CHANCE SYNCHRONICITY & MIND-WRITING:
Write About School
Fortress of Tedium: What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher.
A novelist's education in the classroom.
By NICHOLSON BAKERSEPT. 7, 2016
One wintry mix of a morning, while I was in training to be a substitute teacher, I saw a textbook that was being used in an 11th-grade English class. The class was studying transcendentalism, and the students were required to read excerpts from an essay called “Nature,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was an unmethodical writer with low, puffy sideburns who liked to work himself up into paragraphs of rapture. When it came time for him to write an essay or give an oration — about nature, say, or self-reliance — he combed through his voluminous journals and pulled out choice bits that were more or less on topic, and he glued them together with some connective prose. For instance, in “Nature,” Emerson writes: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball.”
In the textbook, next to this passage, there was a brief assignment printed in the margin. It said: Review the elements of transcendentalism listed on Page 369. Which aspect of transcendentalist thought is reflected in Lines 12-19? Explain your answer.
Isn’t that just about the most paralyzingly unrapturous question you’ve encountered in any textbook? “Explain your answer.” No, thank you. I will not explain my answer. My answer is my answer. I am a transparent eyeball. I am a huge, receptive visual instrument with a flexible lens, and I’m taking in the infinitude of all space and time and dragonflies and owls and life and roadkill and hydrogen gas. I am nothing and everything. I am bathed in air. I’m a carefree, happy huge shining slimy eyeball of weird wonderment. I can swivel in any direction. Any direction I look, I will find something interesting.
That’s the extremely interesting thing: Everything is interesting. Potentially. Sometimes it may not seem so. You may think a certain thing is completely without interest. You may think, or I may think, eh, dull, boring, heck with it, let’s move on. But there is someone on this planet who can find something interesting in that particular thing. And it’s often good to try. You have to poke at a thing, sometimes, and find out where it squeaks. Any seemingly dull thing is made up of subsidiary things. It’s a composite — of smaller events or decisions. Or of atoms and molecules and prejudices and hunches that are fireflying around in unexpected and impossible trajectories. Everything is interesting because everything is not what it is, but is something on the way to being something else. Everything has a history and a secret stash of fascination.
That was the basic idea behind the alternative public high school I attended in Rochester. It was called the School Without Walls no walls because it s a big world out there, and life is the great tutor. It was founded by a wonderful, jittery, smart, chain-smoking man named Lew Marks. We called him Lew. He was the principal. Everyone went by first names. Lew had been a hotshot English teacher but wanted to be part of a revolution in education, so he hired nine teacher-coordinators and set the thing up, and the school district said O.K. There was no entrance exam. A lot of people wanted to get in to the School Without Walls after they read about it in the newspaper, so the school held a lottery, and I was one of the lucky ones. I was there on my first day of ninth grade, on the very first day of the school s existence, in September 1971. Every Wednesday, Lew held something called Town Meeting, where the whole school, all 125 of us noble savages, would meet with him and the other teachers and discuss the philosophy of education, the meaning of life and the problem of applying to college sans G.P.A. Read more...
by Frank Guan
Judging democratically, which is to say by market size, there are three tiers of cultural prominence in the United States. Standing at the top are music, television and the major spectator sports. The audience for each of these is all but universal. A child can enjoy any of them, and chances are very good that you can converse with a total stranger regarding at least one of them. The profits are correspondingly immense. In the middle are the fields that lack the absolute visibility of the top tier yet still attract great popular interest, certainly enough to render themselves financially autonomous: fiction (as in all fiction, not just literary), radio, hockey, Broadway musicals, politics, video games, comedy, among others. At the bottom lies everything else, the fields whose popular appeal is too small to survive the pressures of the mass market. If there’s ever any serious money in one of these fields, it’s either because its tiny audience possesses tremendous wealth (e.g. the worlds of high art and high fashion) or because it relies on institutional largesse, whether from foundations, governments or the academy. Poetry exists at this last and lowest level. Like scientists and mathematicians, professional poets are entirely trained and largely employed within the university system, producing work primarily for each other while a very small contingent of outside enthusiasts looks on. Read More...
Read. And don’t read. Read good writing, and don’t live in the present. Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion (a collection of Welsh tales of the 11th–13th centuries, dealing with Celtic legends and mythology) or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches. Check out the bestseller list for April 1935 or August 1978 if you don’t believe me. Originality is partly a matter of having your own influences: read evolutionary biology textbooks or the Old Testament, find your metaphors where no one’s looking, don’t belong. Or belong to the other world that is not quite this one, the world from which you send back your messages. Imagine Herman Melville in workshop in 1849 being told by all his peers that he needed to cut all those informative digressions and really his big whale book was kind of dull and why did it take him so long to get to the point. And actually it was a quiet failure at the time. So was pretty much everything Thoreau published, and Emily Dickinson published only a handful of poems in her lifetime but wrote thousands Read more...
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