Friday, December 24, 2010

Reading: My Life

            Christopher Columbus and Sister Margaret Marie, my third grade teacher, had more in common than anyone would have expected.  Each led me to flee my early school life and to withdraw inward.  Sister slapped me for my arrogance, hitting me across my face with both palms, as if she were crashing cymbals in the finale of the William Tell Overture.  Columbus, too, was arrogant, thinking he could cross an ocean without falling off, and he, too, was slapped – in chains, returning home having seen more than other men, yet humbled before the authority of the crown.
            I hated Sister Margaret then and because of her I forced myself to throw up the next day so that I could stay home from school.  “Okay,” my parents said, “but there’ll be no one else around with you all day.”  “That’s all right,” I feebly muttered, in my best Ferris Beuhler voice (though this was long before the movie).
            I stayed home bored out of my mind.  (My mother hid the tv cord and I could find nothing much to do).  I searched the basement and found an orange rectangular book called The Life of Christopher Columbus.  It was my older brother’s and it looked cool.  I liked the illustrations, Columbus surveying the New World from the prow of the ship; Columbus brought low, in the hold.  “I know how you feel, brother,” he seemed to be saying.  This was the first book I read by myself, and while I did not exactly become a voracious reader after this experience – who could with baseball diamonds and tennis courts all around? – I was very proud of my accomplishment and kept the memory of that book inside the trophy case of my memory, pulling it out whenever I doubted my abilities in school.
            In 10th grade, I remember reading Brave New World on a bench outside school when a P.E. teacher said, “What are you doing with a book, O’Connor?”  A P.E. teacher, for Chrissake!  This was devastating to me (even though I was a C- student up until this point, finding school unbearably boring and artificial) since it forced me for the first time to confront the image I must have been projecting to the world (or, at least to Coach Kuskie, who might have stood in for the world as well as anyone else in my life at that moment).  Brave New World seemed revolutionary to me – prescient, pressing – and I really wanted to know about Huxley’s life and what could have led him to develop his super-cynicism.
            I began to read and began to judge people by what they read.  My favorite book that year was Black Boy, a book I identified closely with, since it, too, is a story of literary awakening.  This book made me want to write, and that year I published two stories in the school literary magazine, The Gift Horse:  one a blatant rip-off of the Tolkein craze; the other an almost unsurpassably pretentious story called M.E. (Mount Emotion).  No subtle symbols for me; I needed an Everest-sized avatar of my budding personhood. 
            I coasted through the next four years of school without too many breakthroughs, though some books have stayed with me in powerful ways – The Great Gatsby, the first paper I ever typed, which was an analysis of the Eggs, and Nick’s inchoate adulthood; and all those truth tellers:  King Lear’s Cordelia, Holden Caulfield – and everything by Kurt Vonnegut.
            But Eleni has been the greatest influence on my reading life.  No, not the Nicholas Gage novel, but the woman who became my wife, and still the best-read person I have ever met.  She led me toward Henry James, Dickens, and James Joyce.   In an Anglo-Irish Lit. class, we read the short story “The Dead,” which features a scene set in Oughterard, County Galway, my father’s hometown.  For the first time in my life, I was proud to be Irish-American.  Suddenly, my white trash, Mick roots were cool, European.  How I loved to hear the professor say that Joyce was the greatest writer of the century and that tiny Ireland, one-fifth the size of Illinois, had produced four Nobel laureates.  “Better, I daresay,” he’d add, “than Illinois has done.”
            Just before I came back to this draft, I left the living room where my wife and I were reading.  She is reading Love Medicine, by one of my favorite writers (I love having read enough to recommend writers), and I am reading Epitaph of a Small Winner, by Machado de Assis, a book I realized just a few pages in will be one of the greatest books I will ever read, a book to whom so many of my favorites are clearly indebted – Marquez, Cortazar, Rushdie. 
            Reading leaves me feeling elated and despondent by the same truth:  You are hopelessly ignorant and the water is rising.  But reading has also saved my life.  I had been adrift scholastically, teetering on the edge of the world, in danger of drowning like my father, a man who never learned to read.  Books, essentially made from the same pulpy substance as Columbus’s armada, have kept me afloat, traveling around the world in search of other seekers. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Teachable Moments -- A new monthly series on this blog

How do we weigh teacher autonomy against the wishes of the community?  I raised this question last month at a meeting attended by parents, teachers, and students.  

The words were barely out of my mouth when a parent calmly said there was no possible tension because teachers are employed to carry out the wishes of the community.  Her certainty took all the air out of the topic, and a new topic took the group in a new direction.  Inwardly, though, I wondered if she’d ever heard of the Scopes Monkey Trial or the less sensational but widely hated initiatives such as No Child Left Behind?    
          I must confess that as a parent I’d find abhorrent a teacher who propagandized on behalf of a political candidate, say, or who espoused views that are way beyond community norms.  Think, for example, of a well known Holocaust denier who served as a tenured professor at Northwestern University.  Or a teacher who dismissed evolution as mere speculation.  But the issues are rarely so black and white.  (Another parent at the meeting wryly observed that her community’s only undisputed value was to get kids into college without raising property taxes!)  With many issues I’d be hard pressed to know exactly what the community norms were.  More complicating still are issues in which the community is divided.  Is the teacher to shy away from such issues altogether or adopt a neutral stance? 
         As a teacher I’d find it impossible to live within such guidelines.  Yes, I am employed by my local community and hired by my school in part to carry out their wishes.  But communities are making a big mistake if they wish to hire only automatons who parrot mindless scripts and who never think outside the ideological boundaries of their communities.  The issue, it seems to me, is akin to that of the elected official.  Is the public servant to poll his or her constituents and vote accordingly,  or to act in accord with his or her own set of morals and intelligence.
         This issue was tackled in 1774 by the eminent British statesman Edmund Burke, whose political writings greatly influenced our own founding fathers.  In considering the proper role of public servants, Burke distinguished between mere delegates “who are not supposed to hew against the grain of public opinion.”  Such delegates must always vote in line with will of the people he or she represents.  In contrast, Burke advocates for the establishment of “trustees” of the public interest.  A trustee owes his or her constituents “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience.” He continues, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
         As a parent and a teacher, this is my fondest wish:  that teachers are allowed to exercise their best judgment for their students bound of course by the laws of reason.  Surely this is one of the most appealing qualities of our profession in recruiting new talent into our ranks.   I am not arguing for teacher infallibility – only that by silencing the independent judgments and opinions of teachers we are likely also to jeopardize the life of the classroom.

Fall Reading

Just before the school year began, I re-read Don Delillo's White Noise.  It is one of the defining books of my lifetime and it's hard to beat for social satire.  Jack Gladney teaches Hitler studies at a small liberal arts college.  He spends most of the book trying to learn basic German while his friend, an Elvis scholar tries to school him on the ways of modern celebrity.  When a -- possibly -- toxic cloud (call it "an event") sweeps over the bucolic landscape, the future appears doomed  for all of us because no one understands  technology, or its specialized vocabulary and no one quite knows how deeply we have already been poisoned by artificial products, synthetic foods, and each other.

Terrence Hayes's Lightheaded is a wonderful book I am happy to say I picked up just before it won the National Book Award.  Hayes is a prodigious talent whose opening poem is a word-drunk meditation on love and loss that leaves the reader, well... lightheaded.  Another favorite is a poem called Carp Poem, in which Hayes makes a staggering imaginative leap from the orange DOC jumpsuits of prisoners in a program where he teaches to the orange of equally trapped and angry carp in a Japanese koi pond.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart is a hilarious social satire of a society where people no longer "verbal" each other.  Instead, they resort to computer devices and a savage hierarchical social ranking system where youth and vapidity are the only prizes to be sought.  Sound familiar?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a great young adult novel. Partly autobiographical, and partly covering reservation scenes in a similarly brilliant way to his own previous work, Alexie offers a young protagonist who can only be saved through education and art -- much the same way the author has managed to transcend his own impoverished environment to become one of the most important writers in the U.S. today. 

V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River is a great novel about the Congo.   Caught between two revolutions, Salim, the narrator, tries to make a living while surviving swings in political fortune he cannot quite understand.  He's not alone.  No one seems to fully grasp the many Africas present in his tiny town or the mighty pulls of European and Arabian influence, to say nothing of the "old ways" and their inevitable clash with modernity.  Naipaul is a Nobel-prize winner and given the psychological astuteness and the historical sweep of this novel, it's easy to see why.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Summer Reading

So far this summer I've read five very good books:

Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists, is a terrific first novel that is both funny and moving. The novel concerns a failing newspaper (these days, is there any other kind?) in Rome. The construction of the novel is ingenious, with each chapter capable of standing on its own.

DCB Pierre's Vernon God Little is a hilariously tragic novel narrated by the wry and foul-mouthed title character. Picture a hybrid of Holden Caulfield and Eminem. To find pathos in a novel about a school shooting set in a tiny, bigoted Texas town (is there any other kind?) is not hard, but to find humor in such a grim setting is a world-class feat.

Salvador Plascencia's The People of Paper is a surreal novel with over a dozen narrators. It's about immigration and identity to be sure, but this novel is, at its core, about what it means to be a human being. Clearly a writer to watch.

Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry
is the first in a trilogy of novels that chart modern Irish history. Doyle's earlier comic work, especially The Barrytown Trilogy, is as funny as anything I've ever read. Here, though, in addition, to humor is extraordinary depth. Shades of Beloved hover like the ghosts of lost children over all the action in this wonderful book. The final volume of this series was released last month. I can't wait to get there.

Etgar Keret's The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God is a collection of short stories by a dazzlingly inventive Israeli writer. Echoes of Kafka and Cortazar abound in these strange and funny short pieces.

What are you reading?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spring Blues

Mississippi Heat's new disc, Let's Live It Up!, comes out on April 20th. I wrote lyrics with bandleader, Pierre Lacocque, as I did on his previous album Hattiesburg Blues. That album was #1 on the Blues charts. Here's hoping the new disc is even more successful.


Blues Blast Magazine - 2010 Blues Blast Music Awards Voting Page.