Friday, May 29, 2009

Walt Walks

WW, May 31, 1819

Look: There’s Walt Whitman.

It’s very late – no, make that very early – and he’s walking down Broadway, right near St. Paul’s Church. It’s now spring, and while the day was unmistakably warm, there’s a wintry chill in the air tonight. Walt doesn’t mind. He’s wearing wool pants, a cotton shirt, a wool jacket and a hat (“a plain, neat fashionable one from Banta’s, 130 Chatham Street, which we got gratis, on the strength of giving him this puff,” he writes in a recent piece in the Aurora, a newspaper he’s editing these days). His boots and cane – a little silly for a hale man in his early twenties to be using one, but then Walt is a bit of a fop – resound on the paving stones, as do the sounds of horses’ hooves up ahead, where a carriage crosses his path. Broadway is unusually quiet tonight and the gas lamps only barely cut the darkness. He sees two candles in a nearby window on the corner of Fulton Street.

He’s been to a play. Good company, good seats, good – not great – show. He’s a little tired now as he heads back to his boardinghouse, but happy. He thinks of a woman he saw on his way to dinner. He remembers, and puts aside, a disagreeable task. He hears those boots as they hit the paving stones. He’d like a pair of new ones.

After some false starts and missteps, he’s finally beginning to make progress in his chosen vocation. He’s got big plans – an idea for a novel he wants to start soon – and inchoate dreams of fame and fortune. “Strangely enough, nobody stared at us with admiration,” he thinks, with that plural pronoun he likes to use in his pieces. “Nobody said ‘there goes Whitman, of Aurora! – nobody ran after us to take a better, and better look – no ladies turned their beautiful necks and smiled at us – no apple women became pale with awe – no news boys stopped and trembled, and took off their hats.’” Walt smiles, self-mockingly. But he knows we’re watching him. He is enjoying this.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mercantile Exchange

In which we sell the value of an education

The Felix Chronicles, # 29

(Photo by Nina Freedman)

Open School Night: The longest day of the year. We have a full day of classes, then a break, then a dinner given to us by the school, then a couple hours of ten-minute classes for the parents. By the time we get home, it will be about 10 p.m. That’s not so bad, except that it takes a while to decompress before you can get to bed, and the next thing you know you’re back at school. It always feels like you’ve never left. That’s why I think of this as one of the most grueling weeks of the academic calendar, rivaled only by the cresting frenzy in the final weeks of the school year.

I love it.

Open School Night is the one evening of the year in which I can imagine what it feels like to be famous. Everyone seems to know who you are, which is fun, though I’m always mentally scrambling to place faces and recover names. But there’s an enormous sense of good will and people are usually willing to help you out. (“Hi, I’m Mindy's mom.”) Some of my colleagues complain about overbearing parents, and advise new faculty to run out the clock in their mini-classes so as to forestall windbag disquisitions or impertinent questions. Those risks are real enough, and I do encounter such situations occasionally. But they’re the exception, not the rule.

Open School night is the last Thursday in September, and by now, I’ve developed a series of routines around it. I live close enough to school to return home after classes, and use the late afternoon interlude to catch up on housework like laundry and a late-season lawn-mowing. I change into clean clothes with a necktie with some kind of history motif, and head back to school to savor the annual dinner, which allows me more time to chat with colleagues than I typically get at lunch. After that I head back to my office, actively avoiding the parents who have begun to congregate in hallways and on the Quad, as I haven’t yet psyched myself into performance mode. I spend a few minutes with the family directory to brush up on names I’ve forgotten or want to know, and then head to my classroom, which by this point is full of parents, with more to come as they grope their way with the help of student volunteers decked out in special T-shirts indicating their role as helpers.

I have a standard pitch, which involves identifying myself and saying how pleased I am to be working with their children. I survey the shape of the class – the various units, the major assignments, how the course fits into the larger curriculum, and so on. I ask if they have any questions, and when there’s a moment of silence that follows, I scold the parents for their lack of class participation and say that their children put them to shame. If, after the requisite chuckles, they’re still reticent, I ask how what I’m telling them comports with their own experience of history. In the back-and-forth that always begins sooner or later, I tell them that they are all a real presence in my classes, that these kids invoke them all the time. I think they’re pleased to hear that. And, in general, I think they’re pleased with my work. To a great degree that’s because they want to be pleased with my work. Literally and figuratively, they’ve made a big investment in this place, and I want to help them feel good about it.

On this night, as it happens, I have a class with two financier fathers, in a week in which there’s been tremendous volatility in the stock market. One I know from various committees and encounters at the school, and he greets me heartily. The other, who I only know by reputation, is more self-contained. After I finish my schtick this latter father asks me if I include current events in my classroom. The answer is yes – I’m typically asked, and explain that I refer to the presidential race – but this time, I steer my answer by going in a different direction. Just today, I tell them, we were discussing British imperial trade policy, the Navigation Acts, and the concept we’ve come to know as mercantilism. Mercantilism is a relatively abstruse concept, and I often find in my teaching that the best way to explain what something is involves telling them what it isn’t. In this case, I say, I run the my story forward and say that in the otherwise inconsequential year of 1776, Adam Smith published the Wealth of Nations, in which he argued that the best way for Britain to advance her interests economically was not to manage them from London, but rather to let participants in the market proceed as they see fit. The invisible hand, and all that stuff I know you all understand.

But, I continue, what I also told your kids today is that we’re now living in an time of neo-mercantilism. That in an age of Aramco in Saudi Arabia and sovereign wealth funds in China and Indonesia, traditional corporations like ExxonMobil and Lehman Brothers (which has just gone belly-up) are becoming quaint relics. More and more, the wealth of nations is just that – trade as a form of national aggrandizement.

“How much time do you spend on this?” this father asks. I can’t quite tell whether he’s testing to see if there’s any substance behind this little piece of curriculum, or he's implying that I should stick to my day job and leave the finance business to others.

"Not a lot," I answer. "Because as much as I want kids to understand that the past has real relevance and continuity in the present, I also want to convey its strangeness, the way people in other times are truly different in their assumption and beliefs." Here I make a little digression into my discussion of tolerance, and how a concept we tend to regard as a shared value was looked upon with disdain and even abhorrence when it came to Catholicism in seventeenth century England, for example. That tolerance is just another way of saying that you don't give a damn.

Our time is up, and people shuffle out, some pausing with warm thanks and hellos. The other banker is beaming like a proud parent. “I endowed this guy,” he seems to be saying. There’s a good deal of truth to that, of course. Every once in a while, I feel like a celebrity around here. And every once in a while, I feel like the hired help. Probably good to feel both. Occasionally.

Monday, May 25, 2009


In which we see two assemblies -- and some solitary reflection on a meeting between a senator and a teacher

The Felix Chronicles, #28

An almost eerie silence prevails in the hallway outside Room 211. Though it’s late morning on a school day in January, no one is here; the only sign that anyone is at school at all is the row of untended backpacks are lined up outside lockers. I begin to walk down the hallways to the auditorium, my pace quickening so that I may join my colleagues and students for the history in the making.

I don’t want to miss out this time. On Election Night, I was distracted by a fever that would soon become a cold. I was, moreover, worried about my daughter, who would be having substantial dental work done the next day (which proved to be less fearsome than I expected). I heard the victory speech in a haze, half asleep, but uneasily so, in my bed. So it is that the private and personal trumps the public and collective. All the more reason to savor this day.

But as I pass junior dean’s office and the empty student commons, I remember another day. This was a warm June evening in 2006. I had been in Washington for a meeting, and was waiting in the terminal at Reagan National for the US Air shuttle to take me back to New York. We were delayed because of lighting, and so it was at one point that I looked up to see my U.S. Senator, Chuck Schumer, chatting beside freshman Senator Barack Obama. I overheard talk about a fundraiser in Manhattan. Something about Scarlett Johanssen. I heard someone fret that if we didn’t board soon, there would be no point. Senator Obama mentioned a horrific flight one of his colleagues had made recently.

A few minutes later, I saw Obama standing alone, and pushed aside my reserve and got out of my seat. I walked up to him. “Senator,” I said, “I want to be able to tell my children that I shook your hand,” extending to reach the one he instinctively extended. “I’ve been following you back since the primary,” I said, referring to his unlikely capture, in a crowded field, of the 2004 Democratic nomination for the Illinois Senate seat he went on to win, a triumph that made national headlines even before his celebrated speech at the Democratic National Convention that summer.

“So what are you doing here?” he asked.

“I was at a doing some consulting work at the Smithsonian,” I explained. "National Museum of American History."

“Good, good. And what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a high school history teacher.”

“Even better!” I knew he had used similar, even identical words many times with constituents and starry-eyed strangers like myself. But I appreciated the essential decency of honoring ordinary work, and his ability to convey a sense of warmth.

“Well, anyway, I’ll be cheering for you.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”

He left shortly after that, leaving me with a cherished memory, one that fueled a trip to Pennsylvania two years later, where I campaigned on his behalf with a group of faculty and students. The highlight of the trip occurred on a quiet street in black suburb on the border of Philadelphia, when a pair of my seniors separately knocked on the door of a house where a bachlorette party was taking place, and where they were plausibly mistaken for the afternoon's entertainment. (No one was thinking about the content of their character that day.) I smile at the memory now as I ascend the steps to the auditorium. As I do, I hear a brass band. And when I push open the doors, I hear the roar of the school, augmenting that of the crowd at the Mall visible on the gigantic screen in the front of the room, which cuts to the president-elect arriving at the podium. Private wish has become public will. Yes we could; yes we did.

Friday, May 22, 2009


In which we anticipate a winter wonderland

The Felix Chronicles, # 27

The phone is ringing when I arrive in my office at 8:17 a.m. on the Thursday morning before the winter break. I pick it up while simultaneously trying to slip out of my coat.


"Mr. Cullen?"


"I'm so glad we've reached you. This is Ruth, Jason's mom? We met on Open School Night."

"Yes of course. How are you?" In my mind I see nothing, no name, no face. But Jason will be enough to work with. I drape my coat over my desk chair, pull my laptop out of my briefcase, and power it up.

"Well, I've been better, especially in this market. I'm calling about the History Day project. As you know, Jason's working with Tom."

"Yes.” I sort of do know that. It's on a master list somewhere in my inbox. I begin to rustle through it.

"A thoroughly depressing subject, if you ask me." Now I do remember: They're doing the decision to drop the atomic bomb. Originally, they wanted to do World War II. I told them the subject was too broad. They've narrowed it down to the bomb, and are working on a website. The first draft I saw was not too promising. Big slabs of text, relatively weak in conceptual organization. Technical glitches. Normally, one or both of them will be working with Joey. But Joey has grand plans for a tabletop reenactment of Pickett's Charge that he says he's been working on since July with Roy. Ominously, I’ve seen nothing new on Jason and Tom's project since they handed in the the first draft earlier this month, only a string of e-mails asking questions that could be answered if they studied the original assignment.

Then I realize that I've not been paying close attention to Ruth, who has been explaining the series of obstacles Jason and Tom have encountered. "It doesn't help matters any that Tom is out there somewhere in Elmsford, or maybe it's Valhalla. He never wants to come down the city, and I can't just drop everything to get Jason out there for one of their marathon sessions. Did you know that they spent all night working on this Saturday?" There's more than a hint of accusation in her query.

I'm tempted to ask how I would know that, but bite my tongue. I also imagine an empty pizza box, a Madden NFL game on a laptop, and Ludacris blaring from the port of an iPod. Still, I feel a twinge of unease. Truth is, the History Day Project has long been a sore point among some administrators and colleagues, who think it asks too much of the kids at a difficult time of year. We have revisited the subject from time to time as a department, and concluded that the pluses outweigh the minuses. For grading purposes we like to have a grade-wide substantial assessment at the end of the semester, and see bona fide value in a group undertaking in which students get to choose their topic and work on it in a planned sequence of stages. And some of the final results are truly extraordinary. Alas, that's not going to be the case here.

"I'm sorry hear that,” I say soothingly about the all-nighter. “I know that this is a difficult undertaking. That's why I always emphasize at the start of the project that students need to think carefully about with whom they're going to work and to emphasize that the quality of their collaboration is an important dimension of what this is all about. I also emphasize that they stand or fall together, and that if one kid coasts and another kid does all the work, that itself can be a valuable lesson."

"Well, I'm not sure I agree with you about that,” she says. “Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that Jason has handled this perfectly. He can be lazy. But I knew as soon as I heard that he was can be working with Tom were going to be problems here. Tom is a nice kid, but I don’t think he’s capable of pulling his weight, intellectually or otherwise.”

Not a kind assessment, but not an inaccurate one. I look at my computer screen. A small red box is flashing at the bottom right-hand side. It's the weather widget. That thing is always flashing red or yellow. More about drawing your eye to advertising than providing useful information. I click on it just the same.

"What I don't understand," she continues, "is the timing of this project. Why does it have to be just before the holiday break? We're leaving for St. Bart's on Friday morning. We’ve planned this trip for months, I'm pulling the kids out of school to take it.”

WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY, says the web page I’m now reading. Snow begins in the morning; six to ten inches by tomorrow night. Will she get out in time?

"Well,” I respond, “this is something we periodically have discussed going back many years. We've learned from experience that it makes more sense to have the project due before the break so that really we clear the decks for kids to have a real vacation. Nobody likes to have a big project hanging over their heads during the holidays." Actually, I have traditionally had this assignment due a week before the break, but watching my own son scramble to do his project (a documentary about strategic bombing -- the boys always seem to go for war) has led me to conclude that more time really does make a difference. He’s largely keeping me out the loop on this one, I’m happy to say. His partner’s dad is a documentary filmmaker, so that's where they're getting most of their help.

"Well I've got to tell you, an assignment like this really wreaks havoc on family life."

"Again, I'm sorry to hear that. Is there something you'd like me to do? Would you like to talk with the boys?”

“That would be good," she says. "But what would really help is giving them more time. I don't think these two really understood what they’ve gotten themselves into, and the geographic factor has really proven to be a major complication, especially because Tom has basketball practice during the week and coming up with good times to collaborate has been a major, major problem."

I can't resist a smile. Normally, I'd be in a position I really hate: having to say no. To accede to this request would not only precipitate an avalanche of similar ones -- the word would be on the street almost immediately -- but get me into trouble with my colleagues, as we've all sworn a blood oath to hold the line in the face of these pressures. I realize I'm taking a chance here, but if my bluff gets called, I can say I was certain, however mistakenly, that there was going to be a snow day.

"Well, I don't like to do this, but understand extenuating factors in this particular situation. So I'll allow Jason and Tom a little more time to finish this up. As long as I have it we get back from break, there should be no harm done."

"I really appreciate that. I want you to know that Jason loves your class.”

"Thank you. I enjoy working with him."

"The best part of this," she tells me, adopting a confiding, even conspiratorial, tone, "is that Jason will be spending the second week of the break with his father. For once in his life, the man will actually have to pay attention to his son's needs. Can't wait to see that."

"Glad to be of service," I say with a chuckle. And though I don't know why, I mean it. Though she's given me little reason to think so, I suspect her grievance with her ex, whoever he is, may well be legitimate. "Happy holidays, Ruth."

"Happy holidays to you," she replies. Pause. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Cullen.”

“Thank you,” I say. “I appreciate that. And please call me Jim.” But she’s already hung up.

Turned out to be more like a foot (and they got out in time). Thank God.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pretzel Logic

In which we see the typical chaos of a"normal" morning

The Felix Chronicles, # 26

6:00 a.m. Monday morning. Cellphone alarm goes off. I have the presence of mind not to press snooze. I hear the front door slam as my wife takes the dogs for a walk. My son Ryland is with her. I realize that allotting one day for the Jefferson administration on Friday is not going to be enough time. Maybe I can move faster through the Washington administration and make it through the XYZ Affair today. No meetings this afternoon.

6:02. I open my eyes. We’re on the other side of daylight savings time, so it’s not dark anymore when I get out of bed. Outside the window, sunshine and a swatch of red in the trees. Foliage still going strong. Isn’t it a little late? Somehow I remember barer trees at this point in November when I was in high school. I see frost on the ground as I head to the bathroom.

6:07. When I come out, I turn on the TV. The hosts of Morning Joe are talking about the election. Funny: this is the climax, and months ago I daydreamed about the excitement of Election Day. Now that it’s almost here, I’m anxious for it to be over. Discussion of the polls. Joe Scarborough can be very irritating. All these faux populists.

6:14. Too much time picking a tie. I go with Little green Democratic donkeys Republican elephants in a navy background. White oxford shirt. Navy khakis. My uniform. The Morning Joe stock analyst in London is talking about another update day in Europe. Dow Futures are up. I switch to CNN as I make the bed. Grab socks and underwear as I head to the bathroom again for a shower. I’m actually running a little head of schedule.

6:32. Cell rings as I thread my brown leather belt through the khakis. “Hi,” I say, knowing it’s my wife. “We forgot that Grayson has a field trip today,” she tells me. “He needs a bag lunch. Could you get it started?” Damn. “OK,” I say.

6:33. I head to my daughter’s bedroom. “NANceee. NANceee. It’s time to start your day,” I say my incantatory sing-song voice. No movement. “C’mon little girl. Time to get up.”

“One more minute?”

“No. I need you to get going. Can I count on you to pick your own clothes?”

Groggy: “OK.”

6:42. I can’t linger, and head downstairs to make that lunch. I assemble a turkey sandwich, some pretzels, and a bag of grapes. Don’t know about a drink. Nancy comes downstairs wearing hot pink shorts, and a sleeveless shirt over a T-Shirt. “No no no!” I say. “You can’t wear that! It’s November, not July. Now go upstairs and put on long pants!”

“I don’t want to wear long pants.”

Nancy! Now!” I head to the top of the staircase and shout downstairs. “Grayson! Are you up?”

“Yeah. But I can’t find my glasses!”

“Did you look by the TV?”

“Yeah. I can’t find them.”

Dammit. I haven’t resolved the lunch situation, need to keep an eye on Nancy, and breakfast isn’t underway. I head downstairs to look for the glasses.

My wife returns. Dogs bound up the stairs. Mud prints on hard wood. “Grayson can’t find his glasses,” I tell her. She says nothing, disappears around a corner into the bathroom, and returns with them in her hand. “You were saying?”

She tells me to wake up Jay and she’ll start breakfast and Ryland’s lunch (he takes one everyday). Jays says he’s awake. Always does, never is. I see a bowl of melted ice cream on a bedside table, two unmade beds, and a sweater on the floor. Meanwhile, Grayson is playing a computer game with Ryland. Grayson is barefoot, and Ryland has somehow shed his sneakers. “C’mon boys! Let’s get going! Get your shoes on and get upstairs!”

6:51. I come back upstairs to find Nancy in a party dress. “No no no no no no no!”

“Why can’t she wear that?”

“Because it’s a dress that has to be dry cleaned. She’ll get mustard or blue paint on it in like one nanosecond. She should only wear that one for special occasions.” My wife shrugs. “She’ll have outgrown it by spring,” she says to me. Then she turns to our daughter. “Nancy, go change your dress.”

“But Mom!”

“Go!” She does. The kids always take her more seriously than me.

While the eggs cook, I get out cups, plates, forks, milk, juice water. Ritalin and Omega 3 for Ryland. Glucosamine for my aching joints. I head outside for the newspaper.

7:02 “Mom!” It’s Grayson “I can’t find my sneakers!”

My wife looks at me. “You know he doesn’t like pretzels. Will you go look for them?”

“I don’t know where they are! And since when doesn’t he like pretzels?”

She ignores the pretzel question. “They’re over by the back door. I can’t do that and make breakfast and Ryland’s lunch!”

Grumbling about a lack of time to read the paper, I head down to get the sneakers, which are right where she says they are. Grayson and Ryland are glued to the computer again. Jay is still in bed. “Jay!”

“All right already!” he barks. All right already?

7:06. At last. Scrambled eggs on sourdough bread with cranberry juice. A copy of the Times. Nancy finally wearing jeans and a pink cotton sweater, eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. Small stain already on that sweater. My wife is making herself toast. No sign of the boys. Will I go get them, she asks? I sigh. She shoots me with an annoyed expression.

“Look,” she says, packing two waterbottles into each boy’s lunch and putting the lunches into backpacks. “I made breakfast and Ryland’s lunch. I always make Ryland’s lunch. I know you want to read your paper, but I haven’t even taken a shower yet.– ”

“OK OK OK OK.” I get up and walk toward the stairs. “BOYS!”

Nothing. "You can’t just shout at them," she tells me.


“I’m not hungry!” Ryland bellows back.

“I don’t care! Get up here anyway!”


“If you don’t come up here now, I’m going to go down there and pull you up by the hair!” Fantasies of authoritarianism. I imagine my students Beth and Joey witnessing this scene. Beth would be horrified. Joey would be amused. I don't care.

Ryland appears at the bottom of the stairs. “I’m not hungry,” he says, ascending. We walk over to the table, whereupon I hand him his meds. For once, he takes them without further comment. I return to my cooling eggs.

7:29. I look up from the Arts & Leisure section. Oh shit. Ryland’s bus will be here in five minutes. He has long since disappeared downstairs. “Ryland! Time to go!” I begin gathering up dishes. Lyde, returning from a shower and fresh clothes, picks up a few herself. “I have to run,” she says. “Promised a student I would meet her at eight.” She pecks me on the cheek. “Chinese tonight, right?” Right.

She pauses by the door. “Did you RSVP for that birthday party you were supposed to yesterday?”

"Did I RSVP?

Yes. You. Remember? We agreed I would take Nancy to the party after coaching the soccer game next Saturday. You said you would make the call. You said it was the least you could do."

"Right. I did." She walks back over to me, pecks me on the cheek. A stroke on my face means no hard feelings. I hear the lumbering engine of the bus through the open door. “Ryland!”

7:44. I still haven’t recovered my breath after sprinting after the bus, backpack in hand. But he made it. Dishes packed in the dishwasher, Nancy’s teeth brushed. Doors locked. Grayson has actually managed to put on a jacket without prompting and has headed to the car, Nintendo in hand. I help Nancy into a pullover. No sign of Jay. “We’ll be waiting in the car,” I shout down to him. A moment later he emerges. I can see through the driveway he’s left the lights on his room. Not worth wrangling over.

7:51. The local NPR affiliate is going through its running feature of what’s in the morning papers. Parkway gridlock. I have a green light but can’t get on. I fume. Jay shouts to Grayson and Nancy to put their seat belts on.

8: 11. Drop-off point for the kids. “Have a good day with your friends!” I say merrily. That’s when Grayson points out that he doesn’t have his backpack, and thus not his lunch. Arrgh! I call my wife. She says she’ll bring it by later that morning. I head up to the staff parking lot.

8:16. I get out of the car about ten minutes later than I’d like to be. That’s all right; I photocopied the handouts for this afternoon already, and am showing a DVD first thing. I can start it, set up my laptop, and get a cup of coffee.

“Morning, Mr. Cullen.”

“Good morning, Mark.”

“Hey, Jim.”

“Morning, Andy.”

I can feel myself stabilizing as I walk down the hall to my classroom. Here I’m regarded as a civilized human being, not a raging lunatic who fulminates about ketchup on dresses that require dry-cleaning. I enter my classroom and start writing notes on the blackboard (the rumored Smartboard hasn’t surfaced yet. Just as well – one more gadget to master). I try to picture Alexander Hamilton rushing to get out of his country house up in Harlem the morning. Difficult, but not impossible. Easier to imagine him arguing with his wife, particularly because he was unfaithful to her. Some flying ceramics, maybe. A slammed door or two. Rudeness to a servant and some rough handling of horses. I can’t see Jefferson rushing or shouting, though I can conjure angry silences between him and Sally Hemings at Monticello. Even as a slave, she surely had a few emotional tools at her disposal.

Where would we be without public personae? Right now, at least, paid employment seems so much easier than the alternatives. To be sure it has its frustrations. But teaching a class seems a whole lot easier to manage than getting four kids out the door – or, for that matter, getting them in the door and sorting through all their stuff at the end of the day, which is what I do on Mondays. When I unpack Grayson’s backpack at 6:27 that evening after turning on the TV to find out what’s happened in the presidential race so far today, I find a lunch untouched, except for an empty bag of pretzels. I guess that makes me a genius. Can’t wait to brag to my wife.

Until I learn that he gave them to a classmate.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Some assemblies required

In which a mystery remains unrevealed

The Felix Chronicles, #25

I've just found the final face in the crowd to check off on my attendance sheet, and head to the back of the auditorium as Mary, our principal, finishes discussing the pending installation of security cameras in response to a much-lamented spate of petty thefts on campus. Perry, an earnest, bearded, junior, has already announced details of the overhauled recycling program, and Erin, wearing her ponytails and her game-day jersey, is about to announce the latest triumph of the girl's lacrosse team. I've just about reached my destination at the back near the doors when I see my colleague Ben say "shhh!" to a clutch of sophomore girls giggling uncontrollably over some piece of gossip.

There's probably a doctoral dissertation in the surely universal experience of high school assemblies, I think to myself as I turn around to face the stage. No -- there's probably about
eight doctoral dissertations on the topic gathering dust somewhere. The civic dimension. Their shifting ideological character. The sheer boredom. In no other way are high school students a captive audience in quite the way they are in assemblies, and though they typically have a participatory dimension -- as often as not it's students onstage -- the literally amateurish quality of such presentations can make them all the more tedious. It's at times like these that I'm aware of my sense of privilege as an adult than in the way I will join a smattering of colleagues in surreptitiously slipping out of the auditorium, often teasing each other as we do about our lack of school spirit. Actually, it is a modicum of school spirit that sometimes holds me back, at least temporarily. I like to be able to praise a student I've seen perform or make a presentation as a means of building good will, even if my exposure, or their ability, is limited. And every once in a while I'm pleasantly surprised.

I'm about to make my move when I realize that this is the day of school's annual talent show, and the curtain pulls back to reveal an percussion ensemble. I decide to linger for a minute. These can sometimes be good. Randy, the director of the school's music program, has a puckish sense of humor, which will surface in an acapella version of a Led Zeppelin song (or, on one memorable April Fool's Day assembly, a kazoo quartet performing a movement from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata). The whole percussion ensemble recently did a rousing suite of songs from
The Lion King, and while this configuration is smaller, and presumably independent of the school in a student-run talent show, I suspect Randy's invisible hand will nevertheless be guiding it.

The group launches into a spirited version of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." I'm in the process of scanning the stage -- there's Sam from my survey course -- when I see a girl put down the mallets for the marimba she's playing, walk over a few feet to a xylophone, and play a single note before walking back and resuming her work on the marimba. Then, 8 or 12 or 16 or whatever number of measures later, she does it again, unsmilingly.

Her name is Bree. She's a freshman. I only know this because I taught her older sister a few years back, and her Dad introduced me to her silent younger daughter, then in elementary school, at a football game. Bree's older sister Tess was a wonderful student, diffident but really quite spirited when you got to know her, which I did through her lively essays. But Bree seemed somehow unformed them and still less sharply etched than her sister now. Yet these days it seems I see Bree all the time. She's one of those people who you don't really know, but who crosses your path regularly, and who sometimes poses a dilemma in terms of whether, or how, to acknowledge them. Some of these kids will give me a smile, which I'll return. Or they'll say "Hi, Mr. Cullen," a courtesy I can't always reciprocate because as often as I not I won't know or remember their names. ("You know who I am!" one such child, Cleopatra, said to me recently, which of course is no great feat for a person named Cleopatra.) Perhaps it's a similar reason that Bree's name has stuck, but that doesn't really matter, because she never seems to make eye contact. She does, in fact, seem to be an unusually self-contained (and intelligent) child, but as of yet I've had no real opportunity to test that perception.

When Bree walks over the the xylophone to play that single note for the third time, I become aware, via a murmuring from the audience, that I'm not the only one attentive to this pattern. The fourth time, that murmuring becomes an unformed noise. The fifth, that unformed noise coalesces into "Yeah!" The sixth and it feels like we've somehow found ourselves at the seventh inning stretch of a Mets game. Yet through it all Bree maintains a poker face, utterly focused on the task at hand -- and that surely is part of what the audience is reacting to. By the seventh time it's become a contest: can they break her will? And it's then, for the first time, that a smile that Bree clearly struggles to contain becomes discernible. For the eighth and final time, though, she's gotten control of herself again. Through it all, her timing has been impeccable.

When, by design, the song stops abruptly, there's a moment of silence. And then there's a huge roar, clearly for Bree. (It's possible some of the kids are laughing at her rather than with her, but my reading of the room is more one of good-natured amusement and admiration than anything else.) There's something like a smile on her face, but it's inscrutable, perhaps because her pleasure is more about her performance than any reaction to it. Who
is this child?

I'm tempted to make some queries, and in fact probably will, in the faculty lounge when I get a cup of coffee before my next class. But in the end it's the mysterious Brees of this place -- there's always one or two on my roster at the start of the school year in September or when an elective starts in January -- that keep this job interesting. It's possible (at times alarmingly so) to imagine terminal boredom in talking about the Bill of Rights or the Great Society. But it's when you run out of kids who intrigue and surprise you that you'll know it's time to go. Let's just hope that happens long after Bree graduates.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Albums, singles and the two cent jukebox

Making a record of a blog's 100 days

When he released In the Wee Small Hours in the Morning in March of 1955, Frank Sinatra was in the middle of rebuilding a shipwrecked career that had foundered on the shoals of shifting public taste, and a controversial private life in which his divorce from his wife to marry to Hollywood starlet Ava Gardner was merely one transgression of prevailing social mores. But Wee Small Hours was more than a marketing gimmick by a desperate celebrity; it was in fact an ambitious artistic statement by a musician who shrewdly exploited an emerging musical order.

The key to that musical order was technological. For Sinatra, it would be built on the new technology of the 33 rotations-per-minute (rpm) vinyl record, which had better fidelity than the old 78 records. The smaller 45 rpm record was also a new format that would prove to be commercially and culturally viable, one that Elvis Presley would soon ride to stardom. But Sinatra focused on the 33 rpm because it allowed him to record a suite of songs -- the metaphor of choice was "album," as in a collection of photographs collected in a book -- in which the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts.

In the Wee Small Hours would inaugurate a decade of exceptional artistic creativity on Sinatra's part, built on the premise of albums with a thematic orientation. Come Fly with Me (1957) was a suite of songs about travel; Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958), by contrast, was a melancholy collection focusing
on a sense of romantic loss. When, in the aftermath of its initial cultural explosion, rock & roll music developed a sense of self-conscious tradition and growing evidence of artistic sophistication, musicians like the Beach Boys and Beatles began down the path parallel to that of Sinatra (there's dismayingly little evidence that either community of listeners was aware of the others, much less that of jazz musicians like Miles Davis, who were working from a similar rubric). The 33 rpm album became the culturally dominant, and commercially most profitable, format for music by the late 1960s, and remained regnant until the early 1980s. Albums would often spawn hit singles -- viewed as important marketing tools for selling albums -- but at the height of its influence, heavyweight acts like Led Zeppelin would not deign to release them.

A series of technological changes eroded, without entirely displacing, the centrality of the album in pop music. The advent of the compact disc began to change the equation, in part because it was possible to program the sequence of songs as a listener, as opposed to the artist, wished. Another important factor in shifting the cultural balance away from the album and back toward the single was the arrival of MTV in 1981. In the short term, music video actually turned hit albums by artists like Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen into strings of hits. But in the long run it enshrined the individual song, which, after all, was the focus of any given video. The coup de grace in the triumph of the song over the album was the
Moving Picture Experts Group-1 Audio Layer 3 (mp3) file, which entered the bloodstream of the the Internet in the 1990s. While late 20th century adolescents once tended to have "vertical" musical tastes whose locus was sets of songs by a stable of performers, early 21st century adolescents tend to "horizontal" ones consisting of smatterings of songs by a very broad range of artists housed in their iPods.

Now, I'm not a musician, and never nursed any hopes of becoming one. But this musical history, and my deep immersion in it, played a decisive role in my conception of myself as a writer. My ambitions were always set on writing books, which I analogized as "albums," as opposed to becoming a journalist who produced pieces that corresponded to songs. Of course, I understood that successful writers did both, and in fact did a fair amount of journalism in high school, college, and graduate school. But there was never any doubt where my head and my heart would feel most at home.

After a long apprenticeship, I began writing my first book in 1990, and was continually working on one for the next 19 years (I've published a total of ten, which includes to edited anthologies). It was only earlier this year, when I ran into some resistance in the attempt to produce an eleventh -- which, in and of itself, is almost meaningless, as I've never found it particularly easy to get a book into print -- that I suddenly became aware of an imploding literary landscape. This of course was a long time coming, though the recent economic downturn seems to have accelerated the process sharply. These external considerations forced into awareness something I could previously only barely admit to myself: that I was (am) tired. Bruce Springsteen once wrote that two of the most profound days in his life were those when he picked up a guitar and learned he could put it down. For the first time, I was beginning to comprehend the latter.

That's why I've started this blog. It remains very much an experiment. I'm aware that the blogosphere is littered with the detritus of projects that foundered after a few posts, and on any given day alternate between feeling oppressed by trying to keep it up and alarmed by a fear of running out of things to say. I'm also aware of just how tiny a dot this enterprise is within my chosen galaxy of history and teaching. But on my better days -- or the better moments on a given day -- I find a new sense of possibility by thinking of myself as someone who produces singles rather than albums. Actually, the analogy with singles works much better than with newspaper or magazine journalism, since the work of the latter is part of a larger package of writing that may or may not be sought or read, while a blog post has a discrete and measurable (albeit imprecise) readership and is released by means which in effect constitues my own record label. More importantly, I relish the thought that my old posts in effect constitute a catalog that a clutch of "listeners" may seek out or stumble into later -- much later. I've had what for me counts as a "hit" or two (not coincidentally, they're about Springsteen). There's always the hope -- however remote or unlikely, and yet certainly sustaining -- that like the Beatles entering the recording studio in 1964, I too could produce something in a matter of hours which will still be giving pleasure to an invisible audience decades later. If I'm kidding myself on this and other aspects of such a quixotic enterprise, I can only say that it's largely kept me out of trouble, spiritual and otherwise.

That's my two cents for today, the one hundredth since the start of this blog. Thanks for listening!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The sound of hope

in which we hear that truth is something that happens to an idea

The Felix Chronicles, # 24

I'm about to put last night's homework, the text of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first Fireside Chat of March 12, 1933, on the Smart Board in the middle of class on a spring Friday afternoon. And then it suddenly occurs to me that there's probably an
audio recording of it out there somewhere. So I do a quick Google search, and within seconds, the room is filled with the sound of FDR addressing his fellow Americans:

I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking -- to talk with the comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking, but more particularly with the overwhelming majority of you who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks ....

I turn down the volume, but leave him talking as I ask: "What are you hearing? I'm not simply asking about what he's saying. I'm wondering, how does this sound to you?" A pause. The president keeps speaking.

"He sounds reassuring," Sam says.

"Yes," says Kim. "Like a father."

"He sounds kinda flat to me," Becky says. "After all I've heard about the guy, I thought he'd sound a little more inspirational."

"He sounds inspiring to me," Mindy says, and I find myself wondering whether her conviction has more to do with Becky than FDR.

"The point is, he's trying to reassure people," Sam repeats. "He's trying to explain the situation to ordinary people, who don't necessarily understand banking stuff."

"Well OK," Becky says. "But doesn't mean he can't, like, uplift them, does it?"

"It's a crisis," Lisa says, a tinge of irritation in her voice. "People need calm."

"Well it is true that it was an especially scary moment," I observe and I turn off the sound. "That long stretch of uncertainty from November of 1932, when FDR was elected, to March of 1933, when he took office, created a lot of uncertainty. (After that, lawmakers amended the Constitution to have the President take office in January, just as Obama did about 100 days ago.) The winter of '33 is probably when the nation's economy touched bottom. In part, that was not just unease about a transition, but also unease within the financial community about FDR himself. Was he really up to the job?"

"The thing that bothers me a little," Samantha says, "is that I have this sense that he's talking down to people. It's a little condescending."

"Well, yeah," Sam says, "but you're not really the target audience."

"I know," she says. "But if what Mr. Cullen just said is true, and the bankers are the ones he needs to convince, is this really the right way to do it?"

"No, it isn't. But he wants to get the rest of the country on his side. He can talk to the bankers in other ways."

"You're right, Sam," I say. "But Samantha's reaction is one that some people did have at the time. Rich people in particular were appalled by Roosevelt. They called him 'a traitor to his class,' because just like his illustrious cousin Theodore Roosevelt, he came from old money and championed the poor. And they felt he was dishonest."

"How is this dishonest?" Susan asks incredulously. "He's explaining what happens when you put money in a bank!"

"Actually, Susan, Roosevelt could be quite devious," I say. "And, in a way, he's being a little devious right at this very moment. Even as he was speaking, he had dozens of advisers -- many of them holdovers from the Hoover administration, which he attacked relentlessly when running for president -- working frantically behind the scenes to sort out good banks, bad banks, and ones that could possibly survive. But in order to that, he had to talk them up a bit. He had to make things sound better than they actually were. I wouldn't say Roosevelt lied, exactly, but let's just say he was doing a little of what politicians today call 'spin control.'"

"But he had to do that," Susan says, annoyed. "Sometimes you can't tell the whole truth."

"You speaking from experience there, Susan?"

"Mr. Cullen!" Joey interjects with exaggerated outrage. "Are you suggesting that Susan has ever been anything other than totally truthful?"

"Well, in a way, yes," I reply. (Now it's Susan's turn to exclaim "Mr. Cullen!" But I ignore that.) "Here I'm reminded of my favorite American philosopher, William James, who once said, "Truth happens to an idea." By telling people things were going to turn out fine, and acting as if things were fine, they ended up becoming so," I say. "That's one of the reasons why FDR was so powerful. You look at a picture of the guy and you see this rich man, this still good-looking man, this guy who whipped polio and you think: He's not going to fail. And he doesn't. I mean, people still debate whether the policies actually worked in the long term. But that's kind of beside the point."

I look at the clock. I've got a bus with a ten year-old on it that I've got to be at in about 20 minutes. "And so it is that I will say that I know all of you are going to do just fine when I test you on the various legislative programs of the New Deal in the final exam next month."

"Yeah, right," says Joey. As I recall, his last exam was in the mid-seventies.

"Yeah right is right," I reply. "I've got faith in you, Joey. I know this last exam is going to be real breakthrough for you.." It's a tribute him that we can have this conversation openly. His self-esteem is intact, even if his work ethic isn't.

"You're a tough bastard, Mr. Cullen, you know that?"

"Why thank you, Joey."

"You're very welcome."

"Have a good weekend, Joey. Have a good weekend, everyone."