Saturday, November 26, 2011

Crossing Guard: Getting There from Here


For several of the years I walked to elementary school, a very thin, tall-seeming woman in starched black uniform and military-structured white hat, orange neon belt, and disconcerting sunglasses walked to the intersection by my house to hold out white-gloved hands and say to the kids coming over across the field and from the other side of my street, “Cruss.” It was really the “oo” as in “crook”: “Cruss,” she would say, and the few words she might add, “Get bahck” or “vait dere until I say” were inflected in what I later learned was German. I made fun of this, practiced making my voice like hers. She was terrifying. Gossip swirled, her origins becoming the stuff of myth. I think now that when she was a little girl in Germany, she never imagined herself at a suburban intersection in Virginia guiding kids across the street en route to school, and yet there she was.

This post is really about why so many people hate going to school. Shakespeare knew it, said it in his “Seven Ages of Man” (“All the world’s a stage”) speech growled by Jaques in As You Like It, as the second age, after infancy: And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
/ And shining morning face, creeping like snail
/ Unwillingly to school.  

The trouble with school, of course, is that it’s an institution. After a while, Ideas often become Institutions, so whether it’s school or a corporation or a Republic or a Communist State, at some point we humans cease to remember the founding principles and begin instead to feed the Beast that is the Institution.

I was reading this morning a review of an American Masters documentary about Woody Allen, who when walking past P.S. 99 (in New York, public schools have numbers) said, “I still think of it as a curse.” I had a student in my first year who told me the story of his mom taking him to kindergarten that first day, and when she picked him up asked him, “Well, how was it?” and he said, “Okay,” and she asked if he had anything he needed to do for tomorrow. He paused, looked at her. “I have to go BACK?” He hated school for the rest of his life.

It seems to me that there are three groups of people who absolutely hate school, and two groups contain people who like to Do Stuff:
·      The first are the Arts and Sciences Geniuses, those kids who are ready to observe, make experiments, listen, play, discover, much of it involving initial daydreaming time, and none of it wasted.
·      The second are the Mechanical Geniuses, those kids who have a gift for building, making, fixing, planting stuff, and who want to get their hands dirty doing it.
·      A third group—who may well also belong in the first two (or a fourth one, below)—are the kids who are physically, mentally, or emotionally “outside” the “norm,” who, whatever their talents or energies, stand apart and are visibly “other.”

School, as it is currently institutionalized, sucks for them.

A fourth group, Everybody Else, contains the people like me, in the hump of the bell curve, who get fairly solid B’s and C’s and really are pretty happy to be institutionalized. We just go with it. We don’t stand out much. We are straight, or know how to fake it, even to ourselves. We like learning things, would never have the imagination to find this stuff out on our own, and for the most part enjoy our exposure to new people, literature, writing lessons, science, math, history, and even the standing broad jump challenge in P.E.

As the years go on, around 7th grade say, we in this fourth group may start to realize how weird we actually are, how much we are not really “of” the institution at all, and we find this out because we meet someone who says what we’ve always been thinking but had not articulated, someone who trains an imaginative lens, or a cynical eye, or an amused twinkle onto a typical school situation, and we look in their mirror and find ourselves. Possibly our own inner soul inspired this new friend to brave the observation. Then the institution loses its grip, in a good way.


What do you remember most about school? As an exercise before reading the rest of this post, write the first five memories—images, assignments, people—that come into your head. Don’t judge them or censor them (no one will see it), and set it aside.

Take your time. I’ll hum.

All done?

Okay. Here are my first five, written just this second:

1.     Mrs. Angle and her purple suit, powder skin, red lips, cat-eye glasses.
2.     Tile floors.
3.     Trees visible around the periphery of the school, always glimpsed over courtyard walls.
4.     Cindy Sears, tall and gangly and large-toothed, merry-eyed and energetic, walking up to Miss Covington’s desk to do a 4-count burpee as penance for saying “Okay” as a verbal filler, a tic repeated a half dozen times in any sentence, and agreeing to this exercise in self-improvement, and how I deeply admired her spirit for it.
5.     This very nice woman, a young, sun-weathered jock of a gal—it’s her face I see, very pleasant—who taught us square-dancing in the Multipurpose Room when I was in fifth grade, and the smell of old tater tots and sour milk enveloping me as the tinny fiddle sounds came from the record player, a man’s voice commanding us to allemande right and left—her encouraging face against the light of the high windows.

Analysis: What I See in My List: It’s what I don’t see in my list.  There’s nothing here about reading. I can say with complete honesty that I remember absolutely nothing I read in school until I read “The Lady, or the Tiger?” in Mr. Rampley’s 9th grade English class. There’s nothing about math, science, history; no big concepts or giant breakthroughs; not even the playground.  And yet all the listed memories as well as the unlisted ones are part of life experiences that helped to make me a teacher, actor, director, writer, editor; to live in the country in Virginia and in the wilds of New York City; to study Virginia Woolf at Oxford and perform comedy at the People’s Improvisational Theater on E. 24th Street. Plenty of people who were part of the same institutions as I was took entirely different paths, will remember totally different things, and yet we are all part of the same story.

Aside: None of my memories appeared in the form of a multiple-choice question.

All this said, Woody Allen the Artist turned out pretty well. It’s hard to imagine him becoming an even better filmmaker, whether or not his art is to your taste. Most of us turn out pretty well, my evidence for this being how well the vast, vast majority of 10 million people behaves in the New York subway system on a daily basis.

And yet.

There is unhappiness, disappointment, and a feeling of profound confusion and worthlessness among many of us, even as we get up, shave and shower, make coffee, and remember to mail the goddamned bills. Can better schools preempt this?

So perhaps another question to ask about your own school life is this: What lessons, teachers, encounters, experiments, or academic moments can you point to, directly, and say, “Because of that, I am X”? What would you have wanted more of? Why?

AN EXERCISE: To be completed whether or not you think Public Education as an institution matters, should you love me. (Yes, I am playing that card.)

Part 1 of this exercise: Before you or I spend one more ounce of brain energy and heart-squashing rage on the institution that is school, Miss O’ asks that you expound on your political views of education as an institution. What do you believe? Write a tract. Why do you believe as you do?

Part 2 of this exercise involves reflecting on your own education: From the playground to the music room, from subject to subject, classroom to classroom, teacher to teacher, over all the years you attended, what do you remember? What stuck? Give yourself several days and pieces of paper to jot notes. It takes time. Write a while and then go back to whatever you were doing. It’s amazing what a short walk to a new task will do to jog a memory.

Part 3 involves doing a bit of geometry: First, reread Part 1. Then reread Part 2. Now: How do you see your experiences leading to or informing your beliefs? Then turn out a theorem on What Education Should Be. If school could be whatever you had wanted, how would it work? What would it be?

A Guideline: Miss O’ is asking you to use your own experiences, and she knows that for readers out there with children this may be impossible, since much of your view is now clouded by the experiences that your child(ren) appears to be having. I say “appears” because, well, look what I remember about school. You’d think with my B’s and occasional A’s that I was more academically minded than I really was.

To close, one more memory: I am in a skirt and knee socks, hair in pigtails, standing on the school loading dock (old bread smell, overcast skies, white light) during recess in 5th grade and telling my best friend at the time, Lori German, “I hate your guts.”

Sweet times.


If you care to, send me a 100-word or so “Statement of School Belief” in the Comments of this Blog Post. I would love to read them, and I am challenging you to summarize.

Until next time, when we hear Miss O’ say, “Don’t go the direction I say, go where my hand goes.”

BONUS TRACK: “The Seven Ages of Man” by William Shakespeare, As You Like It

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,                       
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,  

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, 
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, 
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Quote Collecting

On Quotations and Their Uses

Somehow I think my actual education, so-called, began when I started remembering things people said and wanting to write them down. The quotation thing started, as most things did, with my mom, Lynne.  Here are the three I began with, and they are written as I remember them:

John Milton, Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell.”

William Thackery, Vanity Fair: “The world is a looking glass and gives back to each man the reflection of his own face.”

Tagore: “Let your life lightly dance on the edges of time like the dew on the top of a leaf.”

I think it’s fair to say that I have lived by these lines since I first wrote them down during my freshman year of high school, on papers I taped into the front of the three-ringed binder I would use all four years, adding many lines from my first literary muse, Oscar Wilde, whom I learned about when I watched the 11-part Masterpiece Theater series, Lillie, about the life of Victorian actress and Wilde muse, Lillie Langtry. (Eat that, Run-On Sentence Police!)

Being drawn to quotations is by most accounts I’ve read a characteristic of eccentric people.  The people who hoard quotations the way others hoard seashells, or Singer sewing machines that don’t work, or carnival glass, are easy to spot by the way they reach for paper napkins in the restaurant to write down what someone next to them said. Not that I’d know from experience.

In my first years of teaching (at my first school), I challenged myself every day to come up with an apt quotation each morning and put it on the board—first on this square chalkboard on the left side of my (actual own) classroom by the bulletin board. (I later began collecting these quotes in The Good Book, added to lovingly by students, friends, colleagues, and my own discoveries all the years of my teaching life.) This room was “my” classroom only for that first year, when the principal recognized that as I 1) was a first-year teacher; 2) was a teacher with three preps; and 3) had two classes of students who had most all failed English 9 the previous years (that’s right, plural), maybe I could have a room of my own. The room of my own evaporated after that first year, and for the next two years (and for the first five at my next school), I changed rooms every single period, moving from downstairs, to upstairs, to across the courtyard, and back upstairs down the hall, giant canvas tote bag in tow (thanks, L.L. Bean!).

As I’d become “that crazy woman who writes quotes on her board,” I felt okay going around the school each morning (with the permission of the classroom owners) to put my thought for the day in a corner of each chalkboard, thereby increasing my audience substantially. The eccentrics, therefore, crept out in greater numbers, too: There were at least three types: 1) the kids who’d casually take out their notebooks, as if exhausted or annoyed, and copy the quote; 2) the ones who’d read it, comment out loud, and may or may not copy it, but wanted to talk about it; and 3) the quiet, confident little scribes, who’d happily admit to saving them up like green stamps they’d get to cash in for a big prize.

Quote Unquote

This morning I was awakened at 3:00 AM by the powerful ka-pow of a car backfiring five times in rhythm before starting, finally, and heading down this Queens block. I decided to follow the advice of my horoscope in the Village Voice (Rob Brezsny):

Taurus Horoscope for week of November 10, 2011

How's your relationship with your muse? Don't tell me that you're not an artist so you don't have a muse. Even garbage collectors need muses. Even farmers. Even politicians. All of us need to be in touch with a mysterious, tantalizing source of inspiration that teases our sense of wonder and goads us on to life's next adventures. So I ask you again: What have you and your muse been up to lately? I say it's high time for you to infuse your connection with a dose of raw mojo. And if for some sad reason you don't have a muse, I urge you to go out in quest of new candidates. (P.S. A muse isn't necessarily a person; he or she might also be an animal, an ancestor, a spirit, or a hero.)

To that end I looked up, first, Oscar Wilde, and here is what I found.


"A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

"Nothing succeeds like excess."

"There is no sin except stupidity."

"He hasn't a single redeeming vice."

And then there is this.

From The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

·      The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.
·      There is also this to be said. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.
·      In England, the arts that have escaped best are the arts in which the public take no interest. Poetry is an instance of what I mean. We have been able to have fine poetry in England because the public do not read it, and consequently do not influence it. The public like to insult poets because they are individual, but once they have insulted them, they leave them alone. In the case of the novel and the drama, arts in which the public do take an interest, the result of the exercise of popular authority has been absolutely ridiculous. No country produces such badly-written fiction, such tedious, common work in the novel form, such silly, vulgar plays as England. It must necessarily be so. The popular standard is of such a character that no artist can get to it. It is at once too easy and too difficult to be a popular novelist. It is too easy, because the requirements of the public as far as plot, style, psychology, treatment of life, and treatment of literature are concerned are within the reach of the very meanest capacity and the most uncultivated mind. It is too difficult, because to meet such requirements the artist would have to do violence to his temperament, would have to write not for the artistic joy of writing, but for the amusement of half-educated people, and so would have to suppress his individualism, forget his culture, annihilate his style, and surrender everything that is valuable in him.

·      On the whole, an artist in England gains something by being attacked. His individuality is intensified. He becomes more completely himself. Of course, the attacks are very gross, very impertinent, and very contemptible. But then no artist expects grace from the vulgar mind, or style from the suburban intellect. Vulgarity and stupidity are two very vivid facts in modern life. One regrets them, naturally. But there they are. They are subjects for study, like everything else. And it is only fair to state, with regard to modern journalists, that they always apologise to one in private for what they have written against one in public.
—Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism

When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong.
—OSCAR WILDE, The Critic as Artist

The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.
--OSCAR WILDE, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
There is much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.
—OSCAR WILDE, The Critic as Artist


He was a philosopher, dandy, wit, man of the theater, and also a socially conscious being with a huge heart for the ills of the world. People know Oscar Wilde’s funny lines—such as “I can resist everything except temptation,” mostly from his plays and his one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray—but the essays quoted above show a sober, reasonable citizen who while an artist first, was going after social questions (with love and with the soul of an artist). Wilde made me expand my world view (art is a political act, and isn't that a burden), and also made me aware of how the burden of political knowledge prevented me from pursing my theater arts life in full—the desire to be of use in a social contract sense took over (the opposite of what he intended). I have had more than a few friends think less of me for being politically noisy. Claire Booth Luce said, “Politics is the refuge of second class minds,” and I often worry she was right.


“Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

 “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

 “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

 “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

 “When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don't seem to matter very much, do they?”

 “The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.”


·        When a subject is highly controversial — and any question about sex is that — one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one's audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.

·         Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


Virginia Woolf wrote as I actually thought. Reading her novels Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando; her diaries; her criticism: Virginia Woolf’s words took paths that were a map of my own mind, if my mind had been capable of articulating and recording and depicting and expressing as brilliantly as her able, wild, imaginative mind had. Reading her was a relief, and a terror. The greatness of her empathy that was almost unbearable in my relative youth is a solace in my middle age.


Both were bisexual, both in the acting out of physical love and in their ability to get inside the heads of male and female characters. This is no small thing, I see now. Both were not only creative novelists and playwrights (he wrote mostly plays and stories, and only one novel; she wrote mostly novels and stories, and only one play), they were literary and social critics of the first order. They took their roles as geniuses seriously. They did not take themselves seriously. (Until they did, at the end.) Oscar Wilde used the past (as a Pre-Raphaelite) to show an unflattering mirror to the present (Victorian) age. Virginia Woolf, born only 13 years before Oscar’s ruin, sloughed off the Victorians, ever looking ahead and helping to create modernism. Yet both were of their times, loved their countries, loved life. Both were social snobs, living the paradox of caring about the poor and uneducated, truly, while being unable to co-exist comfortably with them, indeed, while disdaining them. Both were the victims and agents of their own tragic ends—he for bringing about the lawsuit that exposed his illegal homosexuality, leading to his imprisonment and destroyed health, dying at 46; she—living through yet a second world war, losing her London home to a bomb, married to a Jew and therefore both on Hitler’s blacklist, and a return of the “voices” and depression that she felt sure would hold everyone back from escaping England should an invasion occur—took her own life by drowning at 59. And still, they created so much, shared so much, lived so fully, in spite of it all.

While having no claim to genius or to the drama of these life stories, I do own that Oscar and Virginia give solace even to the lesser being. As an actor and director, as well as a writer, I have had to transform into genders that are not always easy to define as male and female. Oscar’s characters are virtually interchangeable in the play The Importance of Being Earnest. Virginia’s novel Orlando daringly grabbed the notion of gender and upended it to spoof not only biographers  (it’s a fake biography), but also property laws that excluded women from inheriting (this done for her friend Vita Sackville-West, who lost Knole, bequest of Queen Elizabeth I to her ancestor, because while she cared for it, cherished it, honored it, she was a girl, so the property went to a lazy, disinterested cousin, Edward, and eventually to the National Trust.) Both writers were and remain dazzling wits, Virginia shining not with the epigramic brilliance of Oscar, but with a slyness that penetrates to the heart more deeply.

Both forms of wit are indispensable.

The artist must be of her time and aware of her time if she is to be an artist. And yet politics always threaten to drown the art.

Oscar Wilde is one of my closest friends. Biographies of him were cruel and nauseating (I’d read two in high school) until Richard Ellmann’s appeared in 1987, rescuing Wilde from the black muck of the haters and scorners, to have his genius restored and placed up front. It’s his own words—his art—that matter, after all.

Virginia, too, has had her share of life interpreters, but has fared better (mostly) in biographies. Her writing is not easy going, but she goes in my direction. I have come to know her and to think of her not only as a great writer and thinker, but also as a great friend.

I think this is natural to do, when one is naturally solitary. And yet one must not live in this solitude. Oscar and Virginia are friends with whom I commune, and are not to be made substitutes for actual living.


Recently I came across this quote. I’ve read nearly everything VW ever wrote, from essays to diaries to novels to criticism, and never in my life would I imagine her saying, let alone writing, this:

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.”
Virginia Woolf (not)

As it turns out she didn’t.  Someone else queried the same thing, I learned, when I searched around and found a site called Quote Investigator—and while versions of it have been said by various artists for years, and even Woolf writes of losing her “virtue” by taking some writing jobs— that quote is so not my Virginia, and this attribution to her is a fairly recent mistake.

“A poet can suffer anything except a misprint.”  —Oscar Wilde

What is it about quotations that has fascinated and continues to send us off searching the Google and the Bartlett's? Quotations are companions, I think, for lonely people, or for moments when people feel alone. I was very much lonely in my youth, as are a lot of creative people, in that there are so few people we can actually share our thoughts with when we are young and our minds so wild and unwieldy and, well, terrifying. So until we meet our friends out in the world (our true friends), a kindred thinker’s words—and they were safe, Oscar and Virginia, because they were famous and revered, and, I later learned, controversial and complicated, and so much the better for me—can be a life-sustaining gift, wrapped up in tidy quotation marks, easily stored in the mind.

“Forget about quotations. Tell me what you know.” --Emerson