Monday, April 29, 2013

All about the Benjamins

The Horace Chronicles, #6

September 30

Dear Maya,

Today Mr. Smith told a story. I recorded it on my phone (I've been doing this lately; he says it's OK).

"So I want to tell you about two people," he said about halfway through class about the fights between the British and French in the colonies in the 1700s.  "One is an old woman named Silence Dogood. The other is a young kid -- your age, actually -- named Benjamin Franklin."

"You mean the guy on the $100 bill?" Carl asked.

"Right. Except this is when he was a teenager."

"He was never a teenager," Hannah said. "Teenagers hadn't been invented yet."

"Well, you're right about that. Teenagers are only about a hundred years old. Still, Benjamin Franklin was 16 once. So, for that matter, was I."

"You were not." (It is a little hard to picture, Maya.)

Liz raised her hand. Mr. Smith nodded. "What was the old woman's name again?"

"Silence Dogood."

"That doesn't sound like a real name."

"You're right, Liz: it isn't. Actually, the old woman based her name on two books by a famous preacher named Cotton Mather, who was a real big shot in colonial Boston. One was called "Silentarius.' The other was called 'Essays to Do Good."

"So what does she have to do with Benjamin Franklin?" Carl asked.

"Well, I should start by saying that Benjamin Franklin came from a large family. And he was among the youngest. So his father didn't have a lot of money to pay for his schooling. So he apprenticed the boy to his oldest brother James, who was a printer. Anybody remember how the apprentice thing worked?"

Evan Thompson, who switched into the class after the first week, raised his hand. "That's when you worked for someone for seven years and learned a job."

"Right. So Benjamin Franklin was working for his brother. James Franklin published a newspaper called The New England Courant. The Courant was really the first independent newspaper in the colonies, which is to day that it practiced freedom of the press. Which meant it sometimes criticized the colonies authorities. One of whom was the Reverend Cotton Mather." Mr. Smith paused to drink some coffee. He looked around the room. We were with him -- partly because he did that. It created a little suspense.

"Cotton Mather, for example, had a crazy idea. He thought -- get this -- that you could prevent a dangerous disease like smallpox, which once killed millions of people, by actually infecting them with a mild form of it, but sticking the germs into a cut. That you could, to use a technical term, 'inoculate' them."

"Crazy man, crazy," Carl said. He was really into it today. Maybe he got some extra sleep or had a good breakfast or something.

"Well, James Franklin said it was crazy. He also said that colonial authorities were too lax in going after pirates. Which landed his ass in jail."

"Pirates?" This from Deana.

"Yes, pirates. They were common in those days. French, Spanish, even the English did it. Lots of money to be made by raiding ships of rival nations. And there were lots of ships going in and out of Boston. It was the largest port in North America at the time."

"The seniors are going to have Pirate Day next week."

Mr. Smith ignored this. "James Franklin wasn't in jail long. And it didn't stop him from tweaking the Boston authorities. So he was pleased when he began getting a series of articles slipped under his door by this old woman, Silence Dogood. She made fun of Harvard students, local ministers, and the like. She was a widow who made clear she wouldn't mind getting married again. She even got some marriage offers."

"Did she get married again?" Hannah asked.


"Why not? Was she good-looking?"


Hannah squinted. "How do you know?"

"Well, actually, I kind of do know," he answered. "Good-looking, yes, I think so. But not a she. Silence Dogood was not actually an old woman. She was an adolescent boy named Benjamin Franklin."

I think Mr. Smith expected a laugh or some sense of surprise. But we didn't say anything.

"Young Franklin had written the pieces anonymously. And there were very popular. So his brother was upset when they stopped coming. But when he found it it was his kid brother, he got mad. So Ben ran away. To the new and rapidly growing city of Philadelphia." Another sip of coffee and a glance at the clock. Class was almost over; Dave was moving stuff around on his desk. 

"So what do you make of this guy?"

"He was smart," Carl said. "Funny."

"Does he seem like the guy on the $100 bill?"

"Not really. So what happened next?"

"What do you think happened?"

"I dunno. He wrote the Declaration of Independence?"

"No. That was mostly Thomas Jefferson. Besides, it's 1723, and that's over fifty years away."

"Wow. He was old."

"By then, yes. But Franklin did a lot before that. We'll talk more about it tomorrow."

So there you have it Maya, Ben Franklin, teenager. He was probably too cool for the likes of us. But I like hm anyway. 



Wednesday, April 24, 2013

One messed-up poem



The Horace Chronicles, #5

September 22

Dear Maya,

For the past couple days we’d been learning about slavery. Mr. Smith had us read about stuff like the Triangular Trade. He explained how slavery was different in North America than it was in South America (apparently North American slaves had it a little better because the weather was better and they got more food – if they managed to survive the trip over). He explained that things in the English colonies got worse for slaves around 1700 than they’d been in 1600 because the slave owners were getting nervous about poorer white people and thought they might keep them from getting too mad by making them feel at least they weren’t black. That whole Bacon's Rebellion thing which I mentioned in my paper. I found this stuff interesting. But I think Carl was getting bored, and some other kids were too. Yesterday I saw more kids staring out the window than I’d ever seen in this class. Almost as bad as English, where we were trudging through The Tempest. I think the idea was to have the English and History doing similar stuff, but it just wasn't working. Ms. Guzman went so slow. I also hated reading the play online, but I wasn't going to pay $5 for it, and I definitely wasn't going to ask my dad.

So I was a little surprised when Mr. Smith called up some poetry on the Smart Board. “OK, kids,” he said, putting down a mug of steaming coffee. “Today I have something for us to read. As you can see, it’s a poem by Phillis Wheatley—’’

“—her name is spelled wrong,” Hannah said. “My great aunt’s name is Phyllis. Shouldn’t this one have a Y in it?”

“She was named after the slave ship that brought her to America.”

“Well it’s still spelled wrong.”

“People were less fussy about spelling in those days,” Mr. Smith said. He picked up his coffee again. Reminds me of a hundred years later, when Andrew Jackson, who some people thought was illiterate, said he couldn’t respect a man who knew only one way to spell a word.” Mr. Smith sipped his coffee. I think he expected people to laugh, but no one did.

He put the mug back down. “Anyway, Wheatley was a slave—’’

“—Can I go to the bathroom?”

“Yes, Deana. As I was saying—“

“—Can I go too?”

“When Deana gets back. Wheatley was a slave—“

“Wait: a poet who was a slave?” This from Danny Kaiser.

I thought Mr. Smith would be mad to be interrupted again. Instead, he smiled. “You got a problem with that, Danny?”

“No. I mean, it’s just . . . it’s just a little weird. I thought slaves did like hard labor.”

“You thought right. As we’ll see, if we can ever get to the poem, that this Phillis Wheatley, no 'y,' was a pretty unusual woman. She was born in West Africa some time around 1730, and came to Boston. She wrote this poem around 1750 when she was about 20 years old. But let’s put aside the details for a moment. What you see here is the whole poem. Who wants to read it?”

Liz Ling’s hand shot up. “All right, Liz,” Mr. Smith said, “go at it.”  I shot a look at Jasmin Randall, who is black. I wondered what she was going to make of this. Her face was blank, looking at the board. Lisa read:

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

"Their colour is a diabolic die."

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

“That is one messed-up poem,” Danny said.

“How’s that, Danny?”

“She’s saying she’s glad to be a slave!

“Where does she say that?” asked Mr. Smith, reaching for his mug again. He didn’t look at Danny when he asked, which I think made the question seem less in-your-face

“She’s saying it was mercy that brought her here! It’s like she’s been brainwashed or something.

Mr. Smith put the mug down. Deana came in. Michaela went out. “We all agree then? The poet is a messed up, brainwashed slave?”

Silence. I kinda thought Danny was right, even as I suspected he was somehow wrong. Jasmin's face was blank. 

“Maybe she’s been brainwashed by Jesus.” It was Hannah. She always seemed to be the one to break the silence, as much out of impatience as anything else.

“What do you mean?” Mr. Smith asked in that even way of his. “How does Jesus figure into it?”

“Well, she says ‘there’s a God and a Saviour too,’ doesn’t she?”

“Yes she does. You think she’s wrong, Hannah?”

“How do I know?”

“Well, how does anybody? She apparently believes that Jesus Christ is her Saviour. Do you?”

“Well, if you’re into that kind of thing, I guess. It depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“Whether you believe in God or whatever.”

“What I’m asking is whether you do.”

“You’re asking me?”

“Yes, Hannah. I’m asking you.”

Hannah seemed confused and annoyed. “I don’t know,” she said. It’s clear she wanted Mr. Smith to stop. I wondered if he would. But then Danny came to her rescue.

“I don’t,” he said. “I’m Jewish. But I don’t really believe in God, either.”

“Well that makes sense, then.”

“What do you mean?” It was Carl. I guess he had decided to follow the conversation. He seemed a little suspicious of what Mr. Smith was saying about Danny.

“If you don’t believe in God or Jesus, then hearing someone say she became a slave was a blessing wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. Of course, one of the things she’s saying here is that she was once just like Danny. She didn’t believe, either. But now that she does, she’s experienced a ‘redemption’ she neither sought nor knew. What does ‘redemption’ mean?”

“Like in bottles?” It was Deana. I wondered if that was a serious answer, and whether she was thinking of the bottle-cap thing Mr. Smith did on the first day of school, which seemed like a long time ago already.

“Kind of," he said. "What happens when you redeem a bottle at the supermarket?”

“You get a nickel back,” she said. 

“Right. You get paid back. You think the narrator of this poem is being paid back?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“With a nickel?”

“No,” Carl said, taking over for Deana. “With heaven.”

“So she believes and she goes to heaven. Belief is a good investment.”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Hmmm,” Mr. Smith said, stealing a sip of coffee. “What would the Puritans say about that?”

Liz raised her hand. Mr. Smith nodded.

“They’d say she’s wrong. You’re not supposed to try and get to heaven by believing.”

“Is that what she’s doing, Liz?”

Lisa paused. You could see her thinking. “I guess not. It sort of happened to her. She said she wasn’t looking for it. It just happened.”

“Right. The grace was irresistibly conferred on her, just like the Puritans said it should be. Actually, they said it had to be that way: faith is a gift you receive, not something you just go ahead and take, or decide to go after, for that matter. After all, you can’t make yourself love somebody. It’s something that happens to you. Who knows: maybe faith will be irresistibly conferred on Danny someday.”

“Yeah, right.” But Danny was talking to himself. Mr. Smith had turned his back and was walking back to the Smart Board. He stood next to the poem. “Let me ask you something else,” he said. “Who is this poem addressing? Who is she trying to reach?”

Silence. Mr. Smith offered an answer: “Other slaves?”

“No,” Carl said. “They can’t read.”

“Right. So who, then?”

More silence. I decided to say something. “Well, she says ‘Remember, Christians.’”

“Right. Read that line again, Theo.”

“Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain/May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.”

“What is she saying?”

“She’s saying that Christians should remember that black people can get to heaven too.”

“But are black people Christians?”


“Really? Even though they’re ‘diabolic,’ which is to say from the devil?”


Sure, Theo? Is it really that obvious?”

“To me it is.” Was Jasmin looking at me? I was afraid to check.

“How nice for you.” (That felt like a slap, Maya.) “But what about the people she’s talking to?”

“I guess not.”

“No, it wasn’t obvious. But here’s one other complication. She says Negroes are just like Cain. Who was Cain?”

“I learned about him in Hebrew school,” Danny jumped in. He’s the guy who killed Abel.

“Right. And God condemned him to exile. Just like slaves are in exile in America. Because Cain was a sinner. Like we’re all sinners. Black people and white people alike.” Mr. Smith scanned the room. Then he looked up at the clock.

“One last thing. The poet describes her race as ‘sable.’ Anybody know what ‘sable’ means?”

“My grandfather drives one,” Deana said. “A Mercury Sable. He keeps it very clean.”

“What color is it?” Mr. Smith asks.


 “Damn.” Mr. Smith smiled. “ ‘Sable actually means black. It’s a kind of animal with black fur. The fur trade, as you may remember from last week, was a big business in the colonies. So ‘sable’ is a byword for quality, almost a brand like Apple. So she’s describing her fellow people as valuable, which of course they were from an economic standpoint in the slave trade. Do you think that’s what she means?”

Again, no answer. But I think we all understood the answer was no.

“Maybe Danny is right: she really was brainwashed. But whether or not she was, I hope you can also see she was pretty sharp. I hope you agree that there’s a lot going on here, more than we can really get at. Tonight’s homework is on the web page. See you tomorrow.”

It was a good class, Maya. But the thing I kept thinking about was something Mr. Smith said in passing: “You can’t make yourself love somebody. It’s something that happens to you.” Is that all there is to say? Is it really that simple? Not to get carried away, but that seems like another form of slavery. Maybe I should rebel. But I just don’t want to.

Friday, April 19, 2013



The Horace Chronicles, #4

September 15

Dear Maya,

I paid a visit to Mr. Smith's office on Friday morning. We had a DBQ -- a Document-Based Question -- to write an essay about. All the documents (they were more like little pieces from bigger documents) related to the English colonies in the 1600s. We read the documents for homework, spent a day talking about them, and now we were supposed to write the essay. So much for my weekend.

"C'mon in, Theo," Mr. Smith said as I came into his office. "Glad you came by."

I have to say, Maya, that sounded a little like bullshit: glad I came by? He didn't seem like a guy who said stuff like that. But I was seeing him outside the classroom. Maybe he's different when he's not teaching. Though I figure he'd be less fake, not more fake.

Since Mr. Smith is the chairman of the History Department, he has his own little cubicle. He's a got a desk with lots of pictures -- his family, I guess, though I couldn't see too much from where I was standing. I also saw a pack of cigarettes. Did he really smoke? There was a chair behind his desk, so I went there and sat down, unslinging my backpack and getting out my laptop.

"So what can I do for you, Theo?"

"Well, I was hoping to get some help with the essay. I think I know what I want to say, but I wasn't sure if it's what you're looking for, this being our first major assignment and all."

"All right, then. Let's hear it." He leaned back a little in his chair, which is fancier than the one in the classroom.

"OK. So the question says, 'Although New England the Chesapeake region were both settled by people of English origin, by 1700 the two regions had evolved into distinct societies. Why did this development occur?'"


"So I thought I would say it happened because they were different kinds of people. The New Englanders were like more community based, and the Chesapeake people were individualists."

"Sounds reasonable to me. That's your thesis?"


"And how do you plan to support that thesis?" He seemed to be in a good mood.

"Well, I was going to use documents like B and C.  Document B has the list of people on the ship to Massachusetts, and they're like all different kinds of people -- men and women, young and old, different jobs. Document C has the list of people going to Virginia and they're all young men."

"Right. Single men. We talked about this in class. What else?"

"There's Document F, where John Smith is saying that if the men won't work they don't eat, which means they're having trouble getting along. Document A is where John Winthrop talks about a city on the hill where everybody needs to stick together." Also, Documents G and H talk about Bacon's Rebellion, where the governor is saying he can't help the settlers against the Indians and Bacon is talking about the rich people as sponges sucking up all the money."

"Right. I think he calls them parasites, too. I love that passage. Nathaniel Bacon was one slick customer." Mr. Smith swiveled his chair back to his desk, opened a folder, and brought back some papers before swiveling back. "Well, it sounds like you have your story straight, Theo. So what's the problem?"

"Well, I just want to know if that sounds OK with you."

He nodded yes, but his eyes were looking down and pursing his lips. He was making me nervous. He looked back up at me. "So I take it you like New England better, am I right, Theo?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"If you were born back in the seventeenth century, that's where you'd rather be."

"I mean, yeah. Should I say that?"

"Let me ask you something," he said, almost squinting at me. "Are you buying that line that John Winthrop is selling you?"

"What do you mean?"

"I've got the DBQ here," he said, gesturing with the papers. "Listen to this: 'We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.' There's a lot of this kind of language here, is there not?"

"Yeah. So?"

"Well, I mean, if I was to say to you, 'You are going to to finish this essay on time, are you not, Theo? And write it in multiple drafts? And check your spelling? You will be careful, won't you Theo?' And you are going to finish this, right?' If I was to say that to you, what would you think?

"You'd be thinking that I might not finish it. That you didn't trust me."

"Exactly. So here's John Winthrop saying over and over again: You better behave, people! Don't screw up! Because if you do, everyone is going to laugh at us. Because if we fuck up, we will  'open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God.'"

That's right, Maya. He said "fuck."

But he didn't seem to notice, moving right into his next question: "And what about Document D?"

That's the one about wages and prices?"

"Yes. Where the government is telling people how much they should pay for things. Would you like to live in a society like that? All those busybody Puritans were a bunch of control freaks, don't you think?"

I was getting annoyed. I felt like he was telling me what to think. But I didn't think I should say that. "I guess I should change my thesis."

"No, Theo, I'm not telling you to change your thesis. Your thesis is fine. What I am telling you is to try to think about another point of view when you write an essay like this."

"But won't that weaken it?"

 "No. It will strengthen it."

"But won't I be contradicting myself?"

"Not if you do it right."

"So how do I do it right?"

"Well, now, Theo, that's what I want you to try and figure out. But I will say this: It's possible to say you like something, even that you love something, while at the same time noting that it has its shortcomings. A point of view doesn't have to be perfect to be the best one. That's the kind of thing I'd like to see you get the hang of. You think you can do that?"

"I think so." I think that's what he wanted to hear.

"Don't sound so sure," he said, chuckling. "I'm nudging you here a little, Theo. You're stronger than you know. You came here to get reassurance, but you're leaving here with a challenge. Consider that a compliment."


He laughed now: I made a joke and he got it.   

"Tell me a little about yourself, Theo. Where do you live?"

"Over in Donald Park."

He nodded. "And what do your folks do?"

"My mom, she's a nurse over at St. Luke's. My dad works for Margate."

"Oh yeah? What does he do for Margate?"

"I don't really know. He has something to do with the business side."

"Maybe you should ask him some time. You have brothers or sisters?"

"Nope. Just me." I paused, then I said: "What about you?"

He was surprised. "Me? I have an older sister. She's a lawyer in Boston. My dad was an English teacher and the principal of a high school.

I wanted to ask more, but wasn't sure if I should. Where did he live? Was he married? Why was he a history teacher? But I was afraid of asking the wrong thing.

"Well, Theo, I think you have plenty here to work with. Stick to that thesis you have and try to round it out with counterargument. I think you're in good shape."

He wanted me to go. "Thanks, Mr. Smith. Have a good weekend."

"You too, Theo." He smiled and then swiveled back to his desk. I packed up my laptop. I wanted to say goodbye but I didn't want to interrupt him, so I left without saying anything else.   

Later, lying in bed, I thought about that line he said: it's possible to like something, even love something, while saying it has shortcomings. But I never figured out that you had any, Maya. So what was I supposed to do? I would have liked to hear what Mr. Smith had to say about that. But I didn't know how to ask.