Category Archives: Teaching

A Rudderless Black Pearl

WhiteboardSo, school’s out for summer and for teachers and students alike that means a ridiculous break—eleven weeks for teachers, thirteen for students. Thirteen. Over a quarter of the year. Madness. But, anyway, here it is: the start of an eleven-week break. Every year the same—the first few days I don’t know what to do with myself. Lost. Wandering around the house. Going room to room—we have five. Aimless. A rudderless Black Pearl. Go running the wife says. Organize your dresser. I’d rather drink henna.

Instead, I compile lists. List of summer goals—like New Year resolutions, but far more entailed. So instead of the obvious do more push-ups, eat less chocolate, meditate, be nicer to the long list of people I’d rather decapitate…. I begin with categories: Writing, Reading, Teaching Prep, Fitness, Hygiene and Personal Wellness, Family. And under each of these I’ll list either the resolutions themselves or the subcategories. So, for instance, under Hygiene might go Roll out hips x3 daily to help prevent early onset of osteoporosis, which, clearly, represents a resolution. But next to that might go Toenail care, which, just as clearly, represents a subcategory hence bolded not italicized, under which might go such actual resolutions as: Use nail brush daily; Cut across the nail; Moisturize cuticle with hair conditioner. Pulsating stuff.

The Reading and Writing lists are the longest, resembling something akin to the Kennedy family tree. Resolutions about resolutions. Most of them as unrealistic as they are unfettered. Things like: Post new blog content x2 per week (Tuesday and Friday); Tweet fascinating things x5 per week (not including tweets about blog posts); Finish War and Peace (That last one a non-starter. I’ve been trying for three years, on page 1,012 of 1,400 and bored to tears. Can’t even skim read it on the toilet bored); Read Mark Lewisohn’s first part of three-part Beatles biography (On page 200 and loving it. Highly recommended. Exactly what everybody should be reading on the toilet); Read Women in White; Plumly’s book on Keats; Devil in a Blue Dress; Citizen; Housekeeping; MLA guide to Wuthering Heights; Critical Responses to Huck Finn (Most of these as prep for classes so dutifully double-listed as such under Teaching Prep). Read the BBC news site each day plus The Guardian’s on-line Books page.

I’d need eleven weeks just for the one category. Toenails gone to pot. No conditioned cuticles. Not to mention forgetting the supposed faces of my supposed family. All of this an ineffective attempt at holding at bay this overwhelming sense of my own uselessness. Usually lasts 4-5 days, somewhere between a bad mood and just wanting to stay in bed all day and watch HBO, which is exactly what I would do if The Wire were appropriate for nine-year-olds. Took a while to figure it out, at first thinking it just, I don’t know, what…the loss of routine, of being busy, of being commanded by an institutional schedule. Which has to be part of it. And I think it absolutely has to do with loss—it’s a mini grieving period without the purpose and the alcohol that goes with real grieving. The loss especially of deadlines, each day the deadline of having something for them, something engaging about J.D. Salinger or Alice Walker or Sherman Alexie et al. Something to keep them from constantly flirting with the clock on the north wall. Something. Anything. To enter unprepared you might as well exist in that dream where you teach naked and leeches do that thing that leeches do with such aplomb (most teachers I know by the way have some version of this dream at some point in the year. Some of us several times. And you can stop with the Freudian psychoanalytical undercurrent. I just explained it).

It’s the loss of that sense of being required plus the loss that comes with it and with the leaving behind of all those attachments, eighty-plus needy, squawking, emotional water balloons. Gone. That’s the real loss. The looking around and twiddling of thumbs real enough, but the deeper loss the one of interacting every day with strings of kids at that vital moment when naiveté and ennui collide with silliness and madness and joy—a fiery space impossible to disentangle from without withdrawal. Maybe I should get the patch. Or, even better, for Father’s Day, during brunch perhaps, present a mini-lesson to the wife and kids on hyperbolic intent in Jane Eyre.

 

Crossroads School Commencement Address, 2014

Graduation Heart
Graduation Heart

This is the Commencement Address from last Thursday’s Crossroads School Graduation. Such a remarkable, remarkable honor…

I was told to introduce myself. I’m a Virgo. (It’s important). When I was a kid I wanted to be a big animal veterinarian. True yet little known fact. The guy going into the elephant enclosure, the lion’s den and all that. At least that was the dream. And then 10th grade Biology hit me like a frozen meat truck and that, that, was the dream deferred. So, no big animals, no elephant enclosures. In the future, not: Giles Scott, big animal veterinarian. Instead: Giles Scott, Crossroads English teacher.  And rather awed and utterly humbled 2014 commencement speaker.

I needed help with this. Everyone does, especially those who pretend they don’t. There’s a lot out there about how to organize it, what kind of advice to give, whom to thank, how to start, what to stay away from. Apparently, I’m not supposed to talk about sex—on any level—or drop the F-bomb, which is a shame cause the f-bomb when dropped in a British accent sounds remarkably effervescent, especially if whispered. FFfffffff…relax that’s as far as I’m going, but you get the point. It sounds more like an avuncular caress, fffffffffff……….. Nothing remotely like a curse word. Almost the opposite in fact, not just effervescent—virtually reassuring. Like an autumn wind. But, apparently, unfortunately, in a commencement address, verboten.

I’m supposed to start with a joke, which I just did, but I’m on such a roll I’m just gonna keep going with them. I need to thank the board. Thank you Board. And the head of school. Thank you Bob. And of course I get to say something nice about the parents and the grandparents. Which is easy. Cause you look fabulous. You really do. I tell the class of 2014 that they are the best ever. Which they are. And I tell the faculty and the staff that they’re awesome. (Where are you? You’re awesome…) Like I said, so much out there, especially about the commencement address as advice part. There’s the infamous Kurt Vonnegut address given at M.I.T. in 1997, which wasn’t by Vonnegut at all, but went viral because people thought it was. It was all about advice wasted on the young. Some of it pretty good. And relevant.

Like “Wear Sunscreen.”         OrDiploma

“Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know

what    to do with your life”

“Stretch”

“And floss.”

Both so important. As is sunscreen. I’m amazed how many of the current generation dispense with sunscreen. Shocked even.  I know at least one student who has never in her life used sunscreen. Atrocious. Maybe we should make a YouTube video of whales giving the same advice underwater while juggling baby seals and tweeting. That might get your attention. Something so absurd and yet so absurdly appropriate. Because going to college is all about juggling a dozen different and difficult things while feeling like a whale deep underwater trying to converse with another whale deep underwater, while both of you think you’re Kurt Vonnegut.

So, how to get through all that? All my advice is borrowed from the truly wise and the truly qualified though I truly am a huge advocate of swearing. A lot. Got the British through two world wars and fifty years of international mediocrity. Seriously, in England, when there’s a problem we all sit down and have a cup of tea and curse until the bottom of the pot drops out. We literally sit around the kitchen table and take turns throwing curses like completely over the top sailors: frrrrrr I hate him frrrrrrrr I hate her, frrrrrrrrr we’re so mediocre. And when its not your turn, you stop and take little sips of tea you know with the crooked finger, because, of course, in England, that’s how we drink tea. (Not really). But that really is how most of us cope with problems. Tea and foul language. Curse, curse, sip. Curse, curse sip. So utterly cathartic. It’s something I think the Life Skills department should at least consider. There should be a tea and cursing ceremony as part of the Ojai thingy.

Alright, so enough jocularity. To the serious stuff. Emerson gave perhaps the most famous commencement address of all time, to the Harvard graduating class, but 1838 feels like a long time ago. Because it was. But he does talk sense when waxing lyrical about how, and this is a quote: “when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make things what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of this mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched.” Now that’s real advice from a bona fide American genius. The question is how to make sense of such things. Let me repeat the quote: “when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make things what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of this mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched.” As I said, amazing. But what on earth does it mean. Well, the first thing we should probably do, of course, is to translate it into a tweet. A tweet that would go something like this:

“T.I.L.mind open, universe open, shrink world into fable, R.L.R.T. Emerson. hashtag woahspooky Hat tip g-money.”

Now at least we’re speaking the same language. I’m the g-money, and I love the idea of hat-tips on twitter. Right. Just so, so cool. But, anyway, Emerson seems to be talking about each of our minds containing the universe, and containing other minds, other curiosities. Twitter of course being exhibit A of such re-imaginings of the universe. And that is a part of what I love about this class, (what I love about you) their (your) ability to re-imagine the universe, to think in ways that will re-imagine future universes, the curiosity within each of them (within each of you) that never seems to be quenched, whether it be in academics, the arts, community service, athletics, wherever each of you finds his or her center, you do so in ways that re-imagine both this and future universes, in ways that make this world and the next one a better, a more valuable place to be.

Charles Bukowski has that great line about how it’s not the cancer or the broken heart that destroys lives, it’s the burned soup and the broken shoelace. It works for larger things. And if the commencement address is really supposed to be about advice then this is about all I have: It’s not going to college that will make any of you successful, or happy, or even more importantly, which college, and it’s not about how big your house is or how many boats you can or can not afford. It will be the small, apparently inconsequential things. This will sound irrevocably cheesy, but it will be about acts of kindness, the kinds of acts of kindness that happen here every day, and being able to be just as kind in worlds far stranger than this, in worlds where a lot of the time you feel like a thwarted whale communicating underwater. It will be about how many people you can hold in your heart, how much room do you have for people not vey much like you, and how much room do you have for those closest to you when they do you wrong. How much room do you have for forgiveness. Make sure there’s enough space. Make sure there’s enough space for yourself, of course, but also for each other and, most importantly, for the others you haven’t met yet. Make space and take diving lessons. I love you all. Again, congratulations. Thank you.

Play List

I’ve been asked to put together a top ten listening list by one of the kids at the school where I teach, where I’m teaching (where sometimes I find myself parenting and doing other “ings”). Shameless. If I do this for more than a month or two I’ll get better at weaving the tags in rather than leaving them brazenly hanging out in the open like abandoned lemurs. Things like sticking the tags across word breaks: “at the tea, Ching and I drank a delightfully fizzy cup of orange blossom jasmine.”

But back to that top ten list. Tricky maneuver. I said “yes” of course because anything that gets you a little more recognition outside the classroom instantly translates to increased street cred and, hopefully, down the line, better holiday gifts. So I said yes, and now it’s locked in. It’s for a music zine two of the seniors put together, Feed the Trees, which is excellent, just a broad sheet with a concert calendar, reviews, a couple of opinion pieces, an interview with someone in the industry. It’s expertly done. I didn’t make the inaugural issue. Kerry Winsome, the popular sculptural arts teacher got the honor, and yeah that hurt, but it’s hard to compete with the art department on account of all the purple hair and pink Eddie Cochran glasses. Not to mention the stripy tights—no matter the gender. So anyway, I’m already like mid-pile, which was crushing, but, like I said, hard to compete, especially when Kerry has choices like the Penguins and Haim at one and two and then Neko Case and Hank Williams in the middle. Plus Liz Phair, Whitney Houston, Dolly Parton. An utterly irrepressible list. She’s getting a lot of nods to and from the arts building this week from people who a week ago barely knew we had an arts building never mind a sculptural arts teacher.

The impossible part of course is being cool without being too cool. A line thinner than a beetle’s foreskin. Insert pun apology. I’m actually listening to a lot of Mumford and Sons right now—a fact which needs its own kind of apology and explanation, but I’m not putting that up there. Instead, I need to see what past students are listening to on Spotify, students who graduated in the last two years, then do like a “mix-tape” of those choices, and throw in some old punk, things like the Clash’s White Man in Hammersmith Palais and the U.K. Subs, just to show where I was at, you know, back in the day of my own mohair sweater and white Rucanors (as I was emerging from my barely-missed-the-boat Ziggy phase). Bowie himself a touch too obvious, especially with his new album—bless his heart for that; he and Paul should tour together. Paul’s new album another bless his heart moment.

The list definitely needs some Taylor Swiftie kind of stuff on it cause that shows you’re not afraid to be down with the kids, the regular kids, the kind of kids who don’t put out music zines, don’t spend half their free periods round the back of the local supermarket sucking down Marlboro lights. The kind of kids whose parents buy holiday gifts for teachers. Maybe even One Direction though that might smack a little too much of trying to be user friendly. Tenth graders can imagine male teachers having sneaky crushes on Taylor Swift, but a makeshift boy band from England, that’s approaching a whole different side of the tracks, even if they do possess harmonies that set the nether regions a jangling. Georgia says I should definitely keep the One Direction, but Taylor Swift’s a bit weird these days, an opinion for which I may be partially to blame having spent a guilty afternoon with her—Georgia that is—trying to decode the liner notes to Red and coming up with things like “I wear heels now” and “tie my boots to my head.” We might have misread the last one, but all told, all of it a touch off-putting for an eight-year-old. So, she suggests some Katy Perry and La Roux instead. Hugo’s list, naturally, would include “Greensleeves” and anything that approximates the kinds of sounds made by plastic toys manufactured in China.

Despite all the help, I think I’m sticking with one of Swiftie’s break-up songs. Which one you ask? Fair question. The one about Jake. And then the Clash, the Undertones, followed by a few honest ones. P. Ribee, one of those past students I follow on Spotify in order to stay oh so au courant, turned me on to Katie Brunsfield’s Waxahatchee, which I really like, like honestly really like, and then some Youth Lagoon or some Phosphorescent, some Port St. Willow, which has to be one of the best bands I’ve come across in the last half dozen years. Maybe some New Order for the Manchester thing, and maybe Lana Del Ray alongside Taylor Swift. I’ll probably post the full list in the next week or so replete with abandoned lemur pictures and a snapshot of Ching. My new bestie.