Monday, March 25, 2013

I Dwell in Possibility


In my last post, I described my students as people "on whom nothing is lost," and I thought I'd clarify my terms. 

I've been re-reading Frances' Mayes book, The Discovery of Poetry. It's a really lovely introduction to poetry and has served as the backbone of my poetry unit this year for both the seventh and eighth grades. I have asked my students to create their own poetry glossaries based on our class discussions, and next week, they will have their final exam. I will give them a couple of poems that resemble forms we've encountered and ask them analyze them. Not in the tie-a-poem-to-a-chair-and-get-it-to-confess type of analysis, the sort that asks them to show me what they know. What do they notice about the poem's rhyme, repetition, images, allusions...that sort of thing. The test will be open notebook, and the glossary will count as part of their grade. While Ms. Mayes is best known for her Tuscan juggernaut, this little poetry book is where she really earns acclaim with me.

I was struck by the following passage from Ms. Mayes' book:  "The most important aspect of reading any poem is extensive reading - the more the better - of poems of all kinds, and the best reader is the one most open to the poems on the page. Novelist Henry James said, 'Be one on whom nothing is lost.'"

Be one on whom nothing is lost.

Right there. That's my goal. To help my students become people on whom nothing is lost. 

In the first chapter of the book, where Ms. Mayes writes about how to read poetry, she stresses the importance of reading. In order to understand many of the references in poetry, readers must share a common well of knowledge with the poet, and if the reader's well of knowledge is dry, much of the poem's meaning will be lost. For example, Leda and the Swan, one of my very favorite poems, is rendered almost meaningless without knowledge of the mythology behind it. 

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still    
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed    
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,    
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.   
 
How can those terrified vague fingers push    
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?    
And how can body, laid in that white rush,    
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?    

A shudder in the loins engenders there    
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.                         

                                              Being so caught up,     

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,    
Did she put on his knowledge with his power    
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? 


It's still lovely and evocative and violent in its imagery, but if the reader is unaware that Zeus appeared to Leda in the form of a swan and raped her, that she later gave birth to Clytemnestra and Helen and Castor and Pollux, who brought about the Trojan War, the poem is flat and one-dimensional. Wings? Agamemnon? Did she put on his knowledge with his power? These references go nowhere if the reader is ignorant of the allusions under the words. An uninformed reader can only skate across the surface, unaware that the best parts lie beneath their feet.

As I teach at a Core Knowledge School, I am encouraged to teach my students all the cultural literacy I can stuff into their heads. Every day, I teach my English classes one cultural literacy item. Last week, I taught them about films and showed them 2-3 minute key scenes from Roman Holiday, Rear Window, My Fair Lady and Singing in the Rain. This was a little out of the ordinary; most often we focus on biblical or literary references, but I like to spice up the darkest weeks at the end of winter with some really fun stuff. We had discussed Pygmalion last week, so the My Fair Lady seemed an obvious choice.

I pair these cultural literacy items with daily etymology. Yesterday, I taught them that the word "bachelor" comes from the Latin baculum, stick, because a bachelor means young man, as in a young man not old enough to be a knight, so these young men - squires - practiced fighting with sticks rather than swords. Come on...that's just so cool. Here's another one: While reading Catherine Friend's hysterical book, Sheepish, I found out that every family in colonies such as Plymouth were required to produce a couple of pounds of spun fiber a week for the government. When families were too busy to get that work done themselves, they would take in a relative to do the work to meet the quota. An unmarried aunt, for example. A..."spinster." Isn't that just so lovely? I mean, really.

The cultural literacy item of the day and the etymology item of the day take about four minutes, total, and the students record them in a daily log. Those items are then lobbed back at them in the form of extra credit questions on quizzes and tests, but sometimes they come hurtling back at me in the form of connections to the material we discuss. Cultural literacy terms often come back to bite me in the posterior when I least expect them to resurface. Just last week, a student informed me that I was "begging the question" when I flailed about for a way to explain a concept, so I awarded her an extra credit point for being a smart, smart-alec.

I have to admit a selfish impulse here; I love, love researching the cultural literacy and etymology items of the day. It's the first thing I do each week. My grandmother was a hoarder of stuff - magazines, newspaper clippings, things that may come in useful someday - and I guess the trait passed down to me. Luckily, my accumulated stuff takes up space in my head rather than my hallways and basement, and my kids are not going to have to hire dumpsters and an auctioneer in order to deal with my compulsion.

I hope I have taught my students more than literature, Roman society, the Latin language, and composition. I hope I have taught them that learning never ends. That knowledge builds on knowledge, connections beget connections. To read, and then to read some more. 

To become one on whom nothing is lost.

On Monday, we will meet Emily Dickinson. We will dwell in possibility, hear a fly buzz, and envision a bird unrolling the feathers that rowed him softer home. I will do my best to convey that the object of Monday's lesson is not next week's test, but to see these lovely poems as a beginning, a foundation stone for all the cloud-capp'd towers of knowledge they will build for themselves someday.    

Friday, March 22, 2013

Isn't it Romantic?


Spring in New Hampshire has been delayed somewhat by last week's blizzard, and I'm ready for that snow to melt away into mellow fruitfulness. I could not resist the lure of spring: today's vocabulary word of the day was "vernal." The students shouted out "vernal equinox!" and "vernal pools!" the moment I wrote it up on the board, and someone commented that they heard the first peeper of the season last night. The first daffodil from my garden is on my desk (I dump my wood stove ashes outside the mudroom door near the daffodil bed, and it forces them to bloom early). Latin ver means, predictably, spring. The official dictionary definition lists the meanings as: 1. of, relating to, or occurring in the spring; 2. Fresh or new like the spring. In order to segue into the lesson of the day, I asked them how they might use the word "vernal" in a poem to mean something other than spring. I got some great suggestions, but my favorite was as an adjective for a new feeling, "Maybe if you are sad, and then something makes you happy. It would be a vernal happiness."


Lovely.


Under the word vernal, where I always list the cultural literacy term of the day, I had written the word "Romanticism." My eager-beaver eighth graders started to ask for the definition. Whoah, nelly. Not so fast. How about I set up the context for the romantic movement and then the class can tell me what the definition is.


Before the romantic movement, Europe was in the middle of a period in which intellectualism, remove, and abstract thinking was prized. Think reason. Think science. One seventh grader almost exploded out of his seat, arm up, index finger pointed to the heavens, yelling, "The ENGLIGHTENMENT!!!" and I rewarded him with a big fat extra credit point and promised to tell his history teacher about the connection after class. Fist-bumps all around. 


So - reason. Science. Now, let's read some poems from the English romantic tradition and try to figure out what these poets were trying to create. 


Lines Written in Early Spring [c.f. "vernal"]
William Wordsworth
I heard a thousand blended notes,          
While in a grove I sate reclined,          
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts          
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.           
To her fair works did Nature link          
The human soul that through me ran;          
And much it grieved my heart to think          
What man has made of man.           
Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,          
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;                         10        
And 'tis my faith that every flower          
Enjoys the air it breathes.           
The birds around me hopped and played,          
Their thoughts I cannot measure:
But the least motion which they made          
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.           
The budding twigs spread out their fan,          
To catch the breezy air;          
And I must think, do all I can,          
That there was pleasure there.                              20          
If this belief from heaven be sent,          
If such be Nature's holy plan,          
Have I not reason to lament          
What man has made of man?                                         


They caught the "What man has made of man," although they could not have missed it, I read it so slowly and looked at them meaningfully when I said it. I always think of Duke Orsino from Twelfth Night when I read this poem. In the first scene of the play, Orsino is lounging around, mooning over the lovely Olivia and announces that he has no other choice but to head out to the garden to swoon about and think his love-thoughts under a canopy of flowers. Even if you have never read the play, you know the beginning to this lovesick scene. It starts with, "If music be the food of love, play on." Romeo moons about in the same way at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. Orsino and Romeo are the epitome of the British romantic poet, in love with love and the beauty of the world when it's bathed in love's rosy glow.  


We headed out onto the field on the lea and experienced ten thousand daffodils "tossing their heads in a sprightly dance" from Wordsworth's "The Daffodils," then moved on to Shelley and Keats' Odes - West Winds blowing through tousled hair, nightingales heard through drowsy sleep, and grecian urns telling tales of heroic deeds. I capped off the English romantic experience with "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." The progression had some logic; if I started with lines written in early spring, I was bound to finish in Keats' "To Autumn."


The romantic period took a few extra years to make its way to the States, but it turned up in the form of our Transcendentalist friends from New England. Whitman expresses the thinking of the American romantic movement beautifully in the last poem of the day. 


When I Heard the Learned Astronomer
Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn'd astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, 
     and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with 
     much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.


The real experience of the stars, writes Whitman, is not to be found in the reason of proofs and figures, but in gazing upward, in the mystical moist night-air. We debated this for a while; the students felt that the viewpoints did not have to be mutually exclusive. One boy said that science could also be an opportunity to think about the world in a new way, no less valuable than poetry.


"So, what should I write down on the board?" I asked them. "How do we define "romanticism" based on what we discussed today?"


"Too much of a good thing," one student said, with a bit of disdain. She's not the romantic type. More of an Enlightenment type.


"What is?" I asked. 


"The whole romantic movement. They were trying to move away from reason, and they went waaaaaaay overboard." 


"Well," I said, "Isn't that what reactionary movements do? The pendulum is over here," I walk way over to the window on one side of the room, "and in order to move away from here, we have to swing way the heck over here." I walk over to window on the opposite side of the room. 


One minute left. I picked up a dry erase marker, popped off the top, and waited, pen poised to write. "Come on, give me something. What's romanticism about?"


"Feelings, lots of feelings," said one girl. I smiled at her and refused to write.


In the last seconds of class, we managed to scribble "return to imagination, nature, personal experience," and, in a stroke of brilliance, one student chimed in with Ezra Pound - a phrase she knew was anachronistic, yet absolutely appropriate to this lesson: "Make it new." 


I put the following definition in their mailboxes after class, but I don't think they needed it. They did a pretty good job defining "romanticism" all on their own. They were absolutely people upon whom nothing was lost, and my work for the day was done. 


Romanticism: the artistic movement that began in Germany and England in the second half of the 18th century marked by a concern for individual imagination, and emotion over intellect and reason. Primary philosophies of the romantic movement are:
     1. a belief in the innate goodness of man in his natural state;
     2. individualism;
     3. reverence for nature;
     4. revolt against political authority and social convention.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Trespass Freely and Fearlessly



A teacher emailed me a while back with a great question. I’ve been meaning to answer and there’s no better time than today, when I have five other deadlines to avoid.
Dear Jess,
Here’s my question for today: how much can high school age students benefit from a classical curriculum like the one at my kids’ school?   I love that next year my son will read, for example, Plato, as part of the Great Books type humanities program. That stuff is challenging for even the best educated adults. We chose to transfer our kids this year to [name deleted] specifically because of their humanities program. The other option was having them take many AP courses while attending the nearby traditional public high school. I had nothing like the [name deleted] curriculum back in my high school days, and I only read Great Books stuff on my own, many years after I graduated from college.  So I’m excited for my kids to have this opportunity, but only if it benefits them.
Are “Great Books” relevant for today’s students?  My answer is an emphatic “yes,” and I whip out my favorite quote on the subject, by Michael Dirda: “Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century.”
The argument against asking young people to read great books goes something like this discussion from the Diane Rehm Show. Panelists were discussing the novel Ethan Frome, and a caller said he thought students should not read some books until they are forty, with the life experience and perspective to understand the darker, more mature themes.
While I would shy away from teaching Ethan Frome in the darkest weeks of our New Hampshire winter – just for sanity’s sake, mind you – I respectfully disagree. I have heard this argument among teachers, that Romeo and Juliet is appropriate for middle school, while King Lear is not. Romeo and Juliet concerns itself with the heartache of young love, while King Lear stares down the naked torment Lear finds at the end of his useful life. Students may find connections to their own life in the story of Romeo and Juliet’s love tragedy, but the pain of losing a child and the treachery of the vile Edmund are just too mature for younger readers.
Sure, the familiar may be strange in King Lear, but there is much to offer young people in a story such as Lear’s. My students love the treachery of Edmund, the way he plots against the seemingly perfect and legitimate Edgar. Lovely, bookish, kind, Edgar, who can do no wrong in his father’s eyes. And the tensions runs high as Edmund is overtaken by sibling rivalry and plots to steal a place in his father’s heart – or at least his inheritance.
Or what of Cordelia? The youngest child, who cannot heave her heart into her mouth in order to satisfy her father’s outlandish expectations and is eclipsed by her more rapacious older sisters? Or Gloucester, who does not realize until too late that he has hurt someone he loves, and must find a way to make amends.
No, King Lear is not an easy read. It would be much easier for me to reach for The Hunger Games or Inkheart – both commonly assigned in middle school, and books with entertaining plots, to be sure, but they are…lacking. Reader’s questions are too easily answered. “Of all the virtues related to intellectual functioning, the most passive is the virtue of knowing the right answer. Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands,” writes Elanor Duckworth in The Having of Wonderful Ideas.
It is important that we ask students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens or Shakespeare, we offer students so much more than a good story. We give them the opportunity to step beyond the safe boundary of the known world and journey into the uncharted territory of challenging vocabulary, unpredictable plot, and shifting perspectives. I’m with Virginia Woolf on this one, “Literature is no one’s private ground. Literature is common ground; let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.”
In the end, that’s what I hope I do. I teach my students how to find their own way through a complex and challenging world, and these books are the maps I hand my students.
Great books are literary proving grounds, safe places for students to try, fail, and in the end, find unexpected moments of wonder and pride in their own abilities. Students cannot approach these works lightly; they must brave these works armed with their own experiences and ability to reason, because great works of literature require more than simple retrieval and regurgitation of other’s ideas; they demand feats of intellectual bravery, patience, and trust.
Great books contain more than challenging vocabulary and syntax. Great books contain novel ideas, universal themes, vivid sensory experiences and complex literary construction absent from commonplace works of literature. Great books teach great lessons. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Food for Thought



The most wonderful thing happened to me today. A student asked a question, and I did not know the answer.
Don’t misunderstand – I am at a loss for answers all the time. Every day, I affix a new index card to the front of my plan book so I will have a place to write down the all questions I need to look up. Tonight, for example, I have to look up the etymology of the word “hypocrite” (Greek, hypokrites, stage actor, pretender, dissembler), find out why Castor and Pollux wear skull caps (remnants of their hatching – long story, involves their father Zeus in the form of a swan), and whether the limerick ever achieved high scholarly status (not really). The last one on my note card, though…it’s a doozy.
There I was, in the middle of a poetry lesson in my seventh grade English class. We were talking about clichés – cliché similes and metaphors, specifically. If a poet were to write that someone is as white as a ghost or meaner than a junkyard dog, readers will understand, but some clichés are so familiar, they don’t mean much anymore. They don’t stop the reader in his tracks or offer up a new way of looking at something.
But, when a writer reports that “purple is like blue, blooming” or that the ladies were “like soft tea cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum,” I can see that dark blue blooming into purple and the cloying heat of a Maycomb Sunday afternoon.
And then, there it was:
“If phrases can be cliché because they are so overused, why aren’t stories like the journey of the hero cliché, too?”
Huh.
First of all, HALLELUJAH. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Haleleeeeeeeluuujah. What an awesome question. Once my shower of lavish praise ended, however, the room grew very quiet.
Where are Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell when I need them? Flitting about on their angel wings, interpreting Steve Jobs’ dreams, no doubt.
We all thought about the question for a while. They looked at me to see what I would say; I looked at them to see what they would say. Class went on like that for a while. I have some really great students, kids who understand that quiet is not merely something to be filled up.
Finally, a girl – one who rarely speaks up in class – raised her hand. She offered that maybe, if the journey is a little different each time, it’s still exciting to us. Another girl agreed - Bilbo is after the booty in Smaug’s cave, Pip seeks Estella and his expectations, Dorothy has to reveal the man behind the curtain – it’s all the same story, in the end. And yet we keep reading because the details are different.
It was about time for class to end, so I wrote “journey=cliché?” on my index card, and promised to think about it overnight and get back to them.
And then, as they filed out of the room, a student offered up the most lovely cliché I’ve ever heard: “Maybe it’s because the journey is the important part, not the destination. That’s why we keep reading.”

Saturday, March 16, 2013

This Flatlander's Dirty Laundry

Yep. Another re-post. So sue me. Report cards were due on Thursday and my book proposal was due on Friday, so my creative reserves are at an all-time low. I just don't have any words left over, and besides, it's still gray, cold, barren winter here in central New Hampshire. We get glimpses of spring in the form of bear sightings and the smell of wood smoke and boiling maple sap, but I'm desperate for the thaw that will finally break the ice in Grant Brook and get my creative juices flowing again.

We put down an offer on our little house in Lyme Center village seven years ago this month. I'd stalked it for quite a while before that, and the first time I pulled into what would become our driveway, I could hear Grant Brook raging behind the house. The spring thaw was underway, and the roar of the water between the lingering ice shelves was incredible. I heard that sound, peeked in the windows, saw past the dead black locust threatening the sun room roof, the peeling paint and obvious work ahead of me, and fell in love. This is the story of how we found our home here in New Hampshire; how this family of flatlanders managed to become Lymies. 




We moved to Lyme, New Hampshire because we were in search of a home. A town that offered our children woods, streams, meadows and ponds – places they could explore and acquire the sensory memories that would render them acquainted with nature. The sudden and shocking upwelling of frigid spring water in an otherwise warm lake. The silver underside of leaves revealed by the winds before a summer rainstorm. The smell of an impending snowfall mixed with wood smoke. Wet spittlebug foam and soft milkweed down. We also wanted our kids to know the comfort of neighbors and to feel as if they were growing up in a place where they could depend on the people around them. We searched for just such a place for over two years before we found it.

Our dream house – tiny, with peeling paint on an acre of neglected land - was way out of our price range, as most dream houses tend to be. It sat at the main intersection of a small village halfway between Lyme Plain and Dartmouth Skiway.


We circled the house, peeked in the windows, and explored the rain-swollen brook behind the yard, and did our best not to fall in love with the house. Really, we couldn't begin to afford it. The house had been purchased as a flip by a real estate agent looking to take advantage of a booming real estate market. She bought the house on the cheap, updated the kitchen, and put it back on the market for far more than it was worth. And there it sat. And sat, for over a year. Neighbors shook their heads at its overinflated price and despaired over its lonely condition. The owner received offers, some approaching her asking price, but all were refused. Time passed, and the booming real estate market started to slip. And slide. And tumble. Offers continued to come in at realistic price points, but she would not be moved. She was losing money with each new month, and when I sensed her panic rising to a desperate crescendo, I let it slip, ever so casually, that I loved her house. She told me where to find the key, and what I was welcome to check the house out whenever I liked. I thought I was the sly one, but in retrospect, the key was a brilliant move on her part.


I had been visiting the outside of the house for almost a month, and now, armed with the key, I spent inordinate amounts of time in its empty rooms, poking around the basement, conducting amateur home inspections. I threw tennis balls to our dog in the backyard, poked around in the overgrown gardens, and mentally arranged my furniture in its empty rooms. Under direct questioning, I played it cool, and I certainly did not tell anyone that I had been visiting the house almost daily, like some sort of real estate stalker.


Finally, two weeks before she was due to give birth to her third child, she uttered the fateful words,


"Make me an offer. I won't be insulted."


So I did, and she wasn't.


The house was ours just one year, five months, and six days after we first peeked in the windows, imagining our furniture, our kids, our lives within its walls.


The final piece of the equation depended on our neighbors. I had yet to meet anyone in the neighborhood, despite the fact that I had all but pitched a tent in the backyard. They had been watching me over the past couple of months. They watched as I walked around the house, pulled weeds from the gardens, and picked at the peeling paint. I’m sure they speculated about the odd woman in the silver Honda who visited their village nearly every day. The employees of the insurance agency across the street watched me eat my picnics in the yard while I watched them eat their lunches on the post office steps.


These same people are now my neighbors, and I depend on their generosity every day. We carpool each other’s children, raid each other’s gardens, help ourselves to eggs from other’s chicken coops. I’ve borrowed just about everything from my neighbors – generators, ladders, bottles of wine, headlamps, scythes, a wood splitter. We even have a loose neighborhood DVD exchange system. We know where each other’s DVDs are stored, and it’s understood that we are to let ourselves in to each other’s houses in order to make movie selections when the mood strikes.


But I am afraid I stretched the bounds of neighborly interdependence into the realm of the absurd yesterday.



I’ve been a little scattered, what with building a new home for my chickens, writing, dealing with the dogs’ eye infections, and seeing to my older son’s post-tooth-extraction soft-food diet. I was rushing off to pick my younger son up from school, and I thought I had packed the required button- and snap-free clothing for his gymnastics class, but in my rush, I forgot, and I did not have enough time to double back home.

I thought I was stuck. Until I remembered the Canning-Coldwells. Rick, Stacie and their three kids live a couple of miles away in the direction of the gymnastics class. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw Stacie’s car in the driveway, but when I knocked and rang the doorbell, but there was no sign of life in the house. I stuck my head in the door.


“Hello? Rick? Stacie? Hello?”


That’s when I saw the size 4T sleeve dangling out of the dirty clothes hamper.


The coast was clear. The house was silent save for the distinctive Santa-jingle of the bells hanging from the Coldwell-Canning’s door. I tiptoed (why? I have no idea, it was obvious no one was home) over to the three-tiered hamper and pulled the striped shirt out of the middle bin.


The Caldwell’s definition of dirty must be a little looser than the Lahey’s, because it was easy to find a presentable pair of leggings to go with the shirt.


I had two choices. I could take the clothes, and if no one was home when we were done with them, simply return them to the hamper. I could even dangle the sleeve out, just the way I found it. I would unveil this particular anecdote sometime in the distant future, at a shared dinner, after a bottle of wine or two. I am a little worried about what this choice says about my character.


The second option was to leave a note, come clean immediately, and trust that Rick and Stacie know me well enough not to be horrified that I pawed through their dirty laundry in search of an outfit. But time was short. And I didn’t have a pen.


So we were off. I hustled Finnegan into the gymnasium, in Vermont, clearly over the NH/VT border and therefore out of the jurisdiction of the NH dirty clothing police. I pulled off Finnegan's button and snap-laden outfit, took a deep breath, and dressed him in the neighbor’s dirty clothes. About ten minutes later, as Finn was preparing to head down to his gymnastics class, 
“Jess! Hey! What are you doing here?”

Christ. Abort. Abort. You have been made. Repeat. Abort.


Rick’s stops in this tracks, happy to see me, and yet...his eyes shift from me, to Finnegan, then back to me.


“Hey – Adelaide has an outfit just like that….”


Just go ahead and add cross-dressing my son to today’s list of transgressions.


I used to teach Pride and Prejudice in my British Literature class, and I have always loved Mr. Bennet’s quip, “For what do we live, but to make sport of our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” The significance of this line was made very clear to me today, the day I became the Main Event.


Fortunately, I was right about my neighbors. Rick does know me well enough to not be horrified that I pawed through his dirty clothes hamper. He said I was welcome to their dirty clothes anytime.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Hand at Cards


Okay. It's that time of year again; time for my 8th grade to discuss A Tale of Two Cities, Book III, chapter 8: "A Hand at Cards." This one really throws the students into a tizzy each year and I've learned to treat this chapter with some respect and forethought.

The refrain: "Mrs. Lahey? Are we having a quiz today? Because I really did not get last night's reading" greets me before homeroom every year. Every year, I consider keeping this chapter for class time - why freak them out unnecessarily? But every year, three or four students get it. And that triumph is worth risking some frustration on the part of the other students.

I teach a copy of the novel that includes comprehension questions in the margins - The EMC Masterpiece Edition for those teachers out there - and while these comprehension questions usually help students gauge whether or not they are on top of what's going on in the story, the questions in this chapter only serve to underline how little they are understanding. The students arrive at school a little discombobulated, for just as they are finally getting their arms around this book, this chapter tests them. I don't have eighth grade English until the end of the day, so I usually hear the refrain at least five or six times before our class. I like to smile and remain impassive, giving up no information other than the unspoken promise that they will have fun come seventh period. If I've done my job right and they trust me, I can usually build up a head of anticipation over the course of the day.

"A Hand at Cards" picks up just after the big moment at the end of the previous chapter "A Knock at the Door." Darnay has just been denounced by the Defarges and "one other" unnamed accuser. As "A Hand at Cards" opens, Miss Pross is out in Paris, grocery shopping with the help of Jerry Cruncher. They are ignorant of what has just taken place back at the apartment, and when they stop at a bar to purchase wine, and Miss Pross runs smack into her long-lost brother, Solomon. Now, Solomon is one bad dude. He has stolen from his sister, taken advantage of her love, and has been out of touch for ages, but she remains steadfast in her love for him. She claims he's the only man on earth worthy of Lucie, and despite her obvious delusion, it's clear she adores him. She's thrilled to see him, but rather than swoop her up in an embrace, he yells at her to keep quiet, and reveals that he's known she was in Paris all along. The poor woman - all she wants is one kind word from him: "Say but one affectionate word to me, and tell me there is no thing angry or estranged between us, and I will detain you no longer." Clearly, Miss Pross has a wee case of codependency.

Cruncher interrupts their awkward greeting to point out that he knows Solomon as "John," from the Old Bailey so many years ago when John (then Barsad) testified against Charles Darnay. Cruncher asks Solomon to explain himself.

But just as Solomon admits that his name was Barsad back then, Sydney Carton appears on the scene, as he has been out looking for creepy Solomon/Barsad. Carton tells Miss Pross and Cruncher that Solomon/Barsad is what's known as a Sheep of the Prisons, or mouton. There were hundreds of these moutons in the French prisons, often prisoners themselves, who turned spy in order to gain their own freedom. In other words, Barsad worked as a fake prisoner in order to gain information about prisoners, information that will save his neck and maybe earn him some cash. No wonder he wanted his sister to lower her voice when she shouted out his real name - he would be in constant peril around Paris, and he needed to guard his identity carefully.

Carton asks Barsad to go with him to Tellson's Bank for "a talk." Quotes are mine; not Dickens'. Barsad isn't happy about it, but understands he should comply, as he knows Carton has seen him emerge from the prison and could turn him in if he wanted.

At Tellson's Paris office (the same office from the grisly "Grindstone" chapter), Barsad informs Lorry, who has been sitting in front of the fire in his office, that Darnay has been re-arrested. Barsad knows of this through his spy network of Sheep, of course.

"...this is a desperate time, when desperate games are played for desperate stakes."

And so the game begins.

Here's where things get a little challenging for my middle school students. The game of cards spoken of in the chapter title is metaphorical. There is no literal game of cards going on; the cards are units of power, and Carton defeats Barsad with a winning hand. But we'll get to that hand in a moment.

Carton's goal? "Now, the stake I have resolved to play for, in case of the worst, is a friend in the Conciergerie. And the friend I purpose myself to win, is Mr. Barsad."

Barsad quips that in order to win this reward, a really valuable one, "You will need to have good cards, sir."

Ah, but Carton does, and he proceeds to list them ("run them over").

But first, he drinks. Brandy, specifically. Now, if you remember - Carton was a big drinker when we first met him, and once can only assume he's got a tolerance suited to this sort of high-stakes drinking. However, Barsad knows that the more booze Carton consumes, the more rash he will become, and the less control Barsad will have over Carton's behavior. As Carton has information that could get Barsad killed, Carton's drinking makes Barsad uncomfortable. And Carton wants Barsad to feel as uncomfortable as possible.

Carton begins to describe the cards held by both players.

Barsad's first card: Barsad a Sheep of the Prisons, and he is also English. This works well for Barsad in that an Englishman is under less suspicion than a Frenchman. Barsad: 1, Carton: 0.

But, Barsad is still in the employ of one Pitt (William Pitt the Younger), an Englishman, and enemy to the Republic. The Republic has been looking for Pitt and has not been able to find him, and they consider him a traitor. Because Carton knows this, Barsad: 1, Carton: 1.

Carton plays his Ace: "Denunciation of Mr. Barsad to the nearest Section Committee," and invited Barsad to "look over your hand carefully, Mr. Barsad," and consider his hand. Unfortunately for Barsad, "It was a poorer hand than he expected."

Turns out, there are cards that even Carton knows nothing about, but Barsad knows these losing cards are included in his hand. He lost his job in England and can't go back, he knows he is registered in Madame Defarge's knitting, and that the people registered there inevitably go to the guillotine. He can't flee France, and if he's caught, the Defarges will reveal their evidence against him and denounce him. Barsad: a total bust, Carton: Full House.

And oh! Oh! Great word: Tergiversation, from the Latin, tergiversatus, to turn one's back, to turn renegade, forsaking a former position of allegiance. All things Barsad has done. It's a great word for him.

Barsad considers his cards long and hard, but knows he's going to have to fold.

"You scarcely seem to like your hand," said Sydney, with the greatest composure. "Do you play?"

He stalls, and Carton threatens to play his Ace: Denunciation, and soon. He takes another drink, just to make Barsad a bit more nervous.

Barsad goes for the sympathy card - pity for Miss Pross' feelings for her brother, and Carton cuts him off at the knees: "I could not better testify my respect for your sister than by finally relieving her of her brother." Ouch.

And Carton's not even done. He reveals he has another card. Another sheep, working with Barsad in the prisons, is Roger Cly. The same Roger Cly who testified against Darnay at the Old Bailey. The same Roger Cly who is supposed to be dead. When Carton reminds everyone in the room that Cly is dead, the narrator reminds us that Jerry Cruncher is in the room.

"Here, Mr. Lorry became aware, of where he sat, of a most remarkable goblin shadow on the wall. Tracing it to its source, he discovered it to be caused by a sudden extraordinary rising and stiffening of all the risen and stiff hair on Mr. Cruncher's head."

Cruncher, the Honest Tradesman grave-robber, knows that the only thing buried in Cly's grave are paving stones. He knows, because he went there to steal the body in order to sell it to a surgeon, and found the stones himself (NB: it was common practice for grave robbers to exhume bodies and sell them to surgeons for anatomy practice).

That's a great card. Barsad cannot hope to outlive denunciation if he's in communication with a man who is supposed to be dead, working as a sheep of the prisons. That, Carton claims, is a "plot in the prisons, of the foreigner against the Republic. A strong card - a certain Guillotine card! Do you play?"

And of course, Barsad does not. He folds and throws himself on Carton's mercy. He has to get back to the prisons, and asks Carton to reveal his proposal. Carton, ever the hard-drinking man, pours the final glass of brandy out on the hearth, watching it as it drops. This, my friends, is a big moment. It seems incidental, moment, but it's huge, and announces Carton's redemption.

"So far, we have spoken before these two [Lorry and Cruncher], because it was as well that the merits of the cards should not rest solely between you and me. Come into the dark room here, and let us have one final word alone."

Dum da-dum. Secret plots. Carton has a plan.

Next chapter: "The Game Made." And it is. Carton knows what he's going to do, and just as the Revolution had to happen, so too, the novel draws to its inevitable close.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The State of Education


Over at Motherlode today, K.J. Dell'Antonia doesn't buy what Hope Perlman is selling. And as biased and immersed as I am in the New England academic scene, I totally agree. 

Hope Perlman doesn't believe parents who say they are not stressed out about the college application process:

      "Furthermore, I have dear friends who seem to agree with Levine. I’ve been in conversation with them about their college hopes for their children and they’ve looked me in the eye and told me they really, really don’t care if the college their child attends is prestigious, as long as it’s the right fit. And I’ve looked right back at them, impressed, but ultimately unable to believe they really mean it."

I'm sorry, Hope, but I, like K.J., really mean it. I was raised in a wealthy, academically-oriented town with one of the best public high schools in the state. Today, I teach at an academically accelerated New England middle school, in a town just a stone's throw from Dartmouth College, and I still really mean it. When presented with the range of ivy to state, I chose state for myself, all the way from kindergarten to graduate school. I reveled in my education (Dover-Sherborn High School, B.A., University of Massachusetts at Amherst and J.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). Because I was self-directed, ambitious, loved learning, and was allowed to negotiate on my own behalf from an early age, I got so very, very much out of my education.

Consequently, these skills of self-advocacy are some of the most important skills I teach today in my middle school. I want to make sure my students will get what they deserve everywhere from Harvard University to Bunker Hill Community College. I was raised to fight for my right to take any damn class I wanted, opt for every extracurricular activity I could make time to attend, and a giant, intimidating, populated state university gave me just about every opportunity I could have hoped for. 

K.J. Dell'Antonia is absolutely right. Dollar for dollar, public higher education kicks private education's ass. With some solid skills in self-advocacy and the confidence to stand up for what you deserve, most public colleges will give their students what they need to be truly successful. 

Thanks, K.J. for the reminder. As I move toward my oldest child's college application process, I appreciate the perspective, the calming sentiments, and the dose of sanity. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

So Long, Gone.

Life got really busy, and oh, how I've missed this place. With all that writing for other people, I've really missed my own writing. I was in and out of town for a while, then I was really looking forward to school vacation, and THEN I managed to get the flu on the first day of vacation (silly me for having that flu shot and washing my hands regularly).

After languishing in bed for four days and ignoring my children, I spent much of the last week in New York City at a lovely conference on the future of bar and bat mitzvah. Now, you might ask yourself why this Irish/Scottish/English/German chick was invited to a conference of Jews (I know this because I asked the same thing when they called). I was invited because I wrote a piece for the New York Times about my son's coming of age. The full article is here, but the centerpiece of my talk was this video:

video

I can't embed my talk at the Jewish Futures Conference, but if you go to this link and scroll down under the "Program" tab, you can skip to my section of the conference. I had a whole thing planned and rehearsed, but then I sat at a table with about twenty rabbis, and they were so darn interesting and impassioned I simply had to wing it based on the inspiration of the vibe in the room.

After the conference, I had a great meeting with my agent, a lovely coffee with one of my writing heroes who also happens to be a great coffee date, and dinner with three of the most amazing writers I've ever met. All three are experts in their respective fields: motherhood, marriage, and money. Put the four of us together, and you've got a new superpower - the educator / parent / financially-savvy / sexually satisfied woman. Sheesh. Someone alert the publishing industry to this goldmine. Plus, the food was amazing.

Speaking of women who are forces of nature, if you have not watched Esther Perel's TED talk on the secret to desire in a long-term relationship, stop what you are reading, even if it's this blog, and watch this now:


And yes, she's even cooler in person.

I got word that "Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail" ran as a color insert in a couple of Australian newspapers, which was cool:



I got called out in the national media for being a concern troll and a slut-shamer, so that was new and interesting, but then, this lovely piece about allowing kids to fail was published today at YummyMummy about "What To Do When Your Child's Marks Drop." 

So that's my last couple of weeks. I hope yours was good, and an original post is coming this weekend on the link between dress code and punctuation. No, really.

Thanks for your patience, and thanks for reading.