Expectations

I wrote the following piece for my school’s literary magazine. It’s a student-initiated, student-run endeavor that I loosely oversee. We take submissions from HS students and staff at the school and the student editors put it all together. This year, our theme revolved around expectations.

Expectations are a form of time travel. Almost inherently, to have expectations requires thinking about the future, to imagine ourselves in a time not yet present. And so, each day we travel forward, hoping, dreading, planning, worrying, and evaluating all the potential futures. And what we bring back from these travels are our expectations.

How often we assume the future is more fixed than it is. The structure, stability, and stationary bastions of our organized world stand as pillars to ethereal castles in the sky. We plan out our hopes, sift our dreams for reality, measure out the scope of our futures and congratulate ourselves on a tomorrow well ordered.

As fledgling humans, we inhabit a world of settled normalcy. We know our present and acknowledge little concept of past or future. Our parents’ childhood may as well have been as far back as Rome, Songhay, or Tang. Pictures of their cars and hairstyles depict the passage of time and the outdated eras they have come from, while stories from our grandparents can seem to hold little relevance.

One day we wake up and realize that the world has changed since we came into it. But the change is often slow and subtle, sneaking past us like a slinking cat. We remember a time before everyone had a phone in their pocket and the burgeoning novelty of the internet. The fanciness of a car was measured by whether it had automatic windows and no one took off their shoes in an airport. A sport might introduce a minor rule change, and a few years later we can barely remember what it was like before the offsides rule or VAR.

Every generation must have gone through this, growing up in what may appear to be a world of fixed normals and unchanging givens. What did the grandparents in ancient Egypt shake their heads over? What new-fangled contraptions were vehemently denounced by the staid thinkers of the renaissance? Who thought that the printing press was the next incarnation of evil?

Eventually we realize that the world is ever changing. Sometimes it changes slowly, gradually and at other moments it happens all of a sudden. Two planes fly into the World Trade Center. A tsunami takes thousands of lives. A world war devastates continents. A pandemic sweeps the globe with masks, protests, and misinformation. And afterwards, it’s not quite the same world it was in our childhood.

Thus our expectations change with the world. Our past, our experiences, our changing perceptions of the present inform how we travel into the future. There is almost nothing sadder than someone trying to recreate a past that is long gone. No, it is the future where our expectations are realized and we hold the capabilities of directing those expectations, like a skilled painter imaging upon a canvas.

How loosely we must hold those expectations dawns upon us only with the falling sands. We must travel forward, but instead of forcing what is to come into our tiny, inconsequent, and often limited perceptions, we should instead embrace the future and allow our expectations to change with the world around us. So let us travel into our futures with expectant hope, because we are not the first to do so.

The full 2021 edition of The Scrivener can be found here: https://www.dalat.org/web/sc-literarymagazine/

Teaching The Merry Wives of Windsor

When I first took over teaching my Honors 10 English class, the curriculum included Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. That’s an excellent play, but when I saw that many of those students had read Romeo and Juliet the year before, and that the only other Shakespeare plays in our curriculum were Macbeth in Brit. Lit. and Hamlet in AP Literature, I saw a gap.

Shakespeare’s tragedies are spectacular and I’ve since added King Lear to the AP Literature class. But none of our students got to experience a comedy and in college I’d mostly acted in (and co-directed) the comedies. So recently I made a switch and now teach The Merry Wives of Windsor to my 10th graders. I’ve noted a number of benefits:

  1. It’s really funny. In many ways, it is farcical and the students love it. When so much of the literature we study has serious themes and important discussions that often end with a character they cared about dying, the levity brought about by this play made for a good counter-balance. Falstaff in the buckbasket or being disguised as the witch of Brentford is funny whether they understand all the nuances of the character motivations or not. It makes it a bit more worthwhile to work out the difficult language for a student who is less familiar with early modern English when the payoff is laughter rather than tragedy.
  2. It’s fairly short and the language is a bit more accessible. There’s a lot less philosophizing and a lot more characters hatching schemes that we know won’t quite come about. I often tell students that they can become familiar with the language and the more of it they read/listen to, the more they will be able to make out on their own. As they are Honors students, I tell them of the Shakespeare plays we’ll be reading in AP Literature (should they choose to take it their senior year) and how the time they spend decoding now will ultimately help them down the road. The play also has slightly fewer scenes that contemporary audiences might find extraneous to the immediate plot—though the faux duel between Hugh and Caius comes close.
  3. It is one of very few Shakespeare plays where female characters take center stage. It’s not just a strong female character having to contend within her environment (such as a Lady Macbeth or a Portia) but the two wives actually command the environment. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, along with Mistress Quickly, are very much the orchestrators of the events and command their spaces with aplomb. In their toying with Falstaff, through exposing Master Ford’s jealousy, and in helping Anne Page get married to the suitor she prefers, the women come out not only victorious, but shining with wit, knowledge, power, and good grace. Mistress Page defiantly insists, “We’ll leave a proof, by that which we will do, wives may be merry, and yet honest too.”
  4. I firmly believe that a play must be seen on a stage to have its full effect and so I always show a film/stage adaptation of any play we read as a class. In this case, Shakespeare’s Globe has a spectacular production, filmed in the Globe theatre itself before a live audience that brings the text to life. It allows students to envision not only the scenes and characters, but also the original venue for which this play was written. Additionally, since I played Master Ford in college, I promise to show them a scene in which I unreasonably search for Falstaff–always a hoot. These adaptations serve not only as entertainment but to show that these plays are not old words on musty paper but that they can be brought back to life and that their themes hold relevance for us today.

It is not my goal that all students must love Shakespeare, but I do tell them at the start of the unit that each of them will be able to appreciate Shakespeare more than they did before. Across the board, students have indicated that by the end of the unit, this is true. Students write a final paper in which they can explore any theme of their choice from within the play, and in their writing I see their earnest engagement with a text over 400 years old and the applications they find. They explore the dangers of jealousy, of greed, of wantonness. They write of the empowerment of women, of the right to agency for everyone, and the qualities it takes to be an upstanding member of a community.

I’m glad I made the switch and so frequently recommend this play as a good entry point for those less familiar with the bard and for younger audiences.

The Importance of Connotation

Words only hold meaning in context. Speak any word in a place where no one else understands that language and it holds no meaning. That is true for the denotation (a word’s literal or most common meaning) as well as for connotation (whatever else it signifies along with its denotation). English is such a rich language that the sheer mountain of synonyms can seem overwhelming—but it’s just this choice that allows for shades of meaning because while the denotations might be similar, the connotations can differ vastly.

As writers or speakers—or even during every day communication with a colleague, friend or debate partner—we are responsible for how we get across what we mean to say. Careful word choice can keep us from accidentally imparting unintended meaning. By knowing the context into which we are speaking or writing, we can adjust the connotation of our words so that they best convey what we mean to say.

I’ve written elsewhere on how this is true for swearing (On Swearing). Words come loaded with meaning and they can mean different things depending on who is listening. If I say ‘football’ in the US, the listeners imagine a very different sport from when I say ‘football’ anywhere else on the planet. When speaking to people from the US, I use ‘soccer’ because otherwise my meaning does not carry.

More than that, words carry historical meanings. Often, when reading a text from an earlier time period, the specific choice of words can be jarring as we must learn what they mean in context (not just the context of the sentence or the work, but the society into which it was written). Sometimes, a fringe meaning can become the primary denotation of a word over time; ‘gay’ once primarily mean happy and carefree though is now used primarily to describe sexual orientation. ‘Awful’ meant primarily ‘worthy of awe’, similar to ‘awesome’ but now means something closer to ‘unpleasant’ or ‘terrible’–and the root of ‘terrible’ and ‘terrific’ are both ‘terror’.

Words, in both their primary meanings and connotations change over time. And they change within their contexts. This is a good thing as it allows for the flexibility of language and gives us better ways to express what we need to. English teachers are sometimes cast as a fixed and unchangeable bunch who insist on the immutability of language. I’m sure those exist, but I know far more English teachers that understand and value the changing nature of the language.

In this way, language always has more than one layer, whether it is intended or not. Whether a person chooses their words carefully or not, their hearers and readers will understand the connotational layer. It is the speakers job to choose those words as carefully as possible to suit the context. However, when we read or listen to a work from another time period or culture, it is our job to match our understanding to the intended context. Any biblical scholar will emphasize that pinning doctrine onto a single word or phrase after it has been translated out of the original language or context can result in massive theological misunderstandings. No, it is in the original language, speaking into a specific context, that the words must be understood to retain their intended meaning.

For this reason, poetry is so hard to translate into other languages. Perhaps more than other writers, poets understand and intentionally use the connotations (and sounds) of language to engage in meaning-making. The differences between ‘quiet’ and ‘silence’ are subtle; the first is peaceful, the other far more unsettling. ‘Carefree’ is far more relaxed while ‘lackadaisical’ implies a careless laziness. ‘Interesting’ is far more likely to be used sarcastically than ‘intriguing’ while ‘unique’ is more positive than ‘different’.

It is through precise word choice that writers and speakers create layers of meaning. Even the seemingly simple and surface-level texts carry connotational meaning. So let us with precision choose our words with care. Simultaneously, let us hear with humility the words alongside the context into which they were spoken.

Why Sometimes a Character Must Die

Death is waiting for everyone. Each one of us will some day experience dying, whether after aging, through sickness, or suddenly. There is an inescapable inevitability to death and many choose to live their lives ignoring the end as much as they can, as though it will somehow prolong life if they succeed.

I recently finished reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal after it was recommended to me by my grandmother-in-law. In it, this accomplished doctor writes passionately and very personally about human mortality. In particular, he focuses on the process of aging, which is a very contemporary issue as those that died of old age in centuries past were far fewer in number. How we care for an aging person and how we care for the dying are related, and yet they are not quite the same.

I was impressed by Gawande’s clearsightedness and ability to express succinctly the need for personal autonomy and purpose in those that are dying. He points to two major factors that have lead to a decline in care for the dying. One, is that doctors see themselves as healers of bodies and thus are frequently unwilling to accept the aging process; they are not often enough trained in how to present their patients with appropriate council, thus resulting in needless, painful, and often harmful procedures. The second is related: when doctors are not candid, then patients continue to have false hopes about returning to ‘normal’ and continue to push back the thoughts of death and decline.

“Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be. We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being.” ~Atul Gawande~

Not infrequently, my students ask me why a character had to die. A running joke in my English 11 class is that it doesn’t count as American Literature until someone has died. The follow-up question is why we can’t read something with a happy ending. Granted, we do read those stories as well, but they’re not quite as frequent. In part, stories with needlessly sweet endings don’t well reflect humanity and thus are often narratives of wish-fulfillment. One of the values of literature lies in its ability to reflect ubiquitous human struggles and grappling with mortality is one of the most uniting concepts we face. Our entertainment industry hasn’t always done a great job of providing stories that get out of the false dichotomy of happy vs sad endings. Yes, death is sad, but it need not be only sad; it can also be meaningful. Death is often followed by grief, but that grief can be accompanied by joyful reflection. Sometimes, death is the most fitting ending to a story, as it’s inevitability makes it both fitting and provides a level of resolution unmatched by other endings.

Each year, my AP Lit students read King Lear. It is undoubtedly a tragedy, full of blind foolishness and impotent wisdom. But the tragedy is not in the deaths, but in the blindness of the characters. In Act 5, when the stage is littered with bodies—as is common in Shakespeare’s tragedies—the fittingness to the narrative is paramount. Lear’s final illuminating insights are punctuated by the death of his three daughters, untimely brought to their demise in part by his pride, blindness, and inflexibility. These are the consequences of his actions and while he has aged, they never will. Earlier in the play, when a blind Gloucester seeks to kiss his hand, Lear warns him that it “smells of mortality.” Here in his madness and very old age, a sovereign king unused to weakness or being gainsaid has begun to grasp the finitude of his being. Thus, when he finally dies, it is not a moment just for sadness, but also for relief. The Earl of Kent says “The wonder is, he has endured so long: he but usurp’d his life.” It is the most fitting ending for a prideful king, too lately brought to humility. It is a warning, a call to see the world as it is, and a call to kindness and true loyalty. Without the deaths, those warnings ring hollow.

One of my favorite texts to teach each year is Margaret Edson’s Wit. It is a rather short play—with a brilliant film adaptation starring the amazing Emma Thompson—about a poetry professor dying of Ovarian cancer. Vivian Bearing is a determined, powerful, and driven woman who has spent her life tackling tough tasks and hoping her prodigious knowledge would see her through. And now, in dying, she realizes that it’s not enough. “Now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness. I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been found out.” The audience watches as she slowly embraces the need for kindness; a central irony in the play is Bearing’s specialty: the Holy Sonnets of metaphysical poet John Donne, who frequently grapples with death. Simply understanding death as a concept is not the same as experiencing it, and Bearing finds that she is utterly exposed to a mortality she had only grappled with in the abstract.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die. ~John Donne~

Death should not be only about fear and sadness. It is also about joy, fulfillment, accomplishment, and kind nurturing. When we only ignore the inevitability of death, we find ourselves wholly unprepared when it strikes a loved one, or finally makes its appearance before us. Recognizing death can help us to lead better lives. And, depending on our metaphysical beliefs, can be viewed as a comfortable door to a hereafter.

Bearing come to this conclusion as well. When she dies in the final scene (inevitably, as she has already told us from the beginning), the audience sees that death, like the comma is but a simple breath. As one of Bearing’s professors says to her in a flashback, “Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting…Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause…In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death, soul, God, past, present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma.”

By grappling with the reality of death, we can come to view it not as something to be feared. As Gandalf tells Pippin, “No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtains of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it…white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

And that is a comforting thought.

We Should All Read Books From Other Countries

My reading used to be very limited, mostly by what I could find in my school library. That and my devotion to my preferred genres. Once I began teaching and as I became more aware of the world around me, I’ve realized that I not only need to read more broadly, but that I enjoy it immensely. Here are a number of the benefits of reading books of all types from around the world, rather than only sticking to one geographic area, even if it is more difficult, less convenient, and requires more intention.

Language and Literature are Intertwined

Stories, ideas, culture, beliefs, and worldview are inextricably linked with language. I’ve found great joy in reading works translated into English because even in their translation, they carry with them the rich and varied flavors of their origin. Stylistic tendencies, choices of structure, careful selections of details can still be conveyed by a good translator. It makes me wish I could read these texts in their original language, but since I can’t, I must rely on doing my research.

I spent numerous hours figuring out which translation of Don Quixote I was going to read and I’ve greatly benefited from reading translator’s notes as they explain the difficulties of adapting a certain work into English. A great example of that is Van C. Gessel, who translates the works of Shusaku Endo; I not only have a sense of Endo’s writing style, but also know more about how description and narration work in Japanese novels based on Gessel’s explanations of his painstaking process. Despite not being able to read a word of Japanese, I have been able to appreciated comparing the varying styles of Murakami, Natsume Soseki, and others, noting their stylistic differences and yet the cultural overlap of these vastly different authors.

Author Context and Time Period

Much of what I do in my classroom, I end up doing myself before reading a work from another country. Frequently, I know absolutely nothing about the author, the time period in which they are writing, and the events that might be influencing their story. I’ve found that my enjoyment of a story is heightened by an increased understanding of the context in which it was written.

In my World Literature class, we spend some time setting the stage for each novel, understanding the context of the story and the author. This aids us in interpreting what is happening. Not that the story can’t stand by itself, but frequently our ignorance of another country or culture can lead to misunderstandings or confusion, and spending time on gleaning some context not only aids interpretation, but also enriches the reading experience.

Reading the works of Tan Twan Eng has been illuminating, as he deals mainly with certain time periods of Malaysian history. His works of historical fiction are engrossing, well written, and feature incredibly complex characters. These stories have awakened in me a newfound interest in the history and peoples of the country that I currently get to call my home. It reframes the architecture I see when driving through Georgetown and adds stories to the colonial style houses of Tanah Rata and Penang Hill.

Who is Telling the Story?

It took me far longer than I care to admit to realize how important it is to determine who is telling a particular story. When only a certain type of person, a certain age, race, people-group, or socio-economic status gets to tell a story, it’s very easy to lose sight of the complexity of humanity. And too often, books have not presented more than one or two types of stories of a certain area of the world. We now live in an age of unprecedented plenty with regards to access to other stories; bookdepository.com means I can get almost anything free of shipping costs, so where in the past, physical access might have been limited, it isn’t anymore.

To my great joy, I’ve found that there are authors the world over that write in my favorite genres. They bring their own perspectives, views of the world, experiences, beliefs, and cultures and infuse them into genres I thought I was familiar with, presenting me with new variations in story, characters, and setting.

It makes it much harder to assume that the life I live is the normal, standard, or usual way to live. Reading about a multiplicity of lives from all manner of cultures and time periods shows me both the extent to which human lives can differ but also that we have so much in common with each other.

When we only hear one story, one narrative, we have a very narrow and often false impression of the world and the other people in it. Each semester in my World Literature class, I show this excellent Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en

We give in to our one view of something far too easily. By hearing a second and a third story, we turn our perspective into a 3D image, a richer, more authentic tapestry.

Other Realities

Other human lives, realities, and experiences are as valid as my own. I don’t have to agree with someone’s worldview in order to value and appreciate it. In exposing ourselves to these other worldviews, we gain a better understanding of the many realities that people live on our planet and this builds empathy for those that on the surface may seem so very different from us. Yet we all have many of the same cares, concerns, desires, and hopes.

I’ve learned to appreciate the absurdity of life and it’s bizarre coincidences from reading the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, particularly One Hundred Years of Solitude. I recently enjoyed relating to the reluctantly caring curmudgeon in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, because it so well highlights the structure and orderliness prevalent in northern European countries and that it can go too far. The grim future of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death presented me with not only the desperate lives some people navigate but also the extreme courage of going up against the fearsome spectres of our past. I was challenged by Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, particularly in how we deal with hopelessness and despair.

I’ve written before about Octavia E. Butler but would be remiss not to bring her up here again. No other writer of fiction has more changed how I view the world. On the surface, we would seem to have little in common, yet I feel a kinship with her. I’ve learned how we can build truly diverse communities, how we work towards constructing identities when we seem to be made up of conflicting parts, the importance of negotiating with and accepting what seems alien to us, and how nurturing, caring family should be at the heart of our relationships.

So my challenge for you is to read something from a country or culture you have little experience with. And that might even be your own: my World Literature class each semester is filled with students from Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, and other countries; many of these students have never read a text from their home country, so I encourage that they choose something from there for their ‘book of choice’ project. Initially sticking to your favorite genres can offer an avenue in; spend some time doing research on which people from other countries are known to write them and then go out and buy/borrow those books. And when you come across something that you don’t agree with, that makes you somewhat uncomfortable, or causes you to question your own worldview, don’t shy away from that—use that as an excuse to critically reflect on the world around you. You don’t have to change your religion, give up your foundational beliefs, or toss your worldview aside to truly appreciate and value the lives other people live. Lean into the difference and just maybe it will help build greater understanding, appreciation, and empathy towards those who on the surface don’t seem to have much in common with you.

Dear Class of 2020

Dear Class of 2020,

I’d like to tell you a little story:

There was once a bottle, freshly made of glistening glass, waiting. This bottle had high hopes for its future, wondering what would fill it, where it would be sent, and who would open it. The bottle had watched all those before it filled with rich fluids, corked, labeled, and carefully packaged into cushioned crates. It dreamed often of what grand adventures it would have.

Then something happened.

The long procession of bottles before it was interrupted; this bottle was cast from its place, chipped at the rim, and discarded. The bottle was taken from the lineup, was not filled, corked, or labeled and instead flung out into a wild and harsh world.

But it did not break.

Its fall was cushioned by the violently lapping waves of a stormy sea. Tossed to and fro by the winds, it sought to grasp onto something, anything. It looked for a direction, a purpose, a lighthouse hope. But all it saw was more water, higher waves, and it despaired. It had had such clear images of its future and those had been taken. Now, seemingly empty, it floated in a tempestuous desolation.

Except it wasn’t quite empty.

In case you haven’t caught on, you’re the bottle. My heart grieves for your loss, for the blank canvas before you that you know not how to start painting on. I wish I had more than words to give you, but then I’m reminded that words are powerful. So hear this: you are not an empty bottle. You carry with you what you choose to.

Carry fire. Keep your passions lit, your desires warm, and embrace the kindled power of hope. I know you to be a very passionate, warm, and delightful group of students. You’ve provided light and will always do so. Continue to dream of what your future may hold, because I promise that those dreams are still possible, no matter how different they may look once you get to them. Care deeply, love strongly, and carry your fire.

Carry tenderness. It seems easier to harden oneself, to put up walls, and to brace oneself for impact. Distanced pessimism may be a temporary insulator, but in the long run, it makes you brittle. Tenderness is malleable, changing, giving, and resilient. Be vulnerable with your friends, your family; embrace your pain and grapple with it head on rather than thoughtlessly pushing it away. Then, extend that tenderness to others. Be compassionate, show your sorrows, and carry your tenderness.

Carry a message. The words you carry in your heart are the ones that will be poured out of you. From the store-houses of your inner being you will create the fabric of your reality. Which words will you carry with you? When darkness and silence threaten to suffocate, listen to the words of faith, hope, and love. Then share that message with others; rather than hoarding the words of life within the confines of your being, instead be the light that shines those words outward. Shine hope, share light, and carry your message.

One bright morning, the bottle washed up on a distant shore. It stuck in the soft sands, was gently washed by the receding surf, waiting. And then it was picked up, dusted off, and carefully carried home. It held forever an honored place upon the mantel of time, glittering in the firelight, exuding tenderness, and always proclaiming its message.

Class of 2020, we’ve been through a lot. You are groundbreaking in so many ways; your hearts speak loudly and your laughter is contagious. I hope to see many of you again in the future (perhaps very soon), to hear your stories, to enjoy your company. The time we spent together is past, but our remembrances we can carry with us. So whatever storms threaten to dash you against the rocks, whatever waves carry you across the seas, whatever shores you may land on, know that you are loved, appreciated, and will be missed. Remember: your message is important, share your tenderness, and you are the fire.

Sincerely from a teacher,
Jens Hieber

All English Teachers Should Write

I’ve been writing stories since middle school. They weren’t any good (and some of mine now still aren’t) but I was writing. I didn’t start caring about the craft of writing until I had stories of my own I needed to tell. My drive to master the mechanics, conventions, and forms of writing came when I had a reason to learn them.

I now write a ton: short stories, novel projects, poetry, blog posts, random snippets, essays for my masters degree, etc. A few weeks ago, I wrote an in-class essay with my AP students just to remind myself how hard it is to craft coherent thoughts in such a short span of time. In the past when I’ve come into busy times that necessitate less writing, those muscles atrophied.

Occasionally, I’ve spoken to people that consider themselves writers but admit that they don’t read books. This is baffling; how can someone write if they don’t read? Even if their focus is screen writing, or they’re mainly interested in television-style storytelling, their output is still in words. Understanding the craft of writing is twofold: writing practice and reading input.

It occurred to me that this translates in the other direction as well. How can someone teach writing or the analysis of literature if they don’t write themselves? Not that it’s impossible, but the depth of understanding isn’t the same. When my students ask me about how I know that the author put that symbol in intentionally, I can knowledgeably say that there’s no way to accidentally put in that many cohesive references to the same object, all tied to a particular idea or theme. Strong writing does not happen by accident.

Similarly, my understanding of poetry has grown proportionally with how much of it I’ve written. It shows me the depth of thought, the understanding of rhythm, and the dedication to word-smithing of each poet and how far I am from writing like a Mary Oliver or a Gerard Manley Hopkins. My admiration and appreciation for their work has grown because of my own fumbled attempts.

I don’t actually think it makes that much difference what we write. The process of getting thoughts, images, ideas, emotions onto paper is hard. Authors, poets, playwrights, they frequently discuss in interviews or essays how time-consuming and difficult the process is. It can be agonizing. When we only receive the end-product, we don’t appreciate the process. By experiencing the process ourselves, we better understand the magnitude of the task undergone in writing a work as seemingly simple as The Old Man and the Sea. The language is not hard, the plot is straight forward, structure is almost simplistic. My 10th grade self thought it was the dumbest book I’d ever read.

I’ve started engaging in a practice called ‘copywork’. This time-honored process was quite a common way of teaching writing. Essentially, one copies the works of great writers by hand, a few pages at a time. I was somewhat skeptical at first and skipped through the works of various science fiction authors I admired. I’d copy out a page here and another there, really getting a feel for their language. Then I started copying out The Old Man and the Sea in full. It’s spectacular. I teach it every year, I’ve spent time with this text, I’ve read it many times. And now, in copying it out, I have a whole new appreciation for how Hemingway writes. Even just a few pages in, I noticed details, structures, individual words that had slipped me by in all my previous readings.

So yes, all English teachers should write. Create a short story, a poem, write an essay along with students, write an analytical piece on a work of fiction, etc. I’m most excited to teach writing when I’m fired up about my own plans. When my 10th grade Honors class participates in NaNoWriMo each year, I do it right along with them and find that this not only inspires them, but I’m simultaneously driven forward by their engagement. I can guide them in writing fiction precisely because I’ve worked on my own craft for so long. I can show them how to do great research, how to incorporate their sources well, how to analyze a quote, because that’s what I’m needing to do in my own writing.

English teachers should find time and space to write because when we’re passionate and engaged in writing, it makes our analysis of literature come more alive and our teaching of writing gains depth.

Copywork and its benefits: https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/want-to-become-a-better-writer-copy-the-work-of-others/

I Am a Cat

I recently finished reading Soseki Natsume’s I Am a Cat, and shortly after I finished, Findus handed me the below reflections and insisted I publish them for him. So here you go.

I am a Cat. The name they’ve given me is Findus. It’s as good a name as any, I guess; occasionally, I’ll even look at them when they call me. They took me in when I was very young, so I’m grateful for that. I call them Whiskers and the Plant Lady.

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They got new sofas a few months ago. At first, it was really scary because all these men came into the house to take away the sticky brown furniture and then other men came and dropped off the biggest boxes in the whole world. I went and hid under the covers of the bed for a while, but then Whiskers and the Plant Lady started putting the new sofa together and I thought it looked interesting.

They kept shooing me away so I sat in one of the big boxes. It was bigger than all the food I’m ever going to eat. I don’t know how they got it through the door, but this cardboard palace was so spacious I could run circles inside it without ever bumping into a wall. It smelled kind of woodish.

When they finally had the couches put together, I had to sniff them and realized that they were a lot more comfortable than the other ones. I like the arm-rests because they’re flat and make for excellent perches. And napping spots.

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A few weeks ago, they took the plastic tree down again that they’d only just put up. They do this every year, hang all these shiny toys on it that we’re not allowed to play with, then take it back down. The best parts are the string and the box. The whole tree fits into the box, which is silly because I also fit into the box. And they use a string to tie it all up, which is great fun to follow. Plus, it both amuses and frustrates Whiskers.

It’s the only plant that isn’t on the balcony or the Holy Kitchen. Probably because it’s the only one I won’t eat. Pixel tries tied to eat the plastic tree a few times, constantly going back and then spitting out the little green bits. Silly little brother. They’re not nearly as fun as the real ones on the balcony.

There’s a little cactus on the table out there, which has this alluring orange bulb on the top. I know it’s spiney, but it just looks like it would fit into my mouth. I ate a cactus once…at least part of it. Not super tasty, but somehow very satisfying. It’s a great way to get their attention. If they try to ignore me, I get real close to a cactus (or one of the airplants hanging out there) and open my mouth. It certainly gets the Plant Lady’s attention.

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One time, I caught a bat. The wonderfully predictable sun had set as usual, the humans had turned on all the lights and I’d been fed only a little late. I’d already made two rounds of the living room and was just settling down on the fuzzy red carpet when it happened.

The bat flew right in through the open balcony door, then immediately back out the other one and completed that circle a few times. After that, as though it can’t see or something, it got stuck and whirred around in consecutive figure eights, which I attempted to follow. Unfortunately, it kept flying around so high up that I couldn’t get to it and it was so fast it didn’t really give me the option to jump at it.

The fan decided to lend a helping paw and swatted the pesky bat out of the air for me. It dropped like a pen pushed off the table and I was right on it. That little bat was so squirmy and wiggly and kept trying to get away. Why can’t the humans get me toys like the bat instead of those squeaky mice? With Pixel in tow, I took my treasure and tried to run into my nap room to properly play with it.

Then Whiskers got angry. I mean he doesn’t usually move quickly or speak loudly, but now he was running after me, trying to swat at my tail, yelling something about letting go and me getting sick. I didn’t feel sick, but wouldn’t let up. He followed me into my nap room, so I tried running into the human’s sleeping room, but he kept after me. So I scurried back under the dining table, but that’s when he got me, grabbed my scruff—very ungently—and made me spit the bat out.

Not sure what Whiskers did with it because he put me in the nap room and closed the door. Maybe he wanted to eat it himself. They sometimes put food on the fire or in pots and frying pans, so perhaps he was hungry. When he finally let me back out, I tried sniffing around for it under the table, but it was gone.

Next time, I’ll make sure to catch the bat when Whiskers isn’t looking so he can’t take my toy away.

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I’m going to go check the food bowl again. I know it was empty, but maybe if I let out just a little yowl, they’ll take pity on me. I tell Whiskers the bowl is empty and he just responds that it isn’t time yet. They have this weird fixation with the clock on the wall; don’t they understand that food doesn’t work that way?

I have learned though that the meowing doesn’t really work well. My new tactic is to just keep bothering them. Rather than annoying them with noise, I just go sit on them. Both Plant Lady and Whiskers have pretty good laps and they seem to like it when I sit on them. I’ve tried to convince Pixel that it’s a great way to get their attention, but he likes his feet on the ground.

Occasionally, they have their electronic devices there, or these books that they’re constantly reading. But if I nudge long enough, using the corners to scratch my jaw, they’ll eventually give in. And if I sit on them and purr long enough, they’ll usually refill my food bowl.

Maybe I’ll go to the balcony and take a nap in the sun. Or bother Whiskers at whatever ‘important’ task he seems to be working on now.

In which I try to eat a highlighter

Man of Steel

I have an uneasy relationship with superhero movies. As a lover of SF and fantasy, I appreciate the transcendent and speculative nature of the stories and characters. As someone that enjoys mindless action movies to unwind, the power and motion of the action-sequences are often mesmerizing. But as a teacher of literature, I’m also at times underwhelmed by the storytelling and a lack of subtlety in how the themes are presented.

That said, one of my favorite superhero films from the recent decade is Zack Snyder’s ‘Man of Steel’ (not a particularly popular choice, I know). I found that it was able to combine many of the above elements in a way that other superhero films were not. I appreciate a lot of the Marvel films as well, but ‘Man of Steel’ followed in the steps of Nolan’s Batman trilogy (which I still hold up as perhaps the best superhero films ever made) in how it dealt with being simultaneously human and super-human, having responsibility, and weaving themes into the dialogue and scenes.

Hans Zimmer—in what I find to be one of his best soundtracks—manages to capture the many dichotomies that bring tension to the film. The slow, rising themes that give way to strength and powerful expression make for a great background to what Snyder and Nolan are doing in the rest of the film.

The opening introduces a few of the dichotomies, laying them out for the view: the future is at stake, particularly because of what happened in the past. Much of this tension centers around energy, which is depicted by the respective suns of krypton and earth. The sun is setting on krypton, but earth’s sun (where Kal-El gets his power) is much younger. There is hope and potential there.

There’s also a conflict between biology and technology and how those should be related to each other. The misuse of technology, a common thread in a lot of SF, is directed specifically to genetic manipulation. In a Brave New World scenario of prescribed social classes, it’s easy to side with Jor-El in his desire to free his son and future generations from the destiny being encoded into their genes. The natural childbirth in the first scene, compared with the uncomfortable eugenics proposed by Zod, lays bare the beliefs of freedom and individual choice. Even in their modes of transport, these values hold true: Jor-El flies on a giant dragonfly while Zod has some technological version of the same being, choosing the control, purpose and power over the need to care for a living being.

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The constant back and forth between large and small is perhaps what makes this film so fascinating to me. An entire planet explodes; raindrops fall into a bucket of clothespins. A confused young Clark tries to make sense of school; A world-engine tries to terraform earth, destroying all humans. Kal flies halfway around the world, hovering briefly above earth; Clark sits quietly beside his mother on the porch-steps of a farm in Kansas. Every scene of power and explosions, of toppling buildings and destruction, is matched by one of peace, of beautiful harmony. There is a tenderness at work here that I haven’t seen in other superhero films.

This tenderness is the central theme: superman is not about strength or weakness, but about gentleness. The most frequent criticism I hear about superman as a hero is that he’s too powerful, that there’s not enough potential for physical conflict and that the story lines often feel contrived to provide that conflict. I heard similar criticisms of the recent ‘Captain Marvel’ film. But that’s only taking the physical conflict into account, while a good story ties that physical conflict to internal conflict. When a character like superman is so overwhelmingly powerful, it brings into focus that internal conflict, which I find ‘Man of Steel’ did to excellent effect.

One of the best sermons I’ve heard was about how gentleness is not weakness. Gentleness implies strength held in check. Weakness is not having strength. Gentleness is having strength but having control over it. In the conflict between Kal and Zod, I saw the physical out-workings of strength, both checked and unchecked. Many critics didn’t like this film for the sheer destruction of the surroundings and how it appeared to contradict the stated responsibilities superman should have had for collateral damage. But it is in the contrast between such raw power and its controlled use that the greatness of the character comes through.

This, he learned from his fathers, both his earthly father and his heavenly father (I’ll get to the religious allusions momentarily). Jor-El understands power, but sends Kal to earth to understand what it means to care for others. This he learns from Jonathan Kent, a man apparently driven by fear of the exposure of his son. And yet, he dies saving a dog, giving up his life for a helpless creature in the face of a raging storm. Kal’s fathers are two sides of the same coin, representing responsibility and hope (the kryptonian symbol on superman’s chest). Kal naturally has power, but he uses it with responsibility to bring hope, which works itself out to gentleness. Viewers see that gentleness portrayed throughout the film, from young Clark holding himself back from retaliating against bullies, to him playing with his dog, to the way he embraces Lois and his mother. It’s in contrast to this that the sheer destruction of the fights stands out so strongly. Yes, innocent people died; yes, Metropolis was in parts a wasteland; yes, Kal’s choice to fight caused destruction. But without that expression of power, the gentleness means nothing. By providing both extremes throughout the film, the viewer sees the goodness of Kal’s choices as he continually gives of himself and his strength for the good of mankind.

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He is fully human, even as his biology is fully alien. He is fully god and fully man. He’s a boy of Kansas and a superhuman from Krypton. The allusions to Christ are not subtle, particularly when he gives himself over to untrustworthy rulers that send him to a death of sorts. But the conversation the film-makers have with these allusions are quite nuanced. It emphasizes the value of being human and of the importance to choose what we will do with our lives; it points to the need for using our strengths selflessly, rather than using them to fulfill simply our own desires; it elevates the need for hope and trust, placing trust in others even when they haven’t earned it yet and living in such a way as to provide hope for those that cannot see it.

What this film did was to provide a balance I have rarely seen in a superhero film. He was human and more than human. He continually exudes power but also gentleness. He deals with the confusion and anguish of being human not by running away or finding solace in some kind of macho-strength, but in embracing the quiet, the love of his mother, the sacrifice of his father.

‘Man of Steel’ took the time to tell a story, not just with physical conflict, but of a character who is perhaps more human than any other in the film, despite his transcendent capabilities. There was a large scale of destruction on a world-wide level, some of it caused by superman, but there was also time for quiet reflection and the grains of wood on an empty swing. This is a superhero film able to capture what it means to be human.

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On Swearing*

*contains some swearwords

I have a theory on why words start sounding really weird if we repeat them over and over. Mostly, when we use language, we’re not actually thinking about the sounds that our mouths are forming, but the meaning attached to those sounds. Listening to a foreign language is just sounds without meaning, but we can achieve the same effect in a language that we’re fluent in.

Take the word ‘smuggle’. It makes me think of travelers hiding contraband in suitcases, pirates and treasure, refugees huddling in a small boat, a student unobtrusively pulling his phone from his pocket. But what if I say the word out loud…several times. Smuggle. Smuggle. Smuggle. I might consider other, related words. Smeagol. Muggle. Mug. Smug. The more often I repeat the word, the more distance I gain from the meanings and connotations of the word and the more I just hear the sound my mouth is making. Smuggle. Smuggle. Smuggle. What a weird sounding word.

The truth is, we can do that with almost any word. Words are just sounds and scratch-marks on paper. Yes, those sounds and marks carry a lot of meaning, but only to someone who speaks the same language. Otherwise, it’s gibberish. We rarely think about how weird it is that we put ink to paper or yell random sounds at people because we’re so caught up in the meaning we’re conveying. And that’s a good thing. That’s one of the reasons why learning a language is so hard…the sounds and the meaning are not automatically connected.

Swear words occupy an interesting place in most languages. They’re often the first words that a foreigner will learn, they are often short and have harsh sounds. They’re usually related to either religious meaning (in a sacrilegious manner) or bodily functions. And they’re also entirely cultural and part of a particular language. A word that is considered absolutely taboo in one language might mean something completely different in another, even though the sounds are exactly the same. Or, in one language a word might be harmless, while the equivalent word in another might be a grave insult, even though they refer to the same thing.

Swear words depend a lot less on the literal definition (denotation) than on the other, associated, and less literal meanings (connotation) of a word. Kaka, doodoo, feces, poop, crap, shit. They all mean the same thing, right? In Germany, ‘scheisse’ has about the equivalent meaning of ‘crap’ in English. My 12 year old self didn’t understand that, so after spending a few months in Germany and then returning to my somewhat conservative American school in Kenya, I couldn’t understand why I’d gotten in trouble for using the word ‘shit’.

I since understand better why people can become offended when they hear certain words. Our background, cultural history, and experiences shape how we interact with language. In some cases, the words themselves cause a visceral reaction in people. Unfortunately, as with other words, swear words can be used to harm people. I’d argue that it is the intent, much more than the words themselves, that cause the harm. I’d also suggest that seeking to profane another’s beliefs is not only disrespectful but shows a lack of consideration for others.

And yet, there are times and places that I find swear words necessary. Humor often relies on knowledge of the audience, shock factors, and double meanings; swear words allow for those and can have the desired effect of making the audience laugh. Also, because of their connotations, and the force with which they convey meaning, expression, and reaction, swear words can be useful. Even the most conservative, anti-swearing person uses interjections. Damn it, danggit, dangnabit, doggone, daggum. They’re all bastardizations of the same word. No one gets mad at someone for yelling ‘Sugar’ when they stub their toe, but let’s not kid ourselves that the purpose is the strong ‘Sh’ sound at the beginning there and how close it gets to ‘shit’.

I’d argue that swear words are a matter of context. As with the rest of our words, we shouldn’t use them to harm each other—but let’s not pretend we can’t do that plenty well without swear words. As with all language, we need to modulate its usage to the given situation. For example, I wouldn’t talk to a doctor who is examining me in a hospital in the same way I would to a friend while playing futsal. The way I speak to my parents is different from how I speak to my students. We all adjust the formality, level of vocabulary, content, and type of speech we use depending on the audience, the situation, and the context.

There is nothing inherently wrong with most words. (Though there are some that have gained such a history of misuse and abuse directed at particular people groups, that they have lost all other meaning. For example, see Ta-Nehisi Coates articulate response on use of the n-word: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QO15S3WC9pg&ytbChannel=null). The rest, is just a matter of context. I tell this to students when I hear them swearing at school. School is not the right context; school is a place of many different people coming together, a place of elevated thought and learning. The context is more formal and so the informality of swear words are unsuited to the place. Unless we’re studying a text in English and need to consider the meanings and connotations of a swear word, let’s leave it at home. Besides, if we can avoid offending people that are less comfortable with the use of swear words, then let’s be respectful of them. Later, when the student is playing video games and yelling to their friends online, they can swear after getting shot, as that is a more appropriate context than school.

As an English teacher, I always advocate for taking the time to use the right words for the right situation. Having a disagreement with your spouse? Probably not the right time for a swear word. Writing a story with a salty Major in a combat situation? Yes, you’ll likely want a swear word or two. Speaking to your friend’s grandparents for the first time? Maybe don’t swear. Hanging out with a good friend and you burn the rice? Sure, go ahead—it might be cathartic.

In everything, context, deliberation, and respecting those in the vicinity.