Thursday, November 29, 2007

The last few days I have been wondering and wrestling with my ambitions. The Sun agreed to publish a "new" essay--something I'd sent them months ago, which they rejected, which I revised, which they rejected again, which I revised further, and so on, until they finally accepted it. Now I'm ambivalent about having it appear under my name.

I like the essay--it's about non-violence, and teaching, and kids, and the way they sometimes want to write about bombs and guns, and my inadequate responses to that. It's also, in a general way, about the politics of teaching poetry.

The essay also contains a less-than-flattering portrayal of a teacher who has two pictures of George Bush and a framed signed letter thanking her for her campaign contributions hanging on the wall of her classroom. Needless to say I disagree with this teacher's politics, and we even clashed openly three years ago, the day after the '04 election debacle. But over the years as I've kept visiting her classroom, she's been more and more friendly and supportive of my work and now keeps making noises about raising more money so that I can visit the classes more often. In other words, she's become an unexpected ally.

I don't know how to embrace this contradiction. I don't want anything to appear in print that would hurt her feelings, or damage our relationship, or my relationship with this school which is wonderfully diverse--students from all over the world, speaking two dozen different languages. I don't want to bite the hand that feeds me, and I don't just mean economically. Yes, teaching at this school makes up about a quarter of my yearly income, but beyond that, the regular contact with these kids and teachers feeds my soul. In their nice, well-run classrooms I can actually teach--engage the children in discussions of complex thought, explore beyond the surface with them. Today i even got to translate for a new kid, eight days in this country, of Afghani ancestry, who only speaks French. That was a wonderful feeling.

At the same time: two pictures of George Bush and a framed, signed letter thanking her and her husband for their campaign contributions hang on her wall.

I know that I can focus on differences (political affiliations) and ignore similarities (the fact that we care about kids.) How do I write about both?

I don't want what I write to create conflict and pain, but I don't want to pull back from the truth either. George Bush's policies are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children, as well as the blighting of thousands of poor children's lives here in the States. One of my (self-appointed) jobs is to write about the messes of human interaction and this is a mess, a raw juicy one. School is a mess because it's the crucible where the values of the culture are passed along to the next generation, and who gets to decide what those values will be?

In this uncertain world, is it better to teach children to trust or not to trust? I would vote for teaching them to think critically, not to unquestioningly follow the leader. We're in the mess we';re in because of people blindly getting in line behind a pro-war stance and not treating the bullshit flowing out of Washington with appropriate skepticism despite plenty of evidence.

But kids tend to absorb messages in blanket ways, they think in black and white terms. They don't learn to distinguish shades of gray until much later, and even as adults we are constantly refining our abilities to discern. How do you teach kids to pick and choose who to trust and who not to trust? You want them to feel some sense of safety and security in the world, even if that sense is based on illusion--don't you?

(I personally didn't feel that safe or secure as a young Jewish child, even though my circumstances were pretty stable. As a child I learned about the Holocaust, and my parents were open about their agnosticism, or in my father's case, atheism. There were no spiritual guarantees given to me, no sense that I'd go to Heaven when I died, or that God would come in with the cavalry and rescue the good guys. This may have shaped me into the thoughtful person I am today, but I remember it caused me a lot of anxiety as a kid.)

If you give children a general idea that elected officials know what they're doing, God's in his heaven and all's right with the world, you produce one kind of citizen. If you teach them to doubt and question authority at every turn, you produce quite another. Perhaps you get artists who need anti-depressants to make it through middle age. Or, one could argue, you produce people with the necessary angst to search for a better way.

People who don't question authority at every turn are often easier to get along with, play well with othersw, and (perhaps?) have smoother, less painful lives. (I wouldn't know--I'm not one of them.) I do know that I love going to this nice suburban school where everyone is nice to me, and asks me how my holiday was, and where I got that lovely blouse I'm wearing. My job is delightful.

But are we just part of the problem, being nice to each other in the California sunshine while miles away wars are raging, wars which have everything to do with the blouse I'm wearing and the SUV the soccer moms are driving? What about what we teach the kids? That they are rightful heirs to this system, which was set up to serve affluent communities like theirs, or that, to the extent that it is an unfair and cruel and unsustainable system, it is their job to (non-violently) oppose it? Those two different stances lead to altogether different ways of framing even simple lessons about metaphor...

Today in class, one of the fifth graders told me, "I'm really more of a philosopher than anything." It cracked me up and reminded me of when my preternaturally brilliant nephew started a sentence with "Hypothetically," and the news travelled from excited proud family member to family member up and down the East Coast. "Theo started a sentence with "hypothetically!" Which reminded me in turn of when my youngest brother Jim, Theo's dad, at about the same age, started a sentence with "ironically." "You know, Alison, ironically..."

C, working at Juvenile Hall, teaches the children of the disenfranchized. They do not start sentences with "hypothetically," at the age of ten, and their linguistic and intellectual accomplishments are not celebrated with fanfare, but they are no less philosophers. One kid he knows is fifteen years old and facing a fifty year sentence. I don't even know how to wrap my mind around that one. Most fifteen year olds can't even imagine being in their twenties, and he won't be getting out of prison until he is an old man. He wants to write a book. This is what it means to be human. When there is no way out, the act of creation is the only way to endure.


twilightme said...

As a long time reader of the Sun (and follower of your work there), I'm most intrigued by evocative articles like this blog post that are full of questions and contradictions, readings that make me think all day, and remember, for instance, the woman in my yoga class telling about her cousin who went to a wedding that George Bush attended and this cousin realizing that Bush would have made an amiable neighbor, a quality that she struggled to integrate with her frustrations regarding his failure as president. I'd love to see the Sun include a meta-response such as this post with the essay--for don't writers often second-think the messages they've poured into an essay, poem, story, novel? ph

Alison said...

Yeah, a meta-response, that's a great idea. Like the special features on a DVD, which are sometimes more interesting than the finished "product,"--and that's the problem with an essay, poem, etc., is that they wear the masquerade of finished products, whereas in reality they are often just touchstones in a long ongoing conversation along the way...


Anonymous said...

I read this post for the first time tonight and I'm constantly amazed at the left's lack of tolerance, and their clear hatred of President George W. Bush. They make ridiculous statements--like he is responsible for the deaths of thousands--as if their opinion is fact. It's absurd!

I don't know what became of your essay dilemma, but to even have to say something negative about a teacher who, according to you, is a nice person, just because she has a signed photograph of the President of the United States is simply mind boggling.