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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Nostalgia is the luxury of survival

When I was a child, one of the highlights of the pre-holiday season was the arrival of the Sears Christmas Catalog. The cover, usually a family enjoying the aftermath of gift-opening frenzy or a pair of alert Nordic-looking children on the watch for Santa Claus, was itself entrancing. But the contents, page after page of toys and velvet dresses, prompted a consumerist rush and glut of possibility. Look at everything I could have! Dolls, play houses, my own girl-sized vanity! My siblings and I would pore over the pages, picking what we liked best and eying the packages under the tree in hopes of spotting a match.

This sort of  reminiscence usually propels me into a self-indulgent glow of reconstructed memories, featuring more what might-have-been than what was. This year, however, neither visions of sugar plums nor the gradual appearance of holiday lighting in the neighborhood summons the magic. I am just too sad. We all know about the 20 children who won't be able to build more memories, and the families for whom Christmas will forever be a different kind of anniversary.

Last week's slaughter of innocents in Connecticut lays heavy in the air and in my heart. I know I'm not alone in imagining their trees decorated, but unlit. Gifts wrapped for those who will never receive them. They may be gone, but their faces are familiar. I see them on every street, in every grocery line, on every playground I drive by.

Nostalgia is a luxury not everyone can afford. It's a reward for surviving, or at least reinventing, the past. But this is isn't quite what I'm experiencing. The Portuguese have a word for it, saudade. It's like nostalgia, but it also encompasses emptiness and longing for something that should be there, but is missing. It's a feeling of loss for something we may never had had, but yearn for all the same.

Most of us have lived through -- or at least lived past -- incidents of rage and violence, but when children are the victims we remember again that our world is sick. Worse than that, we know that it was bound to happen. Americans--not even 5% of the world's population-- own half the guns. Sooner or later they will fall into the hands of people who'll use them to blaze a trail of sorrow.

We can say what we like about too many guns, lack of regulation, poor funding for mental health. The fact is, however, that fear and violence are in the air we breathe in this country. Our games, our recreational media, our fictions abound with mayhem.

I know nice people who own guns and use them to hunt and target-shoot. I know others who want to protect their property. I also know if they God appeared to them in a glowing cloud and asked if they would give up their guns in exchange for the life of even one of these children, they'd do it in a heartbeat. But that's what it would take -- a divine intervention.

People ask why God allows such horrendous episodes as the one at Sandy Hook Elementary. Maybe it's not divine oversight or callousness. Maybe it's a message, a warning as to the people of the Old Testament: Forsake this idol you have made of the Second Amendment.

When I was a child, we'd go on drives in the country looking for old cemeteries, one of my mother's hobbies. Among the slanting stones we'd see little marble lambs, memorials for children who had succumbed to typhus, diphtheria, long winters. Lonely, abandoned lambs brought tears to my eyes then and now. I picture twenty of them in Connecticut. I never knew them. But I miss them. Saudade.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

When paths converge, events are summoned

As we all know, life is very strange. For the last several weeks, I've been teaching writing for the first time in 20 years (hence, the dearth of blog entries). It was an odd circumstance that brought me back to the whiteboard jungle. I had been home from Brazil for less than a day, still jet-lagged and wobbly, when I received a call from someone at the local community college.
Voice: Hello! Is this Mary Chase?
I assured her it was.
Voice: Is there any chance you could teach a writing class on Monday?
Me: Silence.
Voice: I found your resume at the bottom of a pile. It looks like you're a fit and I am desperate.
How compelling, I think. I have floated up from the bottom of the barrel and attracted attention like a floater across an eyeball. I must know more about this.
Me: Can I have some details?
Voice: Blah, blah, blah.
"Step onto the path that opens before you," I always say. Do I mean it? Well, I had been missing teaching and, possibly because of the caller's informality and desperation, I accepted a one-term, one class offer to teach Writing 121, whatever that was.  I had to drive over to the campus and sign a contract that same day. No one I could find knew what the position paid or what the content was supposed to be other than "English Composition". The department secretary, after assigning me to Desk 7 for office hours twice a week, suggested that I look through a binder of old syllabi to see how others had taught in the past.

Informality is a kind of license and I am sufficiently advanced in age and resolution to ignore the syllabi of others.  We learn how to write by writing, so write we would. That was the syllabus. As I drove home, I recalled my former students tearing the tracker tape from the edges of their papers before turning them in, and my taking home piles of essays and journals to comment on. This time, I wouldn't have to see physical papers at all. This time we wouldn't even do essays. This time we would blog, and explore this interesting, emerging form.

All went well, and my students seemed happy enough, embraced the informality of the assignment and my calm (some would say comatose) demeanor.  They were mixed crew, typical of community colleges across the nation, veterans returning from the Middle East, the unemployed benefitting from ARRA and TARP funds, recent high school graduates and the requisite "old guy," a nice fellow about 15 years younger than I.  We did the usual writing process approach, starting with brainstorming, quick writes, absurd topics supplied by me when all else failed (If you could have a tail, what kind would it be?).  And then we were off.

Over the next few weeks, students explored topics that affected their lives--finding distance from selfish father, embracing Christianity, exploring Wicca, the loneliness of life after high school, what it means to be generous.  Then one day, on my way to Desk 7, I finally met the voice from the phone, the department chair as it turned out. She asked how class was going, and I said, "Great! We're blogging."

Her face froze. "The purpose of Writing 121 is to teach the academic essay and ensure that students know how to use the MLA citation form."


"Yes. This is our mandate from the college. If students come into their other classes without knowing this, there will be questions."

Hmmm. That sounded ominous. And unlikely.

"I taught high school for years," I told her.  "I know these students have all had a brush with the academic essay and some kind of citation system -- MLA, APA, Chicago Style--"

"The students we have here are not the students you taught."

At times like this, I fall back on the words of my late and sainted mentor, Don Graves.  Don was a great one for asking the questions that stopped conversations and made us all rethink what we were doing. However, he use to tell us that the two most important questions we could ask were: What's it for? and Does it make sense? "What's education for?" Don would ask. "It's an important question, because what it's for has everything to do with what we're for."

So, what was this course for? According the department chair, it was for learning the academic essay. Did that make sense? When was the last time you saw a job opening for an essayist, let alone an academic essayist? So, no. It didn't make sense. In my class, most students were at the point of writing what they really needed to write -- writing for exorcism. Writing for therapy. Writing for finding possibility. To me, what writing was for in my class made sense. (As for the MLA, there are resources online. Memorizing a style sheet makes about as much sense as memorizing the Periodic Table of Elements. You can look it up.)

Last month I was in Las Vegas, that city of sin, Shriners' conventions and now academic conferences. Oddly enough, I was attending the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English, and presenting as part of a panel on the life and work of Don Graves. Don was important to me, to teachers of English and to the world. He was a great and kind man, sweet and unassuming with a mind like razor wire. A friend of mine has described Don as "Che Guevera disguised as Mr. Rogers." The first time I heard him speak he was focusing on the horrors of dittoed hand-outs in lieu of real writing. "We've put kids on a writing welfare system," he said. "Anytime they need something we give them a hand-out. They need an idea, we give them a hand-out. They need structure, we give them a hand-out. We make them dependent on this system of hand-outs. We've made education a welfare system where students are never responsible for anything. We do so at our great peril."

The day of the presentation I still didn't know what I would say. Then, as I sat in my room that morning checking in on my students' blogs, I came across one that demonstrated why having had Graves in my life affected the lives of others. As I faced the audience that day, I told them about my recent return to teaching, using blogs instead of essays, about my class and about the writing: the unleashing of story and experience as powerful as a major meteorological event. I told them about the blog I'd read that morning, about the student who had had to tell the love of his life that he had AIDS.

Among the myriad connections we make in life, what seems accidental may be fated, capital F or small.  I worked with Graves, who taught me to think beyond syllabi and ask simple questions. Later, as a teacher, I crossed paths with students who needed to be healed--and the cure was inside them if only they had permission to find it.