Missing School

“Do you miss school?” people ask. No, I reply, but I miss the kids. And, I do. The kids were fun, usually, and I loved working with teens. I also loved the atmosphere of high school—bubbly kids, sullen kids, confused kids, nice and pleasant kids, plus the drama and intrigue, the enthusiasms, the daily emotional fluctuations from high to low and back again, the excitement of encountering new ideas: of making projects [essays and research papers for English class] and reading new books, the pressure and intensity, the cliques and the loners, the kids like Justin who walked into my classroom and said, “Hi, I’m Justin and I’m gay!”, the kids who muttered their answers, the kids who talked and talked, the quiet kids who wrote profound essays, the loud kids who wanted to out-shout everyone, the kids who told me their secrets, the kids who wrote about their dreams, the kids who took on leadership roles, the kids whose faces lit up when I read poetry. Oh….I miss the kids and the fun of being in school. I miss my teacher friends and staff friends, too.

Of course, there are lots of things I do not miss: grading papers, data-processing grades, conferences with irked parents, among others. I figure I graded a lot of papers: thousands of research papers and essays, and tens of thousands of student journals, which I called “Logs,” one or two page typed journals on a variety of topics in a type of writing called “free writing.” Free Writing is a type of unstructured writing, a technique used to help students let their thoughts flow without stopping to correct construction errors; it is not quite stream-of-consciousness, but in the vicinity. Today, that kind of free writing, in corrected form, is called “blogging” and what I called “Logs” are now called “Blogs.” In the early years of my teaching career I read and corrected tens of thousands of vocabulary sentences—probably a lesson in futility, but I persisted. Then, too, twenty thousand and more daily homework papers crossed my desk each year; I was a paper-a-day teacher, meaning that students had to complete some task and turn in the paperwork, daily or every other day. Daily tasks included vocabulary sentences, vocabulary definitions, punctuation and grammar exercises, paragraph responses to literature, notes from literature, questions and answers from literature. I was firm about students writing in response to a lesson and I checked to see what they had learned. Miffed students sometimes sniffed: busy work. But, the research on the importance of taking notes and of responding in writing to concepts in the lesson was on my side. The learning comes in making the written response…i.e., thinking on paper.

One of the “lessons” I took from my teaching career, that I use daily, involves transferring notes from one source into my brain and then from my brain into my computer. I mean, in my genealogy research, I transcribe notes from various sources by typing them into my computer program. If I just cut-and-paste, I don’t “learn” the content; I have merely mastered cut-and-paste. Far too many of my students did not grasp this concept: that the hands, the eyes, the ears, the voice [i.e. the senses] must be involved in learning. To quote Dr. Walter Palk, “The more senses involved in learning, the stronger the neural trace.”

Thirty minute lunches, rushing to the restroom during passing period, pushing-pushing-pushing to get through the day and get all the tasks done, hall duty, sitting though stupid convocations, sitting though stupid committee meetings and boring in-service meetings, arguing with students about assignments—-lots of things to not miss.

What do I miss:

* the fun of working with teens
* the challenge of developing lessons that helped students learn specific concepts
* the dialogue and interaction with students

I miss the intellectual aspects of teaching Senior English. I miss teaching the vocabulary lists, teaching sentence structure, teaching writing techniques, teaching research skills, teaching all the aspects of expository composition. But, most of all, I miss working daily with the greatest literature written in my language. I miss reading Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and all of the other English poets. I miss reading poetry aloud, day after day. I miss the images, the metaphors, the alliteration and assonance, the grandeur of British poetry. I miss reading about the grim world of Beowulf and its warriors. I miss the panoply of The Canterbury Tales, the humor and wit, the spectrum of English life reflected so humorously in the characters. I miss the glories of Shakespeare, “Can I Compare Thee to a Summer Day?” I miss Hamlet, so depressed, uncertain, lost, confused, fencing metaphorically against his murderous uncle. I miss Milton. I miss Blake, “Little Lamb Who Made Thee?” I miss reading Pride and Prejudice, Cry, the Beloved Country, Jane Eyre. I even miss reading student responses and analysis of this great literature.

While it is more politically correct, and true, to say that I miss the students, what I miss most vividly is the poetry and my daily immersion in the glories of the English language.

Shootings at Virginia Tech

Where does one begin?  The horror is beyond belief, as is the sadness. The facts are beginning to emerge that the shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre was a student who went back to his dorm room between shootings.  I cannot fathom how someone so deranged thinks and plans. I can only think of what happened from the point of view of the students and teachers–and parents.
Of course, one personalizes all such horrifying information, so my first thought was of my son who is a young university instructor, developing a university teaching, researching, and writing career. He’s on the “front line” of a major Canadian university, teaching a full class load. At least three Virginia Tech professors and three or more instructors were killed in this incident, one professor reportedly blocking the door with his body. In my illusions, I thought my gentle Buddhist son was in a relatively safe profession, far from the killing and violence that characterize so much of our society and world.  I think of the six years [compacted, my university studies actually lasted from 1962 to 1980] I sat in university classrooms where one is focused on the lesson and taking notes. A gunman entering the room would have been surreal, something that did not compute. The mind does not easily switch from academic content to diving under a desk for protection. I thought of my niece Elizabeth, studying at a large Midwestern university, my nephew Jon studying education in the southwest, and all of my former students in university classes around the nation. I cannot get my mind around the thought of a peaceful classroom violated by a gunman who comes shooting through the doorway, showering the classroom in a hail of bullets.
The shootings at Kent State flashed through my mind, too.   May 4, 1970—so long ago–the U.S. military [National Guard] vs. protesting students—but so unthinkable to my generation—that a university, the place for open minds, would become a killing field.  I was reminded, too, of the shootings at the University of Texas in 1966, the bombings at the University of Wisconsin, and other events.  This horror is similar in that the shooter was a student, shooting and killing his fellow students, as well as professors, with fierce intensity.
My sympathies also go to the university authorities and police. Monday night CNN and other media were pushing and promoting harsh criticism of the authorities for not realizing the connection between the shootings and failing to notify students. Of course, the logistics of notification are complex and shutting down a major open campus is not exactly easy. Today [Tuesday] the criticism seems modified. How hard it is for the authorities to deal with scathing criticism and commentary as they must continue the duties of dealing with the enormous problems of the aftermath. One of the worst things about our news media is that the lowest thoughts, opinions, and comments of traumatized people are broadcast and magnified, as if they are the final say on an event. The viciousness of our media, Paula Zahn, for example, is just appalling; Monday night she challenged everyone she spoke to, trying to spark dissention and hatred towards the police and university officials.  It was most heartening this afternoon [Tuesday]  to watch the memorial service and see the audience rise to applaud—long and loud–the beleaguered university president. He asked for support and thanks for all of the police services—noting how the local, state, and federal agencies had rushed to their aid. The work of the university administration and all of the police agencies continues non-stop, while the arm chair critics blather in the safety of their homes, not involved in the massive job of assistance, clean-up, and support.
While Americans are horrified at the enormity of this shooting, university shootings and killings continue apace in Iraq. Our media gives the problems of the universities in Iraq scant attention in comparison to entertainment, celebrities, sports, and sometimes shootings in America. What if such shootings and massacres were happening all over the US, day after day, as they are in Iraq? What might our passive and complacent citizens do?
After watching the memorial service Tuesday afternoon at Virginia Tech [April 17] , which had many wonderful speakers, I was irked to note that the evening TV news shows [we were watching NBC] played President Bush’s remarks. Of the speakers, I thought he was the most banal, but he received the most coverage.  Professor Nikki Giovanni, poet and English professor, was absolutely wonderful, giving a spark of hope and spirit in the midst of sadness.  
Richard Cohen, commenting in The Washington Post.
For unconventional thinkers, an “otherworld” point of view which is most apt—and the bitter truth  
In the mean time, I am sad, so sad for the students, parents, faculty, administrators, university staff, Virginia Tech, the state of Virginia where many of my ancestors lived and died, and for our country.

The Gift of Giving

President Daisaku Ikeda, the leader of Soka Gakaii International: SGI, is a man I greatly admire. From the ashes of WWII, he took an organization called Soka Gakaii (Value Creating Society) and became the third leader, rebuilding after the wartime imprisonment of the first two leaders had devestated the group. Through Ikeda’s leadership, this Buddhist society, which works for world peace, has spread around the globe.

My introduction to SGI and President Ikeda came through my beloved daughter-in-law, Shinobu, a native of Japan, who has given me many books by President Ikeda and who has also taken me to the Florida Nature and Culture Center, the SGI conference center in Weston, Florida. It was at FNCC that I first heard the story below from Shinobu, a “fortune baby,” or birth-right SGI member. 

Shinobu’s parents, Tadashi and Yoneko Arai, who lived in Nagoya, Japan, grew up during the suffering of WWII. Following their marriage in 1957, they raised a family of three daughters and together built a prosperous business. Mrs. Arai, a loving mother and a dedicated member of SGI, loved the sound of the koto harp.

After Mrs. Arai’s untimely death in 1991, Shinobu and her two sisters presented a koto to President and Mrs. Ikeda during a visit they made to Nagoya, as a tribute to them and to the memory of Mrs. Arai. The koto was given to honor Mrs. Ikada, who, though not a public performer, often plays the koto for her husband in their home. Some time later, President and Mrs. Ikeda presented the koto to a visiting scholar of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism from India named Prof. Lokesh Chandra, Director of the International Academy of Indian Culture

In 1992, Shinobu came to United States as a “study abroad” student. Jim and Shinobu met in a Sanskrit class, which was part of the Buddhist Studies program at the University of Wisconsin, and married a few years later. After Jim received his Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies in 2001, he took a teaching position with Antioch College’s Study Abroad program, escorting a group of students to Bodh Gaya, India for a semester of study. Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, is in Bihar, a remote part of India, a ten hour train ride from the capital of New Delhi. Jim and another young professor taught the classes and accompanied the students on tours to various holy sites and cities.

http://www.antioch-college.edu/news/gallery2/v/aea/buddhist-studies-india [Jim is on the left in the mauve shirt].

On their return journey, the group stopped in New Delhi. Before they left the U.S., Shinobu had written to Professor Chandra, telling him the story about the koto that she had given to President Ikeda, which eventually went to Professor Chandra’s institute, and mentioning that she and her husband would be visiting in India. Remembering meeting with President Ikeda and receiving the koto from him ten years before in Japan, Professor Chandra invited Shinobu and Jim to his institute. They spent several hours discussing Indian Buddhist history and iconography. Jim was able to take many photographs of Buddhist and Hindu artwork, including statues and paintings, greatly adding to his knowledge of 10th and 11th Century iconography. 

The part I love best about this story is the way the gift itself, the koto, travels and creates energy that brings people together over time and great distances. The memorial gift and President Ikeda’s giving of the gift set in motion a series of events in which eventually three scholars met in a far away land to share knowledge and fellowship, a meeting that Jim and Shinobu will always remember. Shinobu’s mother would have been overjoyed to know of her daughter’s journeys and of the happiness brought by the gift given in her name. This story is also a metaphor of how President Ikeda has sent in motion the energy and activities that have developed SGI into an international organization, empowering people to work for world peace.

After accompanying her husband to India, which interrupted her studies somewhat, Shinobu returned to the University of Wisconsin, completing her Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies in 2003. Her dissertation, Value of Simple Practice: A Study of Tiantai Zhiyi’s “Liumiao Famen,” was highly praised by her major professor, Professor Charles Hallisey, of Harvard and UW. In my family, there is a refrain repeated when a child or grandchild accomplishes a major educational or other goal, “Mamma Jeanne would be so proud!”, referring to my dear mother and her deep love of education and of her family. With the completion of her daughter’s educational journey, I think the same refrain would fit Yoneko Arai—she would be so proud!

The Pleasures of Retirement

Staring out the window one recent sunny winter day, I watched one of “our” squirrels drag a large, green hedgeapple, three times the size of his head, up the maple tree outside my window. He had to go up backwards—tail first—and then ease the hedge apple across a branch and around the trunk. Several rests were necessary before he finally came around to a branch parallel to me, where he sat and then proceeded to eat his hedgeapple: chomp, chomp, chomp, littering the ground with seeds. Friend squirrel
likes this particular branch about 15 feet from my window. Today he snoozed a while, tail curled across his back, sitting in the angle of the limb and trunk, protected from the wind.

I write in my sunroom, an enclosed porch with windows on three sides. Seated at my computer, I face north, looking into the pine tree and walnut tree just outside the window. A swathe of sky is visible if I raise my eyes slightly. To my left is the back yard which slopes 100 yards or so down to Brock Creek, a typical rock-strewn, tree-arched Indiana creek about ten feet wide and one-two feet deep. Four magnificent old silver maple trees, 30 feet from the house, form a semi-circle around the back of the house. In the summer, the branches of the two inner trees create a majestic green cathedral in the yard. When the wind blows hard or when storms come, I stand at the windows and speak to the trees: “Stay with me old friends. It is not time to go.” A large sugar maple sits in the center of the yard 30 feet farther, halfway to the creek. Beyond it are four large rocks–small boulders–which were dug up when the 18 foot deep water line was dug through the yard. A workman kindly asked if I would like the stones arranged in the yard and then moved them with his crane. A tall old evergreen–50-60 feet–sits off-center at the bottom of the yard, along with two smaller pines which Max and I planted 15 years ago.

Our house is situated half way up a small ridge. The creek flows at the bottom of our yard, on the west side of the house. The school’s football field and practice fields lie along the creek. The middle school sits partly up the next ridge with the high school and hospital in a line along that ridge. Along the creek are sycamores, the hedgeapple tree, a locust tree, and several unknown berry trees, among others. The creek is straight along our yard, but curves around our neighbors’ yards to the north. I wonder if Indians used to camp in the bend. Directly across the creek is the football practice field and beyond that is the elementary school. I hear the class bells ring and the shrieks of the children at recess. In the fall and spring, I hear the band practicing, particularly the drums. As the team drills, the smack of helmets and the coaches’ instructions echo
across the creek. If I turn and look slightly left, I see, across the creek, the middle school to the south of the elementary school and the roof of the local hospital. Helicopters arriving at the hospital usually circle to the north of me and land noisily on the pad. Farther beyond, out of sight behind the middle school is Salem High School, where I spent 28 years teaching Senior English, as well as some Junior English classes most years, and one year each of some sophomore and freshman English classes.

Reading and writing at my computer, I watch the creek and yard. The other day a ground hog made a stealthy tour of the yard before disappearing into the bank of the creek. Some days a heron-like bird, bluish gray, walks in the creek. The squirrels chase each other around the yard and trees, often coming up on the deck. On lucky days, cardinals land in the bushes or a woodpecker climbs the trunk of the tree. Small flocks of birds feed in the lawn and a few times I have seen a hawk swooping through the trees. This morning, five turkey vultures were circling the trees, two houses north. The neighborhood cats cross the yard on trips. Max has seen deer on several occasions, but I have not. We live on the edge of town and before the school bought the farm land behind us a couple of years ago, we could see cows in the field. I miss the cows.

I like to watch the rain and snow. My students used to sit in the classroom, starring at the rain or snow. Why, I wonder, do we watch so intently? I also like to watch the sky and clouds. I find myself listening to the rain or wind, and am irked when I hear the trucks gearing down on the highway a block away to the east. No matter what time of year, the sunsets are lovely, though the winter ones with pink and golden clouds seen through the stark black branches of the trees are the most beautiful. In the summer,
Max sits for hours on the deck or under the trees, surrounded by the holy space, soaking in the peaceful scene.