Yesterday I made a video blog so I could test my new microphone, and during part of my little talk there I kind of bemoaned the fact that it had been so long since my last entry, months, in fact. Afterwards, I was struck by this single observation: It took me three and a half minutes to make that video. I tried afterwards to see if I could do a better job, but the two takes I took after the initial one were disappointing. The one in which I flew by the seat of my pants was leagues better. I thought to myself, what if I flew by the seat of my pants more often? First take. No edits. No do-overs. So I tried it again today. This could become a thing.
Category Archives: Literature
Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: It’s Raining and I’m Flying By the Seat of My Pants!
I pulled out a few choice sentences that students wrote for my English 10 final exam, which consisted mostly of an essay on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The monster ended up going on a killing spree because he read The Grapes of Wrath and got the wrong idea about human kind.
I have no idea how this particular student conflated Steinbeck’s novel with Milton’s Paradise Lost. The monster in Shelley’s novel had skills, no doubt, but time traveling was not one of them, as far as I can tell.
Then someone else gets killed because everyone thought she had killed everyone that was dying.
Killed to death, as they say, for dying too much. I don’t know who “she” is. Maybe this student holds the author responsible for all the death and destruction. That’s fair.
Here’s a pretty astute craft observation about Mary Shelley’s tone:
So it shows tone because in some sentences it has capitals for all the letters if someone is yelling. If they are just talking it’s normal writing, and if someone is whispering then the letters are smaller than the rest.
Indeed. I had not noticed before that everything the monster says in this novel is in all capital letters. No wonder I felt like I was being yelled at. How did I miss this?
Without teachers there would be no life. We would just be a big sack of potatoes.
I’m so happy to know that I am responsible for my students not becoming sacks of potatoes. Career win.
The monster learning to be good and kind was sort of pointless if he’s just gonna go around strangling people.
Indubitably. All that goodness gone to waste.
Here’s another craft observation, more heart-felt than brainy:
The writer’s choice is to mostly write words that hit your feels and make you think awhile on the life you have.
I know this holds true for me. The first time I read this novel (I was about 35), I got hit in the feels all over. I, too, like this next student, was making powerful personal connections:
My father had not made me very happy in my life. And I felt the same way the monster did at this point. The only difference is that I did not go and kill his whole family.
My connections weren’t about my deadbeat dad. My dad was anything but deadbeat. I was the deadbeat dad, although, truth be told, I wasn’t a dad at the time. I just, in those years, felt more like the mad scientist than the monster; in other words, I was the bad guy.
Here’s some inventive historical context:
Frankenstein is an 1818 novel in a time of pitchforks and torches.
Oh, those were the days. You couldn’t spit in any direction without hitting a pitchfork or a torch. Kind of like coffee shops today, or, in Oregon, pot dispensaries.
And then, apropos not of Shelley, but Galway Kinnell:
This poem is about eating blackberries and I don’t know why anyone would write a poem about that.
Q: Hey kids, what’s the point of view in this here novel? You know, who speaks and to whom are they speaking?
A: Well, Walton, he’s the speaker, and he’s writing letters to his sister. But at some point, Victor is speaking to Walton who is writing letters to his sister, but then, Elizabeth is speaking through a letter to Victor who is speaking to Walton who is writing letters to his sister, and then, at another point, Victor’s father Alphonse is speaking through a letter to Victor who is speaking to Walton who is writing letters to his sister, and then, still later, the monster is speaking to Victor who is relaying all of this to Walton who is writing letters to his sister. And Victor, of course, has a photographic memory, not a detail is omitted; and Walton, obviously, has serious-mad dictation skills, doesn’t miss a single beat in those letters to his sister.
I realize now that it might be possible to misunderstand the title of this blog series. I just want to make clear right out of the gate that our narrator is not talking about his penultimate year on the planet. Nope. He’s pretty healthy, save for some high blood pressure (which he is working to alleviate), so he certainly has more than another year to live! Phew! Glad we got that out of the way. No, with “penultimate,” he’s referring (why am I writing about myself in the third person?) to the possible or potential year before his last year as a teacher in a public high school classroom. In other words, he may retire soon. And he’s being deliberately wishy-washy and vague. Is he sure? Mostly. Can he envision putting it off? Yes. If the circumstances are right, he could see very well putting it off. Maybe the title of the series should be Diary of an English Teacher in His Possible Penultimate Year. Peter Percival’s Pet Pig Named Porky Loved Pie. Anyone?
All right then. This is what I really want to talk about today. I had a conversation yesterday with a student that blew my mind, and not in a good way. Here it is, quite simply. In my English 10 class, we’re reading Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey. A student, at the end of the class, turned the book over and looked at the back cover. He saw something there that surprised him; no, he was shocked. He came up to me and he said, “Mr. Jarmer, is this book really worth $16?” I answered in the affirmative without a lot of thought. He couldn’t really be surprised by this, could he? Then he said, “Do you mean, Mr. Jarmer, that if I lose this book, I will have to pay $16 to replace it?” Again, I answer in the affirmative. He’s incredulous. “No way. There’s no way this book is worth $16.” Afterwards, I tell him some secrets, such as, if he were to buy a brand new hard cover first edition from the bookstore, he’d pay upwards of $30 or $40. His jaw drops. “Who would pay $40 for a book?” Well, I say, I have. Many, many times. Sometimes a lot more. I tell him how much I spent on my Folio editions of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. He appears to be absolutely blown away by my stupidity. And I am absolutely blown away by his . . . underestimation of what a book might be worth.
I realized some things. There are billions of young people out there who have never ever in their life purchased a book. So of course, how would they know the value of a book, monetarily speaking? Not only are there billions of young people out there who have never bought a book, there are other multitudes of young people who have never checked a book out of the library, have never attempted to read a book that was not assigned to them. And there are scads of young people, I know, who manage through years of schooling somehow to avoid reading ANY of the books that have been assigned to them, who might be even proud of the fact. So there is an epidemic, I think, among young people, of book ignorance and book devaluation. Not only have they avoided reading anything of substance, they have no idea and no interest in finding out what a book is worth. And I’m not really talking about kids whose level of literacy precludes them from reading. I’m talking about the literate illiterate. Kids who can but don’t.
It’s painful to think about what they are missing. They’re not all lost causes, though. I read as a young person what was assigned to me, but I was not a reader. After my homework was done, I spent all my free time listening to music, playing music, and if I read I was reading about music, and I spent a lot of time with the high school theater department. I did not read books. I did not really become a reader until I was about 19. But then I became a fiend for reading. Not a voracious reader (I was slow), but an enthusiastic, close reader. And that’s when I began also to take myself seriously as a writer. But as an adult, I had friends who were perfectly literate who only started reading seriously in their 30s. So again, this boy who couldn’t believe that a book was worth $16 may one day start reading.
I feel kind of shitty. I see it, as part of my gig, that I must try to inspire students to read, to instill a desire to read. How do you DO that? Well, in part, you do it by modeling (you can’t help it) your own enthusiasm about the words on the page. That works to a degree, maybe even to a large degree. But I know that one of the other ways, maybe a more effective way, to inspire readers is by giving them choices about WHAT they read. This is a no brainer. They will want to read more when given opportunities to find the kinds of books that speak to them. Why do I feel shitty? It’s been a long, long time since I found myself in a situation where I felt free to give students choices. The curriculum has become less flexible. The scope and sequence of most of the classes I teach require certain books to be taught. When the district spends thousands of dollars to adopt a new text, there’s an obligation to teach that text. When the district emphasizes and/or mandates the sound idea that teachers not work in isolation, that they plan together and create common assessments, to look at data that will inform their teaching, there’s just simply less room for student choice. Or at least that’s how it feels. I don’t think that it’s true. If more of my colleagues were committed to student choice, it’d be an easy fix. I feel a little bit alone. I feel a little bit sad that my teaching is maybe not as progressive as it once was. When I was a new teacher they basically just gave me a room and said GO! A part of me pines for that kind of freedom again.
Meanwhile, the question is: $16 for a bloody book? And my response, falling on deaf ears: the worth of a book is immeasurable, invaluable, priceless. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
In closing, and in a completely different vein, because teaching kids to love reading is not the only thing I’m thinking about today, the furnace is down. It’s cold in the house. We got the obligatory Yuletide tree, and today would have been my mother’s 88th birthday. First birthday without Mom. First Christmas and New Year without Mom. My mother, who read very little until her later years, and who preferred raunchy romances, even in her 80s, over anything literary, nevertheless, encouraged me as a reader and writer. Cheers to the memory of Mom and to the promises and riches of reading.
And now for something completely different.
I’ve been doing this “Penultimate Year” series now since August, and typically post about once a month, but today the urge to scribble arrived for the second consecutive day.
Today, the day after my birthday, felt more like a birthday. I mean, I celebrated a little bit last night after that last blog entry with a martini (I know, on a Monday!) and then I put together some new vinyl storage boxes for my ever expanding record collection and by the time I went to bed after spinning the new Rostam album and reading a chapter in Virginia Woolf, I felt pretty groovy. Writing works that way for me. It’s therapeutic. If something is weighing me down, I turn to words and sentences and paragraphs. Had I not written about yesterday’s woes, there would have been no martini, no record boxes, no music, no reading. But I like to write as well when there’s something to celebrate. As I was saying, today felt more like a birthday.
I’ll work backwards. My fourth period sophomores today were really sweet human beings. They can be silly, but they are respectful and kind to me and to others, often are appreciative of my efforts, seem genuinely more engaged in the process, happier and less cynical, and today they sat quietly and read for about 40 straight minutes. Somehow the cat got out of the bag, and they sang me a rousing round of happy birthday. A few of them are struggling academically, but none of them are using that as an excuse to derail the rest of us and they know, I hope, that if they need help, they can get it.
My third period prep was spent mostly prepping, but I had the opportunity to sit down with a union representative as part of a “listening tour” in preparation for upcoming contract negotiations, and I got to talk with a colleague from the district about the good, the bad, and the ugly. That felt validating. It felt good to tell her how really consistently awesome it feels to work in this building and with this staff, but it was also helpful, having scribbled my fury the night before, to clearly articulate the challenges: not enough time, never enough time, the battle between preparation and grading, and finally, how difficult it is to work when students are actively trying to prevent you from working, or how difficult it is to feel responsible for young people who refuse to take any responsibility for themselves.
My second period and first period I will talk about together. In these two classes of IB Senior English, I feel that if this were my job, my only job, working with kids like these on material like this, I could work until I died. There’s so much joy, so much good humor, so much interest, so much intellectual fire, so much willingness to grapple with big, difficult ideas, that it almost always feels like play to me. We read a selection from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons for starters. What could be more fun than that? And then we dove into the genius of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where we talked in one period about this exquisite and close reading our narrator does of a novel by one of her contemporaries, only to realize at the end (spoiler alert) that she was just making it up the entire time! There’s no such contemporary! There’s no such novel! Why did she do that?!! And of course we discover that it’s absolutely intentional and absolutely a perfect choice for her purposes. In the other period the reveal was made right out of the gate, but it didn’t make the conversation any less lively or engaged. And in both periods, reading out loud the opening passage of the last chapter, I felt the goose bumps rise (and like to think that this was a collective experience) when Woolf speculates most presciently and profoundly about the unity of mind that occurs when the female part of the male brain, and the male part of the female brain are in harmony and peace with one another. The androgynous mind, the incandescent mind: necessary for a work of genius–along with the money and a room of one’s own.
It’s pure joy to work with this group. It’s not that none of them have issues. It’s not that none of them are struggling. A few of them are frustrating because of poor attendance or a sloppy work ethic, but they walk around with a more mature version, a less disruptive version of what their younger counterparts exhibit. And I can handle these kids with more equanimity, even though I still lose sleep about them sometimes. Generally speaking, I feel so much gratitude to be able teach this course and feel a little bit guilty that all my colleagues don’t have this privilege, and sad when sometimes a colleague of mine, for a variety of reasons, loses a likewise beloved class. I know I would be at a loss if I couldn’t teach my Seamus Heaney, my Virginia Woolf, my Toni Morrison, my Hamlet, my Beckett, and with such a receptive, respectful, lovely group of kids. One of them walked into class today, having last seen me on Friday during our last meeting, and he said, Jarmer, man, I missed you. I think he was being sincere. My heart was full.
And Beth Russell, the greatest substitute teacher that ever was, gave me a birthday jar of pepper jelly, and Bev Whiting, the nicest human being to ever inhabit a library, wished me a happy birthday a day late. And when I got home, there was a new pair of Slackies in the mailbox–you know, slacks that feel like jammies. After yesterday’s shitty day, today was nearly perfect. I am well. Everything is good.
At the end of a class yesterday that described the literary history of American frontier exploration, both literal and symbolic, Alison asked us what we believed would be the next frontier. It was a brilliant, thought provoking question. And our responses were revelatory. We began, as you would expect us to do, with some more literal predictions. Well, there’s space, still, the infinite expanses of the universe. There’s quantum physics. My understanding is that there’s a boat load of stuff we still don’t know about the ocean. The human brain remains mysterious territory. Medicine. There will be technological advances every bit as revolutionary as the one’s we’ve experienced over just a few short years. That kind of stuff. Then the discussion got darker. As Alison’s talk had culminated in a description of Dystopia as the most recent literary “frontier,” we began to discuss the bleak, depressing, backwards, and absurd state of affairs in our country in the age of a Trump presidency. The new frontier seems dark, indeed. It was inevitable that we should land here, our first writer’s camp since the election. I can’t speak for everyone, but my guess is that as creatives, as artists, as makers, we are in this community nearly unanimous in our outrage over the current state of American politics. We are all still smarting and trying to figure out what role we have to play in these next months and years.
And then the conversation shifted.
Bookstores are inundated with readers looking for rigorous political satire. African women are writing science fiction novels. People like us are here, in this place, in this time, coming together to write, talk about writing, celebrate each other, learn from each other, lift each other up emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Literature matters still. Literature teaches us how to be human. Literature teaches us how to be more empathetic and compassionate. Literature teaches us how to love. It was decided: we have to keep writing. And there, in this conversation about the power our words might have to make substantive difference in the world, someone suggested that the new frontier is in relationship, deep understanding and connection, the way in which our behavior in the world and our way of relating might have a ripple effect louder and farther than any firepower ever could.
And then we moved from that wonderful, enlivening conversation to an experiment with receiving and giving feedback about writing. So accustomed, as we are, to “workshops” in which the writer cannot speak but must listen as others try to communicate, sometimes helpfully but often narcissistically, what the writer needs to do to improve their work, what if instead the writer spoke the entire time and in response to honest, open questions from peers and friends, the sole purpose of which would be to elicit inquiry, reflection, discernment, to inspire the writer’s inner teacher to speak?
We tried that. The results, I think, were stunning. I believe there is almost nothing in the world more affirming than to feel and be heard. I know from personal experience that almost every moment of conflict in my life with another human being was the result of my inability or unwillingness to listen or from the perception that someone I loved or cared about was not listening to me. But what’s especially phenomenal and important and potentially transformational about this idea, is that this same gift can be given to or received from relative strangers.
There were individuals who had never met before yesterday partnered up to have this kind of conversation around writing, where one writer described a dilemma in his or her practice and then the other asked only honest, open questions and allowed the writer to speak in response. No suggestions. No advice. No fixing. No judgement. We listen attentively to others, we listen to our own responses, later, we help each other hear and see what we might not have been conscious of, and this listening then percolates its way into clarity–immediately in some cases, in a few hours sometimes, or after weeks or months of slow cooking.
So the new frontier might be a transformation that occurs when individuals, when groups, when cultures, when whole nations learn to listen. I’m no Polyanna. But I do sometimes tend toward rose-colored glasses, or glasses half full. I’m pretty disgusted with a lot of things, but I am also heartened and hopeful where I see sense, integrity, decency, kindness, compassion–and that stuff is all around us. Over the last four days I’ve been soaking in it, Palmolive-like. We start where we are. My friend Mark insisted that we begin with those in our immediate reach. It will ripple outward, like fireworks, only softer, like soap bubbles.
Try this at home.
My classroom copy is copiously
marked in three or four
colors of highlighter and
underlined and bracketed
and annotated with pen and pencil
seven different ways to Sunday.
I’ve read and reread
and reread this novel perhaps
eight or nine times now,
but this time I choose
a clean, elegant copy over
my raggedy-ass classroom
copy and it’s like reading
it for the first time again.
I’m a sucker for fine editions
and could not resist this one.
I can smell the ink.
I can feel the lettering
engraved into the spine
like braille, or like the text
carved into a tombstone.
And my reading this time
is not cluttered by my previous
readings, marked up by
some earlier version of me
who thought he had answers.
I complain sometimes
about the time I lack to
read new work because
I am always rereading to
teach. And yet, with this gem,
I might be happy if it were
the only book I could ever
read until I died.
Every time I read it
I find new things to love
and new reasons to mourn or hope,
and I understand more deeply
how tragic our history,
how tenacious our ghosts,
how all the repair work
in our country that needs doing
(now more than ever before)
springs from this, from this.