The Long View

Stefano Vita

Note: Last week, and a very difficult week it was, our guidance counselor asked me to “offer some words of wisdom” for the upcoming senior milestone dinner, and I agreed, though it’s a difficult task if you don’t like trafficking in clichés.

So what follows is a sort of rough draft, which I’ll more or less memorize, and then deliver it to the seniors, their parents, my colleagues, and whoever else shows up.


Good evening and first I’d like to congratulate the class of 2017, and all of the people who have helped you reach this point: your grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, teachers, the obstetricians/midwives who brought you into the world, everybody — because no one who has ever made a speech like this has failed to mention that you had a lot of help along the way, and you did.

Mrs. Kimberly has asked me if I might convey some “words of wisdom” as you prepare to leave this familiar place, so I’m going to give it a shot, and at the very least end this talk with the best advice about succeeding in college there is. So stay tuned.

Here goes.

One of life’s biggest challenges is staying awake – and I don’t mean that in the literal sense of not dozing off as you’re tooling down the Crosstown but staying awake to the wonders of the world.

Wordsworth has a sonnet that starts

The world is too much with us, late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,

Little we see in nature that is ours,

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.

What Wordsworth means, I think, is that the day-to-day grind blinds us to the miracles of being. Focused on the upcoming chemistry exam or speeding ticket court date, we don’t notice the wren perched on branch above singing its heart out or the glint of sunlight on the distant river or maybe even the river itself.

We forget [acid head voice] that, like, hey, man, we’re on the third planet from the sun swirling in concert with a spiral galaxy spinning like a Frisbee through interstellar space.

A had a jolt a couple of months that reminded me of my own place in nature. My son Harrison and his wife Taryn gave Judy and me a DNA test kit so we could check out our ancestry. When the results came in and I logged on to discover my makeup, the first thing I noticed was the drawing of a cave man and the message “You have 58% more Neanderthal DNA than the general population.”

illustration source: The New Yorker

“Ah ha. That explains a lot. My deep-set eyes, prominent brow, inability to factor quadratic equations.”

Now, Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago. Let’s for the sake of argument say a generation is 30 years. That means, in my case, it took 1,333 successful matings to come up with me. If my Neanderthal Mema had died in childbirth from an older sibling, I wouldn’t be here. Ditto if my sub-Saharan ancestor had stepped on a snake or my Norse ancestor hadn’t raped and pillaged that Irish village. You get the picture. It’s the same with everyone everywhere. That we exist at all is truly miraculous. We’ve all had miraculous births.

One of the most universal human myths – it extends from Borneo the Hebrides – is the hero’s journey. The hero, like you, has had a miraculous birth, and, like you, is called to leave his home on a quest of discovery. You’re at the part of the journey called “crossing the threshold.” Having mastered crawling, walking, riding a bike, reading, writing, calculating, solving equations, understanding the rise and fall of empires, conjugating another language’s verbs, it’s time to go.

You’re leaving the familiarity of your home to encounter new and strange beings, and, of course, it’s not going to be all smooth sailing. You’re going to be tested in more ways than one.

The good news is that you’ve been equipped with an excellent education, not only academically but also in the realm of ethics. My charge to you is not only to stay awake to the miracles surrounding you but to also strive to be a good person because I sincerely believe that if you don’t live a life of integrity you won’t be truly happy. I say this not only in the context of my own experience but also in what great literature tells us about the human condition.

Each night we go to sleep assured that the sun will rise again in the morning; however, of course, one morning it won’t, at least for us. Keep in mind the immense unlikelihood of your existence, your miraculous birth, the beauty of the world.  Look up more than occasionally at that night sky Hamlet calls a “majestic roof fretted with golden fire.”  Step boldly over that threshold into adulthood with your eyes and ears wide open.  In other words, wide awake.

How great, how exciting to be just now venturing forth.

Oh yeah, that surefire advice about succeeding in college. I promise each and every one of you will be successful if you follow this one instruction:

GO TO CLASS!

It’s harder than you might think.

To all my former students, it’s been an honor teaching you, and certainly an honor addressing all of you tonight. I wish you all the very best.

On Star Wars, Samurais, and a Future So Bleak Everyone Will Wear Mining Helmets

by WLM 3 based on Zdzistaw Beksiński

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never seen any of the Star Wars movies — not the blockbuster first installment of 1977 nor any of the vast array of sequels and prequels that in subsequent decades have rolled off the Lucas assembly line like so many gold-plated Model-Ts.

As a subscriber to the NY Times crossword puzzle, I have been punished for being ignorant of such worthies as Jabba the Hutt and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the same way I have punished for not having read any of the Harry Potter books.[1]

What’s the 5 letter word for first name of the astromech droid that appears in every Star War movie?

Search me.

I did try to read the first Potter novel but got about as far as I did when I attempted The Hobbit as an eighth grader. Blame my lack of interest on a leaden suspension of disbelief. I prefer Robin Hood to the Arthurian legends, the Lone Ranger to Flash Gordon, Sopwith Camels to starships. In other words, I don’t dig fantasy and most science fiction, which is not to say they’re not worthy genres. I don’t dig opera either, but I realize my lack of appreciation stems from ignorance and that I’m ultimately missing out on something truly wonderful.

But as far as Jabba the Hutt and Harry Potter go, personal predilections are no excuse for my ignorance. As a self-anointed anthropologist/social critic/prophet-of-doom, it should be my duty to study these cultural phenomena, these projections of our collective psyches, these myth-equivalents that shed light on “deep down things.” [now removing tongue from cheek]

Nevertheless, it ain’t gonna happen. I still haven’t read Proust or become closely acquainted with the films of the supposedly great Soviet director Tarkovsky so the idea of spending the ever decreasing number of my allotted Sunday afternoons matriculating into Hogwarts is way too much of a cross to bear.

What has brought these considerations to mind is that last week a candidate for a position in our English Department taught a demo class to my 9th graders as a sort of audition. Surprisingly, rather than reprising some proven boffo performance of poetic analysis from his past, something tried and true — as most aspirants do — he decided to go with what I am teaching, Orwell’s 1984.

He started the lesson by discussing Newspeak and the implications of the ruling party’s attempt to strip language of all nuance, a topic we’d already covered at length. Why complicate your life by having hundreds of words like grackle, wren, and bunting when the simple word bird would suffice? Does language play a role in helping us distinguish nuances?

Is the Jesuit Pope a communist from Argentina?

Do heavy, furry, hibernating, clawed mammals defecate in areas thickly covered with trees?

Are rhetorical questions possible in Newspeak?

Things got cracking when he shifted from language to genre. He said that he first read the novel as an undergraduate in a science fiction course. He asked the students to define science fiction and coaxed them into coming up with the idea that science fiction is a realistic depiction of the human condition featuring technology that doesn’t yet exist but is central to the plot.

He then asked if Star Wars were science fiction. One student said that no, it was fantasy, and the teacher agreed pointing out that each planet has a singular topography – desert or swamp or city or forest – so what we’re essentially dealing with is the planet earth. He added that the weapons are essentially swords, and spaceships lie well within the reality of current technology. He argued that we’re talking magic, not science here, and basically Star Wars is a Samurai movie set in outer space. As his name suggests, Obi-Wan Kenobi is in a sense a by-product of Japanese cinema, particularly Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai epic The Hidden Fortress.

The teacher then shifted back to Orwell, and the students identified telescreens[2] as the technology that qualifies 1984 to be considered as science fiction. In 1948, the year it was written, television was in its infancy, and telescreens did not exist (nor did they in the teacher’s undergraduate days).

They do now, however. After all, when I was with my wife in Houston at MD Anderson at the beginning of the school year, I taught this very class via Skype, which is essentially a telescreen but one that allows for two-way communication. So according to this line of thinking, 1984 can no longer be considered “science fiction.”

The teacher pulled his cell phone from his pocket and said, “Unlike the citizens of Oceania, we subscribe to our telescreens, actually pay Big Brother to collect the goods on us. (Of course, these aren’t the exact words he used).

Anyway, he went off on a rift on technology and dystopia and an era in the near future (about the time they’d be graduating from college) when automation might be eliminating quaint old human orchestrated procedures like cancer surgery. He mentioned nanobots replacing surgeons, and I imagined hordes of ravenous Pac-Men seeking out and devouring malignant cells.

A rather sobering and a subtle suggestion that future competition might be, shall we say, cut-throat, and that studying might be a good strategy, especially when it’s not only coal miners and sales clerks who will be out of work but also CPAs and surgeons.

At any rate, class ended, and the actors marched off leaving me alone in my room (101, by the way) contemplating a smog-smothered future where it’s always twilight or pitch black night, a future where hordes of the unemployed have devolved into urban tribal communities, in other words, the world of Blade Runner.

But, hey, fa-la-la-la live for today, in this case Sunday, 9 a.m EST. With Kim-Jong un, Putin, and the Donald rattling their lightsabers, we might not have to worry about the future at all.

So I think I’ll have a bloody mary and look out over the real life Darwin-themed drama my back deck provides.

Or maybe scrounge up a copy of À la recherche du temps perdu.

photo from our back deck of a wood stork


[1] As far as Star Wars goes, I do know that Darth Vader is evil, Princess Leia wears white, and that Luke Skywalker is the coming of age hero.

[2] Telescreens are ubiquitous two-way-mirror-like devices that allow the party to spy on citizens and to broadcast propaganda.

 

That Time I Got Called into the Principal’s Office for Teaching Filth

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Okay, the Prince of Lies wings his way upward and on a cliff encounters a woman naked and beautiful from the genitals up, but horror-show-hideous below, where “[v]oluminous and vast,” a hydra-like reptilian whiplash “of scaly folds” slithers.

Satan can hear the muffled howling of dogs, the frenzied yelps coming from . . . from within her . . . “about her middle round.” These dogs “kennel” in her womb, exit and reenter periodically, and with “their wide Cerberian mouths full loud,” let out “a hideous peal.”

[Gross!]

Next to her sits a blob-like creature not “distinguishable in member, joint, or limb.” On what might be considered his head, he wears a “kingly crown.”

[What the Hell?]

Well, boys and girls, sin is ugly. Check out Hieronymus Bosch or Breughel the Elder.

farting-painting

This unholy trinity described above consists of Satan, Sin, and Death. You see, one day when he was strolling the gold-paved streets of Heaven, Lucifer had this chick split open his head and emerge, Athena-like, fully armed.  A rebellious thought had roiled his erstwhile Seraphic mind and presto Trouble!

So Beautiful was this feminine doppelganger of a daughter, he had sex with her, impregnated her, right up there in Heaven.

Her name is Sin.

[Tsk Tsk]

After the war and the expulsion of the rebel angels and their general Satan, Sin gives birth to a blob-like boy who rips open her womb and transforms her limbs into snakes. This offspring, son of Satan, immediately rapes her and impregnates her with the above-mentioned hellhounds.

His name is Death.

Satan + Sin = Death.. . .

* * *

One cloudy day in the early 90’s, I receive an email from our new principal. He’d like to see me in his office, which, because of some construction, is a trailer. I don’t put this encounter off. I stroll over as soon as I can.

Once inside, I sit down on the proffered sofa.

“Well, Wesley. I’ve had a mother call and complain about one of your sophomore English classes.”

“Really? What’s the beef?”

“She says you’re teaching obscenity. By the way, what are you teaching?”

“’The justification of the ways of God to men.’”

“Huh?”

Paradise Lost.”

He smiles, nods. “Okay, thanks.  I’ll explain it to her”

* * *

Believe it or not, sophomores dig Paradise Lost if you set it up right and read a fluidly truncated version. You teach it like it’s sci-fi. After all, Hell in Paradise Lost is a far distant planet; Satan flies through outer space to find Earth.

You got monsters, battles, video-game like scenery.

Add to that full frontal nudity and the gorgeous music of the poetry.

 

 

Eve separate he spies,

Veiled in a Cloud of Fragrance, where she stood

Half spied, so thick the Roses bushing round

About her glowed, oft stooping to support

Each Flower of slender stalk, whose head though gay

Carnation, Purple, Azure, or specked with Gold,

Hung drooping unsustained, them she upstands

Gently with Myrtle band, mindless the while,

Her self, though fairest unsupported Flower,

From her best prop so far and storm so nigh.

 

[I’ve modernized the spelling].

 

serpent

Why Donald Trump Is an Orwellian Nightmare for English Teachers

 

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You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do.

Charlie Marlow to his shipmates in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

No, Donald Trump isn’t a nightmare for English teachers because he uses bigly as an adverb. Nor is it that when it comes to oratory, Trump’s speeches make George W Bush seem practically Churchillian in comparison. No, the reason that Donald Trump is a nightmare for English teachers is that words to him are meaningless.

Why bother teaching someone the difference in shades of meaning between the words venial and abominable when 2 + 2 = 5?[1]

To Trump, words are just things, commodities to be manipulated for bargaining or seduction or braggadocio. We English teachers, on the other hand, tend to see words as sacred, as vessels of meaning, and we try to teach our students to choose them carefully so that their descriptions are as clear and accurate as possible, whether they are writing about their grandmothers or analyzing Lear’s betrayal by his daughters Regan and Goneril.

Of course, most if not virtually all politicians occasionally lie, but generally with subtlety and rarely when the lie can be easily refuted.  This is not the case with Trump who seems to be a pathological liar. His lies are legion.  He lies when it’s not necessary, seemingly for the sake of lying.  To me, this lying is a very big deal, and I believe it is both my patriotic and moral duty to point out to my students why his lies are lies when they are applicable to the literature we are studying, the way I would like to think I would with Hitler’s lies if I had been teaching in Germany in the 1930’s.

Our school prayer begins with these words.

May our words be full of truth and kindness . . .

Not only are Trump’s words essentially devoid of truth and kindness, his kleptocratic tendencies as evidenced by his violation of the emolument clause, his packing the cabinet with sycophantic billionaires, and his admiration of Putin as soulmate put our very republic in danger. Nor does it help that it seems as if most Republicans in Congress don’t care about the rule of law now that one of their own can aid them in dismantling health care and cutting taxes for the 1%.

Remember Whitewater? All those Clinton investigations?  Those were different people and different times.

* * *

To see what I’m getting at, allow me just one recent example of Trump’s misuse of a phrase (see italics below) and how it can distort reality to his favor.

Yesterday, on hearing that the Electoral College had made it official he would be our next president, Trump crowed, “Today marks a historic electoral landslide victory in our nation’s democracy.”

Never mind that he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million; here’s a handy chart mapping Electoral College margins of victory from Washington to Trump:

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Politfact quotes Larry Sabato, the director of the Center of Politics at the University of Virginia: “Calling a 306 electoral-vote victory a ‘landslide’ is ridiculous. Trump’s Electoral College majority is actually similar to John F. Kennedy’s 303 in 1960 and Jimmy Carter’s 297 in 1976. Has either of those victories ever been called a landslide? Of course not — and JFK and Carter actually won the popular vote narrowly.”

Of course, by declaring his historically comfortable but by no means overwhelming victory a landslide, Trump gets to have the words “historic electoral landslide” plastered in headlines and on screens across the planet. If he’s won by a landslide, the vast majority of people want whatever he wants, so that means that most people want the wealthiest Americans to receive enormous tax cuts.  If this election has taught us anything, it is that a majority of voters in 30 states aren’t all that discriminating. If some hear it was a landslide on Fox News, that’s good enough for them. Here’s a quote from today’s Washington Post: 

An editor at Breitbart, formerly run by senior Trump adviser Steve Bannon, said that fear [of reprisal from Trump and his minions] is well-founded [among lawmakers].

“If any politician in either party veers from what the voters clearly voted for in a landslide election … we stand at the ready to call them out on it and hold them accountable,” the person said.

In fact, if those who attend Trump rallies hear him say  2+2=5, they very well might believe him, even without having to go through the torture that O’Brian puts poor Winston Smith through in Orwell’s 1984.

How chilling to read these passages from 1984 in light of Trump’s “historic electoral landslide”:

There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.

[. . . ]

We control life, Winston, at all its levels. You are imagining that there is something called human nature which (sic) will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable. Or perhaps you have returned to your old idea that the proletarians or the slaves will arise and overthrow us. Put it out of your mind. They are helpless, like the animals. Humanity is the Party. The others are outside — irrelevant.’

Will I be teaching 1984 in the spring?[2] Yes. Will Trump’s name come up? You betcha!  Will I be teaching “Heart of Darkness” this spring?  Yes sir, of course.

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[1] The latter word in this case being a much more accurate descriptor of Trump, a known swindler and self-professed sexual assaulter.

[2] By the way, click here for an extensive Pre-Trumpian lesson plans for teaching 1984.

Blitzkrieg Report Card Comment Seminar

taamann_jacob_when_teachers_back_is_turned

One of my least favorite activities as a teacher is writing report card comments. It used to be worse, though. In my former incarnation as Department Chair, I actually had to read every comment each Upper School teacher wrote to ensure that some slip of the finger, unwanted auto correction, or careless cutting and pasting didn’t send the wrong message:

Harold’s prose feces[1] strong verb selection, but he needs to vary sentence structure. Looking ahead, in preparation for the research papers due November 1st, she should make sure to update her working biography as she adds new sources.

Remember how in the lower grades, you’d pack your book reports with unnecessary prepositional phrases to jack up the word count? Well, some teachers lard their comments with detailed synopses of the course curriculum. Sure, it fills up space but fails to provide any insight into how adept young Anastasia is in synthesizing the various components that led to the Russian Revolution. As a parent, I found these descriptions of the courses’ content boring and skipped down to see how sons Ned and Harrison were handling the material, which reminds me of my favorite report card comment ever.

In the 6th grade, my younger son Ned had taken Jesus for his Spanish name. His end of the year report card started with this not very promising topic sentence: “I’m so disappointed in Jesus.” [2]

Anyhow, here’s my method. First, I break down their averages into components:

Daily 58 Essays 84 Tests 60 Independent Reading 90[3]

A parent should infer from this information that young Livingston hasn’t been doing his homework. Ideally, the parent would understand the correlation of Livingston’s not doing his homework with his paltry test average. On the other hand, he’s not a bad writer.

Here’s what I might write below the averages on Livingston’s report card:

Livingston needs to make sure that he reads each of his homework assignments slowly and carefully. He should consider, not only the content of the pieces, but also the authors’ techniques.

Livingston’s writing is solid, though he relies too heavily on linking verbs and occasionally mistakes phrases and subordinate clauses for sentences. I encourage him to proofread his essays backwards, i.e., the last sentence first, the second to last sentence second, etc. This method slows students down and helps them to focus on each individual sentence.

Although the administration would probably prefer that I end the comment with something positive like “Livingston is very bright, and I encourage him to cultivate his native talents,” I generally don’t.  I’m a busy man.  I’ve demonstrated I’m very familiar with their son’s work (or lack thereof) and provided  practical suggestions (which of course I’ve already mentioned to Livingston in person several times).

Donald Trump was up this morning at 3 a.m. tweeting. Maybe I could farm out some comments to him.

Lazy Livingston can’t be bothered to read his assignments. He keeps this up and he’ll be flunking out of mediocre UMass next year. That is, if he  gets in. Pathetic!

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[1] A very unfortunate auto correction of the intended “features.”

[2] Which brings to mind a stanza from the Ezra Pound poem “Ballad of the Goodly Frere”:

When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man

His smile was good to see,

“First let these go!” quo’ our Goodly Fere,

Or I’ll see ye damned,” says he. (my emphasis)

[3] Which would result in a 75 for the quarter.

A Masterful History Lesson as Reported by Henry James Foster Wallace

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Whenever anyone who discovers I’m a teacher starts in on the familiar refrain about how underpaid we are, I assure my well-meaning new acquaintance that some of us are not underpaid. For example, take my high school Spanish teacher, Senora Equis, that dour, unimaginative functionary. Her only lesson plan was punching play on a tape recorder and having us repeat parrot-like what we thought we heard. The voices on the recording were not quite human, too cheerful, the words overly annunciated, as if directed at a hard-of-hearing octogenarian in a nursing home located in Disney World.

I remember remarking to mis amiga Sharon Mallard that a trained chimp could replace Senora Equis and very little would be lost. Dress Cheetah in a poncho, have him knuckle his way into the room, hop on the metal desk, click play, and plop down as we intoned in unison, “Que lastima, lo siento” or “Tengo catarro” or “Las putas estan muy bonita” and you wouldn’t be losing a thing.

cheetah

On the other hand, if you paid teachers according to how hard they worked, the difficulty of the task, and on the quality and worth of their product, my former colleague Natalie Herford should be making more money than Jadeveon Clowney.

Since I’d given up being Department Chair a couple of years ago, I decided it was high time to discard some of my unnecessary electronic files when I ran across a narrative of an observation I had made of one of Natalie’s history classes. She had been new to the school, and the word was out that she was spectacular. I asked her if she’d mind if I hopped on the train of colleagues who had sat in on one of her classes, and she, said, “Of course. I’d love to have you.”

Part of my duties as Department Chair was observing my colleagues. Rather than using the official form for observations, I wrote narratives of what I observed, trying the best I could to render the action from the objective point-of-view, as if I were video recorder. Let the teacher and principal decide for themselves what is effective and what is not.

Natalie was in the history department, in fact, its chair, so I was not required to document my observation. However, I told her I would compose one of my narratives and share it with her and Sarah, our principal, if she liked. This time, however, for my own amusement, I created a persona I called Henry James Foster Wallace to report what happened during the class.

 

Henry James Foster Wallace’s Observations of Mrs. Natalie Herford’s AP World History Class on 6 February 2009

 

When your Semi-Omniscient Narrator (henceforth SON) arrived at Room 204 a couple of minutes before class time, it surprised him to see the students sitting upright and engaged in a group conversation with Mrs. Herford who stood before them in the center of the room.   Glancing up at the so-called atomic clock, SON was relieved to see that, no, he wasn’t (at least officially) interrupting class.

Acknowledging his presence, Mrs. Herford in her somewhat patrician precisely annunciated, but indeterminate accent welcomed him to sit anywhere.   She added, “Feel free to participate as much as you like.” Demurring, SON bombastically announced that like the novelist Flaubert he would be invisible but omnipresent, hovering like a god. Mrs. Herford offered an indulgent smile at his pomposity and addressed him henceforth as “O Invisible God.” This incident, however silly, was the first instance of a pattern SON would later discern: Mrs. Herford adroitly picks up idiosyncratic comments in the class and later echoes them to create humorous motifs that provide a sort of dramatic structure to the proceedings. Her mental agility, her profound mastery of the subject matter, combined with a brilliant, almost ballerina-like ability to embody abstractions in physical movement, make Mrs. Herford an incredibly dynamic and effective teacher. [1]

Room 204 is a bright, orderly space with yellow dominating the color scheme. A black and white photograph of the three Camelot-era Kennedy brothers counterbalances on the opposite wall a reproduction of a WW2 poster of Churchill jabbing an index finger Uncle-Sam style. On the back wall hang two large maps of the Western and Eastern hemispheres. Most interesting, however, is a series of typed sayings on 8 1/2 x 11 white paper that create a sort of intellectual wainscoting running across three walls of the room. Alas, being only a semi-omniscient narrator, SON was able to make out the content of only one of these literary ornaments, a colloquial pugilistic quote from Marx about getting kicked and kicking back. The room’s arrangement, its tidiness, suggests that this is a serious place, a place of business.

Which it is. About 30 seconds before class was to start, Chad Livingston[2], looking a bit frazzled, hurried into class, and Mrs. Herford said, “And here is Chad arriving just in time not to be counted tardy,” which SON took to be a subtle corrective, a suggestion to Mr. Livingston that he should arrive earlier so that the show can get on the road promptly the instant the second hand of the atomic clock reaches its zenith denoting 8:10 A.M. Eastern Standard Time. As it happened, Mr. Livingston probably had been rummaging in his locker searching for some lost document, a précis or AP application perhaps[3], because Mrs. Herford asked if he had said document, and Mr. Livingston asked for another.   Amusedly disgruntled, Mrs. Herford chided, “This does not bode well, does it, Chad,” and he reversed field, grinning and saying that he was hadn’t lost whatever it was he couldn’t produce, a performance that your SON found unconvincing.

As Mr. Livingston took his seat, instruction commenced. Arranged in a rectangular “semicircle,” two-desks deep, the students maintained excellent posture through the next forty minutes, an impressive feat for high-achieving, over-involved scholars, athletes, and amateur thespians, especially so early on a frigid Friday morning. In fact, throughout the entire class, the students maintained an impressive level of attentiveness, and eight of the nine scholars contributed at some point to Mrs. Herford’s Socratic questioning. The one student who didn’t contribute, the ever-taciturn Pamela Blanton[4], sat directly in front of SON preventing his being able to gauge her level of attentiveness. However, Miss Blanton not only sits on the front row, but also sits closest to the stool upon which Mrs. Herford sometimes perches[5], so it seems extremely unlikely that the bashful Miss Blanton wasn’t mentally engaged in the academic content of the lesson. Throughout the class, on at least three occasions, Mrs. Herford referred to the students as “ladies and gentlemen,” appellations that corresponded aptly to their behavior.

Mrs. Herford began by providing a rough road map of what lay ahead, a revisitation of Russia in light of the previous night’s reading. Mrs. Herford began by asking the students what had been going on the last time they visited Russia. A chorus of contradictory responses rang out, with Hendrik Kohlman harkening back to the Mongols and Angela Nielson remembering something about the Ivan tsars. Mr. Kohlman, who is 15-going-on-65, speaks with such an oddly anachronistic formality that you wouldn’t be surprised to look over and see that he’s sporting knickers and an Eton collar. He immediately recognized his error, and complained, “It’s Friday morning.”

Then, with extraordinary dexterity, Mrs. Herford in a Socratic cross-examination elicited from the students a remarkable distillation of half-a-millennium of Russian history, taking us from Mongols and princes to tsars and serfdom. In forcing the students themselves to provide the correct answers, Mrs. Herford engages in an animated artform that combines ballet and charades. When she asks a question, her face is quizzical, as if she has momentarily forgotten the answer, and when a student comes up with the correct response, her face lights up. Students want to generate that smile, so they take intellectual risks in perhaps being wrong. If they are incorrect, Mrs. Herford asks qualifying questions. To coax the answers from them, she gracefully uses her hands, pushing her palms out towards the students to suggest exile, say, or interlacing her fingers to suggest the combining of forces. Because she’s perpetually in motion and the class is so small, students don’t have the luxury to wander off into the lurid klieg-lit rooms of their imaginations.

Once Mrs. Herford had navigated her students through the ages, from the steppes of the Mongols to the marshes of St. Petersburg, she began the central focus of the day, a demonstration of a succession of Russian rulers who in subsequent administrations oscillated from reformation to reaction, a rather disheartening pingponging between liberalization and repression. To capture visually this historical movement, Mrs. Herford drew a crossgraph on her white board with “reform” and “reaction” as the twin headings. As she was hurriedly constructing her graph, Mr. Kohlman announced that “this is a little off topic” but that he reckoned, somewhat egocentrically perhaps, that there might be a fortune to be made in manufacturing loose leaf paper with vertical rather than horizontal lines, paper that would be well-suited to accommodate the graph Mrs. Herford was creating. Showing a surprising ignorance of product creation and promotion, Stephen Paddington pooh-poohed this idea by saying that you would need special binders if you manufactured vertically lined paper. Some other unidentified voice reasonably suggested that you could in fact turn your binders sideways and accomplish Mr. Kohlman’s objective. Rather than launching into a side trip to enlighten Mr. Paddington about the nefarious practices of the Lords of Capitalism and how creating products that won’t accommodate older products’ plug-ins is one of their dastardly techniques[6], Mrs. Herford, perhaps thinking of the centuries and various cultures stretching before her in the three-and-a-half months before the AP exam, quickly shut down the conjecture by assuring Mr. Gadsden that indeed if there were a market for vertically lined paper, surely some enterprising entrepreneur would have created it by now. Later in the class Mr. Kohlman– who otherwise proved a valuable contributor to providing correct answers to Mrs. Herford’s questions – tried to interject another distraction, which Mrs. Herford ignored, as she talked through his interruption. She did, later on, say that she thought it was a good idea for students to copy the graph in the notebooks, “whether on paper vertically lined, or otherwise,’’ a deft allusion to Mr. Kohlman’s original observation.

As the ping pong ball bounced from tsar to tsar, from Nicholas I to Alexander II to Alexander III, Mrs. Herford scrawled information in the Reaction column or the Reform column, switching alternatively, depending on whether the adjacent rulers were purging dissenters or liberalizing education. Whether consciously or not, she was creating a visual Hegelian historical dialectic that was particularly apropos given that Marx stood waiting just outside the present scope of the day’s lesson. In addition, as Mrs. Herford discussed the concept of Russianization, she successfully encouraged students to synthesize other similar movements in different cultures they had studied such as Sinofication in China and the persecution of Huguenots under Louis XIV. As a side note, Mrs. Hereford’s arrangement of cross-referencing various cultures during similar times (the alternating method) rather than starting with medieval China and taking it to the 2Oth century and then going to India and doing likewise (the block method) mirrors these students’ most recent essay assignment in English, a comparison-and-contrast composition in which their instructors encourage them to use the alternating method rather than the block method.

With energy that never flagged, Mrs. Herford guided her charges to the very end, stating at 9:43 that she had two minutes, “and you know that I am going to use them.” She mentioned a précis that was due Monday and some pivotal, important question that she had hoped to ask today but that would have to wait until Tuesday. Her “marketing” of this question successfully spurred the interest of SON who would have liked to be there to discover what the mysterious question entailed and how the students might respond to it. Unfortunately, however, time was up, because another set of students was filing in for their turn to learn under this extraordinary teacher.

Natalie possesses the same quality that my very best teacher Dr. Jack Ashley possessed, the ability to make students want to please him, so they do their best, revising those essays, trying to make them even better so that the teacher will be proud of them.

And talking about a role model!

Mrs. Natalie Herdford

Mrs. Natalie Herdford


[1] Mrs. Herford’s command of Russian history is phenomenal. Without so much as a note, she effortlessly rattled dates, names, movements, etc.

[2] I have changed the students’ names.

[3] cf. the modifier of “omniscient” in the author’s acronymic nom de plume.

[4] For the sake of full disclosure, it should be noted that Miss Blanton is a far-distant cousin of the author’s.

[5] Actually, all told, Mrs. Herford spent ~ 8 seconds on that stool.

[6] As your SON would be tempted to do.

Let Chaucer Be

TCOD-Bodleian-Library
The latest controversy roiling the breasts of English majors at Yale is their being required to take a survey course called “Major English Poets,” a course of study that forces them to become familiar with the works of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne in the first semester and Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Eliot, and one other modern poet in the spring. Their beef, according the petition that they’ve delivered to the Department is that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity.” [1]

I heartily disagree, and I’m going to quote at length one of the white men listed above, TS Eliot, from his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

To proceed to a more intelligible exposition of the relation of the poet to the past: he can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period. The first course is inadmissible, the second is an important experience of youth, and the third is a pleasant and highly desirable supplement. The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations. He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen. That this development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist, any improvement. Perhaps not even an improvement from the point of view of the psychologist or not to the extent which we imagine; perhaps only in the end based upon a complication in economics and machinery. But the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.

And, yes, and that includes Alexander Pope, who may not be “fun” to read but who provides a nearly flawless mirror to the intellectual world of his century.

For people of color, “queer folk,” and women to have an understanding of the works of great artists and the historical contexts of those works strikes me as the opposite of harmful, especially given that I’m fairly sure Yale offers elective courses that feature other great poets like Derek Wolcott, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, and Hart Crane.  Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Donne in a sense established the traditions of English poetry, the colloquial, rough-hewn verse of Chaucer and Donne pointing the way for the great Walt Whitman, the smoothness of Spenser no doubt influencing the verse of Christina Rossetti.

One student, Ariana Miele, in an op-ed piece for the Yale Daily News wrote, “We read Chaucer, but we are told to view his misogyny with an ‘objective’ lens.”

Certainly, the Middle Ages were misogynistic, and perhaps Chaucer was typical of his age, but he has also given us the Wife of Bath who offers this bit of wisdom to her fellow pilgrims:

By God, if women ever wrote some stories

As clerks have done in all their oratories,

They would have told of men more wickedness

Than all the sons of Adam could redress.

In other words, women in Medieval Europe did not have their voices heard.

Or this from Iago’s wife Emila from Othello explaining to chaste Desdemona why some women betray their husbands:

But I do think it is their husbands’ faults

If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,

And pour our treasures into foreign laps,

Or else break out in peevish jealousies,

Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,

Or scant our former having in despite;

Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,

Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know

Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell

And have their palates both for sweet and sour,

As husbands have. What is it that they do

When they change us for others? Is it sport?

I think it is: and doth affection breed it?

I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?

It is so too: and have not we affections,

Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?

Then let them use us well: else let them know,

The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

 

I’ve often said that when parents start running a school, that school’s in trouble. When students start running a university, especially when they’re undergraduates, that university’s in big trouble.


[1] Is it possible to study post-colonialism without understanding colonialism? Might knowledge of pre-colonial and colonial art help students better understand colonialism and post-colonialism?