Archive for the ‘Teachers’ Category

Put Your Butt Here

July 26, 2013
Put my what where?

Put my what where?

My seventh-grade students dream bigger than any directive.

When a street sign like the one we saw on the way to the High Line tells them Place your butts here, they will comply like good citizens, and then defy like even better citizens. They are budding semanticists who know that words both open and close doors.

Each word has a special charge.  Thus surely my students will also put their “buts”  here—and their “ifs” and their “ands”, amending signage to reflect a vaster cause:  Please place your dirty cigarette BUTTS here, but don’t stop moving your ANATOMICAL AND MOTIVATIONAL BUTT towards the greater good. 

When their personhood and minds are respected and “bolstered”–thank you for adding that to our vocabulary list, Obama!–my students think with their hearts: with this kind of cognition from a contingent of twelve-year-olds, the results move (the urban equivalents of) mountains.

Writing Up High:  What's your inner phenology?

Writing Up High: What’s your inner phenology?

These young people follow the signs that maintain convention only in so far as this doesn’t handicap the growth of a vital community.  Otherwise, we teach them how to edit radically, and use words to set everybody free.

My students now look at their city and see the secret gardens reestablishing themselves incognito in the most misshapen, arthritic sidewalk cracks, in rich and poor neighborhoods alike.  Like the human spirit when nourished, these “invasive” plants won’t be held back.

This same crew is learning Urban Ecology.  I make the pleasant mistake of writing Nettles Prick on the board as part of a parsing lesson.  They have to squeeze their anatomical butts and slow down their breathing to keep from erupting into hormonally-mandated giggles without end.  Prick: thank goodness some body parts are inherently funny.

The Buddha said all life is suffering, and certainly studying grammar, were it a shaming prison for their otherwise rolling thoughts (as it is often taught), can be that.  But these little Buddhas know how to keep the joy in the rules and the rules in service to saying what they need to say.

Serious Laughter Pollination

Serious Laughter Pollination

A short prayer to the Curriculum Fairy: May all young people use their whole body and whole mind to follow their whole heart.   May all young people sit down on their anatomical butts RIGHT HERE and refuse to budge, should anyone try to fence them from their wildest dreams out of  fear about the vestigial societal anatomy they may dismantle in the process.

May those who would rather pick their butts than support our young authentically have an ingrown hair that wakes them up to what pain is.

May all young people without exception be happy, healthy, safe and at ease.

(And to all you young people who are applying to college shortly and are ready to write your essays, visit our Essay Intensive programs to guide, inspire and challenge you HERE!)

Natural Grammar

Natural Grammar

Big G’s Loose Leaf

April 12, 2013
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Writer’s Block is Relative

To console the stymied artist, Sidney Sheldon, a writer known for his TV-style serialization, explained, “A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.”  Sheldon’s reliance on formula made him prolific and successful, but his career was much steadier than his mind.

Yes, the unreliable state of our world can make a person think that its presiding deity may have been manic-depressive too.   However, my job today is not to diagnose archetypes, but to be cheerful.

With the stinky red dry-erase marker, I write Sheldon’s quote on the conference room whiteboard.  Over the heads of my students, out the floor-to-ceiling windows, midtown Manhattan looks like a Legos project.

K reads Sheldon’s explanation aloud solemnly.  How hard it is.  Nods of resonance from my twenty-eight adolescents, confronting their own blank pages: Yeah, man, rough.  Epic rough.  A few of them even touch the pages on the desk like they might a crush’s arm in the cafeteria.

Sheldon had a god who dug deep for content, and my boys know about having to dig.   This fellowship serves young men of color with big dreams.  Sometimes their dreams are bigger than their attention spans.

dreamscape.  attention span can be seen reflected in water.

dreamscape. attention span can be seen reflected in water.

It’s August.  In business casual, sequestered at the enrichment program, they adjust their belts under the tables.  Some chew on their lower lips, hoping for a big lunch sandwich.  Look fondly toward where their phones are charging.  J sticks a pick in his hair as if an exclamation point for his acrobatic thinking.

T rereads the quote and says, maybe for the first time, Oh, that totally makes sense!  Who is the guy that said that?

A writer, I say, just like you guys.

Hmmm.  “Being a writer” just got an upgrade from chore-status.  A ruffle of self-importance sweeps the room.  The corporate building—with fifty-plus floors, King of the Lego’s—is freezing cold “to protect the equipment.”  Even my 16-year males, testosterone toasters, have the shivers.   Their body heat could normally power a small shack, or at very least a reading lamp.   I want to hug them.  If I could, I would be a hut for all of their dreams to stay warm and alive.

But right now, I’m doing some sloppy math on how much it costs to keep a financial behemoth like this so chilly.  My inner conservationist wants to reregulate the building’s temperature to protect the truly premier equipment—our bodies, absolutely irreplaceable.   But flesh and blood are not expensive enough to put first (or so goes my snarky assessment), and so the AC rules.  My students, empathizing now as God’s newest colleagues, focus their gazes on the quote.  Knowing just what Big G feels like, ay-ay-ay-men, they bend over and write.

Ideas & Images come in patchwork.  That’s how I suspect the world manifested itself during the imaginative flurry and giddiness of creation days.  My little brother’s hot breath.  Laughed at in school for the immigrant mispronunciation. Stopping mom from hitting dad with a vase.  Doing HW in the bathroom stall.  The bright orange tubes for spanking.  The cliff-face.  Sham Valedictorians.  At the beginning of a long, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting process of intellectual transformation, my students are realizing that god must be a workaholic.  Or at least a serial fiction writer.

So while they play Creator, chewing on their pens—or mine, if I’ve lent them—, hunched over, a few of them protecting their pages with an arm, I play Nature.  From where I sit, October is still far off, but I’ve already decided I want to be her for Halloween.  I’ve never been one to plan a costume, and now I don’t need to.  I am already wearing it, and always have been.

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Dress me

It might feel like Nature is not in the conference room, or purposefully aloof from this part of the city, but she is.  Just like Big G is, streaming through the big hands and edgy minds of my teens.

With my beloved J, who riffs on the magnificence of evolution all the time, I have been watching BBC’s Life & Planet Earth, ingenious series that move up close and personal with all the animals and plants that live Here.  The film crew reveals the design of the macro and microcosm in tandem—the profligate octopus, the swollen mycelium, bowing pines, Arctic pin-wheeling sky.  Their cameras can capture even the blinking eye of a hummingbird.  Most of the shots make me cry.

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Flower sneezing bless you

But here’s why I dig on Nature as writer and artist.  She’s is not so attached to her own ideas—not any of them.  She’s too prolific for that.  Each idea is just fine: none are particularly special.  She creates in excess of need and favors only what works, without preconceived notion or plan.  She doesn’t brag, but she puts out everything she’s got.  She’ll never explain to you fully how her mind works.  She’s got art down to a science.

Nature hands God a fresh piece of paper on demand.  And so I walk around with loose-leaf, catering to those whose enthusiasm has driven them over the edge.   K takes a small stack.  T has written more than his name and school and is nodding with approbation at his paragraph.  Not so hard after all, to bring a little life into their narratives and the room.  Just let them pretend heaven is impatient for their proposal, and have faith that earth, running out of some things quickly, still has ample ink.

Unfathomable Web of Verbs

January 6, 2013

What Moves

IMG_4286

emergent subject

My former student, J, to whom I taught Latin years ago when he was a totally bewildered but well-meaning (as they say) 8th grader who would spend most of the class cooing at the pigeons on the window ledge, writes to me:  I love your writing.  I would buy your book!

these be the messengers

these be the messengers

J, do you mean my invisible, incipient book? The one I feel in my belly like a prayer searching 

 for muscular wings?  For a few weeks in the fall of that year, I was very sick with mono, which is only supposed to afflict you from sharing Dr. Pepper sodas or callous, drooling make-out sessions when you’re 14, but I guess Mono didn’t get the memo.  One day my headache was so intense that another nail-bitten student asked me if he could go to the bathroom and then came back after fifteen minutes with a half-steeped Lipton black tea in a Styrofoam cup.  Here, he said, handing it to me.  I got this for you.  He had taken note of my habits, if nothing else.  I could see where he had drawn on his hands with his pen.   And, he added.  I didn’t do my homework.

 Sometimes one accepts love in any medium.

 

leaves i love

leaves i love

Plus, it was Mono that stopped me in my tracks enough to show me the potency of yoga, what yoga was really up to, the face it only reveals once you’ve drawn the mental hospital curtains and signed up for the spiritual blood transfusion, come what may.

So all these years later, to have an attuned, adult-ish J praise my work is just the right medicine for a different kind of disheartenment.

Moved by his profusion, as any writer would be, I say: I think I have a book in me, but I don’t have a subject!

He returns:  If you cannot find the subject, look for the verb.

This is exactly what we instruct young Latin students to do when learning to read the language.  It’s not how literate Romans thought or operated.  But the verb is kind of the boss of the sentence, and it can be useful to take orders from a boss when confused.  Once you find the verb, most of the mystery of the subject is removed, for the verb’s inflection fixes its pronoun correlate: if the inflection is a he-she or –it (shit, for short), the subject cannot stray, nor escape the tyranny of the verb’s decision making.  It bows and complies.  If you didn’t understand any of this paragraph, count yourself in good company.  Now you know or remember what it is like to be an 8th grade boy.

So there is a correlate in writing: when you find your action, the movement, you also know what or who is moving.

The maxim is kind of Taoist-sounding, when it isn’t just irritating.

what moves

what moves

And when you are an 8th grader, you take the issue of grammatical agreement personally.  As if the Romans set out to make things complicated for you.  And did a damn good job.  I’ve heard many a middle-schooler whine this whine verbatim: Why did they make Latin so hard?  The legacy of the Romans was hair-tearing grammar.  The aqueducts were really a second-tier invention besides their puzzler syntax.  And for this contribution, no one can forget them, wish as they might.

And the subsequent frustration can cause weird, reactionary behaviors (I’ve seen them firsthand)—again, mostly in males: photographing your own eyeballs, seeing how swiftly you can stab a pencil point in the spaces between the fingers of an outspread hand, before you miss and stab yourself.  OopsmayIgotothenurseIjustpuncturedmyfinger?  No.  She’ll just stuff a cracker in the wound.  Conjugate this verb first.

not eight grade boys not learning latin

not eight grade boys not learning latin

But as a rule for writing, as for living: do you know, really know, what moves you?  And if you only sense it, down deep in the pre-syntactic zone of embodiment, can you dare to eff the ineffable?

Because once the prayer comes out of your mouth, its wings take it where it pleases.  You cannot author a bird’s whim.

Bummer Marriage

I rush into the train station as best I can in my air-cast.  It’s a hobbled rush, really. O.K., so not a rush at all—more like a heroic limp.  The time remaining until the train arrives, displayed on the digital screen, is increasing rather than decreasing as I stand there, helplessly late for work.  The trains are cryptic and uncompassionate on Saturdays.

A bum sits beside me on the platform.

He looks like he’s in rough shape.  He’s got a few crumpled and sweaty dollars in his hand.  He unrolls and re-rolls them, watching the physics of it intently, like he is hoping they will turn into a greater amount than they currently are.  The bills are vaguely waxy.   He also looks like he might have just climbed down the beanstalk.  He regards me.  I have dressed for the wrong season—yesterday it was winter, today it feels like early spring.  My dirty backpack and long down coat are on the bench in a heap beside him.   He appears jealous of their heap-ness.

please let it come

please let it come

Will you marry me?  He asks, like a dart protruding from a cloud.

Me: Sure.

Bum: Really?

Me: Sure.

Bum: Hey, wow.

[Considered pause.]

Bum:  So, what should we do now?

Me:  I don’t know, it was your idea.  Come up with something.

Bum: Hmmm.  Could I have your phone number?

Me: Remember this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.

Bum: I have no memory.  [Points to long scar above his eyebrow.]  Car accident.

Me: Ouch.  A long time ago?

Bum: Yeah, when I was a kid…[Regarding me freshly.]  What is your job?

Me: I’m a teacher. I’m on my way there now.

Bum: Oh?  Why don’t you dress up nicer for work?

[F! I’m in my good clothes!]

Me:  Because I’m dressed up on the inside.

Bum:  Damn.

We nod appreciatively at one another.  My subway comes rushing in, like it knows it is late and feels vaguely performative about its compensatory hurtling entrance (This makes me think of when my students are late to class and arrive excessively out of breath, as if they climbed Mt. Washington to get to me rather than walked down a hall).  I gather my things to board.  The Bum looks disappointed, but we have that kind of arrangement—each of us able to go our own way, with respect for the other.  On a scale of 1-10, this marriage already gets a 9: mutual regard, easy conversation, agreement about when to say more and when not to, and effective, even instantaneous decision-making.  Voila.

When the doors close, he is still looking at me, his dollars hanging loosely in his hand.  As the train departs, a spiderthread of affection trails backward, the web of life growing ever-weirder in the fullness of its design.

IMG_1934

Purna, Perturbations & Panache II

October 30, 2012

Part Two: Infinity’s Footprint

I always wanted to be the kind of person who prays not just out of convenience, as in, Oh Benevolent & Erratic God(dess), Please let this metrocard kiosk take my crummy three dollars… Please make this subway come faster so I am not late!

But Earth has let us know—Sandy’s stomping on winged sandals–how badly we’ve perverted our terrain.  Natural disasters, both inner and outer, are impartial and assiduous educators and have slowly tutored me in imprecation.

Durga up in arms

Now I can feel it when I need to, like an urge to pee that wakes you up in the night.

Prayer is a cavorting with what you suspect could be possible, a speaking-up to suffering.  Use your outside voice, God says.  Use your words.  Sometimes, the whole body seems like a very loudly-barked word: PLEASE.

When I told my student S that I was absolutely sure God would understand if he needed to skip his obligatory Wed church meeting to fill out his college scholarship applications in time, I was not kidding.  I trust God takes the long view, is not near-sighted.  S, who is a loving and trusting creature, assured me, “Oh, Ms. N, I know, believe me, all week I have been praying about this scholarship essay!”  Ah, yes, but you also have to write it.  God is still learning MS word and her hands are so big she makes for a clumsy typist.

Welcome to my office

Theologian Simone Weil wrote in her notebooks: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.  It presupposes faith and love”(Gravity and Grace).  So argued, anything done with such “absolutely unmixed” attention leads one closer to God—a desiderata, right?—even, so it seems, writing about plenitude and irreverence.  And it’s a little-known fact that Michelangelo got down on one knee, sick of being pointed at by his own creation, and beamed God back with his extended index finger.  Wham, M said, Pow. And the whole chapel vibrated with laughter, holding the ribs of its beams, colors tearing. Pow.

 

God’s point

Now, there are some prayers I can really get behind.  May you be happy, the loving kindness nun offered us, legs crossed and minds loosened, at the silent Vipassana retreat, October monsoons breaking the thick air.  Her voice so careful, as if stepping over rocks barefoot in the new-moon dark: May you be healthy. May you be safe.  May you be at ease.  This prayer, like green vegetables, is good for everyone.

semper greenness

Most of the prayers in my toolbox are cribbed from the yogic or Buddhist traditions.  The languages in which they are written– Sanskrit and Pali, or even Hindi—are one enormous step removed from the language of my normal thought patterns.  Other prayers are like trying to saran-wrap water: it’s not going to hold anything, but you can still try.

Here’s one that works because it wears the same shoe size as love: infinite.  To say it feels like renewing membership in the totality.

Om
Purnamadah Purnamidam
Purnat Purnamudachyate
Purnasya Purnamadaya
Purnameva Vashishyate
Om shanti, shanti, shanti

 

Here is fullness, there is fullness!

In fullness, fullness!

Add fullness, subtract fullness

—it’s all still fullness!—

–A prayer in (my) totally slack translation from Isha Upanishad

I have been filling up the space in my apartment with these syllables.

Fill ‘er up, a motorists might enthuse to the attendants at gas stations.  Everyone loves to give their cars what they need to keep going. But we need such filling too, regularly.  We’re tanks of overlaid elastic diaphragms,   of bone and mind and microvillae—sturdiness, evanescence, and hidden corners.  Where can we fill up? How?  I know from those experienced in prayer that it is one way to fill and empty, fill and empty, like respiration for the spirit.  But what if we don’t really pray?  And what if we do, but God(dess) had another, more-pressing appointment?

more pressing appointment

more pressing appointment

My mother once told me she liked the acrid smell of spilled gas that had dribbled into the station over months and years.  I hope that my writing, anchored to the absurd, harnessed to the thoroughbreds of prayer, or spilled all over the (paper) ground, might be a gas-station of sorts.  Stop your moving vehicle and fill ‘er up.  In fullness, fullness! 

With the purna prayer, I’m courting the infinite.  I get an everyday practice of feeling its pulse come through J, when he tells me about the love he has saved up for lifetimes, carried with him, to be able to give it to me.  I have stopped rebutting in my mind, are you kidding?  The fullness is a bathtub for everyone, and my job is to let love keep streaming out of the tap.   It reminds us that our incompletion is also a form of completeness and inclusion, that however wrong things are, nothing is really Wrong.

As a P.S.: digging the presence of the plenitude is sexy.  The infinite is “all that– and then some.”  This is the kind of unfathomable math I can actually fathom.

numbering light

Purna, Perturbations & Panache

October 29, 2012

Part One: Vesselhood

R and I are talking about capacity.  About doors that close on the path, and how to wedge them open.

Temporary Vessels photo’d from automobile

As if taking a vow to the rolling ocean in front of us, R declares:  I don’t want to stop short of living fully!  It is the last day on which autumn will allow for bare-headedness and thin shirts.  We are covered in a film of sand from the wind.  We ask erosion to forgive us our trespasses and sit up against the relatively young dunes while the plovers plove.

The fussing Atlantic Ocean rolls and rolls, as words and beings roll and roll in the great rotation.   I think the mind is underutilized, he says, and love.  But sand, on the other hand, is not underutilized.

Mind and love: President Obama in the debate debacle has just tried to play the card of the latter at the expense of the former.  And that is the first and last thing I will say about politics.

R is rolling now, too: I don’t want to have just done this partway!

Yes; however, most traffic accidents happen partway somewhere, don’t they?  And in Xeno’s paradox, we are only ever (maddeningly) halfway.  But R means it, and the seagulls flap like they, too, know a wing must pump at full-stroke or be utterly stymied in the sky.

Some lines of an e.e. cummings poem that R coached me to speak at Lil Nolan’s wedding are getting churned up by the mind-wind:

(here is the root of the root of the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life

deeper than soul can hope or mind can hide) 

—I carry your heart with me—

(reprinted without permission).

heart-carrier

On a day as bright as this, what doesn’t carry your heart?  The light is your pimp in white pin-stripes: you’ll sleep with anything it touches. The jagged shoreline of Goosewing beach looks as if a mountain range lay down on its side, as a dying horse might.  R indeed wants his vessel to be the biggest it can be.  Shouldn’t we all?

I carry R’s heart with me; he has always been a deep teacher, guide to those in the darkness by the sheer wattage of his understanding.  When his cardiac muscles flutter precipitously, skipping beats until he bears down and calls an ambulance, and he feels the edge is near and nearing, I hold mine steady, so that his can dock again.  Yes, it is magical thinking and it is quite enjoyable.

He has a chorus behind his humble but sincere proclamations, of all things that realize their capacity: grass as grass, sand as sand, sky as sky.  You cannot say that the sky is only partially sky.  It lives its bigness, or it has no identity at all.  Fully!  Fully! 

It’s possible that the Infinite, a Big Kid now, listens to our professions of what we really, really want as a student listens for the recess bell, so that when people speak true truth, a cosmic ding ricochets in its Inner Ear; its Pavlovian response, as taught in Anthropocentrism 101, must be to reflexively grant all heartfelt wishes.

But what is really listening to me? Only “Me”– whatever that is or isn’t. And since I don’t understand “me” in the first place, there is great likelihood that Me is something way larger, way more infinite and complex, than I ever fathomed, or than convention holds.

Which brings us back to the stretching of the vessel, until, as the yogic texts proclaim, it is as big as the universe, whatever that really is.  This strains the very definition of definition, and tautology drowns in itself.

And we?

We open wider.

Beckoning the infinite