Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Once A Teacher

There is much that is wrong and bad in education.  It fills articles and podcasts, and quite frankly I don't really need to read any more of it.  That's why I don't take to social media to air my problems.  Actually there are several reasons I don't take to social media to air my problems, chief among them that I am an adult.

Yet we all have days when a thousand different cuts begin to threaten death and we need to reach out to someone, and there is no one better than a colleague to understand what you are going through.  You do need clear perspective, though, and complaining to a colleague in your school can prove counterproductive.  It can lead to a general session of whining that brings you both down, or worse, it can help spread ill will throughout the school.  This is bad and should be avoided at all costs.  If a building-level colleague can be a proper support for you, then lean on that person and offer the same in return, but if your conversation is merely to rehash old grievances, it does little good and more likely brings harm.

Enter colleagues from a distance.  Colleagues at another school, in another district, or in another state know what it is like to be a teacher.  They understand the core issues we all face, but not being involved in the particulars of your situation, they can provide some balance, some perspective.  This invaluable, and it is why networking is so vitally important.  I am deeply grateful for colleagues across the country and around the world.  Whether we talk frequently or infrequently, I know that they can listen and provide the kind of feedback I need to get up off the mat and back into the ring.  Hopefully I can offer the same to them.

And then there is a special circle that few get to enter, the circle of colleagues who were once your own teachers.  A few years ago I had emailed one of my former high school teachers who is still teaching Latin in another state.  Apparently my messages were grim enough to concern her, for as my family arrived at a restaurant on a Friday night, I felt my phone go off in my pocket.  It was from Marcene.  She wanted to talk, for she was worried about me.  She gave me some practical advice (have student helpers alphabetize your tests and quizzes so the grades are easy to input, saving you time), but most important was the love and care she showed.  She was worried about her former student, now a teacher, and wanted to call.

I am writing this post because it just happened again.  I had messaged Marcene yesterday with a few of the thousand cuts that were starting to bleed me dry.  This was even before the day stretched into a fifteen hour monster thanks to back-to-school night and I arrived home utterly exhausted and having sweated through every stitch of my clothing five times over.  This afternoon I was working on a letter of recommendation when my phone lit up.  Marcene was video calling me.  Once again, she was concerned for her former student.  Now, I have been teaching for more than twenty-five years, but that made no difference.  She was there to offer advice and to remind me of the higher calling that has nothing to do with foolish things like tests and evaluations and administrivia.  She did not use these words, but she was reminding me to mount up with wings as an eagle, to run and not be weary, to walk and not be faint.  She did this because she is a teacher and my friend.

Who plays that role in your life?  For whom do you play it?  Hamlet may have felt he could be the king of infinite space even when bounded in a nutshell, but the four walls of a classroom can become, well, just a tightly bound nutshell.  We need our colleagues if we are to run our race to completion.  I hope you have someone as special as my former teacher, now colleague, Marcene is for me.  If not, find that person, and be that person for someone else.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Discovering Secrets

Indagatio ipsa rerum cum maximarum tum etiam occultissimarum habet oblectationem.  Si vero aliquid occurrit, quod veri simile videatur, humanissima completur animus voluptate.  (Cicero, Academica II.XLI.127)

"The investigation itself of very important and at the same time quite obscure matters holds pleasure.  If indeed it happens that something like the truth is discovered, one's spirit is filled with a most human pleasure."

My first discovery of what seemed like secret knowledge occurred in high school.  Although it was a public high school, we were reading in Latin the text of the Christmas story from the Bible during a Latin club activity.  When we came to Luke 2:14, I had to hide my emotion, for it simply would not have been cool to express the giddiness overtaking me.  The rendering I knew from both the carol "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing" and the King James Version was, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men," yet the Vulgate had, "gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis."  I knew enough Latin to realize this was not at all what the versions I knew said.  The Latin translates, "glory in the highest to God and on earth peace in men of good will."  The English of the carol and the KJV make it seem as if the phrase "good will" is parallel to "peace," but if so, it would have been in the nominative case in Latin, yet the Vulgate has it in the genitive.  Furthermore, those English renderings suggest universality, whereas the Latin indicates that the peace on earth is limited to those of good will rather than good will being for everyone.  Theological thoughts aside, I was beside myself.  While I was not reading the Latin from any special edition, and it might even have been from a Xeroxed copy, I felt as if I had stumbled into something wonderful, the truth.  Here in my high school hands was the Latin text of the Bible, and it was different from the English that I had known.  I now knew something I supposed others did not.  I was reading the original, or as close to it as I had come, and in so doing I had discovered a secret.

There is great pleasure for anyone in discovering a thing, and for young people especially, it can seem like a gateway into something almost magical.  I have made many more linguistic discoveries in Latin and Greek over the years, and they have all thrilled me, but these days I get as much joy out of seeing the light of discovery and revelation flare in the eyes of my own students when they suddenly make a connection between a Latin root and its English derivative or in the meaning imparted to a line of poetry by Vergil's masterful word choice or word order.

Those "a ha" moments are indeed the perks of being an educator, but they are much more.  They are what education is all about, for the eureka moment is shared human experience.  Everyone knows that feeling, and, truth be told, everyone wants it.  There is a natural curiosity in people and a natural thrill in discovery.  Oh, it may be something you have long known, but for the person just finding it, it is a moment of pure revelation.

Celebrate those times of discovery in your classrooms.  Let your eyes widen and a smile stretch across your face as you join in the thrill of a student who has discovered something.  For as Cicero also said,

Qui esset tantus fructus in prosperis rebus, nisi haberes, qui illis aeque ac tu ipse gauderet?  (Cicero, De Amicitia 22)

"How great would be the benefit in favorable circumstances if you did not have someone who would rejoice in them as much as you do?"

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Bell Is Tolling

Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.

I am a human being:  I think nothing pertaining to that which is human is alien to me.  Terence, Heauton Timoroumenos, 77

There is no end to the issues that can prompt people of good will and vocabulary to start screaming obscenities.  It is easy to find such provocation anywhere and even easier to yield to it.  The afternoon of September 11, 2001, just as we were learning that the United States had been attacked, my students begged me to turn on the television, but I told them I would not do so.  It was not that what we were doing in class was more important, but at that moment I was not about to allow terrorists to steal from us what was rightfully ours, the opportunity to learn.  They had already stolen too much, and I was not about to concede one inch to them, and I explained that to my students.  For a similar reason I will not yield to the temptation to rant and rave about racism or any other sin in our country.  There is too much ranting and raving these days and, quite frankly, I have better things to do.

One such better thing is to teach my students tomorrow.  Monday morning I will enter my classroom and encounter what sometimes feels like an unrelenting schedule:  six, 50-minute periods of six separate classes (Latin I, Latin II, Latin III, Latin IV AP, and Latin V IB) filled with over 180 students.  Lest you think I teach at a private school, know that mine is a large, urban, public high school in Indianapolis with more than 3,800 students, wide ethnic diversity, and a free/reduced lunch rate at nearly fifty percent.  Oh, and according to one recent report, we are the eighth best public high school in the state.

I teach Latin, and because the Roman playwright Terence was correct, I am called to teach my students as widely and deeply as I can.  We discuss it all in my classes, from quantum physics to music, with history, grammar, art, government, poetry, warfare, love, and literature along the way.  I often joke that my students can drop all their other classes, for we cover the whole spectrum of humane studies in Latin.

The anchoring quotation for all our classes is this one by Cicero, the first century B.C. statesman:

Ceteros pudeat si qui ita se litteris abdiderunt ut nihil possint ex eis neque ad communem adferre fructum, neque in aspectum lucemque proferre.

Let others be ashamed if they have so hidden themselves in literature that they can bring forth nothing from it for the common benefit or into the light to be seen.  Cicero, Pro Archia, 12

This line has become the foundation for our flagship community service project (we do others as well) in which our students read aloud the entirety of the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid one Saturday each April to raise money to fight poverty in Indianapolis.  We call it Reading The War On Poverty, and this year will be the tenth anniversary of this project that has raised over $1,000.00 each year.  In honor of this, we will be inviting alumni to participate as well as current students, and we have set the goal of raising $10,000 for our tenth anniversary in April of 2018.  You can find out more about the project here and can get involved here.

Young men and young women of different backgrounds and identities have been inspired by their studies of the language and culture of people two thousand years removed and half a world away to do something of true value in their own community.  They could just as well have found inspiration in the words of another of my favorite authors, John Donne, who famously wrote, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."  (from Meditation 17)

The classroom bell will soon toll for me, and I will not have time to rant and rave about the sins of our age.  I have better things to do, as I hope you do, and if one of those should be helping young people in their better work of Reading The War On Poverty, then I hope indeed you will join them here.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Self-Indulgent Rock and Roll Post #3

R.E.M. once had an album titled Life's Rich Pageant.  I think of that phrase whenever I reflect on the wildly different threads, so intricately woven, that form the tapestry of life, and yes, I know I am mixing metaphors here.  Can there be only one metaphor to capture the complex beauty of human life?  How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand indeed.

Part of my life's rich pageant involves classic rock, hard rock, and heavy metal.  I love these kinds of music.  Nothing else even comes close.  Okay, blues comes close.  And some country.  And the classic hymns.  Gotta love the '80s pop, too.  Throw in some Motown and ballads while you're at it and don't forget the crooners.  But on a regular basis, it is the sounds of rock and metal that blast through my speakers as I drive to and from school each day.

A few nights ago, a dream came true when I interviewed Michael Sweet, founder and lead singer/guitarist of Stryper and Sweet & Lynch and also a former member of Boston.  Yeah, that's right, a high school Latin teacher got to interview one of his rock heroes, a guy who has enjoyed multi-platinum success and tours to millions around the world.

Back up the story to around 1985.  My youth minister, John Cutshall, introduced me to a cassette tape of Soldiers Under Command by a Christian metal band called Stryper, and I went to Beethoven's, the music store in Greentree Mall in Clarksville, Indiana, and purchased it.  It went straight into my Sony Walkman and hardly left.  Okay, I did put it in my boom box so I could play it for my grandma one Sunday.  I told her it was church music.  The point is, I was hooked and immediately went back to Beethoven's to get their debut album, The Yellow And Black Attack.

When I bought their album To Hell With The Devil in 1986, I had no idea I was getting such a rare treasure by purchasing the cassette with the controversial "angel" cover that was quickly replaced for later issues.  This album led to one of the iconic rock poster's of the '80s gracing my bedroom door and my first rock concert ever when I saw the band perform in Louisville, Kentucky.

When Stryper released their fourth and fifth albums, In God We Trust and Against The Law, I snapped them up as fast as I could get to College Mall in Bloomington, Indiana.  Studying to become a Latin teacher at Indiana University for many reasons, including my introduction to cable television and MTV, which played videos by Stryper, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi and even had a show dedicated to the greatest musical form on the planet called Headbangers Ball.  The Stryper albums I purchased in those years were on the still relatively new format of the compact disc, which meant hair metal in all its digital glory cranked to 11.

And then came the long cold winter.  The band pursued other projects, and it was not until 2003 that I, as a now married man and father, found a new Stryper CD.  It was staring at me from the music rack at Wal-Mart in Westfield, Indiana, and was a compilation with a couple of new tracks.  Was Stryper back on the scene?  A year later saw the release of 7 Weeks:  Live In America, a live album from a tour the previous year that ranks with Deep Purple's famous album Made In Japan as my favorite live recording.  Something was up.  It seemed that Stryper indeed was making a comeback, and that was proved accurate from 2005 to the present.

Since that live album, the band has put out Reborn, The Roxx Regime Demos, Murder By Pride, The Covering, Second Coming, No More Hell To Pay, Live At The Whisky, and Fallen.  During that time Michael Sweet has continued his solo projects, done a stint with Boston, and formed Sweet & Lynch with George Lynch (Dokken, Lynch Mob), James LoMenzo (White Lion), and Brian Tichy (Whitesnake).

After nearly twenty years, I saw Stryper again playing an acoustic show in Pekin, Illinois, in 2014.  I met up with my own former Latin teacher and now colleague, Marcene Farley, and took my son to his first rock concert.  As we waited to enter the venue, Michael came out to meet the crowd, and Marcene got his attention.  I was like a kid myself as my son and I got our pictures with him.  Later that night as the band members tossed Bibles to crowd, I yelled to drummer Robert Sweet, and he tossed one directly to me.  Since then I have seen Stryper twice in fully electric shows and have seen Michael perform solo twice as well.

The first time I saw Michael Sweet play a solo show, I was with my friend Dr. Brad Oliver, an education leader in our state and a huge Stryper fan.  We met Michael afterward, and I gave him a copy of the lyrics to their 1985 hit "Soldiers Under Command" that I had a translated into Latin.  Shortly afterward, he tweeted out a picture of it, and earlier this year he autographed a copy for me.

And that brings us to the present.  When I knew I was going to attend Michael's solo show in Richmond, Indiana, I reached out to him and asked if I could interview him.  Amazingly, he messaged right back and said yes!  I was so excited!

Michael Sweet is a humble and honest man.  His faith in Christ makes him who he is, which is pretty amazing given his incredible talent.  The world is filled with people who elevate themselves, but Michael is a down-to-earth guy and the real deal.  So check out the time a Latin teacher got to interview a rock star!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Of Fountain Pens, School, and Shawshank

It could not matter less that I use fountain pens as I teach in a public high school with over 3,800 students, nearly fifty percent of whom receive free and reduced lunch assistance.  Some may even see it as a shameful extravagance, although I will note that many of the pens in my collection were given to me or passed down through our family.

Yet recall the scene in The Shawshank Redemption in which prisoner Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) plays the duettino from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro over the loud speakers.  Watch that scene again and note Ellis 'Red' Redding's (Morgan Freeman) narration of what it meant to the men who were incarcerated.

I teach Latin and with it the literature and history of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  I deal in the true, the good, and the beautiful for a living, and because true teaching involves an incarnation, an embodiment of the content in the lives of both teacher and student, my life should display the true, the good, and the beautiful on a regular basis.

No, there is nothing false about using a ballpoint, and using a fountain pen does not make a person good.  There is, however, something beautiful and elegant about a fountain pen, both in its external features and the way in which it transfers thought to paper.  If nothing else, it is eye catching, and I have had numerous students comment on my pens over the years.  They ask where I got them, how much they cost, and whether I will let them try one.  The answer to the last is yes, of course.  And there is the direct historical link to reed pens used by the ancients and the quills of the Medieval scribes, all of which we study in a unit on paleography, epigraphy, and calligraphy in Latin III.

Yet the true value they bring to my day is through elegance.  They offer a bit of elegance in an often inelegant world, and they show my students that the beauty of human thought expressed through elegant means can achieve a certain sublimity, which, after all, is as necessary for the human soul as food is for the body.  Perhaps, then, precisely because I teach in the school I do, where much of life is hard for many, it actually matters that the Latin teacher uses fountain pens.

The Pelikan, with Regal Purple for grading, and Waterman, with Empyrean Blue for general writing, with which I am beginning this school year.