Book Review: The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs

By the way: that cute dog isn’t even in the book. So disappointing.

 

The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs

by Nick Trout

So it turns out the author of this book is a real vet. And it reads like it.

I don’t mean to be too critical: this was a sweet book, with a genuinely happy ending; I was rooting for several of the characters – hoping for rewards for some, and comeuppance for the others – and pretty much everybody got just what they deserved. And, not to spoil anything, but there is no terribly sad animal death, as there is in nearly every other book about pets, from Where the Red Fern Grows to Marley and Me. It was lovely to read about animals who come into a vet’s office not feeling well, and then leave feeling better. It made me smile, and if that would make you smile, the book is worth reading.

But the hero, Dr. Cyrus Mills, is just such a weenie. There are reasons for it, and he deals with them and improves; but it takes him so long to dig his way out of his weenie-ness that first the book feels annoying, and then a little unrealistic, because how could a guy who’s that deep in the ween-pit finally turn it around that quickly? And while not all of the small-town Vermont characters were obnoxious, there were several who were, and when the hero-weenie can’t deal with them beyond getting tongue-tied and scratching at the back of his head, which is quite literally how every conversation ends for the first half of the book, it makes you want to crawl into the book and start punching. Which is less sweet than the feeling you get from cured animals.

Mills is not a people-person: I get that. I’m an introvert myself, and I don’t handle confrontation well, either; but the trouble is, he’s not even good at not being a people-person. Mills is a veterinary pathologist by trade who finds himself in a small-town vet practice, trying for the first time to deal with actual living pets and their owners, rather than slides of tissue and the remains of deceased pets in a quiet, sterile lab. He is cold and clinical and tends to hide in scientific jargon. All of that makes sense. But he is also tender-hearted: being around the animals is almost instantly emotional for him, breaking through his shell; this is what makes him tongue-tied, because he is aware that he is cold and harsh-seeming, and he tries to change that for the sake of communicating successfully with the pets’ owners. I don’t buy that. If he has spent fifteen years in a basement lab with dead things, and liked it enough to do anything he can to get back to it (which is the basic conflict in the plot), then he would be indifferent to the feelings of the humans who come to see him, and probably of the animals, too. Sure, the sweet puppy faces might break through that hard exterior, but it wouldn’t happen with the first one. If, on the other hand, he’s a big softie who loves the animals – a position I fully support – how could he have been happy sitting in his basement lab for fifteen years, never even owning a pet?

All the reader is left with is the determination that this guy is a weenie who either doesn’t know what he really wants, or doesn’t have even a little of the gumption needed to go out and get it. By the end of the book, he sorts this out – but I disliked him enough in the beginning to not really care that he wins by the end. I was happy that his victory works out well for a lot of other people in the book, who I actually liked better than Cyrus himself.

Especially Frieda Fuzzypaws.

Overall, it’s not a bad book. There are probably better.

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Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora

by Scott Lynch

I should have loved this book: I like fantasy, particularly with intrigue and action (I would love the Song of Ice and Fire, except I’ll NEVER FORGIVE GEORGE R. R. MARTIN); I like caper stories; I am passionate about pirates – which is what drew me to this book, which definitely has a swashbuckling feel to it. The premise is really great: a thief takes in a group of orphans, and sets about making them into the first (and greatest) gang of long-con confidence men this town has ever seen; he intends to unleash them on the nobility, and see just how much they can steal. Move forward twenty years and the plan has succeeded: these thieves are the most successful in a city full of thieves, with a hidden vault full of a vast fortune. But then there is an upheaval in the underworld: a new challenger has arisen to take on the King of Thieves – and he is a threat to our heroes, as well. And not to spoil anything, but this is a revenge fantasy to make Hamlet an envious shade of green.

The setting is good: the city is an independent duchy in a crumbling empire, independent, sprawling, and wealthy; there is a vast divide between the rich and the poor, with the poor living in crowded, squalid slums while the rich dwell in ancient and mystical towers built by a race long gone. There is magic, but it is not common; there are many gods, but prayers and sacrifices to them are traditional rather than earnest. A few tweaks and this could be Venice or Algiers, New Orleans or Hong Kong. It works well for the storyline.

The concept of the characters is great: the gang of con-men are splendid black-sheep heroes; the kingpin of crime is the perfect blend of honorable man and savage; the nobles depicted are both cruel and arrogant, but also with surprising depth, shown to have as much humanity as the poor they oppress.

I should have loved this book.

But I didn’t love this book.

The problem is one that I seem to be encountering more and more these days, either because I’m getting bitter and pretentious as I age, or because books really are getting crappier: the writing just isn’t that good. The first problem with this particular book is that it’s about 200-300 pages too long: a caper story should move quickly, even one that starts with this much backstory; but this one does not. Lynch chose to sprinkle the flashbacks in between chapters, and it was a mistake; it just slows everything down, and it became annoying to get to the end of an exciting chapter, often with a cliffhanger, and have to flash back fifteen years to a training montage. And while the exploration of the thief-training was well done, the characters themselves are given only the vaguest motivation: the lead, Locke Lamora, for instance; we know he’s an orphan who becomes a thief, and quickly proves himself the most audacious thief ever. Why? What makes him this way? No clue. He just is. I’d say it’s in his blood, but we have no idea what his blood is – because orphan. Now, there are sequels, and maybe this will be a grand reveal; but for this book, it was annoying.

There’s more: the action was well-described in slow motion, but the larger scenes of combat and riot were not; overall, there is a feel of missing the forest for the trees, a poverty of grandiosity that ruins the crumbling glory of the old empire feel of the piece. If I may be forgiven some fantasy name-dropping, Lynch should have read more Michael Moorcock: a good chunk of Melnibone would have helped a lot. That combat had the nice realistic touch of pain for everyone: nobody gets out of a fight unscathed, even the ones who are good at fighting, and I like the way Lynch did that – but at the same time, he then has his characters heal real quick so they can get on to the next scene, and so in the end, the bloodshed becomes as unrealistic as an unblooded victor would have been. And though this doesn’t normally bother me, there was a whole lot of gratuitous profanity in this book. I believe in the timely use of the F-word; there’s no better way to express certain emotions. But when you use it too much, it loses that power – by the end of Scarface, you don’t even notice it any more. Same thing here. And in a writer,especially a fantasy writer who has a free hand with inventing language, it just shows a lack of imagination.

I would love to read this book if Jim Butcher or Robert Jordan had written it. But as it stands, this one is only middling good. Not worth recommending.

The Shortest Lines

This morning, I woke up at about three, and I went to my bathroom to relieve myself.

As I lay back down on my soft pillow in my warm bed, I thought, “There are people outside, right now, waiting in line to buy things.”

Then I went back to sleep.

 

Heroes and Villains

I don’t wake up easily from a deep sleep. My wife has had to suffer the consequences of this for years – consequences that include getting whacked across the head with my arm when I roll over too vigorously, and my apparent indifference should she feel scared or upset and want companionship – or if she would like to register her displeasure with a recent arm-whacking; my first response to her gentle prodding is just more snoring, and should she poke me aggressively enough to disturb my sleep, my response is to pet her sort of how one might pet a Wookie, with too much force and not enough aim, my hand making contact and then moving over face, hair, shoulder, blankets, whatever, while I mumble, “’Sokay. Don’ worrry.” Then I roll over and go back to sleep. Not terribly helpful when she heard a disturbing noise outside, or wants to talk about the nightmare she may have had.

This would probably work.

 

But last night, I was torn from sleep by terror: in the middle of the night, my dog barked. Sammy never barks. Not just because he is too friendly and curious to be a watchdog, though he is; but also because his barking noise sounds nothing like a bark: it’s a strange, yodeling kind of sound that starts high and squeaky and ends in a broken-note rumble, kind of like Dory the fish doing whale noise. We call it a bodel, for “bark-yodel.”And it turns out, when one is completely asleep, it sounds a lot like a dog screaming in agony. And before I even knew what I was doing or that I was awake, I was out of bed, out of the bedroom, my heart in my throat as I ran to find my dog and save him from whatever was killing him.

Nothing was, of course; he just happened to be awake (Toni didn’t sleep well last night, and was up and down a lot; Sammy was probably trying to keep her company) and heard something that he felt needed a barking. Might have been the dogs next door, who are kept outside all night by our douchebag neighbors; might have been a glimpse of a rabbit or a cat outside the front window. When I came tearing out of the bedroom in a full-on panic run, I’m sure I scared the crap out of him just as he had done to me. I grabbed him and hugged him and made sure he wasn’t missing any limbs or vital organs; Toni came in (she had been awake already) and calmly said, “He was just bodeling.”

Toni’s face when she realizes that I won’t wake up for her, but I leap out of bed to save the dog.

 

That’s the most scared I’ve been in a long time. Since the night our dog Charlie died, when we woke up in the middle of the night to find him thrashing in a grand mal seizure. I’m sure that memory, which is seared into my nerves and chiseled into my bones, had something to do with moving me out of sleep and into panic before Sammy had even finished making the noise that woke me. After I went back to bed, I couldn’t go back to sleep; I lay there for a good 30 or 40 minutes trying to calm down, and instead imagining other scenarios in which I could suddenly lose my family: I imagined car accidents, armed intruders, catastrophic house fires, you name it. Even once I knew everything was fine, the fear wouldn’t leave me, wouldn’t let go of me that easily. I’m starting to think that once it sinks in its fangs and talons, fear never lets go. It’s always there, and it’s always terrible, and it changes the way you think and the way you act, forever afterwards.

Which is why terrorists murder people. Because the fear, both the fear of being murdered and, perhaps more insidiously, the fear of seeing those we love murdered, will change the way people think and the way we act. Once that fear gains a strong and lasting foothold, we will never tear it out, and it will become much easier to think: Maybe if we just let them have their way, they won’t bother us; then we won’t have to be so afraid.

We really don’t want to be afraid. Fear is a terrible thing. It’s a sickening feeling, and an entirely overpowering one. Really, the only way to stop it coursing through us is to summon up a stronger feeling. Like anger.

How many of us have seen it and heard it in the last week, since Daesh terrorists struck Paris on Friday the 13th? “Those bastards, those maniacs, those savage barbarians – they should be killed. They should be wiped out. We should just bomb them flat.” Other people have turned on a closer target, and attacked those who express sorrow or anger over the deaths in Paris: “What about the people in Beirut?” they ask. “What about Kenya? Where was your outrage then?” For myself, I can’t understand why it’s wrong to feel grief for a terrible loss, even if one hasn’t felt it for some other loss: I don’t think grief is subject to hypocrisy. Though self-righteousness certainly is; because the reason more people weren’t grieved by the attack in Kenya was that the media didn’t report it the same way, not because people saw the story and thought, “Pssh, who cares? They weren’t white Westerners.” (Okay, Trump probably thought that.) And if you were one of the people who attacked everyone else for their uneven outrage – where were you when the attack happened in Kenya? Or in Nigeria? Or Beirut? Or now in Mali, where a hotel was attacked by armed gunmen yesterday? Did you spread the word? Do what you could to make up for the mass media’s failings? Take advantage of social media, which has the word “media” in its name for a reason?

Probably not. Because the goal of these people is, in my estimation, the same as those calling for fire to rain down on the Middle East: getting angry stops us from feeling afraid. Ask the average American gun-owner why he feels he needs a deadly weapon by his bedside, and you will probably get the same progression: he will speak of an intruder, someone threatening his family; and then he will speak of his intent to bring bloody vengeance with the fiery sword. The word “motherfucker” will probably make an appearance. A red rage will gleam in the eyes of the most mild-mannered.

Because violent anger leaves no room for fear, and violent anger feels better. Violent anger has a target; fear makes us the target.

And you know what’s even easier than violent anger? Hatred. Because hatred doesn’t need to be stirred up, doesn’t need an immediate, proximate cause; hatred just sits inside us, calmly simmering, and spinning off little bursts and pops of bitter cruelty. Hatred never has to fade, the way anger does, leaving room once more for the fear to rise up again. And hatred gives the illusion of control, which anger takes from us as much as fear does. When we hate, we can pretend to act rationally: we can speak calmly of the need for caution when deciding what to do with the four million Syrian refugees; we can say that it isn’t in the best interests of this country to uphold the ideals on which the country was founded; we can pretend that our proud role as global leader doesn’t include acting responsibly; we can say that the last thing we should do is treat other people precisely the same way that our people were treated in the past. We can turn our backs on people in desperate need of help that we could easily provide. When we hate, we can lie. When we hate, we can betray. And because we hate, we can pretend that we are doing the right thing.

There’s an obvious parallel here. The new Star Wars is coming out soon, and so like many other fanfolks, Toni and I have been watching the movies. We started with the more recent trilogy (Because epic stories should be experienced from the beginning. And because the supreme irony of these movies is that the biggest fans followed the same progression: fear that the movies would be bad led to anger over what flaws there were [Flaws that were already present in the original trilogy, and ignored because childhood things are shinier in the memory than in the hand.] led to hatred of JarJar Binks and the artist formerly known as Saint George.), and so the downfall of Anakin Skywalker was fresh in my mind, all this past week. When I saw rational, good-hearted people speaking out on Facebook against refugees, or for violent and brutal retaliation, I immediately thought, “That’s because of fear.” And then right on the heels of that I thought, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred. Hatred leads to the Dark Side.” This was confirmed for me when I saw posts claiming that all Muslims are dangerous; that all Middle Easterners are potential terrorists and not to be trusted, just like the Russians; and when I saw someone tell a Marine “If ya could take out some of those sand worshipers for me that would be great.”

The Jedi and Sith are metaphors, allegories; but what they represent are quite real. The Dark Side is the pursuit of power and dominance; and the road that leads to it begins with fear. Fear for our loved ones and for ourselves – fear that very well may be founded in reality (I won’t say “rational” because fear never is); when Anakin feared for his mother’s life, he was correct: she was in danger, and she did die before he could save her. Terrorists are a threat, and as the actions of Daesh clearly show, they are a threat to all of us, to anyone, anywhere; because they seek power and dominance.

But here’s what really matters, here’s the heart of this issue: you don’t fight the Dark Side with power and dominance. When you do that, you become it. You fight the Dark Side by removing the fear of those who serve it. When Luke trusted his father, showed love for him, Anakin lost his fear of being alone; he turned away from the Dark Side and remembered his goodness. And because of that, the Sith were destroyed.

I am not saying we should embrace the terrorists themselves; they have gone too far, have been completely corrupted – there is no goodness left in them. Emperor Palpatine had to be thrown into a nuclear reactor, after all. But just like the leaders of our terrorist organizations, Palpatine used others, and then discarded them when it suited him, when doing so would cause the most harm, and bring him the most power and dominance. And just like Darth Sidious, the only ones who can stop those people are the people they corrupt, the ones who serve them and believe in them. We in the West have killed dozens of terrorist leaders; and all that happens then is another one takes their place. The current leader of Daesh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is the third to run this particular organization; the first two (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – remember him? – and Abu Ayyab al-Masri) we killed. We might as well call them Darth Maul and Darth Tyrannous. (I really don’t want to point out the parallel in the similar first names, or the fact that all of these names are not birth names, but were adopted for symbolic reasons. But I will point out that George Lucas is an extremely smart man.)

What we need to do is what Luke Skywalker did. We need to trust that there is still goodness in people. We need to encourage that goodness. We need to deny our own fear, even at the risk that the thing we fear will happen anyway. Look: we are all going to die. There is no guarantee that we won’t be dying really soon, in an accident, or even in an attack. There is no guarantee that our loved ones won’t be taken from us; in fact, they probably will. I am sure that I will grieve for Sammy as I grieved for Charlie. All we can do is try to make the world we leave behind into a better place. We can remember what would make our loved ones, our lost ones, proud, and try to live up to that. We can honor our dead, and our ideals; we can live up to our responsibilities; we can be good people and do the right thing.

And we can fight back against fear, and maintain control over ourselves. Not power and dominance over others: control over ourselves. As long as we react to the fear, we are giving power away to others, and losing our control. We are increasing the power of the terrorists, because we are feeding them terror. And when we react with anger and hatred, we are doing the same: it is no coincidence that terrorist activity swells after each callous, arrogant intrusion into the Middle East from the West. No coincidence that Daesh is centered in the Iraq that we made when we invaded, that al Qaeda and the Taliban were centered in the Afghanistan that the Cold War created.

I don’t mean to blame the West for the actions of terrorists: they are the ones who turn to the dark side, who allow their own fear to turn to anger, to turn to hatred; I blame those who pull the triggers, who detonate the bombs, who hijack the planes. Even more I blame those who take scared, desperate people and, for their own aggrandizement, turn those scared people into human weapons, in order to create more fear and misery. But blame is not the solution. The solution is to remove the fear, from both sides, from all of us – and the only way to do that is with kindness. With compassion.

By the way: I’m not Yoda. This is Yoda. (He even sounds like Yoda.)

 

Just imagine: if instead of four million angry, desperate, miserable refugees, stuck in camps in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts, who have nothing to turn to for solace but their own faith, and who are therefore easy pickings for the corruptors who call themselves prophets of that faith, there were four million people living in the West, filled with gratitude to the nations and the people who saved them and their families from the villains – those same corruptors – who destroyed their lives and homes. Imagine if the Syrian refugees stopped thinking of the West as their enemies, and thought of the West as their home. Imagine what allies they could be in the quest for a lasting peace and a stable Middle East. Imagine the people who could become leaders, diplomats, mediators between the countries of their birth, and the countries that welcomed them in when they were in desperate need. Don’t you see how that would make an end to organizations like Daesh and the Taliban? They drive the people out, with anger and hatred; and we take them in, with compassion, and without fear.

It would bring us strength. It would grant us control. It would make us Jedi.

You Have Been Weighed, You Have Been Measured.

I spent a large part of last weekend grading. Not unusual, really; I’m a teacher. I generally spend part of every weekend grading, along with every free moment in between classes during the school day (and the former because there aren’t many of the latter, between teaching and planning and corresponding); and that’s even after my student count was cut in half when I changed from the comprehensive public school to the STEM charter school where I am now. Grading is something I have ranted and raved about far too often in the past; because it is, quite simply, the worst thing about teaching. Well, maybe the second worst thing: being treated like a criminal is no frosty chocolate milkshake.

But enough of ranting about grades: I need to be more positive. I need to spend less time being angry, and more time trying to see the light and share the light. I need to make more jokes. I need to offer solutions instead of pointing out problems, especially problems that everyone already knows about. The time has come to try to fix the problem. Today, I wish to share my plan: how to replace grades with a system that would actually work.

A brief summation of the many, many rants: The problem with grades is that they summarize what should be expanded upon. A student is a person, a complete person; not an A or a B or an F. Because grades are only summaries, everything that matters is lost: character, personality, the challenges and obstacles one faces and overcomes – none of these are apparent in a grade. The grade doesn’t even clarify positive traits: was it earned through natural intelligence and aptitude for the subject? Through grueling hard work? Through charm and sly manipulation? It isn’t clear: but this answer is terribly important, because the decisions we make based on grades are intended to be based on these actual qualities. If you want to hire an applicant for a job, or accept a student into your college, you want to know how they got A’s: was it work or talent? Or charm?

In other words: was the applicant in Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin? Or perhaps they had the courage to overcome great personal difficulty, earning a high grade by fighting for it, the way a Gryffindor should?

People need to know these things. But we don’t do that. Because all they know is this: B+ in Language Arts. A- in Math. C in Economics. A in Physics. And because I don’t teach at Hogwarts. Which is too bad: I’d be an awesome wizard teacher.

This lack of useful information means that grades are not doing their intended job. I would give grades an F. (Now imagine if all I said in this whole piece was “Grades get an F.”) But I’d also include a note that it isn’t really their fault; we just ask too much of their limited abilities. Grades shouldn’t be graded, really; they’re not up to the work we are demanding. They are incapable. Really, they should be on an IEP or a 504; they need extra support.

Man, there’s just nothing like a SPED joke.

But the reality is, we make those decisions that matter — about hiring, about college entrance — the way they should be made; and in every case, grades are not discounted, but they are negotiable. You can get into any college, and you can, I think, get any job you want, with poor grades; it’s just a matter of what else you can do to show your ability and character, and what explanation you can give for the grades.

So why are grades given such weight? Why is it so ingrained in us to seek grades, to give grades, to look for grades as the answer to our questions – how many stars did this book get? Did this movie get two thumb’s up, or only one? Did you get an A- on that test, or only a B+? (Please note that the difference between those grades is exactly one percent. Where else does one percent matter to us quite so much as the line between 89 and 90? I mean, other than milk, of course.) It’s because grades are symbols. We like symbols. We like attaching additional meaning to things that don’t have it intrinsically; this is why we salute and pledge allegiance to the flag, rather than to our actual country or its leaders. We actually enjoy reinterpreting symbols to mean what we want them to mean, completely apart from what the symbols originally meant; this is why Republican Jesus exists.

Republican Jesus - republican jesus prefers guns for all instead of ...: Politics, Dust Jackets, Dust Wrappers, Even, Republican Jesus, Book Jackets, Liberalism, Dust Covers, Republicanjesus

The problem is that we very often reinterpret and reinterpret symbols until – we forget what they actually stood for. Kind of like the decorations on a red Starbucks cup. Grades are only symbols representing a student’s work/aptitude/determination; but we have forgotten the actual matter represented, instead focusing solely on the symbol itself: parents are happy, students are happy, schools are happy, the President is happy, as long as students are getting A’s, because each of us takes that grade to mean exactly what we want it to mean. As a teacher, I take my students’ good grades as evidence that I taught well, and they “got it” – frequently, I think, despite their lack of ability. Go me. I have no doubt that my students take their good grades as representative of their own hard work, frequently despite poor teaching. Their parents take them to represent good parenting, and possibly an early retirement with little Syzygy and her brother Ermingarde  footing the bill. We don’t really care how we get the good grade as long as we get the good grade – but that’s the only thing about an A that actually matters: how did you get it? Grades conceal that.

Okay, so not a brief summation.

Let me try again: At the end of a time of learning, a student should be told whether or not they were successful. (though I would argue that they already know; but it is true that we learn to judge these things by having our own judgments confirmed by experts; it is also true that there are a few folk in the world who think they’re much smarter than they are.) The student should be aware of strengths and weaknesses, and especially where they showed improvement and what future potential this area of education holds for them, and they for it. A letter grade simply cannot carry all of that information.

A better system is narrative evaluations. At the end of the semester, the end of the class, the teacher writes up a paragraph or so explaining what each student in the class did well or did poorly: “Odwalla does very well on tests, but listening to her speak in class is like hearing someone bash one of those ‘The cow goes MOOO!’ toys with a sharp rock.” These allow instructors to go into more detail regarding a student’s strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures. Switching to these would be a real improvement, in part because it would force teachers to get to know their students better, and would thus (it is to be hoped) force schools to keep class sizes low enough to make it possible for teachers to do this job how it should be done.

Here we see one of the problems with grades: it is a problem with schools. The fact that teachers can’t teach 40 students in a class didn’t stop us from putting 40 students in a class. We are not willing to do what it takes to make education work. Which means this endeavor is doomed unless we re-form society, as well.

I’m working on that. My own Republic. Needs a new name, though – that one’s been taken.

But for now, let’s try to deal with the present. Going to narrative evaluations would not change the way people think about grades: students and parents – and probably admissions officers and employers – would scour through the evaluations looking for buzzwords, and then translate the evaluation into a letter grade. I write the equivalent of narrative evaluations on student essays, telling them everything I can about what they did well and where they need to improve; and every time I hand back a paper, students run their eyes over the margins, looking for a letter or a percentage standing alone, like wolves searching for yak calves (Can those be called “yaklings?” Actually, can my students be called yaklings? Or yaklets?)

Mama yak and two yaklets.

that wandered away from the herd; when they don’t find one, they turn on me. “What did I get on this?” they cry. If narrative evaluations came only at the end of the class, parents and students would go back through and do the math, adding up grades and percentages on individual assignments, and then they would report that in some way, posting it on Facebook for their own satisfaction, and making sure that the grade percentage got into the application letter for the college or was dropped casually in the interview. We could try to do narratives for every assignment, but not only would the workload become prohibitive, not every assignment deserves a narrative evaluation: if I give a three-question multiple-choice pop quiz, what could I write in the narrative? “Helsinki got all of the answers right, but she needs to work on the way she circles the letters of the correct answers. Those ‘circles’ are at best ovoid, and one of them wasn’t even closed.” I guarantee you, as well, that plenty of teachers – every single math teacher, for one – would write narrative evaluations that looked like this: “You got a B. 85% on tests and 84% on homework. Good job.”

We can’t simply replace grades with a longer grade. We need to change the way we think about evaluating students and putting that information before those who need to know it. Like I said: we need to remake society entirely.

So, ignoring for now all of the societal changes we would need to make in order to get to the schools that I think we should have, let me describe how student evaluation should work.

One of the constant threads in the mad tangle that is education is the idea that students should do the work, rather than teachers. Modern pedagogical theory (which will henceforth be known as “edutainment,” first because it fits their “Make the ‘customers’ [the students and their parents] happy!” philosophy, and second because those yak-butts don’t even merit a good nickname)

takes this too far, as edutainment does with everything, saying that teachers should guide the students to creating their own knowledge rather than transmitting information to them; this becomes a large problem that will receive its own essay. But the essential concept is correct: students should build their own knowledge. I think that part of knowledge building is the awareness of your progress. Not a psychic vision of a loading bar that reads “Chemistry – 51% complete,” but the ability to judge, or at least to ascertain, where you are sufficient and where not, and what you can do with that.

So let’s have students do that. What’s the best way to know if you’re ready to move on to the next stage, to go from Spanish 2 to Spanish 3? It’s to go from Spanish 2 to Spanish 3. It is to move on to the next stage, where you will succeed or fail. It is to find the place of your competence and your struggle, and try to advance that place further along the continuum.

You gotta set the difficulty to Hard to know if you can win the game on Hard.

Why should teachers be the arbitrators of advancement? The trouble with me as the gatekeeper is that I don’t know everything about my students, not even within my own subject: if a student does poorly in my class, was it because of the subject and the student’s aptitude within it? Was it because the student doesn’t get along with me, didn’t like me, didn’t want to do the work I assigned? Was it because of entirely external struggles that happened to coincide with my class? I don’t know. You know who knows? The students know.

So let’s have the students decide for themselves. Just think how satisfying it would be to have some precocious, arrogant teenager tell you “I don’t need this class, I already learned this,” and you say, “All right then, go. Get out.” And then the kid actually leaves. Oh, that would be sweet.

But of course the students will frequently be wrong. They will want to change classes because they are bored or because the teacher has weird hair. They will want to move on with their friends. Their parents will want them to advance fastest so they can WIN! They will believe they learned the subject when they only scratched the surface. In all these cases, they will move on to the next level – where they will fail. So what we need is the ability for students to go back to the previous class and try again – and for this not to have a stigma.

This means we need to eliminate the “levels” of school, the numbered grades. Students shouldn’t be segregated by age; they should be sorted by ability. I hope we all realize how ridiculous it is to put students together based on when they were born, rather than what they know and what they need to learn; just think back to your own elementary education and remember the difference between the smartest kids and the dumbest in your class. Yup. But at least you all had the same number of candles on your birthday cakes. This means we’ll need K-12 schools, with all grades in one building, so that a 10-year-old math whiz can take calculus classes with the older students while sticking with his age group for English; but frankly, I think that would be an advantage: it would certainly make it easier for parents with multiple children, who currently have to run to as many schools as they have kids, and who therefore have to miss some events, and have to make extremely awkward arrangements for transportation, care, and feeding of little Cabaret and little Burlesque. Older siblings could look out for younger siblings at the same school – or serve as constant reminders to little brothers and sisters of what not to do. Either way is good. It would enable the staff to get to know kids and families for the long term, to build relationships with them, which would also be beneficial.

So here we are: in a K-12 school, which is no longer a K-12 school because there is no K and no 12. Students go into the classes they think they are ready for, and then go back a step if they were wrong. There would need to be a fair amount of give in the structure of the classes; the first month or so, you’d have a lot of students transferring up or down, and they shouldn’t have to be left behind when they did. There are no grades apart from marks and critiques: this answer is right, this one is wrong; this aspect of this project needs improvement. There will still be some temptation to translate those marks into letter grades, so I would recommend that the teachers try to focus on narrative evaluation here as much as possible; after all, even on a math test, would you need to know exactly what problems you got wrong if the teacher writes “You need to work on simplifying fractions” at the top of the paper? Wouldn’t that be enough to guide the student to improving what they need to improve? Perhaps not; perhaps the red pen is still necessary. Even with that, if a total percentage correct is not given (because the total percentage means nothing, of course, just like every grade) and there is no emphasis on grades as markers of success, the temptation to do one’s own math and wear the total as a medal or a scarlet F would fade away soon enough. Education would focus on learning, rather than just the empty symbols of it.

The only question left is graduation: when is a student ready for the real world, for college or jobs? And how will those colleges or employers know what the former student is capable of?

The obvious answer is that when a student finishes the sequence of classes, they are ready to graduate. But first, if we’re letting students decide, there’s going to be a fair amount of backtracking – especially when the decision is when one is ready to leave school. Are there any kids who don’t think they’re ready to go out on their own somewhere around 14 or 15? When everything, every rule, every adult, every responsibility, is stupid and pointless, and you just want to be free to live like adults do, hanging out with your friends all day, playing video games all night, eating Cheez-Its with frosting for every meal? Those kids who leave school before they are actually ready need to be able to come back, but if they are free to try, a lot of time will be wasted, a lot of awkward changes will need to be made and unmade, for no real good reason. The second problem with simply allowing students to leave when they feel they have mastered a subject is that almost no one learns all subjects at the same rate, so a student may be done with math but still need to work on English and social studies. I’m not even going to get into the issue of students who believe they will never need math, ever. We’ll leave it at this, that students may be done with some things but still need to master others; and the question is, how many subjects must they master, and to what extent, before they can leave school? We can’t leave it entirely up to them, and we can’t go entirely the other way – that students have to master EVERY subject the school offers before they may leave. Though that is tempting. I love the idea of a balding 35-year-old who just can’t get the notes right for “Hot Crossed Buns” on the recorder, but he can’t graduate UNTIL HE CAN PLAY THAT SONG!

“Welcome to Adult Recorder Education. Thank you all for obeying our dress code.”

A couple of answers: one would be internships. If a student had mastered all of the math classes, and was interested in going further with math while still working in language arts in a school setting, that student could go out and do an internship in a math-based field, computers or architecture or what have you. That way, the transition from school to skilled work would be essentially seamless: as the student/intern finished up classes, they would have more time to work, and would eventually just be an employee of the company where they interned. Or they could move on to college with some real-world experience and an excellent bullet point for a resume. This does presume professional work settings close by the schools, which would be an issue in more rural areas; but educational opportunities are already limited in rural areas, which is a larger problem than I am proposing to fix (But which I will address in my utopia.); the best we can offer those in the boonies might be the internet.

Another piece of the answer is that it may not be so bad: if some students figure they can leave school early, because school is stupid and stuff, and then those students slink back with their tails between their legs, it may be an effective object lesson for the rest. As well as for those students themselves: one of the best students I ever taught left school after sophomore year, and then came back at the age of eighteen to finish two years of high school. Worked harder and tried more, and did better, than anyone else.

The rest of the answer is for me to go back on what I said earlier: teachers would become the gatekeepers. I said that I can’t really know why a student has done well or badly in my class, and therefore I shouldn’t be the one to decide when a student should go on to the next level; but more importantly, I can know when a student has actually mastered the material, learned the skills necessary to succeed in my subject. It still holds that students should be the ones to decide when they are ready to move on, because they should be aware of what they know and what they don’t, of what they can do and what they can’t; but when the transition in question is one entirely out of school, they should have some confirmation of their self-analysis.

So there should be a conversation. Between the students and the teachers, and anyone else involved – the prospective employer, the college admissions officer, what have you. There can be a task to prove competence, such as a senior project or a thesis with an oral examination; but I would argue the best way would be for teachers to simply get to know their students well enough to say when they were done learning what that teacher, that school, has to offer. And after that conversation, if everyone agrees, congratulations, Graduate. On to college, on to employment. And if the employer or the admissions officer can’t actually sit in on every conversation, then they should contact the teachers, or a school graduation representative – call it a counselor – and have a conversation about the conversation with someone who was in it and who knows the student. It is hard for me to accept that student application essays and teacher letters of recommendation are the best way to know if a kid is ready for college or a job; I know for damn sure that transcripts aren’t it. Maybe a conversation with a counselor wouldn’t be any better, but I think it might, provided the counselor actually knows the student and had some interest in what was best for J’oh’nn’y. Of course, all of this presumes that relationship between teacher and student, along with a teacher’s genuine ability to judge mastery of the subject, which certainly implies mastery on the part of the teacher.

But shouldn’t we be able to presume those things? Shouldn’t all schools be interested in what’s best for their students? Shouldn’t all teachers be masters of their subjects? I’ll tell you this: I could spend more time learning about my students, and I could spend more time improving my own knowledge in my subject, if I could spend less time grading papers and filling out report cards. I’m not talking about telling students what they did right and what they did wrong; I’d still need to write comments and critiques on essays, and mark answers right or wrong. I’m talking about the time I spend thinking, “Is this paper a B+? Or an A-?” I’m talking about the time I spend recording those letters into a grading database. Most of all, I’m talking about the time I spend telling students, and students’ parents and coaches and other teachers, what little Aardvark’s grades are, why they are what they are, what Aardvark can do to improve her grades, how much effect every individual assignment has on a grade, what the hypothetical grade would be if the alleged work is turned in tomorrow, and then arguing with all of those people in all of those circumstances why the grade shouldn’t be just one percent higher.

Believe me. It’s a lot of time. And all wasted.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have essays to grade. I can’t spend all my time thinking and writing. I’m a teacher, after all.