Sunday, March 13, 2011

THOSE WERE THE DAYS: A Look Back at my Education Because What Could Be More Goddamned Fascinating?

            Good morning. I haven’t even had my coffee yet. Hope you have.

            Take yourself back to the land before iTime.

            Say, 1971-1979, when capital-I me was coming of age.

            As some of you may not remember, the 1970s ended in the spring of 1981. This was the end of my junior year of high school, and four months or so after President Ronald Reagan took office. The Peace and Love Decade’s last blow-out, and I think I speak for the planet here, was Ber-Mander High School’s Junior Variety Show. In case you missed it, allow me to set the scene: Fellow student Mark and I were hosting. Our surprise entrance was to come through the upper part of the auditorium, so we waited in costume on two aisle seats. Our friends Rick and Sue were looking for places to sit, the 1,200-seat auditorium being packed and the line to get in stretching out into the parking lot all the way to the stadium. Rick looked at us, quickly realized that we were in the show, and sagely said to Sue, “Here are two seats,” and they sat in the aisle until we made our entrance.

            Now, the important part of this story is not my performance, though it was delightful, nay, the stuff of legend, but that the school auditorium on a Saturday night in May was “packed.” Please note the year, 1981. This is before the Internet; before the Mall came in across the road, which then was a winding, two-lane country road, not the six-lane boulevard it is today. Before six more high schools were built, and there were only two schools on “that end” of the county; a third had just opened but only for freshmen. Do you remember this? You were probably too young. Maybe not even born.

            Mine was a generation whose earliest years were spent in the midst of a draft, with the Vietnam War on TV from 1965 to 1975; we were born in or around 1964. On the TVs of our childhood, we watched Star Trek, All in the Family, Get Smart, The Brady Bunch, Maude, Sanford and Son, Chico and the Man, Soap, Roots. And Macmillan and Wife. Monty Python reruns were on PBS. SCTV was syndicated. We saw aliens, racists, the Cold War, misogynists, liberated women, Hispanics, gays, celebrity send-ups, anti-war folks, the history of slavery in America, insane Brits, inane Americans, and actual Canadians, all on television, beamed into our living rooms, often for the first time. It was our birthright.

            Teachers smoked in school. So did teenagers, with a smoking “permit.” In the drama club, you could smoke on stage, and swear on stage, because that was free speech.

            Envelopes were pushed, my friends.
            And then...silence.

            “Grandpa’s got this, kids, you go back to sleep now. Wear nice clothes. Keep quiet. Buy things.” Social conservatism took hold in many unexpected ways, brought about by two decades of societal upheaval on a scale heretofore unknown since the Civil War, and people were exhausted. So a return to bygone days, listening to gentle Gramps, a WWII guy who actually never went to war. “Rip out those solar panels, drive big cars, and just say no--to anything progressive.” And we did that. (Cue corporate take-over and conservative Supreme Court.)

            Or we seemed to go along with that. Because I came from a very interesting generation--the last year of the Baby Boomers or the first year of Gen X, depending on your sociology teacher. In other words, neither one thing nor the other.

            We loved radio. Everyone listened to WPGC in D.C. for contemporary rock and pop, and loads of stations like WASH featured old radio shows, the American Songbook, classic rock, and jazz. A generation that saw that 1950s throw-back Lawrence Welk also knew the Grand Ol’ Opry variety hour Hee-Haw, saw older generations of performers on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, and also feasted on the modern satire of The Smothers Brothers and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. There was no cable TV. We all watched ABC Movies of the Week, reruns of Gilligan’s Island, Lance Link Secret Chimp, Jonny Quest, and every old movie ever made, slashed through with commerical interruptions: Ronco, Columbia House records, Joon Rhee, and thousands of carpet stores. Try to hold all that, and all those socially conflicted messages, in YOUR head at once. See what it does to you, this full-tilt absurdity. (Hint: It doesn’t make you dumber.)

            So, then Reagan, as I said. Cable networks. MTV. We socially-minded, civic-oriented kids went quiet for a couple of decades, confused, I think, by the turns our world had taken. And the drugs, of course.

            And then we turned 40. And all bets were off.

            I am the same age as the Obamas, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and Amy Sedaris, give or take a year. I contrast these people with Ayn Rand. (Everbody in college, as Hilary Clinton observed, went through his or her “Ayn Rand period,” reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, but most of us remembered to keep moving.) “Objectivism,” Ms. Rand’s philosophy from the 1950s, highly influential for conservatives, holds that what is good for the individual is good, the collective be damned. Ayn Rand declared that in reality there are no contradictions. This is because Ms. Rand never watched that perfect exploration of the corrupting influences of gold that is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre interrupted by unintentionally ironic ads that showed all your slice and dice problems solved with one easy tool for three easy payments of $9.95 if you order now!

            Ms. Rand never, apparently, watched ensemble shows like Saturday Night Live, where individual talents like John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, and Bill Murray together made most any silly premise into something sublime. What was good for the individual AND the collective, was good.

            It’s one thing AND the other. A contradiction.

            What does this have to do with education?

            The extreme Right Wing of the American political system and the extreme Left Wing, as well, often find it impossible to hold two opposing ideas in their heads at the same time. (And watching them squirm to explain sexual misconduct or some other hypocritical act? “You, but not me,” they say. Uh huh.) As a result, they don’t know how to really argue a point. When challenged (by this I mean someone points out that an issue is not black and white), they throw things, metaphorically speaking, across areas of gray. And they usually do it from a position of hatred, in really annoying voices, while offering no solutions to the problems they scream about. This limitation of thought has had dangerous implications in our social and educational systems as well as our political one. To take a simple example, in the wealthiest nation in the world (at one time, at least), we have some of the greatest poverty. Ostensibly about human rights de facto, we deny civil rights to citizens who, according to our Constitution, should have equal rights. These are contradictions, and they have been denied to exist. By the same token, very rich people can be very helpful to our economy, even if this creates some disparity. Another contradiction. One thing and the other: how to repair? to reconcile? This is important work.

            Let’s take a trivial example of how we perpetuate single-mindedness: Channels devoted to only one kind of television, whether it’s history, or learning, or food, or shopping, or movies, give any viewer little in the way of variety and therefore perspective. A food network demands that the viewer think only about food, not also about the fate of Humphrey Bogart’s morality in the face of treasure-lust.

            And I won’t even talk about “celebrities” and shows devoted to their existence. Narcissism made toxic.

            I keep returning to media, television in particular, when it comes to brain formation and education (even though I haven’t owned a TV in over a decade), and here is why: Not to wax nostalgic, but let’s take TV when I was a kid in the ‘70s. This could be CBS, NBC, or ABC, but we really only had reception for three networks and a local syndicated station, like WTTG. Say you are home sick and you get to lie on the living room couch all day (the only time I would have EVER been allowed to do this) and watch television. There were no such things as videos, my friends. If you wanted to watch TV (ours was black and white until I was 11), you had to watch it all; whenever you turned the channel (often using pliers), you had to take what they gave you. How could a world that contained footage of Palestinian refugees, the 6-Day War, murders in the District of Columbia, and contentious political movements, also have New Zoo Review, Tattle Tales, The Galloping Gourmet, and the pleasant and sophisticated interview show that was Dinah Shore? It was really quite something to take in when you were, say, eight.

            There was no Internet. When not watching TV, my mom read murder mysteries, and my dad read the newspaper, and they did this in the same room. When we got old enough, we read the newspaper, too, and books from the library. You also did something we called playing.” This involved you saying, “Mom, I’m bored,” and your mom saying, “What do you want me to do about it?” and returning to her Salem cigarette, adding, “and no, you can’t watch TV.” Then we had to get creative. “Mom, can we use the card table to build a fort?” And household objects took on a new meaning, and were often, uh, “destroyed” in the process.

            A card table can be a card table AND a fort . . . AND trash. Ayn Rand was wrong on so many levels, I don’t even know how to stop.

            So this was about doing the Ber-Mander High School Junior Variety Show of 1981, which ended up paying for the Junior-Senior prom for, like, a decade.
            In that show, people from all areas of the school took part. There was a faculty sketch. The newspaper staff spoofed beauty contests and socialite coming-out parties with a “Demented Debutantes Pageant.” Another act pitted acid rock music against Lawrence Welk. Performers sang songs from every era of the 20th century, and all the kids and parents in the audience knew the songs. Later, the star football player, Leo, wearing a sun hat, sunglasses, and shorts, sang “Rhinestone Cowboy” to his plastic snake Zeebo, playing an old kiddie guitar that he smashed to bits at the song’s end. We could enjoy the cultural jokes because we all knew the same radio stations and TV shows. There was a COLLECTIVE, you see. And how could you not love Leo?

            And this collective was often brought together by wild individuals, outer-directed individuals, who not only took the classes and got their good grades, but also wrote, laid out, and sold the school newspaper; acted in the drama club; made the yearbook; took (and developed) the photos; played on the teams; sang in the choirs; painted murals on the cafeteria walls; contributed to the literary magazine. We owned the building. We ran for class offices, gave speeches, had dances, went to all the games, agreed to see our friends in the band and choir concerts.

            We also knew a lot of friction among races. A lot of kids felt left out. My school represented every conceivable socio-economic group and every ethnic group that lived in the state. Blacks and whites. Refugees from Vietnam and Laos. Farm kids and kids whose dads worked at the Pentagon.

            All this made for a really complex, and ultimately awesome, place for me to go to high school, in the sense that it felt like a total world.

            The story of the Junior Variety Show leads me, inevitably, to acknowledge the importance of the arts. In the performance of a public act--publishing writing, exhibiting a picture, acting in a show, performing a skit, singing a song, playing a tune, and, for that matter, competing in a sport--in front of a community or paying audience (because there is also symbolic value in an outlay of supportive cash), we, all of us, really become “Us.” We share an experience. We have something to talk about. (People still talk about that Junior Variety Show--you should see my Facebook wall.) As together we watch the collective performances and the individual artists, we have a collective experience and a personal one. I think that for any society to succeed and thrive, these episodes need to occur on a much more frequent basis, in less-rushed and less expensive circumstances, than I am experiencing in 2010.

            I count among these public episodes evening dinner. I think people should not dine alone, if they can help it, at suppertime. After dinner, you ought to go outside and play for another hour. Look at the moon. (Even when I have dinner by myself in restaurants in New York, which is often, I get to know the wait staff, the bartenders, and so I make a home where I dine, become a regular in the places I like best. It’s so much more fun for all of us. Then I take the subway home alone, drink heavily, and weep. But enough. Sunnyside up!)

            Obviously, dinner together does not bring us all to the same table politically. I know plenty of people who grew up with the same influences I had (Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, my friend Scott) and came to vastly different conclusions: for them, Reagan was an actual relief, not an insidious hypnotist. The very TV shows that opened my mind, in them engendered fear of the “other.” Refugees? They need to go the hell home. The same people who celebrate “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” don’t the see any contradiction in advocating for a higher fence between the U.S. and Mexico. They can’t hold the contradiction in their heads. If they could, they’d, you know, think about that. And see the stupidity of it, maybe.

            Other people think it’s time to blow up the whole Constitutional system and replace it, by force, if need be, with a Corporate system, based on performance and rewards; or a Communist system, based on repression of the individual in favor of the State, or a Libertarian “system” of individual choice only. My house, my rules. Fairness through indoctrination. Freedom at gunpoint. Because it just makes so much sense to them. Still others refuse to partake of the current political process at all because they are waiting for something else to happen. You know, another idea. Maybe then.

            I’ve bludgeoned TV over your head, but our parents, of course, and other aspects of our upbringing, have a whole lot to do with how we think. My parents, born during the Depression, still today grapple with the world, always moving forward. Progress, not stasis. Never, “I got mine, you get yours.” It’s US, the U.S., United States, planet Earth. In it together, while still remaining our wildly individual selves. I’m with my parents here.

            A lot of people under our flag and sharing the same globe will never feel this way. And plenty of these people are teaching children. It makes me sort of sick. There, I said it.

            And yet: Without the disagreements, how do we grow? Contradiction again. (What’s that tree doing in the garden?)

            Who the hell am I, you ask. I’m a theater person and former high school English and drama teacher (fifteen years) who knows that in optimal, or even halfway decent, group circumstances, great learning can happen; and in safe, well-fed alone time, we can have a chance to collect our thoughts and individually process what we learned with the group. If we can be alone. And safe and nourished. If we reflect. Rapid-fire and incessant text messaging, the compulsion of that, allows for very little quiet “alone time” in a real sense, I think. And by the time this is published, it will be something else.

            So I have three questions that I will address in this blog:

1)   As an educator, I ask myself: What is it to be an active child, and an actively learning child, today? (I have concerns. For example, just as parents in the 1970s worried that their kids watched too much TV, I worry about what is happening to the necks and eyesight of young people today, to say nothing of the future use of their thumbs. The necks, eyes, and thumbs seem to be the only things that get stretched today, all focus on a 4” x 3” flat type pad in front of them. Kids never seem to look up. I know this is only my perception--like the ancient Greeks who threw up their hands on the inattentive youth around them. I know the kids are smart. They are. But it’s a question for the future, and schools have to be part of the conversation.)

2)   What is the role of the arts in education amidst all this change?

3)   And who the hell should and will be doing the teaching?

            This last is the main reason I am writing this blog: Everyone is clamoring for great teachers (!) and saying how much we need them! “We need great teachers!!!” is the rallying cry of pundits and the president and a documentary filmmaker. And much as I respect Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, whom I heard speak recently, OF COURSE we are going to have trouble finding great teachers when we break unions in order to make teachers work 15-hour days, six days a week, months on end, “whatever it takes”. . . for $40,000/year.

            [Cue chalk scratching and dropping into a tray; a vacuum cleaner.]
            And nowhere in these conversations, as I heard South Carolina educator James Comer say (in the same forum as Mr. Canada), do you hear any talk of teacher training. (With 500 pages of this manuscript completed when I heard that, I fairly shook with gratitude.)

            So I wonder, you see. Throw it out there in the form of this blog. You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to write a letter to my publisher. (Ha! I don’t have  a publisher!) Just consider it. Look around. Make up your own mind. Act on that.

Personally, I think that in the breaks between tragedies and anxieties, and even in the midst of them--maybe especially then--we need to get together more often. Make a party. Have a little game of gin rummy. Go dancing. Talk. Play in a band. Put on a show. Have dinner together. Come over. We’ve missed you.

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