Summers and Huckleberry Finn

1622398_origI have to admit that I have never much liked August for the same reason that I used to have an aversion to Sunday evenings. August meant that it was nearing the time when I would have to return to school, something I did both as a child and later as an adult. August seemed to be the dog days of the entire year, a month in which the heat had built to a climax and the fun and relaxation that I had enjoyed in the summer was in its waning days. When August came around I was generally filled with a sense of dread knowing that my vagabond adventures would soon be replaced by early rising each morning and working on school related projects until late in the evening. I seriously didn’t want to even think about all of the labors and restrictions on my time that lay ahead.

Don’t get me wrong. I was a devoted student as a child and once I became a working adult I threw myself wholeheartedly and enthusiastically into the teaching profession. I enjoyed being in school, but I had a love/hate relationship with the entire experience. On the one hand I felt a rush of excitement about the new challenges that I would most certainly encounter in each new year, but on the other hand I fully understood how much intensity I would surely throw into my labors. Thus each time August rolled around I longed to extend my freedom and relaxation just a bit longer.

When I was a child I had the luxury of enjoying all thirty one of the final days of my annual holiday. Not even once did we return to the classroom before Labor Day. The trend of beginning  the school year before the eighth month of the year had ended did not come about until I had been working for a time as a teacher, and so our family often planned a big vacation to cooler climes to take a break from the heat. Some of our best vacations to places like Montana and Wyoming happened during the first couple of weeks in August. I didn’t even think about school until the middle of the month, and even then the transition from vagabond days to almost total preoccupation with work were usually gradual enough to help me grow accustomed to a return to my labors.

All of that began to change over time. The old school year ended later and later and the new one began earlier and earlier. Expectations regarding professional development became more demanding, so much so that I often spent most of June attending classes designed to improve my teaching. By the first week in August I was already planning lessons and visiting the school to prepare my classroom. My summers became more and more constricted as did those of my daughters who had to attend practices and complete summer assignments.

When August rolled around we were no longer able to make family plans because everyone in the household was quite busy gearing up for the coming months. I adapted to the changes albeit a bit grudgingly. I knew that many of my friends had little sympathy for me because they worked all year long with only one or two weeks of vacation. It was difficult for them to understand just how much I needed the down time of a full three months when such an extended break was an unheard of luxury for them. What I knew is that very few of them would be grading papers and creating lessons at eleven in the evening and all weekend long just to stay afloat of the demands of their jobs. The extra work that I did at home every day of the school year was easily equivalent to the eight to ten hour days that they spent at their jobs all summer long. In other words our labors were equivalent, even though they were not performed in the same time frame.

Now I’m watching the demands of the school year begin as soon as August rolls around. A grandson who is in his middle school orchestra has already been practicing for several weeks for a performance that his group will give to returning teachers. Another grandson is working with his band from seven in the morning until five at night. Teacher friends are attending conferences and training sessions that will dovetail with requirements to be on duty beginning early in August. Many schools will open their doors to their students by the middle of the month, making the summer seem shorter and shorter. Soon the buses that stop at my corner will be rolling again and everyone will be in full swing.

Part of me feels quite sad about the abbreviated summer vacation for students and teachers even though it really doesn’t affect me anymore. In retrospect I think that as a youngster I learned as much during my time off as I did during the school year, maybe even more. By the age of fifteen I had a job as a receptionist for our family doctor from June through August. I learned how to work with the public and deal with emergencies. I became an expert at keeping books and running a small office. I developed people skills and found talents that I had no idea even existed. I also learned how to spend and save the money that I earned in a wise and reasonable manner. I would have been unable to go on my senior trip or purchase a class ring without the income that I generated during the three months that were mine to use in exploring the world.

Those three months also allowed me to read purely for pleasure. It was in my self selected forays into literature and nonfiction that I have the most wonderful memories and grew most fond of reading. I had time to learn how to dance and twirl a baton, how to paint and mold clay into sculptures. I enjoyed being creative with the other kids in the neighborhood and spent hours writing and performing in backyard plays or creating a neighborhood newspaper. I had bridge tournaments with friends and made my first attempts at cooking. I had time to do exciting things that I was too busy to tackle during the school year when my teachers filled my calendar with assignments of their choosing. Summers were glorious moments spent on my grandparents’ farm soaking in their folk wisdom. It was an opportunity for education of a different sort than the kind that is ruled by curriculum guidelines or a scope and sequence of learning. Summer was the frosting on the cake of my learning.

I suppose that today’s kids have little idea of what they are missing. They go with the flow and follow the new rules because it has always been that way for them. Everything in their lives is far more organized than my experiences were. I don’t see many children playing outside even on the hottest days. Summer jobs like the ones I had are hard to find. It’s a different world and I suppose that everyone takes the new ways for granted just like I did those glorious three months of freedom. Perhaps it is best to prepare students for the realities of a world that is far different from the one that existed when I was growing into an adult. With air conditioning there is little difference between August and November, so schools may as well be open for business. Still I find myself wondering which way really is the most effective. Somehow I think that I would not be nearly as interesting if I had not had those precious three months each year in which to develop myself just as I wished. Those were my Huckleberry Finn moments and I am all the richer for enjoying them.

  

The Leftovers

leftoverheader3We humans are so incredibly complex. Even those of us who grow up in the exact same household with the same parents will be unique, just a bit unlike one another. We see beauty in different ways and are attracted to works of art according to our own preferences. We demonstrate our emotions in a multitude of ways, and when tragedy strikes there is no one manner in which every single one of us will react.

An amazing television production completed its final season a few weeks ago. The Leftovers was an offering of HBO that never quite caught the attention of a wide ranging audience, but it became a cult favorite of enough individuals to keep it alive for a year longer than HBO management intended. I am among those who believed from the very beginning that I was watching a masterpiece of theater unfold before my very eyes and I was rarely disappointed.

The Leftovers takes us to a situation in which people suddenly and quite randomly disappear on an otherwise normal October day. There is no rhyme or reason that explains who was selected or why certain people were left behind. Some families were not affected at all and others were decimated. It was a mysterious tragedy that left most of the world bereft and focused on dealing with the emotions that might accompany such a strange happening.

The story that unfolds introduces us to a cast of characters from Mapleton, New York who are dealing with the trauma each in his or her own way. The power of the program lies in the unveiling of the individual emotions of those people, and the actors portray them with a craft that is worthy of every possible award. They bring a humanity and believability to the stories even when they become far fetched indeed.

I don’t believe that anybody ever intended the audience to see the sequence of events in The Leftovers as anything other than allegories and metaphors for life. The plot unfolds in a kind of dreamlike sequence that strains credibility if one demands rational explanations. Instead it should be viewed much as one considers an abstract painting in which reality takes many forms. The best way to watch The Leftovers is as a tour de force of imagery and acting that is superior to most of the simple minded fodder on television.

In its three seasons the story moves from New York to Texas to Australia. I happened to be camping in McKinney Falls State Park in Austin when some of the Texas sequences were being filmed there. It was fun to see the images of places so familiar to me. My granddaughter was called for a role in the program that summer, but when they learned that she was not yet twelve they had to turn her away because the work would have been too dangerous for a younger child. I suspect that it might also have been a bit traumatic as well because The Leftovers is a show that is never fearful of taking emotional climaxes to the very limit.

This series is not for the faint of heart. It ruthlessly studies our humanity and the ways in which we choose to deal with tragedy or attempt to ignore it. Ultimately it becomes a story about love. It looks at questions of faith and portrays true believers as well as agnostics. It does not attempt to provide the audience with any kind of answers, but instead tempts us to think about such things and wonder how we might react if we were to endure a similar situation. I keeps the mysteries of our existence in the realm of unanswered questions, leaving us to decide for ourselves what everything that we see actually means.

I have discussed this series with a number of people who were discouraged from watching by the ephemeral feel of the story. I suppose that they require a bit more closure and reality than I do. I find myself agreeing with Bob Dylan, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, that if the words and ideas of an artistic endeavor somehow sound good to us, we will imprint our own meanings on them. For me The Leftovers is a journey into a kind of hell much like Dante’s Inferno. It shows the dark places that we take ourselves as we search for meaning in an often cruel and confusing world. It provides us with a small taste of optimism as well in demonstrating that it is in the relationships that we somehow manage to build even when the worst happens that we ultimately find our salvation.

Everything about The Leftovers is so carefully considered for its impact. The music is as important as the script. The images are often like great paintings from the most masterful of artists. The acting is so real and intense that it often leaves those of us in the audience breathless. It is like watching a moving definition of beauty and truth.

I am sometimes reluctant to recommend The Leftovers to anyone because it is the essence of a figurative world where every aspect of the show means something and those meanings can be very different for each person. If you tend toward the literal this program probably won’t work for you, but if you are willing to suspend reality for the sake of pure art then you may be in for a treat.

For those of us who are huge fans of this program it is sad to realize that it is no more, but it is also true that elongating the story for the sake of keeping it going would undoubtedly detract from its ultimate beauty. The Leftovers is a masterpiece that will be studied by writers, actors and directors for years to come. I’m glad that I was part of the audience that understood its genius from the very beginning. I will miss Kevin and Nora and Matt and the others, but I am thankful that they came into my life for three years and provided me with a glimpse of brilliance.

True Love

true-love_2767240He and his friend were giddy in an anticipation of their inside joke. It was a sibling setup, the kind of thing that big brothers sometime do to their little sisters for a laugh. It was supposed to just be all in good fun. He had agreed to go along with the impish brother’s plan to embarrass his unwitting sister, but he was unprepared for what would actually happen.

The two men sat at a table eating the dinner special. Just as agreed he demanded to speak with the cook, his coconspirator’s target. They winked at each other in anticipation of her reaction, stifling their amusement until the preplanned time. She seemed to suddenly appear, a tiny little thing with a puzzled look meekly inquiring, “May I help you sir?”

His chest heaved. His throat constricted. He had not expected to be so taken with her. Suddenly this was no longer a joke. He had never before been so utterly thunderstruck by another human being. His brain began whirring as he knew that he had to abandon the original plan. He took a deep breath and smiled at her. “I wanted to know who made this delicious food. I wanted to tell you to be prepared, because I am going to marry you one day.” 

She smiled and quickly glanced at her confused brother with the kind of knowing look that siblings give one another. It was a sweet moment, and little could she have known that the gentleman who had so complimented her would indeed one day be her husband.

Theirs would be a true love story. He called her his “buddy” and they not only shared the gift of parenting two children but also enjoyed just being together. He showered her with affection and she made him feel more of a man than he felt that he really was. They laughed their way through life’s ups and downs, sharing dreams and hard work and disappointments. They were a team as perfect as ever there was and then came the diagnosis.

She was very sick. The cancer had spread throughout her body. They dismissed her from the hospital and sent her home to die. He was by her side day and night, rarely leaving for more than a few minutes. He became her nurse, caring for her medical needs and soothing her when the pain became almost unbearable. He lay beside her running his hands through her hair and caressing her fevered cheek. He reminded her of how much he had always loved her. He silently prayed for a miracle that would never come.

He was bereft when she died. He never quit talking about her even as the years stretched from one to ten to twenty. His eyes would light up when he told stories of their time together. She was still the love of his life and never a day went by that he did not miss her. He kept her photograph on his bedside table. She was the first thing that he saw each morning and the last thing before he fell asleep each night.

Eventually he too became ill. Not even surgery helped. He slowly sank into a state of confusion that we thought had been brought on by the drugs designed to ease his pain. He told us that she had come to visit him and asked if we had seen her. He seemed happier than he had been in a very long time, and then only a few days later he died.

Love is a beautiful thing, and I am a sucker for stories and movies about romance whether they are tragic or comic. I suspect that I am not alone in that regard. The world has been savoring literature from Romeo and Juliet to Pride and Prejudice for centuries. Mostly the characters of such efforts are young and beautiful. Their’s is love borne out of the passions of youth. Rarely do we see the chronicles of older couples, and yet in so many ways those tales are far more moving. It is in the twilight years that the true ardor of a coupling often becomes the most apparent. Thus it was with my grandparents, and this was their story, one that resonates again and again. They had created a bond with one another that was profound.

Such moving partnerships tend to be quiet and seemingly ordinary and yet each of us has witnessed such unwavering love between people that we have known. These kinds of relationships are selfless and spiritual. They are examples of exactly how young couples should strive to be with one another. Such couples survive all of the challenges that real life throws at them because their partnerships are not shallow, but rather based on a deep and abiding connection between two souls that grows as the two share milestone after milestone.

Instead of watching silly reality shows about superficial people who look for love in all the wrong places we should ask the true survivors to share their experiences. We need to hear from the couple that makes the time to laugh and celebrate regularly with their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. We would be wise to hear from the caring and devoted wife whose husband has been sidelined by ill health. How nice it would be to realize that love ultimately has little to do with appearance or status and that contentment may be had just sitting together in a backyard.

We all too often paint a very misleading picture of love and marriage for our young. They harbor expectations but rarely think of their own obligations. They forget the importance of their own kindness and patience. They don’t understand the power of being someone’s “buddy.” True soulmates walk with one another through rain, fire and glory. They grow together with all that such an idea implies.

I worry a bit about our world. The kinds of connections that were so visible between my grandmother and grandfather are no longer happening as frequently as they once did. So many are afraid to become committed to another. We have far too many broken and toxic relationships, and I wonder how our young will learn how to truly love as I did from my grandparents. It is in the role models that we see and the stories that we share that we form our own ideas of how to behave with someone that we love. Sadly of late we tend to be focused on the underbelly of marriage rather than the most beautiful examples of how it should be.

If we truly want to be the change that we wish to see then it is up to each of us to find the most incredible couples that we know and introduce their stories to the world. It is time that we once again see just how extraordinary love can be.

Wonder

121009_DX_WonderBook.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlargeWe pretend not to care about physical appearances, but then our responses to beauty or lack of it tell a different story. Our world is filled with products and procedures that we purchase and use to improve our looks. We study the icons of pulchritude with an eye to imitating the imagery that they project. We don’t want to be shallow enough to react on the basis of someone’s physical traits, and yet whether consciously or subconsciously we somehow seem to judge facial features, body types, hairstyles and clothing. Researchers have told us that those with pleasing physical attributes are often perceived as being more intelligent and worthy of leadership positions. Even as we pray that we ourselves will not be judged solely by the way we look, we somehow fall victim to viewing others in such ways and worrying about how they in turn are seeing us.

We are often our own worst critics. I remember reading an interview with Keira Knightley in which she laughed at the very idea of being a beauty. She proceeded to point out every flaw in her face and her body as though it was common knowledge that she was in truth a rather homely girl. I recall thinking that we all do such things with ourselves as we gaze in the mirror day after day. Each of us sees aspects of our appearance that go unnoticed by others. I hate my lack of a strong chin and the fact that one of my eyelids droops just enough to make my eyes seem uneven. I suspect that most people really never think of those things when they see me, and yet deep down inside I am self conscious and even find myself wondering what they are thinking about my features.

Sadly we are a superficial society in spite of our protests that such things don’t really matter, particularly when it comes to women. We dissect every inch of our female political figures, critiquing their hairstyles and their wardrobe choices. Little wonder that young girls begin to worry so much about how they are developing as they bloom into womanhood. They take note of whether are not they are ever complimented as a beauty even when they understand that such things should not matter.  They watch the cruelty of their classmates toward those who don’t possess the attributes deemed attractive by the public. Adolescence can be an extremely stressful time for anyone who is a bit different and most of us have endured that trying time, so we should know better than to fall victim to superficialities.

There is an exceptional book by R. J. Palacio called Wonder that tackles the topic of who we really are by telling the story of Auggie, a young boy born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare disease in which the facial bones do not form properly. Auggie has been homeschooled because of the many health issues and surgeries associated with his illness. Now he is ready for middle school, and his mom believes that it is time for him to attend public school and learn how to navigate in a world that can sometimes be very cruel. His journey is fraught with not just the usual junior high taunts and stresses, but with the added difficulties resulting from his physical differences. In the end Auggie and his best friend learn the importance of what really makes each of us incredible, and Auggie himself realizes that he is truly the wonder that his mother tells him that he is.

Wonder has become a best selling novel that is treasured by young and old readers alike. My granddaughter who is an avid reader counts it among her all time favorite books. This summer a grandson will read it as part of his summer assignments for entry into the sixth grade. I suspect that many people have been challenged to rethink how they view the people around them while learning about the miracle that is Auggie. The novel demonstrates that sometimes the people who appear to be the most lovely have very ugly souls, while those who do not fit our standard definitions of beauty are in fact the most gorgeous people in our lives. It reminds us not to judge a book by its cover or a person by his/her face.

We all know that once we truly love someone we lose the ability to see them as anything other than amazingly wonderful. We care little about how they look for we have experienced their kindness, their generosity the very depth of their souls. We are able to see inside their beautiful hearts rather than only gazing at the skin deep aspects of their appearance. Wonder laments those who are incapable of experiencing the true meanings of life even while it celebrates our true essences. It focuses on the importance of friendships, character and the uniqueness that makes each of us special.

This summer a movie based on the book will be released and it is sure to become a classic. We owe it to our young people to either watch the film or read the novel together and then discuss a topic that we too often ignore. It is our duty as adults to help our children to realize that each of us is absolutely perfect just as we are. It is in finding the beauty in ourselves that we begin to see it in the people around us. Once we move past our own worries and concerns a whole world of possibilities opens up for us and it is spectacularly lovely.    

Summer Reading

LordOfTheFliesBookCoverMany students will be receiving summer reading assignments in the coming weeks. The ingenuity of their teachers will play a large role in determining whether this is a pleasant experience for them or not. Sadly it too often becomes a dreaded task that young people avoid until the last possible moment instead of being a source of pleasure. In our quest for accountability those of us who are teachers all too often concentrate more on how to ascertain if our pupils have actually learned certain things from the experience and less on how much they enjoyed it.

Kylene Beers is a well known reading specialist who strongly believes that children should have much more say regarding what they will read in their leisure time than most teachers are willing to grant them. She insists that our students should have many book choices and that they be the ones to ultimately decide which ones to tackle. She also cautions teachers from creating assignments and tests that erase the satisfaction that should come from digesting a truly interesting novel or nonfiction text. She notes that much of the joy of reading is extinguished each summer by well meaning teachers who lack the trust that their students will actually choose worthy volumes and then critically read them.

Dr. Beers suggests that teachers provide students with a long list of acceptable titles and then allow them to pick the ones that are most appealing. She feels that proof of reading should be checked in creative ways of the students’ own design. Otherwise, she points out, it becomes an odious task and the act of reading is associated with very negative feelings.

I find myself agreeing somewhat with Dr. Beers. I had to read several books each summer. Some of them were quite delightful and I am happy to this very day that I discovered them. I read others grudgingly and shutter even now at the thought of how uninterested in them I was. While Kon Tiki was a bestseller and a great adventure for some, for me it was a nightmare. I had a difficult time remembering what had happened from one paragraph to another. I simply had no desire to read such books back then. I eventually became enthralled with Into Thin Air and other similar titles but being exposed to such nonfiction in my youth did little to change my attitude. Thankfully there were enough titles on my teacher’s list that I mostly enjoyed my summer reading.

Today the favored tactic is to assign a single book to the entire class. Usually it is a classic with appeal to most students. I often wonder, however, how terrible it must be for someone who just can’t get into the story. We’ve all had that problem with one book or another. We aren’t the same and sometimes a story simply doesn’t speak to us. Maybe we need to be sure that students have a number of titles from which to choose rather than assuming that we have found one that will be acceptable to all.

One summer my grandson had a reading requirement for an American History class. There were four or five titles from which to choose. He enjoyed the first one that he read so much that he later tackled some of the others. When he had the freedom to decide his interest was piqued more than ever. Because I wanted to be able to discuss the books with him I bought copies of all of them. Like him when I discovered how great his first choice was I realized that his teacher had excellent taste and that I would probably like the others as well, which I did.

How to assess the students on reading assignments is another issue. Dr. Beers believes that many teachers find books that their student like, but then kill the appreciation with tests that ask questions about minute details that few of us would recall. Instead she recommends that the teacher should attempt to determine the student’s reactions to themes and characters. She suggests that asking students to discuss their feelings about the book is far more beneficial than having them tell what color a certain character was wearing at a particular juncture. She wants students to create questions that they may have and to list aspects that they had difficulty understanding. Just as members of a book club get together to critique a selection, so too should students be able to comment rather than being tied to an assessment that destroys their exuberance. The summer reading experience should never be a “gottcha” moment.

I am not naive enough to think that none of the students will take advantage of a teacher’s largesse if such changes are made, but there are ways to determine how much a student derived from reading without making it a laborious task. First, everyone should have a choice of titles. Assignments should be variable as well. Students can use their creativity to demonstrate what they learned. For some an essay will suffice. For others the creation of some type of object representing what they lessons they drew may be preferable. I suspect that allowing students to demonstrate their appreciation in various modes and then present their ideas to the rest of the class will result in far more interest. 

Think of how you usually decide to read a particular book. Quite often you see someone you know engaged in it. You ask him/her about it. Something about the response intrigues you. You find a copy and become enthralled. The next time you see your acquaintance you mention the text. The two of you begin a lively discussion. You share ideas. It is a pleasurable experience. Nobody is forcing you to do this. Reading becomes something that makes you happy and so you read even more.

I love the idea of having students spend time reading during their summer vacation. I like that they are often introduced to new authors and topics that they might not have otherwise discovered, but I also believe like Kylene Beers that they should have some freedom in deciding what sounds interesting enough to pursue. When the assessment is creative enough to keep that spark of enjoyment growing the experience is pleasurable and remembered forever.

I still tell people to try Things Fall Apart, The Kite Runner, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, A Separate Peace, The Lord of the Flies and so many other titles because they touched my heart. I will talk about them with anyone willing to listen, not because I had to read them, but because I wanted to. Reading should be a joyful experience. Let’s keep that in mind when we ask our children to spend some of their summer inside the pages of a book.