Does the world
need another story?
Is it not time for you to nurture yourself in the way you've been nurturing and encouraging your students?
I can hear the outcry as clearly as you can hear it from students: I don't have time. Yes, I know. The garden needs weeding. Taxes are due.
There is no peace down that road.
Imagine for a moment the serendipitous interaction possible between writing and teaching. Try to see them as different aspects of the same act. One enriches the other. Researching tropes for a set of lessons on figures of speech, you find your own prose growing richer with them. You find yourself developing a sympathy--not pity, but like-mindedness and compassion--that comes with experiencing some of the same struggles student writers do.
In guiding students to appreciate in their reading the felicities of language, the psychological depth of character, the exploration of serious themes, the engagement with fundamental issues of life, mortality, love, faith, artful living and self- actualization, you can't help but want to infuse these same elements into your writing. While you are encouraging self- actualization of your students through their reading and writing, you are actualizing your own fuller self by considering those issues mindfully and imaginatively in your writing, by living other lives and thereby extending your own.
The unexpected uncovering of connections in the poem or story, the possibility of suggesting something meaningful with a detail that might reach like a warm finger into some reader's life is nearly the most exquisite experience I can imagine. It doesn't come easily or often enough, but when it does, it humbles me with gratitude.
I wish the same for you.
It is no small achievement, but enormous satisfaction, and a connection unlike any other to join the nameless storytellers of centuries past, around the campfire, or after the hunt, or in the mead hall, the Latina cantadoras who tell the archetypal myths which have given women direction and sweetened pain, the native crones and chiefs whose stories have explained the seasons, stars, storms, massacres, those tales which have taught the young how to bear injustice, honor their ancestors, learn to die.
It is our privilege to be creators as well as disseminators. It matters little the fate of the work. What matters most is that the channel of the imagination be kept flowing. That's what makes us more alive than the rest.
About the Author:
This is my fourth or fifth or sixth or more version of a column that was due days ago, I think. A dubious honor and doubtful pleasure of writing to English teachers are the needful, rightful rites of power and influence as the new CATE president and new Fearless Leader. Must do more than stop Moose und Squirrel; must write profoundly movink column for cognoscenti of CATE membership. Vould rather stop Moose und Squirrel and begin Plan X to destroy boxtop trade in Vestern Vurld. Fearless Leader mumbles inarticulate obscenity into microphone: "All plans off-stop-Fearless Leader has stagefright-laryngitis-is hafink surgery on scar-stop." Loyal apparatchik and CE Editor Jago suggests topic: "Write about becoming a teacher." Hmmmmm. Like Ol' Jim Blaine, I could wander through the thickets of my memory and still forget the point. My experience is too bloody typical, which is my angle of repose, I suppose.
I have just begun my twenty-ninth fun-filled year laboring in the educational vineyards of California's public schools. Before we break in to a rousing rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the vintage I have trampled (to strain the juice metaphor) weighs heavily in casks carried by burros who have a number of burs under their saddles. Ahem. Vinting leads to venting. As a certain invisible narrator iterates in his bluesy, parodic way, "What did I do to be so blue? Bear with me." Typicality is both blessing and curse for its shared knowledge and atypical insight.
Like many teachers who were hired in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I saw teaching as a kind of calling, an institutional vocation that allowed an individual a certain freedom to do good works. A person could idealistically (perhaps naively?) aspire to correct the abuses and mistakes of the past while creating a new moral and intellectual groundwork on which to build a better social and cultural future one student at a time.
Teaching offered a working class idealist an opportunity to make change, to be politically active, to express his idealism creatively, and to learn more subject matter. Some would gladly learn and gladly teach. Some of us took Postman and Weingartner's "Teaching as a Subversive Activity" a little too literally and gave Socratic pedagogy a black eye while losing sight of the bigger picture.
That early idealism was almost never vitiated by the debasing and degrading practicalities of hire and salary. But sometime in the 1970s it became painfully clear that schoolboards and governing boards began to see teaching as an exploitable bracero program. Teachers were infinitely replaceable because they were cheap and idealistic laborers. Teacher militancy coincided with a general frustration over society, culture, and government. Scholarly militants were publicly rebuked by spokespersons for governingboards because they had the temerity to ask that teachers not be taken for granted. Yet, most teachers never wanted to get rich, never asked about local stock options, never wondered aloud about the company timeshare, never complained about the inequity of company vacation plans. The idea of teaching remained an idealistic, Jeffersonian hope that genuine education could improve people and society.
In startling, almost breathtaking, contrast to the angry, anti-teacher palaver of the 1960s and 1970s we now hear public officials actually "talking" about raising teacher salaries. Some official-types actually say they want to raise the public's consciousness regarding educational issues. Some say they want to make the teaching profession more attractive to young people by making the profession teacher-proof, by creating ersatz accountability systems that destroy individuality and creativity. "Along with these improvements," someone says, "we will pay you more money."
Yes, teachers need a living wage, especially in California, but that's true of all laboring people. Simply paying people more money to teach is the simplistic, brainless, shortsighted answer to a complicated problem. The trick is to attract smart, idealistic young people to a profession that has always suffered from a lack of public respect or awareness. Everybody has an opinion about schools because he or she has attended a few. But ask anyone who has changed professions to become a teacher: teaching is not for everyone nor should it be, contrary to Governor Davis's recent suggestions. Responsible, professional teaching is not charity work and need not be rewarded with tax free status. Of course, if more money means more dignity and more respect in this ambivalent culture, by all means. . . .
In my very typical experience I have seen the evidence of a kind of business bottomline thinking that has infected our schools; somewhere there is a quantifiable formula that somehow measures the best amount of education for for the dollar. But the best teachers are not simply purchased at the Wholesale Teacher Warehouse. The best teachers, especially the best English teachers, see some intrinsic value in the optimistic enterprise of teaching.
Money can't buy the little victories in the daily grind. The Wholesale Teacher Warehouse can't supply the suddenly awakened enthusiasm for a line of poetry or that breakthrough moment when the lesson you slaved and sweated over actually worked. The extrinsic rewards may mean that English teachers can dress a little less shabbily, that they can afford a better if not newer car, that they can replace their twenty-year-old briefcases, that they can actually live like other middleclass people. The really good teacher works and lives for those little victories that a Gold Mastercard can't buy.
The poverty of mind that thinks a mere salary increase is going to attract the best college graduates lacks the rich imagination to comprehend the bumpersticker philosophy on the back of an aged Honda: "I touch the future--I teach." People who become teachers (especially English teachers) simply for the money are almost never engaged in the really hard work of teaching. We all know so-called professionals who work for the money and the days off, who complain about the workload, who allow their professional colleagues to do the heavy lifting of committee work, scholarship, union work, class prep, CATE/NCTE, and so forth. The current shotgun reform approach of so-called accountability does not account for the vast uncounted majority of English teachers who bust their butts (especially in these tobacco-free times) to teach ever-larger classes in decaying physical, emotional, and mental environments among mammon-worshiping infidels who cannot or will not value the creativity of good teaching.
Allowing teachers to be professionals, to select the best materials for their students, to utilize the best methods to reach their students, to become more expert in their subject matter, to perfect their craft will require more than a one-time investment in the payscale. The school system's investment in reforming itself will require smaller classes (especially for English teachers); it will require revaluing professional development and professional growth; it will require allowing teachers's voices to be heard in the failing debate over highstakes testing and so-called accountability.
I have been lucky to have known some inspirational teachers in my fairly typical experience: Bill Cleveland, a junior high art teacher; Bob Gabbitas, a Spanish teacher; Richard Padgett, a Senior English teacher. I know they didn't teach for the money alone. I'm fairly certain that the bright lights, glamor, and leisure time associated with the job were probably compensation enough. Being a positive role model, doing something good for the community, hoping to influence the future are probably after-thoughts when you take home the big bucks.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Curriculum Study Commission's fiftieth anniversary luncheon this past spring. Assembled in Berkeley were some of the founders of CATE and Central Council, the originators of the Asilomar Conference. Almost three thousand years of combined, accumulated experience and knowledge sat around tables, sharing stories, reflecting on the past, conjecturing about the future. A palpable, historical consciousness pervaded the airy room while a sense of commitment to the profession, to students, to English studies, and the pride of accomplishment saturated the waning afternoon. I wondered, as I drove home, how many of these remarkable veterans and pioneers of the English profession in California were motivated to their respective achievements by the prospect of an increased salary.
The inspirational teacher, the teacher who makes a difference marches to Thoreau's different drummer. He or she teaches for the unspoken but understood legacy, the future he or she hopes to influence. Like Richard Altick's "scholar adventurers," the inspired and inspirational teacher finds satisfaction in discovery and pushing the limits of knowledge. The best teachers I know still teach for the future the hope to influence, a future of discovery and knowledge.
In a cartoon world Fearless Leaders vould capture Moose and Squirrel; kould chance vurld to make better place for Fearless Leader und cronies. This Fearless Leader lives in a non-cartoon world (well, most of the time). Even in the most typical of experiences, English teaching is about more than the dollars or the boxtops. Without a commitment to an improved future we might as well teach in a cartoon world.