“[T]o embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else”

If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence.

Bayard Rustin

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas,” explains the narrator in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” adding:

Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

A people aware, complicit, of the necessity to sacrifice a child—but this isn’t just some fantastic allegory of the ends justifying the means, utilitarianism.

This is the U.S., now.

Last night, between my wife and me in bed, my nearly three-year-old granddaughter lay restlessly asleep, burning up with a fever. My 6-month-old grandson was home with my daughter suffering his first infection.

As I worry about these children closest in my life: Teacher, boy die when husband opens fire in California class.

And we may add “again.”

Or “while the country continues not to give a good goddamn.”

Or “[but] [t]hey all know that it has to be there.”

Or “in the wake of political leaders of multiple countries killing children while pretending to be distraught over the slaughter of children.”

Or “while Syrian children are sacrificed and children in Detroit are just callously ignored.”

We are a disappointing and awful people. Squandering our potential through selfishness and greed. We have no moral authority or purpose.

We cannot justify our violence. A hand raised, a gun, a bomb. Violence is the lowest act of any human. It is always failure.

A people is defined by how they prioritize the weakest among them, children.

“But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else,” Le Guin’s narrator warns.

By that metric, we are a disappointing and awful people.

See Also

Suffer the Children, Jen Sorensen, Truthout | Cartoon

 

Post and Courier (Charleston, SC): CCSD plan for teachers won’t work

Post and Courier (Charleston, SC): CCSD plan for teachers won’t work

[see full submission with hyperlinks below]

Charleston School District Arriving Late to a Very Bad Party

P.L. Thomas, Professor, Furman University

The most telling aspect of Charleston County School District’s announcement about holding teachers accountable for student test scores may be in the second paragraph of Paul Bowers’s coverage: “District leaders say they don’t want to fire anyone — particularly not in the midst of a statewide teacher shortage that’s only getting worse.”

While it appears some are aware of the unintended consequences of new education policy, we must be concerned that such awareness has not helped better inform this recent decision to move forward with using value-added methods (VAM) in teacher evaluations.

Early research warned and current studies confirm that VAM fails to fulfill political promises, but also feeds existing problems. This pattern has been seen with school choice increasing segregation, exit exams causing higher drop-out rates, and high-stakes tests driving teaching to the test, asking far less of students.

First, we should acknowledge the flawed logic driving the use of VAM to increase teacher accountability. The recent concern about teacher quality is grounded in several false assumptions.

One is the “bad” teacher myth strongly associated with the stereotypical unionized teacher as portrayed in Waiting for Superman.

However, across the U.S. teachers in unionized states produce students with higher test scores that teachers in non-union (called right-to-work) states such as South Carolina. The problem with associating teacher quality and low student outcomes with union protection is that student test scores are more powerfully associated with poverty than any other factor.

This leads to the other false assumption that teacher quality is the most or one of the most important causes of student learning. In fact, teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of standardized test scores, the basis of VAM, while out-of-school factors remain the greatest influence, at 60%.

A final assumption is that using test data to evaluate teachers is objective and valid, and thus fair. Yet, many teachers are in content areas without standardized tests, and then, ironically, making any set of data high-stakes causes that data to be less credible (see Campbell’s Law).

Student test scores are poor evidence about teacher quality, and making those scores central to evaluating teachers is guaranteed to further erode that evidence’s usefulness and the process.

Matthew Di Carlo, blogging for the Albert Shanker Institute, details the unintended consequences of VAM as implemented in Houston.

While assessing the Houston teacher evaluation system, Julie Berry Cullen, Cory Koedel, and Eric Parsons discovered that teachers identified as weaker by their student test scores were already leaving at high rates before the new system was implemented in order to identify weak teachers.

In other words, Houston adopted a policy without investigating whether or not teacher quality was the key problem, without acknowledging that with high teacher attrition among so-called weaker teachers, schools were not achieving in ways they envisioned.

Here is one powerful lesson of education reform: Do not adopt a policy until you gather evidence of the problems; and assumptions about those problems are not enough.

After Houston adopted VAM-based evaluation of teacher, as Di Carlo explains, teachers identified by test scores as weak were even more likely to leave, but:

On the other hand, all exits increased under the new evaluations — including among teachers who were rated as average and high performers. The extent to which this spike is attributable to the new evaluation system per se is unclear, but it served to “dilute” the impact on student achievement of the increase in exits among low performers. There is also some indication that higher-rated teachers were more likely to switch out of schools with low-performing students after ETI (versus before the policy), which would also attenuate the impact of the policy.

Historically and currently, Charleston has a teacher problem, yet Houston is a powerful example of how VAM is not the solution to those problems.

The remaining challenge is recruiting and maintaining experienced and certified teachers in the schools that serve the most vulnerable students from high-poverty homes and communities.

The new policy linking teacher evaluations with student test scores will not address those challenges, and we can expect it will actually increase challenges to recruit new teachers and stem teacher attrition.

By adopting VAM and investing in critically discredited system, EVAAS, Charleston County School District is late to a very bad party. The students and community would be better served by making sure we know what the teacher quality problems are and then seeking ways to address those instead of choosing political expediency and wasting tax dollars on policies and programs already shown to fail.

6 April 2017 Reader: Segregation and James Baldwin

But it’s also a country where if you’re running and you’re black there is a high chance you’ll be shot in the back. Then there will be a brief and cinematic fuss but no justice. Baldwin’s beautiful and screaming incomprehension sixty years ago at such atrocities still makes too much sense [emphasis added].

Please take the rope from my throat so that I may sing, Talia Marshall


Segregation

Within integrated schools, de facto segregation persists, Erica L. Green

Howard County is the most integrated school district in the region, according to the Maryland Equity Project of the University of Maryland. Children of different races — especially those who are black and white — are more likely to sit next to each other in Howard than almost anywhere else in the state.

But within that diversity, school leaders have uncovered a de facto system of segregation.

Enrollment data obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request shows that the district’s advanced classes — honors, gifted and talented, and AP — are disproportionately white, while the regular and remedial classes are disproportionately black.

How School Choice Is Increasing Racial Segregation in Public Education

Erika Frankenberg, an associate professor of education and an associate of the Population Research Institute at Penn State, was the lead author of the study. She notes that “Black and Latino students tended to move into charter schools that were more racially isolated than the public schools they left.” This is a cause for concern, according to the authors. Dr. Frankenberg states that “minority students in more diverse school settings have higher short-term and long-term academic outcomes than those who attend racially isolated minority schools.

White students in Philadelphia area schools tended to go to charter schools that had a greater percentage of White students than the public school they had attended. But in the rest of the state, White students tended to opt for charter schools that were more diverse than the public schools.


James Baldwin

How James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time still lights the way towards equality, Steven W Thrasher

His 1962 classic The Fire Next Time was originally a letter, written by Baldwin to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the so-called emancipation of black America. In the letter’s penultimate paragraph, Baldwin writes: “This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.” It is rhythmically similar to Trump’s red-hatted mantra – but there’s a big difference between trying to make America “great again” and focusing on what it once was, rather than what it “must become”.

More than 50 years on, The Fire Next Time has been reprinted by Taschen in a beautiful new edition that pairs his text with images by the civil rights-era photographer Steve Schapiro. Baldwin was “the scribe of the movement, our illustrious griot, who knew our struggle because he lived it”, as congressman John Lewis writes in the foreword. But before mobile phone videos and Twitter allowed black Americans to directly telegraph their plight to the world, it was up to photojournalism to visualise the message, as Schapiro’s images did in Life magazine.

James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time. Photographs by Steve Schapiro

Against Literary Nationalism, Jan Clausen

In the twenty years since [Adrienne] Rich spoke out, the injustices she pointed to have intensified. Indeed, anyone who thinks that “cynical policies” disappeared under Obama should review his remarks to the nation’s top financial executives in March 2009, when the purveyor of “hope and change” tried to reassure the fat cats: “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks. . . . I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

Those who value “justice for all” cannot look at the actually existing United States — the barbarous inequalities it fosters at home, the imperial violence it passes off as foreign policy — without concluding that “the American proposition” is bunk. This is not, of course, to give up on fighting for justice; it is merely to eschew the veneration of a history of abuses.

So why don’t today’s writers take a stand like Rich? What happened to the radical dissent embodied in figures like James Baldwin, Grace Paley, and June Jordan — or the United Kingdom’s Harold Pinter, who devoted part of his 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech to delivering a scathing rebuke of America’s imperial crimes?

Under the Spell of James Baldwin, Darryl Pinckney

Baldwin said that Martin Luther King Jr., symbol of nonviolence, had done what no black leader had before him, which was “to carry the battle into the individual heart.” But he refused to condemn Malcolm X, King’s supposed violent alternative, because, he said, his bitterness articulated the sufferings of black people. These things could also describe Baldwin himself in his essays on race and US society. He may not have dealt with “this sociology and economics jazz,” as Harold Cruse complained of him in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), but the reconstruction of America was for him, even in his bleakest essays, firstly a moral question, a matter of conscience. And at his best he simply didn’t need the backup of statistics and dates. When it came to The Fire Next Time (1963), the evidence of his experience, the truth of American history, he could take perfect flight on his own.

Battling to Save James Baldwin’s Home in the South of France, Rachel Donadio

Baldwin, who had lived in Paris earlier in his life, first came to Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1970, at the age of 46, after a breakdown. He had been excoriated by fellow members of the civil rights movement — some called the author, who was gay, Martin Luther Queen — and believed he was under surveillance by the United States government. In France, he found the tranquillity and distance to write.

At the time of his death from cancer, he had been buying the house in installments from his landlady, Jeanne Faure, who grew up in Algeria under French colonial rule. Despite her right-wing politics, she and Baldwin had become the best of friends. (When President François Mitterrand of France made Baldwin a commander of the Legion of Honor in 1986, one of the country’s highest honors, the author brought Ms. Faure to the ceremony.)

Please take the rope from my throat so that I may sing, Talia Marshall

I read Baldwin’s gay novel Giovanni’s Room at the same time, but Another Country is my favourite because it had these women in it: white, privileged Cass with her WASP, horse-riding New England girlhood, and Black, imperious and beautiful Ida who was aloof and suspicious of her dead brother’s white friends. Cass and Ida were proof Baldwin paid some attention to the inner world of women even if he imprisoned them in their sex as equally as men.

All his writing toils with the fact and cage of the body. The black body and the white fear of its darkness, and the cultural incomprehension at the heart of American life. His paradoxical and gospel-fed vision was that the only way to solve the ‘negro problem’ was to set white people free from their prejudice, given the subjugating nature of power even for the powerful.

James Baldwin was the double negative: Black and gay, and blessed with a frog-like lovely/unlovely face and boy-preacher airs; the greedy reader who devoured every single book in the Harlem library as a child; the ear for mixing the street talk of Harlem and Brooklyn, and the Beat chatter of the Village with the heady modernism of James and Joyce. Baldwin is often accused by critics of having superfluous amounts of empathy, and at times this compassion for the human condition slips into purple, gushing sentimentality. Like Disney for the bohemian set, Baldwin’s writing can be the literary equivalent of a relentless zoom lens shot of people’s faces and all their wretched, spilling emotions.

Complicit

Brent Staples, editorial writer for The New York Times, has committed to Tweeting at intervals this same message:

I admire his resolve and wish that mainstream media would embrace his dictum—although I am not holding my breath.

On a much smaller scale, I have been as determined to hold to this: Supporting Donald Trump—and unequivocal racist and misogynist, to name just some of his bigotry—is racist and sexist.

Responses to my claim are often met with harsh denials, typically to the extreme. Recently on social media, I was chastised that it was ridiculous to call half of the U.S. racist—to which I noted only about 26% of eligible voters supported Trump, just 19% of the total population.

Racism denial, specifically the refusal to call any person “racist,” is nearly a national past-time in the U.S.

One factor in the denial is misunderstanding what racism is—a systemic dynamic about both race and power.

But another reason for racism denial, for the knee-jerk “I am not a racist,” is much more complex, I believe, because much of the racism that exists in the U.S. today is less about oafish racism, and more about implicit bias (holding racist beliefs at the unconscious level) and about our being complicit in systemic racism, either unaware or justifying the contradictions in our complicity and our stated beliefs.

#

In 1971, my family moved from renting a house in Woodruff, South Carolina—a step up from my first childhood home in Enoree nearby—to the house my parents built on the first lot purchased at Three Pines Country Club.

Yes, this redneck lived from about age 10 and until just after college on a golf course.

My working-class parents scraped and worked themselves into ill health (notably my father) to make their American Dream come true—their own house and on a golf course at that.

I lived this life as most people do, completely uncritically and almost universally committed to the ideals stated and implied by our family of four achieving home ownership at something as seemingly elite as a country club.

But then there was the discord, unexamined then but nearly deafening now.

I grew up playing golf and basketball as my primary efforts at being an athlete. My golf life was spent mostly at Three Pines and other golf courses around the upstate of South Carolina, and then I played basketball on school-based teams.

As you may be able to guess, golf was an entirely white world, and basketball, often nearly all black—including my sophomore year of high school when I was the only white player along with 12 blacks on the B team.

But the reality beneath that is even more disturbing. Three Pines did not allow blacks to join the club or play on the course throughout my youth.

I worked and played golf among the members for many years—mostly very friendly people who were also close with my parents. My father was an avid golfer and my mother worked as the bookkeeper at the club for years.

Growing up in the South for me was often like this throughout my childhood and teen years because I was enculturated into the racist norms but often intellectually sensed I did not believe what most around me did about race. My basketball teammates and school classmates included blacks who were some of my closest friends; they were smart and gifted people who contradicted the ugliness of Southern racism.

The transition from being oblivious to the corrosive racism of my upbringing to awareness and then rejecting that racism was in part spurred by two events while working at Three Pines: a member marrying a Native American woman and a family from India joining the club.

The Native American woman and Indian family spurred numerous horrible incidences in which members charged into the clubhouse announcing that blacks were at the course and that needed to be addressed.

The ugliness beneath many people who I had believed to be perfectly good people was exposed—as well as the arbitrary nature in the U.S. of white racism toward blacks.

And here is something very important to emphasize: as an oblivious child, as a semi-aware teen, and as a young adult, I was complicit in the racism, and no claim that I was not a racist was credible.

Being complicit in racism is racism.

#

I can say I am pro gay rights, that I reject and contest homophobia of all kinds. But doing business with Chick-fil-A, who actively supports anti-gay rights movements, makes me complicit in denying equal rights to gays.

I can say I believe in public schools, that I reject school choice and other policies that undermine public schools. But doing business with Walmart, since the Walton family funds significantly school choice and charter legislation, makes me complicit in undermining public schools.

I can say I am for safe working conditions and good worker pay. But doing business with Nike, who has a long and complex history with using sweatshops, makes me complicit with endangering and abusing workers.

And thus, you can say you are not racist. But supporting the racist language and policies of Trump makes you complicit in that racism.

In practice, then, the outcomes of being an oafish racist and being complicit in other people’s racism are no different.

I am mortified by my racist past, and I have spent many decades working to move beyond that blight on who I was.

But I also continue to struggle as I sit in line at Chick-fil-A to buy my granddaughter nuggets or purchase something from Nike or Under Armour, trying to rectify the discord between what I genuinely believe and the concurrent awareness that what I am doing contradict those beliefs.

In those moments “I am not…” is a lie, and that lie is part of being complicit.

Are Trump supporters often KKK members, neo-Nazis, and oafish racists shouting racial slurs in public forums? No, because we have reached at least the point in the U.S. where even when those beliefs remain, most people know they are not tolerated in the mainstream, or at least carry some consequences.

But Trump supporters are complicit in racism, and that really isn’t a distinction that makes any real difference.

Being complicit in racism is racism.

See Also

The Masters presents a phony, sanitized South, Thomas Hackett

VAM, Teacher Bashing, and Unintended Outcomes: “[A]ll [teacher] exits increased under the new evaluations”

Research analysis at Shanker Blog is among the very best available online, notably the work of Matthew Di Carlo.

The posts there are predictably nuanced and careful, dispassionate—to a fault. As a critical educator, I am on edge when I read these careful explications of educational research because they tend to stand so far back from drawing critical conclusions that they leave a great deal of room for forgiving awful and baseless policy.

Teacher Evaluations And Turnover In Houston is an extremely important post as it unpacks new research on the current era of teacher evaluations spawned during the Obama years, notably the increased use of value-added methods (VAM) that link teacher quality to student test scores.

I highly recommend reading the post in full, but here I want to add a few annotations to address both my concerns the analysis tip-toes when it should stomp and to emphasize a few key takeaways well addressed by Di Carlo.

Let me share a few passages, and I will boldface what I want to address; first, the opening:

We are now entering a time period in which we might start to see a lot of studies released about the impact of new teacher evaluations. This incredibly rapid policy shift, perhaps the centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s education efforts, was sold based on illustrations of the importance of teacher quality.

The basic argument was that teacher effectiveness is perhaps the most important factor under schools’ control, and the best way to improve that effectiveness was to identify and remove ineffective teachers via new teacher evaluations. Without question, there was a logic to this approach, but dismissing or compelling the exits of low performing teachers does not occur in a vacuum. Even if a given policy causes more low performers to exit, the effects of this shift can be attenuated by turnover among higher performers, not to mention other important factors, such as the quality of applicants (Adnot et al. 2016).

To address incredibly flawed educational policy, I believe we must be much more careful about distinguishing between political/public claims and then how the research community poses the same issues.

As Adam Bessie has outlined, the “bad” teacher myth was never “sold” in the ways Di Carlo notes above. The film Waiting for Superman is a powerful example of how political and public discourse about “bad” teachers was primarily an argument that teacher quality was the singular or most important factor in student learning, period; politicians and the public almost never added the caveat “most important in-school factor.”

And we must acknowledge that the “bad” teacher movement driving new teacher evaluations including VAM was significantly grounded in anti-union sentiment and union-busting objectives—not about teacher quality or student learning.

The nuanced argument about teacher quality, in fact, was most often expressed among some researchers, while mostly absent from the media or political discourse, such as Di Carlo (from 2010):

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Next, further into the recent post:

Prior to ETI, there was a negative relationship between teacher effectiveness and exits – i.e., less effective teachers were more likely to exit than their more effective colleagues, with effectiveness here defined in terms of validated measures of teachers’ ability to raise students’ test scores (in part because the original value-added scores, unlike the other components of the system, are available both before and after the new evaluations were implemented).

A strong footnote for this important point—so-called weaker teachers were already leaving—is that the real teacher quality problems facing schools, notably high-poverty schools serving vulnerable populations of students, are a lack of equity in terms of teacher assignment (poor students, black/brown students, ELL students, and special needs students disproportionately are assigned year after year to new or inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers; white and affluent students are gifted the most experienced and certified teachers) and the debilitating grind of high teacher attrition, turnover, in high-poverty and majority-minority schools.

Just as school choices increases educational problems such as segregation, VAM-based teacher evaluation does not address the real problems—equitable access to experienced and qualified teacher, and teacher turnover in high-poverty schools—while also increasing those problems.

And finally:

The big finding of Cullen et al. is that the relationship was stronger after the onset of the new evaluation system, with the estimated effects concentrated among low-performing teachers in schools serving low-performing students, who were more likely to exit the district than they were before ETI.

On the one hand, this suggests that the new evaluations worked as intended. Under a system in which principals were armed with better information about their teachers’ performance (full evaluation results instead of single year value-added scores), teachers who were less effective in raising test scores were more likely to exit the district (or be dismissed) post-ETI than they were prior to ETI, particularly in schools serving lower performing students. On the other hand, all exits increased under the new evaluations — including among teachers who were rated as average and high performers. The extent to which this spike is attributable to the new evaluation system per se is unclear, but it served to “dilute” the impact on student achievement of the increase in exits among low performers. There is also some indication that higher-rated teachers were more likely to switch out of schools with low-performing students after ETI (versus before the policy), which would also attenuate the impact of the policy.

The Big Caveat, of course, is that this evaluation process and concurrent analysis remain trapped in the efficient (read: lazy) use of test scores by students to determine teacher quality and effectiveness. That said, this study seems to show that VAM-type evaluations may actually push out so-called weak teachers—while also pushing out so-called effective and experienced teachers.

This preliminary evidence supports what many of us have been warning about during the Obama era of education reform: The “bad” teacher approach to education reform causes more harm than good because it misrepresents teacher quality and further de-professionalizes teaching, such as eroding the current teacher work force and discouraging the so-called “best and brightest” from choosing education as their career.

Di Carlo continues to offer incredibly important education research analysis, and I highly recommend anyone interested in education reform to return to this blog regularly. There you will find careful and crisp analysis—although I will continue to hope for the sort of analysis that will critically confront what lies beneath the political and public discourse about schools, education, teachers, and students.

The story inside the story of the research analyzed above is that beneath the “bad” teacher approach to education reform is a great deal of bad politics and bad media; and we must stop tip-toeing around those facts.

NEW RELEASE NOW AVAILABLE: United We Stand Divided We Fall: Opposing Trump’s Agenda – Essays on Protest and Resistance

United We Stand Divided We Fall: Opposing Trump’s Agenda – Essays on Protest and Resistance

Full List of Contributing Authors

Yohuru Williams: Yohuru R. Williams is Professor of History and Author of Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights Black Power and Black Panthers in New Haven

Denny Taylor: Denny Taylor is Professor Emeritus of Literacy Studies, Novelist, Children’s Author, and Founder of Garn Press

Jonathan Foley: Jonathan Foley is a World-Leading Environmental Scientist and Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences

Charlene Smith: Charlene Smith is a Journalist, Documentary Film Maker, Author and Biographer of President Nelson Mandela

David Joseph Kolb: David Joseph Kolb is a Prize Winning Reporter, Editor and Columnist, and Author of Devil Knows: Tale of Murder and Madness in America’s First Century (Garn Press)

P.L. Thomas: P.L. Thomas is a Recipient of the NCTE George Orwell Award and Author of Beware the Roadbuilders and Trumplandia (Garn Press)

Jennifer C. Berkshire: Jennifer Berkshire is a Writer, Editor, and Author of the Have You Heard Blog and Co-Host of its Weekly Podcast on Education in the Time of Trump

Morna McDermott: Morna McDermott is Professor of Education and Co-Editor of Testing Our Courage: United Opt Out and the Testing Resistance Movement

Steven Singer: Steven Singer is a Public School Teacher, Education Advocate and Author of the Gadfly on the Wall Blog

Russ Walsh: Russ Walsh is a Public School Teacher, Literacy Specialist, Curriculum Supervisor and College Instructor, and Author of A Parent’s Guide to Public Education (Garn Press) and the Russ on Reading Blog

Katie Lapham: Katie Lapham is a NYC Public School Teacher and Author of the Critical Classrooms, Critical Kids Blog

Anne Haas Dyson: Anne Haas Dyson is Professor of Education, a Recipient of the NCTE Outstanding Educator of the Year Award, and Author of Negotiating a Permeable Curriculum (Garn Press)

Esther Sokolov Fine: Esther Sokolov Fine is Professor Emerita of Education, Former Elementary School Teacher in Downtown Public Housing Communities and Alternative Programs, and Author of Raising Peacemakers (Garn Press)

Vanessa Barnett: Vanessa Barnett is School District Arts Program Coordinator, University Arts Instructor, and Museum Arts Consultant

Carolyn Walker: Carolyn Walker is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, poet, and creative writing instructor nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and Author of Every Least Sparrow (Garn Press)

Steve Nelson: Steve Nelson, Head of Calhoun School 1998-2017 in NYC, one of America’s most notable progressive schools, and Author of First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk (Garn Press)

George Lakoff: George Lakoff, Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, is a World Renowned Linguist Integrating Studies of Social Issues and Politics from a Neural Linguistics Perspective

“So We must meet apart”: #NationalPoetryMonth 2017 and My Journey with Emily Dickinson

So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Despair –

“[I cannot live with You (640)],” Emily Dickinson

I stumbled into college a hyper-student, with greater parts ignorant arrogance than knowledge or awareness.

By traditional schooling metrics, I was a very smart redneck.

Formal education had convinced me I was a math and science person; therefore, I often stated in my first two years attending a local junior college that I intended to major in physics—that wonderful nexus of math and science.

But then college intervened. During my first survey literature course, my professor, Dean Carter, asked me to tutor for all his classes. I was stunned and initially balked at the idea.

Dean Carter was effusive in his praise of my work in the course, and I gave in, mostly, I think, because tutoring was a paying position. This moment, however, is the foundation of my becoming both a teacher and a writer, I believe.

During my first year of college because of a speech class where I discovered e.e. cummings, I also started writing poetry. Yet, making the transition from math/science guy to English guy was still slow in coming.

My junior college experience, as you may be able to tell already, was extremely important in steering me toward who I am as a person and professionally. Those years, though, were not without bumps.

There, I found myself in Mr. Pruitt’s class for the second time, the first being a positive experience in which we covered some standard American literature I had enjoyed in high school—Thoreau and Emerson standing out in my memory.

This second class began by covering what felt like at the time every single poem by Emily Dickinson, who I genuinely did not enjoy.

Mr. Pruitt had a condition causing him to shake, his head always in motion, and he, like my French professor, was a chain smoker. (This was the late 1970s, early 1980s when smoking was common in every situation casual or formal.)

And Mr. Pruitt loved Emily Dickinson.

These were the days of ditto machines, a copying process that involved typing onto paper with a purple ink sheet behind it in order to create a master to run through the ditto machine; the product was a slightly damp stack of papers reeking of chemicals.

Mr. Pruitt’s Dickinson test was on 8.5 x 14 paper with prompts and questions squeezed into every inch of white space, even sideways along the left and right margins as well as crammed against the top and bottom edges.

Let me return for a second here to the hyper-student claim in the opening: throughout high school, I was capable of making As and Bs without much effort, very little studying.

Before Mr. Pruitt’s Dickinson test, I likely spent more time recreational beer drinking than studying or even reading the poems by Dickinson assigned.

I made a 62.

At that point of college, I was already more of an A student than the A/B student of high school so that 62 soured my attitude about Mr. Pruitt and English, but it completely poisoned my view of Dickinson.

After junior college, I declared a secondary education major when I transferred to a local hyphenated campus of the state university, focusing on English certification. I also dedicated myself to taking as many upper-level courses as the so-called “straight” English majors did.

I graduated college very dedicated to a career as a teacher and extremely aware that I was a writer, specifically a poet. For about a decade or more, I must confess, I carried my disdain for Dickinson into my high school English classes.

And then, from 1995 until 1998, I continued to teach high school full time, adjuncting as well at local colleges, and enrolled in my doctoral program, where I wrote a biography of English educator Lou LaBrant for my dissertation.

My doctoral work included my own commitment to read as many biographies of women as possible along with my scholarly examination of feminist theory on biography, education biography, and the history of education in the U.S.

Toward the end of my program, I discovered The Passion of Emily Dickinson by Judith Farr, a literary biography that carefully confronted Dickinson’s life in a way I had never experienced before. Farr anchored her biographical considerations in Dickinson’s poetry and letters, emphasizing poems often not a part of the traditional canon of what we teach, which tells students Dickinson is obsessed with death, and once wrote about a snake [1].

Of course, despite my being a poet and an avid reader/writer, I had simply failed to see Emily Dickinson reflected in the grandeur of her work, her words. And that was traceable back to how she had been taught, misrepresented, in formal English classrooms, including the singular daguerreotype:

Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database

Several things changed for me then.

I pledged to be more intentional about what I taught my students in terms of author biography, and I began to work even more carefully about honoring the sanctity of what I taught over other less important objectives: echoing Dewey [2] from my doctoral work, I began to ask what did it avail me or my students to badger them with canonical poetry and scansion if that experience made them not want to read poetry.

Just as men “edited” Dickinson’s found treasure of poetry to make it publishable, Dickinson has been reduced to a caricature, and the canon of her poems further misrepresents her, glossing over her full humanity, her womanhood, and her richness as an artist/poet.

My journey with Dickinson also included Adrienne Rich’s brilliant and revolutionary examination, “Vesuvius at Home.” My classes already included joyful lessons on Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, all of whom had been taught wonderfully to me by Dr, Nancy Moore over my junior and senior years of college.

After my conversion, then, I began to include “Wild Nights—Wild Nights! (249)”—yes, Dickinson was sexual, even erotic, and she played with gender expectations of her poem’s personas—and “This World is not Conclusion (373),” my favorite Dickinson because the first line includes a period, creating tension with “not Conclusion” and student expectations of Dickinson’s use of punctuation.

“I cannot live with You – ,” Dickinson’s speaker begins, adding later: “I could not die – with You –.” And then the tension that in many ways defines her life and her poetry:

They’d judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to –
I could not –

“So We must meet apart – ,” the speaker concludes, Dickinson ending the poem with the single “Despair – .”

And there we are confronted with poetry—the human compulsion to capture our experience through words, as expression and investigation.


Notes

[1] The traditional canon and formalized ways of teaching women writers often, I think, is at least shaded by the misogynistic “hysterical” marginalizing of women. Male writers return again and again to universal themes or are hard drinkers and womanizers, but women writers are “obsessed” or disproportionately reduced to suicidal and/or psychotic.

[2] John Dewey:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

“Ignoreland” Realized: Trumplandia 2017

Bertis Downs, lawyer and everything-man for Athens-based group R.E.M., asked on social media what Automatic for the People song is most under-appreciated.

As this album approaches its 25-year anniversary—and in the weakening wake of the band calling it a day—we may be hard pressed to argue that any song on that collection is more relevant than “Ignoreland.”

The career of R.E.M. has some relatively clear eras—the independent phase spanning the 1980s, the popular phase associated with the Warner Brothers contract and the 1990s, and then the post-Bill Berry R.E.M.

It seems fair to argue that Automatic represents what makes R.E.M. an elite example of how a group can achieve significant popularity while maintaining artistic independence and credibility. In short, this is a beautiful album that may in fact have a collection of songs that are all under-appreciated.

Throughout their independent years as playing so-called college alternative rock, R.E.M. developed a reputation as a political band; Michael Stipe’s lyrics unpacked as such, even when they remained elliptical and more evocative than declarative, and then band mates themselves politically vocal and active beyond their music.

R.E.M. fandom seems to fall along the three eras above, with some clinging to the independent 1980s band but balking at popular R.E.M. and then abandoning post-Berry R.E.M. However, “Ignoreland” in many ways is a powerful link between the independent and popular phases.

From 1987, Document lays the groundwork for “Ignoreland” with “Exhuming McCarthy,” pop-song catchy and politically scathing. A compact distant cousin to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “Exhuming McCarthy” takes aim at the Reagan administration as a manifestation of all-that-is-wrong with U.S. corporate-capitalism as well as the need to keep the public afraid of creeping threats such as the 1950s Red Scare echoed in Reagan’s “Tear down this wall.”

It is damned hard to find better pop-culture political literature than “Look who bought the myth/ By Jingo, buy America.”

The U.S. did just that for twelve years—eight of Reagan and then four more with George H. W. Bush, who appears in “Ignoreland” with equally incisive lyrics: “How to walk in dignity with throw-up on your shoes.”

A great bittersweet reality of my life is that I no longer can anticipate a new R.E.M. album, no longer feel that rush of the first listen to unpack what I knew would be something that would make me a different person, a happier person.

I recall that first listen to Automatic and how I marveled at “Ignoreland”—what felt to me as a writer, a teacher, and a part of the political Left to be a perfect metaphor for the U.S.

The politics of ignoring reality—tremendous and grinding inequity—in the glare of rhetoric about the American Dream captured in e.e. cummings’s “‘next to of course american i.”

As in “Exhuming McCarthy,” cummings confronts U.S. jingoism—”by jingo by gee by gosh by gum”—linking the paradox of extremely inward-gazing nationalism and the simultaneous failure of the American character unmasked by James Baldwin: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us.”

“Ignoreland” begins causticly and rings as if written in recent months: “These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us v. Them years.”

The rise of Reagan/Bush is detailed twenty-five years ago by exposing divisive politics, sword rattling, and hollow promises of trickle-down economics. But “Ignoreland” also warns about the failure of media, predating significantly the recent hand wringing about fake news: “The information nation took their clues from all the sound-bite gluttons/ Nineteen eighty, eighty-four, eighty-eight, ninety-two too, too.”

The U.S. as a media-centric people who are paradoxically, again, un-/misinformed—Stipe’s catalogue also triggers George Orwell’s 1984, a work recently regaining popularity along with other works of dystopian science fiction because Orwell focused on how often those who control language control everything:

TV tells a million lies
The paper’s terrified to report
Anything that isn’t handed on a presidential spoon

If we truly want to know how we have arrived here, what I have christened Trumplandia, the bread crumbs of that decline can be followed through “Exhuming McCarthy” and “Ignoreland” to finding ourselves in the witch’s cauldron.

Trumplandia is a people willingly filing into what was sold as a Jacuzzi, only to find ourselves the meat of a meal to feed the 1%.

To ignore—this must not be ignored now. It is an act of will, a decision.

I argued during the presidential election of 2016 that voters had to compromise their morals to vote for Hillary Clinton, but to vote Trump was a complete abandoning of any moral grounding.

To vote Trump is the ultimate act of ignoring found in the majority of white women voting for a misogynist, in the religious Right voting for a serial adulterer, and in the media happily skipping along hand-in-hand with a pathological liar.

Twenty-five years ago, “Ignoreland” captured the toxic mix of political anger and political resignation:

If they weren’t there we would have created them
Maybe, it’s true
But I’m resentful all the same
Someone’s got to take the blame

Trump ascending and fabricating an administration of billionaires, “Ignoreland” realized because we chose the road of least resistance—we created them.