Never Forgeting

September 18, 2009

Never Forgetting

Never Forgetting











9/11/09.  Today, just as I did nine years ago, I had lunch with my friend Rosalinda. We had been at an all day data entry training for a system that has since gone obsolete. We had lunch at a restaurant that has since changed hands. We decided to opt for a final bit of civility in the face of what then seemed like the morning of Armageddon. I called my wife and filled my gas tank on my way home. Two time zones away panic was drifting west. The President had disappeared, the Vice President was removed to a secret bunker. Smoke billowed and billowed on television. Planes were crashing in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania. They would be falling here soon, crashing into more buildings. No one knew anything useful, except that every plane everywhere was landing and every flight was cancelled. Acting as normal as I could seemed the most natural course to me.

I went home. Carol, my wife, was already home. Two old friends, Drew and Michael, called within the next hour. Their flights to and from somewhere else had been grounded. They were coming to stay with us—it was both a comfort and the first real connection to the reality of the bombings. Until then it was only another television faux catastrophe. When we sat in the living room watching the buildings burn and collapse again and again on our own television, it seemed more real. Tired and confused TV voices kept talking.  Our friends arrived and we had dinner, then sat in the den watching the dark images and  imagining the near future. It seemed to me like the opening scene of a play where a few characters would say something prescient then credits would roll over us, we’d fade to black and then ten years later would appear.

My two friends and I had been making prudent bets on a long roll of middle class fortune. We’d graduated college, hadn’t been arrested, drafted or shotgun married. The worst jobs we’d ever had were summer and temp  jobs while we were waiting for a career. Drew and I were college roommates, Michael and I had run marathons together. We were there for the birth of one another’s children. We had, as many of our contemporaries, quietly prospered in the relative peace that followed the Viet Nam War. We had grown accustomed to a military mostly relegated to squandering money and limited incursions.

As the information came out, despair grew as the confusion and panic settled to a steady boil. The peaceful aspirations of many reasonable people were nearly fatally damaged by the time we finished dinner. “The Dogs of War are loose now.” “No one’s going to stop the military boys from doing anything they want.” The last illusions of control were slipping away from our dreams of a peaceful world of free trade and open society. The Baby Boomer luster seemed to be dulling. All sorts of dreams were diving and twisting. Where this was going to end was nowhere good for anyone concerned.


One summer’s night when I was eleven years old, Vince De Niro was killed by a gangland bomb in Youngstown, Ohio. Ten blocks away the explosion shook me awake. My family piled into the car and drove up Market Street to see. Every store window was shattered. His car looked like one of the unfinished model cars kits I left in the basement. The fire department was still hosing down the smoking chassis. Maybe we saw a partial corpse, maybe we didn’t…I believed I did, at least in my dreams. My hometown had armed gangs of thugs who operated as private militias for criminals.

People learned to develop their private myopias to negotiate the daily corruption and intimidation. Hardworking people who went to church together, paid their taxes, sent their sons to the army and somehow expected they’d be protected from racketeers, or at least left alone.  Everyone I knew was somehow related to a mobster, it was a way of marking of status. Everyone also knew the price of those relations was silence, the silence that signifies. It’s a standard rule of classic organized terrorism that has grown in the void of post feudal societies.

 From 1950 to 1966 there had been 75 bombings and 11 other “unsolved” murders in the little city where I rode the bus to school. Local terrorists donated windows to churches, paid off every bookie bet, occasionally provided merchandise at fell-off-the-truck discounts and tipped lavishly. In exchange they were allowed to destroy a city bite by little bite from a couple of nondescript office buildings, dingy cocktail lounges and a few Italian restaurants with excellent veal. Every padded contract, skimmed union fund, bribed official, standing crap game, theft, and loan was negotiated with a real threat of death. People could be beaten, disappear or exploded. In spite of the fact that these criminals had houses in the suburbs, rolls of ready cash and dressed in expensive clothes, they were brutish uncivilized men.

Civility creates cities; terror creates ghosts and ghost towns.

 So what am I supposed to never forget about 9/11?

 That gangsters can attack any country? That simple people can persevere in all manner of chaos?  That anyone can be killed?  That innocence is relative?   That no place is genuinely safe?                                                                                     

That civility that must function under the threat of violence and death is not merely  a romantic gesture?

That violence unchallenged creates  spiraling strings  of chaos?

That a bombing is a public statement more than a mere cold blooded murder?

That criminals remain criminals regardless of what religion they masquerade under?

That what seperates us from criminals isn’t a moral imperative, but our behavior.

That any dream or nightmare, even if it’s collective dream, has an ending and a meaning— but meanings are seldom what we think they are until we search them honestly. 

In many ways I learned these things in my childhood.

But I also learned how living in a world where violence is common can make you feel numb, depressed and angry all at the same time. That a child whose life is punctuated by bombing and killings doesn’t grow into the same adult they might have…and there are thousands more children growing up that way and much worse. But somehow in order to live they have to learn methods of forgetting merciless violence, and learn ways of living with intolerable things. 

For the last fifteen years I’ve spent my days teaching children who grew up, or stopped growing up, surrounded by actual violence. I’ve taught grammar to classrooms of twelve year olds carrying bullet wounds, Dickens to classes of expelled students who had illegal guns and drugs in their home, but no books or food. Children who couldn’t walk to the store or their friends’ houses to play without legitimate fear of assault.  For much of suburban America children have to be taught that the world isn’t a safe place. For the others, children of violence, teachers are faced with trying to find a way to help them to imagine the possiblity of a safe world—some world where studying  the conventions of written punctuation makes more sense than the end stops of a violent world…someplace they can live.













What I think when I think about teaching

 Developing  methods for collective thinking was one of the wellsprings of 20th Century invention and activity. The power of the throne, pulpit, synagogue or minaret was secularized both by the rise in literacy and the advent of mass media. The Victorians introduced the information age, but by the end of the steam age their intellectual border skirmishes escalated like electricity. Charlie Chaplin was a character invented out of a Victorian Music Hall act and crude Keystone Comedy film techniques, but not long after her death that character was more recognized than Queen Victoria on whose empire the sun never set. The “Little Tramp” didn’t own a piece of property that couldn’t fit in a handkerchief on the end of a bamboo cane and his crown was a dented derby. In fact, he didn’t exist at all—except as flickering light and the intellectual property of Sir Charles Spenser Chaplin.

The revolutionary ideas Marxism, Capitalism, Mass Production, Mass Media, Public Opinion, Public Interest, Psychoanalysis, Evolution, Race, Social Darwinism, Socialism, Nationalism, even Environmentalism all ended as captives to their own armies by the end of the 20th century. Intellectual concepts became entities that thought and acted like bureaucrats, that is, human beings who have been taught, threatened or paid to think, and then act, in the interest of a system. A system generally removed from both its inspiration and its surrounding immediate reality. Although the first half of the century was consumed by inconceivable violence, the second has seemed consumed by the illusions of manipulations. Through marketing perception became reality and then a much more plastic reality.

 Adolf Hitler liked movies. His favorites were “King Kong” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. He attempted to induce Fritz Lang [“Metropolis, M, Die Nibelugen”] to make Nazi influenced narratives for the Reich. Lang emigrated to Hollywood to make film noir detective dramas like “The Big Heat”.  In part due to Lang’s escape Hitler employed Leni Riefenstahl not merely to translate narratives, but to invent narratives. Stalin, Hitler’s dictatorial contemporary, produced a propaganda film like “Alexander Nevsky” wherein Sergei Eisenstein and Prokofiev collaborated on a propaganda piece to prepare the Soviet people for war with Germany; Riefenstahl produced “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia”. “Alexander Nevsky” reinterpreted the historical narrative of the 13th Century  invasion of Rus by crusading Teutonic Knights. Riefenstahl produced docudramas that raised propaganda to art form promoting the Third Reich. The quintessential seminar question here is about Leni Riefenstahl, how responsible was she for the thinking that was indoctrinated in her work? How responsible is anyone for what is indoctrinated into their work?

 Many years ago in my first days of teaching I stood up and walked to the water fountain in the hall and got a drink. Eureka! From that simple sip I realized I could do almost anything I wanted to do in a classroom without asking permission. The energy I had squandered for years keeping myself still was released. I’ve loved being in classrooms ever since. Usually I think of teaching as a physical act. Although it is a complicated mental construct, teaching is demanding labor. At the end of the school day the teachers leave my school pretty much exhausted. I train both physically and intellectually to be prepared to deliver more than I’m asked.  I read widely and independently in my profession, I attend seminars and conventions; I carry on collegial conversations—all on my own. Nearly every day in a classroom has been a gift to me—Teaching called me, and I must respect that vocation.

  For the last few weeks I’ve been thinking too much about management theories and less about teaching. For most of August my school district paid me to come into a nearly empty school and think about it. Most mornings were scheduled agendas of subjects to consider, Differentiated Instruction, Literacy Initiatives, mandatory tutorial planning, Sexual Harassment, Gallup Strength Inventories, test data and a variety of conduct codes and mission statements. I don’t want to give the impression that these are trivial matters or I don’t honestly think about them. They seem important and germane to the students we serve and the work I chose to do. 

 I’ve been in education for over twenty-five years. During my career there have been occasions when I was asked and allowed to think, solve problems, invent solutions, create. There were days when “thinking outside the box” was a euphemism for creative freedom—unorthodox, but useful— as opposed to now. When you’re requested to think outside the box now, it means you’ve been handed down someone else’s problem. It generally means the plan presented hasn’t been adequate to solve the problem it was devised to resolve, but you’re expected to both follow the second-rate plan and think outside the box, e.g., How are we supposed to meet the educational level of each individual student and the district curriculum at the same time? Take ownership of our problemthink outside the box.

That is an example of management thinking, or work thinking. Work thinking is different from thinking about work. Work think is a Kafkaesque world of following the order of the day and keeping the paperwork correct. The result is too often rote obedience, and a mechanical resolution that follows parameters, but shows no genuine purpose. It becomes the paradoxical box we are both climbing inside of and escaping. Mediocrity.

 Many great teachers envision their lessons fully completed the way a painter finds a way into a painting or a musician knows where a composition must go. It’s timeless beautiful thought. Others work semester after semester refining lessons. Managed work thinking is different, it starts with the premise all of that is valueless. They’re asked to think as an entity the same way I ask my word processing software to think for me. It’s both as human and inhuman as slavery. Much the same way my grandfather, who was a trained carpenter, worked for a steel mill that required him to knock off half cooled rough ends of rolled steel, I’m often asked to think using a certain process for my employer. It becomes a less meaningful job— the management concept seems based on the premise that every person is replaceable. Carpenters can become chippers; teachers have been replaced with  learning managers.

As public education has been remodeled into a failing business I’ve been given numerous sales motivation books to read.  See You at the Top, The One Minute Manager, The Eighth Habit, Who Moved My Cheese? ,and The No Complaining Rule among others. Aspire to greatness, greatness gave way to efficiency, efficiency to a moral compass, moral compasses pointed to flexibility and now, stop whining and get to work—all reasonable, indisputable thoughts. No harm intended or done.   These books are distributed as well intentioned advice to overburdened people facing a daunting task. They don’t take much time to read, and more or less they have a single message that reads as something like a Sunday sermon given by a basketball coach at halftime with a self study inventory attached.  Now it’s the school policy that every employee spend forty-five minutes each week contemplating and discussing complaining. It would be humorous and ironic if there weren’t at least one administrator in the room monitoring my weekly progress.

For many people both teachers and, sadly, many students, education ends cynically, not as finding a way, but as finding the way out.

Tuesday the President wanted to address the students of America about education, setting goals and staying in school. The world of politics, propaganda, shaping public policy,changing political opinion and what students will do during second period have collapsed into a single, overburdened event.  President Obama speaking to millions of young people on what is ostensibly the first day of school, broadcast over television and the Internet. It seems like a reasonable task for any modern president to engage in, and others have done. I’m inclined to believe his intentions are benevolent. In my experience today’s students need every encouragement they can find. A vocal minority of our population has been capable of reframing this event as political and nefarious indoctrination. Radio entertainers and blog doctors spread the fear President Obama’s twenty minute speech and lesson plan will secretly teach children to be Socialists or follow a secret agenda. I can only assume these bloggers and radio personalities haven’t taught school. Some things neither time nor progress can change…other things we have to take responsibility for.