Harvard or bust!

I enjoyed William Deresiewicz’s article, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League,” and not because I went to a large state university and not because my own teenage son has little chance of ivy league acceptance.

Yes, Deresiewicz generalizes (admits doing so) and yes, he runs the risk of appearing nostalgic (though he confesses to “sleepwalk[ing]” through his own university experience decades ago)—but there’s still much to consider here about education, learning, privilege, and, well, life.


The article resonated with me for a variety of reasons:

  • I teach at an affluent suburban school with a toxic college-obsessed environment. Some of my students truly believe that the university they attend will determine their overall life fulfillment—and that “affluence, credentials, prestige” supply this fulfillment.  In this equation, I, as high school teacher, become merely a rung on the ladder toward their worldly success (or, if I “give” them a B or below, an obstacle).  In either case, my class holds little value for these students–it becomes a means to an end rather than a literary journey of self- and world-discovery.
  • Many students at my school are so over-scheduled that I can barely assign twenty pages of reading per night. They complain constantly and enter class exhausted and cynical.  You can call me part of the problem, but, in order to get into their dream schools, students choose to take an unsustainable load of rigorous courses (many of which they have no aptitude and/or passion for); to play school and club sports (hours and hours every week); to volunteer on the other side of the tracks (noblesse oblige now has useful benefits); and to participate in a crapload of extracurriculars….  All this work limits opportunities for deep reflection, for free time and mind space, for joy.
  • There’s no doubt, as Deresiewicz shows, that the system is rigged for the wealthy.  This sad fact drives me crazy, for some of my favorite students don’t stand a chance in the complicated, expensive, self-perpetuating twelve-year game of ivy league admissions.  The system “exacerbat[es] inequality, retard[s] social mobility, perpetuat[es] privilege, and creat[es] an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.”
  • I love the author’s condemnation of this whole “return on investment” trend, and his celebration of college’s intangible purposes and rewards:

College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.  [...It] is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.

  • And I appreciate his recommendations for improvement:

Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been advocating for years. Preferences for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded. SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors. Colleges should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They ought to place more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do. They should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth.

School begins in two weeks–and I will be inundated by a frenzy of recommendation letter/college essay help requests.  Of course, everyone will apply to like twenty schools and everyone will apply early, taking advantage of the Nov 1 early action/decision benefits.  Sigh.  Let the games begin….


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Syllabus creatin’

 Here’s my high-tech syllabi-planning methodology, this one for my new two-semester Brit Lit course for juniors:



Yes, I have a lot of work to do—-this class launches in five weeks!  


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“War is God.”

In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, blood doesn’t seep off every page—it splatters all over you. Brains explode. Viscera ooze from sliced bellies. Penises are hacked off and shoved into mouths; severed heads are impaled on sticks and paraded about; dogs are tied to their masters and burned alive; babies are dangled by their ankles and bashed against rocks; humans are dismembered, raped, hanged, flayed. Donkeys plunge soundlessly down bottomless canyons. And everywhere, everywhere are bloodied scalps, potent symbols of dehumanizing dominance.

Here’s a delightful example of BM‘s unrelenting violence:

“They found the scouts hanging head downward from the limbs of a fireblacked paloverde tree. They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung gray and naked above the dead ashes of the coals where they’d been roasted until their heads had charred and their brains bubbled in their skulls and steam sang from their noseholes.  Their tongues were drawn out and held with sharpened sticks thrust through them and they had been docked of their ears and their torsos were sliced open with flints until the entrails hung down on their chests.”

What to make of this novel? Even after my second reading, I’m not certain. McCarthy’s prose shimmers with intensity. His imagery sears into the mind. His story, as always elemental yet mythic and archetypal, entertains utterly. And his remarkable antagonist, the judge, that “great hairless thing,” arguably the scariest literary character ever created, is alone worth the book’s price. But McCarthy is not an explainer. Weird shit happens; ambiguities abound; the puzzle remains unsolved.

OK, I sort of get it. The judge is war. Or death. Or Satan. Or God. Or man’s propensity for violence. And the murderous, marauding gang our anti-hero the kid joins is the judge’s instrument of destruction. Only those who offer themselves “entire to the blood of war” prevail; all others “are destined for a night that is eternal.” That said, McCarthy punishes the gang.  One by one, each member meets a violent end. Surviving longest is the kid, whose body count stacks as high as everyone else’s but who silently “sits in judgment on [his] own deeds.”  However—spoiler alert—the boy is at last punished, horribly, while, of course, the judge, “towering over” mankind, twirling and dancing, “will never die.”  So, violence triumphs?

Entangled within all the violence, the judge’s cryptic parables and sermons, the archetypes, the biblical imagery, and the vivid descriptions of the land lie subtler, deeper themes, and those I’m still pondering–themes about time, fate, power, morality, order, and the marks we leave on the world.  McCarthy is a slippery writer whose texts refuse neat packaging.  The ambiguities must be surfed.

There’s a terrifying scene toward the book’s end where the judge—pale as the moon, enormous, brilliant, destructive, omnipotent—appears on the desert horizon, relentlessly pursuing the kid, who hides in a muddy well. Wearing nothing but meat slabs and a “wig of dried river mud,” the judge advances toward the well, attended, Lear-like, by “the imbecile,” a drooling, turd-eating retarded character—the two fantastic figures “[l]ike things whose very portent renders them ambiguous. Like things so charged with meaning that their forms are dimmed” (282).

Of course, they are like Blood Meridian itself: scary as hell, surreal, preposterous, sadistic, engrossing, “charged with meaning,” but, in the end, like the judge’s smile, gloriously enigmatic.


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Summer movies

“Maybe our work is the best of us.”
“I hope not.”


My dreamboat, Clive Owen, as an English teacher–I cannot miss this one:

Call me a nerd, but Words and Pictures is the only movie I’m excited to see this summer.  Anyone have any recommendations?  Belle?  Night Moves?



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Summer reading, 2014 style

Another academic year has come and gone–poof!–and here I sit in my home office, far from the madding crowd and free from the crush of classroom responsibilities, fingers on my Apple wireless keyboard (asdfjkl;), ready to write, yet also ready to turn off the computer and get the hell outta the house and into the world!

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me.  (RW Emerson)

I promise, Master Emerson, I will turn off my computer and I will close my books and go into nature, but not before I make a list of my summer reading, a treasured late-spring ritual.  For better or worse, here’s my list, subject to change at whim:

  • A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway)
    Finished last weekend–couldn’t put it down.  As an English undergrad, I was obsessed with Hemingway.  I studied in Spain in part because of For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, and Death in the Afternoon; and I chose to take my senior seminar on Hemingway, a course taught by a renowned (but sort of dickish) Hemingway scholar who only intensified my obsession.  Though I’ve long since moved on from Hem (have turned into much more of a Faulkner girl), this reread of FTA was electrifying.  Damn, Hemingway can write.  Yes, his sexism drives me mad–“[H]aven’t I been a good girl?” (good girl meaning sexually and intellectually pliant–!gag!)–but he can write a war scene like nobody’s business.  When his protagonist is trapped behind enemy lines, I was scared sleepless, all those German officers in WWI spiked helmets scooting around in convertibles with our poor hero crouching in ditches.  And, of course, there’s Hemingway’s style, so easy to mock but also so beautiful, reason enough to reread his novels every few years:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.  We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.  There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.

  • Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (Cormac McCarthy)
    Anyone who follows my blog knows I’m a huge McCarthy nut.  So, I figure it’s high time to reread his magnum opus, a text that pushes my reading skills to their limits.  The first time I tried to tackle this novel, maybe fifteen+ years ago, I had no idea what was happening half the time.  That said, I soon found a (slow) rhythm, sensed brilliance on every page, regularly felt my hairs stand on end, as if in the midst of a deadly high altitude lightning storm, and finished breathlessly, absolutely cold-cocked–a changed person though I couldn’t tell you why or how. Perhaps this time around I can better understand (rather than just feel) BM’s brilliance.  Of course will let you know.
  • Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
    I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never read this classic.  I’m offering it as an independent novel in my new British Lit course, so it’s time to dive into this bad boy.
  • Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
    Haven’t read since high school.  Summer reading for Brit Lit.
  • Neanderthal Man (Svante Paabo)
    For some weird reason Neanderthals fascinate me.  They were bigger and stronger than Homo sapiens and lived for a while at the same time and in the same places as Homo sapiens–why did they die out and we thrive?  Actually, Neanderthals still live in us; apparently before eradicating them, early humans mated with them–yeah, baby, yeah!  (Thus, unless you are pure African, you have Neanderthal bits in you.  Of course, some of us have higher concentrations of Neanderthal bits than others–hello, water polo team!)  NM is all about Dr. Paabo’s discovery and sequencing of Neanderthal DNA.  Can’t wait.
  • Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain (Daniel Siegel)
    Summer reading for teachers at my school.  Apparently, there are biological reasons teenagers are so annoying.  ;-)
  • Leaves of Grass (Walt Whitman)
    I’m just in the mood.  Must be read in one sitting (two-ish hours), alone, preferably in a thick forest next to a babbling brook or on a rocky promontory with an amazing view; must be the 1855 version.

Share feedback on above books?  Share your own summer reading list?



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Graduation’s underbelly: All that glisters p 2

What I didn’t mention about graduation in my previous post:

Two students–not mine–failed second-semester English, so, lacking the credits required to earn their high school diplomas, they did not graduate.  Well, they didn’t officially graduate–they will after they each complete a summer course in English literature.  That said, these two young men were allowed to enjoy all the perks and honors of graduation: the pinning, the parade, the diploma-receiving, the adoring applause from the well-heeled audience of 1000+, the cap tossing, and, of course, the lavish feting–a PTA-funded dinner-dance cruise, I believe, on a 105′ yacht.


Embarrassing as all that sounds, just wait–the story gets even better.  During the ceremony, a small airplane circled overhead, dragging a banner congratulating one of the very students who was fake-graduating.  The sign read something like, “Congrats, xxxxx, you did it!”

Do I laugh or do I cry?







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All that glisters is not gold

It’s graduation season again–so I have youth-on-the-brain….  Again I bear witness to another batch of fresh-faced, enthusiastic young people launching their black and cardinal mortarboards into the clear California sky, eager to take on the world, a world essentially built for their glory.

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These kids seem so vibrant, so annoyingly alive.  I almost believe their valedictorian when, enumerating their accomplishments, she proclaims, “There’s never been a class as special as the class of 2014.”  Working so deeply among them, seduced by their youthful exuberance and unquestioned privilege, I almost believe, as they do, that they’re special and destined for greatness; that they’ll visit Mars, cure cancer, break world records, start start-ups, discover the Theory of Everything, and, most important, make a crapload of money.

Of course, I’m old enough to know it’s all smoke and mirrors (except for the money bit–money breeds money).  Certainly, three or four of the 160 graduates will achieve some sort of greatness (or have greatness “thrust upon them”).  But most of them will become like most of us–regular people doing regular things, living quiet, unheralded lives and ultimately resting in unvisited tombs.

The effervescence of youth and passion, and the fresh gloss of the intellect and imagination, endow them with a false brilliancy….  Like certain chintzes, calicoes, and ginghams, they show finely in their first newness, but cannot stand the sun and rain, and assume a very sober aspect after washing day.
(Nathaniel Hawthorne, House of Seven Gables)

And it’s not the fault of my students that they believe the hype.  First, young people enjoy elevated levels of dopamine, which can give them a seductively “powerful sense of being alive” (Siegel Brainstorm 67)–I remember that feeling; it was awesome!  Second, most simply don’t know much about life, for they haven’t lived very long as adults and the years they have lived have been rather sheltered.  Third, for the most part children of immense privilege, these kids see the world as their own personal, limitless smorgasbord, so of course they’re confident–the feast is about to begin!  And fourth, well, they’re victims of a conspiracy, for they’ve been fed a load of “truthless ideals,” by, guess who?, US!  We tell them they’re special from the day they’re born, preparing them, as Somerset Maugham wrote in his masterpiece Of Human Bondage, for “an unreal life.”  Later, of course, “[t]hey must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is a nail driven into the body on the cross of life.”


Lest you think I’m Bitter Middle-Aged Woman, lest you think I’m resentful because when I was young I thought I’d be a published writer but now I’m just a high school English teacher (“Those who can’t do, teach!”), lest you find me plainly pathetic, please know that I believe youth’s overconfident narcissism a natural element of life’s trajectory.  At least in my own experience, youthful hubris was followed by real-world responsibilities, repeated doses of reality (like a machine gun, bam bam bam bam), hard work, successes, failures, observation and reflection, recalibration of ambitions (aka compromise), more hard work and reflection and recalibration, eventual self-forgiveness, appreciation for life’s bounties, and, yes!, after years, earned confidence born ironically from awe-filled humility, a deeper and more profound happiness than anything I felt when young.  My man Hawthorne understood this trajectory, writing

Our first youth is of no value; for we are never conscious of it until after it is gone.  But sometimes–always, I suspect, unless one is exceedingly unfortunate–there comes a sense of second youth, gushing out of the heart’s joy….  This bemoaning of one’s self over the first careless, shallow gaiety of youth departed, and this profound happiness at youth regained–so much deeper and richer than the one we lost–are essential to the soul’s development.

Closing in on fifty, I’m in the early stages of my “second youth,” and, while I don’t necessarily like the physical aspects of growing old (the aches! the wrinkles! the slow processing speed!), I love most everything else about it.  So, we allow these fresh graduates their pomp and circumstance, for we see our younger selves in them, and, anyway, they’ve worked hard and deserve a moment in the spotlight.  But as they’re blithely throwing their caps into the air, we smile to ourselves, because little do they know, if they are lucky enough to escape extreme misfortune and live with open hearts, many years from now they’ll enjoy a second happiness, so much better than the first.




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