Stay in School. Learn Everywhere.

I just saw this on Facebook.

So my first reaction is, “So you are a poet, a musician, with the fire to have something to say and the deftness to say it with music — but you don’t think there was any value in studying Shakespeare? Well you must be a goddamn idiot, then.” But that’s not fair.

Before I get into this any further, let me share this, as well.

 

All right. Not an idiot. Someone who understands that the speaker in a poem does not represent the author (And yes, I’m a little ashamed that I made the obvious assumption, too. But hey! He insulted English! Them’s fightin’ words!). Intelligent young man with, if I may say, some wrong ideas mixed in with the good ones. So only one part of his brain is a goddamn idiot. No, I’m kidding. And I kid because I love.

I love this goddamn idiot.

(Re: the rhetorical question you ask in the response video about why everyone cares so much about your hair. Bro, have you seen your hair? First of all, it’s beautiful; I kept my hair long for twenty years and never got that much length. Secondly, it is by far your most noticeable feature. People look at your hair the way they look at puppies in a pet store window: with the strength of inevitability. It’s like gravity, and your hair is a black hole. It draws the eye and holds it, and thus becomes your identifying quality, and so of course people comment on it.  If you didn’t have the hair, people would call you the thin guy with the lovely hands and the zombie-pallor. If you’re upset that people notice and comment on physical features, get in line behind every woman ever.)

Right: first, let’s address the concern expressed in the song. He claims that the syllabus of required material in public schools is inefficient, that it spends far too much time on material that is not of any practical use, and that it lacks any standardized instruction in areas that would be of tremendous practical use, such as the laws of the country, good voting practices, taxes. And first aid. And human rights. In the commentary video, as in the captions at the very end of the song, he explains that he thinks the more esoteric subjects like higher math (He says “maths” because British, and I wish I could because I like the term better, but I’m not British so it would be pretentious) should be voluntary, and that the current subject matter choices were made arbitrarily hundreds of years ago, and have no applicability to the modern world.

My instinct when I hear this is to circle my arms around my pretties and frown aggressively, like a four-year-old who scored all the good toys at playtime. I don’t mind him ripping on math, but nobody can touch my English classes! How dare you mock Shakespeare? Do you not realize the influence that man had on our culture? Don’t you see that studying Shakespeare is studying life?!?

Then I remember. I remember first that I myself have argued many times against the specific run of required classes. That I have wished for more electives and greater freedom for students, and even for me as a teacher (Why can’t I teach The Watchmen and V for Vendetta? Oh right: sex and blood. And I quote: “Loosing her virgin belt, he lapped her round in sleep and when the god had consummated his work of love he took her by the hand and hailed her warmly: ‘Rejoice in our love, my lady! And when this year has run its course you will give birth to glorious children— bedding down with the gods is never barren, futile— and you must tend them, breed and rear them well.” Yup; a divine Roofie and rape, followed by, “Hey, be happy now! You’re going to have kids, too!” That would be from The Odyssey, by Homer. Want me to quote the part where Odysseus plunges a burning stake into the cyclops’s eye?). I remember my own public school experience: I hated math, too. If I could have dropped it, I would have pursued more art, probably — I loved my calligraphy class, and I could have gotten behind some ceramics. Or another go at woodshop. That would have been excellent. Of course in my case, I was already taking choir and Italian, and I had gone through every English elective the school offered by Junior year. My school was not the school he is talking about.

I also remember that I kind of hated Shakespeare. I enjoyed Macbeth, but Romeo and Juliet killed me. Seriously? Your plan is to fake your own suicide? That’s what you came up with? Then again, you are seventeen and thirteen, and you’ve known each other for all of three days (By the way: a plot hole that I can never really talk about when I teach this is the fact that the pressure on Romes and Ju-Ju comes from her father’s intention to marry her off to the Prince. The solution to which is to marry the Montague first. They already have a man of God to perform the ceremony, and consummation is not an issue — after which the Prince wouldn’t even want her, and would go away. Because there is no divorce at this time. The Prince or the Capulets would have to kill Romeo, and that little weasel’s harder to kill than cockroaches. Scandal? Ostracism? Sure, but they already have that with Juliet’s plan. And this way, no dying, not even fake dying.). And the best scene in the play is when Mercutio gets stabbed, and cries out, “Oh, I am slain!” and then AFTER that, Romeo asks, “What, art thou hurt?” My friends and I had a field day with that one.

I get it. Especially the hatred for math and the quadratic equation. But higher math is a low-hanging fruit: it seems readily apparent that the more esoteric math is nothing the average person would use on a daily basis. After you come for math, though, the next thing you reach for is the study of great literature, particularly poetry and quality literary non-fiction, George Orwell and James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf. Because why would anyone need to know Shakespeare? Or haiku? And there, I see problems.

Here’s the thing: high school is not about teaching valuable facts. There are not that many valuable facts in the world.  Yes, the things he mentions should be taught, universally and intentionally; his point about people dying for a lack of first aid/critical care knowledge is well-taken. I got first aid, but not everyone does, and everyone should. And we should teach how to balance a checkbook and fill out taxes just so people will stop throwing that in the face of public education every damn day. But you’re talking about maybe a week’s worth of material, in only one class. How long does it take to learn how to fill out a tax form? Maybe the British ones are brutal, but the 1040EZ? Seriously? Even without TurboTax, it’s like fifteen minutes, and the instructions tell you where to find everything. Same with balancing a checkbook: “Save receipts. This column is for Bye-Bye Money, and this one is for Hello Money. Finally, learn how to do math. Now for our next lesson, boys and girls . . .”

I’m exaggerating, and I shouldn’t. Yes, there should be a life skills class. Yes, it should cover the actual method of finding a job, registering for college, and the basics of finance, and laws and rights. I don’t know about parenting, which seems to me a larger subject than could be taught in any school, anywhere — but sex ed? Hell yes. How to recognize mental illness? Probably good, but might be better in a psychology class; I would think that would do better for those interested, rather than everyone. Things that could be taught in a simple manner, and that would be directly applicable to life: I can agree they should be in school. And it really wouldn’t take much to make that happen.

Voting, on the other hand. And human rights. That’s a more complicated thing. That, we should teach more seriously.

That, we do teach. Seriously.

I don’t know much about the list of human rights; I’ve  never looked at them. (I probably should.) But I teach good voting. I always have. How do I do this, being an English teacher? I teach critical thinking. That means, to me, that I teach my students not to accept what they see at first read. When we study a poem, we read it through first, and then we try to understand it — which generally means taking each piece of the poem both as an individual statement of meaning, and also contributing to a whole. I teach my students to look for added meaning, like emotional shading and bias, in the words the author chose, in the characters that novelists build, in the specific details that writers include and those they leave out. And I teach my students to connect their lives to the lives of the characters, and the authors; to feel empathy, as much as that can be taught, and to see parallels that aren’t always immediately obvious. These are the very things that should make people good voters: reading motive and sincerity, knowing the difference between facade and reality, understanding the tension between allegiance and independence, and questioning everything. I teach a lot of questioning.

Does every student get it? No. Would more get it if I taught these things explicitly, rather than asking my students to make the mental leap from my class to their actual lives? Probably, but then they wouldn’t be able to make the leap from my explicit lesson to any other aspect of life — as in, if I taught how to vote in a presidential election, could they then use the same skills in determining guilt or innocence when they serve on a jury? If they can’t make the connection themselves between The Crucible and modern politics, why would they make the connection between voting for President and voting guilty or not guilty? At some point, students have to use what they are taught themselves, which means they need to adapt it themselves to their own lives; I cannot teach everything, nor can I walk through each of my students’ lives like some freaky stalker-Yoda, dispensing just the right advice at just the right moment to all of them, forever.

The point is, high school is not where you learn what you need to know. High school teaches you how to think. (College gives you something to think about.) You will never use directly 90% of what you learn in public education, not poetic devices, not the terms of each President or king, not the quadratic formula. You will always use the habits of mind you learn — and not the ones you don’t. And I’ll tell you something else: that quadratic formula that is burned into your mind? If  you don’t use it, you will forget it. I did.  You were rattling it off in your rap, and I was gaping slack-jawed at all the strange letters and symbols. Then I thought, “Okay, I kind of remember that. Not how to use it, though.” But even in the few seconds I was looking at it and thinking about it, and the few minutes afterwards when a shred or two of the formula stayed in my mind, I started to break it down. I thought about simplifying the equation. I thought about the order of operations, and how to isolate a variable.

I thought like a mathematician. Because I learned how to do that in high school. (Thank you, Jo Ellen Hillyer, and all the other teachers whose classes I hated, but learned in anyway.) I took enough math, and learned enough in those classes, to gain a habit of mind. I haven’t used it often, not consciously; but I have learned something about logic, and I have no doubt that when I put on my logic hat, the tag inside says “Math.”

So I think, sir, that you and everyone who agrees with you (including teachers) are thinking of public school curriculum in the wrong way. Don’t think about isolated facts and their utility. Think about the ways you think, and how easy it might be for you to change from a math situation to a science situation to a history to a language. If you took all those classes in college, or if you work in, let’s say, CERN in Switzerland, and you might have to go from an engineering meeting to a physics meeting to a PR meeting to lunch with the French speakers on staff, then consider whether or not the required classes in public school were of use to you.

 

Now. Is all that to say that the schools work well? No. Common Core, standards, and the hegemony of Data are killing American education, and probably having some influence worldwide. Are the required classes the right ones? No; I think you’re probably right about the upper level math making better electives than requirements. But the issue should not be whether a kid is interested in the subject; and it should not be whether a kid is going to use that material in his future career: one of the things killing education, and making your problem worse, is the urge to prepare students for making money; because the business folk will tell you they want students highly trained in math and science. So starting from a career orientation is just going to bring the math hammer down. Allowing pure free choice, while a good and important ideal, will lead to students who take only the easy classes, and others who take classes only in order to get a certain job, and not necessarily one they care about: one they think will get them the right money for the right effort. Free choice is not what you want to base the decision on, not for teenagers. What you want to do is consider this: has the student mastered the habit of mind that comes with that subject? Once you learn to think in math — and I would say that probably comes with algebra, maybe trigonometry or geometry, because proofs and the like, and the manipulation of formulae, and the conversion of functions to graphs and back, are all good mathy ways of thinking — then that’s probably enough. Same with history and language and science. But we need to remember what school can do and what it should do — and it really, really isn’t for allowing kids to explore freely. That’s what the world is for. School is for teaching you how to find what you need, and recognize it when you find it, and that can be taught in any subject, and isn’t taught in enough.

Now: where were those human rights, again? Ah. Here they are.

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn
by Peter S. Beagle

I’ve been a lifelong fantasy fan and English guy; yet I’ve never read The Last Unicorn. Clearly there is something missing, a gap in the castle keep built in my mind on a foundation of Tolkien and Piers Anthony and Dr.Seuss, with towers called Robert Jordan and Stephen King (That one’s a dark tower) and Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter. I assume it’s the gap where the Red Bull lives — and I wonder if the drink took its name from this book, and if so, why nobody’s creeped out by that.

So I read the book. I’ve owned this copy for years; I don’t even remember when or where I got it. I never felt strongly enough to get into it. Maybe because I don’t really care for unicorns: the idea of preternatural, untouchable beauty just kind of irks me; I much prefer the unicorn in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, who is captured by Oberon and who bears his many children; or the unicorn in Mary Brown’s excellent book The Unlikely Ones, who lost its horn to an evil witch. Beauty should be real, should be tangible, should be breakable: not because it should be broken, but because it should not be, and that should be a conscious, active choice. How do you love something you can’t protect, because it can’t be hurt?

I also never read it because I saw the movie, and it put some dark images into my psyche at a young age.

But hey: I like dark images. And Peter Beagle clearly feels the same way I do about unicorns, because the whole concept of this book is this question: should perfect immortal beauty exist? Is it better if it is in the world but unseeable, or is it better if you can point to it every day? Or is it better if the beauty is that of a woman who loves you, who you love; a woman you can marry, a woman you can kiss? The villain in the piece is a king who refuses to rule, and the monster is entirely intangible: the Red Bull sleeps and wakes, snorts, rumbles, charges, terrifies — but he quite literally touches nothing at all.

I have to say, now that I’m thinking about it more, I’m liking the thought of this book more than I did while I was reading it.

Okay, so let me say this: the writing is absolutely gorgeous. Lush and captivating without being overcomplicated, this is some of the best wordsmithing I’ve seen in a fantasy novel. I can understand how it managed to become a classic. And the ideas are rather unexpectedly intriguing, and probably bear more thought than I have given it.

But this book pissed me off. Because it’s post-modern. Because it breaks the fourth wall, because it questions its own meaning and message. Because the hero is named Schmendrick. Because the Robin Hood mock-up is waiting for the field researchers to come record his folk songs. Because it’s way too self-referential and smarmy. Maybe Beagle thought that was funny, and maybe he was trying to deconstruct the fantasy tropes — whatever. Fantasy is not for avant garde anti-establishment attacks by people who read too much Sartre. It’s for goddamn fantasy. If this book had none of the overly clever parts, I would think it was a beautiful piece of work. But as it is, I find it annoying.

Smells Like Dog

Smells Like Dog
by Suzanne Selfors
Here’s what I love: I love books. I love dogs. I love pirates. How could there be anything more perfect for me than a book about a boy and his dog who go seeking pirate treasure? Well, it could also have secret rooms in a museum (I love both secret rooms and museums), and a secret society! And a goat farm! That would be even better than perfect.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t perfect.

The elements were all there, and parts of it were excellent.There are some twists that were particularly surprising in a young book like this, which are often extremely predictable, though still enjoyable. The main character, Homer, and his relationship with his sister were both nicely done; in the beginning, I wished Homer would stand up for himself a bit more, be a little less passive, and over the course of the book, he becomes able to do that, and that was nice to see — he would have made a good hero for a kid like me, like Homer, who reads a lot, doesn’t have many friends, and has dreams quite apart from what his family expects of him. I liked Homer’s whole family, in fact.

The other characters, though (Apart from Lorelei — Lorelei was fantastic), were a lot less real, and therefore a lot less interesting to me. They seemed too much like they were lifted straight out of A Series of Unfortunate Events, including the freakish grotesqueness of them and the strident imperiousness of the principal villain. Maybe this suits a young book, but I would think that if some characters could be complex and interesting — the secret of Homer’s father, for instance, revealed a whole other side to him, and in one moment, changed my perception of him entirely; that is good writing, and a good character — then they all could. They weren’t. It was too bad.

My biggest complaint about this book, though? It didn’t smell enough like dog. Dog is a lovely fella — though really, that’s a terrible name, even if it does come from children — with a nice uniqueness about him. But there isn’t enough of him: he and Homer bond, and there’s no real reason for it. Maybe that’s the way it works with kids and dogs, they grow to love each other for no reason at all, but I want there to be some affection, some connection, before they are willing to fight and die for each other. There wasn’t. Dog did not have nearly enough of a personality for such a vital character to the story, and one so important to drawing me into the book. He’s just there for Homer to love and protect, and to serve as a plot device at a particular moment.

Overall, good stuff and bad. I liked Lemony Snickett better.

Unpopular Essays

Unpopular Essays
by Bertrand Russell

I need a new copy of this book; mine is old, and the glue in the spine has failed, allowing the first thirty or so pages to fall out.

I need a new copy because even though I have read this, I want to keep it. I want to read it again.

Partly that is because I want to learn a bit more philosophy; I didn’t understand the essays “Philosophy and Politics,” “Philosophy for Laymen,” or “Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives” as well as I would have liked. I followed the logic and the writing, of course, as I think that Lord Russell was possibly the clearest thinker and the clearest writer in the history of English and the history of philosophy; but the references to the large ideas of Kant and Nietzsche and particularly the Greeks, were new to me, and thus no chord was struck.

Mainly it is because I did understand everything Russell was saying in the less-referential pieces. Particularly “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed” and “What It Means to Be a Teacher.” The last resonated with me especially because I am a teacher, and I strive to be one that Lord Russell would have approved. I want my students to think: to weigh evidence, to question assumptions, to come to their own conclusions, and then justify their decisions logically. It’s difficult. They don’t want to. I myself am much less than perfect as a model of the ideals. If I could, I would have them read Bertrand Russell. (Come to think of it, I’ll have them do just that. I am a high school literature teacher, after all. But which essay?) Whether they ever do or not, I plan to read all of his works that I can get my hands on; and I will read this one again. If for no other reason, then because of this, from the introduction: “A word as to the title. In the Preface to my Human Knowledge I said that I was writing not only for professional philosophers, and that ‘philosophy proper deals with matters of interest to the general educated public.’ Reviewers took me to task, saying they found parts of my book difficult, and implying that my words were such as to mislead purchasers. I do not wish to expose myself again to this charge; I will therefore confess that there are several sentences in the present volume which some unusually stupid children of ten might find a little puzzling. On this ground I do not claim that the essays are popular; and if not popular, then ‘unpopular.'”

Skin Game (Harry Dresden #15)

Skin Game (Dresden Files #15)
by Jim Butcher

I’ve read lots of book series. I went through a lengthy mystery phase, when I read pretty much every Nero Wolfe book that Rex Stout wrote; I read all the Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald — and in both cases I read a few of the knockoffs by imitators, and was unimpressed. I’ve read all of the Wheel of Time, and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I read twenty or so of Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake books, and every one of the Sookie Stackhouse novels. I read all of the Series of Unfortunate Events, and the Bloody Jack Faber series.

I stopped reading the Song of Ice and Fire after Book 4. Because I won’t put up with that kind of nonsense, Mr. Martin. You publish your books before you make the TV series. At the least, work on both concurrently, sir. I’m using up all of my patience with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books; but at least she has to do extensive historical research before she writes each book. You make ’em up, George. I learned from Robert Jordan the risks of waiting too long for a series to end; didn’t you learn, too?

The point is, I enjoy the series. I’ve seen them get better as they go (LOTR) and I’ve seen them get worse (ABVH), I’ve seen them end too soon and too late.

Never — not once — have I enjoyed a series as much and as long as I have enjoyed Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books.

It is extraordinary to me that Butcher is able to keep these books as alive as they are. They are nothing but action: generally 400-500 pages, they cover only a day or two, and the entire time is spent in some form of combat, chase, or intrigue. Harry Dresden must be the tiredest man in the imagined universe. And yet, despite fifteen books with the same general outline, they have never gotten boring, nor repetitive; I have never left the edge of my metaphorical seat. The key is that the book is much, much more than action (despite my prior statement): even though Harry never stops fighting, there are many pauses and lulls in between the knock-down drag-out brouhahas, and in these pauses, Butcher has built not only a world and concept of magic that I find as compelling as any I’ve ever read, but also some of the most completely realized characters that I can imagine finding in an action novel. Dresden is not Man-Compelled-To-Fight-By-Need-For-Justice, though there’s some of that, and he’s not Man-Torn-Between-Good-And-Evil, though there’s some of that. Harry is a man, a complicated, flawed, man, both strong and weak, admirable and despicable. (Part of this is the fact that Butcher has had a canvas fifteen books wide to paint this character on. Some of the less prominent but still important characters — Michael, Thomas — are a bit more one-dimensional. But even those sorts of characters have their hidden sides — think of Bob. Mac. Charity.) On top of all that, Butcher has an ability to weave in philosophical sorts of musings, on what it means to be human, to be mortal, to be powerful; to love, to hate, to fight; along with the best sense of humor since Douglas Adams. And his nerd references are a solid 10.0. Funniest thing in this book is when a character starts quoting Monty Python without even realizing it.

The point is, I love these books, completely, unabashedly. I’ll keep reading them as long as Butcher writes them, and cry when he stops. Then I’ll re-read them all.

This book is a heist story. The tension comes from the fact that Harry has to work with his enemies, yet they remain enemies, regardless of any cooperation (Like the Winter Court, though the Fae are not as prominent in this novel.). Some allies come back, out of semi-retirement from the main plotline, which was wonderful; new villains are introduced, who were excellent; there is a fantastic cameo by a god; there is a hell of a plot twist; there is one of the coolest Ascension scenes (When a character becomes something more than he or she was before — like Molly at the end of Cold Days) ever, with one of the best nerdgasm moments of all time.

Best of all? I can’t wait to read the next book. I have to see what happens with Dresden’s daughter.

No: the other one.

Teaching Hard

I’m tired.

I hate the end of the school year.

But let me tell you why.

Teaching requires an inordinate amount of energy. It’s why there is such a prejudice towards younger, newer teachers, and against older, wiser teachers: we all know that both age and inevitable cynicism detract from available verve (By the way, if I ever need a stage name, I’m going to use Available Verve.), and we know (Some of us know) just how much pep is required in this profession.

It’s a lot. Because we have to fight children all day.

I’m just going to leave that image to simmer for a minute.

Aaaaaand now I’ll explain.

Elementary school teachers have to fight to first contain, and then direct, a classroom full of sugar-hyped attention-deficient kidnadoes. Think about what it takes to force a child to eat when it doesn’t want to, to sleep when it doesn’t want to, to take a bath when it doesn’t want to; now think about making them do math. Elementary teachers have to be an unbreachable wall standing against a stampede, an immovable object against 25 — or 30 — or 35 — irresistible forces.

High school teachers have the opposite problem: our classrooms are carpeted with anthropomorphic phlegm-globs, like the spittoon of a frost giant with a head cold, that would rather sleep than breathe (And who would be ecstatic if they could sleep without breathing. Or circulating blood. Except you wouldn’t recognize the ecstasy, as expressing it would, like breathing, be too tiring.), and somehow we need to motivate them to read poetry and study history and solve mathematical equations. We must be an irresistible force for a room full of immovable objects.

In either case, it’s bloody exhausting.

Add in the requirements of pleasing supervisors (who want pre- and post-observation conferences, and PLC meeting minutes, and professional development buy-in) and calming frazzled parents (The most-common phrase a teacher hears from adults is probably “I just don’t know what to do with him/her.” It has always amazed me that I, who am and will ever remain childless, can somehow give out parenting advice without getting a face full of “Excuse me? Who the hell do you think you are?” It’s not because my advice is good, though — it’s because I care enough to give it, because I take the time to try. But this, too, is exhausting, because I am handing over just a little bit more of my time and my energy.) and the endless paperwork and the endless guilt, and you might be able to imagine how tiring this profession is.

But that’s not the hard part.

The hard part is that teachers, more than any profession other than the medical fields, emergency services, and ground-level social work, get emotionally invested in the work. My clientele, if we can call them that, are people. They are children (Though in my case they have beards, breasts, and body odor [Not all three at the same time (Well, not often [See, I can’t even make this joke without feeling bad for mocking them in such a personal way. But as an English nerd, I am very pleased by this:].).].), children that are unhappy most of the time. They are confused: confused by difficult school subjects, confused by awkward romance and even more awkward bodies, confused by changing social alliances and the tidal forces of unstable families. They are bereft of childhood, and lament that lost innocence; they are terrified by a future both uncertain and looming, and avoid everything that reminds them of it. And they are angry, and sad, about all of those things.

In “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold described our modern world this way:

…For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

Arnold was describing a world without faith. That’s adolescence. That’s my students.

I sympathize with them. I remember it. I remember how my world got so very much harder when I became drenched in hormones around 8th grade (though not, sadly, drenched in sex appeal and confidence to match), and then exponentially harder again when I got to high school and, for the first time, had to work hard to succeed academically. I remember my hopes and dreams feeling shattered by reality. How everything seemed so dark, and so hopeless, and so insane. All of my writing at the time was about madness, loss, betrayal, destruction, murder. About fear and anger. That’s all I was for several years, a ball of fear and anger. With pimples. And an erection.

So when I talk to my students, I feel for them, and I want to help. Helping generally means listening to their problems, really listening and then trying to give some sort of useful response. A lot of the time — too much, really — I can’t help, and I know it; but that’s not any easier, especially when it’s because I know they wouldn’t listen to what I have to say, or that I shouldn’t say it because they should figure it out for themselves. Holding the words in is as hard as speaking them. Sometimes it’s harder. When one of my nerdy students — and as a lifelong nerd and a former awkward loner (Perhaps I flatter myself with that “former,” but my wife tells me I’m handsome and cool and funny, so shut up.), I feel the nerds’ pain more intensely — when one of them tells an awkward joke, or says the wrong thing at the wrong time, or laughs like a dork or fails to control their body odor, I want to say, “This is why girls don’t talk to you. This — and your hair.” But I can’t say it. It wouldn’t help. And it wouldn’t be right for me to do.

It’s hard to remember that. It takes effort to remind myself that I don’t have all the answers, that what worked for me won’t work for all of my students, that often they cannot hear me or believe me because of who I am. The key is to remember that they are in the same situation: no one can hear or believe them, either, because of who they are. But even when I remember that nothing I say will help, I still want to help. So I do what I can: I help them with schoolwork.

I try not to give my students busywork, because I want to show that I value their time. So my assignments tend to be lengthier, and more thoughtful. To help them both be successful and feel confident, I try to read everything they write, and give the best feedback I can; I am known for writing more on some essays than the students themselves. I respond to their thoughts more than the form of them, the grammar and syntax and vocabulary, because the ideas are the important part and also, much of the time, their strength.

But all of that takes time and energy. If I just gave them worksheets all day, I could grade everything in five minutes — or even give them to a T.A. to grade. Or my wife, who loves grading. She likes the power of the red pen. But because I give them extended questions and thought-provoking assignments, and because I want to respond to their thoughts, it means I have to grade everything myself, and I have to read everything, and I have to pay attention while I’m doing it.

And then I have to try to fix their problems. But it’s just like fixing their life problems: sometimes I can’t, and sometimes I shouldn’t; and even when I can and should, it takes time and effort. At least when they come to me with their life problems, they want an answer; but when the issue is that they don’t know when to use a semi-colon or what the point of The Odyssey is, they don’t generally want to deal with fixing that problem; they just want it to go away so they can sleep.

This is probably the worst thing: that when I try to help them, by making their assignments more meaningful and effective, they want me to give them work that is easier. They want worksheets. Because they are tired and stressed, and they don’t want to think, and if I’m trying to be helpful, why can’t I just give them easy stuff to do, or even better, no work at all? Why do I have to make them think all the time?

That’s why they turn into a sticky layer of marshmallow fluff melting over a desk. And then it’s up to me to motivate them, to scrape them up, mold them back into a vaguely humanoid shape, and crack open their brains so I can pour in the knowledge.

Except that’s not actually the way it works. I have to get them to think. Which means I have to get them to want to think.

Which is hard. And it makes me tired.

So then the end of the school year comes slouching towards us. They’re tired and sick of school, and thus that much harder to motivate. I am exhausted myself, and so now I need to do two motivatings: I have to perk myself up to perk them up. God forbid I have seniors, because then the inertia of the Senior Slump becomes quite simply insurmountable. And, though I don’t want to set myself up as being different from other teachers, I do have a couple of added difficulties that I don’t know if they share: first, I didn’t and don’t like school (though I love education), and so the glamor of the end of the school year, the proms and the yearbook signings and the graduation ceremonies, all fail to cheer me; and second, I don’t want to use grades as a means of motivating my students.

I don’t believe in it. Too much emphasis is placed on grades already for this very reason, so that they might be a more effective stick and carrot for tempting and prodding the phlegmatics. (That’s the name of my new band, by the way. The Phlegmatics. Available Verve and the Phlegmatics.) But grades are deceptive: they are an inaccurate measure. If a kid gets an A in my class, was it because of hard work? Natural ability which made effort unnecessary? Is the kid a successful cheat? Was it because my class was too easy? Because this kid had the advantage of a stable home life, with enough money for food and clothing so that this kid didn’t have to work 20-30 hours a week after school? Was it because this kid has learning disabilities and consequent accommodations?

Grades do not help students learn. Grades teach students to game the system. My students focus on large assignments rather than small ones, because small ones don’t change grades as much. But without the practice that comes from doing small assignments, and the steady incremental improvement gained thereby, they don’t do very well on the large assignments. So they ask for extra help. They ask if they can do work over again for a higher grade (Meaning I have to grade it a second time, after reading it a second time), or ask if I can look over work before they turn it in (so I can look it over again) and tell them what grade it would get (Before I grade it again, officially). They hunt, like pigs after truffles, for extra credit. And, of course, they cheat. Not because they’re lazy or stupid, most of the time, but because they don’t think they can do the assignment well enough to get the grade they want. And much of the time, they’re right — again because of the lack of steady incremental progress. That’s what grades do: they focus only on the ends, and thus destroy the means. They harm education. They replace education.

And then because we use grades as carrot and as stick, they cause stress, for students, for parents, for teachers, for schools. And that makes everything worse: my students are more miserable, and more exhausted, and so am I, both from their stress and from my own. Which is always worst at the end of the year, when the grade becomes THE GRADE.

I don’t want to add to their stress and misery. I don’t want to scare them. So I don’t hold their grades over their heads. They’re up there anyway, that sword of Damocles called THE TRANSCRIPT and THE PERMANENT RECORD, but I don’t point to it and put on my angry face. (Full disclosure: my own transcript, which was pretty ugly, hurt me exactly — none. Affected me not at all. Which is part of the reason I don’t try to use grades as a stick, because they meant zip to me personally back when I was a rage-horn-ball. But again: does that apply to all other people? Probably not.)

Unfortunately, that means I have to find some other way to motivate them. And the best one — the only one — requires of me a higher output of energy. I have to make the class, and the work, interesting. To teenagers. I have to make it useful, and also fun. I have to treat my students like the unique feeling individuals they are, and I need to show them that what matters is the thinking and the learning — not the grades.

I have to do that five times a day, every day, for ten months. And the farther we get into the year, and the closer we get to summer, the harder it gets.

I hate the end of the school year.

I’m tired.

We Are Pirates Review

We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler

That’s it. I’m never reading a sad book again.

I don’t know how people do it. How do you all read literary classics and modern mainstream novels, and enjoy them? How do you read them one after another? I mean, John Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors, but how do you go from Of Mice and Men to The Grapes of Wrath without reading, say, The Hobbit in between? I can’t do that. I’ve tried for years, I have a degree in literature, I’m an English teacher, I’m a book reader and reviewer, and an author: I know that there is a certain prestige that attaches to the great novels, and almost every one of them is sad, is tragic. But I just can’t do it any more.

I got this book because I loved the Lemony Snickett books, and because I love pirates. Stupid, I know; but why not? The Series of Unfortunate Events (Also sad — I’m aware that I should have paid more attention to the very obvious clues) was genuinely well written, and pirates are not only fun (But also sad: because the average lifespan for a Caribbean pirate was about two years, before they died of disease, alcoholism, or a “short drop followed by a sudden stop.” Like I said: many clues.) but also fascinating, because they represent savagery, and also egalitarianism, among other things. Escape, and rebellion, and a final middle finger to a cruel world.

This book was exactly that. Daniel Handler captured not only the world of the pirate, the anger, the pain, the fight against all conformity and thus against all society and even against humanity itself; he also captured the modern world — and thus made me long to be the pirate, even while I sorrowed for those following that path, pitied them their rage and their pain. And I raged against those who tried to contain the pirates; and then I felt their pain, as well. Because as Handler points out, with the title and with the entire book: we ARE pirates. We all are. We are.

The book is good, damn good, maybe even brilliant; I just finished it minutes ago and maybe don’t have the perspective to really grasp all of its insights and nuances. But I laughed at passages, I recognized people, I loved and hated and felt contempt and pity for the characters and their lives. It’s written the way a book should be written, and it’s about a great subject — not only pirates, but also family and children and growing up and careers and ambitions and dreams and, of course, disappointments. It’s got a wonderful twist at the end, which changes your understanding of things; more than one, actually. It is multi-layered and complicated, but nonetheless still easy to read, and it has some beautiful flourishes and original creations. This is a very impressive piece of work.

And it’s sad. And I’m done.