Graduation Address for the Class of 2020

Hello P3ers and honored quests. It has been a strange year, with traditions great and small cast aside while anxiety and fears gripping the hearts of many.  Joy and hope, however, endures. It always does. Always. I often end my school year with a graduation address delivered to my P3 class at NFA but, alas, that is impossible. Therefore, I have decided to post it here – so, for my P3 class and any visitors who find their way here: this one is for you. Let this be our last lesson.

A Wonderful Place to Start

The great Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, “I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come” (Mandela 460).
Consider that thought, especially as you prepare to leave the campus of the Norwich Free Academy for the last time as a student. The campus is a beautiful place, so breath deep and enjoy the “glorious vista that surrounds.” Come for a final walk and allow the grandeur of Slater Museum (we have a museum on campus for crying out loud) to impress rather than simply be the place you waited for a ride home. Allow the cherry blossoms to serenely guide you to the center of campus like an old friend simultaneously saying hello and goodbye. Your campus can be looked upon with fresh eyes if you push the mind beyond familiarity.
Please do, however, consider this idea: a place’s beauty is never the physical surroundings alone. A building, no matter how impressive the architecture, is an empty husk without the people who bring soul to cold stone and brick. They are part of your story and you, part of theirs.
This is your last lesson but I would not be me if I did not assign some homework. As you marvel at the victories won, obstacles overcome, and the memories created allow me to posit this idea: an appreciative heart adds joy to your life. I challenge you to test my hypothesis by considering the people who made a difference for you along the way. Maybe your parents, an uncle or aunt, a (heaven forbid) teacher, or coach. The list is almost limitless. If a particular person brings you a sense of gratitude why not send that individual a heartfelt text, email, or letter? (Old people like letters by the way). Do this not only to express your thanks but because joy felt can only be increased by joy shared.
There is more to this moment than looking back, we must also look ahead…

The Road Goes Ever On and On…

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Early in The Fellowship of the Ring Sam pauses as he and Frodo begin their quest. He notes, “If I take one more step I will be farther from the Shire than I’ve ever been.” I wonder how many of you feel that way? Many reading this will never be back to NFA (or another high school) as a student again. You are about to go farther than you likely realize. Again we turn to Mandela: “We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step in a longer and even more difficult road…” (Mandela 460). Your road will be difficult, make no mistake. I hope I (and all the teachers you encountered along the way) gave you something useful to help you on your way.

An Important Question

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) posited this important question: “Is man, as in his nature till now, prepared to assume dominion over the whole earth?” Heidegger’s intensity is unmistakable – perhaps even off putting – but what an important idea. Not, to be clear, that any individual will have (or should have) dominion over the earth: but can you be worthy of such a position? Can we (can that ever elusive ‘we’ even be found at this point) be worthy of ascending in such a manner? What would that look like and why does it mater?

Too Big a Question…So It Goes

Wouldn’t it be nice if we can simply lift a magic hammer or pull a sword from a stone to confirm our worthiness? That’s not how it goes, but becoming people of character…becoming and training ourselves to be what Philip Zimbardo calls “heroes in waiting” may be one of the most important ideas to consider.

In the movie Lincoln the 16th President extolls his inner circle to garner the final votes needed to pass the 13th Amendment. He declares, “The fate of human dignity is in our hands!” I’m a history teacher. The fate of human dignity will likely never be in my hands. My part in the river of time is not that grand. Such is the case for most people. That, however, is what we call a macro-story – where thousands to millions of lives are in the hands of one or a few. There are also micro-stories – those small stories where an individual’s personal dignity or emotional stability will be in your hands. Will you be ready for that moment? That’s an important part of education and learning. That’s one of the underlying purposes and glories of human interaction; to be of service when another is in emotional, psychological, spiritual, or physical distress and you are equipped to aid him or her. When you do that you become a hero. I hope everyone reading these words shines brightly in those heroic moments.

 

 …Now Far Ahead the Road Has Gone, and I Must Follow it if I can

Follow it if I can. If I can. That’s the whole ballgame. Do you have what it takes to follow the road. Hidden in that phrase, however, is an important nugget of wisdom. You can fall and stumble on the road. You can suffer defeats and have short comings revealed. After all, it doesn’t say “follow the road perfectly”! When the hardships on the road of trials knock yo down, get up and keep following the road…or blaze a new path if necessary. So many stories in P3 focus on the necessity of getting up. Alfred asking Bruce Wayne,“Why do we fall?” The answer, “To learn to get back up.” Rocky Balboa’s famous “It ain’t how hard you hit” speech or Jackie Robinson “living the sermon”in 42. The final word on this topic, perhaps fittingly, goes to the iconic Morgan Freeman speaking in Shawshank Redemption. Simply put, “Get busy living, or get busy dying. Damn Right.” 

Back to Today’s Purpose

Thankfully, this is not that moment. You aren’t here because you have fallen on the road and need inspiration to rise. No, this is a moment to say goodbye and to wish you well.

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This is a time to say thank you. As my students know – even those who had their time with me interrupted by a pandemic – my classroom is a place for discussion and dialogue; and I will miss out conversations.

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This will be our final “conversation.” So goodbye and farewell. Go find your place in the field. In the circle of life. Things won’t always be easy, but just keep swimming with the knowledge a gray haired wizard roots for you from the Shire. Perhaps a token has been granted to you that maybe…just maybe…will help you earn the right to make your mark.

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Out of the Basement (or the best lesson I ever taught)

Earlier this year I posted the news that I had a book due out this spring. Clearly things are strange right now it I am still so please to announce that the eBook of Out of the Basement is available for purchase. You can click here to be sent to Amazon to place an order. The description of the book can be found on Amazon and, if you would like a preview, I posted a rough draft of the first chapter on my blog sometime ago. Click the cover of the book to be sent to that post.

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The Purpose of Stories

From time to time on this site I have emphasized the idea that stories have a purpose beyond entertainment. Specific examples of this were when I praised the speech delivered by Samwise in the post Top Ten Movie Speeches…for now or when praising the great Stan Lee in Thanks, Stan. Fictional characters can move us and fill is with hope, be they super powered or merely super people. Lastly, great stories can guide us to a deeper understanding of our humanity. That concept was presented in my first post, reinforced with a reflection on The Black Pantherand has been the undercurrent of the flowing river of my classroom and my writing for quite some time.  Now, in Out of the Basement, I truly believe I have woven a tale that can not only entertain, but challenge the reader by allowing them to walk though a gripping tale surrounded by six important themes.

  1. The Transformative Power of Art and Music

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We are, as Jungian educator  and writer Carol Pearson taught, story telling creatures. Stories bind us together and build understanding. It’s one of the reasons we love it when grandpa tells the same story for the 100th time…it’s part of our story! When others open their stories to us it is a way of sharing their souls. Music and art are part of these stories. They can inspire, uplift, and propel us on a quest to build up and share our humanity. When life has dropped us to our knees it is not the principles laid out in the Pythagorean theorem or the scientific certainty of the equation Force = Mass x Acceleration that helps us get up and rejoin the fight. But that lyric, that music, that line from the book, movie, or play, or that inspirational image we hold dear that often gets us moving again. In Out of the Basement it is primarily the power of Bruce Springsteen’s music that protagonist Michael Tanner draws strength from.

      2. The Only Way Out is Through

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Once we get moving, where do we go?  There are many paths available, but only one provides true healing and the possibility of greatest growth, and that’s the path through out greatest pain and fears. Bypassing that confrontation does not heal…it causes one to live in a state of avoidance and denial. The bypass may seem better, but it just leaves you weaker in the long run. It’s why Luke had to confront Darth Vader and Simba needed to stand before Scar. For Michael Tanner this path is symbolized by psychological door he must find the strength to open. This door imagery is brilliantly captured on the cover of Out of the Basement, designed by Mumtaz Mustafa.

      3. The Power of True Friendship

Opening the door can seem terrifying. The demons behind it appear too powerful to overcome. The faith, hope, strength, and support of true friends can help us step into the ring. The sage Confucius once noted it is difficult to find people who celebrate our successes without feeling jealous. But when you find them…what a blessing! Michael Tanner has such friends and I hope you do too.

      4. The Necessity of the Open Heart and Mind

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This is not, to be clear, a call to be open minded in the way I often experience the phrase. I am often amazed how many people gauge the open mindedness of others on how much the other person agrees with them. I often feel saddened by the “openminded” around me who merely reek of superiority and demand their opinion is the right one. This is not the openness I am discussing.

Rather, be open to the idea that healing needs to happen and open to assistance along the way. Do you consider yourself strong enough to wrestle you demons? What if you were open to that idea? Are you open to the idea that you will be knocked to the ground by life and you…yes you…have the ability to get up and fight again? To learn new strategies and find new strength. When the open heart and mine is used to build oneself and, by extension, one’s community up it is a powerful weapon! Maybe that’s why the ego uses the verbiage of the open heart to create self-centeredness…if you’re open to that idea.

      5. The Hidden Value of the Past

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Various epigraphs introduce chapters in Out of the Basement. They are utilized for various reasons. One is to reveal how Michael Tanner is inspired by people in the past and how they strove to overcome obstacles and find hope in the darkness. Suffering will always be part of the human condition, but so is overcoming. So is fighting the good fight with all thy might. You’re not alone in your struggle. Four thousand years of effort came before you and there are lessons available for those open to learning.

      6. Healing can be Ugly…and That’s Fine

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The healing journey, as promised in Chapter 1 of Out of the Basement, is a rocky path. We suffer scars and injury along the way. Blood may flow and tears can pour as if we are a storm personified. Not every moment or day can be sunny. Need to sit down and rest weary arms and lick your spiritual wounds. That’s ok. Resting to marshal your strength is necessary. Wallowing without regrouping is not. Things can be ugly and they can get bad but, and I believe this wholeheartedly, a person can get out of their personal basements with the right mindset, support, inspiration, and patience. 

 

Take care of yourself and others! Let us strive to leave no one in the basement.

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Harriet Tubman and the Power of Movies

 

A couple weeks ago I, along with two colleagues, took a group of our high school students to see the movie Harriet. We were in the middle of our Road to the Civil War unit so the timing of the film’s release was perfect. I reminded the class before we went that, even though the film was based on the exploits of Harriet Tubman, movies are made to entertain more than inform. Creative license could be claimed by the writer and director to tell the story they wanted at the cost of historical accuracy. As a history teacher and a true believer in the power of stories I was very pleased by the movie and even more enthused by the conversations with my students following our viewing. Here’s a summation of my conversations with the three classes I brought to the movie theater.

 

Harriet Tubman was fierce! Determined! Strong!…

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One of the first comments all my classes made was how ferocious they found Harriet Tubman. The film left the teen viewers with a clear sense of Harriet’s indomitable will. That alone was worth the price of admission. As a teacher I can have the students read primary source documents extolling her character or explain the perilous nature of her quest, but the experience of seeing those attributes brought to life so effectively on the big screen is something I can’t replicate. This aspect of storytelling was driven home by another exchange in class.

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“Now I get…”

Prior to the movie I taught the students that the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) was devastating to abolitionists, runaways, and conductors of the Underground Railroad. The film had a scene which highlighted this reaction. Two of my classes had students who confessed they were “glad” the scene was in the movie because it “made what you taught make sense.” Seeing the anger and frustration caused by the Fugitive Slave Act played out on the screen strengthened a lesson from class. As a teacher I couldn’t ask for much more from a movie. 

Building Empathy

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Students are taught, around the sixth-grade in my neck-of-the-woods, about the horrors and injustice of slavery. By the time they get to 11th grade there is a little complacency set in about the topic. This attitude is not dismissive of the horror, mind you, but is fueled by the power of teenage confidence in what they know, as in, “Yes, slavery is bad…duh.” 

Harriet, with its PG-13 rating, delivered enough violence, threats, tragedy, and suspense to shake many of my students. In particular they were amazed by the make-up artists. In various scenes people were shown with old scars masterfully and shockingly rendered by the team working on the movie. As one student said, “I didn’t have to see how the scars got there; I pictured it in my head.” Students across the classes shared that reaction, sharing the fact the movie pained them but “in a good way…if that makes sense.” 

It Takes a Team

The students also liked the fact the movie made it very clear how organized and expansive the Underground Railroad was. We had discussed this in class via a documentary but the film was far more memorable. The students particularly liked a scene when Harriet approached her goal of Philadelphia and received unexpected help. They liked it even more when she arrived and, rather than take the city by storm, was portrayed as overwhelmed by the experience of being “free” in a cityscape. She was given directions to an Underground Railroad station and sent to the safe haven with the encouragement, “Walk like you belong here.” Sometimes a single line communicates so much. 

I used these scenes where minor roles in the movie assisted Harriet to discuss how people can sometimes feel overwhelmed and out of place during the journey of their life. At times like these keeping a heart and mind open to helpful voices can be equal parts challenging and rewarding. Heroic actions can be taken by members of the supporting cast. Sometimes the moment of heroism is shown by supporting others on their quests. We are all navigating rivers…maybe we could afford to help our fellow travelers just a touch more than we sometimes do. Wouldn’t it be nice if that lesson stuck? 

 

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I’m Going on an Adventure!

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Thus spake Bilbo Baggins as he rushed along the dirt path from Baggend into an adventure far more perilous and rewarding than he could ever imagine. He did not know where his new and ever expanding road would lead but he was driven to answer the call. I’ve recently answered a call as well and, as I do more often than I should admit, I turn to the Shire for some inspiration.

My road will not lead to an encounter with a dragon and I sincerely hope not to become entangled in a giant spider’s web, but challenges will definitely arise. You see, I have a new book titled Out of the Basement slated for release in May 2020! It has been a good four years in the making and I am increasingly proud of the final result. The current draft of back cover synopsis reads:

 “Michael Tanner is a citizen of two worlds. His outer world as a respected college professor affords him the opportunity to quietly pursue his joy of learning. His inner world, shaped by childhood abuse, is a prison of shame and pain, where he battles mythological monsters that draw power from his nightmarish memories.

Michael has mastered the art of hiding his pain while in full view. He is convinced that the sturdy life into which he has settled is good enough. Michael’s unexpected publishing success, however – with his book Bruce and Buddha: How Rock and Roll and Ancient Wisdom can Guide your Life – pushes him well beyond his comfortable existence.

Bolstered by the possibility of romance, the encouragement of old friends, and a new ally, Michael decides he must face his past. Only by challenging humiliation can he earn the inner victory necessary to bring authentic peace to his life. 

Out of the Basement. Find Hope in the Darkness”

Roads go Ever Ever On 

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I can’t help but get a little reflective as I have had books published before. What I never found was my footing as a marketer. Maybe it was because I am a teacher and we don’t market much…our captive audience just shows up! Maybe I was not willing to embrace the business side of writing. Maybe I was intimidated by how daunting the task seemed. Maybe I…who cares, because right now none of that matters. Doesn’t matter one bit. You can’t move forward fretting about your past. Now is the time to walk on new paths. In the months leading up to the release of Out of the Basement there will be websites to build, Amazon author pages to construct, keyword research and optimization…what was I saying earlier about spiderwebs? I think I just ran into one. That’s ok. Won’t be the last one. I think I’ll just keep moving.

Here’s the best part of this announcement. I’ve wanted to be an author (someone who makes a living writing) since I was eight. I’m now forty-eight and still chasing dreams. Hope you are too!

Until next time…keep fighting the good fight with all thy might!

 

  

 

Top Ten Movie Speeches…for now

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My daughter was in a reminiscent mood the other night. She was talking about highlights from the previous school year. One memory that she was particularly happy about involved a homework assignment that created a shared experience: she had to watch a civil rights themed movie. “Hidden Figures” was chosen and we watched it together. She recalled how I declared one of the speeches from the film “easily in my top ten movie speeches.” Naturally she wondered what my top ten was but we never completed that conversation. However, she brought it up again and we did, in fact, have that chat. I will now share those results, sort of, with you.

Wait. Sort of? What the hell does that mean?

Okay. Here are my ground rules and reasoning.

  1. Lists like this are never completely stable. For example, I did not include two “revenge speeches” on my list, opting to include Maximus Decimus Meridius’ “Father of  murdered son…” speech from “Gladiator.” But, sometimes, I find Wyatt Earp’s “I see a red sash I kill the man wearing it” rage fueled denunciation from “Tombstone” the pinnacle of revenge speeches. On other occasions it’s the famous “What I do have is a particular set of skills” from “Taken.” Top ten lists can be influenced by present moods and preferences between relative equals.
  2. Some speeches, however, go beyond moods and preferences between relative equals. Sometimes speeches speak directly to personal dreams, fears, hopes, desires, or values that are deeply imbedded in our psyches. When a speech collides with our humanity (for a reminder of my 5 core human traits please return to my “Black Panther” post) it becomes a true favorite, not easily displaced.
  3. A scene is not a speech. I would love to include Robert De Niro’s “The working man is the tough guy” from “A Bronx Tale” or the opening scene of “Inglorious Bastards” but those installments are better examples of dialogue than singular speeches. Perhaps a list for another day.

 

“Hidden Figures”: Bathroom Speech

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This seems like the most logical place to start since it’s where the conversation started with my daughter. Katherine Globe Johnson’s (played by Taraji P. Henson) stirring pronouncement of personal dignity and deep self-respect in the face of ignorance and smug racial and sexist superiority was pure fire and inspiration. The fact she endured as much as she did for the proverbial “good of the team” adds an additional layer of connection. There is a common cliche that if you love a job or activity enough, who you work for shouldn’t matter. This thought, in my experience, is usually shared by superiors seeking to justify the poor or dismissive treatment of subordinates. Be a good team member often sounds like, “stop thinking and do what I say.” And while there is some truth to the reality we must sometimes sacrifice for the good of the team, personal integrity should never be part of that exchange. There was no doubt that Katherine loved math (a thought that, frankly, is mystifying to this writer). In the film she endures mistreatment for the good of the cause and the love of the work. Pushed beyond her considerable patience she unleashes a torrent of bottled up frustration and a plea for dignity. In the film we also witness an instantaneous positive result when Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison is moved to action instead of defensiveness and reprimand. We could stand for life imitating art in this manner more often.

“Lincoln”: Now is the Time

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There are two main aspects of this speech that I will focus on. The first, much like the previous entry, brings the idea of human dignity to focus. “We’ve stepped out on the world stage…with the fate of human dignity in our hands.” It appears as I live here in my 48th year that I will never have the authority of Lincoln, who did in fact hold that precious parcel in his grasp. On a small scale, however, I may from time to time hold the dignity of one person in my hands. In those moments I hope I have honed my character well enough that my thoughts, words, and actions bring hope and healing.  Lincoln also emphasizes that importance of the here and now in our lives, going so far as to claim, “…it’s the only thing that accounts.” Somewhere Yoda, with his reprimand of Luke Skywalker’s inability to stay focused on “where he was and what he was doing,” is nodding his green head in agreement on the importance of the oh so precious present.

“Rocky Balboa”: It ain’t about how hard ya hit…

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This may be the greatest three minute summation of the human will to stand before the existential challenges of life and, despite the uncertainty of outcome, to continue to fight the good fight. Its demolition of the desire to make excuses and the habit of casting blame to avoid responsibility, combined with honest and yearning fatherly compassion makes for a powerful assault on apathy and immature prattle. Rocky’s response to his son is a fundamental approach to life any can embrace, regardless of your athletic prowess.

“John Wick”: We are cursed, you and I

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This is the only entry on this list from an antagonist, but Viggo Tarasov’s providential explanation for the symbolic suffering shared by himself and John Wick is magnificent. Viggo openly posits that “many of us suffer for our misdeeds” before opening the door to the possibility of a moral universe beyond the control of human action. Viggo claims that John, who in his life as a hitman has killed an untold number of people, lost his wife to  terminal illness as comeuppance for his violent life. Viggo, however, owns his own vicious criminal life as he concludes god has unleashed the tenacious John Wick upon him as a form of justice. How literally one takes Viggo is a matter of interpretation, but we can’t pretend he didn’t utter the words. Moreover, the speech comes after we learn Viggo uses a church as a front for some of his criminal activities. The existence of the terribly flawed institution has zero influence on the ontological view Viggo shares. As a philosophy teacher, I can only describe a pop-culture source that allows conversation on the meaning and possibility of a providential universe (or threads of karma is we take an eastern approach) with one word – Priceless! 

“Gladiator”: Father of  murdered son…

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Step aside Wyatt, “Gladiator” wins the day! The painful loss, raw determination, and seething rage with which Russell Crowe delivers this one still makes me shudder. In my mind the movie could end right there, with Commodus simply handing a sword to Maximus and whispering a last request, “Make it quick.”

“The Hurricane”: Writing is magic

 

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Denzel Washington’s Rubin Carter succinctly and brilliantly sums out the power of writing. The images of admired mentors, the spirit of fictional characters, and the never ending quest for the elusive flow that turns staggering sentences into symphony is the vision quest of the writer, even if, unlike Rubin, the writer is only imprisoned by their minds and self-doubt. Write, fellow reader, write! You’ll be amazed how when the pen start moving the words find you.

“The Two Towers”: Stories that really mattered

 

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I’m just going to let the great Joseph Campbell introduce this one for me.

“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, mythology is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth…”

Stories, you see, are the life blood of hope. We have all heard that reading to children is the number one predictor of success in schools. What a limiting view of stories, as if their primary purpose is to produce students. They can produce mature adults who weather storms and find themselves smiling in the rain. Samwise shares a profound message, “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered…Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why.” The stories we loved as children find a home in our souls, the truth of the myth becoming our supporting staff on the ever unfolding path. Sometimes – despite the attempts of many to dismiss some tales as false, childish, or too old to have meaning in today’s world – the lessons of those tales return to us as adults. In my life, neither the cynic nor his pollyanna shadow has helped me through a crisis. But those stories and archetypes from my youth have been powerful guides. I have no qualms dismissing pompous dolts who claim myths are false because they lack the eyes to see and the heart to feel. Teach the children well because someday when they are far beyond your grasp that story you told might just might be the beacon in the dark that keeps them going.

“Good Will Hunting”: The Park Bench Monologue

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Holy. Crap.

The gentle verbal beat down Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire delivers to Matt Damon’s Will Hunting is as elegant as it is searing. Shredding Will’s arrogant intellectual superiority with the power of experience, Sean allows a glimpse of wisdom in action. Will’s stunned silence speaks volumes in the scene and Sean’s last line – “Your move, chief” – may be the greatest mic drop in cinema history.

“Grumpier Old Men”: I Just Like that Story

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I think I broke my third rule on this one but it’s just so damn endearing. And funny. And just plain entertaining. Did I mention awesome? Jack Lemmon’s dutiful John Gustafson Jr. listens to his dad’s story, enjoying the time while looking for (perhaps straining to see) a little of dad’s wisdom. In the end, John Sr. proclaims “There ain’t no moral! I just like that story.” Well, maybe there was no moral, but there is a always a point to sitting down for one more story from dad. This one’s for all the sons who listen, all the dads who share, and anyone who wishes they could hear just one more story from their old man. Peace be with you.

“Hidden Figures”: No choice but to be first

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Loved this moment in the film! Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson brings a different kind of thunder than our first entry. Her surgical strike was aimed (as it likely would have to be) at the judge’s ego. Prepared for her appearance in court and armed with research for her opponent she brings forth an intelligent and determined argument that could not be ignored. She chose her weapons well and won the day – even if the judge held onto his prejudices by assigning her to night school. Good for you Judge Whatsyername, that’s Mary Jackson and she deserves to be remembered!

 

Well, that’s the list. Hope you found the entries interesting and worthy of your time. Go enjoy a good movie or surrender to a story…who knows what you’ll encounter!

Socrates in School

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We live in a technological age. The eye is drawn to it, the mind bounces from stimulated
to stupefied by it, commercials guarantee that the latest gadget will simplify our lives and make them more fulfilling, and schools scramble to prove they are on the cutting edge. But what if it is all a bluff? What if we have been seduced to looking at the bottom line or the party line and have completely lost sight of the finish line? Professor Isaac Kandel, in the middle of the 20th century, lamented that education followed a “hollow doctrine” and was all but bereft “intellectual vitality or moral purpose.” Moreove, in the absence of strong guiding principles education celebrated “change for its own sake” (1). Maybe it is not change we need but a challenge. If it is a challenge one needs than the gadfly of Athens is an able presenter.

St. Socrates, pray for us

Erasmus wrote, “Saint Socrates, pray for us” (2). There are a multitude of possible prayers Socrates would likely say on our behalf…and a legion of prayers he would consider that I could not possibly fathom. Such a thought exercise may have a purpose but I believe it far more prudent to consider what I, as a teacher, would pray to Socrates for. What boon would I seek? The answer is simply to find the patience and words to awaken people (myself most definitely included) to the possibility of living from our learning minds.
Socrates theorized “the soul of every single man is also divided in three” (3, line 580d). Each aspect of the soul sought specific pleasures and led to the habits and actions of a particular kind of person. The three aspects of the soul are the learning, spirited, and one that has “many forms…but we named it…the desiring part…” (4, line 580e). The descriptions Socrates offers of each division and the corresponding pleasures can be quite instructive.

The Three Aspects of the Socratic Soul

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Desiring 

The desiring part of the soul seeks immediate gratification of desires. These desires can  be anything from sex to food. From alcohol to money. Socrates calls identifies the pleasure of this aspect as “gain loving” and even “money loving” (5, line 581a). The modern philosopher Jacob Needleman defines materialism as “a disease of the mind starved for ideas” (6). This mind, so barren of ideas that invigorate and intrigue, seeks vitality from material items and physical experiences separated from an emotional core or a community of friends.

It is also important to note that the desiring part seeks quick and easy answers as well. We live in an age of speed as well as technology, almost completely succumbing to the proposition that speed is good. Articles and books are written about the necessity of educators to meet this generation addiction to speed with activities that feed the addiction! Text them, twitter at them, post on-line now! Now! Now! Maybe, just maybe mind you, schools should stand for something more than being a mere mirror to society or a helpless piece of kelp tossed about by the waves of existing culture. Whatever happened to the beauty of a song being the silence that existed between the notes?

Spirited

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The spirited part of the soul was also referred to as “victory-loving” and “honor-loving” (7, line 581b). It is“wholly set on mastery, victory and good reputation” (8, line 581a). Now, our initial reaction to this might be…hell, yea! Victory! That’s where it’s at! Who wants to be the loser? Who doesn’t want the acclaim and accolades due the person of achievement and action? We’re number one! We’re number one! So, what’s the limitation here? 

The problem is this. The spirited part is “wholly set” on victory. It is most definitely not focused on the joy of the game but the outcome. Your value to the person of the spirited soul is dictated entirely by your capacity to bring victory. You are as valuable as your utility makes you. Don’t talk of human value here. What do you bring to the table? Period.

Steroids in baseball…spirited. Lance Armstrong…spirited.Kid kicked out of the  national scrabble tournament for cheating…spirited (9). High school coaches running up scores and middle aged athletes bragging about things they have never done…spirited. Putting others down to build yourself up…spirited. Image over substance…spirited. Party line over seeking truth…spirited. Well, maybe there is a problem with being ruled by the spirited part of the soul after all.

Learning 

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Socrates identified this part of the soul as “learning-loving” or “wisdom-loving” (10, line 581b). Y’know, the part of the souls schools try to awaken with rubrics and jargon heavy lesson plans. Socrates used the phrase “dragged away…by force along the rough, steep, upward way” to describe someone being moved to the point of experiencing their highest nature (11, line 515e). Dragged, as in someone was forcing the individual to progress. Catering won’t get it done. This part of the soul can only be awakened with patience, diligence, and effort.

We love these mentors in movies. Meet such a person in life and they likely annoy the crap out of us. Forgive me as I show my age here, but it is one thing to cheer for Mr. Miyagi. It would be quite another thing to put up with him in real life. Paint your own &*%$@^& fence!

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The Soul and Pleasure

 

Socrates stressed that each aspect of the soul sought, and experienced, pleasure. The true issue, as he saw it, was that the desiring part and the spirited part only saw value in the pleasure of their own domain. The learning part, however, sees pleasure in all of them but maintains a perspective that keeps that allows for balance and the hope of harmony. 

 The various aspects of the soul, however, don’t always work well together. For example one living intently from the spirited soul sees pleasure from money as vulgar but if learning doesn’t bring awards, notoriety, and acclaim then it is “smoke and nonsense”  (12, line 581d). I mean, if no one is telling you that you are the best then why do it? Meanwhile the desiring part wonders  if learning doesn’t get you paid…now….then what is the point? And, please, spare me your praise unless it comes with some kind of physical reward. (13, line 581d).

And schools, well, they certainly can proclaim high-minded ideals but what do they model? What part of soul is fed in education? In you classroom? In mine? Can you build a love of learning by feeding the other parts? What is the unspoken curriculum of the school your students walk through every day? Moreover, what kind of behaviors do we encourage young people to carry into adulthood? Socrates noted that too many people in a country who are dominated by desiring or spirited aspects of the soul leads to “war-like” men and “lover{s} of gain” and “money makers” incapable of appreciating love of wisdom and learning (14, line 583a).

Back to Erasmus: A simple prayer

St. Socrates pray for us that we may grope until we find a method of making love of learning appealing in its own right. That we live praiseworthy lives while not seeking praise. That we should laud only that which is worthy of lauding. That we be worthy of the victories we win and noble enough to bear the burden of the defeats we suffer. That we have the audacity to pursue wisdom and  compassion while, hopefully, leaving the paths we walk just a little better by our passing.

(1) Aeschliman, M. (2007). Why We Always Need Socrates: Some Unfashionable, Unprogressive Thoughts on Teachers, Teaching, Curriculum. and the Theory of Knowledge, with Reference and Thanks to Socrates, Pascal, and C.S. Lewis. Journal of Education, Vol 188.3, p 31.

(2) Erasmus, Ten Colloquies, trans. Craig R. Thompson (New York: MacMillan, 1986), 158.

(3) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) Needleman, J. The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders (New York, Penguin, 2002), 6.

(7) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf

(8) ibid.

(9)I’m not making that up. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/15/scrabble-player-caught-cheating_n_1778014.html

(10) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf

(11) ibid

(12) ibid.

(13) ibid.

(14) ibid.

 

The Power of Words: Shire Edition

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I believe in the power of words. I suppose that would be a requirement for someone who writes and teaches. Don’t mistake power for omnipotence, for words can be quite limited in their reach. While the passion and sincerity of delivery truly matters so to does the disposition of the listener (or reader). Cynicism builds walls and egocentric dispositions destroy well intended messages. Even so, words have power so I would like to deliver a brief story in the hopes it brings a little extra life to a sterling passage from the great J.R.R. Tolkien.

New England was in the midst of a heat wave yesterday. It so happens that on this hot day I was preparing a breakfast buffet for my children. About three weeks ago my 12 year-old mentioned to me that we have not held a “dad buffet breakfast” in some time. She was correct. My oldest daughter is now married with a son. My oldest son is in college and, as anyone with a child in college can attest, such a situation can make you feel like your kid is exploring the galaxy on the USS Enterprise.

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She was undaunted and we were able to arrange event and did I cook! And did they eat! Breakfast potatoes on the grill with kielbasa and sausage. Loaded scramble eggs, strawberry crepes, cherry stuffed french toast, and bacon rounded out the menu. It was truly a lot of fun. It was fantastic having all my kids and grandson together in the house. After the meal we headed into the basement and played catch with my grandson and built with blocks while two of my kids strummed on their guitars.

Playtime can’t last forever and the kitchen needed cleaning. Cue the music! With Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, a little Ed Sheeran, and even Pink lending musical support the dishes didn’t stand a chance!

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As I washed some dishes with my kids on drying duty (we do dishes old school style) I found myself looking at the wooden plaque hanging over my sink. It’s inscription may be familiar to you.

If more of us valued food and cheer

and song above hoarded gold

it would be a merrier world.

So there I was laughing with my kids, listening to our music, and – somehow – enjoying the dishes. And before me were words from one of my favorite authors.

Take the words of this story as you will. All I know is this: the heat didn’t stand a chance of ruining the joy in that kitchen.

Be well, dear reader!

Until next time: Keep fighting the good fight…with all thy might!

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