Saturday, January 18, 2014

Finding My Teacher Voice

Could You MOVE Please?

Instagram photo by Penny Chu, seen on 41st St and Madison, NYC;
quote by Miss O's favorite writer

The other evening I was on the platform of Queensboro Plaza here in Queens, New York City, waiting for the Flushing-bound 7 Local Train that, because of delays, would be crowded. When the local pulled in, people began piling on and, as usual (because most people tend to think in incremental ways, such as, “I am on now, so I will stop moving”), the middle of the car was empty and the area by the doors was too packed to allow more riders on. Your Miss O’ called out in that arresting teacher voice so many of you remember so well (if not exactly with fondness), “Hey, guys, move inside, the middle is EMPTY, and there is SO MUCH ROOM!” And they did that.

Why did they do it? So very often, “they” don’t move at all, or one will and no one else. They got theirs, see: They are ON. What do they care that you are not? They are not responsible for your journey, your arrival. If you really wanted on, you’d shove your way and tell them, “FUCK YOU” as you elbowed on, and then someone would say, “Fuck ME? Fuck YOU!” and a real fight could break out, people injured, lots more screaming, “Fuck you,” and heedlessly, in front of small children (is it any wonder that the first small motor gesture of any New York toddler is the middle-finger thrust?). And it is here one remembers that the train moves at the same speed and in the same direction, whatever people do while inside it. And for the love of Christ let the doors CLOSE.

When all those people moved into the middle as requested—an extraordinary occurrence, let me tell you—and I was able to enter, I said loudly and enthusiastically, “Thanks, team!” The doors closed, the train moved, no one looked up—just as usual—but I got to wondering how it was I found my “teacher voice” in the first place: that voice that gets people to, you know, do stuff they really don’t want to do, but which they know, somehow, they probably should. I also got to wondering why it was SO HARD to put the teachings one shares into other people’s muscle memories; while learning how to be a dick to others via peer pressure is so easy to put into action. Why is it hard to be the person who breaks from the throng by the door, says “Excuse me,” in a voice loud and clear, and then move, whatever the human obstacles, to the empty pocket that is the center of the car, thus making it possible for others to be less squashed, and for still more to get on the train?

Obviously, I am being metaphorical as well as literal. Because this is Miss O’ talking.

MLK Day and Going Hunting

The first year I taught (at a rural Virginia high school, at which I stayed a remarkable three years when you consider what I’m about to tell you), of my three preps one was English 10. In the text book from which I taught was Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have a Dream.” It’s a gorgeous speech, one of those speeches that change the course of human history. I prefaced the speech by giving some history of King’s work, and I remember the class being sort of silent in a way that was, how to say it, eerie. Having no recording in our school’s library, which I found odd, I read it aloud as best I could, invited discussion, perhaps gave an assignment. After class, two white boys, “Billy” and “Jimmy,” approached me. (Did I tell you this already? Well—as my dad, Bernie, would saydid I tell you today? Alright then.)

“You called Martin Luther King a great man,” Billy said, standing too close to me, his eyes dead cold. “You know who was a great man? George Washington. Why didn’t you talk about him?”

Jimmy put his finger in my face, “You know, Miss O’Hah, huntin’ accidents happen here.” I batted his finger away from my face.

I was later threatened with assault charges when Jimmy went to our assistant principal to complain of being battered by my finger-batting. When I explained to the A.P. that what Jimmy was really upset about was my teaching of the MLK speech, my A.P. (who was from New York, as it turned out) said to me, “Remember where you live. If you are smart, you’ll teach something else.” I told him about the “hunting accidents” threat. “Yeah,” he said, “that could happen. Watch yourself.”

Nothing like being supported in the face of oppression. Makes it hard to believe that 50% of this nation's teachers quit after the first or second year. (So at any moment, 50% of America's teachers are teaching with virtually zero experience. Take that in. It took me at least five years to be worth a damn, certainly to have a teacher voice. And, remember, Miss O' quit, tootwice.) 

When King’s birthday, January 15, was proposed as a federal holiday, the Republicans (who manage almost always to be on the wrong, and often ugly, side of history, science, art, and, let’s face it, everything but Fox “News”) opposed it. Led by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the holiday was opposed on racial grounds, er, sorry, on the grounds that King hadn’t done anything important. President Reagan, too, did not want to sign the measure, when it did in fact pass Congress:

From Wikipedia: President Ronald Reagan originally opposed the holiday, citing cost concerns. He later signed the measure, after it passed with a 338 to 90 margin in favor in the House of Representatives.[8]

As long as it was only “cost concerns.” Jesus.

But I am from Virginia, and I saw Virginia in action, up close and deeply personal, when it comes to the whites' treatment of blacks; so it came as no surprise when the Virginia legislature declared that same January 15 federal holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, to be Lee-Jackson Day, as well, to honor those Confederate heroes. (At my next high school I taught with several history teachers who applauded the measure. Again: Jesus. Or as my Grandma Kirlin would intone, eyes going sideways, the cigarette smoke swirling, "And Jesus wept.")

Then I have to remember that while Martin Luther King, Jr., is widely memorialized, celebrated, and revered all over the world, only a few vestiges of bigoted bellyachers will grieve the disgraced Lee (though he really was quite a man) and fallen Jackson. (For more perspective on this great man's legacy, go to this terrific essay.) King had a dream, not merely a grievance, and the dream became action.

From Google Images

What Difference Does It Make?

During the past week, I’ve enjoyed an actual exchange of actual email with my once and former best friend, Tom Barry, who is happily married to his current best friend, Jen (who took over my part ca. 1998), and the father of two delightful children. Of a mutual friend of ours (an ex-friend of mine, really), Tom noted that this fellow was very lonely, in the “If I’d done nothing at all, would the world be any different today?” place. I replied, in part:

Thinking of your last sentence, "If I'd done nothing at all, would the world be any different today?" It's why I love It's a Wonderful Life, I guess; and short of being an EMT, a firefighter, a parent, or the CEO whose greed caused a massive chemical spill into a river, thereby destroying the drinking water for eternity, I guess it's hard to be sure you've made a difference in the world.

You know that song, "Nature Boy"? I love Nat King Cole's rendition. It's the line, "The greatest thing you'll ever learn/ is just to love and be loved in return" that resonates most with me in my everyday life.  Maybe it sounds foolish or small-minded, but loving my friends and family, and now [my boyfriend], and feeling loved by them….is about as good as life gets, and about as meaningful as it can be.

And still we have to work at things, be OF the world, and in it, too. Goddammit anyway.

I suppose a good question to ask yourself this weekend of the MLK national holiday is not so much, “If I’d done nothing at all, would the world be any different today?” but rather, “How have the actions I’ve taken made the world a better place?” Accentuate the positive, I say. And then ask, “How might I make a positive difference for the vast majority of us, even now as I live my life and try to get home in time to have dinner with my family?” And then search inside yourself for the courage to do that.

Metaphor Alert

Just as a handful of white, bigoted Republicans tried to sabotage the desire of millions of Americans to celebrate by national holiday the birth of one of America’s greatest heroes, so, too, on the subway: One large (and coincidentally white) man with earbuds in and his back to me and the door, stood full center by the entrance and the vertical pole, oblivious and unmoving, even as spiritually diverse, multiethnic, and (doubtless) many-gendered people slid around him to the middle and made room for more, at my teacher-voiced clarion call.  We all got on and could now get home, in time for dinner, say. The obstructing man remained where he was, unmoved and unaware of his obstruction and the obstacle he’d presented to the little moment of making our lives better. The point is: One voice said, “We can change this if we all work together,” and we did. Because we were hungry, we were tired, and goddammit, just move already. And if you had told me ten years ago that I would have had the courage to use that teacher voice on a crowded New York City subway, I'd have shown you flying pigs.

Gift to the author from Chuck Edwards and David Andrews, ca. 1993

Being In Love is Cool

So for years now, I’ve said, “Love is not possible for me.” And I moved on. I’ve made a thousand friends, built a real web of love that was not romantic, created new work, lived in a few different places, tried to be of use. I write stuff. And then, as I wrote last time, I met a man who changed the whole story I’d built. My friend Anna Citrino recently wrote a blog that I just now read, Being in Love is Cool, which dovetails amazingly with my own recent experience. (Did I mention I’m in love? Well did I mention it TODAY?) Anna wrote today to send me to this blog of Dec. 31, and her note closed with this:

Just having a life together is something I am deeply grateful for. Deep gratitude. There can't be enough said about coming back to that place in the heart every day. Let the cynics go on being sour if they choose. To be in love with life is to know it is a gift, every day, the simplest things.

In her blog post, Anna writes, Love is an act of imagination—imagining life together, and how you can live in a way that allows you to come together in wholeness. In the act of loving, daily giving ourselves to each other, we are made whole.” I think this is especially apt right now, because for one, Miss O’ has lived single until now and has ever championed the well-lived single life; and for two, Miss O’ is ever scolding the cynics and mean people who sabotage the prospective happiness of others; and at a time when Miss O’s heart is dancing for purely personal reasons, it might seem as if I could offer no perspective on the lives and possible suffering of others. Just because one is no longer only one should not mean there can be no more empathy for individual lives, the solitary life. We’re all only temporarily “with someone,” after all, death being what it is. The revolutionary 1971 women’s health guide, Our Bodies, Ourselves, reminds us, “We are only temporarily healthy.” You have to be ready for the inevitable when, while remaining open to “what if.”

Kids used to ask me all the time, “Why are we doing this?” They’d whine at a grammar lesson, “I’ll never need it in my real life.” We all did that, and what’s creepy to me is that so many grown-ups, who seriously ought to know better by now, for the love of Christ, do that, too: “I’ll never be poor” and “I’ll always have health care” and “I’ll always have fresh water to drink.” These colossal failures of imagination most likely become worse when arts funding is cut, when kids quit being able to make paintings and act in school plays—when we start pulling away the opportunities that spark, “What if…?” I think the greatest challenge to being human is the same challenge teachers face when teaching school, because here is our answer to the doubting: “You just have to trust me on this.” Miss O’ cannot help but find it a curious thing that so many of the same humans who believe emphatically in an imaginary being, “God,” rail and cry out against the empirical findings of real-life climate scientists, the feelings of oppression experienced by living blacks, the relentless struggles of the actual impoverished. Having blind faith is not the same as making an imaginative leap to trust people who are in positions to know more than you do. It’s one thing to trust the guy driving the subway train when you step on board, and quite another to fall into the train’s path and believe that the guy driving the train will, you know, magically catch you.

What are you? Stupid?

Living has to be an act of imagination as well as a grappling with actual, real reality. We sometimes must do things we aren’t ready for—because that inner teacher voice says to us, “Sit down, be quiet, and do the work.” And we have to trust that at the end of the exercise, well, that the learning will be part of the bigger picture, will fill in a gap, or at least get us a smiley face and a Twizzler.

My boyfriend asked me the other night, “How would you build your perfect, happy life?” My knee-jerk response was, “Live alone.” As I thought about it over the next several days, I could finally tell him what my perfect life would be.

“It starts with a porch,” I said. He smiled, his perfect profile dropping, his laugh beginning. I continued, “With a view of fields, a creek of fresh water, mountains; a house behind me with a good bed and a toilet that works; some food; unlimited red wine, and you.” He knew exactly what I meant.

Did the alert O'Reader notice what is NOT in my “perfect, happy life”? Look again. See it? That’s right! No politics. Not one mention of fighting Washington. No straining against a national takeover by the greedy corporations, and no arguments about how to solve all the problems that Republicans deny are problems. (And no lousy health, obviously.) And I started to wonder, “What would happen if Miss O’ decided to LIVE that perfect, happy life—go this summer to my love’s house among the pomegranates in Montenegro and just never come back?” 

Then one remembers the down side of It's a Wonderful Life. So here's a question: After the movie ends, does George Bailey have to keep running The Building and Loan, or will enough people have come to the understanding of how important it is to have that independent institution and, finally, offer to take over so George can go off and build some things and live some of his dreams? I quit teaching, and the schools I left kept on going, the kids just fine. When I take breaks from posting political warnings on Facebook, somehow the pictures of kids and kittens and the offerings of Upworthy keep appearing without me.

But I don’t stop to ask, “If I’d done nothing at all, would the world be any different today?” I am trying to remember that it’s important to use my teacher voice, and it’s also important to allow myself to love this man and be loved by him, to balance that. It means I might stop writing the blog for a while. I might not. It means, this love in my life, that I’m having to rethink what’s important to me as a daughter and sister and aunt, as a friend, a teacher, a writer, a New Yorker, an activist. “If I stop all my political involvement and focus solely on the happiness of my love, will it change anything?” You might just as well ask, “If I stop breathing, will the world be different?” Of course it will be different.

The real question to myself is, What are you going to do to learn all you can, love all you can, be useful and good and not a royal pain in some poor stranger’s ASS? And I'll try to do that. You do it, too. I say this with my teacher voice: I say it with love and real knowledge that your life will be better for working to be a more empathetic and informed person. At least, MY life will better if you are. I'd really like to go hang loose in the Balkans for a few years, knowing you were taking the reins.

Adventures in Infrastructure

I’ll close by sharing with you, dear Reader, the transformation of my Writer’s Chair, which has been out of commission for months due to a broken foot and crashed-in spring bed. I grieved the loss of the old upholstery, but I think the change to the lighter Crayola “spring green” is refreshing. (Thanks to the craft of Oscar Deco, Inc.  in Corona, Queens, for the big restoration, and to Judy at Zarin Fabrics on the Lower East Side for all the swatches.)

Miss O's Writer's Chair, gift of Gail Evans ca. 1984, Blacksburg, VA
1940's Platform Recliner
Repaired, Restored and Reupholstered by Oscar Deco, Inc.

Are you believing that? I know. I stare and stare. It's as hard to believe as the spring green change in my O'HEART, and that is refreshing, too. 

That's all I got today, in the year of 2014, the year that Michelle Obama, Stephen Colbert, and Miss O' are all turning 50. Now MOVE IT already. You're not alone, remember? Pull out your earbuds. Fix that goddamned chair. Love somebody. Share in the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. Look around you, for the love o' god. The doors are closing faster than you think.

As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., used to write at the close of many letters pleading for sane action…
In Christ,
Miss O'

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