My 91-year-old father’s mortality came into sharp focus today, for reasons I won’t elaborate upon here. He’s older than 91 actually. Seven months older. Which is how you start counting during his decade in life. After spending the day with him at the hospital and thinking about quality of life in general but for him in particular, I began to make a list of all the things he’s never done.
He has never bought a hot dog at a baseball game or even been to a baseball game. While he has seen a few bocce matches in the park and thrown a few games himself, he has never gambled on any sporting events, not even a Super Bowl pool. Though he has lived in Chicago for over 50 years, he has never strolled down a neighborhood street and stopped for a beer at a bar or a beef sandwich at a corner stand. He has been in McDonald’s once, on the way home from the hospital about two years ago. He has never eaten an onion ring and has probably never seen one. I’m almost certain he has never eaten canned soup. He has never tasted a jaw breaker or a piece of licorice or any other piece of candy other than chocolate or Torrone. He wouldn’t know Good ‘N Plenty from Milk Duds.
He has never had a license or driven a car. Though he has hopped on countless CTA buses, he has never taken the el and probably never the subway. He’s been on a plane only three or four times. Other than Chicago, he has never been to any other metropolitan city in the world. Maybe Rome when he was a boy.
He has never known any other job than tailor. He has never danced the twist or clucked to the chicken dance or played an instrument or read a classic America novel or listened to jazz or played poker, though he did enjoy a few Italian card games in the evenings with the other men on lawn chairs during long ago summers. He has never been to a concert, a play, a musical. He did see a few circuses, which he loved. He has never used a computer or owned a cell phone or listened to an iPod.
He has never smoked. Anything. He’s oblivious to nearly every type of recreational drug in the world. He never had a headache until he turned 70. He never had a cough until about a year or two ago. And I’m pretty sure he has had only one or two colds in his lifetime. He has never broken a bone or needed stitches, other than for surgical procedures, like the insertion of his pacemaker.
He will never read one of my short stories or novels. He will never see me teach a class. This is true of most parents, who never see their children in their place of work. He will never read this blog entry or ever understand what a blog is.
Though he’s lived a relatively sheltered existence, I don’t think my father is any less for the things he’s never done. And I don’t think his list, if I asked him to write one, would be very long. All his life he was content to stroll, visit neighbors, watch Red Skelton or Danny Kaye on television, and savor the abundance that appeared on his table day after night after day. But my long list still pains me because my old man possesses a child’s wonder. He would have lit up to take in the wide expanse of the outfield grass and doubled over in laughter flapping his arms during the chicken dance. And he would have enjoyed a damn onion ring once in a while, or a piece of tart candy. But these are my regrets, not his. Yet I can’t stop thinking about all the little gifts he could have had. To imagine his joy.
I just read two memoirs by daughters of giants in their fields.
1) Composed by Rosanne Cash. This is a beautifully written book about music and art and fame and loss and love. You don’t need to be a fan of Johnny Cash to enjoy this book. She includes three eulogies she wrote for different family members that will make you pause and reflect on your own life and the ones you love. Two memorable lines: “For me, art is a more trustworthy expression of God than religion.” “I have always wanted to live life as a beginner.”
2) Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron, daughter of William Styron, one of our greatest American writers. This also is a beautifully written and often heartbreaking and inspiring book. Memorable line: “Without faith, talent is a fugitive thing.”
After reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which is a sprawling yet taut masterpiece, I turned to his book, Under the Dome. What a huge disappontment. Over a thousand pages with flashes of good writing, but the book was about 700 pages too long and not nearly as clever as it could have been in the hands of, say, Ray Bradbury. I picked up a short story by Alice Munro in the New Yorker while reading this book, and those seven pages packed more wallop than the entire book.
This was our last week before winter break. By Thursday, the air seemed festive, students walking around with holiday wear and exchanging candy canes and cookies. My standard joke: “It might be embarrassing to leave your big presents for me on the desk here, so you can bring them to my office tomorrow instead.” It’s downright hilarious because this ain’t grade school, where teachers make out like toddlers on Christmas day. I did receive a few gifts, which is always touching.
My biggest challenge this week: keeping students chugging along on the AP train that included a test on Monday (a stupid idea on my part) and a new study guide on motivation and emotion. Come May they’ll be glad we pushed. This week though they weren’t so sure.
I did get to teach one of my favorite psychologists, Abraham Maslow, best known for his theory on a hierarchy of needs. When he was a boy, according to a fine biography by Edward Hoffman, his father would introduce him like this: “This is Abe, ain’t he the ugliest kid you ever seen?” His mother, not exactly the model parent herself, would lock the refrigerator with a thick chain to keep him out. She was literally a refrigerator mom, a name coined decades ago by psychologists to explain, incorrectly, the causes of autism and schizophrenia and other maladies suffered by children. Imagine leaving the doctor’s office with that diagnosis. On top of that, Maslow would get beat up by the neighborhood toughs in Brooklyn.
And yet. Maslow emerged as one of the main proponents of humanism, a branch of psychology that examines human potential. Who would have thunk?
His theory inspires all sorts of questions. How does it feel when we do our best? If it feels so good, why don’t we do our best more often? Part of the answer lies in our self-efficacy, or our belief in our competence. Not our actual competence! Our perception of our competence. Which raises further questions. Why do some maintain robust self-efficacy, even when faced with multiple rejections? Why does a writer like William Styron for instance put aside a safe career as an editor and spend nearly four years of his life working on a first novel without a single guarantee of success? According to his daughter Alexandra in Reading My Father, a wonderful biography, “Without faith, talent is a fugitive thing.” You can probably easily think of a dozen other examples. But where does that kind of faith come from? On the other hand, how do some delude themselves into believing they have talent in a particular field when they clearly don’t? Think American Idol auditions. It’s painful to watch. In some cases, it might be wiser not to chip away at those protective layers of sediment that hide reality. A little delusion is fine. Yeah, yeah, sure, you’re a fantastic singer. But if you are going to let others chip away, maybe don’t let it happen on national television.
Happy holidays. Peace and goodwill.
About a week ago, Time magazine reported that in South Korea, government officials were cracking down on studying. No, they weren’t trying to implement programs to encourage more studying. They were raiding tutoring centers that stayed open past 10:00 p.m. and shutting them down! It’s a national problem! I asked my students if overstudying could ever be a problem here. They laughed. Of course not. Not here. Yet many of them are spending hours after school on extracurriculars and hours completing homework for five A.P. classes and studying for tests and not getting to sleep until the late hours of the night. Some of them don’t even have a lunch in their schedules, eating between notetaking during classes. This week students have seemed especially exhausted, and I’m not surprised.
When I hear pundits complaining about the state of American education, I want to invite them to our school. Hard work and inquisitiveness and ingenuity are very much alive, not only at my school, but throughout the country. Maybe we’re not as intense as other countries in our pursuit of higher test scores, but I would suggest that we turn out a more well rounded graduate. Also, what the complainers conveniently forget is that in America, everyone’s scores are included in the holy data, unlike many countries that only report the top tier of scores. If we played by the same rules, I suspect we’d fare very well. (I don’t deny that some of our lowest performing schools need major rehauling—today—but I’m tired of hearing people assume that young students today are unmotivated.)
Let me offer an example of the maturity I witnessed this week. During this unit on learning we’re plowing through, I asked them if they would be motivated to study harder if the school paid them for grades. Many of them admitted that maybe they would, but the general consensus was that paying for grades would place too much emphasis on the reinforcement, the money, maybe even encouraging cheating, and not enough on genuine learning. Did you catch that? I feel I should copy and paste that last sentence, italicize or boldface it for emphasis. Young people are curious; they want to learn; and they can smell bullcrap a mile away, usually in the form of state assessments that measure information devoid of context to their lives. The worst are the boring writing prompts that are collected and graded in minutes. Why should any student extend much effort on such foolishness? On an essay they will never see again? On a prompt created for the masses? For some end goal that is meaningless?
We did have some fun this week. Students volunteered to be pigeons in the huge Skinner box that our classroom became. One student would leave the room, while the rest of class decided on a target behavior: pulling down the projector screen, waving out the window, dancing on the desk. Skinner had pigeons playing ping pong and bowling with miniature pins. We used applause rather than Skinner’s food pellets to shape behavior, but the similarities between students’ quirky and halting behavior and that of real pigeons was uncanny.
We need a word to describe the perception of the slow versus the swift passing of time. For some reason, last week was a blur. I asked my students if they had the same perception, and a great majority agreed. Here’s one explanation. We came back after a short Thanksgiving week and were saddled nearly immediately with a late start on Tuesday. I think I’ve moaned enough about the minutes of class time lost because of these late starts, so I will pass. But if you want to read an erudite take on the sorry matter, here’s a great blog entry by good friend and colleague Gary Anderson: http://whatsnotwrong.wordpress.com/.This week we finished a unit on consciousness and began one on learning—not so much how we learn to read or write or study, but how we learn prejudice, fear, anxiety, even how we learn to salivate—that’s right, we spent a lot of time on drooling. Remember Pavlov? We started discussing the famous behaviorists in psychology, such as John Watson and B.F. Skinner, who believed that the environment completely rules behavior and that free will is an illusion. Most students, upon hearing these extreme views, will contend that those guys were crazy, which spurs lively discussion. But by the end of the unit, most students will admit that, well, maybe they possess less free will than they first imagined. The revelation can be deflating. These discussions remind me of a dream I’ve always had: to team teach a class that combines literature and psychology. Right now we would be reading Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” or Brave New World or 1984 or some modern dystopia. Or maybe we’d read the newspaper. Even without the interdisciplinary combo, I should at least dip into literature. Because we learn more about human nature through literature than through science, I think. But we don’t have time. We’re hamsters, peddling our little hamster wheels, and if we stop, my students won’t be ready for the big AP test in May, which, if they do well, may help them gain entry into the next bigger and better hamster cage. Although better may be an illusion.