So You Think I’m Retired…

 

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You know the cliché question: what one person in history would you most like to have a long talk with?

I always say, “Shakespeare, without a doubt.” That’s because I’d like to ask him if he ever dreamed his plays would still be performed to sold out crowds 400 years after he wrote them. “Writer to writer, Bill,” I’d say, “how the f—did you do it?”

But I wouldn’t wish to have lived in his time, for several reasons, including the questionable hygiene; (though Queen Elizabeth did have the first flush toilet, she had head lice and put lead based make-up on her face).

Anyway, having been born in 1952, I got to see Laurence Olivier play a haunted and brooding Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh play a truly beguiling Iago. And Zeffirelli’s Hamlet is stunning. I think Shakespeare himself would have approved of the cuts and cinematic wonders; he might have wondered why Mel Gibson’s Hamlet looked the same age as his mother played by Glenn Close. But then again, at least Queen Gertrude was played by a real woman.

Showing this version of Hamlet to my freshman English students is one of the things I dearly miss about being retired.

I taught English at a community college for over 27 years. I thought that I would never retire, that I would die on the job, maybe having a fatal stroke when yet again an entire class had failed to do the reading assignment.

Instead, I decided it was time to call it quits on a full-time schedule of students who increasingly read text messages instead of textbooks. The technological solution sold to teachers as a remedy turns out to be an insidious marketing ploy for the corporations who profit from this snake oil. Students who don’t read assignments in books also don’t read assignments on “Blackboard” or in any other form on their electronic devices.

But if they’re in class, and I manage to keep them from indulging in their addiction to their iPhones, they will watch. And if I can make Shakespeare’s genius connect to their experience, the wheels start turning and they write some pretty interesting and thoughtful essays.

Before I show Hamlet, I ask, “Do you know anyone whose mother re-married and expected her children to accept the new man as their father? Do you know anyone who hated his step-father and resented his mother for not getting how miserable he was?” A lot of students will then give examples of just such a scenario. “Isn’t it a betrayal for the mother to care more about hooking up with some new man than she does about her children?” I ask, and a heated discussion starts about such heartbreaking situations, including women who actually killed their children in order to secure their new man’s affection. They are very familiar with La Llorona, the mythic ditch witch of New Mexico, who did just that.

Then I say, “Well, that’s a key part of Hamlet, and it even gets a little weird between Hamlet and his mother.” Blank expressions ensue.

I tell my students not to worry if they don’t understand 90% of what’s being said; they’ll get the idea well enough from what they can understand and what they see. But I do give out the speech Hamlet makes about losing all his mirth and say, “This is basically a description of depression. So these themes, unlike the language, are still part of our world.” They can then write a paper comparing their experience of depression with Hamlet’s feelings that the world sucks.

I don’t know where or when these students will touch the magic of art and literature and their ability to speak powerfully about the human condition after leaving the clutches of teachers of required English classes like myself. Many of our students are looking for jobs in healthcare or engineering, not understanding that thinking about the human condition will help them excel in these fields. I like to know that I at least offered them the chance to taste the universal themes that deepen our experiences and connections with each other.

I’ve retired from full time teaching, but I have a feeling I’m going to pick up a class or two as a part-timer in the near future. And I won’t be asking for a topics course on Shakespeare or a creative writing course for students who read Kerouac. I’ll ask for a freshman English course with many students who are the first in their family to go to college, and many who have no visible interest in literature or history. I want to continue prompting essays on heroism using lessons on Nelson Mandela or the Nobel Prize winner Malala – who was shot in the head because some people didn’t think girls should get an education. Presenting an example of a girl who put her life on the line in order to read her assignments is definitely thought provoking to students who consider school to be a boring chore.

Learning can be a radical act of going beyond limitations set by one’s culture and socio-economic conditions. As a teacher, I want to serve this process. I want to share my awe for heroes like Malala, Nelson Mandela, and yes, Shakepeare. I’m not done yet.

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School’s Out for Summer

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I had a student last term who for a week sat in the first row spitting diseased mucus into an empty Dr. Pepper bottle. This was my first class of the day, 9 am. He told me his mother would kill him if he didn’t come to class, even when he was so sick he could not raise his head up off the table. Boils developed on his nose, which was translucently red from being blown on the streamers of toilet paper he’d bring into class.

In the same class there was a young man, a member of the National Guard, who came in 24 minutes late regularly, carrying a gallon jug of water and reeking of pot. Puffy-eyed, he’d write a fairly decent in-class essay, showing good grammar skills, that had nothing to do with the topic, and then leave at 9:45.

When I went up to my office before the next class at 10:30, I felt nauseated. I lost any desire to ever drink a Dr. Pepper again, and I was concerned about what would happen if there was a need for the National Guard in my neighborhood.

There was a student in the 10:30 class, just turned 18, who never failed to say something amazing. His essays were publishable. I still remember his argument against assisted suicide, saying that when a life ended it was like a unique piece of art being destroyed, like the Mona Lisa being shredded. His politics were more conservative than mine, but he made me think.

At 1pm I got to deal with a middle-aged woman who looked like Beavis of “Beavis and Butthead,” with a long black wig on, who despised me. She and a G.Q. gorgeous young man with gelled hair sat  in the last row and disdained everything I did; they talked constantly to each other about my lameness. “Miss,” said the guy, who never took his dark glasses off except to hang them under his chin for a moment, “I hate this class.” When I’d ask him to stop text messaging or to stop getting up and down during class he explained with a troubled, furrowed brow that he had a learning disability. “Miss, I don’t want to be here,” he’d say. And of course, I didn’t want him to be there either.

One day I asked him why, if he was so miserable, he was in the class. He explained that his parole officer made him go to school.

The students in that class were constantly talking to each other. I’d sometimes sink into blatant derision, calling them a bunch of adolescent addicts. Or I’d just stand there and mutter to the scrawny kid in the front row, “When did I lose control?”

There was a middle aged Korean businessman in that class. He had enrolled in order to improve his English skills while he was temporarily working with a high-tech computer company in town. Polite, nodding his head whenever I looked at him, he sat between three girls, who giggled about the good looking young man who was on parole, and an older woman who wore Tinkerbell t-shirts.

It was because of him, and his meticulously handwritten essays, that I felt any desire to walk into that classroom. But about nine weeks into the term, he wrote me an email saying something like, “With most honored gratitude I must to inform you that my obligations within business and the need to travel to several European capitals for a month require that I no longer attend class. When I go back to my country I will always remember you and the atmosphere of your class.”

No doubt! Somehow I can’t see a teacher in a classroom in Korea listening to her students explain why they don’t think they need to buy the textbooks.

Oh yeah, and then there was my cute creative writing student who came in late to the 6pm class and passed out in her desk, slowly sliding down until her neck was on the back of the chair and her mouth was gaping open. The subject line of her email the next day was “Class Drunk.” Several students in that class wrote a final exam essay about their own tragic flaws.

The guy who hawked up phlegm into a Dr. Pepper bottle actually passed that 9am class. The guy on parole (who’d attended a private high school, by the way) didn’t hand in a research paper or show up for the final exam and got an “F.” The woman in the Tinkerbell shirt and the guy who wrote the Mona Lisa metaphor both made an “A.”

I’m eligible for retirement. But I can’t leave this stuff.

Anti-Intellectualism

26_2.jpg Anti-intellectualism has been around – sheesh, I don’t know, probably a long time. But Americans have taken to it, well, like a hog to mud.   

That venerable American Thomas Jefferson was an intellectual. That means he liked to think, and to ponder the thoughts of other people, both alive and dead.  Now I’m going to skip way ahead to Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s Vice President who called reporters a bunch of effete intellectuals. But here’s the irony — in today’s world, about forty years later, his use of the word “effete” would seem too intellectual to many Americans.   

American anti-intellectualism has gone downhill. It used to be a disdain for Frenchie men with their noses in the air and English fops with tights on. It used to respect the common man and his raccoon skin cap and corn cob pipe, sitting around discussing the common wisdom of things like dogs and marriage. My dad spouted some of that wisdom: “Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas” — that’s one of my favorites. It’s true, depending on the dog, of course. Mark Twain was a great one for putting down European elitist bullshit and promoting down home smarts.  

But Daniel Boone, Mark Twain, and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) even Spiro Agnew would be too intellectual in today’s anti-intellectual parade of proud dumb-asses, who would be pissed off at someone using a word like “effete.”

As a teacher, I see anti-intellectualism at work in students who think reading a book or knowing history is a waste of time that could be better spent collecting “friends” on Myspace. Okay, they’ve been raised on television. They’ve been coddled by advertisers who do not benefit from anyone being intellectual. Advertisers rely on dumb asses who like shiny objects. If people were to think, to study history and culture, my God!!! – they might realize they don’t need a new car every five years or that drinking three Cokes a day just isn’t, you know, healthy. And then where would the economy be? 

Worse than students not wanting to think is fellow teachers and educational administrators who are hostile, and arrogantly so, against intellectualism. The very word sounds like something elite and nasty. I have been in meetings — which are a condensed version of the dumb ass parade — in which the term “ivory tower” is used smugly. It’s a sad little cliche to indicate the privilege and idiocy of college professors who study useless stuff and impose their findings on the rest of the world that is just trying to figure out how to record their favorite reality show on tv and pay for a tank of gas.  Yes, many of my fellow college teachers are clowns with vocabulary and attitude, and they do give intellectualism a bad name. They say “utilize” when they could say “use.” But is this any reason to celebrate a lack of knowledge? Is this any reason to consider ignorance a good thing?  

I tell my students this: Ignorance is not good. Knowing stuff is good. Read. Think. Don’t let the idiot voices of high school, the ones that put all their mental energy into trying to make smart kids feel like losers, continue to keep you from being as human as possible. And those students in my classes who despise the idea that humans are related to apes — well, I say, the best way to assure that you are different from an ape is to read and think. Apes do not identify themselves as intellectuals. We’ll discuss the dumb ass disdain for Darwin another time.