25 January 2015

Inventions and Imitations

Yesterday afternoon, Dan and I saw The Imitation Game, a superb rendering of the life of Alan Turing, the man who cracked Enigma, the Nazi cipher believed to be unbreakable.  Turing’s contributions to the Allied efforts remained classified until only recently and his tragic death at his own hand devastates me.  That one of the greatest minds of the past century was treated in such an inhumane way breaks my heart.  I broke down in tears on the way home from the theater.  I haven’t been so affected by a film in years.

But it’s easy to mourn the loss of someone with such potential, someone who used his powers for good in a time of such darkness.  It’s easy to mourn someone so exceptional in his thinking, someone so ahead of his time.  And while I am incredibly sad for all of us that we lost Turing too soon, it’s impossible for me to not also mourn the potential of other lives lost, other suicides of young men and women, who still today cannot fully enjoy the same rights and privileges as me.  The right to marry, for example.  LGBT teens have a suicide rate four times higher than straight kids.  LGBT kids have hopes and dreams, just like anyone else, and yet they suffer quietly the traumas of adolescence that we all did, and more, and most do so with a great deal less support and a great deal more derision.

This week, Brandon Stanton’s photography blog, Humans of NewYork, featured a boy named Vidal from a dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn.  When asked who he most admired, the boy championed his principal Ms. Lopez, who held the students to high standards and refused to allow the students to think poorly of themselves.  Brandon found his way to the school and met Ms. Lopez.  Together they brainstormed a way to provide critical opportunities to the students at Vidal’s school.  They launched a fundraiser which raised a half million dollars for the school in a very short time – a few days, only.  I was simultaneously grateful and resentful.  Grateful that Brandon Stanton and Humans of New York had created an opportunity to make school funding sexy, and resentful that many of the donors perhaps voted against school bonds and overrides in their own communities.

And so, how do the stories of Alan Turing and Vidal from the Brooklyn connect?  As exceptional as Turing was, viewing his life and times through our modern, enlightened lens, we can see that he was treated poorly and our instinct is to go back in time reward his exceptionalism by canonizing him, just as we feel compelled to reward the exceptional leadership of Ms. Lopez by empowering her students.

But let us not forget that all children have dreams – it is not unique to those who are exceptional or to those who find themselves in otherwise dead-end circumstances, like a dangerous and violent neighborhood.  All children have dreams, even the ones who are annoying, who have few social skills, whose parents have little to do with them, or who think themselves above following rules or doing homework.

Late last spring, I happened upon a quote from Father John Naus, a Catholic priest who had recently passed away.  He said, “See written on the forehead of everyone you meet, make me feel important.”  I set that as a goal for myself for the school year.  I wrote it out and taped it to my podium in the classroom so I’d be reminded of it every day, multiple times a day.  I’ve been grateful for the reminders, because I need them, as I am not able to remember it when facing 150 students each day, each with his or her own particular need to feel important.  The goal has manifested in a consistently singular way every day.  It’s forced me to be a better listener.  What I hear again and again is that each of the souls I’ve been entrusted with has dreams, big and small.  Some have dreams that are reasonable in scope, and others so far beyond their reach.  Again and again, I remind myself to make each child feel important simply by hearing what he or she has to say, which is light years away from making someone feel different, or apart, which is perhaps our unfortunate human inclination. 

I have no idea if, in my classroom, lurks the next Alan Turing or the next Adam Lanza.  Neither is likely, for which I am grateful and relieved, but I can’t know.  For now I’ll keep reminding myself to listen to each of them, because, as a wise one once noted, we have two ears but only one mouth.  Perhaps Virginia Woolf said it best, “It seemed to her such nonsense----- inventing differences, when people, heaven knows, were different enough without that.  The real differences, she thought, standing by the drawing room window, are quite enough, quite enough.”

11 January 2015

A Tangle of Snakes

The glimmer of light on wire
like water sliding along a string,

both move with a grace,
a simplicity which eludes the rest of us.

Or do we elude it, yearning
to be complex and complicated,

wanting at once to be more,
everything even, so much more

than the knot of desires
that sits within, deep, low in the belly,

writhing like the tangle of snakes
it is, becoming less as it twists,

tightens, until after a time it is
spent, this knot, as fragile and dense

as a delicate chain abandoned in a box.
If yearning could set us free

we would slide, unencumbered
to the other side.

04 January 2015

Bathtub on the Mississippi

Now and again I see Mr. Twain,
white-haired and white-suited,
pipe in hand, twinkly eyes,
like someone else’s grand dad
that I secretly wish were mine.
We float down the Muddy,
a clawfoot tub our raft,
chased by Huck’s dad
who chucks bottles at us as he drains them.
Mr. Twain never flinches while
I row, my arms aching.  I dodge and duck, each bottle
mere fractions of an inch from clocking me.
Somehow the bottles are filled with rolled paper
messages, I think, I hope, some paramount
lesson that I must read, learn, remember.
But when let go of the oars, uncork the bottles,
and  unroll the papers, the ink
is smeared, wet from the river.
I can’t read a single letter.
Mr. Twain beams at the river like a father.
I realize abruptly that I’m sunburned and
homesick, and we’re quickly being sucked into
the churn of a steamboat.
Huck’s dad has long since rowed for shore,
his canoe vanishing in the reeds.  I look
at Mr. Twain, and our oars have disappeared,
chewed up in the turning cylinder of paddles from the
steamboat, which grows larger, louder.
We’re sprayed with water, the bathtub
is sinking.  Mr. Twain, though, is his
characteristic calm,
observing the situation and
smacking his pipe.  I’m drenched
and about to be pulled under,
the churning water is deafening.
Mr. Twain puffs again, the pipe still
miraculously lit.  “You don’t expect me
to save you, now?”  And I’m
submerged, my lungs imploding
from the pressure of the water until
somehow, I surface and gasp, inhale –
I’m on the couch, my hair damp and river-smelly,
an open book on my heaving
chest, Tom, Becky, and Injun Joe racing into
the cave.  I sniff, catching the faint scent
of pipe smoke in the air.