Posts Tagged ‘Education’

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.