Small Victories

Last year I taught an advanced reading class to seventh graders. We read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. The kids tackled the Turn-of-the-Screwish aspects of The Haunting…how much was the house haunting Eleanor? How much was she haunting it?

This year I took several of those same kids to Center Stage to see Twelfth Night. At intermission two of the girls rushed up to me. “That lady sang ‘journey’s end in lovers meeting,’ just like Eleanor!” I asked them to watch for more connections in the rest of the play. I can’t wait to see what they come up with. The plot of Jackson’s novel does rather follow a marriage plot, with the house as a kind of Malvolio who wins.

The play was really well-done. I’ve not seen such good Shakespeare at Center Stage in ages. I recommend you see it soon!

DSK

I adore Harper’s Magazine, and read it devoutly, and have done so for nearly two decades.

Often, however, if the story–the fiction story–is too long, I’ll skip that. I read lots of periodicals, and the pressure to keep up is enormous. I make this sacrifice occasionally in order to maintain order in my periodicals universe.

I nearly skipped Ken Kalfus’s “Coup de Foudre” this month because it’s REALLY F-ING LONG. But I’m so glad I didn’t. It’s a really remarkable fictionalization of the downfall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. I find it remarkable because the story is fully aware that DSK was likely set up by an intelligence sting, while at the same time not excusing the behavior that led French intelligence to know exactly how to get at his ass.

So DSK is a member of the 1%, a power player who thinks of himself as having sympathy for the deprived, the downtrodden, the abused, and yet he is perfectly capable of colonizing by force a defenseless African refugee in a hotel room. He’s an exceptionally competent bureaucrat, a gifted politician, a master at the sort of structural analyses necessary to handle complex international navigations during crises, someone who can cobble together solutions to collapses and economic insecurity in a Europe heading toward dissolution or Utopia depending on your POV. But he can use someone for his pleasure. He is rich. He is powerful. He is respected. And she is not.

DSK befell the same fate as Clinton–remember how Liinda Tripp coached Lewinsky through that whole “affair”?–he was outfoxed by more sophisticated players who saw his weakness for Eyes Wide Shut-style shenanigans.

The story is great, and if you’re not a subscriber you should become one, or purchase it at your local bookstore. Wait, ha ha! Are there such things?

 

 

 

 

I Guess That’s Why They Call it The Blues…

I’d been doing so well, riding high, lots of good spirits and just boundless energy. Pulled in multiple directions but digging it for once, feeling confident and scrappy, I hadn’t felt so positive and stable in years. I was a rock star at work. I was working out again after 10 months of rotator cuff problems. We were doing vegetarian meals 5 nights a week. Our AirB&B business was booming.

I should have seen it coming when the euphoria got huge.  The crash, the pit, the darkness always follow.

I’ve never been diagnosed or even really checked properly…but my biological father is manic-depressive (and alcoholic, and some other stuff). My Mom’s side of the family is loaded with deeply melancholic folk, and some weird genetic insomnia which of course is a major cause of (and symptom of) Deep Melancholia. I have the insomnia, and I have the cycles of manic-depression. And Burton’s <a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0940322668/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0940322668&linkCode=as2&tag=yerfdog-20″>The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York Review Books Classics)</a> is a perfect volume for me: I often just read along, nod knowingly with a sardonic smile, and sigh.

I’ve spoken to my GP about it a couple times. He doesn’t really think it’s a big deal. He thinks I’m simply too intellectual and analytic. Both of those things are true (well, pseudo-intellectual is much more accurate). But those things don’t preclude the fact I may be manic-depressive.

I have no idea why I went into a major funk last weekend. I felt like everything I’d ever done was wrong, that my life was a complete fraud, that there was no way I could ever do the job I’d chosen because it was way too big for me, blah-blah, etc. And no rational or reasonable argument could have convinced me otherwise at that time. And I was quite capable of thinking “You know this is the downside of the cycle–hang in there,” but that meant next to nothing when I thought it. I honestly believed at the time that this was cynically motivated pandering to excuse myself for bad behavior. 

It’s a really indescribable feeling. My outlook completely reversed, with no warning, no reason, no apparent cause…

But fortunately the bottom of the cycle was SHORT–it just happened to be quite intense. 

I don’t want to go on some chemical for this. Anyone know a good Jungian who could help square my circle?Image

 

 

 

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?

I initially encountered Noam Chomsky’s ideas in the school bookstore at Temple University, way back when I was getting my first Master’s Degree. We’re talking 21 years ago now! I remember it was after the first Gulf War and I was a bit befuddled by all the media hype around that conflict, and all the WW1 “The Huns are coming” style propaganda (babies bayoneted in cribs and such). Saddam had been a recipient of major US aid for so long, and had been a substantial military ally of the US, and suddenly he was Hitler. None of it made sense to me. Until I found Deterring Democracy at the Temple U bookstore on the Current Events shelf, that is. After reading it I “got” how the media works, how power works, how propaganda works. I continued to follow Noam’s political writing for the better part of 15 years. I delved substantially into his back catalog. I saw a few films about him. I saw him speak a few times, I corresponded with him once, and I even had a collection of his lectures on cassettes that I purchased from some dude in Maine.

I only occasionally read his linguistics or scientific work, however.  This work is the focus of  Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?, a clever little animated film by Michel Gondry. I really enjoyed the conversations about perception and language, about the origins of modern science, about those high-fallutin terms epistemology and semiotics. Chomsky’s recollections of his early education are always fascinating. And the animations were actually rather good, I thought. I put this little gem right up there with Waking Life as an animated film definitely worth seeing after eating special brownies. Or, when you happen to be sober but want some meaty brainiac stuff to churn over. And, if you hate Chomsky’s political beliefs, they are nearly absent from this film. All I know is I started watching this documentary in a profound state of depression, and by the end I was excited and happy to be alive and thinking!

A+

Ugh

There is insufficient space in my current job for me. I exhaust myself continuously and I don’t have the energy or the time to do those things I need to keep my Soul happy.

I decided to do this work not because I always wanted to be a teacher…quite the contrary, in fact! I did it because I thought I had a skill set which could help. When I first signed up to the GEI Program in Baltimore I was pretty sure I’d leave as soon as my obligation (3 years) was complete.

But I landed at a school where I was given some leeway and freedom to teach how I wanted. I really do love it. I love the people I work for and with. I honestly do love the students, though they often disappoint or worse.

I’m pretty sure I make a positive impact every day I’m in the school.

But being around people and in front of classes all the time takes a spiritual toll. I’m an introvert who heals himself by spending substantial amounts of time alone. I don’t get that when I work 60 hours a week. It is now the end of March and I’ve read about 4 books this year. I used to read 8 or 9 books a month. I have neither the time nor the energy for that while teaching. All my life I’ve had the same philosophy about work: put your head down and bull through. It’s not working any more.

I’m going crazy. I can’t do it for much longer, I fear.

People for whom teaching is a passion take it in stride. For me it’s not a passion, it’s something that needs doing and I have the capacity so I will do it. But the disconnect deepens and I worry for my health and sanity.

Can I do another year? Can I get through the Spring?

Preparing for Life Documentary

I don’t know a lot about Waldorf Education–this short and fluffy video, in fact, contains about as much information as I knew about it previously. But I know quite a bit about its founder, Rudolf Steiner. I’ve read a couple biographies, and some of his musings on Art, on Bees, and on Knowing Higher Worlds. I regard him as a similar soul to Carl Jung. Steiner shares that same combination of Mystic and Scientist, but whereas in Jung the Scientist was almost always somewhat paramount, for Steiner it was the opposite–at least once he was initiated into the Western Esoteric Tradition by a fellow train passenger who turned out to be a higher order being.

Steiner and Jung both valued the Imagination and Intellect in equal measure. Both had access to and facility with shamanic and academic modes of perception. Both had as a primary concern the state of the human Soul in an increasingly modern world, detached from nature, and manipulated to value the material over the spiritual. 

Someday I’d like to read Steiner’s book on Goethe’s color theory, but I need to stop reading books I barely comprehend.

What interested me most about this video is the overlap of Waldorf Education with Expeditionary Learning. There’s quite a lot of it. Kurt Hahn came to nearly identical conclusions about the role of education and the true nature of learning. The approaches have multiple links potentially worth exploring if I stay at this work long enough. 

But the time might come where I retreat finally to a monastic cell and read Steiner and Jung in absolute reflective silence.

Questions: 

1) What might I have accomplished given the chance to attend a Waldorf School?

2) What is the annual budget of the school in the video? How much is raised from private and corporate sources?

3) I’ve heard the Baltimore Waldorf School is shrinking away–is this accurate?

4) Is the Theosophical Society still open in mid-town?

5) Did Steiner and Hahn ever meet? Did either read or meet John Dewey?

Steven Levy

Way back in my early twenties I realized that the things which drove me batty about other people were actually things I needed to fix in myself. This has been a guiding principal of my life, but with added layers–there’s always something new to fix in myself, and often traits I thought were long quashed return in virulent and totally repressed forms, resulting in the realization that I’m more of an asshole than I assumed.

Steven Levy visited our school in Pigtown Friday, and we were fortunate enough to have him for an hour Professional Development session. He grouped the staff in fours and fives, then handed out a packet of poems with a protocol attached. He had group members rank themselves from 5 “Super-enthusiastic” about poetry to 1 “I could do without” poetry. The poems were numbered. Each of us read our poem, then shared our connections to it. I told my group that I would take whatever number was left over after they all chose, and was pleased to find that poem #2 was by Hafiz. Hafiz wrote about listening to everyone as if that person were his master uttering precious final words. Many of the poems were longer and more detailed, but none were more complex. They all shared a similar theme.

Also in the packet was a list of the Expeditionary Learning Design Principles. These are the core principles or values of EL schools, of which our Southwest Baltimore Title I Charter happens to be a blooming and miraculous example. We were instructed to choose a Design Principle our students really struggled with, the one they really fucked up all the time. The one which drove us most batty.

Levy shared a couple very simple and very cute examples from his practice of times when the thing most frustrating about his students turned out to be something he himself needed to work on. So eventually he began choosing something each year and really trying to solve that one thing in his life. And then he noticed that one thing wasn’t a problem with his students anymore. 

It’s all about the example we set. He began the session with a question: “Where does our authority come from?” It comes from living or practicing what we want the kids to do or be.

And so I chose The Responsibility for Learning, because my kids are unorganized, they lose their work, they turn in incomplete or haphazard stuff, they ignore homework assignments, they blame others for the state of their work or for losing it, or they blame the format or the instructions. All this drives me batty.

And I saw it immediately, how I no longer take responsibility for my own learning. i read haphazardly now, when I bother to at all. I don’t journal or blog about my reading with any regularity, and I don’t make marginal notes. I don’t read about teaching or teaching practice. I don’t read research about education or students or behavior, and when I’m asked to it’s like choking down a dry chalky medicine. I hate forms and the confinement of structured lesson plan formats. The comprehensive unit planning tool developed at my school last year feels like a prison. My boss gives me a lot of leeway because she knows me really well and knows how i function best. But if my planning consists of scribbles on a variety of papers scattered through a tote bag, if my end table has vanished beneath a sloppy stack of 13 unfinished books and 20 periodicals, if my planner is simply a storage place for odds and ends I gather through the week on Post-Its and scrap papers, and if I routinely ignore deadlines and requirements which don’t suit my character, it’s no wonder my students frustrate me when they do the same thing.

The last stage of our professional development was to team up with a partner and take a 20 minute walk. The first 10 minutes one person was to share while the other only asked questions. The second 10 minutes the partners switched roles. The middle school art teacher and I walked off and settled on comfy couches in the Teacher’s Lounge. We had an amazing conversation. We came back 8 minutes late to the debrief–I was the time keeper and did not take responsibility for doing my job–but sometimes as an educator you sense when it’s appropriate to go past the boundaries. There are magical moments which extend beyond forms and timers. My partner was uttering precious words and I listened like they might be the last.

At debrief there was a stillness I’d not felt at work for weeks. We’ve been run through the ringer of late. There were tears of gratitude and joy. There was powerful reflection. And a hint of Spring at last kicking winter’s ass.