Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Frankensteinian Pause



It's Halloween.

So I'm pausing in my series of earnest posts about computer and online learning to reflect about something far more important--Frankenstein.  I just googled for an image: got 65,000,000 choices.  A lot to consider so soon after breakfast.  The most famous one, of course, is the one from the James Whale film of Frankenstein (1931) with Boris Karloff in the title role.  But as readers of Mary Shelley's original 1818 novel know: that image doesn't much resemble the creature she imagined in her book--that agile, intelligent, LARGE (eight feet tall!) fellow who just wanted some of what Aretha Franklin sang about (starts with an R).

As many of you know, I went through a long obsessive period about Frankenstein and its creator, a period lasting from, oh, 1994 to ... now?  No, not now.  It's cooled some.  Though I am well into the writing of a memoir called Frankenstein Sundae about my decade(s?)-long pursuit of her and her story, a pursuit that took me to England, Wales, Switzerland (where she got the idea in 1816), Italy, Germany (site of Castle Frankenstein, which does not appear in the novel), and to a ga-jillion libraries and archives.  I wrote a YA biography of Mary Shelley and published it via Amazon/Kindle (link to Amazon page).  The cover of that book, by the way, shows one of the early stage portrayals of the creature.

A week or so ago, I bought a new annotated edition of the novel--and it's a wonder (Harvard Univ. Pr., 2012).  Edited by two American scholars (Princeton, Rutgers ... hmmmm, a New Jersey connection?), the volume uses the 1818 version (there were two others in Mary's lifetime) and is lushly illustrated (often in color) and lovingly, accurately annotated.  I like that the annotations lie in the margins, alongside the text, not banished to endnotes where only nerds like me go look.  A good chronology.  Some stuff about the movies.  About the original composition of the novel.  Wish I'd published the damn thing myself.

I thought you might like to read a draft of one part of one chapter about my earliest memories of the story ... from the aforementioned memoir-in-progress:


V: Danny Meets Frankenstein
My earliest memory of the monster …
            I was born in 1944 in Enid, Oklahoma, where my parents had met as students at Phillips University (now defunct) and married in 1939.  I cannot remember the exact year—or even season—when the 1931 movie Frankenstein, the classic one directed by James Whale and featuring Boris Karloff, appeared on television.  Our roof antenna brought in the only three stations it could—one from Enid (KGEO), the others from Oklahoma City (WKY, KWTV).  But it must have been on a Saturday, or in the summer, because my two brothers—one older, one younger—and I could not watch television on school days, certainly not on Sunday, a day devoted to Sunday school and church (Disciples of Christ) and a huge dinner (usually pot roast with carrots and peeled potatoes that lay heating and hardening in the oven while we sang hymns and endured long sermons in a hot sanctuary a few blocks away) and reading the Enid Morning News and snoozing before a supper of leftovers and, sometimes, a return to church for vespers.
            But I do remember this: Dad would not let us watch Frankenstein.  My older brother and I pressed for a reason—respectfully, respectfully.  In the 1950s in our house there were no overt challenges to parental authority.  None.  It was inconceivable.  And even if we had thought about it, we would have concluded with quick certainty that open defiance was suicidal.  Not that my father was abusive.  He wasn’t.  But he was a large man—a former high school and college football star—and when he spanked us (brisk swats on our bottoms with the back of a hairbrush, rare but always well earned), we knew we’d been spanked.
            But about the movie, Dad told us that he’d seen it when it was released back in 1931 (he was eighteen then), and he said there was a really horrible scene in it.  Tell us! my brother and I cried, eager for horror.  There’s a scene, Dad said, when Frankenstein [yes, he mixed up the monster and the creator, as people still do] comes across a little girl playing by the water.  Dad stopped, perhaps considering the effects of what he was about to tell us.  Daddy!  What happens?  He looked at us, made his decision.  And she’s pulling up flowers and tossing them in the lake.  He looked at us again.  And then the monster grabs her and …
            I don’t remember if he actually told us that the creature dismembers the little girl, but he didn’t really have to.  I saw the image.  I see it right now.  Frankenstein’s monster plucking off the arms and legs of a screaming little girl.  Flinging the gory things in the lake.  The creature perhaps a little puzzled about the screams.  The pretty flower didn’t make noise, he reasons.  Why is this pretty creature making noises?  Something along those lines.
            So … we saw no Frankenstein that day.  Nor did we see any other versions of the story that appeared on TV or at the local movie houses of our boyhoods—the Cherokee, Chief, Esquire, and Sooner.  The only exception—Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).  When I saw that comedy years later, I realized I’d seen it before … but when?
            And, of course, I later saw that 1931 film, too.  And when the creature finds the little girl alongside the water, I knew what was going to happen.  I steeled myself.
            But, of course, it doesn’t happen.
            Here’s what we see instead—check it on YouTube.  The creature—who’s already killed two people—is charmed by the floating flowers, the daisies the little girl (Maria) has uprooted and tossed into the lake.  He smiles.  Tosses some that she has given him.  Then he runs out of blossoms.  Pauses.  Then picks up little Maria (cradling her, holding her like a parent).  He throws her in the water, where she flails around.  Then we see bubbles.  And a confused creature leaving the scene.  And, later, a grieving father carrying the wet body of his dead daughter.  (She’s missing no limbs.)  Later, I read that Whale had actually filmed the creature hurling her violently in—but censors (and Karloff himself) didn’t like that, so out it went.  Some local censors cut the entire scene.
            But there never was any dismemberment.
            Did my father misremember?
            Or was he just trying to shock his two little boys (we were probably, oh, 8 and 11) into dropping their suit to see the film?  If so, his tactic had the opposite effect.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Learning from the Best? (Part 2)



After I posted yesterday, I remembered another reading machine that my mother had used in her classroom--and that had also been there in the Aurora Middle School lab in 1966: a device called a tachistoscope, another device that projected reading passages for specified amounts of time.  It supposedly helped improve speed and comprehension.  For me, the only thing that increased was rage.

Now--back to online learning, the topic I raised at the end of my post yesterday.  Near the end of my career, I was using the Internet ever more heavily each year.  Western Reserve Academy used a web application called Moodle, and there I was able to store all sorts of goodies for my students--from vocabulary lists (lose yours? go to Moodle!) to syllabi (lose yours? go to Moodle!) to worksheets of all sorts (lose yours? go to Moodle!).  I used to tell them: With Moodle even the most voracious of dogs cannot eat all this homework.  And it was an enormous convenience.  Students could access it from any Internet-capable device, so the ancient and even revered student excuse (I didn't know about it) was Gone with the Wind.

I also stored all sorts of links on Moodle.  Things related to allusions in our readings.  Video of writers we were studying.  Stuff I mentioned in class.  Articles from the New York Times and other periodicals.  MP3 or video files of poets reading (my students liked to watch Billy Collins reading his poem "The Lanyard": Link).  And on and on and on.  It was just stunning, really.  In one story (I'm too lazy to go look it up right now) Hemingway mentions a specific moment in a specific boxing match with Jack Johnson.  It's on YouTube.  A link posted on Moodle!  Smugly, I would also post links to my book reviews from the Cleveland Plain Dealer (See?  The teacher has homework, too!)

I'd store examples of student essays on Moodle, suggestions for this and that, pictures of things we'd done in class ...

Oh, and one student a few years ago read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on his iPhone--not some old edition of the novel but the very one we were using in class (the Univ of Calif Press).  Same illustrations, same pages.  He didn't miss a thing--except the touch of the paper and the heft of the volume.  (Huck Finn)

In my classroom in the twilight of my career I had access to things unthinkable at its dawn.  Internet.  A digital projector.  Who needs a blackboard anymore?  Chalk?  An overhead projector (my favorite tool earlier on)?

I also used email to keep in touch with students.  Somebody miss an assignment?  ZAP! goes an email to Somebody.  Students routinely emailed me, too, with questions about this and that.  Oddly, I at first found it annoying ... then liberating.  When the question seemed relevant to the entire class, I'd forward it to all of them.  I would also routinely send them links to things I'd read or seen or heard--especially from NPR's Writer's Almanac--birthdays of our authors, publication anniversaries, etc.

Students would submit their papers to me electronically, and I would use Word's "Review" feature to edit and comment on them, then zap them back for revision.  Later, when I had to write college recommendations for students, I could look at the digital file of essays I kept on each one for a refresher about their strengths and weaknesses as writers.  Later, they would send to me drafts of their college application essays for my thoughts.

But this--Moodle, email, electronic grading of essays--was about the extent of my online teaching.  I, the human being, the teacher, was ever a factor.  I did not make the next step: working with students I never saw, students living elsewhere, students who never met me, never met with other students.

And that is what I want to write about tomorrow




Monday, October 29, 2012

Learning from the Best?



Shadowscope
It's long been a dream--a daffy one, really: to find a machine of some kind that can do what a teacher does.  I remember that my mother was, for a while, a reading teacher, and her reading lab was equipped with a variety of machines.  I remember two of them.  One was called a Shadowscope.  It projected a horizontal bar of light that moved down the page, slower or faster, depending on the reader's speed.  I tried it a few times, found it surpassingly annoying--and I'm a pretty quick reader.  After a few minutes with it, I wanted to smash it with a Louisville Slugger.

Craig Reader
Another was the Craig Reader, a device that briefly exposed groups of words to the student; it could also go faster, slower.  And I discovered yet another use for my Slugger.

There were others, too, and when I started teaching in Aurora, Ohio, in 1966, our middle school reading lab had these same machines--and some others.  I think I surprised our reading teacher when I named them the first time I went in her room.  Points for the rookie!

My mother had also been, briefly, enamored of something called "programmed instruction" and "programmed textbooks."  These were publications designed for students to progress at their own pace, completing a series of simple tasks that--so the theory went--increased in difficulty and sophistication as they went along.  I was the guinea pig for some of my mom's work with a programmed poetry book.  It was boring.  Mind-numbing.  Soul-killing.  It focused on what are probably the least important things about poetry--the things you can identify and measure (rhythm, rhyme, devices of various sorts).  Mom, to her credit, realized that the exercises were killing rather than encouraging students' interest in poetry.  So she dropped the project.  Went back to being the great teacher she'd always been.

Throughout history--distant and recent--have been other attempts to replace teachers with technology.  Those of my generation surely remember those deadly educational films from Coronet Films?  We watched lots of them in school.  Often they featured grey-faced guys in grey suits giving us grey ideas about the world.  (Many are on YouTube now: Samples)

Available to me at the dawn of my career were filmstrips--35mm film cranked manually through a projector.  One year--my second or third year in the classroom--I had to teach Health.  About which I knew this: It's better than Sickness.  I relied heavily on the cache of Health-related filmstrips I found in our school library.  I showed the ones on American history, too, the year I had to teach that to seventh graders.  Sometimes I would show them multiple times--not, of course, because I had no other lesson plan but because, you know, I wanted to reinforce the previous day's instruction.  (See how I was learning the lingo!)

Later, someone figured out how to synch the filmstrips with sound narration, and the machines would emit a loud annoying BEEP! when it was time to advance the frame--a sound audible throughout the entire wing of the building.  Sometimes, snarky kids would cry BEEP! before it was time to advance it.  Wishful thinking.

Then, of course, came video tape (reel-to-reel was my first experience), then very large cassettes whose name I can't recall--but they were 3/4".  Next ... VHS (with some detours to Betamax), then DVDs.  For a while our school was big on laser discs--instructional and otherwise.  These were as large as old 33 rpm records--but did not endure nearly so long.  DVDs killed them.  Dead.  I still have a few on a shelf upstairs.

All of these devices were versions of teaching machines, of course, created to "supplement" and "enrich" instruction.  But believe me--if someone could have figured out a way (and I believe there have always been folks willing/eager to try), they would have put a machine in the classroom and sent the human being home.

And now--in the age of the Internet and robots (real ones!) and all, online instruction has emerged as the Next Great Way to Replace Teachers--or, at least, re-program them to behave like, well, like robots.


TOMORROW: Online education ... and teachers.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Letters to Mom



My mom no longer uses e-mail, no longer can use her computer at all.  She's 93, and her fingers are no longer as limber as typing requires, and she also tends to forget what she needs to do to turn on her laptop, to access an e-mail program, to compose and send.  It's been over a year now.  My brothers and I have tried several times to get her up and running again, but it just frustrates her.  So we've given up.

This has been sad for me to watch.  Mom had one of the first computers in the family, an early Apple, when she was still teaching at Drake University in Des Moines.  She had it hooked up to her IBM Selectric with some kind of interface, so when she wrote something, her electric typewriter typed it for her, a page at a time (she had to pause after each sheet, insert another).  Dad was dazzled.  He never did learn to use the Apple and just sighed and let technology roar by.  As I've written here before, I think, the last device he learned to use was the TV remote.

Mom was very proud of her computer savvy and was constantly updating her machines, her software, her skills.  She was a very early user of Quicken--did all their finances on her computer.  She continued doing this well into her eighties.  Then, of course, the inevitable ...  I bought her last laptop for her two years ago, but the changes in Windows and in other features of her programs frustrated her deeply.  She found she could not always figure out what to do.  And she was so proud that she would never ask anyone but my brothers and me for help.  Sometimes she would call and ask me something; sometimes I could help, but other times I just could not "see" her problem--see her screen--and both of us would hang up, frustrated.

She would never ask help from someone at the stages-of-care place where she lives.  No way.  She would rather sit there for two weeks, computer-less, than call the front desk and make a sort of public declaration that she was stymied.  Such pride.  Such touching pride.

So now we've been forced by circumstance to step back a couple of technological generations.  My mom lives in Lenox, Mass., and my two brothers are just a couple of hours away, so they get out to see her every week or so.  But we are about 560 miles away--about a 10-hour drive, each way--so we don't get there as often as we'd like.  Not even a half-dozen times a year.

So what do we do?  We use the telephone.  I call her 2-3 times a week, usually right after dinner while she's watching the news.  We chat about the news, about silly memories, about the weather.  We both laugh.

And I write snail-mail.  She can still make it--with her walker--down the hall to the mail room every day.  For a long, long time, she would not use a cane or a walker (pride, again), but she took a couple of falls, and her doctor told her that if she broke a hip or something she would be in the nursing unit--probably for a long time--and no longer in her independent apartment.  That cured her.

I write to her every Sunday and Thursday.  Newsy, frivolous letters--often with photos I've pasted in--about what we've been up to (which is not ever all that much).  I remind her of tales from my childhood; I write about my dad (who died in 1999 and whom I miss--fiercely); I write about her two great-grandsons, 3 and 7; I write about books I'm reading.  But when we call, she sometimes says she hasn't heard from me in so long ....

Mom can't write back, though she tries sometimes.  Her notes will arrive much delayed because of inaccuracies on the address.  And as her fingers have begun to betray her, her handwriting has become barely legible.  We got a thank-you for something we'd sent for her 73rd wedding anniversary a couple of weeks ago, and for the life of me I could not read most of it.  But it didn't matter: I wept anyway.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tuxedos, James Bond, Yours Truly



All the James Bonds have looked good in a tuxedo.  I think it's part of the audition, wearing a tux.  Just look at that picture: dressed to kill for sure.

I don't look like James Bond, in a tux or out.  I'm sure that's why I've never been asked to audition for the role, because in all other ways, of course, I am 007.  Deadly.  Clever.  Athletic.  Seductive. (Are you laughing yet?)

My dad used to call a tuxedo a monkey suit.  I just checked the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and learned that monkey suit dates back to 1895.  My dad was born in 1913, so it would have been a fairly new expression for him.  My friends and I always called it a tux, a little friendly word-shortening, abbreviation, truncation.  We do that in English, shorten words.  Not too many people say, "refrigerator," do they?  Fridge is our word.

I was surprised, reading through the novels and stories of John O'Hara not long ago, that he invariably used the word tuck for tuxedo.  I'd never heard/read that one before--but maybe it was something from eastern Pennsylvania, his youthful stomping grounds (drinking grounds would be more accurate for O'Hara, though).

Richman Bros. in Cleveland
I haven't worn a tuxedo a lot in my life.  I can count the occasions, almost, on a single five-fingered hand.  My junior prom, 1961.  My parents had bought me--either at Sears or Richman Brothers--what they called a white dinner jacket for the prom, an event I'd just as soon forget.  The girl I wanted to go with was there--but with my best friend.  Not long after we got there, my date vanished into a flurry of her friends, emerging only to eat and decline my offers of intimacy and ride home in my car, sitting as close to the passenger's side door as physics would allow.  Not my fondest memory.

I wore that same white dinner jacket (with black tie and cummerbund) to my senior prom (1962), a much happier time.  The girl I wanted to go with I did go with, and the moon was high, and the air was soft, the music was slow, and nothing was ever going to change.

I also went to my college prom my senior year (1966), but, oddly, I remember little about it, possibly because my younger brother's high school prom was the same night, and he got the car.  I had to ride with friends.  I don't believe I wore a tux that night--the white dinner jacket had seen better days and was no longer, uh, capacious enough to accommodate my bulging muscles--or whatever.

Thereafter, I rented tuxes for the few occasions I needed them--i.e., weddings, including my own.  And then I went decades without wearing one--or wanting to wear one.  (I hate formal dress; hate neckties--the whole deal.  Teaching at Western Reserve Academy, where faculty and students dress up a bit, was in most every way a delight--but not that way.)

And then--a number of years ago--Hiram College promoted Joyce to full professor, which meant that she would be inducted into Hiram's Garfield Society, an organization that has an annual formal banquet ... formal banquet.  That meant, for me, a monkey suit.

For several years I rented one from one of those mall tux rental places.  That was a pain.  And then in 2007, killing time at Burlington Coat Factory before a movie, I saw a tuxedo on sale--a really nice one (Armani, if you want to know)--and I bought it.  And have worn it ever since, once a year, at the Garfield Society Banquet where I go and sit with people I don't know (for the most part) and watch other people get inducted and eat food I normally eschew rather than chew and wait for it to be over so I can go home and get back into my jeans.

And so--last night--I was in it again, the monkey suit.  And off we went.  I was feeling crummy--not just because I had to get dressed up but because some germs and/or viruses had moved in for the weekend.  I went entirely because an old college friend, Dorothy Munson Steele, who's done a lot of volunteer work for Hiram, was being inducted this year.  Dorothy has had an amazing career (she has a Ph.D. in Early Childhood Education from U of Mich), and she and her husband, Claude (who is at Stanford), were great friends Back in the Day.

So Joyce and I had a great time with Dorothy. I ate lots of crackers, gave my asparagus to Joyce (somewhere my mother is sighing and rolling her eyes at that move), ate the steak (the first beef I've eaten since last year), ate a few chocolate-dipped strawberries (okay, I ate the canoli, too), listened to the speeches, all the while sitting there looking remarkably like James Bond at a baccarat table.  I'm sure everyone noticed.


Friday, October 26, 2012

A New Undergraduate Major? A Ph.D. Area of Focus?



The other day, the word-of-the-day from the Oxford English Dictionary was morology, an obsolete word whose time, I believe, has come again.  Here's the info from the OED:


morology, n.
Pronunciation: Brit. /məˈrɒlədʒi/, /mɒˈrɒlədʒi/,  U.S. /məˈrɑlədʒi/
Forms:  15–16 morologie,   16 19– morology
Etymology: <  Middle French morologie (1593) or its etymon post-classical Latin morologia foolish talking (4th cent.) <  ancient Greek μωρολογία foolish talking <  μωρολόγος that talks foolishly ( <  μωρός foolish (see moron n.2) + -λόγος: see -logy comb. form) + -ία -y suffix3. In sense 2 after morologist n.,morological adj.

1.  Foolish words or talking. Obs.
a1614  J. Melville Autobiogr. & Diary (1842) 350 Corrupt communication, morologie, aischrologie.
1652  W. Rowland Judic. Astrol. (title-page), Of Will. Ramsey's Morologie in his pretended Reply (called Lux veritatis) to Doctour Nathaniel Homes his Demonologie.
1656  T Blount GlossographiaMorology, a foolish speaking.

 2.  The study of fools and folly. rare.
1908 N.E.D.Morology, the science that treats of fools.
1975  B. Felton  & M. Fowler Most Unusual 176 This book is an example of morology—the study of foolishness.


So ... I'm thinking that morology could be a great undergraduate major--even an area of focus for a Ph.D. program.  The field is fecund with possibility.  Just think of some of the courses and/or minors you could take:

1. Shakespeare and Morology.  In this course you could look at the most foolish characters in the Bard's plays--from fall-down feckless ones like Dogberry to more sanguinary ones like Macbeth to more clueless ones like Othello to groups of fools (the young men in Love's Labour's Lost).

2. Politics and Morology.  This is a sequence of courses that does not end until you die: the topic is limitless, and you never get a degree (because you can never exhaust the subject), and, as a result, you end up being subject matter for another major ...

3. My Own Morology.  In this sequence of courses you study your own folly, write interminable memoirs about your foolishness, memoirs that only you and those named therein will ever read.  You will consider them masterpieces; the others you name will consider them libelous and will launch lawsuits, leading to yet another major ...

4. The Legal Profession and Morology.  A look at the foolish ideas in the history of jurisprudence.  Required reading (once per week): Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.

5. Science and Morology.  A look at the many foolish moments and theories from the history of science and medicine--e.g., the fixed stars, the flat earth, bleeding and blistering, igniting fires to burn the air pure during times of plague, filling dental cavities with crow's dung, etc.

6. Religion and Morology.  Each student designs his or her own sequence of courses that will examine the foolishness in all religions other than the student's own, of course, which is eminently sensible.  And true.

7. History and Morology.  An examination of all the foolish ideas that have dominated historiography since men first started writing lies about what happened (viz., when men first started writing at all).  "Conquerors write the history," so the saying goes.  Which is another way to define a lie.

8. Education and Morology.  An examination of the foolish ideas that have dominated discussions about schools and education.  Like the major of Politics and Morology, this sequence of courses has no end.  Students will spend an entire decade learning about the madness of standardized testing; the decade will conclude with a standardized test that will take two years to complete.

9. Other possible areas--Entertainment and Morology (probably too much overlap to be a useful sequence of courses), Celebrities and Morology (ditto), Pets and Morology (too controversial), Families and Morology (parents and offspring must never be in the same classroom, however), The Morology of Marriage (only single--i.e., clueless--people allowed).

10. Finally--A capstone course for all majors and Ph.D. candidates: The Morology of Morology.



Thursday, October 25, 2012

Another Book that Saved Me



Yesterday, I wrote about Doorways to Discovery, a Ginn reader I found in my classroom back in 1966 and employed whenever I ran out of other ideas--which was pretty often.

But there was another set of old books there, too--some literature anthologies that the high school had left behind when they moved up to their new building in October.  Prose and Poetry for Appreciation (5th edition, 1955).  I think it's a book for 9th graders.  The volumes were all scruffy and banged-about, but they contained some pretty good pieces that I used with my students quite a bit--that first year and other years, too.  When I retired in 1997, I took one with me and recently paged through it.

First thing I noticed: Somebody had written sex kitten in pen on the front endpapers.  Somebody (presumably the same somebody) had added Sex Kitten to the table of contents--assigning it p. 696.  So I turned to p. 696, which turned out to be the back endpapers.  Where I found a drawing of Sex Kitten (see photo!).  Some bored young man (?) was finding something more interesting to do than to read Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's play, which appears in full in the book.

I also noticed that someone had written little thematic reminders by some of the pieces that the high school classes must have read.  For example, this little poem by Ethel Jacobson ("Atomic Courtesy") appears:

To smash the simple atom
All mankind was intent.
  Now any day
  The atom may
Return the compliment.

In the margin someone wrote: The atom might smash mankind.  True enough.

One story alarmed me: "Joy Ride," by Edith List (of whom I'd never heard).  It's about some teens out for a wild ride in a car.  The narrator, a cop, comes across the accident scene not long afterwards.

And the narrator says, in the story's final sentence: I walked over, grabbed a corner of the blanket, and pulled.  There, beneath me in a row, were two young girls in evening dress, and three young men in tuxedos--and every body was minus the head.

Two things shock me now: (1) that a story like this would be in a school anthology (can you imagine the uproar nowadays!); (2) that for several years I routinely had my seventh graders read this story.  I was not equipped with an abundance of judgment early in my career--maybe not later on, either.  But I did stop using this story after a bit ... don't remember why.  I like to think--I prefer to think--that I was maturing.

Nah.

The Table of Contents offers a strange mix of the famous (Shakespeare), the unknown (to me ... Theodore J. Waldeck?), the famous-but-I-didn't-know-it-at-the-time (Selma Lagerlöf, a Nobel Prize-winner), the-people-who-would-later-mean-something-to-me (Vachel Lindsay, S. I. Hayakawa, Jack London--an excerpt from Irving Stone's biographical novel about London is here: Sailor on Horseback), and people-whose-works-I-would-teach-until-my-very-last-day (Edgar Poe, Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Emily Dickinson).

On p. 267 is a picture of the Chilkoot Pass--the pass that figures prominently in The Call of the Wild, the pass that I myself would traverse back in the 1990s.  Who knew ... ?

And the works I taught for years are here: "The Raven," "Richard Cory," "The Road Not Taken" (all of which I subsequently memorized), "The Tell-Tale Heart," and some others.

And those old standards that I'd read in high school, too--"Leiningen Versus the Ants" and "The Most Dangerous Game."  I would guess that most people in my generation read those two tales in high school.

But the piece that I really enjoyed from this collection was the old radio play by Lucille Fletcher--"The Hitch-Hiker," a spooky play about a lone cross-country driver who keeps seeing the same eerie, spectral man all along his route.  (It's Death, of course.)  This was another radio play that we would broadcast around the school every now and then around Halloween--sometimes with all kids, sometimes with all faculty, sometimes with a mixture.

Let's let the Bard have the final word.  In Julius Caesar, someone--I like to think it's our Sex-Kitten Guy--has drawn a rectangle in blue ink around these words spoken by Brutus (4.3):

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

May we all float on the flood tide of life; may we all avoid the shallows for as long as fortune allows!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

One Book That Greeted Me



When I started teaching at the Aurora Middle School in the fall of 1966, the district was on a split schedule.  Because the new high school building was not yet ready (and would not be for about six weeks), the high school students occupied "our" building till noon, and when they left for the day, the middle schoolers arrived.  When the high school eventually moved, they took with them most things of value (I'm grousing now), and my classroom, Room 116, had very little that I could use.

A set of grammar books.  A set of ancient literature anthologies that the high school apparently no longer wanted (more about them tomorrow).  A set of readers whose title, until just the other day, I could not remember for love nor money.

I wanted to remember those readers.  They had saved me, over and over and over, throughout that first year.  Whenever I couldn't think of what to do in class that day, out would come those old readers, and we would read something together.  And talk about it.  Usually I hadn't read the piece ahead of time, so it was a process of discovery for all of us.  If the story or poem was bad, I would say, This is bad, isn't it?  Let's talk about why it's bad, okay?  And the day would pass.  And when the buses pulled away, I would exhale with relief.  Survived another one!  That first year, I really was moving day to day, class to class.  Trying not to implode.  Trying to figure out this profession before it destroyed me.

When I was working on my teaching memoir--Schoolboy: A Memoir (available on Kindle: link)--I tried everything I could to try to come up with the name of that reader.  I wanted to talk about it a bit in the book--talk about how it saved me.  How I used some of the pieces in it for years afterwards.

But no.  A lacuna in my brain.  Deleted file.  Erased.  Whatever metaphor you want to use for I can't remember the name of the damn book!

And then ... 17 October 2012 ... along came a word-of-the-day on one of my calendars: grimalkin.  A weird word for the common cat--often an older female cat.  I posted the word on Facebook and noted that I'd first learned that word in an old radio-play adaptation of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," a play that had appeared in the old reader Doorways to Discovery.

Yes, I'd remembered the name of that book.  But only because, completely by chance, that same play had appeared, as well, in the final literature anthology I'd used in my middle school career: Scott Foresman's Explorations in Literature.  I remembered that grimalkin was in that play, remembered grimalkin was in that book--so I checked it.  (Yep, it's there.)  And also there--in a footnote--the intelligence that the play had come from Doorways to Discovery, published by Ginn.

Eureka!

I quickly got onto ABE.com (Advanced Book Exchange--a great used-book site) and found several copies for sale (nothing above $10--don't they know the treasure of that book!).  I ordered a couple of different editions--and one came yesterday.  And when I peeled the packaging away, there it was, a copy of that book that had been waiting for me in Room 116 in September 1966, the book that I'd pulled out whenever I was in trouble, which was often.

I turned to "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"--and there was the play, there the illustrations I remembered so well.  As I wrote on my FB post that day, we often read this play aloud in class, and some years we broadcast it around Halloween over the school PA system.  Sometimes kids played the parts; sometimes teachers did it; sometimes a mix.  Sound effects: galloping horses, spooky music, night noises--you know.

And there was "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the Frost poem that my students memorized for many years.  It was one I'd memorized in high school, too.

And there was the story by Saki (H. H. Munro), "The Open Window," a story my students had liked a lot.  Saki could sock it to you, surprise-wise.  In later years I had students read another Saki gem--"The Interlopers"--about a couple of guys who, pinned under a tree, meet some hungry wolves.

There were so many other things there, too, old friends I'd not seen in decades.  But one piece surprised me.  I didn't remember it at all.  There's an "adaptation" of a Jack London story, "The Lost Poacher," one of his earliest tales, first published on 14 March 1901 in The Youth's Companion, then collected in Dutch Courage, 1922, a posthumous volume selected by his widow, Charmian London.  It's a sea story, based a bit on his own experiences as a young man in the Sea of Japan.  (You can read the story online now: link.)  I had no way of knowing in the fall of 1966 what Jack London would mean to me.

And whoever thought that an old "reader," a book that was lying around in Room 116 nearly fifty years ago would have any significance at all for me.  But, of course, I've learned over the years: All books are doorways to discovery.  All you have to do is open those doors.  Take a step.



Tuesday, October 23, 2012

HUCK FINN: Final Thoughts



Many people who've read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been troubled by the final chapters of the novel.  They are, in a word, boring.  Once Jim is captured and is held on the Phelpses' farm and once Tom Sawyer appears in the story again and once Tom and Huck spend chapters employing their outrageous plans to free Jim, well, the air is out of the balloon, and the story sags to its famous ending when Huck declares he's going to "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest"--probably because he's sick of the novel, too, and wants out of there.

So what happened?  Why at the end of Chapter XXXI--the moment when Huck decides he would rather go to hell than betray Jim--does the story collapse, implode?  Scholars have offered a variety of explanations over the years, none all that convincing to me.  Some have said, for example, that Tom Sawyer's return is an artful way for us to measure the growth of Huck Finn: Tom has remained a boy; Huck has matured.  But Huck doesn't seem all that mature in these chapters.  Like someone at a high school reunion, he reverts to his former placid, passive self, allowing Tom to concoct and enact ever sillier scenarios for Jim's rescue.

And surpassingly cruel ones, too.  For days Tom and Huck make Jim endure all sorts of indignities; they even risk his life (remember: when they are running away, the farmers are shooting at them).  And then we learn at the very end that Jim has been free the entire time (only Tom has known this)--and that Tom was just playing.  Playing with the life of another human being, a black man who must have been horrified to realize that his life was in the hands of a crazy little white boy.

Some have said it's sort of a return to "reality"--a return to Life the way it really is after their journey on and down the river.

But I have another idea.  I think Twain just lost it.  He lost Huck's voice.  He lost his energy.  He lost the sense of what he was doing.  He had captured a slippery spirit--an Ariel--but then relaxed a moment, and it got away.

We know that Twain did not write the novel easily.  He put it aside from time to time.  He started it in 1876, not long after Tom Sawyer.  (The opening chapters are very much like Tom's adventures--but with a first-person narrator.)  He wrote a couple of months, then quit.  He picked it up again in 1879, wrote some more months, then put it aside again--stopping in the middle of the attempted lynching of Col. Sherburn.   In the summer of 1883 he started again--and finished.  He published it in February 1885.

So here's why I think Twain "lost it" in those final chapters.  After Huckleberry Finn, he tried a sequel--Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.  He started writing it in 1884 at the same time he was preparing Huck for publication.  He wrote nine awful chapters, then quit, never to return to it.  The magic just isn't there.

Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), also narrated by Huck, is a bizarrely bad adventure story involving a balloon ride that takes them across the Atlantic and into Africa.  The illustration shows lions leaping at Huck as he and the others barely escape.

Next--Tom Sawyer Detective (1896), again with our old friends, again narrated by Huck, again a book that begs much from the reader.  A murder case.  Tom solves the case, one that involves hidden diamonds, as well.

And between 1897-1902 he very nearly finished another sequel--Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy--another silly novel that features a reappearance of the Duke and the King.  Jim is working for wages, still trying to buy back his family.  Tom has another wacky plan: to make everyone in town fearful of a slave revolt and of the arrival of Abolitionists.  Jim gets accused of murder--guess who really did it?  Tom's the hero again--but Twain broke off the story just before the end.

These sequels (actual and aborted) are hard to read.  In a way, it's as if Ishmael returned to tell another story, Moby-Jane, about a frisky female teen whale that's just looking for a good time and has to learn the hard way that a whale's life is serious, not all surging up into the sunlight and texting her friends.

When I was teaching the novel, I always dreaded arriving at those final chapters, dreaded having to read them again, dreaded the looks on students' faces when they came to class to ask What happened?

Well, I'm happy with the good parts--the great parts.  Twain wrote something wonderful, then lost his way.  But in my view the splendor of those earlier chapters has light eminently sufficient to illuminate the rest of the way.  The end of the trail is indeed a little flat, certainly dull--but that soft light in the sky?  Now that's something.

Monday, October 22, 2012

HUCK FINN, Part 6



When I returned to teach at Western Reserve Academy in the fall of 2001, I brought my friend Huck along with me.  He stayed.  Each year until the spring of 2010 (when I retired), I taught Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the final major text of the year.  I loved it.

Although I arranged the English III course in fairly chronological fashion, I always withheld Huck--for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, I thought it brought a little--what?--lightness to the pressure-packed end of the year (many of my students were preparing for AP exams).  Yes, the issues in Huck are far from light--but the story itself (the escape on the raft, floating for freedom), the youthful narrator, the tension and the humor and even the violence--all of this contributed, I always felt, to some greatly needed pleasure for the juniors at year's end.

And, of course, the race issue.  Throughout the year I'd been directing students' attention to various ways American writers have dealt with (or not dealt with) the question of race.  In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," for example, there is a black musician at the Halloween party ... how does Washington Irving portray him?  A black character brings Ichabod Crane his invitation to the party ... how does Irving portray him?  Take a look ... the servant arrives at Ichabod's classroom ...

It was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a negro in tow-cloth jacket and trowsers, a round-crowned fragment of a hat, like the cap of Mercury, and mounted on the back of a ragged, wild, half-broken colt, which he managed with a rope by way of halter. He came clattering up to the school door with an invitation to Ichabod to attend a merry-making or "quilting frolic," to be held that evening at Mynheer Van Tassel's; and having delivered his message with that air of importance, and effort at fine language, which a negro is apt to display on petty embassies of the kind, he dashed over the brook, and was seen scampering away up the hollow, full of the importance and hurry of his mission.

Or in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, an important novel in American literary history.  Set in and around New Orleans, the story focuses on upper-class white characters.  But Chopin shows us the African Americans, too, nearly invisible in the whites' eyes.  One little black girl operates by hand the treadle of a sewing machine because it's too hot for the white woman to use her feet!

Or Melville's "Benito Cereno,"1855, a long short story about a rebellion aboard a slave ship.

By the time we reached Huck, I felt, students had a sense of the racial component of American literary history.  They were also ready for the allusions to Hamlet and other Shakespearean plays that Twain parodies aboard the raft.

I did two other things that I thought prepared them for the controversies surrounding the novel.  I had them all buy the University of California Press edition of the novel--the best there is in my view--a heavily annotated edition, complete with maps and diagrams.  (Maps are crucial, I believe; in the case of Huck, for example, they answer the question: "Why was Jim fleeing south if he we seeking freedom?)  The tacit message of such a scholarly volume: This is an important text.

Second, before we began reading and discussing, I showed them the Huck Finn segment of Ken Burns' 2002 documentary film Mark Twain, a twenty-two-minute portion that briefly summarizes the story and its contexts (with some lovely Mississippi River footage), but Burns also interviews major writers Arthur Miller, William Styron, and Russell Banks, all of whom rave about Twain and the novel.

And better yet: Burns records the commentary of Twain scholar Joycelyn Chadwick, who spoke emotionally about Twain's portrayal of Jim.  Chadwick is black.  And Burns assembled some other prominent blacks speaking positively about the novel, too--including Dick Gregory and writer David Bradley, who spoke about that gorgeous moment when Huck decides he will not turn in runaway Jim, even though he believes he will go to hell as a result.

I found that these twenty-two minutes of video virtually eliminated the discomfort we all felt in the presence of the word nigger in Huckleberry Finn.  The word remains wrenching, of course, but these writers and scholars helped students see the context of that horrible word and helped students understand Twain's artful use of it, coming as it does from the mouth of a white, uneducated Mississippi River boy in ante-bellum America.

As Russell Banks says in the video, slavery and race are America's original sin ("the sin at our inception," he says), and Mark Twain's masterpiece--told by a mere boy--puts that sin right in front of us and says, "See how ugly this is?"  And implies: "And just what are you going to do about it?"


TOMORROW--Some final words (I promise!) on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

HUCK FINN, Part 5



I taught freshman English only one year at Kent State--1981-1982.  And that summer (1982), striding toward the KSU Library, I bumped into Denny Reiser, a former colleague at Harmon School, who told me that there was an English opening for the coming year.  I zoomed home (library tasks forgotten), called the school, set in motion the application that in the fall of 1982 would see me back in a Harmon classroom (after a resounding vote of approval from the Board of Education, 3-2), where I stayed (with a couple of sabbatical leaves) until I retired in January 1997.

After I retired, I worked on my Mary Shelley book for several years--seven days a week, no exceptions (here's link to it on Amazon! Link). Then in the summer of 2001 I learned from old friend and WRA English teacher Tom Davis that there was an opening at WRA for the fall. English III (juniors: American lit + Hamlet). I decided to try it for a year or so.  I stayed for ten.

And every one of those years, I ended the year with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  My reasons were not complicated:

  • I love the book.
  • Most literary critics/historians place Huck among the two or three greatest novels ever written in America (Moby-Dick is invariably there, too).
  • I love the book.
In the years I was there WRA had some funds to support summer study and travel, and for most of the summers I was there, the school cheerfully helped pay for our summer travels to various literary sites around the country--including a number of them related to Twain.  For example ...

1. In July 2002, we drove to Hartford, Connecticut, and saw/toured the Mark Twain House, the home he built and adored.  (Very close by--the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe.)

2. In June 2004, we drove along the Mississippi River, looking at sites mentioned in Huck, including a stop in Cairo, Illinois (where the clear Ohio River flows into the muddy Mississippi--quite a site--and sight).
3. In July 2004, I, for the first time, took the tour through the Mark Twain Cave, the site that figures so prominently in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Coolest: We saw the spot where Injun Joe, chunks of bat in his mouth, breathed his last.

4. In June 2008, we traveled to Hannibal, Missouri (hardly our first trip) and also to Florida, Missouri, not far away, where Twain was actually born (they did not stay there long--and Twain never went back).  At Florida, MO, they have the "birth cabin" placed inside a museum.

5. In July 2008, we were in Reading, Connecticut, site of the final home where Twain lived--his mansion called "Stormfield" (destroyed in a fire in 1923, thirteen years after his death).  There are still some Twainy things to see near Reading (including the local library, where there's a statue).

And we were not just driving around looking at Twain sites.  I'd also decided I was going to read every book he ever published.  I'd not ever read some of his major books--e.g., Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi--and more than a few of his minor ones (The American Claimant, Tom Sawyer Abroad). And this has taken awhile.  Right now I'm reading his historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), then will move to Christian Science (1907).  Then ... just a handful of smaller things remain.

And then what?

TOMORROW: Teaching Huck at WRA ... and final thoughts?


Saturday, October 20, 2012

HUCK FINN, Part 4



We visited Mark Twain on our honeymoon, sort of.  Before we married (20 December 1969), we decided we wanted to honeymoon in a place neither of us had ever been.  Our tiny income at the time prevented anything too adventursome; we'd have to use my car, a 1969 VW Fastback.  No airplanes--too expensive.

We settled on New Orleans, and we soared down I-71 that first night after the reception, spending our first night together (yes, you heard me: our first night together) in the Holiday Inn North in Columbus.  Romantic as all get-out, no?  The next night was Memphis, another Holiday Inn, this one overlooking the Mississippi--and perhaps that was the place where we, uh, conceived the idea to schedule a visit to Mark Twain on our Journey of Love.

I said in that last paragraph that we soared down I-71.  Crept is more like it.  Snow, ice, freezing rain--what the weather people now, delightfully, call a winter mix, as if it's some sort of peanutty snack you can munch while drinking eggnog at a Holiday party while talking with somebody you don't know and have immediately disliked.

Anyway, down in New Orleans we took a boat cruise up the river into bayou country (Joyce was already at work on Kate Chopin), heard lots of jazz, saw a James Bond movie (really--and that is probably the first time Joyce knew she'd made a mistake: a Bond movie on a honeymoon! and worse: this one, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, features, at the end, the murder of a bride), walked around the French Quarter, and felt giddy and wonderful the entire time.
Twain's boyhood home,
Hannibal, MO

I didn't have to return to Aurora to teach until after New Year's, so we thought, why not drive up the Mississippi?  Take the slow way home?  And so we did, and so we stopped in Hannibal, Missouri, boyhood home of Sam Clemens, born in nearby Florida, Mo., in 1835.

As usual, I've gotten off the subject.  More about Hannibal later.

Satterfield Hall, KSU,
where I taught Freshman English
Now ... back to where I left off yesterday--entering that Freshman English class at KSU in the fall of 1981, copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my hand, and facing a class of twenty-five eager (?) frosh, a half-dozen or so of whom were African American.  And I was about to teach a book that featured the word nigger a couple of hundred times.  I don't know why I had not considered the possible racial make-up of my class, but I hadn't.  I was just happy to have a job, even though the pay was a pittance (I think it was $2500 a course).

What to do?

I decided to do what I'd always done--prepare students for what they were going to read, whether it was Shakespeare or silliness.  And so I talked about Twain, about the novel, about the post-Civil War era.  I talked about the word itself.  I asked the students to notice who in the book used the word--and why.  I talked about the controversies surrounding the novel (controversies that began when it was published in the 1880s and have continued into our day).  I spoke about the reputation of the novel--e.g., Hemingway's famous comment in The Green Hills of Africa ("All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.  It's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since").  That sort of thing.

But as we all know, that potent word nigger has enormous emotional content; it's not just something to explain--then dismiss.  Many (Most?) white people in this country have nothing that's equivalent--no word applied to us that has the history, the ability to wound, the capacity to trigger emotion.  Nothing is even remotely close.  And rationality melts quite rapidly in the fire of passion.

But here's the damnedest thing.  I had absolutely no problems with the book.  The students loved it--those who read it, those who came to class (which was most of them).  The humor of Twain, the innocent intelligence of Huck, the vastness of Jim's heart and courage, the adventures on the river--all these things ensnared the students, and I just had the best old time going through that novel with them.

And oh did we laugh.  Here's one.  Near the end of the Grangerford-Shepherdson section (remember?), on a Sunday afternoon, Miss Sophia sends Huck back to the church to retrieve a book: "she'd forgot her Testament."  She wants Huck to tell no one.  So back he goes and finds in it a note from her secret lover.  But what always tickles me is this from Huck, who's telling about his trip back to the church:

So I slid out and slipped off up the road, and there warn't anybody at the church, except maybe a hog or two, for there warn't any lock on the door, and hogs likes a puncheon floor in summertime because it's cool.  If you notice, most folks don't go to church only when they've got to; but a hog is different.

A hog is different.  Always loved that.


TOMORROW: Teaching Huck Finn later on ...

Friday, October 19, 2012

HUCK FINN, Part 3


I would read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn once again with Dr. Ravitz.  In the Fall Quarter, 1964, I took another of his courses, English 377 (American Thought II), a course that dealt principally with Realism and Naturalism--the post-Civil War era.  And once again I was with Huck and Jim aboard the raft, and I began to learn the lesson that successive readings of a text can bring to the careful reader all sorts of new meanings--all sorts of minnows and giant catfish yanked up onto the raft.

Another great example of this, for me, was Hamlet.  I taught it every year from 2001-2010 at Western Reserve Academy, and every year--every year--I found myself understanding something I'd never really understood before, discovering some new way to look at a character, a situation, hearing from a student something I'd never thought of ...

Just one quick example: Remember the scene when the Queen breaks the news to Laertes?  The news that his sister has drowned?  She tells the story in great detail (see below, for a refresher):

QUEEN GERTRUDE
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
LAERTES
Alas, then, she is drown'd?
QUEEN GERTRUDE
Drown'd, drown'd.


I had read and taught this passage for quite a while before this question arrived, unbidden, one day: How did she know all this?  Who could have told her?  If someone witnessed what she's telling Laertes, then that person stood there and watched Ophelia drown. I mean, the woman is floating there for a while ... why didn't the witness do something?  Or is Gertrude just telling the grieving brother a sweet story to soften this hardest of news?

So ... among the lessons I learned from my experience with Huck and Dr. Ravitz: Returning to a text is in some ways like reading it for the first time.  You are different.  You filter the words in a different way as they arrive in your mind.

I've had this experience many times by reading in my, uh, "later" years books that I'd read in my nonage.

And so with Huck Finn I was now thinking about the journey motif, the picaresque nature of the narrative, the aspects of Transcendentalism that leak into the story.  I was noticing more clearly Twain's satire of religion, of mob behavior--his profound fear of human ignorance, which he believed was our greatest threat.  And so on.

(BTW: Got an A this time!  Movin' on up!)

Original Aurora Middle School
102 E. Garfield Rd.
I graduated from Hiram College in June 1966, started teaching at the Aurora Middle School a few months later.  As I wrote yesterday, I don't believe I ever had students there read the novel--though I talked about it now and then, urged kids to read it.  Used passages from it occasionally for various  reasons.

I left Aurora at the end of the 1977-1978 school year for a position at Lake Forest College in Illinois; I stayed one year (I missed middle schoolers!  Who woulda thunk it?).  But there was no opening in Aurora (I tried!), so Joyce and I both accepted positions at Western Reserve Academy.  There, Huck Finn was part of the sophomore curriculum (Joyce taught sophs), and I taught frosh and juniors, so no Huck for me at WRA--not yet.

The Learned Owl
Hudson, OH
I left WRA at the end of the 1980-1981 year (I was in a snit), thinking I would easily find another job.  I didn't.  That following year (1981-1982) I worked as a clerk, part-time, at the Learned Owl (Hudson's bookstore--still in business)--and I taught freshman comp at nearby Kent State University.  And on our reading list ... Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I was thrilled.

And then, my first day in class, I saw that I had some African American students.  Now what?

TOMORROW: Teaching Huck at KSU ... and WRA ...