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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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Possible Lives at 20

Here is an essay I wrote reflecting on the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America.  It appeared in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column “The Answer Sheet” on August 8, 2015 [see it here].  As Ms. Strauss put it in her introduction to the essay, we don’t find much of this kind of understanding of school as part of community, a sense of place, in current education policy and reform.

***

            More than anything, it was the nihilistic policy and media language about schooling that got me on the road in the early 1990s to document good public school classrooms, and from those classrooms to draw a more comprehensive language—a richer set of stories—about public education in our country.  In the back of my mind was William Least Heat-Moon’s wonderful book Blue Highways, a chronicle of his travels across the back roads of the country, which were printed in blue on old highway maps.  Heat-Moon set out to discover America and, in a way, himself.  My goal was different, but, I would later realize, not unrelated: I wanted to get us to think about schools and school reform in a different way.

            This fall marks the 20th anniversary of the book that resulted from my journey—Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America—and that fact got me to look through some of the notebooks I kept during my travels.  About mid-way through the writing of the book, the opportunity came up to drive with a friend across the U.S., and I saw the trip as a chance to view the country I had been seeing in segments in one long arc.

            I’ve pulled two scenes from the cross-country notebook: one from Tucumcari, New Mexico, the other from Rochester, New York.  In addition to the teachers and students who form the core of Possible Lives, I met countless people in restaurants, markets, small shops—and just on the street as I was finding my way around.  They were open to a stranger, and added to the richness of the journey.  I learned so much from these conversations: about local history, about changes in the economy, about regional speech and folkways, about the hopes and grievances attached to school, and about the place of school in memory.

***

            It is mid-August, 1993, and I’m in the El Toro Restaurant in Tucumcari, New Mexico talking with a local woman named Edda, whose parents homesteaded just outside the current border of the city.  She is with her daughter, the “baby of the family”, who will soon be going off to college in Texas, a hedge against the uncertain future in her hometown.  Tucumcari borders Texas in east-central New Mexico, and has a population of about five thousand people.  Its economy, Edda explains, is built on cotton and feed and livestock.  Tucumcari’s once vital downtown, Edda continues, suffered as corporate retailers moved into larger neighboring cities, and the recession of the early 1990’s dealt a final blow.  “There were nice shops here,” she says.  “Used to be you could buy beautiful dresses right here.”  The city is tearing down two historical buildings.

            Edda directs me to an old building that houses the Tucumcari museum.  It is not far away.

            The main floor is crammed with artifacts of Tucumcari’s livestock industry—over one-hundred varieties of barbed wire—and with stone tools, pottery, and arrowheads from local Native American tribes.  In the basement, the curators recreated a general store: A Victrola, lamp shades, hardware, dry goods, and all kinds of remedies: Chill Tonic, Hart’s Compound, and a laxative called Satanic, the devil’s arms opened wide across the label.

            By the staircase, a sign: We do not discuss politics, religion, or the Civil War.

            Up the stairs, then, to the second floor to find that about half of the space has been fashioned into an early Twentieth Century classroom.  Rows of small desks with ink wells.  A mannequin dressed as a teacher—long, green flowered dress, hair pulled back in a bun.  The alphabet.  Pictures of the presidents.  A bookshelf with old books stacked sideways: science, geography, the Spell-to-Write Spelling Book, a Universal Composition Book.  There is a globe, lunch pails, and an eighth-grade diploma: “Admission to High School.”  It turns out that this building was Tucumcari’s old schoolhouse.

***

            “Crazy Ronny” stands in front of a massive heap of metal, jagged sheets of aluminum, severed steel beams, copper coil, burnt vats and tanks.  Ronny supervises this recycling operation in the defunct train yard in Rochester, New York, and he is electric with pride and get-go.  The recycling plant has been running for two years, so Ronny has been with it as it’s grown.  “We’re taking it in,” he says grinning, “faster than we can get it out.”

            The railroad’s old roundhouse still stands—well, part of it…sections are sheered off to accommodate the lot’s machinery and the movement of scrap.  The pits where mechanics stood to service the undercarriages of railroad cars are filled in, and the turning track in the middle of the yard is gone, though the brick lining remains.

            Ronny is not a big man, but is wiry and powerful, with forearms that you get only from years of turning a wrench or winch.  He is handsome in a rough-hewn way, and his face is bright with confidence.  He is quick and generous with praise for his crew.  He describes the difficult task of stripping the 4” glass lining out of chemical processing vats and says he doesn’t know how his guy does it so well.  He praises his welders, their skill, their tenacity.  My guess, though, is that he’s had tough times—in school, perhaps, maybe with the law.  His tee-shirt announces Crazy Ronny, and he’s right at home in this metallic wasteland and up to the task of taming it.

            During the time of my visit in 1993, Rochester had suffered the fate of so many Eastern industrial cities: economic restructuring, empty factories, jobs lost.  Recycling plants exist in good economic cycles and bad, but I couldn’t help but see this one as both outcome and symbol of hard times.

            The remnants of closed shops are gathered together here, processed and crushed into usable material for new industries, or old ones surviving in other forms or locations.  Creative destruction in a pretty literal sense, but only a few jobs are being created out of tons of thousands lost.

            But in the midst of this post-industrial churn, Ronny found meaningful work.  In the 1990s there were some government programs being floated to retrain former industrial workers for (much lower paying) service jobs.  I couldn’t imagine a guy like Ronny sitting at a desk all day or helping people process a claim or find a better appliance.

            This job mattered to Ronny.  He supervised it and watched it grow.  He knew what he was doing, had command of untold tons of twisted steel and iron, understood the flow of work, what his crew could do, appreciated their know-how—the skills involved in removing a four-inch layer of glass lining from a vat way taller than a man.  My Uncle Joe Meraglio once said that the shop floor of General Motors was his schoolhouse.  Ronny would understand exactly what he meant.

***

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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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