Archive for March, 2010

Homages to Porchia

March 30, 2010
  • The imagination begins from what is

not what is not.

  • A letter is always arriving, always

opening itself in my hand.

  • In darknesses, all darknesses fall away

from the body.

  • When the words of the dead are remembered,

lips move in the grave.

  • Having seen the death angel early, I was meant

to mourn for life.

  • With each silence, the angel

flies through the room.

  • Lips at my ear:  the angel is here.
  • Ghosts speak out for rescue.  Bereft,

I search and search.

  • When the angel wakes, he calls me,

and I always obey,

sleeping then in his cold place.

  • There was a pinhole where

I could see the whole

landscape of myself;

but I lost it, refusing

to look.

  • I speak, I listen and seek over my life

like a bat, for the echoes of sound things.

  • When I failed to cultivate a memory of objects —

pottery, spoons, the razor, measuring weights,

postage stamps, the coffee cup, the pen —

the metaphors of my life disappeared.

  • I wish for what is never and it is infinite.
  • You have asked me to estimate the numbers of

my lost feelings,

and I am grateful.

  • To write is to contain, to hold

the true against the true.

  • The visible wound distracts us from

the invisible bleeding.

  • There are things that are not mysteries.

All words explain them.

  • For each person born,

a fable of glass begins.

  • The truth is action, it moves.

All these words are lies, and they remain.

  • If you are a magician, unlock my life.
  • My hand wears the glove

that writes these words.

In Memory of Teaching: Three Poems

March 24, 2010

1.

Lessons

These are my lessons and I want to share them.

Mrs. Mills taught me how to read.

We used the Carden method, black leatherette books.

Miss Mae Carden herself came to the grammar school one day,

driven in a limousine from New York

just to hear us recite.  Mrs. Bothwell taught me handwriting

of the kind I am using right now

to make this poem.  To tell the truth,

I have never loved any art more than this.

School could have ended then, forever.

But Miss Peer taught me how to worry and be afraid every morning,

sick to my stomach, throwing up at the bus stop.

Eventually I learned (among all possibilities) that it was possible

to survive having to sit behind the piano, emerging alive.

She read aloud to us.  Heidi.

Because I tried to cheat on a test, Miss Costanzo taught me

public guilt and personal shame, two adjectives and two nouns,

held tight in each hand ever after,

my palms sweating on those unmelting stones,

weighing down my cheating fists.

Mrs. Wilson taught me complicity, conspiracy, and condescension

through her sanctioned harassment of Georgie the “retarded” boy.

It’s obvious to me now how she hated him.

It was an education in power and judgment,

the most exquisite unfinished lesson of my childhood:

keeping an irredeemable conscience.

The year the public library opened above the firehouse,

Mrs. Donnelly taught me kindness and I taught myself sorrow,

harbingers of lessons to come when the failures

took hold of me and stayed. I began to be a reader.

From seventh grade on, I learned many things:

confusions and falseness, the struggles of an unformed helpless identity,

a common lot with the others, the small hardships of lifelong loneliness,

unspoken conversations at the kitchen table.

And that kitchen itself, the house as real to me as this one.

I can look in through each window still, hovering outside

to see the red plaid oilcloth on the table, and around it

the formidable haunted emptiness.

I also learned to type in school, and how to work

from an outline when writing prose.

I learned the yearning that has never left me.

My father taught me to be gentle, to love, to want a woman’s voice

present in my life.

I am certain that I contributed to his loneliness.

From my father, too, I learned the meaning of standing at the rim

of infinity, for all of breathless eternity,

in thrall to possibility.

2.

Didactic Poem

Now you pay mind:

We are born to each other every day.

We enter a room expecting a difference

and we find we must give each thing away

that we had kept to ourselves

until we feel we have nothing left. That

is called making a difference.

We write a message in front of everyone

and the chalk creates the words.

We clarify our lives by striving for an idea,

an origin for imagination, something fresh,

something new and strong,

or whatever it is we do not yet know about this dream.

We look for something we cannot remember having seen before

in ourselves, perhaps the striving for vision itself, and

this is how we are born.

We want something to live that is

not yet alive in us,

some destiny, some arrival.

It does not enter, but stands outside us, breathing

and it is not us, but it is of us.

We are bewildered and unclear and apart

until we answer the two questions

written on the board by the chalk in our own hand:

What is the dream?

Who is the dreamer?

And then, before we answer we erase.

3.

Farewell to Students

My task has been to teach you to serve, to

help you to invent your feelings,

your fullness of care, to

show you how to invent your hearts, to

give an intention to your longing, to

persuade you to love as I love.

I was a doctor and this was my task:  to place

my heart in front of you with my scalpel point

thrust into its little sections and say

this part is yours, and this also belongs

to you, take it, it’s the relic of a life I had.

I do not need it any more.

My work has been to bring

you gifts, valuable only in my own words:

a scrap of newspaper would do,

a recollection of something I saw, once,

from a moving train.

Your aspirations were my work.

And now in need of more gifts to give you

I remember searching where they were placed

in memory; I find books and give them to you:

bookmarks, my collections, seashells, a photograph

of myself when small, thinking of you.

This was my work:

to find you waiting for me,

to see you as though we had always

known we would meet here.  I would not

show my fear for you, I would not speak

my care for you, I would not say my lies to you.

Calm and unafraid, I came here to give you

a new understanding of magic.

In the end I came to feel you in my heart as I could not

in the beginning. To see you go was the purest loss,

a confirmation that  you had never been mine.

In the end my job was to teach your lives to begin,

to step out from the shadows of machines

into the calm emptiness of everywhere that needs

your voice, into the failures of courage,

fearless in the whispering approach

of the unknown, visionary in the dim light

that illuminates nothing unless I am there as well

to see it, to want it, invisibly, within you.

In Memory of Teaching, Part 6: An Event

March 22, 2010

At some point during the past several years, colleagues reviewed me.  I wrote this.

My work as a teacher is described elsewhere in these documents,[1] but here I want to write briefly about myself as a learner.  These are general statements of belief and practice, but they are also the principles that describe my work as a scholar and professor.

  • The way to learn is to solve a problem that you give to yourself, discover for yourself, or use to explore situations where learning can occur.  Among the themes I have described steadily are the continuing, unfinished issues that have stayed with me for a long time and continue to lead me on.  As a teacher, I ask my students to work with problems of their design, not mine.
  • Critical thinking is an essential characteristic of professional practice.  In the classroom, I ask my students to describe their understandings of process, exploring options and making choices, and the patterns of relevance and response that lead them toward information.
  • Some of the most important parts of professional service – questioning, interviewing, articulating, responding, reflecting – might usefully be regarded as art forms, the crafting of inquiry as an artifact.  Beyond skill, tenacity and accuracy, our work should lead to an evolving aesthetics of our service and to an understanding of designed practice that aspires to the qualities of artistry.
  • Good conversations about practice are not accidental; they happen between people with aspirations for good work, and they can lead to real, practical insights for the design of services.  Encouraged to collaborate in public, to assist each other in reference rooms, and to grasp the relationship between interdependence and success in the giving of help, my students cannot learn the lessons I hope for alone.
  • The truths that guide practice are best crafted from experiences in situations that permit error, confusion, ambiguity and doubt.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, these conditions have an educative value that a good learner would not want to miss.  We may not always have help, support, advice, or time. Consequently it is important to experience situations where we learn to rely upon ourselves and our own thoughts; to test, reject and accept them, and to discover that we are typically more able than we think ourselves to be.
  • Perhaps our greatest challenge is to grasp the large part of our work that will always remain silent.

In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds — a book I have often asked my Cultural Institutions students to read Jerome Bruner describes his schoolteacher, Miss Orcutt.

In effect she was inviting me to extend my world of wonder to encompass hers.  She was not just informing me.  She was, rather negotiating the world of wonder and possibility.  Molecules, solids,  liquid, movement were not facts; they were to be used in pondering and imagining.  Miss Orcutt was the rarity.  She was a human event, not a transmission device. (126)

I think it is my style, and certainly it is my aspiration, to be like Miss Orcutt, a human event in the lives of my learners, among professionals, and others.  This is all I wanted to do.


[1] See also:  David Carr, “Tensions of Teaching,” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, Volume 39, Number 3, Summer 1998, pages 195-203.

In Memory of Teaching, Part 5: Assumptions

March 17, 2010

These are three excerpts from syllabi, slightly revised.  When I was a teacher, I tried to live up to these assumptions.


1.

Education should nurture the independent capability of the learner; these experiences should contribute to the composing of a new life.

A thoughtful student can make appropriate, skill-expanding choices among useful and challenging tasks; making the choice is part of the learning.

Mature critical thinking and design skills come through various and sometimes unexpected experiences.

Any inquiry, especially under the constraints of the classroom, is always unfinished; truly important work always remains dynamically open, ready for new data or reinterpretation.

If what we do is an art as well as a skill, students should develop their work as artists do, over time, with the critical suggestions of others.

2.

The collection is the center of experiences, the evolving core of the institution.

No cultural institution can be excellent without an excellent construction of information — a collection proven to be pertinent, responsive, and generative for everyone who uses it.

Assume that nothing in a library or museum collection is there by accident; it is the result of a conscious decision and active planning in support of a mission.  This is important:  Everything here has been collected; nothing is present by accident; all collections are part of the library’s design.

Assume that mastery cannot occur with anything less than a flexible collection expanding, extending, and completing the user’s search.  We must practice with the best information at hand.  Therefore a collection is designed, never finished.

A good collection helps us to create new paths and connections. A good collection also makes us more competent and more committed to service and self-knowledge. A great collection does these things, too – but better than a collection that is merely good. A great collection raises human intellect, advances minds and mindfulness, and invites human presence.

3.

All  service to others is informed by self-knowledge.  There is no way to mastery without grasping for yourself a mindful process for designing and constructing a collection of information, and centering it on human beings and their needs.

No library collection evolves by accident.  Intelligent people create it, animate it, and change it according to what they believe it ought to be.  My purpose is to encourage and expand your thinking.  You should know what you believe about libraries and their collections; and to help you to envision how you will craft your practice from those beliefs.

In school – any school — there is no substitute for individual thinking, and there is not much science to it at all.  Everything we practice gradually becomes an art.  Therefore be prepared to understand that the librarian’s greatest tool is, as it has ever been, the imagination of people and their lives, their limits and possibilities, and the alternatives they have not yet imagined.

Caring

March 11, 2010

Here are words from Nel Noddings, whose wonderful book Caring helped me to think about what a teacher does.

“Among the intangibles that I would have my students carry away is the feeling that the subject we have struggled with is both fascinating and boring, significant and silly, fraught with meaning and nonsense, challenging and tedious, and that whatever attitude we take toward it, it will not diminish our regard for each other.  The student is infinitely more important than the subject.”

Nel Noddings, Caring, page 20.

The word to savor is “infinitely.”

My Presidential Election, 1961

March 10, 2010

It is May 1961, I am barely sixteen and it is the spring of my junior year in high school, when class elections are held. I am now the junior class president running for reelection, a student strong in Verbal, very weak in Quantitative, unaware of his own weakness, hoping to show leadership or something. I hold several other offices. Among my peers, and by the faculty, I am seen as a leader, I think. I am not popular in many ways that I can tell, but I am regarded as having some maturity (an only child with old parents learns to read adults), even though I am about a year younger than everyone else. I had skipped first grade in 1951 when I was six.

It is important to note that I am typically ignorant in my own ignorant teenage way: New Jersey mill-town, school bus, marching-band ignorant, sexually nowhere, passionately everywhere. I am aware of girls because I am so confused that I do not know what to do about them. I am also at the beginning of watching my father’s life end, and starting to understand what is happening to him. He will retire this year and die in four. I will be twenty by then, and I will have damaged a good deal of my life. But, by then I will also have met my future wife and begun my self rescue; however, at sixteen my ignorance allows me to place nearly all of these complexities in some other room of consciousness, then lock the door.

My laissez-faire, I’m-entitled, gracefully undistinguished, near fatally bland presidential candidacy is troubled by two opponents – amazingly, they are less-qualified than I, a difficult idea to grasp in itself – who also want to demonstrate their leadership out of an altruism as shallow as my own, awakened by the college applications we will begin to fill out by fall. Steve is a very nice guy, currently vice president of the class, an athlete and a decent person. I wish I were more like him. Nick is a smart and kind-of-brash fellow, with roots among the solid middle of our class, and a no-nonsense way of talking. He had a cowlick as I did; but my head was shorn. Neither Steve nor Nick is in an honors class, as I am. They probably ought to be. (I hope by now they have come to understand their good fortune in not being in one. I hope they have had wonderful lives and never think of me.)

The issues of the election are, even for then, hilariously inconsequential, and I only remember one. Having been bullied by an older neighborhood boy, I have publicly expressed doubt about the maturity of seniors hazing freshman. It has been published in the Q. & A. column of our school newspaper, The Triad, with a photograph (I think) of my crew cut empty head. The idea that I, as senior class president, would end the traditional delight of hazing is too much for many of my classmates to bear, and so the issue is presented to me suddenly at the big Candidates’ Debate. Stunned by this crude strategy, I stumble and reel, mumbling something about how it’s my personal observation and opinion, um, and not an, um, uh, a presidential policy decision. It was lame, I was lame, and I felt still lamer when Nick and his comrades nailed a campaign poster to a tree in my yard urging all drivers-by to Vote for Nick Senior Class Pres. It seemed unfair of me to take it down, so I think it remained.

Maybe I took it down, I really don’t remember now. Looking back from here, that cardboard poster is an audacious thing to have done, and now I can admire it even though at sixteen I am self-righteously outraged by the audacity. I also know that it has to have been nailed to our tree by Nick’s friends, maybe with Nick in the car (I don’t think he drove yet), because nobody walked anywhere in my town, no sidewalks — just ditches. So I think I vaguely had an idea of what distinguished him from me:   the audacity of the poster, of course, but also the friends. Who would help me put up a piece of cardboard? Can’t think of anyone now.

Election day happens and at the end of it I hear the class advisor, Mr. Keyes (as I will call him), make the announcement on the PA system that I am the winner. Mr. Keyes has already been my sophomore English teacher and has changed my life. He makes me feel like a reader and a writer and gives me a wild idea that I might grow up less stupid than I would have otherwise. He is my Humanities teacher in senior year and I will consider him a friend.   In fewer than five years he will attend our wedding.

Hands are shaken. The election is ended. I have won. I see my advisor in a fervent meeting with Mr. Whatzit, the assistant principal, typical sadist-administrator, forever enshrined in memory as a classic bastard. I go home on the late bus as usual. Then the school year ends. Senior year begins and students are hazed with a little more fun and a little less sadism than I remember. Senior year happens in full, and I serve my time, and then am done with high school.

A few months on, in the third week of September 1962, seventeen years and five months old, I go off to fail for eighteen months at the University of Virginia, where I am probably the least-well-adjusted first-year student, except for one classmate who slit his wrists. I want to become a poet, and so I write fervently about my death and begin a lifelong romance with suicide. My invocations of honor, integrity, and dignity are not very useful; none of my ideals save me; I know I am done for at UVa. After the murder of John Kennedy in 1963, I rescue myself from Virginia and I go back to New Jersey, to live at home and attend another college where I begin to survive. I get a part-time job in a cemetery, which helps my poetry.

It is 1964 when I make this escape, John Kennedy dead just two months. By my college graduation in 1967, I will have occupied the Dean’s List, secured admission to Teachers College – Columbia University, and married. By then, my father will be dead for nearly two years and my mother will have become emotionally dependent on me for the rest of her life, which will endure until 1994. In 1968 I will become a public school teacher in Princeton, NJ, but I will find that it is not possible for me to be an authentic teacher in a public school, and I will move on, rescuing myself over and over for the rest of my life until I have become a real teacher as I think I am now, an old man in the subsequent century. But I remember now that this is in the future, and I am not yet done with the past. Authenticity is always at the core of my story, and so I must go back to it.

Here, however, I want to extend this narrative pause to say that this story is about a long confusion, founded on a small school experience and a subsequent, fated time of being young, just before life became complicated by war. After nearly fifty years, I still think about this story, but it seems important to note that I have no trauma, that I have survived. It must also be said that I have had a particular talent for errors and confusions. Like most people, I have been perfectly capable of generating my own problems. This story is all ignorance and innocence, but it is what happened and what I still wonder over, one irresolvable unfinished issue, among others. Now, the narrative resumes.

I am now, probably, eighteen. Mr. Keyes, more than any other person, has instilled in me the idea of being smart, reading critically, writing with strength and power, and — naturally – becoming a teacher. This is a daring aspiration for me, and ultimately a misreading of my heart. I have kept in touch with Mr. Keyes and another teacher, the instrumental music teacher, during all my Virginia failures. These teachers allow me to visit them at home. For what? Respect? Hope? Encouragement? Now I simply see a pathetic boy, undeserving of anything. As a failure since high school, I try to keep myself grounded in what had been my best years, now over. Those visits must have been excruciating for my former teachers, for their wives and even their children. I apologize to all of them, though I don’t know if they are alive now.

So now I am back to that period, a year after high school graduation in 1962 and before my self-rescue late in 1963 when I am most despairing and most certain that I am clearly failing. I have failed several courses at Virginia and will repeat two or more of them. Looking for solace, I am at Mr. Keyes’ house one evening and as I am leaving he takes me aside and says, “I have something to tell you. You never won that election. I switched the vote numbers.” Or, he switched the names, I don’t recall. In any event, Mr. Keyes says, as an advisor he could not work with Nick, the true winner, and so I was reelected by a fix, accepted congratulations from the others, got into college, served my term, spoke my foolish thoughts at commencement, left, failed to be the most likely to succeed, and came back.

And so now I am now even more confused at eighteen than I was at sixteen. “Is this deception true?” I wonder. “Is this my fault?” I wonder. “Is this a coming together of all my faults, greed and arrogance most of all?” It seems deeply just and fitting for me to learn about this fraud when I can do nothing about it. In fact, I disbelieve this story for years, not understanding (until I am a high school teacher myself) the distorted values and misguided acts of high school faculty members. Later, I think of that fervent meeting between Mr. Keyes and Mr. Whatzit. Was it about the lie? A cover-up for high crime? It all seems true and logical, now, because I know my peers would have accepted my false victory as the truth, asking no questions, taking no straw polls. Unlike me, Nick and Steve went on to lives of normal happiness, I trust. But I can take pleasure in this one thing: I did not experience the humiliation of a public loss.

Over time the lie became my lie, the crime became my crime. I have never fully known what to do with the information that I was not the duly elected leader of my little class in my little school in those awful years before Kennedy’s death, before Vietnam and the rest. It seems so small, so stupid, as all of high school now seems. And I wonder: What would it have meant for my barely sixteen year old self to have lost that election in public, to have failed to be the hero I thought I was? What would it have meant to me by now, nearly 65, to have lived with the knowledge of that public loss?

I probably would not even recollect it, because my life would have replaced it with something else, something smarter, something not a lie. What would it have meant for the boy, Nick, who had won fairly? I only know what it meant to the boy who lost but unfairly didn’t know it. When I became convinced of Keyes’s story, I thought of calling Nick to say, “Nick, you won.” I imagined going to a reunion (I never have) and speaking about the lie. (“I have something to tell you.”) But I have not done those things, and so – even though it means nothing now — I remain a permanent, secret, impostor.

By the time I have taught for five years, personal experience will tell me that the moral universe of the American high school is often the most constrained, corrupt and undiversified realm in American life, like a punishing fundamentalist faith combined with cruel competitive sports. In many ways the high school is like a penitentiary where many potential terrorists are nurtured, just before they escape and go to college or military life. In 1973, after five years of teaching I will have come to see high school as a penal colony of young people kept in years of suspended life, occupied by empty games on a false playing field, controlled by teachers whose deficiencies and insensitivities are immense, and whose kindness often diminishes in proportion to their power and insecurity. (I beg to be forgiven by the generous teachers committed to the passions of teaching.) I came to see that the teachers of my youth, even the good ones, were doing what they were expected to do, living by the unspoken rule of bad teachers everywhere: Never Acknowledge the Damage.

What had my teacher done? What had I done? What was my life that it could be so easily configured by a lie and distorted by the truth? What would have it meant, to have lost in public? And, more deeply, why did I put myself up for leadership? Why did I not lower my sights, lower my profile, lower my inflated ego. Why did I waste my heart and courage then? I wonder this: In how many other ways did I grow up with lies?

I write now after decades of feeling myself, often, to be both an impostor and a failure as a student, a liar and a fraud as a man, an inadequate scholar and a weak thinker. I feel these things not because of high school, but because I now can see how much was missing from my life then. I know now that a key to adult life is becoming confident and courageous in youth, being and feeling trustworthy, and feeling mutual trust and strength among others. This must have happened for some people. But what kind of foundation can be built on confusion and error? What integrity comes out of superficiality? Still I wonder: Who is he, that person who never quite became himself?