When Your Students Give You Hope for Humanity

Or at least for feminism. The other day a bunch of my students were singing Let It Go.” “Why is everyone so into Frozen?” I asked (I haven’t seen it).

Because Ms. A,” Ayla said. “It’s about a girl who doesn’t have to get rescued by a guy!” I guess there is some controversy over whether or not Frozen is actually feminist, but the fact that Ayla perceived the lack of a damsel in distress as a great thing about the movie made me so happy. I’ve definitely been in college classes where grown men and women didn’t understand why a need even exists for movies about women with agency.

Another thing: I’ve been running a Journalism club this semester, and my students have been working on a newsletter with coverage of school shows and after-school activities. One seventh-grader wrote an opinion piece on why uniforms should be abolished. When I came across my boss today, who had been looking over the newsletter, she asked me if we could get anyone to write an opposing piece on why uniforms are good. I was doubtful; I had talked to students in my club about this, but none of them were in support of uniforms and I didn’t want to force them to write in defense of something they didn’t agree with just to appease my superiors. The point of Journalism club is to highlight the importance of students’ opinions, after all, not just adults’ opinions.

I had to check off attendance for a sixth-grade class, so I settled in at the lunch table with the attendance list on my right and the newsletter on my left. As I looked it over and thought about what I could do for the pro-uniform piece, a bunch of my students flung their backpacks down next to me and started giggling and jumping around and doing sixth-grade things. Usually I would have told them to sit down and chill out, but they had spent the day on state tests and I figured they needed to let loose during after-school.

“Ms. A, what you are looking at?” Ayla asked.

I handed her the newsletter and explained the dilemma. “Who do you think would want to write about the other side of this issue?” I asked.

“Oh!” Ayla started rummaging through her backpack. “I can do it. I mean, I wish we didn’t have uniforms, but I can see why we do.”

Other girls started to chime in. “They make school safer!” Leah exclaimed.

“We can express ourselves other ways,” Anna said as she braided another student’s hair.

Before I knew it, the girls were brainstorming the merits of uniforms while Ayla feverishly transcribed their opinions. By the end of the half-hour lunch period, they had come up with a three-paragraph essay, fit for publication, in defense of uniforms. I was dumbstruck; I had thought that they would be physically hyper and mentally fried after a day of ELA tests, but the entire class was eager to create a sound argument—topic sentences, supporting facts and all—for absolutely no grade, extra credit or test score. At least once a day, when they do something particularly sweet or awesome, I both wish they would stay exactly the same age forever, and wish I could flash-forward ten years and see what kind of amazing things they are achieving.

Why I Think “The Good Wife” Made the Right Call

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“I want to be with you and only you. Forever.”

The Kings have always said in interviews that Will and Alicia’s doomed romance was about bad timing. Alicia’s responsibilities at home got in the way. Her relationship with Peter got in the way. Voicemails were deleted. True feelings were suppressed. Will once likened the relationship to a merry-go-round, but on the show its symbol was an elevator. There are myriad examples: Alicia’s hurried escape into the Lockhart/Gardner elevator after their first kiss; their rekindled flame on the way up to the hotel suite in the season two finale; Will’s longing question, after the romance had ended: “Do you think it was a mistake?”; perhaps most definitively in hindsight, Will’s hand blocking the closing elevator doors in “A Few Words”—an almost-miss. Continue reading

Teach for America Coursework 1

TFA sent along a bunch of coursework to complete prior to training in summer. Though the coursework is apparently not going to be tracked by TFA in any way, I figured I’d dive in and try to glean some good information from it. (Note: this is not going to be a polished, well-written post. It’s mostly just for me.) There are lots of readings and post-reading questions in the packet, so I’m going to use the blog to keep track of some of my initial responses to the questions and ideas TFA is posing. The first section presented four topics: Charter Schools, Common Core Standards, Politics and Teacher Evaluations. I was to choose three, read the corresponding articles, and think to myself about how these issues will affect me and my students, and what elements of the issues are not covered in the readings. Continue reading

Leather Jacket

“Ms. A is torturing me,” Leah says. Her posse—Hana, her black hair streaked with purple; Jamila, always swaying unsteadily like she’s not exactly sure how to balance on sprouting limbs; Leslie, a head taller than her friends, contorted downward so as to hide from her impending beauty—turn to face me, eyes wide and unblinking, like a set of dolls.

“Why is that?” I check all of them off on the attendance sheet. Paul leans over my shoulder, having just shouted “I’M HERE! I’M HERE!” in my ear. “I see you,” I replied. He has come to fact-check. Now his blue-eyed gaze is directed away from the attendance sheet and toward the quartet of girls. For once, he is silent, probably in hopes of gaining some insight into what makes these creatures tick.

“Your jacket,” Leah whines. She has braided her sleek brown hair with a ribbon intertwined so that she looks sort of like a My Little Pony. “I want a leather jacket so bad but my mom won’t get me one.”

“Why won’t Mom get you one?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Leah says, with the same anguish that animated her when the sixth-grade talent show coordinators wouldn’t let her sing a particularly angsty Lorde song. Her wallowing is briefly interrupted when her gaze flickers toward an enthralled Paul; Leah has already turned Michael and Kevin down for pizza-and-movie dates this week.

“Here.” I slide my jacket off and offer it to her. The slack leather, pockets bulging with keys and credit cards, is heavy in my grip as it sways in the space between us. “Go ahead,” I urge.

Leah pauses and glances around as if she might get in trouble. Then she slips into the jacket and skips away, ladies-in-waiting shuffling behind her. “It doesn’t even fit her,” Paul observes as he fans a set of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards out on the sticky cafeteria table. Indeed, two Leahs could slip into the leather jacket’s wide shoulders. Nevertheless, she struts from table to table, posture upright and giggles loud, donning the garment like armor.

About That True Detective Sex Scene

Early in True Detective’s run, some were rankled by the sex scene in episode two between Hart and his mistress, in which the camera luxuriated in and leered at actress Alexandra Daddario’s naked body. I wasn’t bothered by the scene because, indulgent as the focus on Ms. Daddario’s assets might have seemed, it effectively replicated Marty Hart’s gaze and thus felt understandable. But it’s true, as Emily Nussbaum wrote in The New Yorker after last Sunday’s episode, that as the show has gone on, its women have not been shaded in much. True Detective’s world is populated by, per Nussbaum, “slack-jawed teen prostitutes,” “strippers gyrating in the background of police work,” “the designated put-upon wifely character” and “the occasional cameo hussy.” These women seem to exist in the show’s world simply to deepen our understanding of the two main characters, which is what made the most recent episode so strange for me.

SPOILERS. In episode six, Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan) finds out her husband is, once again, cheating on her. In an effort to enrage Marty and send him out of the house, Maggie seduces his partner, Rust, then tells Rust what her plan was and later tells Marty what she has done, effectively blowing up both their home life and Marty and Rust’s professional relationship.

Due to the show’s framing device, viewers knew that Rust and Hart would split as partners in 2002, and to the observant viewer the reason for the impending split was easy to predict (the show’s first five episodes were peppered with Maggie/Rust scenes that crackled with chemistry), so I was not the least bit surprised when Maggie knocked on Rust’s door in the last episode.

The plot wasn’t what threw me; it was the perspective. The sex scene, as Willa Paskin notes in her Slate piece, positions Maggie as the one with agency. “Rust and Marty both became, however briefly, pawns in her story,” Paskin writes. Indeed, just before Maggie arrives Rust is in his desolate apartment trying to puzzle together the Yellow King mystery. He hears a knock at the door, and rather than track Rust as he finds out who it is, the camera cuts outside so that the viewer sees Maggie looking distressed in front of Rust’s apartment.

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By cutting to Maggie before Rust opens the door, the show is placing us outside of his point of view and sending us a message: Rust is not the protagonist in this scene. Next, Maggie initiates contact.
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And then we get a unique shot of the couple framed through the cabinets and counter in Rust’s kitchen. Rust is still hesitant, and in this shot we can only see Maggie’s face as she tries to get him to capitulate. The shot further emphasizes Maggie’s place in the scene’s power dynamic.

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After Rust is finished, the camera lingers on Maggie’s face, asking the viewer to contemplate these events from her point of view.

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And in a particularly great shot, we cut to a close-up of Maggie’s hand delicately pushing Rust away so that she can put her panties back on.

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From start to finish, Maggie is in control. The scene’s writing and direction emphasize her experience of the event at hand, an extreme change of perspective since until now the entire show has been filtered through Rust and Hart’s points of view. The change doesn’t last long, though. A beat later, we fully shift to Rust’s reaction to Maggie’s betrayal. The scene ends with a shot of Rust alone in his apartment, stricken and solitary.

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Suddenly, the scene seems meant to illuminate Rust for the audience. His reaction to Maggie’s behavior—it is presented as Maggie’s behavior—shows him to be a “good man,” a principled man who has had a lapse in judgement because he is incredibly lonely and vulnerable. Similarly, the next 2002 scene is Maggie’s confession. She tells Hart what she has done, and the moment is meant to further clarify that Hart is a hothead with anger and control issues.

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In the end, Hart and Rust brawl in the police station parking lot and ultimately break up. The story is emphatically not of Maggie’s liberation from her marriage, and I don’t think it should be. But why frame the sex scene from Maggie’s perspective instead of Rust’s, when True Detective hasn’t made any other attempts to consider its female characters’ inner lives?

Rust has increasingly been positioned as the hero of True Detective. He may be deeply flawed, but he is also the only character who seems to really want to solve the Yellow King mystery and save the women and children the killer is terrorizing. The show asks us to root for Rust, particularly in the last episode, which featured Rust in multiple face-offs—with our presumed Bad Guy, the hot mess that is Marty Hart, and The Man in the form of his lazy or willfully ignorant superiors at the police station—in which he was in the right. So is it a coincidence that we switch perspectives right when Rust could, by sleeping with his partner’s wife, become the bad guy? By placing Maggie as agent, the viewer is allowed to let Rust off the hook and blame Maggie, who is once again reduced to a stereotype: the sexually manipulative woman.

House of Cards Questions (No Spoilers)

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On kind of a theoretical level, not a plot level.

First, please take this survey:

1. Is one of the following shows the best drama of all time? 

The Wire

The Sopranos

Breaking Bad

Mad Men

a. Yes

b. No

2. Totally love…

a. Hannibal

b. The Following

3. Currently watching True Detective (or waiting to binge it)?

a. Yes

b. No

4. “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

a. Can’t lose…what? I don’t get it.

b. GO PANTHERS (OR LIONS)!

If your results were a, a, a, and b, we, as television viewers, are on the same page (i.e. we are both probably kind of TV elitists), and so you may be more inclined to agree with me (and many of the critics we probably both read) on some of the things I’m going to basically state as objective truths regarding House of Cards. Like:

  • House of Cards looks great. It does not look “inexpensive” (said in Nina Garcia clipped tone).
  • House of Cards is extremely campy.
  • Many of House of Cards’ happenings defy all logic or reason.
  • Character motivations on House of Cards are often hard to pin down.
  • House of Cards writers do generally frowned upon things like inform the audience that a heretofore major character has been fired in a throwaway line, or baby us through upcoming plot twists through early-episode anecdotes from Freddy the grillmaster that basically scream “PAY ATTENTION THIS IS A METAPHOR PAY ATTENTION VIEWER.”
  • House of Cards is very fun and easy to binge watch.

So, could House of Cards possibly succeed if it were aired week to week? This is a show that pulls you in with a distinct, sleek visual palette, a fun, hammy main character and the promise of plot twists and political machinations. It’s a foregone conclusion that Frank will own everyone (and an all-powerful main character would usually be a problem for a show), so the fun is in watching how he owns everyone and who his casualties are. Sometimes the show is patently ridiculous in a vaguely self-aware way (Frank’s outfit when he SPOILERS SPOILER; the computer hacker with the guinea pig; the shenanigans with the Secret Service agent). Other times, it becomes suddenly self-serious, or maybe self-reflective is a better word (that one Claire scene toward the end of this season).

But these tone inconsistencies never seem like a problem if you digest the whole show in one bite, like an amuse-bouche in television form. When you are clicking through from chapter to chapter, you don’t have the time, or in my case the inclination, to sit down and let the show and its various nonsensical plot mechanics and thin characterizations marinate. It’s an interesting viewing experience in comparison to True Detective, a show that begs to be parsed and re-watched.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the House of Cards brand of entertainment. If anything, I think it’s kind of genius. Here is a show that fuses method of consumption with content, and has gotten awards and buzz out of it. But will this become a trend? As television shows become available via diverse platforms, will the way those shows are constructed change accordingly? Nothing seems to indicate that a Netflix show has to follow the House of Cards mode (I have not watched Orange Is the New Black, but from what I have heard it is better written than HoC), but given its success, I wonder if Netflix will be inclined to greenlight shows that lend themselves to the binging model, even if they aren’t prestige dramas that are going to launch Netflix into the pantheon of greatness alongside HBO and AMC.

And again, it’s kind of fun to imagine how HoC would be different if it were airing weekly. Would it be better? Less addictive? It’s a moot point, I suppose. Frank Underwood once said, “I hate being kept in the dark. Waiting. Speculating.” No such problem for House of Cards fans.

Oh Captain, My Captain

derek-jeter

I always have trouble writing about baseball. My favorite seat at Yankee Stadium is the very middle of the very top row of the uppermost deck, directly behind home plate. From there, you can see the entire park laid out in front of you: the bursting stands, the immaculate emerald field, the glimpse of the train whirring by through the gap between the bleachers and right field. There’s something about the immensity of that scene contrasted with the specificity of baseball—the act of working the 3-2 count from an 0-2 hole, the bloop single, the centimeters that decide whether or not you beat out the throw to first—that makes the game almost beg for metaphors. Is what you find in that park, in that seat, in that moment between the third out and two outs with one on, is that somehow America in its essence? Does human nature lay in that moment? I’ve never been able to nail down what all of it means to me, or in general.

I remember, though, being in fifth grade, still new to New England and trying to figure out where I fit in. There was a Patriots flag hanging on the wall above my teacher’s desk, and a green monster in the corner near the closet. Ever the contrarian, and perhaps just looking for something to make me stand out, I impulsively stated that I was a Yankees fan when Matt Vanasse broached the baseball subject with me. “I bet you can’t name five Yankees players,” Matt sneered. I remember going home and looking the team up, reading through the roster. Every article I found related to the Yankees seemed to mention Jeter, the green-eyed captain. I vaguely recalled the signs I had seen on my first visit to Yankee Stadium, with “Marry Me Jeter” scrawled in marker. “Who is that?” I asked my mom at the time. Now, as I made myself into a Yankees fan in the heart of Red Sox nation, I had to admit that the guy was pretty worthy of matrimony, based on looks alone. That was before I understood the honor with which he led the team, the sly humor, the predilection for clutch hits. I probably loved Jeter before I loved baseball. When I listed not five but ten players for Matt V. the next day, I said “Derek Jeter” first. And he will always be the first, the best, for me. He represents how I became a fan and why I stayed a fan and what makes the Yankees, and baseball, great.

I remember that on a humid deep summer day in New England, me and my Yankee fan friends and my Red Sox fan friends, all of us thirteen years old or so, piled into my house’s third-floor attic for an afternoon game at Fenway on NESN and stayed there late into the night, when the second bout in the doubleheader finally ended. And then we got back up just a few hours later for yet another afternoon game. I don’t remember anything specific about the series, but I recall the silence when Jeter came up, the lack of heckling from the Sox fans. That silence was fear—of the ubiquitous single slapped the other way, perhaps—and respect. “I don’t hate that guy,” my friend Ryan, a Sox fan to his bones, once admitted. Jeter was a player we, the fans, could be proud of.

I remember being a teenager, hanging out at the old Stadium in my usual seat (I lived just across the bridge from the Stadium and would walk over at any opportunity), pounding the chainlink fence behind me to propel a rally against the Sox forward. A few drunk fans in the upper deck had been jawing at each other all game. Honestly, the Yanks fans were in the wrong; they’d been harassing some Bostonians since the first inning, and the jabs had only gotten worse as the innings progressed, the Sox lead grew, and the alcohol levels increased. As the Yankees fans continued to spit vitriol at the Sox fans, Bob Sheppard interrupted: “Now batting, num-ba 2, Der-ek, Jeet-a.” All eyes reached the plate. One of the Sox fans stood up and screamed, “He’s garbage! He’s trash compared to V-tek.” The entire section of the upper deck erupted in boos. “Throw. Her. Out!” we chanted. “You don’t insult our captain in OUR HOUSE!” one man shouted. Security guards took the bewildered woman by the arm and guided her away, to uproarious applause. I would normally never support the violation of this woman’s freedom of speech, but for the captain, we would do anything. That was Yankee Stadium justice. He’d probably disapprove, but that was Jeter justice.

Someday I’ll take my kids to Monument Park. I will show them the 42, then the 2. How will I be able to communicate how much that number meant to me? How much of my childhood and young adulthood were defined by that number, how it brought me to a place where I, in many ways, found a sense of self, of community, of hope? Will the game mean the same thing to my child? I guess there’s no way to know, but for now all I can say is thank you, my captain. I’ll miss you, and I’ll remember you.

Heartbreak in Homework

David is depressed. His brown eyes, usually flickering with bad ideas, have gone dead, and he cups his cheek in his palm, head lolling to the right. “What’s wrong with David?” Adam says, spinning around in his chair. Adam is David’s best friend, but they are not sitting together this homework period since Adam, within two minutes of the start of class, was moved to a table in the corner of the room where he might quiet down and focus. Lydia, too, has been moved away from her gaggle of girlfriends in the room’s far right corner and sits to my right, with Adam to my left.

“David, WHAT’S WRONG?” Adam yells. (David is less than two chairs away.) I try to quiet him down, but now the class has joined in and a chorus of pleas for David’s attention quickly becomes a class guessing game: why is David sad?

“He’s bored,” Carlos posits, inexplicably wandering from his seat across the room to my table as if he’s about to argue this point before me.

“He’s depressed!” Eric shouts with curious glee from behind his Harry Potter spectacles.

“He’s lonely,” Hanna proclaims, setting down her pencil with a finality that frightens me. She, too, stands up for no reason. “David?” She waves a tiny hand in front of him. David does not respond. I notice that Lydia is not entering the David fray, and remember that they recently began dating, in sixth-grade terms. His forlorn face, then, is obviously the expression of heartache.

Suddenly Mario, who was miraculously focused on writing a Reading Log summary a minute before, careens out of his chair toward David.

Flashback to three minutes ago: Mario, a perennial problem student, is doing his usual incoherent growling routine since I will not sign his Reading Log. He has presented it to me blank, with no summary of the text, although I saw him doing what appeared to be reading. “Write the summary and I’ll sign it,” I say.

“Fine, my mom will sign it,” he replies, pivoting away so forcefully that he almost falls over. Just seconds later, Eric—tables away but apparently eagle-eyed—yells, “Mario is forging his mom’s signature!”

I jump up from in between Adam and Lydia and grab the Reading Log as Mario concludes his forgery. “Who is his ELA teacher? I’ll let her know,” I say. Always more inclined to see a student get in trouble than help him, Mario’s classmates excitedly yell out the name of their ELA teacher.

“What? That’s illegal?” Mario takes the paper back and immediately erases the signature. “Just sign it!” he yells. I try not to stare at the raised scar on the top of his hand where he bit through the skin a few weeks ago, leaving a frightening trail of blood through the stairwell.

“Write the summary.” I point to the blank box and sit back down next to Adam, whose delicate focus is beginning to wane from his Muhammad Ali book.

Mario stands back up and approaches me gingerly. “What’s a summary? How do you write it?” he asks quietly.

I am relieved. So he isn’t just trying to cause trouble; he doesn’t understand what to do. I ask him to tell me what he read about. “Mummies during the Ice Age,” he explains. For a moment I contemplate whether or not this could be true, but then remember that Brad Pitt has a tattoo of Mario’s reading subject. Too much pop culture knowledge sometimes pays off.

brad-pitt-arm-tattoo

I tell Mario to write that down; a summary is just a description of the chapter. Mario gets to work. Adam shares the title of a Muhammad Ali movie referenced in his book. Lydia, who a second before confessed “I just like looking at the pictures” as she stared at her book, now vigorously turns a page. (She later tried to steal the book; I was partly annoyed and partly ecstatic.) The class is relatively quiet.

Fast-forward to present: Mario is flying toward David, who, apparently debilitated by thoughts of Lydia, shows no signs of movement. Mario stops short about an inch from David’s inexpressive face. “DAVID,” he spits. Almost every student in the class has turned away from his or her homework to either silently observe this interaction or offer commentary.

“Don’t touch him, you’ll catch it,” Lydia helpfully advises as I lodge myself in front of Mario. (‘It’ is a series of circles around her temple a.k.a. crazy.)

I instruct Mario to sit back down, reminding him that he is not even supposed to be in my class and that I’ll send him where he belongs without pause. (Truthfully, his rightful teacher begged me to adopt him for the period.)  Miraculously, Mario slowly backs away. He hands me his Reading Log, now with summary, for a signature. I sit next to David, relieved that a crisis has seemingly been averted. I give him a drawing challenge—draw a house with an X in the middle without lifting your pen or going back over lines.

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It’s no love potion, but it seems to do the trick.