Friday, February 27, 2009

Business Practice

The Felix Chronicles, #7

In which the class follows
a capitalist train of thought

“I have a proposition for you, Sam.”

“Oooooooh,” multiple voices say in unison.

“I’m not propositioning him,” I say with some irritation. “I said I have a proposition for him.”

“Go right ahead, Mr. Cullen. I’m game.”

“Well, Sam, I understand you’re in lumber business, and that you’re pretty good at it.”

Sam nods, picking up my drift like a drummer responding to a chord progression at a jam session. “That’s right. Lumber.” I love this kid.

“And I understand that you move lumber by barge,” I say, pointing to the map on the wall, “from your mills somewhere around here in Milwaukee, up Lake Michigan, down Lake Huron, and down into Lake Erie. And that you pay a rate of $6 a ton in shipping costs.”


“Well, son, I’m in the railroad business, and I’ve just finished building a line from Chicago to Sandusky.” I draw a line that runs due east from Chicago across Indiana and Ohio. This is clearly a shortcut. “It cost me $600,000. I reckon that if you were to give me 100,000 tons of lumber at $6 per ton, I’d amortize the cost in about a year. No great bargain for you. But it would be a lot faster than moving your goods by barge. And of course time is money. Moreover, should my venture succeed, I promise you significantly lower costs, which we can write into a contract if you like. What do you say?

“Absolutely,” Sam says. “Count me in.”

“Wonderful.” I turn to Susan. “And you, Susan? You want to be a part of this grand experiment at $6 a ton?”

“Sure,” she says, in the spirit of the moment.

“And you, Tom?”

“Why not?”

“How about you, Joey?”

Joey wrinkles his nose. “You said this rail line is costing you $600,000, right?”


“Which means that Sam basically paid for it, right?”

“Well, yes. Though of course I do have maintenance costs.”

“Well, I’m not interested unless you give me $5 a ton.”

“Very well, then. Five dollars it is.”

I move on. “How about you, Ellen?”

“Four dollars.”


“Can I get $4 too?” Joey asks.

“Nope. You’re locked in.”

Joey swats his hand in irritation. “You businessmen are all the same."

“You wish,” I reply. “You’re just mad because I’m so much better than you.”

“I want in for $2,” Alec says.

“I guess I’ll take it,” I say. “That’s not much money, but as Joey has pointed out, I’ve already earned back my costs. The real value of taking Alec aboard is that I’m beginning to reach that tipping point where more people will choose me than the barges. Now you all will pay a premium for speed.”

“I want a dollar a ton,” Becky says.


“Why not? You just said whatever you get is profit, didn’t you?”

“Well yes. But you’re a little late, Becky. I’ve got the upper hand now.” Everybody pays $7 a ton. Except Sam. He’s one of my peeps.” (Laughter at my use of slang.) Sam smiles broadly.

“What do you think, kids? Am I an honest businessman?”

“No way!” Susan says. “You took advantage of me!”

“That’s your own fault,” Erica says.

“You don’t have any problem with what I did, Erica?”

“I didn’t say that,” she says with a mischievous smile. “You’re probably a creep. But Susan wasn’t paying attention. She deserves what she got.”

Susan sticks her tongue out at Erica.

“Well, Erica, in the brave new world of industrial capitalism, you’re largely right,” I reply. “This kind of dealing has always been going on, but now it’s being practiced on a scale, and a level of sophistication, that’s never been seen before.”

“Of course, the deal-making isn’t simply a one-way street,” I continue. Take Mindy here.” I place gesture in her direction. “Mindy happens to be in the oil business.”

“Mindy wouldn’t happen to be John D. Rockefeller that we read about last night, would she?” Beth asks.

“Kinda looks like him,” Joey says.

“Yeah,” says Nate. “The long blonde hair is a giveaway.”

“As a matter of fact, Mindy does happen to represent Mr. Rockefeller’s interests. Some years ago, she used to be his competitor. But recognizing her talent, Mr. Rockefeller made her a very compelling offer.”

“An offer she couldn’t refuse?” Joey asks.

“Well, no, not if she wanted to remain in the oil business,” I reply. “Anyway, that’s all behind us now. Right, Mindy?”

“Riiiight,” she says, with an air of disdain, perhaps as much because she’s a hostage in this discussion as conveying her dismay at being steamrollered by Rockefeller. I think of this as a compromise solution to her silence of recent weeks: I draw her in without forcing her to do much in the way of heavy lifting. There are some chuckles at her evident distaste.

“Now as it turns out, Mindy has made me a very interesting offer. You see, I’m now charging about $8 a ton to move freight, a price that reflects the fact that I have to use my own equipment to pick up and load goods from warehouses and other facilities. But Mindy runs a real state-of-the-art operation. She has the equipment to deliver her oil directly to my rail yards. That’s a big saving in terms of time and aggravation, which was exactly my appeal to Sam, if you recall.”

“So I guess this means Mindy wants something in return,” Sam observes.

“Of course. She wants a discount. Actually, to be more precise, she wants a rebate. Mindy understands the importance of stable, public pricing of services like shipping. So the official price for her will be $8 ton, just like it is for all of you (except Sam, of course, until his business gets taken over by the n’er do well son of his). But we’ll have our accountants work it out so that she gets a dollar back for every ton she ships with me. Fair enough?”

I get blank looks. What’s to argue with, they seem to ask.

“One other thing. Mindy has asked that this be our little secret. You see, she doesn’t want anyone to know that she’s saving money this way. That way poor Mark here” – I point at Mark, who reacts as if he’s been jolted – “will be utterly mystified by how Mindy can always sell her oil for less than he can afford to sell his. Mark will gradually choke to death on his overpriced oil. Sorry, Mark.”

Mark raises his eyebrows, speechless. There’s laughter, both because it’s clear Mark has been somewhere else, but also because his reaction is kind of appropriate to the circumstances he’s just been dealt.

“So let me ask again: Is this fair?”

“Are there any rules against it?” Sam asks.

“Nope. Should there be?”

“Absolutely!” says Susan.

“Are you still bitter about overpaying for that freight back when I was starting out, Susan?”

“You’re damn right I am!” She’s having fun.

“I think Erica had the right idea, earlier,” Alec says. “What’s that saying? ‘Let the buyer beware?’”

Beth’s brow is wrinkled. I’m so pleased. Good things tend to follow.

“Something wrong, Beth? Is your friend Alec here being callous?”

“Well no, not exactly,” Beth replies. “What I’m wondering about are the buyers of all this stuff.”

“The buyers?”

“I mean the people who buy the actual lumber or oil for their houses. If Mindy can put Mark out of business, then she’ll be able raise the price to whatever she wants.”

“So let me get this straight: You don’t really care what becomes of Mark, or Susan, or Tom or the rest of them?”

“Well no, it’s not that I don’t care about them. I’m just wonder about what this all means for everybody else. You eliminate competition with your railroad, Mindy eliminates competition by putting Mark out of business, and where does that leave everyday people? We'll be at your mercy.”

“You know, Beth, I worry about you. I really do.” Samantha, who has been looking on with amusement through all of this, is laughing in that quietly hearty way of hers. “And I’m not sure about you, either,” I say to her. “But we’re out of time. I just hope you kids can get yourself some help. I really do.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


The Felix Chronicles, #6

In which we have an unexpectedly moving experience

There's a pleasant chill when I step outside and partake of the festive air as the school day ends. A string of school buses at the curb blends into the yellows and greens of the trees across the street; students trod across the freshly raked grass, backpacks casually slung over their shoulders. A group of boys cackles to my right, one of them exaggeratedly mocking another: “No no – Please let me do it!” and they all laugh hysterically. “Jenneeeeee!” one girl calls another as they rush to embrace. “I got an 87,” she says. “Ninety one,” her long lost pal replies. “I can’t believe how easy that was.”

I’m struck, maybe even shocked, by just how gleefully liberated these kids seem – no matter what they may have to do later, this is a moment of transitory freedom. There’s nothing else they’re supposed to be doing – except actually boarding the buses.

Further on ahead, a couple students actually do, and I can see indistinct silhouettes through some of the windows. Beyond the last bus, an ice cream truck is doing brisk business. Esteban the maintenance guy, who last week I found thumbing through a textbook in my classroom, is directing traffic, which has slowed to a crawl; a gust of wind swirls leaves around an SUV whose driver has raised her hands over the steering wheel in frustration.

Belatedly, I see some familiar faces. There’s Lisa, walking with Tom, who I taught last year. I didn’t know they knew each other. Over there are Joey and Nate; I remember Nate telling me on the Boston trip that he and Joey live across the street from each other. Ginger, who still hasn’t given me the revised version of that essay following the meeting we had weeks ago, is affectionately pinching the cheek of Peter, an openly gay student. Sam is awkwardly lugging a guitar case onto the bus. Just as he does, members of the boys Cross Country team cross the street on their way to Van Cortlandt Park. Some of them will be catching the late bus at 6:15, when it will be dark. Right now the sun, which has been intermittent all day, is blanketed by cloud cover. It will not surprise me if a damp rain begins to fall any minute.

There’s nothing memorable about this moment. Before this school year ends, there will be dozens more like it, varying only with the light and weather. But a year from now, a decade from now, a lifetime from now, fragments of this ritual will suddenly emerge, seemingly from nowhere – the cold gunmetal gray of a bus handrail; the smell of diesel fuel; “No no, please let me do it!” This will be what high school was about. Quadratic equations, haiku, and Alexander Hamilton will be the faded wallpaper.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Marking Time

The Felix Chronicles, #5

In which we consider the science of history—from a child (at heart)

A perfect spring morning—impossibly blue cloudless sky, crystalline air, enough of a chill to promise no sticky classroom this afternoon. As I head from the parking lot to the back door of the library, I see biology teacher Howie Waldman, like I often do in the morning, conversing with his daughter Hannah, 7, before he brings her over to the Lower school. Some days Howie and Hannah are hunched over a plant. Other days they’re looking up at a tree or a bird. (Decades from now, this child will be reliving these moments. I see a sad smile on the face of an aging woman.) Today, though, they appear to have wandered into the realm of geology: They’re standing near two large rectangular rocks that are about four feet wide and two feet deep. They’re stacked as part of a construction site. A landscaping crew, not yet on the job, is in the process of creating an outdoor classroom. These stones look like they’ll function as benches.

Howie beckons me over. “Look at this,” he says, pointing to the stone, which I can see has a chalky gray color and texture. I see the imprint of what appear to be elongated clam shells. I guess this is what you’d call a fossil.

“How old do you think this is?” Howie asks me, pointing to a specific shell. I can see the stone is mottled with them.

I look up at the administration building down a small hill and through some trees. It’s built in a Tudor style, though of course centuries later. This campus was erected in 1928. I’m guessing this was swampland before that if it was going to sustain this kind of life. “I dunno—a hundred years?”

“I’m thinking a hundred million years,” Howie replies. “It might be older. This species is extinct.” There’s no element of gotcha here; he’s not the faintest bit amused by how far off I am. His excitement, palpable as a child’s, is entirely devoted to observing this sign of life.

Here's a shout to Howie—and to my colleagues at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, and to my fellow educators, who re-create life every day.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Teaching with the Test

Felix Chronicles #4

In which a teacher reacts irritably to a ridiculous question

A dreary Friday afternoon. Outside a cold rain washes away the snow, exposing the icy black gunk that has accumulated on the curbs and walkways around campus. Most of the kids don’t particularly want to be here, and I don’t particularly want to be here, either. There are a few eager beavers, though, because this is the last class before a test and I’ve put aside a little time to field review questions.

“What format will the test take?” asks the ever-anxious Ellen.

“Twenty questions,” I reply. “Fifteen IDs, five true/false.”

“No multiple choice?”

“No, not this time.”

Yessssss,” Susan says. So strong in other ways, she’s a relatively weak test-taker.

“That’s different than you usually do,” Ellen observes.

“That’s right.”


“Because I want to mix things up a little. I try to give you all a variety of assessments, so that you get a chance to show what you do well and so that maybe a few of you can show you do just about everything well.”

“Like me," says Joey. He’s not serious.

“Exactly,” I reply, not serious, either.

“Do we need to know dates?” Becky asks.

“I dunno. What do you think?”

“What do you mean, what do I think? Don’t you know?”

“What I want to know, Becky, is how well you’ve figured out what you think that I think is important. By which I mean not whether you can regurgitate the fact that the Homestead Act passed in 1862. In a way, I’m testing your judgment. Your ability to literally make an educated guess about what really bears remembering. You think of the test as the final product, and in a way it is. But for me, it’s the studying that gets prompted by the test that I care about. You taking the time to digest the material.”

“Are you saying we’re supposed to read your mind?”

“In a way, yes. Becky, do you think I want you to know that the Homestead Act was passed in 1862?”


“Brilliant. And why do you think I want you to know?”

“Because it’s important?”

“I look at her with exasperation.”

“One reason is that the Homestead Act passed during the Civil War," Alec says.

“That’s right.”

“And because, like you said the other day, it was one of those laws that the Republicans wanted to pass for a long time but couldn’t because of the logjam in Congress. They wanted to give free land to promote free labor, but the proslavery people didn’t want that. One the war came, all the Democrats left and so the Republicans could get their way.”

“Not all Democrats. Southern Democrats.”

“Southern Democrats. Right.”

“Not bad, Alec. You see, Becky?”

“See what?”

“That Alec knowing that the Homestead Act was passed in 1862 is kind of like a tightly packed suitcase full of clothes. You memorize that fact, and once you’re asked about it a whole lot of relevant information pops out. A mini-wardrobe, as it were.”

Becky looks at him appraisingly. "You got a sensible pair of pumps in that suitcase, Alec?”

“Nope. I only travel in high heels.”

Lisa, too serious for joking, is looking at her notes. “Let me get this straight: Andrew Johnson was impeached, right? But not convicted.”

“That’s correct. Like Bill Clinton.” I’m about to say “Remember him?” and realize that they probably do, but barely. They were young children when Clinton left office.

Lisa is looking down again. “And the thing they got Johnson on was the Tenure of Office Act?”

“Right again.”

“And that said?”

I review the circumstances surrounding the 1867 law. As I do so, I realize I’m a little fuzzy on some of the specific provisions. But, thankfully, I’m not pressed on them.

“What were the Black Codes?” It’s Kim. We’ve entered a kind of free-fire zone where I’ll be pelted with random queries. I start talking about the set of informal and formal segregation that emerges in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Kim scribbles away and then stops.

“But how are these different than the Jim Crow laws?”

“Well, the Black Codes are like the forerunners of the Jim Crow laws. The constitutionality of the Black Codes were in question. But once the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson ruled—"

Lisa interrupts. “That’s the separate but equal thing, right?”

“Right. After Plessy, Jim Crow was etched in concrete with the justification of separate but equal, even though it was almost always separate and unequal.”

A pause. There’s still a good fifteen minutes left of class, but I’m thinking maybe we could call it a day and a week. I’m just about to do so when Susan raises her hand abruptly.

“There’s something I don’t understand,” she says, still thinking as she speaks. “You said the other day that the Fourteenth Amendment grants civil rights at the Federal level.”


“But not at the state or local level.”

“Right again.”

“So, like, how did this actually work? I mean, did African Americans get to vote for president but not, like, governor? Were the elections held the same day? What happened when black people showed up to vote? I’m having trouble picturing this.”

So am I. Partly because I’m already halfway out the door. But, again, the limits of my knowledge are clear to me, and I’m now remembering something I always seem to forget—that these review sessions tend to be depressing in what they reveal about the shallowness of my knowledge. I’ve actually wondered the same thing about the scheduling of elections, but have never looked into it, and am mad at myself for the lack of follow-up. I could safely say that given the variety of places and circumstances, that voting arrangements varied a lot. Or I could simply say I don’t know. But then I have an idea. It’s a little risky, especially since I’ve made missteps with Susan before. But then I decide: I'll go for it.

“Hey Susan, I say, with a tone I inject with a dollop of levity, will you shut the hell up, please?”

First a pause, then laughter. Susan imperceptibly draws back and then gets that I’m kinda joking. “Okaaaaaay, she says.”

“You’re asking all these questions, but they’re beside the point, okay? Because, look, if you’re a Negro voter and you show up at the polls and are told to recite the Declaration of Independence backwards and pay a poll tax, who exactly are you going to complain to? Local officials? Give me a break. You might want to sue your town, but then you’d have to get a lawyer. And who’s gonna take your case? And if someone is actually foolish enough to take your case, do you really think your suit will ever make it to court? And if it does, do you really think that any judge will rule in your favor? And if that judge does, do you really think anyone will enforce the ruling? And if anyone tries to enforce that ruling, do you think that person any more than yourself will actually survive the experience? Which goes back to the faulty premise of your question: that you would have ever showed up at the polls in the first place. That, of course, is ridiculous. So like I say, Susan: Can we stop spending time trying to imagine silly scenarios?”

“All right,” Susan says. “I get it. Thank you so much, Mr. Cullen.”

“You know, I’ve really had it with you people and your stupid questions. Class is over. Get the hell out of here, okay?”

Becky is giddy. “Really?”

“Yeah. Really. Now get out of here and have a good weekend, dammit.”

Photo by Nina Freedman

Monday, February 16, 2009

G.W. 2/22/1732

He was born into a small-time aristocracy—and let’s put more emphasis on “small-time” than “aristocracy,” if indeed a self-proclaimed elite on the edge of the world can be called aristocratic. Having lost his father as a child, the family’s status was insecure, and the boy was forced to rely on his older brother for his education. But there is little doubt he was ambitious. He picked up the useful skill of surveying, handy for the real estate speculation that would so decisively shape his fortunes. He also showed a penchant for making useful political connections, managing to get himself named a non-commissioned officer in the army, only to endure a series of military blunders in the French and Indian War. He’d never be a real gentleman or a true officer in the British empire. Still, a provincial American Dream – marry into money, get some land, get some slaves – was more than within reach. Had he been run over by the proverbial wagon in 1772, when the portrait to the right was painted by Charles Willson Peale, you’d have to say: This guy did all right for himself.

In the end, as we know, he did more than all right, and more than for just himself. There are three reason why that I’d like to point out as we shop, vacation, nap, or all those other good things a President’s Day holiday is for.

Courage. He was brave in the most literal sense—multiple accounts testify to his bravery under fire. But it took other forms, too. It’s easy enough to understand that leading an insurrection against the greatest empire in the world is not for the faint of heart, whether or not you happen to wield a gun. But I’m struck by some of the more subtle manifestations later in his life. For example, he pretty much knew that Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom served in his cabinet and hated each other, were smarter than he was, and he knew that they knew it, too. That was all right with him, as long as they did good work. Which, as was true of many of the people who served under him, they did. There’s no doubt he was vain, and worried—you might say obsessed—about his reputation. But over and over again over the course of his career, whether as a young soldier or as an old lion who reluctantly lent his name to a new Constitution, he risked that reputation. He wasn’t quite flawless in this regard (for example, he kept his mouth shut about slavery for a very long time), but even these limits—and the limits of those limits—are in their own way impressive.

Patience. You can see it over and over again: In working his way out of debt and making Mount Vernon economically self-sufficient; in waiting out the British in defeat after defeat in 1776 before finally pouncing at Trenton that Christmas (or at Yorktown five years later); in enduring severe privation at places like Valley Forge along with his men; in simply enduring a Congress that acted in ways that he regarded as beneath contempt in keeping him supplied in war and carping about his diplomacy in peace. There is no doubt the man had a temper, and it was not one you’d particularly care to have focused on you. (God help a runaway slave.) But that iron discipline could also bend toward justice, as in the will he wrote that was implacably crafted to keep grasping family from denying his slaves their freedom.

Passion. This might seem like a joke. Him? That grim, seemingly unknowable visage in all those portraits, like the one we use to buy candy bars and cans of soda? But there’s finally no other way to understand a man who made the choices he did in transforming an abstraction into a nation. It wasn’t only courage and patience. You can see it in that blazing address he made to the officers who contemplated mutiny in the Newburgh Conspiracy – are you out of your minds, he asked in a white-hot fury, reducing them to tears – and in his desperation to leave the presidency before he died (no, I will not be King George, he said explicitly at Newburgh and implicitly and for the rest of his life). A red-blooded love coursed through the man’s arteries.

He wasn’t a saint. He was a man. A great man. If we lack the imagination to see that, to feel that, then we no longer deserve the freedom he made possible. This is a recurring fear in the tributes. And, alas, a justified one.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Washington. And thank you.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Smart Board, Dumb Teacher

Chronicles #3

In which we see life-long learning as a pain in the ass

Mid-morning, early February. Outside, it’s frigid. Inside, the radiator heat makes me woozy. A few history teachers have gathered here in my classroom, at the behest of Bill, our department chair, for training on the new department Smart Boards we’ve all received as part of the school’s technology upgrade. One more round of being nudged to learn about things we never want know and will be incompetent with when we try. Glad to have figured out how to use email and surf the web, we’ve happily left the blogging, the twitting, the wikking and all that crap to the kids. But the rising waters of technological innovation still manage to reach us. So now we get to be the confused, bored, and resentful students.

Our technology maven, an impressively competent woman who’s clearly younger than her salt-and-pepper mane would suggest, is chatting away about all the tools and applications that are now at our disposal with the new software that can be easily downloaded at . . . . I didn’t quite hear and don’t want to ask. Tony, who’s always been an early-adopter – he had an iPhone on day one – is querying her closely on how to access the feature she had been showing us before she moved on to whatever it is that she’s now doing. “You just go and adjust the settings on the system preferences, menu,” she says, and Andy nods with satisfaction. “Just be sure you have it on the default settings option,” she adds.

Oh,” Fred says sarcastically. “The system preferences menu. “Now I get it.”

“Of course,” Bill says in a tone of good-natured ribbing, “your default setting is permanently set to off, Fred.”

Absolutely,” he replies, happy to be the butt of a joke.

Our maven renders a mild smile. I have a fleeting sense of sympathy for her; it must be tedious to talk to idiots all day. I glance up at the clock. I’m missing a workout on the Stairmaster.

Actually, there had been a point when I was looking forward to this session. I came back from the winter break to find a large section of my blackboard gone, and kind of liked the idea of an expensive new toy entering my domain (seemed like I was always scrounging around for chalk, which seemed to invariably run across the back of my pants). Missing parts from the manufacturer had delayed the installation, which whetted my appetite still more. At last year’s professional day, I had watched in amazement as one of my colleagues in the science department wrote with a virtual marker on a whiteboard and then instantly turned it into type. Given the complaints and queries I constantly get whenever I write on the blackboard, this was something I was truly interested in learning about. Despite a twinge of unease to see those slate boards go – I was surprised when picking up my daughter from a recent playdate to see that her host had a huge blackboard in his kitchen, surely a sign that what was once a commonplace object was well on its way to becoming an antique artifact – I was ready to bring my classroom into the 21st century, as long as a slab of slate remained.

I note that our maven is just now beginning to demonstrate this handwriting to text feature, and raise my hand. “Could we use a real-life example?” I ask. She’s reluctant, I can see from the fleeting expression of irritation that almost imperceptibly crosses her face. I leap to the front of the room, grab a green virtual marker, and start writing some points I plan to use in class that very day. “You might want to go a little slower,” she says from behind me, having adjusted to my imposition. I write:

Sources of wealth in the post-Civil War West
• Land (farming)
• Mining
• Ranching

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that my handwriting on the Smart Board is even worse than it is on a blackboard – smears of green mush.

“You have to learn to write differently,” our maven says.

“Is that all?” Fred asks.

She ignores him. “You have to write more with your shoulder.” She demonstrates the motion. I nod as if I understand and grab the virtual eraser, dismayed that my sludge doesn’t disappear.

“You have to put the marker down first before you can erase.”

I do so. Now the eraser works, more or less. When I put it down, she comes over, takes the red marker and models how I should actually write. It of course looks perfectly legible.

“Now,” she explains as I take my seat again, “in order to turn this into type you must first turn it into an object.” She moves her index finger across her text and a box forms. She moves her finger to a small square on the upper-right hand corner of the box and a string of suggested words appears: “Sources of welts/Sources of welfare/Sources of wealth” and a few more I can’t quite take in. She selects “Sources of wealth” and voila: handwriting becomes type.

“Now you turned ‘sources of wealth’ into what you call an object,” I observe. But do you have to make a separate object for each line of the Smart Board?”


Now I’m truly discouraged. It all seems like so much work: making sure you have the right settings; making sure you don’t pick up the eraser while you still have a marker; making sure you write the right way; drawing boxes around the objects; hoping you’ll get the right option for turning it into text: surely it’s simpler just to pick up a piece of chalk, no?

“I gotta run,” says Tony. This session has probably been pitched too low for him. He likes to tinker anyway. I look up at the clock again, and see that if I leave now I can squeeze in that workout after all. I see Bill is also motioning to go. Fred is saying something to the maven that makes her break into a broad smile: a divide has been bridged. But not a technological divide: He and I, and probably Bill too, have learned little useful information. We probably needed a day, not an hour. But a day would just be too much with everything else we have going on.

Three days later, a canceled meeting unexpectedly gives me a half hour, and I walk into my empty classroom. I turn on the computer and Smart Board, and begin stumbling around. A half-hour later, I’ve managed to write “Tomorrow’s class will meet in the library” and turn it into text. A triumph. I have no clear idea how facile I’ll ever be on this thing; I suspect I’ll settle into some simple routines that I won’t wander from very much. But I know I have to do this. There’s some part of me that will die less quickly if I do. Truth be told, I'm a little surprised, and more than a little pleased, that I'm not quite ready to be erased.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A. Lincoln, 2/12/09

Felix Chronicles #2

In which an admirer draws strength from a beautiful smile

He's right there when I enter the classroom first thing in the morning, his gentle smile directly in my line of sight. That's just the way I wanted it. The photograph is in the public domain, and so I could have gotten it for free, but I was glad to pay an online poster company for an image that's about 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. It came shortly before his hundred 199th birthday. Now I celebrate every day.

It's a pretty famous picture. One of about a half-dozen we have engraved in our collective memory, trotted out by retailers for Presidents’ Day sales. It was taken by Alexander Gardner, former assistant of the famed Matthew Brady, who got tired of Brady getting credit for his pictures and struck out on his own. Gardner had been out in the field taking pictures at the front, but came back to Washington and had secured an appointment with the president. Though there's some dispute about the dating, the consensus is that was taken on April 10, 1865, about four days before he died. This was just after the fall of Richmond, one of the few truly happy days of his presidency. Earlier that week, he'd gone to the Confederate capital itself and swiveled in Jefferson Davis’s desk chair (he had a rebel five dollar bill in his pocket that night at Ford’s Theater). He had the good grace to be embarrassed when a group of former slaves threw themselves at his feet on the street, thanking him for their freedom. It was God, not I, who freed you, he said. Only one day earlier, Lee had surrendered to Grant; for all practical purposes, the war was over.

One of the things I love so much about the picture is that smile on his face, slight but unmistakable. That's very rare. People tend not to smile in 19th-century photographs because exposure times were relatively prolonged, and such expressions seem fake if you have to sustain them for more than a moment. Of course, there was also the matter that he didn't have a whole lot to smile about in those terrible days. The fact that he was doing so here, just after his gargantuan task was accomplished and just before he became another casualty in the struggle, seems almost unbearably moving.

Indeed, the smile, real as it is, does not hide the deep sense of sorrow etched into his face. He fingers his glasses with a kind of absent-minded gentleness. His bow tie is slightly off-center; to the last he never lost his rumpled quality. He managed to retain a full head of jet black hair and beard, only slightly touched with gray. Yet there's something almost steely about them. Though his face seems about as soft as the bark on a tree, I find myself wishing I could run my hand across it. Walt Whitman had it right -- he's so ugly that he's beautiful.
But it's the eyes that haunt me. His right eye is a socket; he looks like he's half dead already. His left eye is cast downward slightly. It does not seem focused on anything in the room, but seems instead to be gazing within, saturated with a sadness that nothing will ever take away. They say he had a great sense of humor and loved cracking jokes to the very end, and I believe it. Surely there was no man on the face of the earth who could have savored a good laugh more. A look into those eyes could leave no doubt.

But the strongest impression conveyed by the photograph is one of compassion. Kindness as a form of wisdom. That's my aspiration. In a few minutes, this room will be filled with hungry, well fed adolescents. Some will be laughing, some will be content. But surely it will do someone some good to have him there. He'll be gazing out for the discussion of Little Big Horn, the Pullman Strike, the New Deal, the request for an extension on the research essay, and lunch. Long after I'm gone, he will remain.

Happy 200th, Mr. Lincoln.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Stages of Learning: Teacher as Performer

Felix Chronicles #1

Introducing Felix, and his creator, with notes from a forthcoming piece on progressive education:

There are lots of ways to be a good teacher, but I’ve always been among those who imagine my work in terms of live performance. Over the years, I’ve built up a repertoire of American history, one centered on some core content that gets shuffled and stretched, retired and revived, every few semesters. Each course I teach is a program or set, a collection of pieces I play in a series of shows that run a semester or school year. Like an actor or musician, I see my job in terms of leveraging experience to gain quick mastery over the material and achieving consistency, while at the same time improvising adjustments that keep it fresh. To a great extent, my ability to do this depends on audiences that are also collaborators. No two classes are ever alike, something every teacher who has taught a course (or two sections of the same course simultaneously) knows very well. Your professionalism is a function of your ability to deliver as well as your receptivity to unexpected challenges.

Of course, most of the time, this conception of teaching is something of a conceit; I spend a lot of my time – more than I probably should, truth be told – standing in front of a room talking to people who hardly think of themselves as being entertained, much less inspired. To some degree, my ability to do this prosaic type of work well may be the best gauge of my talent. But that's only true to the degree to which the talking I do, and reading I assign, or discussions I moderate, lead students to filter information, use what they learn outside the classroom, and collaborate productively in real time. These are the hallmarks of genuine progressive pedagogy, and the standards to which I strive.

Photo by Nina Freedman

Friday, February 6, 2009

"Paul Blart": A Class Act

It was with a sense of low expectations at best, and some unease at worst (if for no other reason than the $35 outlay) that I took my three youngest children, ages 7-9, to see Paul Blart, Mall Cop at my local multiplex last weekend. Partly this was because long we've exhausted the crop of holiday movies, and partly because my patience with animated fare is steadily ebbing (though I do have some hopes for the forthcoming Coraline). My kids are at an age where slapstick wears relatively well -- my own appetite, unlike that of my wife, is pretty much inexhaustible -- and so I thought it a reasonable way to spend an early Saturday evening.

Blart is by no means a great movie. In terms of plot, acting, and direction, it's goals are clearly meat-and-potatoes fare -- comforting in its predictability. Reviews have generally been tepid, to judge by a brief survey of Rotten Tomatoes But the movie has nevertheless been a modest hit.

One of the things that really struck me about Blart, which I found pleasantly diverting, is the distinctive demographic slice of American life it depicts, a stratum of the U.S. population imprecisely described as lower-middle class, or petty bourgeois -- the small house-owing, wage-earning, mall-shopping segment that is in fact quite large but not typically represented as such in Hollywood movies, whether mainstream studios or independent productions. Far more typical is the inverse glamor of the slumdog millionaire or the actual glamor of the Dark Knight's Gotham or the students of Hogwarts (it is a standard trope, of course, to cross-breed these two typologies). We currently do have Clint Eastwood's Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, but this character is an avowed relic, amusing in his attitudes and admirable in his way precisely because he is so dated. Similarly, while we do have plenty of movies set in malls, they rarely focus on adult shoppers, security guards, and retail employees who go to chain restaurants for drinks after work the way the characters in this movie do. Our fondly imagined working class listens to Bruce Springsteen; the members of this one sing karaoke to Bon Jovi.

I have not followed the career of Kevin James, who stars (if such a word can be used) as Paul Blart, though I am aware that he gained notoriety on the strength of his show The King of Queens, and in watching him on a clip of The Tonight Show recently I was struck at how well he has carved out a role from himself as the poster child of the outer boroughs. I'm surely not alone to be greatly cheered simply for the idea of an ungainly, middle-aged movie star. Similarly, while I've never been a big fan of Adam Sandler, whose Happy Madison production company produced the film, he does seem to be shrewd in identifying a core audience to which to market his lower-middlebrow sensibility -- and in teaming up again with James, with whom he starred in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry in 2007. These movies are hardly paragons of enlightenment or sophistication, but as I headed for the exit into the chilly parking lot with my easy-to-please companions (watching my daughter smile at the romantic denouement was worth the price of admission), I was reminded that words like "enlightenment" and "sophistication" are class constructs. I would not at all be surprised if this crowd-pleaser became a perennial of its kind, with a modicum appeal for those who remain open-minded no less than open-hearted.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Outlaw Pete": Springsteen Makes a Western

Among the many virtues in Bruce Springsteen’s music is a rich sense of history. And like many of those virtues, that sense of history has emerged organically over the course of his career. Springsteen’s first albums, Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, were marked by a powerful sense of immediacy; to a great extent, they’re records of the present tense. Beginning with the release of Born to Run, a consciousness of history – principally in the form of a growing awareness of past failure, and a desperate desire to avoid similar mistakes – begins to suffuse the consciousness of his characters. This consciousness is deeply personal, typically expressed, for example, in generational tensions between fathers and sons. That’s what I mean by “organic.”

By about 1980, Springsteen’s sense of history begins to get broader. It emerges in a series of forms, ranging from his decision to perform songs like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (reading 1980 Joe Klein’s biography of Guthrie as the suggestion of his manager, Jon Landau, seems to have been a watershed experience) to recording original songs like “Wreck on the Highway,” avowedly patterned on the style of country & western singer Roy Acuff. His 1982 album Nebraska is saturated with a sense of the 1930s (his 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad even more so), and even deeply personal songs like “Born in the U.S.A.” connect the private struggles of their protagonist to much larger historical ones. This trajectory is a striking, and impressive testament to an artist’s power to grow and integrate everyday life into a broader human drama.

One of the less remarked upon aspects of Springsteen’s body of work is his fascination with the West. This is, of course, counterintuitive – Springsteen is nothing if not the voice of New Jersey, an embodiment of urban, ethnic, working-class values and culture typically associated with the Northeast Corridor. But the western signposts are there, as early as “Rosalita,” which climaxes with a vision of triumphant lovers savoring their victory over paternal repression in a café near San Diego. That’s a fleeting reference. But beginning with Darkness on the Edge of Town – think of the “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert” of “The Promised Land” – the West becomes a vivid and indispensable setting for a number of songs. Springsteen being Springsteen, he’s not always content simply to invoke or use such settings in conventional ways. So, for example, the gorgeous yearning that marks his 1995 song “Across the Border,” redolent with music, instrumentation, and language of the Southwest, is purposely ambiguous which side of the border its protagonists long to go. Springsteen’s mythic tendencies are often marked by creative friction with the concrete details and ironic realities of everyday life.

“Outlaw Pete,” the leadoff track on Springsteen’s new album, Working on a Dream, represents the next turn of the wheel in a way that’s somehow predictable, surprising, and inevitable all at once. Superficially, the song, like the album as a whole, is something of a throwback, a return to the dense, lush, melodic pop songs that were once Springsteen’s stock-in-trade. At eight minutes long, it’s also the first time in decades that’s he’s recorded a mini-epic on the scale of “Incident on 57th St.” or “Jungleland.” For thirty years now, the overall trend in Springsteen’s work has been toward more sparse, even minimalist songs that approach spoken-language records, though the approach here was first broached on Magic in 2007. It’s almost jarring to hear his eager embrace of melodic hooks and multi-track harmonies.

It’s also almost jarring in that “Outlaw Pete” so willfully introduces us to a protagonist who seems like a cartoon figure from an imitation John Ford movie, who “at six months old” had “done three months in jail” and “robbed a bank in his diapers and little baby feet.” Pete’s signature question, “Can you hear me?” seems like a childish insistence for attention. Some might be amused by such a description; others might dismayed, even irritated by its triviality. One could be forgiven for perceiving that Springsteen is slipping into superficiality in his advancing age, perhaps trying to recapture the sense of popular appeal that once seems so effortlessly his.

But appearances are deceiving. More specifically, our perception of Outlaw Pete is deceiving. After hearing the seemingly requisite description of a horse-stealing, heart-breaking scoundrel – rendered in an amused voice that suggests the narrator views him as a figure closer to a rakishly charming Jesse James than a hard, frightening, Liberty Valance – the story turns on a dime (the music, which shifts to a declining phrase of repeating notes, indicates this) as Pete gets a vision of his own death that prompts him to marry a Navajo and settle down with a newborn daughter on a reservation. Yet in some sense the story is only getting started. A vindictive lawman – another staple of western mythology – is determined to bring Pete down and precipitates a confrontation. “Pete you think you have changed but you have not,” Dan tells him, in so doing posing the existential question at the heart of the song, which is to what degree we have agency over our characters and thus our fate. In the showdown that follows Pete is nominally the victor, yet Dan literally gets the last word in observing before his death that “we cannot undo these things that we’ve done.” The question “Can you hear me?” is turned on its head, as Dan speaks to Pete instead of Pete speaking to the world.

Pete, now a fugitive from the law, makes an ambiguous disappearance from the story. Is it to be understood that his encounter with Dan demonstrates the fixed nature of his personality and the impossibility of any lasting mortal redemption? Or is it an act of abnegation that protects his wife and daughter from the wickedness that surrounds him? The final verses of the song depict Dan’s daughter braiding Pete’s buckskin chaps in her hair – original sin and grace at once – with the question “Can you hear me?” now completely reversed, as we listeners seek the vanished Pete. Like Alan Ladd in Shane or John Wayne in any number of westerns, Pete catalyzes action that leads to resolution, but pushes him beyond the frame.

Like a great many works of art, “Outlaw Pete” asks many more questions than it answers. But there are at least two things it does clarify. The first is the ongoing vitality of western mythology (now nicely updated with a multicultural accent) as a vehicle for exploring the complexities of American life. The second is the ongoing vitality of Springsteen himself, 36 years into an enormously broad and deep body of work, to reinvent himself through reviewing and revising our cultural traditions. He hears us, and we see ourselves.