01.12.04

Finally got my copy of Elizabeth Gold's _Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity_ from the Borders across the street. Stayed home from school to take care of a cough and rest. To work perchance to read. A page-turner easily read in one day, especially a day from school, a health day.

She is a poet and writes a memoir. The voice of the poet makes it a lovely read, fun, easy; in spite of the content. Good juxtaposition of form and content. I like how she intersperses her own thinking, her life in parenthetical phrases and clauses. I like the occasional Faulkneresque sentences too. The metaphors are brilliant.

Now as to the content, that is where the clouds come in on this sunny day. She is an upbeat new teacher entering a New York City high school in Queens, in the middle of the year and her enthusiasm is dashed. Warnings come from her first visits to the school where she discovers she is the fourth English teacher for three 9th grade classes. Not a good sign. She deals with the principal and BOE bureaucracy at main headquarters (the gates of hell, NYC teachers understand this all too well, and she has a typical baptism in the faculty room from her jaded colleagues before entering her class for the first time, accompanied and introduced by the Dean, who does his typical Dean intro. basically she is set up to fail from the get go. an idealist planning on making a difference and all around her are signs that that idealism is about to be tested. and it is.

A simple can of soda becomes her first test. What would you do?

I think she hits a key point early when a student tells her, "I've just figured how to do enough to get by." She is learning that as her early enthusiasm is waning and she discovers April's (the previous teacher) note titled: How Can I Get My Class Back.

Her own education and discovery from what the kids say to her, Adam Patel, Peter Garcia and others. They become the conversations teachers should have in their heads. She could, perhaps do, learn more about teaching from them than the adults. The big question, one asks, "What are you doing here?" Gold is discovering this and will tell us in the end.

The introspection, the poetic bouncing from the outside events to the internal introspection, wonderful and painful. The 14 commandments, the theory and the practice always in her face. Such good stuff, so real. She has a good grasp of it and shows it well. The isolation of the teacher, the one so different from the staff developers, the admin, the critics. She is in the battle with the kids and she is learning why the system has failed, it is the tourists.

The aimlessness of discovering an inadequate text, seeing an Aide with "authority," discovering the book rooms, finding the other English teachers (all isolated too), and the discovery of the ubiquitous work F*ck and its uses and need to say it once in awhile. The chipping away at idealism, having to be organized and disciplined, and real. And she learns this from those she is to teach, role reversal at its best.

Role models hit a chord. I'm reminded of Charles Barclay's remark, "I'm not a role model." Sorry Sir Charles you are even if you choose not to be, because you are in the public eye. Gold is right; once you step into the classroom you are a role model. Get used to it. It goes back to that classic, "do as I say not as I do," perhaps. Or as she asks are all role models good? Aren't the bulk of the Ten Commandments based on what NOT to do as opposed to what to do?

The subtlety of the teacher's lounge and the symbolic picture of the keys and the UFT I COPE key chain. As if the UFT has the keys to teaching, haha. It should do more than just help us COPE, it should lead, not teach us how to tread water. Oh does she hit the mark with this graphic! And during the classic one-day staff development day, no follow-up, Gold asks the most important question to all of the gripes and theories of why we cant do one thing. "Why Not?" She has hit it square, "Why Not?" Because...never suggest "why not" in staff development or of the UFT. They are all theory and in this instance capped off by a movie. All one way Staff development, top down. No wonder administrators like staff development especially run by the teacher union. Spending today at home and not in school was the best staff development I could have had.

Then the Bartleby comes out in Gold. She's beginning to see the value in chaos in the classroom to let them find the order, not us. She is getting it. The metaphors: the tamale lady, the fireman, Cindy, The computer cables, The Call of the Wild, Peter Garcia's notebook, the letter announcing her poem as finalist in a poetry contest, Diallo, the candy necklace, the books, the books, the books, Streetcar in the spring, Erica and Eric, Room 313, Silvia,

I wonder if this book isn't a bit too long.

One of my major concerns about this book, is that Gold is a new teacher, a career changer, not one who has made teaching a career, but one who comes to it from another and this too is just a stop on her own path and not the path. I have chosen this path, been on it for 30 years, so the fellows and the new kind of teacher described here is the new teacher. Not the one in Sizer's _Horace's Compromise_ or those in any of Kozol's wonderful books or even Frank McCourt. She is the new teacher, the out sourced teacher, the new method in schools, not the one groomed from within. We are imitating business esp. sports as we now put teams together or businesses from stars of other teams. No more farm system, no time is allowed for that, as we need results yesterday. I think this may be the "hamartia" of the book. She says it beautifully when she says when speaking of the school not as family, but as a country, "The citizens of this country are sick of tourists."

She has identified, in my mind, a major problem in the educational system, too many tourists, too many do gooders who failed to consider the culture into which they walk and plan to change or even make better without knowing the culture of the school before they enter. The irony is as an outsider she has actually struck an important chord in school reform and as a poet does hit upon the soul of it all so beautifully. The power of this book comes for me as she enters into the joy of inquiry of self and practice as do Parker Palmer in his _Courage to Teach_ and even the Zanders' _Art of Possibility_. She has taken the despair of earlier generations of teachers writing about teaching and shown a poet's way to teaching, through inquiry of theory and practice and self. Marvelous and so painfully real. I suppose what makes this book most powerful is that Gold pulls it off. She is an outsider who sees and understands the inside so well, she is a poet after all and poets do this.

The most telling thing about this book, about the New Millennium School is that things haven't changed in the New Millennium School from the last new millennium school. Is this 2000 or 1900? I can't really tell. So in answer to Gold's question, "Why not?" Because this is how school is, was, and will be. However, I too, hate that answer and have pursued my own path without even consulting the Leon's with "How?" Cyber English." When we tear down we must be prepared to rebuild. Leon doesn't get this and that is why schools are as they are.