Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Yellow Chair: The Time I Taught at the Juvee

Back in the 90s I taught at the Juvenile Evaluation Center out in Black Mountain. My students were teenagers locked up for anything ranging from possession of marijuana to sexual assault to assault with a deadly weapon.

All my students were working on a GED so they could get out before they turned 18. All had committed their crimes while high. All were in drug programs at the center--all in recovery and trying to see a new life.

It is illegal for me to write their names, but trust me when I say I know their names, and I know their stories, and I know what they dreamed of getting for Christmas.

I wheeled a piano out of a broom closet and played music on it while they did math. Some of them learned by ear and played for the others. I taught them equally, and I cheered them on. Next to my desk I had a yellow chair where any student could choose to sit if they needed to "chill out" and not be bothered or asked any questions. It was a place of sanctuary within an otherwise horrible place where, basically, we lock up children.

For the teachers who did not respect these students, these students did not behave very well.  They made life very difficult for the librarian who didn't let them touch the books or turn on more lights.
They knew when they were being talked down to. They recognized a teacher who was "phoning it in" like the one who had memorized every answer in the back of the textbook. The teacher I was replacing was in the hospital for a pencil wound to the kidney.  My pass rates on the GED were far and away better than any other GED instructor they'd placed out there.

My students learned from me because I taught them, not just the material.

We recognize when we're being treated and seen as people. We also recognize when we're being perceived through a false lens of judgment and thinly veiled superiority. I experience it when I know some guy is just checking me out but has no interest in my thoughts. I am a total bitch to such people. I shut down inside and feel a hatred for what they've allowed themselves to become. I even feel moved to a kind of violence I know isn't worth the consequence. Being seen as less than we are moves us to be less than we are. But like my students, when treated with respect and even challenged to rise to someone's good idea of us, I tend to open up and be kind and more myself.

I saw this every day in my students. Other teachers--with the exception of Ms. A---- who loved the boys and consistently held them accountable and told them to Stand Up Straight--experienced conflict with them, sometimes had a boy hog-tied in the foyer while the cops drove over, but for me they worked hard.

Toward the end of my time at the juvee, shortly before a whole chain of abuse stories broke into the public conversation and the place was shut down, the state made this big play for a great big fence with arched steel and razor wire to be constructed around the whole place, which while I was there was open, with children moving from building to building led by teachers and counselors.

The fence started going up, and my students' performance and behavior started to decline. It was as though they were giving in to the idea they belonged behind the fence. The yellow chair was filled with someone all the time, and I had to bring in extras.

The truth is the last time any harm had been caused by J.E.C. students' escaping had been in 1976 or something, more than twenty years before. The few times a boy escaped while I was there, they were spotted rather quickly because they'd shed their clothes and try to hitch-hike down the mountain in boxers.

I drove through the gates and into what looked the inside of a whale skeleton, even I felt I was driving into a place packed with murderous teenagers who held no sanctity for life and would kill me in an instant if I turned my back. But once I got in my classroom, there were my boys. Agitated but still eager to succeed, to take that practice test that would open the door to a new future.

During a math class one day, a boy asked if I believed in the statistic of the low number of African-American boys who'd live to see the age of 25. No, I said. The statistic, of course, suggests that it's the African-American boys who get themselves killed not that non-black people with guns will shoot them.

Now, I believe in the statistic while I still believe in African-American boys.

And I think of that fence.

I think of the razor wire and the white curves of steel and the message it sends telling everybody who drives by that black youth are killers and need to be locked up this way.

And I think of how this is how a culture perpetuates racism through solutions disproportionate to the problems. And I think of my students. And I hope they are safe.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Teacher Who Taught Me How to Teach


As I begin a new school year, I think of the teacher who taught me how to teach. Marianne Weaver.

The entire educational universe would be a different place if everyone could learn how to teach from Marianne Weaver. In every subject. In every institution. At every grade level. Marianne Weaver is that excellent a teacher.

I first stepped into Marianne's Muscle Pump class at the YMCA a year after I gave birth.

I had never lifted weights before in my life, having gone the yoga road through my twenties and early thirties but now suddenly completely uninterested in yoga. I wanted something else. Something tougher. Something that didn't ask me to develop an inner life. If there's anything I'd had enough of in that first year of motherhood, it was interiority, connection with my soul. I wanted pure, unadulterated body.

When I walked past Marianne's class and heard "Modern English" singing "I'll Stop the World and Melt with You" over a roomful of mostly women holding bars over their heads and moving their hips to the beat like they were holding beach balls, I thought I'd stepped into a Zero-Gravity chamber. I walked in, sweaty from some time on the treadmill, grabbed the gear I saw everyone else had, and I started lifting.

Most "group exercise" classes I'd tried were parapatetic in their organization: to the beat of techno the instructor rushes students through bits and pieces of routines that left me focusing more on keeping up then actually doing the actions. Marianne had found what worked for me without knowing me. Each song served one muscle group and involved only three or four actions, which I could learn then do while zoning out to the music.

Her songs were my songs. They were all our songs. Marianne's students loved Marianne's music. And no one loved Marianne's music more than Marianne, who swayed, laughed, and danced while lifting (is that allowed?), and even flirted with the room of us when the lyrics flirted with her. She made working out feel like we were at a slumber party, and she was the one you tried to stay up all night with playing pranks on everybody else but always fell asleep.

"I know it's getting heavy!" Marianne would say into her headset as we all stood holding our 9 pound bars in front of us for the entire bridge of "China Girl" "It's heavy for the woman standing next to you, too, and if you drop your bar, you'll stop inspiring her, showing her that she can keep holding it--so don't drop that bar. We're going to do this together."

She wasn't a cheerleader. She wasn't a coach like anything I'd seen before. She wasn't either chipper with encouragement or sadistic with harsh platitudes. She was a philosopher in spandex shorts and t-shirt, sometimes a ball cap. "What does that bar represent to you? Is it your career? Is it your family? Whatever it is, you don't want it to fall, do you?" She connected all the ways we were strong outside the exercise room to what we were doing in it. She built a community out of this hour-long gathering; she made us feel we were on one another's mission, that what we did in that space would determine the outcome of all our efforts between then and the next time we came together.

And like this, she got us all believing something I myself had never known before: I was strong, and I could get stronger as long as I kept coming to class.

So unique and effective was Marianne's brand of teaching that when she had to call in a substitute, half of the students just didn't go into class.

It was the difference between being yelled at for an hour and being supported for an hour.
It was the difference between being challenged to do something and being given a reason to do it.
It was the different between "working out" and "working together."

I took my Muscle Pump experience with me into my own classroom. In the same ways I had never been told I was strong, my students had never been told they could write or become the kind of person who could pick up a book and really get into it. I understood them better, and I dreamed up ways of getting them to hold their own burdens in a new way, inspiring each other as they did so--because everybody has burdens.

And our burdens make us strong.

I now understand that what I witnessed in Marianne's teaching was the difference between the old-school model of scolding and pressure and varying degrees of humiliation and something new, something I had not seen before--but something that definitely worked because I was dancing while doing clean-press-squats and simultaneous leg-lifts and flies.

That's what a teacher can do: take someone who declares they can't do something and reveal to them they can. Again and again.

Marianne has left my local YMCA. Those of us in her class see each other from time to time in other settings. We never met for coffee. We didn't develop friendships. We weren't in that space for that kind of community. We were in there to get strong, and when we see each other, we know we are, and we respect each other for what we know we can do.

So, as the semester begins, as I look over my assessment strategies and syllabi, as I ask myself how high can I raise the bar this time, I picture my students as though we were gathered in that exercise room. And I raise the bar pretty damn high. They can totally do it.

Thank you, Marianne.

An added note: Marianne has written a children's book which challenges our children to develop strong vocabularies and strong ethics. If anyone can make our children strong in these ways, it's Marianne. Worked for me.

This Is What Love Does - This Is What Love Does is a story about a newspaper delivery girl, named Dubzee, who embarks on an adventure, sharing her gift of selfless love, with the hope of restoring harmony and balance within her surroundings. This story is about values and putting these values into action. The reader is subtly reminded in loving acts of kindness we each have the potential to create a positive impact while understanding we are all connected to something bigger. 







Tuesday, August 12, 2014

O Captain: How Dead Poets Society and Robin Williams' Mr. Keating Shaped My Life





I saw Dead Poets Society in a theater in Piccadilly Circus in 1989. At the time I was a junior in college, studying theater, literature, and philosophy. My walks to class included passing by the former homes of T.S. Eliot, John Stuart Mill, and Sarah Bernhardt, mirroring my own passions, my own indecisiveness of what I should focus upon. I was acting in a play in a small South Kensington theater, but I was waking up at 3 am with a head full of poems that I'd crawl out my window and write by the streetlamps along Queens Gate Terrace, careful not to wake my room-mates. 

One evening after rehearsal, my director and fellow castmates decided to venture into town to watch a movie. I hadn't ever asked myself what poetry was or considered it to be something of a great gift. I had written it forever and belonged to it and loved it as one feels love for something always there yet forever surprising. But I walked out of the movie with a very clear view of what I would devote my life to, something that would entail all my passions, including theatre and philosophy, and cost me nothing if I held to it fast enough. 

"There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for," says Robin Williams' character, the beloved Mr. Keating. I finished the play, but after that I gave my life to poetry. And to teaching. Ten years later, I was hired to teach English at Christ School, an Episcopal boarding school for, yes, boys here in Asheville (well, Arden). For ten years I was "that" teacher, the one that spoke of poetry as sacrament, the one that got the boys dashing through the forest dressed in fake fur and mud enacting scenes from Beowulf, the one to whom the boys still send the occasional poem, penned through tears after a break-up. When a new department chair published an article entitled, "An Arsenal of Strategies for Teaching Boys How to Attack Poems," I knew my days of reading "Tintern Abbey" on the branches of a 250 year old oak or Midsummer Night's Dream under the arbors dripping with bees and wisteria were running out.

Dead Poets Society is a cautionary tale, warning teachers and students alike about the dangers of a life lived at the core of passion, a life lived "deliberately." This excusing of the poetic life from any "pragmatic (a term so often used to escape the aesthetic, when in fact aesthetic consideration is necessary when looking from all sides, no?)" course extends to this day. I can safely say, though, that in ten years spent teaching boys in the Keating Style of Barbaric YAWP-ing, all of my boys survived.

Twenty five years after seeing a movie that warns against routing out "all that was not life," I still teach in a way that lets knowledge infuse life with meaning and not stay dead on the page, and I still write. I have not abided by the Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D., scale of poetry, as the gruff headmaster commands Mr. Keating do, and I have a full, rich, beautiful, caring, and meaningful life. It takes courage to live such a life, to gather the rosebuds, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. There have been temptations to surrender to an idle kingship. But what kingdom would I rule?

Dead Poets Society and Robin Williams' performance accomplished the near impossible: into the material heyday of the 1980s, the film stirred a subversive and life-affirming message: live for beauty. That Neil's dad couldn't stand to see his son crowned with ivy and sprinkling water upon lovers' dream-cast faces is the warning any of us face when moved to contribute beauty to the world: a fear of pissing off Dad. But Mr. Perry (the actor of which played Mork's love's Mindy's dad in the actor's TV debut) sees the smoke rise from the cold space behind the stentorian desk and learns the ultimate lesson about life-force for which the film framed poetry to be the very voice. The film said this is a voice that should not be taken from the world, not for all the money in it.

Thinking through all the actors who might have played Mr. Keating, none comes to mind as any so well-equipped with the depth and joy and mysterious beautiful sorrow and beauty of Robin Williams. If as Mr. Keating says, "No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world," then so can powerful performances. This one absolutely not only changed my life but set its course, so I say from my heart, "O Captain. My Captain."

                                             

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Ten Responses to "Do You Read Thomas Wolfe?" That Won't Make You Sound Like an Idiot

As Thomas Wolfe becomes increasingly famous, again, and as Asheville rises with the Wolfean tide, again, here are some responses to the question, "Have you read Wolfe?" that won't make you sound like an idiot, even if you don't read Wolfe. The key here is to avoid saying, "His sentences are too long."
10. The Planned Engagement:
Like a lot of people of my generation, I haven't come across much Wolfe. I plan to pick up a copy of the short stories. Do you have a favorite?
9. The Deflection:
Oh, you like Wolfe! You can tour his house here! It's just over there on Market Street. You can also stand in his shoes. They've been bronzed!
8. The Shut Down:
I have indeed! I've read every word, and the journals, and the letters, as well as multiple published versions of Look Homeward, Angel. I found O Lost to be much more satsifying and loved reading the two side by side, highlighting the altered passages. My dream is to spend a summer thumbing through the original drafts, all two million words of them.
7. The Shame
Oh, you know, living here in Asheville, with so many descendants of the actual characters in Look Homeward walking around, teaching your kids, running the florists and being doctors and all, it's a bit bad of form to read Wolfe. If you do read him while you're here in town, it's best to keep it on the sly. Like a speakeasy, only for books. A read-easy, if you will. We'd be wise not to talk about it further, not in the open like this.
6. The Passion:
I had a girlfriend who loved reading Wolfe, and we read Of Time and River while we backpacked around Europe back in the 80s. It was the best few weeks of my life, then she dumped me on the Rhine for a Spanish soccer player, and I threw my copy overboard. It's now all soggy at the base of the Lorelei. But I loved every word of it. (Sigh heavily til interlocutor changes subject to avoid your total breakdown)
5. The Scholar:
At this time, I'm more interested in the criticism surrounding Wolfe. (Then just wait . . . you probably are safe from further engagement. If you discover you are not, run.)
4. The Side Step
Wolfe is such a stunning asset to American literature, and it's exciting to see his legacy revived. While it's been some time since I read You Can't Go Home Again, there's no doubt that it's one of the greatest books in the English language. I just wish they hadn't changed the name from Eugene Gant to George Weber. (interlocutor here will no doubt enjoy a monologue espousing his or her shared sentiments; conversation will very likely veer into the editing narrative, which you can happily let interlocutor control at no expense to your literary profile)
3. The Techscuse:
I think all my technology usage has made my brain incapable of reading Wolfe the way it's meant to be read, which I understand is to allow time for each paragraph to wash over you, each sentence to take form in your mind before you move on to the next. I'm eager to remedy this, but my job requires me to be plugged in all the time. (yes, this is dangerously close to "the sentences are too long," but it has a reflective context. Interlocutor might even pity you then walk on)
2. The Sentimental Journey:
My father used to read Wolfe to me when I was a kid. I still have his copy of Look Homeward, Angel, all beaten up from his college days. I pick it up from time to time, but it makes me very nostalgic, which I suppose Wolfe would have wanted.
1. The Best Answer:
I am two-thirds of the way through Look Homeward, Angel now. I read it at his grave for an hour each day over in Montford, when the weather's nice, and on the porch of the house, if it's raining. With a thermos of coffee and a flask of Makers.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Rise of Valerie Macon





THE RISE OF VALERIE MACON
(to the tune of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald")

The legend lives on from the Catawba on down,
Of the poet named laureate by McCrory,
Folks said O Brother. No one had heard of her,
Not a song, a poem, or story.
Of the governor and crew, none of them knew
Anyone reads this weird stuff they called poetry.
The post it was said was every bit as good as dead,
And he appointed a woman named Valerie.

(slide guitar in mournful sea chanty moan of Lake Superior)

The Laurel is the pride of the Creative side,
For whom the work of the words is of value.
The craft of the verse seems obsessive at first
But like love it serves to enthrall you.
And from Valerie’s pen flowed the truth of men
In lines that felt as they fell like renewal.
This was the gift of the poetic shift,
A storm in the soul that will call you.

(slide guitar in mournful sea chanty moan of Lake Superior)

When the press release came, the voices weren’t tame
That questioned the governor’s decision.
There was protocol in place and credentials to name
He’d completely ignored for some reason.
From Hendersonville high to Okracoke low
The poets posted on Facebook their questions.
Then the Monitor and then NPR
Gave North Carolina poetry their full attention.

(slide guitar in mournful sea chanty moan of Lake Superior)

Meanwhile at her desk, our poet laureate,
Valerie Macon, deleted her website.
Erased any clue of any image she once drew
With words that had given her delight.
The poems she loved, felt had come from above
Now trapped her in the harshest of spotlights.
For overnight fame was never good when it came
On the wings of a politician’s oversight.

(slide guitar in mournful sea chanty moan of Lake Superior)

Things had been quiet on the poetry side.
And since school it'd been easy to avoid it.
But now passions flared and the Governor was scared.
He thought it would be easier than this to destroy it
Within a matter of hours, he came down from his tower
And said Everyone can be a poet.
Like this he'd deregulate the Arts of the state.
By taking them into his pocket.

(slide guitar in mournful sea chanty moan of Lake Superior)

For seven long day’s neath the nauseating haze
Of the governor’s unceasing hubris.
Valerie’s pen beckoned Please use me again,
It wasn’t your idea to do this.
But Poetry’s shy when it’s been crushed by the sky.
It’s not something on the ego’s to-do list.
It’s a soul-given task, a beloved craft,
And McCrory’s great stunt abused it.

(slide guitar in mournful sea chanty moan of Lake Superior)

Now, poets are called hostile and cold
Instead of peaceful folk who like language.
Professor and King are for him kinda the same thing
And they needed to go out with the garbage.
Yet under it all, there’s yet this constant, wild call
Like a prayer that's as old as the ages.
The storm now has passed, and the poets all ask
Valerie, won’t you please come and write with us.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

MAGNIFY


                                    for James Shaver

I want to live every moment as a promise unbroken and
flowing to my grandfather who when we walked to water pump
In the park in Orillia looked up and announced in his French
Canadian ancestry, “Quelle mélange de couleur” and I asked
him what he’d said and he, being deaf and understanding
the question to mean I hadn’t heard him, repeated it en
Francais and I somehow understood him the second time
and didn’t need to hear it the third. Language is its own
water underneath the earth of thought.

From his deafness, now my deafness, he only spoke to
illuminate, to magnify some lost treasure the rest of us
were missing. Family arguments died under the blade
of a Shakespeare quote. Rough waters calmed. “You
going to be a poet, pet?” he asked as we clipped the wet
laundry onto the line between their cottage and the next.
There was only one correct answer and I said it, cool cotton
heavy in my hands one minute, dancing in the sunlight
the next.

“Genius,” he called me after Alzheimer’s had stolen my
name. “Poet,” he stroked my hands as I tried to feed him
cranberry juice through a straw he refused. I watched
prose dissolve into poetry under the overwhelming tide
of mind-loss, beginning the moment he locked his keys
in the car without setting the brake so it rolled into the
ocean. He stood and watched it, then announced we’d
be walking home that day. 

There is, he told me, years before, an eloquence
to silence, perhaps my hardest lesson as we knelt in the
canoe and pushed off from the Simcoe beach, the water
droplets our paddles carried over the surface the only sound.
A whirlpool’s hush from a J-Stroke kept us straight. In the silence
he taught me the depth of life, interminable, exhausting. Those
evenings we paddled for hours. And when we returned, I had
the golden feeling of nothing having happened of value. But he

would assure me in his long wordless strides something beautiful had.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Narrative Medicine . . . Narrative Everything




Last February I attended the Columbia University Narrative Medicine workshop led by Dr. Rita Charon and the remarkable faculty of the Columbia Program in Narrative Medicine. I had heard about Narrative Medicine while showing a Lee Gutkind video to my Creative Nonfiction students at The Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative at Lenoir-Rhyne, the M.A. program I direct and get to see unfold. Gutkind was listing the subgenres and applications of CNF. When he said "Narrative Medicine," I knew I'd found my next fascination.

In Narrative Medicine, care providers develop narrative competence, the ability to recognize, interpret, metabolize, and be moved by stories.

Be moved by stories.

Something happens when a group of people get together and close-read a story or a poem. It isn't a book club, though book clubs are awesome. It isn't a class, though classes are awesome. It is a community moment, one where strangers move through an experience together and are transformed in the process.

In reading the story, we are not allowed to self-relate the material. We aren't here to talk about ourselves. We aren't here to make it about us.

Instead, we stay close to the text. Everything that is spoken is drawn directly from what is on the page. In this manner we identify the plot, the context/frame, the literary devices at work, the temporal scaffolding, and the desire of the story. We catch ourselves drifting into our own stories then remind one another to keep focused on someone else's, the story told on the page.

This is the seed of the empathic training found in narrative medicine.

We are not here to show how smart we are, how well we can read, or how well we can analyze literature. It isn't English class. We are here to be moved, to indulge our humility, to allow a story to change us.

To allow this, we let our guards down. We make guesses at meaning, we bumble about with literary terms, we discover together passages that we might have skimmed when reading at home but which suddenly become revelatory in their significance.

We expand the story among us, each of us at the table offering a new observation. We contradict and enter the contradictions with the humility of awe and wonder.

The way stories were "taught" in school led to quizzes, right and wrong answers.
This is different. There are no wrong answers, only new possibilities.

People who are charged with the responsibility of knowing and certainty indulge the paradoxical and confounding. We are made to feel comfortable in this space, which then prepares us for these spaces as they occur off the page, in day-to-day situations and stories.

This is Narrative Medicine.
All life is a story. In these sessions, we discover how to read it.

The next session is March 18 at Lenoir-Rhyne Asheville. The story and free registration is here:
http://www.eventbrite.com/myevent?eid=10422474903