Tag Archives: identity

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Kids These Days, Part the Third–On Being and Unbeing

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This is e. e. cummings

I’ve been writing lately about student behavior. In one blog I commiserated with my elementary school colleagues about young children who cause violent disruptions and I bemoaned the high school apathy I saw at my own school, and in another blog I wrote about surprising teenage shenanigans, you know, like bringing communion wafers to class. Today I want to write about an essay I’m studying with my 9th graders, an excerpt from “Nonlecture Two” by e. e. cummings. In this essay, cummings makes a number of assertions. One, that our idea of home is commensurate to our idea of privacy. Two, most of us have no conception of what privacy really is. Three, our “walls” are full of “holes.” Four (and there are more, but I want to linger here), we have difficulties being here, now, ourselves, and alone, in part, because we are terribly distracted beings, and here I have to quote directly and generously from the essay:

Why (you ask) should anyone want to be here, when (simply by pressing a button) anyone could be in fifty places at once? How could anyone want to be now, when anyone can go whening all over creation at the twist of a knob? What could induce anyone to desire aloneness, when billions of soi-disant dollars are mercifully squandered by a good and great government lest anyone anywhere should ever for a single instant be alone? As for being yourself–why on earth should you be yourself; when instead of being yourself you can be a hundred, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand thousand, other people? The very thought of being oneself in an epoch of interchangeable selves must appear supremely ridiculous.

Now, we’ve read a biographical sketch of our poet, and have read and probably even recorded the years during which cummings was alive. We’ve maybe even glossed over the publication date of this essay. But in our attempt at a close reading of this piece, that information does not resurface. Not right away. So here’s a tale of two different classes responding to the same text:

In my first period today, one student, in response to the above passage, in particular to the “pressing a button” and the “twist of a knob,” says, “He’s talking about our smart phones.” At this point in the discussion I am so excited that I can remember nothing of what was said afterwards verbatim, but I clearly remember talk about how our smart phones allow us to go “whening all over creation,” allow us to be “a hundred thousand thousand other people,” and perhaps most ominously, prevent us from being alone, from being and knowing ourselves. And I specifically remember the priceless look on another student’s face as she begins to understand. These moments are the moments I live for as a teacher. And when someone asks the question, “When was this piece written?” Our mouths all fall open with amazement when we remind ourselves that the book i: Six Nonlectures was published in 1953. The knobs and buttons cummings refers to are likely radio tuning knobs, rotary dials, and if one was lucky enough to have a television, the channel selector. The poet saw and (perhaps) exaggerated (maybe) the dangers of his technology but managed to predict with perfect precision the powers and the dangerous reality of our own. Our addictive use of smart phones epitomizes the point he’s making.

Second period. I try and fail to recreate the epiphany from the period before. I fail for a couple of reasons. First, I move against the tenets of this particular strategy that students must construct their own knowledge while the teacher simply records their observations, questions, and conclusions. Instead, I ask a guiding question: “Do you notice in this passage the images of pressing a button or twisting a knob?” Then I admit, “This absolutely blows my mind.” Then I follow up, having already established that the piece was published in 1953: “What knobs and buttons might he be referring to?” In response, students talk about their knowledge of 1950s technology, radio, maybe television. I ask another question: “What do you think of his claim that radio or television might be having these adverse effects on us? Why is your teacher blown away by this?” Crickets. And as I scan the room, I notice a different kind of failure: a number of kids, a much larger number than I would care to admit, stare intently at their smart phone screens. They are, in this moment, “whening all over creation,” distracted by others, being anybody else, incapable of being alone, incapable of grasping the fact that they are the subject and the object lesson of this essay. We are indeed in an “epoch of interchangeable selves.”

Five (I’m continuing here, with the list of the poet’s assertions): poetry is being, not doing. Six: and if you’d like, at whatever distance, to follow “the poet’s calling,”

you’ve got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being.

He continues with his seventh, eighth, and ninth assertions, expressed in these two glorious sentences:

I am quite aware that, wherever our so-called civilization has slithered, there’s every reward and no punishment for unbeing. But if poetry is your goal, you’ve got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it’s you–nobody else–who determine your destiny and decide your fate.

I love it that he says that this is what you must do if poetry is your goal. I love that, because I don’t think it’s really what he means. Or, rather, he’s not being literal. Poetry is my life, or, poetry can be your life even if you never write a word! And that’s what my greatest hope is for my students, not that they run out the door with a burning desire to write poetry (although that would be nice), but rather, they live their lives as if they were poems, they recognize that poetry is being, that it’s difficult to be, much easier and “rewarding” to unbe, but that somehow they  gain the wherewithal and the self knowledge to regain their privacy, their aloneness, their sense of self-identity unclouded or polluted by the never-ending noise and distraction of the stupid smart phone, to determine their own destiny and fate so somebody else doesn’t do it for them.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Education, Literature, Teaching

#292: Two Sides (a Dialogue with Self)

Photo on 4-7-18 at 11.05 AM

Recently, I was thinking about self talk, or, literally, the act of talking out loud to oneself, and decided finally, even though I suspected it all along, that it is a necessary and healthful behavior. I mean, what’s the signature feature of Shakespeare’s soliloquies? To me, the key feature of a Shakespeare soliloquy, beyond the fact that the character is talking out loud to themselves, is honesty. And I thought to myself, and maybe I even said it out loud to myself, that if one could overhear another real human being talking to themselves, this would be one of the most intimate of experiences. It would be, for that moment, just as we can in one of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, as if we were reading someone’s mind. And then I wished that, as a child, whenever I used to overhear my mother talking to herself in the other room, that I would have listened more closely. And then I’ve been thinking a lot, because I’ve been teaching it, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which Guidenstern says, “A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself.” Truer words were never spoken. I would amend that statement, though, by replacing “no madder” with “infinitely wiser.”

Sorry for the long preamble, but it all leads to today’s prompt from napowrimo, which is to write a dialogue poem between two of your identities, one that makes you feel powerful, and another that makes you feel vulnerable. I’ll begin with the list I made of my various identities, in no particular order.

husband
father
teacher
fiction writer
musician
avid music fan
reader
poet
blogger
meditation practitioner
friend
brother
recovering Catholic
atheist
secular humanist
liberal/progressive

And here’s the poem between the powerful and the vulnerable, essentially, between the teacher and everybody else on the above list. Maybe because it is the way I usually structure my own self talk, I’ve chosen the second person pronoun. Is this a paradox? This turned out to be more like one voice talking to the two sides, than the two sides talking to each other. A dialogue, nevertheless.

Two Sides (a Dialogue with Self)

You are doing good work
in the lives of young people.
You know, that even though
what you taught might not
stick with them forever,
how you taught will, and
more profoundly, perhaps,
how you treated them. And,
to your credit, mostly, as far
as humanly possible, you
have treated them well,
and you have presented
to them your authentic self.

That’s all very well and good, 
but you also know that in your
capacity as a public servant
you have hidden away a great
deal about who you are. To a
certain extent, professionally
speaking, this is necessary, but
on the other hand, it sometimes
feels like a betrayal, doesn’t it?
Even though you know that
your politics, your philosophy,
your artistic aesthetics, interests,
your deepest beliefs and proclivities
have no place in the classroom,
you sometimes wish that they did.

But you do feel authentic there
because, again, you know that
to be authentic does not mean
that you must be all-revealing.
That guy in the classroom is
the real you, but only part of the
real you, and there’s nothing
wrong with that, is there?

No, but you still long, don’t you,
to have a place, a sphere, a community
with which you can be fully
who you are in every moment.
You doubt sometimes that this
is even a 
possibility.

Ah, so this is not just a struggle
in the classroom, is it?

No. 

It’s everywhere. In every sphere,
it’s a balancing act, as a husband,
a father, a friend, a member of
a community. To be known–
one of the great projects of a
conscious life, of an authentic life,
remains elusive, slippery.

But worth it, my friend. 

 

 

 

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Filed under Poetry, Self Reflection