T.H. White’s The Once and Future King

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Lancelot and Guinever, photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

LANCELOT AND GUENEVER were sitting at the solar window. An observer of the present day, who knew the Arthurian legend only from Tennyson and people of that sort, would have been startled to see that the famous lovers were past their prime. We, who have learned to base our interpretation of love on the conventional boy- and- girl romance of Romeo and Juliet, would be amazed if we could step back into the Middle Ages— when the poet of chivalry could write about Man that he had “en ciel un dieu, par terre une déesse.” Lovers were not recruited then among the juveniles and adolescents: they were seasoned people, who knew what they were about. In those days people loved each other for their lives, without the conveniences of the divorce court and the psychiatrist. They had a God in heaven and a goddess on earth— and, since people who devote themselves to goddesses must exercise some caution about the ones to whom they are devoted, they neither chose them by the passing standards of the flesh alone, nor abandoned it lightly when the bruckle* thing began to fail.

*brittle, fragile

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Oatmeal Cookies

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Mmmm… part of our Pre-Valentine’s Day meal this evening. Easy. Quick. Delicious. Original recipe by my husband’s mother. Now tweaked over these many years.

Yes, off to the kitchen to get another.

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Eric Foner loves me

IMG_9353 For Valentine’s Day at school, students can purchase Lindt truffles for friends and they are delivered on the last day of school before Valentine’s Day. The ASA (Asian Students Association) sponsors this activity and the money raised is donated to a variety of charities. This morning Eric Foner sent me a Valentine’s Day truffle. Yes, Eric Foner loves me.

Eric Foner is a remarkable historian who has turned the Dunning interpretation of the period of Reconstruction on its head. Foner’s analysis of this period is stunningly intelligent and inclusive, speaking of the remarkable far-sightedness, almost modern ring to some of what this era accomplished (as opposed  to the racist Dunning perspective). I had the privilege of attending a Gilder Lehrman Summer Institute several years ago with him and twenty other teachers at Columbia in New York, engaging in lively conversation about this provocative period in American history.

I speak very highly of Foner to my students, often referencing my admiration for the work he has done in reinterpreting a critical piece of our history. In our recent unit on Reconstruction we have read a couple of pieces he wrote and watched a documentary where he and his words have figured prominently. Mischievously my students began a banter around my love for Foner. “Does your husband know how much you care for Foner?” With a finger in front of my lips, I told them not to breathe a word of this to him.

And so, today, a chocolate from my favorite historian, or at the very least from a budding historian in the Middle School.

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The annual burn

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Every year we burn our Constitution tests. Because our school receives federal funding we are mandated to give a Constitution test in the 8th grade and then mandated to destroy it just in case an upcoming 8th grader lays their hands on the test (Really?! How many different ways can you ask how long a senator’s term is?).

It just so happens that right after the Constitution test, we read Fahrenheit 451 so instead of just shredding the tests (how undramatic is that?) we got the brilliant idea about a dozen years ago to burn them a la the firemen in Fahrenheit. It has since become the tradition. Today a student told me that burning the Constitution was the main thing she was looking forward to as soon as she found out I was her Humanities teacher. (My classes are the only ones to do this ritual.)

The students announced some constitutional gem on each of the pages they tossed in. There was “full faith and credit” and “privileges and immunities” tossed in with a bit of “state of nature” and “gerrymandering.” DG brought marshmallows and students grabbed sticks to toast them above the heat of the Constitution. I read the opening lines of Fahrenheit. “It was a pleasure to burn, to see things blackened and eaten…” The students totally agreed.

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No skin in the game

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After school today we had a department meeting. After some sharing of announcements, we got into an intense discussion concerning scheduling changes for the entire middle school. There were issues concerning the hours for Humanities classes being cut and a block schedule instituted. There was discussion concerning an empty day in the week to accommodate an even number of days for a block schedule to work. This empty day would be used for “clubs” and it was unclear for what else. It was reported that the scheduling committee was listening to lots of voices all wanting more time which consequently would eat away at the time spent on Humanities classes. We all agreed that already there was not enough time to teach (English and History) and any loss of time would be a detriment to the quality of the work we could do with kids.

Usually I am a pretty vocal participant in discussions with my colleagues. I respect their wisdom and love to be challenged and pushed by their ideas and observations. But today, it was like I was on the ceiling looking down. In large part, this is because I will be retiring after one more year of teaching and any change in the schedule will happen the year after I leave. But it was also in part being fascinated with the way the conversation was evolving and who was pushing it and where. I was watching the group evolve and align itself in an organic and complex choreography. I felt outside it all. I had let go. I had no skin in the game.

I don’t know if this was a healthy response or not. Certainly if I had had some earth-shattering insight to share, I would have. But nothing I was thinking felt that important. It was clear to me that there was a big political issue to fight out, but I had no compulsion to weigh in. My colleagues seemed very well tooled and ready to do battle. Their arguments were reasoned, coherent, considered. How well they would be listened to may be out of their control but they were preparing a compelling case for maintaining adequate time for Humanities as time that was not negotiable.

And I was feeling compelled to release the “sturm und drang” of the politics of school, assured that the colleagues I work with have everything under control. Though I have always enjoyed a challenging negotiation, it was liberating to feel that this was not my fight and it was liberating to know that there were those still passionately involved in it.

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“The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens

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One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

xxx

“The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens from Collected Poems. © Faber & Faber, 1955.

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The incredible persuasiveness of second and third person pronouns

self-talk - Version 2

When writing essays I always have to remind my students to not use “I,” that I will know that the ideas are theirs because they are writing the paper. “I believe that the United States is a good place to live” is weaker than “The United States is a good place to live.” Always when I give a writing assignment, they will ask if they can use “I” as if the license to do so releases so much of the stress of doing a writing assignment. When I say “yes” in answer to their question, some of them actually cheer. Middle schoolers are developmentally in the midst of their “me” time (I see it everyday) so this is not a big surprise. They think by not saying “I” they are erasing their persona, becoming someone they are not. Untrue, obviously, but they are still growing into this idea.

Today my son shared with me and his dad an article he read about self-talk. Apparently according to several studies, if people use the second or third person when talking to themselves, they gain some emotional distance from whatever issues and problems they are dealing with, thereby reducing their anxiety and performing better on tasks. Those who use the “I” when talking to themselves are much more stressed, emotionally strung out, and perform more poorly.

So actually the stress that students feel when they are writing a paper could be much reduced by not using “I” and would lead to a greater likelihood in getting an “A.” Maybe I can convince my students of this! I’m not sure they will buy it. After all, a paper is not necessarily self-talk, but maybe there is something here for them about the incredible power and persuasiveness of those simple second and third person pronouns.

Alright JY. Let’s finish preparing for school tomorrow.

(one source of the studies mentioned above, and another and another)

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