About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Reading a Difficult Book

            With the exception of a few classes, I was a mediocre student in high school, unengaged, drifting along, spending huge amounts of energy trying to find my balance on the runaway train ride that is adolescence.  In my senior year, I had the sheer, dumb luck of landing in the English class of a new teacher, Jack McFarland, a Columbia University graduate student who had come back home to Los Angeles and found a job in our small Catholic high school.  He taught us what he knew: the Mid-Twentieth Century Columbia Western Civilization course, starting with The Iliad and The Aeneid and, after nine months, concluding with Graham Greene and the Existentialists.  The year before, our Junior English teacher had us half-heartedly reading Animal Farm and another short novel and writing a few brief papers.  Mr. McFarland hurled me and my classmates into the very deep end of the academic pool, and we flailed and sputtered and learned way more than we thought possible.

            I tell this story in Lives on the Boundary.  For a complex set of reasons, Mr. McFarland caught my attention in a way no other teacher had, and I worked like crazy for him.  He was the person who recommended I go to college and, despite my sorry grades up to the point of his class, got me into one.  He changed my life.

            Even though I’ve written about this experience, I have recently been thinking about it again…a lot…feel driven to understand it as deeply as I can.  Over my many years in education, I’ve encountered a number of other students who have had experiences similar in form to mine: they were drifting along and then had a teacher, or entered a program, or had life smack them in a way that flipped a switch for them.  School began to matter.

            One thing I’ve been doing to further examine that year in Mr. McFarland’s class is to reread all the books he assigned—and, believe it or not, I still have some of the original paperbacks.  When I don’t, I try to find the edition we read through used booksellers or eBay; I want to hold it in my hand and see the typeface and illustrations I saw then.  I also have the many papers I wrote for Mr. McFarland and my class notes as well.  Finally, I am still in touch with Jack McFarland, and we are rereading some of the books together.  I’m doing everything I can do to achieve the impossible: to put myself back in time to better understand that life-changing year.

            The vexing question that came up early in my rereading extravaganza is simply how it was that I was able to make my way through the books.  Reading some of them now is no walk in the park, so at 17 with such a limited background, how did I do it?  I must have wanted desperately to make this class with Mr. McFarland work.

            The little reflection below is an attempt to recreate the experience of reading Virgil’s Aeneid.  I hope you enjoy it.


            I am lying across the bed on which my father died, a game show on the t.v. in the next room, concentrating with all I’ve got on The Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem celebrating Aeneas’ long, torturous journey that will lead to the founding of Rome.  I read propped up on my elbows, a pencil in my right hand, shifting now and then to mark with wobbly underlines events that I think might be on Mr. McFarland’s quizzes.  I’m hoping I’m right.  We just finished The Iliad—which Virgil drew from—and the quizzes shocked us into reading more carefully, not the gliding half-steps we were used to.  I don’t have any particular technique to help me, so I mentally grunt, bear down a little harder, and use this pencil, something I didn’t do with The Iliad.  My copy of that book is spotless.

            The quizzes.  I mark some of the places where gods interfere in the lives of the characters—a constant in The Iliad and here in The Aeneid.  There’s frightful omens: A swarm of bees shape themselves into a buzzing sheet hanging from a tree while nearby a young maiden’s hair bursts into flames.  And I mark high drama.  Queen Dido, her heart broken by Aeneas, impales herself on his sword atop her moonlit funeral pyre. 

            I can zero in on stuff like this.  But a good deal of The Aeneid is less accessible to me.  As with The Iliad, I am awash in names I have trouble sorting out, let alone pronouncing: Anchises, Cloanthus, Philoctetes.  Long passages don’t hold my attention—Aeneas’ endless trials and tribulations and the winding geography of his journey.  I had read the standard poetic fare of the mid-century American curriculum: Longfellow and Poe and Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain.”  But The Aeneid is nearly ten thousand lines long, translated into a high-brow English verse by C. Day Lewis, Britain’s Poet Laureate (and, it would turn out, the father of the actor Daniel Day Lewis):

            The wind blows fair, and we leave palm-fringed Selinus behind
            To skirt Lilybaeum’s waters, tricky with reefs submerged.
            After which, we put in at port Drepanum, a landfall
            Of little joy; for here, after so many storms weathered,
            I lost, alas, my father, him who had lightened my cares
            And troubles—lost Anchises.

I push myself off the bed, my shoulders stiff, and move to the small metal desk my mother bought for me at Sears.  It is wedged between this bed where I now sleep and my mother’s, a single box spring and mattress close to the bathroom, so she can get up before sunrise to make it to the breakfast shift at a chain restaurant across town.

            Sitting upright gives me second wind.  I cradle my chin in my left hand, allowing freer movement to the pencil in my right.  My father was frail in his house, slowly succumbing to arterial disease before there were medications and treatments that could have saved him.  A year before, he slipped into a coma and died.  On the bed, at my desk, Aeneas is iron-willed through a journey of storms, and battles, and a descent into the tormented shadowland of hell.  He is fierce in combat, driving his sword deep into his enemy’s heart.  He is loyal and devoted, carrying his beaten, grieving father on his shoulders out of the burning ruins of Troy.

            I count the pages I’ve read so far and the number left to go.  If I really concentrate, I can finish them by the time my mother has to go to bed.

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Unknown said...

Mike, I really enjoyed this and find it fascinating. Thanks for sharing this in your blog, and I hope all of this is leading to some book or longer piece with Jack McFarland on reading.

ArtSparker said...

It is so lovely that you are still in touch with your teacher, for both of you.

These startling formative experiences are available at any time I think, in the sense of Eliot's:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Fred Mindlin said...

Beautiful reflection, Mike. I so appreciate the connection you make, without pointing at it, between the circumstances of your own life and your father's death, and the account of Aeneas’ father's death in the poem. We read to learn, without knowing what really is learned, and then re-read in the attempt to realize and appreciate what that learning might have been.
I'm going to share your post with the #CLMOOC and the #celebrateteachers thread...

emilykara said...

This statement really resonates with me: "Over my many years in education, I’ve encountered a number of other students who have had experiences similar in form to mine: they were drifting along and then had a teacher, or entered a program, or had life smack them in a way that flipped a switch for them. School began to matter."

I have now been a high school teacher for 14 years, primarily working in alternative or transfer schools. As a person who was pushed out of high school and into a transfer school myself (simply because of truancy) and who also went to college through a special program (I wasn’t technically eligible for) during my senior year, I have also thought a lot about my personal transformation as a learner and the conditions for it to happen, as well as the potential to spark that transformation in students I teach. I'm not sure this even happens directly, but that providing a certain kind of environment, feeling, or expectation might enable the conditions for a student to more likely have that "switch flipped." Like an opportune chemistry between readiness and need. I have had many rich conversations with special students over the years - when I have seen in them that same kind of "click." It seems like there are so many different variables for it, some combination of a very engaging or present teacher who really "sees" them, a shift in environment or physical surroundings, an assignment that pushed their thinking and therefore their self concept, a life event that produces a lot of self reflection, among other things. What I hold on to and believe is that as educators we do "plant seeds" or, more simply, we impact our students by adding to their lifetime of experiences, memories, senses of self. This can be in so many different, often benign and sadly sometimes crushing ways. As teachers we can't know who will be impacted by what - who knows, maybe your young teacher hadn't even planned to enlighten or challenge or do something miraculous, but he did it at the right time, and had the presence that you somehow needed right then. I know when a student feels recognized in detail, or the class community affirms some new faith in their peers/humanity, or they have a school-related experience of pride, growth, challenge, excitement, that they will carry that inside them, even if subconsciously, and they will draw from those feelings as we all do. And that's powerful stuff I take seriously and with humility – and try not to force. This is a pretty simple insight, I suppose, even cliché (“planting a seed”), but one that has been taught to me repeatedly by my students over the years and also by teachers who were important in my life.

I am very interested to hear more about your insights when re-reading the novels from that year and to see if you can put your finger on some of the conditions for your transformation. If you write about this in another blog post, it would be incredible to also hear about your teacher’s thoughts, if he is willing to be referenced. That you’ve been in contact with him over these years is heartwarming and inspiring.


Emily Kragness
Brooklyn, NY