Summer Dinosaurs

Summer here, it’s time for some must needed renewal. Even for those of us who love what we do, education is a profession that demands energy. To do it well means not scrimping on engagement, taking time to do things right, and giving of ourselves in the service of something great. The pace, never slack, seems to pick up as the school year rolls on, bursting into an outright sprint by the time April turns into May.

This wild rumpus is amazing, filled with adventure and often the unexpected. But sometimes, as emotions run high and the rush of the world makes it difficult to keep perspective, those adventures take us to places where the opportunities to make a difference feel more like climbing a mountain than walking on the beach.

Lost WorldSummer means beaches.

For me, in addition to the literal visit to the coast, renewal comes from familiar quarters. Family. Good books. Time in nature.

A recent trip to Lincoln City provided just that renewal. Poking around a little used bookstore I happened upon a book that had dodged my reading life for decades. I’m a confessed Sherlock Holmes fanatic; from my easy chair I’ve enjoyed hours on the moors with Arthur Conan Doyle tracking the footprints of a gigantic hound, but I realized that I’d never formally met Professor Challenger, the hero of his 1912 potboiler about a plateau in South America where the Jurassic Period never ended, The Lost World.

It was time to chase some dinosaurs.

Now pterodactyl pursuit is not an activity for the school year. Too many pulls on time and real life stresses vie for attention. The real world gets in the way of many a ripping good yarn.

Being a principal means finding a way to display fortitude while discovering renewal in little gulps. The long days and daily responsibilities, as positive as they can be and as filled with possibility as they often are, demand attention, and the reality of knowing that at any minute the phone might ring with news from campus or our school community. This could cut short a night out, or turn a weekend into a workday.

But, ah, summer.

Summer is a time for dinosaurs.

So I put aside planning for a long afternoon, left off the work that I’ll be better able to tackle with the fresh perspective that comes from a little time away, and left the bookstore with a paperback of The Lost World.

Back on the beach I read Doyle’s epigraph:

I have wrought my simple plan
    If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
    Or the man who’s half a boy.”

How important it is for those of us who work with kids to allow ourselves to revisit the feeling of youth. Taking care of ourselves is not always something we educators do best, though to be our best selves it’s something we need to do.

Sometimes that’s time with family, a hike, or paddling a kayak. Sometimes it’s allowing ourselves to follow footprints in the sand that might belong to a gigantic hound …or maybe a dinosaur.


Jackals and Spies

I was in high school the first time I read Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal, a rollicking adventure about a shadowy hit man’s attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Fast paced, groovy, and allegedly adult, the 1971 novel ticked all the boxes those tomes I was reading in Mr. Shinkle’s English class did not. This was no Scarlet Letter. Ethan Frome couldn’t put together a sniper rifle. 1960s Paris looked and felt nothing like Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge.

DAYOFTHEJACKAL1I was a solid student; no one would have described me as a reluctant reader; give me Turgenev and I would read Turgenev, but the truth of the matter was that ever since I’d left The Hardy Boys behind somewhere before my twelfth birthday, the books I read tended to be for class. The Day of the Jackal changed that, at least a bit, and I realized that reading could be fun again.

Two decades later, when I found myself teaching a reading intervention class, I remembered that hit man, and the value of giving students choice in what they read really sank in. Mine were not students for whom Melville held any cachet. Heck, Jack London bored most of them and he wrote The Sea Wolf! When they had the opportunity to select books that they wanted to read, however, they were more willing to put in the time to actually read them.

It was a lesson I brought to my other English classes, where we still read books together (no one should be forced to go upriver in Conrad’s Congo alone) and I built opportunities for student choice.

In a twelfth grade world literature class, where we traveled around the globe continent by continent, students could choose any book length text from a bank of authors given to them at the start of a unit. As we were reading poetry and short fiction from Africa together in class, for instance, the list of possible authors for their out of class reading might include Ayi Kwei Armah, Chinua Achebe, or Nadine Gordimer.

At the end of the unit students wrote about their own author and book, making connections to what we’d read in class, and then, as a culminating activity, they gathered in book groups based on what they’d read. At one table a group of students who had each read a different book by Haruki Murakami might discuss commonalities they saw in his various works. To hear students have expert discussions juxtaposing Sputnik Sweetheart and The Windup Bird Chronicle was energizing, and just as rich (if not more) than our shared conversations on Virginia Woolf or Mark Twain.

As adults, those of us who read most often chart our own literary course. That high schooler I was, quietly enjoying The Day of the Jackal, graduated and moved on to other adventures. In college I read the classics, voraciously to be honest, but still found time for more popular fare.

Perfect SpyJohn le Carre was one on that pop fiction list. I enjoyed the efficiency and sense of Cold War era certainty of Tom Clancy (who a friend of mine once described as writing “novels … very liberal in nature. Consider: Clancy’s characters, whether in the military, politics, or intelligence, are capable, hard-working, well-intentioned, and intelligent. It’s like reading a political fantasy, where everyone has the good of the nation at heart, is competent at their jobs, and sincerely wants what is best for the country as a whole, not just themselves”) and I dug the palpable tension of Stephen King, but it was le Carre’s A Perfect Spy that showed me that popular fiction could include books of consequence. A Perfect Spy was never a book I assigned as a teacher, though I have no doubt that with its complex narrative voice and poetic sensibility it could have supported discussions as rich as any in my high school classroom.

Perhaps it’s because of my own affection for pop fiction that I’m a fan of bringing academia out of the ivory tower. Part of a teacher’s role is helping students see their world critically, and one way of supporting this is to give them freedom and choice.

By that I not only mean freedom to choose the books they’re most interested in, but also freedom from the judgement that one work is regal while another’s gold foil makes it cheap. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale started out on the bestseller list before it became a staple of high school reading lists. Mass market paperbacks can (and sometimes do) hold more than simply mysteries or romance.

handmaid's taleCertainly there are degrees of litr’y merit, but an acceptance that literature can live in a supermarket magazine aisle strikes me as a positive quality not an indictment of taste.

I still want to explore Heart of Darkness in the company of fellow adventurers, but along the way I’d love to hear about their own travels to worlds less dark.

I reread The Day of the Jackal and A Perfect Spy this year, curious how my adult self might see them, and was pleased that I enjoyed both as much as I remembered liking them in my youth. I’d never consciously thought how much less silly le Carre’s book was than Forsythe’s, and noticing it now I chalked one up in the favorable column of growing older.

Rereading was a choice, and a good one, not like supporting those students who pick up a paperback because they think they’ll like it. Reading can and should be fun too. Along with travels to Wessex or Yoknapatawpha County, it’s healthy to encourage readers to spend a little time with jackals and spies.

The Unexpected

man canThe Manchurian Candidate is a naughty book. Biting, bitter, playful, and bizarre, Richard Condon brings a cynical and outrageously offbeat voice to his story of cold war paranoia. It’s a novel I could never bring myself to recommend (though I have suggested to friends the 1962 Sinatra film of the book) and yet it’s a book I find myself happy to be rereading.

I can’t believe he wrote that, is a common reaction as I’m turning the pages, and My god, really?

Condon’s prose is an odd amalgam of terse and flamboyant. It’s as if Edgar Rice Burroughs and William S. Burroughs collaborated on a spy story after drinking too much and reading Valley of the Dolls.

As a former English teacher, I know that there are books we teach students that smack of merit: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and anything by Toni Morrison. Even the rougher books we put in front of students (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) or the really difficult ones (Huck Finn) bring enough importance to warrant passages that make readers wince.

On the other side of the aisle, wrapped in foil and raised embossment, Stephen King and PD James show the world that “popular fiction” has a place, and even if it is as serious as a Batman comic, English teachers everywhere shake their heads, muster smiles, and say, as the student holds up Clear and Present Danger for his independent reading project, “at least they’re reading.”

And then there are a few, the Margaret Atwoods and John le Carres of the world, who lure us in with colorful covers and hide literary ideas in airport gift shops. There, next to the issues of Time and Vanity Fair, lurk Offred and Magnus Pym ready to knock us off our chairs.

…and maybe be a little naughty.

So too The Manchurian Candidate. When Condon published the book in 1959, he threw conventionality to the wind and put together a potboiler that is a melange of spy thriller, beat prose poem, and political satire. As popular as it was in the year Kennedy was elected, I’m not sure how much it gets read today.

Contemporary audiences may not have the taste for exchanges like this, a Condonian version of flirting:

Do you mind cigar smoke,” he mumbled.
“Not at all,” she murmured. He turned away from her by made no move to find a cigar.
“Go ahead,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I wish you’d smoke two cigars at the same time.”
“You must really like cigar smoke.”
“Not especially, but I think two cigars going at the same time would look awfully amusing.”

And yet I think there’s a place for The Manchurian Candidate.

I make my living working with high school students, and I know the value at that age of experiencing some piece of literature, or film, or idea so unhinged that it invites us to see the world differently. Haruki Murakami, Citizen Kane, David Bowie. For different people different surprises and different inspirations.

Now I’m not suggesting Condon’s novel be put on the syllabus of Sophomore English; remember, The Manchurian Candidate is a naughty book, but in a world of black, white, and increasing gray, I will raise my glass to those artistic works that present themselves in psychedelic neon and gleaming chrome.

Our lives, particularly our lives in those formative years, are richer for including the offbeat and the unexpected.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is on my nightstand this summer, sitting atop From a Buick 8, and there on the top of the pile, my bookmark halfway through, is a used copy of The Manchurian Candidate.


“A million candles have burned themselves out. Still I read on.”
-Edgar Allan Poe

No one gets to the end of their life and says “I wish I’d read more Nietzsche.”

I was a philosophy major, taught English for a dozen years, and get kidded today for reading Sartre for fun. “Who reads Sartre anymore?” Evidently just me. And yet I know the truth that for most, Nietzsche is more a phase than a philosopher.

I’ve also reached a point in my life when rereading some books stems less from a desire to really understand them and more because I simply don’t remember as much about their content as I do have memories of them being good.

Tess of the D’urbervilles is on my list to reread, The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch too, and Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle. It will be interesting this summer to see how the tastes of my undergraduate years have changed.

In the first draft of that last sentence I put “if” instead of “how,” though I know that there is no way those tastes (a way of summing up perspective, attitude, and understanding) haven’t developed as a result of the varied experiences of an adult lifetime.

I thought of this last week when my assistant principal, himself a former English teacher, mentioned to me that as he was walking with a student from his office to her Creative Writing class he asked her who her favorite writer was.

photo (5)“Poe,” she answered.

When he told me the story, he and I both had the same response: That will change.

And it will, and that’s okay. Heck, I still keep a couple of old copies of Poe on my bookshelf, some essays and Eureka, and while I don’t consult them for wisdom or guidance, their presence, like some kind of talisman, reminds me of the person I was when I read them back in my younger years.

Working at a high school means that I get to be around students who are actively engaged in developing their own tastes. They’re in the process of reading Hamlet and Heart of Darkness for the first time and they get pushed in their four years before graduation to think critically and creatively about science, and history, and math.

Some might pick up Siddhartha or Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and whether they agree with the author or not, they may find their minds stretched in ways that help them become the people they are becoming.

It’s our job as educators to nurture this.

And if some of the titles or authors who so inspired their teenage selves feel flat or flawed by the time they reach thirty, all the better. If that’s the case, they’ve continued to grow and learn.

We oughtn’t mock the stones we step on as we cross the stream, but thank them, imperfect as they are, for giving us the footing to walk to the other side.

On a high school campus that means nodding when a student tells us about the merits of Edgar Allan Poe or asks us to think about an maxim they’ve discovered in Beyond Good and Evil.

While we do, we might mention James Baldwin or Zora Neale Hurston, or even Jean Paul Sartre. Well, probably not him. And all the while I’m convinced that it’s right to celebrate these authors our students connect with, these authors they may even find themselves rereading some summer when they’re in their forties.

Crooked Arrow

photo 1 (3)Blue spined Hardy Boys books filled my childhood. I read every volume I could put my hands on, loving some, liking others, and not realizing until I became an adult just how formative a part of my reading life those books had really been.

When my daughter, a reader, got old enough, I gave her a couple of the yellow hardcover Nancy Drews, imagining a reaction not unlike my youthful own. She didn’t care for them a bit. Her taste was perhaps more sophisticated than mine had been, her reading world already populated by Harry Potter, Prue McKeel, and Sammy Keyes.

The experience may have been there to remind me of the truth that our kids are not young us; left to make their own decisions, they have tastes and opinions of their own. Here I should add: as they should.

Even when our kids do find that their interests overlap our own, I’ve found that the reality that inspired me decades ago looks different without the gauzy filter of fond memory. It happened for me last week when my seven year old son handed me a copy of The Sign of the Crooked Arrow at bedtime.

He has a few old Hardy Boys books, brought home from Grandma and Papa’s, that have languished on his bookshelf long enough that I’d figured they’d go the way of my daughter’s Nancy Drews.

photo 3 (7)Taking The Sign of the Crooked Arrow from him, I saw that he’d lined up his four Hardy Boys books and chosen the one with the picture he liked the most. How he could have ignored the lurid cover of The Twisted Claw I’ll never know, but (as I reminded myself again) this was his choice, and should be.

We started reading.

There was Frank. There Joe. There lumbered Chet, the Hardy’s overweight, kindhearted chum. Pages ticked by and I found myself relishing a world of shortwave radios and whirlybirds.

My son seemed into it, curious about these teenage sleuths, the string of daring daylight robberies, and the abandoned sedan at Slow Mo’s Garage.

Side by side, propped up on pillows, we traveled through a world somewhat like our own, a midcentury land of malts and dungarees, where, as the blurb on the back of the book explained, “Sons of a famous American detective, the Hardy boys help solve many thrilling cases after school hours and during vacations…”

Didactic, that.

And just as I had forgotten how much of a lesson in manners and morals the Hardy Boys provided, I realized as I read that no contemporary children’s’ book would make manufacturing cigarettes filled with “knockout gas” a major plot point, claim that a watch band could be identified as being worn “by an Indian” because it smelled like hominy, or include the passage:

From the top of the cliff a fleeing lamb came hurtling down toward them. It landed in a broken heap near the frightened ponies. Pye got off to examine the dead animal.
“There are no wild sheep here,” he remarked, looking up at Joe. “Men must have chased it. We’ve got to find them!”
With that he picked up the lamb and flung it over his saddle. “It’ll make a good meal later.”

Um… “Goodnight, son?”

With each page I saw that what I’d found fresh and exciting when I’d read it as a kid, was dated, or for the more generous, vintage.

photo 4 (3)The sporadic line drawings I had looked forward to seeing were simple; the chapter headings ridiculously predictive.

It was a nice reminder to me as an educator that while I can accept that I was influenced by x, y, and z, whatever those were for me, and that while I might be a part of one of my students’ x, y, or z, their influences shouldn’t be the same as mine.

This isn’t only because the world and its attitudes have changed, though they have of course, but also because the kids we raise as parents and the students we work with at schools are their own individuals. I may have rooted for “Good Old Chet” but my kids’ cast of literary characters is as different as they are from me.

photo 2 (6)As we embrace the individuals our kids choose to be, we help them grow into the adults they will become.

Free from expectations, we also allow ourselves the quiet delight that comes from those moments when the Venn Diagram of our own youth overlaps with their childhoods.

As he closed his eyes and listened to The Sign of the Crooked Arrow, my son whispered to me: “Dad, let me know when we get to a picture.”

Beyond Batman

photo 1 (3)It was the Classics Illustrated Robinson Crusoe that captured my six year old son’s imagination. Filled with swords and shooting, pictures of Crusoe’s nightmarish hallucinations and a gory melee with a band of “cannibals,” it brought all the fruit forbidden in a liberal 21st century household to his nightstand in glorious technicolor.

For me growing up it was The Fantastic Four, entertaining companions on long road trips and always ready to engage my daydreaming thoughts with the possibilities of a flying fantasticar and traveling into space.

Moodier superheroes took over as I got older, Batman and Moon Knight broadening my world view, even as they wore masks and capes. Storytelling, visual and otherwise, has the capacity to stretch minds and get readers to think about the world in new ways. Before Shakespeare, Twain, and Ellison, for me that meant comic books.

photo 4 (2)Not to sell short some of the best of my youth (Moench and Sienkiewicz’s Moon Knight is still a favorite), today the term “comics” hardly captures the depth of the medium. Serious novelists from Brad Meltzer to Michael Chabon have penned comic books, and others like Neil Gaiman jumped from comics to novels. Add to that the sheer variety of illustrated stories: Fanny Britt’s Jane, the Fox, and Me, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Frank Miller’s 300, and the broad appeal extends well beyond the familiar confines of Gotham City.

What this means is that today’s comics, relevant and resonating, have the capacity to invite even reluctant readers (though certainly not only reluctant readers) into the world of text.

The benefits are many.

photo 2 (3)Offering opportunities to read and think about big ideas, comic books and graphic novels from Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant to the latest incarnation of Moon Knight can serve as a welcoming portal into the realm of ideas.

For my six year old son those ideas of exploration jump off the page like a flock of birds startled by Crusoe’s flintlock. For my ten year old daughter, it’s Raina Telgemeier’s Sisters and Smile side by side on her bookshelf with Colin Meloy’s Wildwood and the indefatigable Harry Potter.

photo 3 (4)At Diegueño I’ve seen Gene Luen Yang’s Boxer and Saint, collected Avengers comics, and plenty of anime. Bright young readers gobble up graphic novels like The Golem’s Mighty Swing, Watchmen, and The Graveyard Book, and their lives (both reading lives and otherwise) are richer as a result.

I suspect that these excursions into comics are like scouts sent into the woods of adult literature, curious, capable of bringing back information, and starting the first maps into literary adulthood.

Plus, comics are fun.