Tag Archives: Pandemic

#367: For Its Own Sake

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Here’s a question.
What motivates a person to do a thing,
especially a thing that is purported to be
good for a person–let’s say, eat right,
exercise, learn an instrument, learn
an instrument well, dance, sing, paint,
or act well, and while we’re at it, add into the mix
all the academic endeavors:
write well, read well, understand
history, compute effectively, think
scientifically, abstractly, metaphorically,
not to mention the soft skills (a phrase
I hate), of building and fostering
strong and healthy relationships
to self and others?
Why would anyone do these,
all, admittedly, difficult things?
Our system of education is
designed to reward individuals for
doing these things with gold stars,
praise, and grades. We have conditioned
generations of students to do
purportedly good things for themselves
so that they can achieve a carrot
or avoid a stick. But we all know,
there are healthy people, musicians,
dancers, singers, painters, actors,
writers, historians, mathematicians,
scientists and philosophers who did
not get where they are because
they were afraid of the dunce cap
or the chair in the corner or the
C minus. They got good at their craft,
whatever that craft may have been,
because they wanted to, for its own
sake, because they knew it to be good
without anyone ever telling them
it was good. And here we are,
in Oregon, about to embark on
the grand experiment: learning
for the sake of learning. And we’re
doing it now, not because we have
had some grand epiphany about
the supremacy of intrinsic motivation,
but because we have no other
choice if we are to make the end
of the pandemic school year as
equitable and as fair as we can make it,
so as not to make a terrible situation
more heinous than it already is.
Some people will be helped
more than others or will grow
more than others, but no one will be
punished or hurt by frowny faces
and failures, and maybe, without
the kind of risk or peril they typically
experience in schools, they may plug in,
not because they have to,
but because they choose to,
because they see the value of the thing,
in this case learning, for its own sake.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #17

Most importantly, I will not be able to BE with my seniors in IB English, not even remotely. I won’t see their faces, hear their voices, read their writing, laugh at their good humor, be in awe of their intelligence and kindness. But additionally, I will not be able to formally finish the Hamlet unit with my seniors. I will not be able to read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with them. I will not be able to read Death of a Salesman with my students. I will not be able to read Waiting for Godot with my students. I will not be able to ask them, what is your dream, what are you waiting for? I will not be able to explore with them the six tenants of existentialism: existence precedes essence, time is of the essence, humanism is at the center, freedom and responsibility are key, ethics are paramount, and integrity is all. I will not be able to share with them the names that many of them will have heard for the first time in their lives: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. I will not be able to share with them the poems that would prepare them for Paper I. I will not be able to share with them the random questions about drama that would prepare them for Paper 2. I will not be able to commiserate with them as they prepare for and then spend four hours taking these brutal IB written examinations, which, while brutal, are still so much fun and provide so much rigorous reward. And afterwards, they will not be able to tell me how they felt well-prepared for the task, how they felt confident about their work. Finally, I will not be able to see them make fools of themselves as I ask them for a final exam to write and perform a play of their two-year IB English experience. I will not be able to do these things with my seniors. And all through the staff meeting this morning on Google Hangouts, I was fighting back tears, unsuccessfully.

For today’s poem, (#9), inspired by the NaPoWriMo website, I offer up a concrete poem, which is not really a concrete poem, but a poem about concrete, and improvised into a voice memo, and revised only slightly, because, god damn it.

#353: Concrete Poem

Concrete,
seemingly solid,
cement,
deceptively hard,
rocky,
stupid and orange,
sometimes grey,
sometimes blacktop,
asphalt, potholed
like my driveway.
You play ball
on the concrete,
basketball
in the park
or in the
driveway,
foursquare
on the
playground.
If you fall,
little rocks
embed themselves
inside your knee-
skin.
This is a concrete poem,
but it doesn’t look
anything like what
it’s about.

And finally, yesterday, I wrote a poem that stole a first line from Emily Dickinson, but today, that poem still haunts me, so I read it here–because I believe it helps.

 

 

 

 

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#349: Twenty Little Poetry Projects

I thought I would just share the instructions from the optional prompt today on the NaPoWriMo website, so folks could have some insight into the composition of today’s poem. I tried to write a line or lines inspired by each item of instruction in chronological order, rather than jumping around, in the hopes that the poem might be more cohesive or comprehensible. I think it fails on both counts. Not as easy as it looks. I chipped away at this damn thing all day and it’s pretty silly, but I gotta say–I like it. Here were the instructions:

  1. Begin the poem with a metaphor.
  2. Say something specific but utterly preposterous.
  3. Use at least one image for each of the five senses, either in succession or scattered randomly throughout the poem.
  4. Use one example of synesthesia (mixing the senses).
  5. Use the proper name of a person and the proper name of a place.
  6. Contradict something you said earlier in the poem.
  7. Change direction or digress from the last thing you said.
  8. Use a word (slang?) you’ve never seen in a poem.
  9. Use an example of false cause-effect logic.
  10. Use a piece of talk you’ve actually heard (preferably in dialect and/or which you don’t understand).
  11. Create a metaphor using the following construction: “The (adjective) (concrete noun) of (abstract noun) . . .”
  12. Use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.
  13. Make the persona or character in the poem do something he or she could not do in “real life.”
  14. Refer to yourself by nickname and in the third person.
  15. Write in the future tense, such that that part of the poem seems to be a prediction.
  16. Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.
  17. Make a declarative assertion that sounds convincing but that finally makes no sense.
  18. Use a phrase from a language other than English.
  19. Make a non-human object say or do something human (personification).
  20. Close the poem with a vivid image that makes no statement, but that “echoes” an image from earlier in the poem.

 

Twenty Little Poetry Projects

Sunshine, medicine I need.
Some honey bees out back just created the world.
Breeze against the skin, greenery abounds, the birds
trill and thrum, nose the fresh cut grass, and the toothpaste
from this morning’s brushing, lingering,
the taste of yellow, lime green moss on the roof
of the noisy wood shed mouth.
Old man Bill Wheeler, as our paths crossed
on Swain Avenue, said, lovely day for a pandemic.
His name wasn’t Bill Wheeler, and it might have
been Risley Avenue, but the rest, what he said, true.
Airline travel is down, as is air pollution.
Completely, utterly, snatched. As I have said,
the Sun also rises, falls, and as I have heard others say,
you can’t have your cake and eat it, as the prickly pear
of love fights off the doves of war and  the potus slam
dunks the ball for the win! Jarm Dawg says, they
don’t call me Jarm Dawg for nothing.
We will all return in glory, not to judge the living
and the dead, but to put the school house back together.
These old teenagers will once again populate and deck the halls.
This butter has marbles in it, comprenez-vous, n’est pas?
Back to the sun, remember, whispering its sweet, warm gibberish
into skin, green things, the birds, the grass, toothpaste that
starts to taste like whiskey.

Might as well record this one for shits and giggles. That’s not part of the poem, BTW. I wondered out loud and on the page whether or not I would record any of these original things, but this one, I think, might be fun to read out loud and I hope, might be fun to listen to. Enjoy.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #12

Jesus, I wish the sun would come back out. The weather is still shitty, and it is Monday, March 30, the day we would have returned to the classroom after Spring Break had we no pandemic. Even in the early stages, the first school closure only included the five school days preceding the break and a few days after, meaning that school would have resumed on April Fool’s day. Then, only a few days into our extended break, the school closure was extended for students in Oregon until April 28. I’m curious, and I honestly don’t know: are there any states in the Union that have not shuttered their schools? Thanks to this world wide web, and according to Education Week, 47 states have closed their schools. I am still trying to wrap my head around the strangeness of these crazy days, and the enormity of it all.

Tomorrow morning at 9:00, somehow, teachers will remotely converge into some kind of google hangout meeting with our principal. I’m trying to imagine a zoom meeting with 35 to 50 people all floating around on my computer screen. Or maybe it’s just that our leaders will simply address us while we sit at home listening or watching or both; maybe they’ll let us know what the next steps are and give us some tips about how to use our 6 hour work day and how to log those hours. At any rate, we’re going back to work, one way or another, tomorrow. It does not feel that way. Unreal. Surreal.

I have intermittently in my journal of the plague year made references to the numbers, as they climb, of cases and deaths in Oregon. Often, what immediately concerns us is what immediately surrounds us, and, in our case, we’re in danger of developing a false sense of security. Our numbers are relatively low, but still alarming, but not nearly as alarming as the numbers from our neighbors to the North and to the South. Looked at globally, the numbers are terrifying. And looked at comparatively, the numbers in the United States are also terrifying. Dr. Fauci, our voice of reason in these crazy times, predicts that the death toll in the United States alone could range anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 by the time this whole thing is over, and these numbers, I understand him to be saying, could be accurate even if we do everything right from here on out.

Taking a wide view and then narrowing it down, according to The Washington Post at one o’clock this afternoon, there are 766,336 known cases and 36,873 deaths caused by COVID-19 in the entire world. In the United States, respectively, those numbers are 153,246 and 2,828. And then according to KATU, a local news outlet, in Oregon, 606 cases, 16 deaths. Numbers are insufficient to tell any kind of story here about the pain and suffering caused by this pandemic. Most of us have trouble, perhaps, seeing it as more than a pain in the ass–but thousands upon thousand of lives have been devastated by it. It is incomprehensible. It is unfathomable. I can find no way to express a suitable response. So I turn to literature. And I go way back, all the way back to the 17th century to John Donne. Meditation 17:

Who casts not up his eye to the Sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.

Within Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, if one who is not necessarily religious can move a little bit away from all the God talk, or at least take the God talk in its broadest possible metaphorical sense, there is wisdom for the ages. To my knowledge, I don’t know personally a single soul who is ill with COVID-19 or who has died from it, but nevertheless, I feel diminished, I feel the earth is impoverished by the loss of every one of those “numbers.” The economy will one day recover, but those that are lost in this battle with coronavirus never can be recovered. So stay at home, damnit.

In closing, and back to the front, regarding teachers going back to work tomorrow without classrooms and without students, I think of this great poem by Marge Piercy, expressing for all educators this deepest hope that we can, in these the strangest of circumstances, continue “To be of use.” And it’s impossible not to think of our heroic health care workers on the front lines, “who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,/who do what has to be done, again and again.”

 

 

 

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #10

Are we having fun yet? That, in case there was any confusion, is a rhetorical question. We are not having fun on this Friday of Spring Break, 2020, the year of our plague. Are we bored? Some of us are bored. You know what they say, though? Whoever “they” are, I am told that they say that boredom is good for us. Out of boredom, often comes creativity and problem solving. The state of not knowing what to do often results in things being done. The Old Guy in me says, that’s what’s wrong with kids today! They don’t know how to be bored, surrounded, as they are, by a hundred and one distractions, a thousand different ways to be entertained, all immediate, all at their grimy little finger tips! To a certain degree, this is true. Maybe it’s wrong to generalize. Maybe there’s no maybe about it. As an educator, in every year, I find that there are always a decent number of young people who are not addicted to their devices, who are super creative, and who do not have grimy finger tips. When they are bored, they read, they write, they create, or they cozy up to their boredom like a lover. I wonder how they are all doing with all of this unstructured, unvaction-y, shelter-in-place time.

Soon, I will find out. Soon I will be back in touch somewhat with my students. In recent emails from our union president and from our district superintendent, we learn that on March 31st, we are all returning to work. Sort of. Although we are told we might be able to stop in to pick up materials we need from our classrooms, we won’t be returning officially to our buildings. We will work remotely. We will attend google hangouts, we will develop some kind of remote learning opportunities for our students, we will attend IEP meetings, PD meetings, PLC meetings, meetings about other acronyms and abbreviations, and we will log in our hours, a certain number of which will be mandatory. We will roll out some remote learning program for students within three days of our “return” to work. What I find fascinating and weird and oddly intriguing about this preparation for High School Remote, is that, as I understand it, students will be held harmless for all of it, meaning that none of the work they might do as a result of instruction and assignments given will be graded, recorded, or figured into a final mark for the semester. Part of me thinks, a ha! Here’s an opportunity for an experiment in an educational fantasy I have harbored throughout my career: the grade-less classroom! Another part of me is doubtful that students, out of desperation with their boredom, will flock to The Google to continue getting an education, you know, for its own sake. One can hope. One can only hope that they are THAT bored.

The dog is bored. She keeps bringing me her soggy, slobbery tennis ball to throw. And while we’re on the subject, today’s poem, happily, is about boredom. One of my favorite poems of all time, so much so, that I don’t need my reading glasses for it–because I have it committed to memory! John Berryman, #14 from the Dreamsongs.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #4

It’s only been four days, but I miss my students, I miss my student teacher, I miss my colleagues, and I miss that building, oddly enough, perhaps, the most constant and stable thing in my adult life, my school and my classroom like another home. Meanwhile, the sun shines, the dogs get another long walk. Another beautiful day on which to ponder this darkness.

Every once in a while, in my professional capacity, I get riled up about something. On Wednesday, March 11, a single day before we learned schools would be closed, I attended a morning staff meeting that irked me to such a degree that I did the thing I usually do in such circumstances: I began an open letter in order to air my grievances. I was committed and passionate and insistent about all the things that went (as I perceived them) wrong during that particular staff meeting. I had decided to share it with my bosses. I spent hours on this thing. And almost immediately after learning that schools would be shut down, my indignation totally deflated.

If nothing else, in these strange times, incomparable for me to anything in my entire experience on the planet, we tend to winnow through stuff that concerns us to find what we hold most dear, find most important and life-giving, and let the rest fall away like chaff. Maybe someday, that indignant feeling about bad staff meetings in an otherwise idyllic working environment (outside of the intense difficulty of the job) will bubble back up, and I may have an opportunity and an obligation to speak. But right now, all I want to do is read, write, make music, love my family, do the odd thing that needs doing around the house and yard, walk the dogs, ride the bike, and recite poetry.

I seem to be gravitating toward my all time favorite poems, as one does. This one: the first Mary Oliver poem I ever heard and the one I come back to over and over, “Wild Geese.”

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #3

Number of cases of coronavirus in Oregon: 75. Number of Oregon deaths from the virus: 3. Number of student contact days lost thus far: 3. Number of student contact days expected to be lost, as of this moment: 27. Number of educational hours potentially lost: approximately 175. Number of plans in place (or announced) for remote schooling: 0.  Number of prom nights canceled: 1. Number of IB exams students will be ill-prepared to take or might miss altogether: 11. Number of graduation ceremonies postponed or cancelled: unknown.

Unknown.

It is strange to know so little. It is strange to be in the middle of or in the beginning stages of a pandemic but not know a single soul who is sick from it. It is strange to think about any number of people you know who might have it or might get it. It is strange to be living in a constant nagging fear regarding your own health, your wife’s, your child’s. It is strange to have this great gift of time opening up before us. It is strange to think that the very best way to help might be in doing absolutely nothing–or at least–in going absolutely nowhere. I haven’t driven a car in four days. On our walk with the dogs this morning there were lots of people out walking or biking the recreational trail in our neighborhood, everyone keeping their distance from strangers, of course, but greeting people nevertheless as they passed, everyone polite, cheerful, kind, as if it were any Saturday spring morning happening on a Wednesday. I saw a student of mine and we said hello gleefully but did not stop to talk. I’ve spent a lot of time with my dogs. I read them poetry in the back yard.  I am thinking about embarking on a few ambitious creative projects. I am reading fiction.

Meanwhile, politics.

Never mind. I’m meditating every morning with Sam Harris on the Waking Up app. He gave me a free year’s subscription just for asking. That was kind of him, I think. The poem I chose to read today, first to the dogs in the back yard, then on my front porch into the stupid smart phone video recorder, is a favorite William Stafford poem, a poem that for years now we have been reading to our juniors on the very first day of class, and that I have read to seniors on the very last day of class. It’s all about the moment, friends, and serves us well as a meditation for this time, an appropriate mantra in our uncertainty. Take the best of care, everyone. “You Reading This, Be Ready.”

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