Saturday, December 29, 2018

Remembrances of Papers Lost

I’ve been thinking about papers – school papers (as opposed to newspapers or rolling papers) – one especially that I wrote for high school English in my senior year. I broke every rule about how to produce the paper (someday I’ll tell the story how, but not now) and I still received an A+ on it. It was about film editing and how it was one of the defining elements of what makes a movie a movie.
For reasons that so far escape me, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I may have actually said in that paper, wondering if I still believed any of it.
Too bad the paper was never returned to me. I’d had a chance to look it over. Mr. senior year English teacher, Mr. Hurley, allowed me to see the grade he placed on it, but needed it back for whatever arcane recording purposes Chicago Public Schools teachers needed to hold on to senior papers. I saw the grade, glanced over its contents and a few penciled-in comments, and back it went into Mr. Hurley’s folder.
On the last day of classes, my last day of high school, I sought out Mr. Hurley in his classroom. In the corridors, students were emptying their lockers as if they were those German military functionaries you always saw in the World War II movies, where the Allies are advancing and the Axis minions are throwing all their maps and files into big fires. I probably didn’t see any bonfires in the hallways of John F. Kennedy High School, but it looked like the word was out that everything – EVERYTHING! – must be destroyed. The trash cans were filled to the max, so the hallways effectively became the trash cans. The other significant difference was that the students were in a much better mood about dumping textbooks into garbage bins than the gray-uniformed officers seemed to be about torching their precious documents (the moral to this side-tale appears to be that any organization which lives by bureaucracy dies by bureaucracy).
When confronted, Mr. Hurley claimed my paper was in his office and would be “difficult to locate at this moment.” I’m not sure if he was speaking of the paper or his office. Either way, he looked like a man with a briefcase filled with embezzled funds and a phony passport in the pocket of his sportcoat. Or perhaps he was afraid the First Division had already secured that part of the building. Whatever was really on his mind, he looked surprised that I would want the paper returned, but insisted he would get it back to me “somehow.”
That was in 1973.
Since then, I have seen neither the paper nor Mr. Hurley.
Mr. Hurley was never someone you’d characterize as a teacher dedicated to his subject. I don’t recall many literary discussions in his class, nor did he ever endeavor to instill in his students a love for the written word. I do recall we spent a lot of time going over selected cantos from Paradise Lost, but I also recall we were considering them more like a legal document than a work of poetry.
English as a subject for Mr. Hurley was one of those “skills” you pick up to advance your opportunities for advancement in the faceless offices of industry and commerce. Your District Supervisor might note that you can hammer out a letter more grammatically than your fellow underlings, or make a better presentation at a sales conference, and thereby you’ll earn enough to purchase a better grade of white shirt to go along with your double-knit suit and Christmas tie.
To Mr. Hurley, from what I experienced, the inherent value of literature as literature was no value at all. He was a notably uninspiring English teacher, though he may have been a good chess player (I believe he also sponsored the school’s chess team).
My adolescent thoughts on film editing are no great loss to the world, I suppose. I just wonder, as I enter (or extend my occupancy of) my dotage, what those thought were. I may have been smart, by accident. Or I may have been stupid in a seemingly smart way. In those days, I was a passionate lover of the cinema. Today, I find myself rather estranged from the medium, with notable exceptions. I find myself ranting over the shortage of great films and great filmmaking – until I encounter a great film, and my love of the form is reborn.
I am curious, though, if the paper might help me figure out if I loved cinema because it was a great storytelling medium, or if I discovered my love of storytelling from my love of movies. The difference may be slight, but it’s the slight distinctions that mean the most.
There are two other of my papers that are apparently lost to the ages, both of them dating from my grad school years at Northwestern University. The professors for whom I wrote them are now deceased.
In one of them, I came up with my most incisive thoughts on the novelist Muriel Spark and her great novel, Loitering With Intent. The paper effectively saved my grade. I was expecting a B at best from Professor Elizabeth Dipple and somehow managed to pull an A- on the strength of that paper. The thoughts came to me, though, in the midst of some 3 a.m. inspiration (and a haze of caffeine and nicotine) and for the most part now escape me. I would like to read over my “brilliant” analysis of Ms. Spark’s novel, in case I ever need to be that brilliant again. But I doubt I ever will (see the paper or ever be that brilliant, take your pick).
The other paper took on Heart of Darkness – a topic my professor specifically warned the class against because, to paraphrase, “I have read everything that has been said or ever can be said about that book, and nothing you can write will strike me as new or interesting.”
Yet I persisted, approaching the novel as a critique of reality, eventually connecting it up to the works of – believe it or not – Philip K. Dick. It all had to do with A.) the frame story, and B.) Marlow’s hatred of lies, leading to the lie Marlow tells in the end. Oh, it also had references to the “fascination of the abomination,” the description of one being “captured by the incredible that is the very essence of dreams,” and Marlow’s regarding his choice of nightmares. I linked all these to Borges, Philip K. Dick and Gene Wolfe.
How I got away with it, I’ll never know.
While I was working on a final examination in class, the professor, Alfred Appel, looked over the final papers that were turned in at the beginning of class, including mine. At a point halfway through the examination, I heard the professor loudly whisper, “Son of a bitch!” I looked up and could see he was reading one of the papers. Either from immodest egotism, or unhealthy self-contempt, I could not help but suspect he had gotten to my paper.
But I did receive an A for the course, whether on the strength of that paper or not, I’ll never know.
I kind of wish I could know, but I can’t.
So I’ll just have to come up with something better.

Happy New Year to all!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A Spy in the House of STEM

I was about to post a blog piece that was introspective, soul-searching, and serious, but thought better of it.
Who wants to read such boring prattle? I used to fill up volumes with that kind of crap back in the 1970s and 1980s.
Let me tell you about something I did recently that made me feel good.
As of recent, circumstances have driven me into the employ of a company that provides afterschool “enrichment” programs for grade school children in the area (and a number of places around the country, so I’ve been told recently). Originally, this company provided chess classes, but not they have branched into “robotics” and allegedly engineering-related classes. The kids spend an hour a week assembling remote-controlled vehicles built from plastic parts in kits – sort of off-brand Legos. Each kit has a few cheap motor, a battery pack, and the remote control. 
The purpose for this is, allegedly, to interest kids in STEM-related stuff. For parents and school officials, STEM is big. STEM is what’s going to save their kids from abject poverty, scrounging through dumpsters and sleeping in underpasses. While the rest of the world (or at least the neighborhood) collapses into naked savagery and cannibalism, STEM kids will be heading for air-conditioned offices in their auto-drive cars, ready to spend the day designing plastic robot dogs that catch ping pong balls, or managing the folks who do.
I could go into this in greater detail, but why bother? The folks who designed the courses and manage the program haven’t, so why should I? Teachers in this program are “trained” through a series of videos that, needless to say, provide them with very little that resembles the reality of what they’ll find at the ground level. It’s sort of like finding oneself in a full-scale firefight after having just completed Basic Training. One is promised some sort of calculated strategies, and instead receives – mayhem!
In a few brief months I’ve gathered enough war stories to bore you and annoy you all through the coming cold winter months. Some kids actually want to put together stuff from the robot kits. Some are actually quite good at it. Some kids just want to exercise their right to refuse to do anything you ask them. Some want to throw things around.
Only a few – but a significant few – we’ll either raise their hands, or step up and ask you, “Do I really have to do this?”
All I can tell them is, no. You don’t have to do this. What do you want to do?
A few of them asked, “Can I color pictures?”
I said, sure. Would you like to color pictures of dinosaurs?”
They look up, their eyes suddenly bright at the prospect, and nod.
After the first week, I started to bring downloaded coloring pictures of dinosaurs I found online. “Be prepared.”
They’re not robots, but we can call it STEM, because ... science.
Is it what my supervisors want me to do? Of course not. Is it what the parents want me to do? I have no idea. Do they want me to indoctrinate them into a world of engineering that will allegedly guarantee them relevance and value in a changing world? Or do they want me to simply keep them busy for an hour a week so that they don’t get into some greater trouble.
What am I supposed to “teach” these kids?
I can teach them what my supervisors expect me to teach them – but no. The kids never listen to me the way they listen to other teachers. They sense the anarchy in my bones. They know I have no “authority.” I’m a stranger in these parts. They can do what they want, whether it’s playing with robots or not playing with robots.
All I can teach is what I am, and what I love. That’s all the authority I’ve got.
And what I am, and what I love, often includes dinosaurs.
Last Thursday, one of the students in a “circuits” (i.e. circuitry) class I’m subbing for gets up from her table, walks to the place on the floor where the jackets and backpacks are being stored. She can’t be older than a first-grader. She lies down on one of the jackets as if it were a cushion. She looks tired, bored, and sad. The other teacher I’m working with asks her, “What’s the matter?” Doesn’t she want to learn about circuits and play with the motors and propellers attached to them?
She shakes her head. No. She looks even sadder.
My co-teacher asks her, “Is there anything you want to do?”
Even sadder shake of her head.
So I ask her, “Would you like to color some pictures of dinosaurs?”
Her eyes light up. She rises from her improvised cushion like Lazarus rising from his tomb.
We walk over to the box where I keep my teaching stuff. She chooses one of the dinosaur coloring pictures from my folder. She races back to her table with the picture and finds crayons … somewhere. Soon, she runs back to me and shows me the result of her coloring.
“See my dinosaur!”
“It’s beautiful,” I tell her. “I especially like what you did with the green.” I point to the region along the dinosaur’s back.”
She runs back to her table. Somewhere, somehow, she’s found a pair of scissors. She carefully cuts the dinosaur away from its paper background, then runs back to me.
“See my dinosaur!”
“Beautiful!” I say. “You did an incredible job of coloring the dinosaur and cutting him out.”
“Can I take him home?”
“Of course.”
“I love my dinosaur!”
“Who wouldn’t?”
The class was the last one in a session, and it’s part of the regimen to hand out medals to the groups and teams that did the best with projects and a final competition. A lot of the kids get a kick out of the medals, and that’s understandable and great. I’m not on competitions, so I don’t stress those kinds of things, but if my supervisors want competitions, I’ll do what’s needed to comply. Everybody gets medals.
But what warmed my heart on that last day of class, so close to the Christmas holidays, was the girl with her crayon-colored dinosaur. She was more proud of her dinosaur than the “STEM” medal. And that’s fine with me. Some kids do robots. Some don’t. Some are big on engineering. Some want to color dinosaurs.  We need as many kids coloring dinosaurs as we do building robots. More power to all of them.
I’m a lousy employee.
But I may be a decent teacher.
Merry Christmas.