April 3, 2015
On Mark 14:3-31
You were made in human likeness, found in appearance as a man—here, with us, with sounds and smells and tastes. Here in the place of expectation and disillusionment, confusion and truth, betrayal and redemption.
You are here, knowing the rough texture of your crowded city and hot, sweaty rooms. Dozens of us are here, squashed on the floor, sitting on each other’s feet—desperate for truth—a salve for the confusion of complex times and complicated needs.
Crash. Our startled faces look up. The small ceramic jar has forced silence and the heavy sweetness of nard mixes with the musk of bodies. The sacred and the profane, here, together. A joke dwindles and conversation dissolves into a sigh here, a grunt there. Muttering, murmuring, reasoning, rationalizing: hissed whispers that condemn. The volume climbs, until:
With no need to raise your voice, evenly, but then, with the falter of a man who has seen the person before him, with the falter of man who knows where this anointing leads:
‘Leave her alone. She has done a beautiful thing to me.’
Frustration and truth. Confusion and understanding
Do we have ears to hear?
Whispered plans. Money clinks. Did he meet their eyes when the final agreement was made? Did he feel nauseous? Did he know that tightness of the chest we feel in anger, indignation? But this is in the shadows.
The noonday sun sees the agitation of plans needing to be made: questions, instructions, the rust smelling blood in the streets, the charring of grilled lamb—roasting flesh. Acerbic herbs stain fingertips with smells that will last all evening.
You recline. Muscles relaxed by the breathing, talking, whispering of those who knew (or thought they knew) you best. Muscles tense at the thought of what is to come. Bowls clink, clank. Jaws work: eating, laughing, debating.
But then, rather suddenly, unexpectedly, at a time most right but most unpredictable, amidst the swallowing, the slurping—a most human of activities—grace is defined. Quietly and firmly:
‘One of you will betray me.’
‘This is my body, my blood.’
Sin and redemption. Betrayal and adoption. Rejection and love.
We are confused: sad, heavy questions trail off, one-by-one. A hymn is sung, haltingly. Understanding will come, but it is not present tonight.
One—we all know him—cannot leave the discomfort, that need to justify, and his emphatic insistence echoes the prophesied crowing. But grace is more insistent still.
Listen to the truth.
Listen to the voice of the God-Man. Listen to the voice of him who knows your humanity, who sees your sin. Listen to the suffering servant, the Passover lamb, the One who conquered death:
‘You will all fall away.’
‘But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you.’
November 9, 2013
Dear T. B.,
This week you insightfully suggested several ways that hastily written and shared articles/blog posts are negatively affecting public discourse. You note that we’ve become accustomed to reading poorly constructed pieces which have not undergone any editing and which do not enter a curated space. This regularly shallow diet feeds into a cultural trend toward straw man arguments, battering against a weak version of an opponent’s argument. It’s made us lazy; we would rather read a scholar’s quick summary on a popular blog than stick with her ideas through a book-length treatment.
Upon reading this, I was immediately chastened. My own reading habits tend toward the long form: the New Yorker, books, etc., but I read a fair amount of pieces linked to by friends. I do see the effects of this reading in my increasing laziness of thought. And, as a sometimes blog writer/contributor, I wonder if I’ve simply been adding to the cacophony of poorly researched, shoddily crafted, vaguely personal nonsense in cyberspace.
In thinking about blog writing as a genre, I’ve struggled to see its connection to other literature, until I remembered a collection I read last year. PDG & AKG gave us John Steinbeck’s collected letters (which I devoured during my own year of serious letter writing). It occurred to me that the average blog post has much more in common with the tradition of long running literary correspondences than anything else. Steinbeck’s letter to his son reads very much like a contemporary blog post. It has the casualness of tone, the eagerness of message and the relative lack of formal and researched arguments.
Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
It is a “musing,” intentional but personal. I’ve also read several letters from the Marianne Moore/Elizabeth Bishop correspondence; they are newsy, sometimes containing ideas for work, or questions and worries, or observations about the natural world, as the selection below:
[discussing swans sitting on their eggs] Do you know-you probably do, but I never had before-that they turn them over every half hour, exactly. We went to watch them do it-with their feet-and- it is the nicest thing afterward to see the mother swan stretching her neck all around to see that all the eggs are underneath. (ii June I935 RM)
This is not the stuff of published work or art. But, it has its place, and it obviously had an important place in the life of these two poets, (here’s an article by a professor of poetry that discusses this). Other famous letter writers, Coleridge, Woolf, O’Connor, Hemingway (really any literary figure pre-21st century) write in a manner than reminds me of the blog post. Often short, cobbled together thoughts, some of which will be discarded, and others which will become the skeleton of larger projects. I read through a volume of T.S. Eliot’s letters last year, and it was rather surprising how many mundane and hastily constructed pieces there were mixed in with letters that contained obvious outlines of key critical theories. It seems important that these writings are not journal entries, despite their informality. They are what they are because they were written with intention to be sent to someone else.
This unique space to process thoughts in a written, through less formal, context is something that is lost in a non-letter writing culture. I have corresponded via email with several friends on serious topics, but this happens so infrequently that it barely warrants a mention.
I would like to suggest that blog writing could take over this role. It is a space wherein we try on ideas, where we have the freedom to process experiences and opinions in a less-formal environment. It’s hastily written for a reason, allowing us to throw ideas out into the world that upon serious study and reflection we might have kept to ourselves. But, as negative as this might sound, I wonder if it is an important step to the development of good art and clear ideas. It at least forces us to create rather than simply consume. I sense that it can be much of what the great literary letters of the past were, but of course, as you point out, it rarely is. I think this is for the following reasons:
First, a blog is written into the online void. Most often posts are not directed to a specific person, and even if they are, they are usually viewable by the general public. This lack of a unique audience affects the kind of writing we do and leads, I think, to writing that is weighed down by self-serving faults. Writing to someone provides limits and boundaries which are good. Second, a blog post isn’t part of an ongoing writing relationship. It is usually not going to be responded to in kind. Comments, at their best, are limited to simple agreement or disagreement; at their worst, they are repetitive or full of vitriol. This is not the vigorous give and take of Bishop and Lowell, or the deep conversations of the Adams.
But, despite these failings, I think there are ways that our blog writing can be redeemed, allowing us to gain some of the benefits of a letter writing culture.
First, write in response to others, in dialogue with them. I am increasingly trying, in my own writing, to interact with other authors, as opposed to writing in isolation. Placing yourself within a community that is discussing something and inviting lengthy response has an elevating effect. Although I rarely agree with all their content, I’ve appreciated the way that Mere Orthodoxy has made a habit of including responses or lengthy back and forth discussions in their blog lineup (here’s an example). This allows a blog to serve a function entirely unique from the journal article, the well-researched news report or the book-length treatment of a subject. Blogs should be a place for testing out ideas in community, not for a thesis. I think that blogs written by various authors (shameless plug for Wheatstone Writes) might be able to foster this sort of thoughtful back and forth more than single author sites.
Second, write for and read within a community. Even though blogs are usually viewable by the general public, they can be more directed. I know, generally, the community that I am writing to when I outline a piece for Wheatstone Writes. This knowledge changes my writing for the better. It is both more piercing and more loving. I’m not writing to merely air my thoughts or feed my self-image, but to ask questions and suggest ideas to real, live people. As you suggest, I should try to take more care with the quality of writing that I intake and output (M. Anderson has a great satirical piece on this), spending more time looking for quality discussions of issues. I am trying, more and more, to limit my blog reading to people I know or communities I’m connected with. I read the articles that friends ask me to, and make sure they enter our actual conversations; I read the pieces written by members of my community, pushing myself to respond at length (in person or in writing). When reading outside of my community or about ideas that I disagree with, I am trying to push myself to read books and serious articles, forcing myself to find the best articulation of ideas I dislike. But, you’re right, public discourse these days doesn’t make it easy.
So, that was a rather long response. I’m curious what you think. Am I merely looking for a way to substantiate my own writing (which is certainly a possibility)? Should I try and turn the clock back and mail my blog posts across the Atlantic? Thoughts?
P.S. Edinburgh is not the same without you all!
October 19, 2013
“I mean, you’re a lifer too, right?”
This was one of the early conversations I had with the other half of the English department at my little charter school. It was on the heels of a fantastic discussion of curriculum and management techniques. We had just finished each other’s sentences about the particular ways we wanted to grow in our abilities as teachers that year. Five plus years in, we had no intention of going anywhere.
“Yes.” I answered, not realizing this made me an increasingly rare commodity. I also didn’t realize that by the end of that year, my school would have replaced (either due to firing or resigning) over a third of its teaching staff. At the end of the year my students refused to believe that I was coming back to teach them for a second year, “You’re a good teacher, which means you’re going to leave,” they informed me, based on clear evidence from their years in charter schools.
There are two issues here, (1) the high turnover rate of charter school teachers, who are most often moving to other schools and (2) the gradual changing of the teaching profession from one which people make a lifelong career to one which attracts the young and then spits them out (to other, better paying careers) or up (to administration) a couple years later.
Although there are studies that argue for teacher turnover’s harm to student achievement, many charter organizations are starting to focus on the benefits of young, inexperienced recruits: enthusiasm, devotion and “moldability,” as Rich mentions in her recent article, “At Charter Schools, Short Career by Choice” (The New York Times. 26 August 2013). Many articles on the issue cite an increasingly familiar list of the reasons teachers are leaving schools or even the profession: attacks on (or complete lack) of unions, increased expectations (longer school days or other increased professional responsibilities), the pressure of high stakes testing, a pay scale that is back loaded (or, in the case of charter schools, below market standards), an increasingly low cultural regard for public educators and bottom-line administrators (as opposed to those focused on actually educating kiddos).
I write this as someone who, even if I had not made a transatlantic move, would have been looking around for other schools, for many of the above reasons. I’m the breadwinner of my family at the moment and couldn’t afford to be at a school that was paying me below market scale (and was making it increasingly hard to do real teaching). But I also saw the devastating effect of this turnover on my students. They had little consistency throughout their high school experience, making it difficult for them to ever build on what they’d learned. They rarely saw a teacher with more than a year of experience, which meant that they were always someone’s guinea pigs, getting an endless series of teachers who were learning for the first time how to manage behavior and plan a full timetable of lessons, let alone create an engaging classroom. Teachers were not involved in the community, and had little understanding for the long-term issues in their students’ lives.
Not a good sitch, to say the least.
By way of contrast, I was shocked by the conversation in the English faculty lounge (“staff base”) during my first week of teaching in a mixed socioeconomic secondary school just outside of Edinburgh. Of the twelve English teachers in the department, seven have been teaching for nine years or more at the school. One was a supply teacher who has worked with the school for over five years. Three had taught for over five years (at a couple different schools nearby) and one was a probationary teacher (in her first year, sort of a second step of student teaching). This is everyone’s long term (and for most, their first) career choice. Although the pay scale has been affected by Britain’s austerity measures, the nationally set pay scale climbs significantly for the first 5-6 years, quickly rewarding those who make it through the rough first couple of years. The “principal teacher” (department leadership and curriculum development) role gives teachers a way to move up in their professional career without leaving the classroom. There is an incredible amount of freedom in curriculum (and no one has heard of multiple choice tests in English). The culture all this creates is palpable: the teachers love their jobs; they deeply know the community (and their students’ families); they are constantly striving to be better at their craft.
Now, I know that this is not always the case (and I know that Scotland has serious issues in their educational system as well), and I know that I’m also experiencing the shock of having come from a deeply troubled little charter school. But … it’s good to know that it’s a bold-faced lie that …
Articles Cited (in order of citation):
Ronfeldt, Matthew; Susanna Loeb and James Wyckoff. “How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement.” American Educational Research Journal. 23 October 2012.
Rich, Motoko. “At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice.” The New York Times. 26 August 2013.
Blume, Howard. “High turnover reported among charter school teachers.” The LA Times. 25 July 2011.
Esquith, Rafe. “Why great teachers are fleeing the profession.” The Wall Street Journal. 17 July 2013.
“How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders.” The Washington Post. 10 October 2010.
August 7, 2013
It is not enough to mourn the dead or memorialize the survivors; we must confront history in all its painful, guilt-inducing glory and use it as a guidepost for our behavior today.
This excellent article reminded me that I hadn’t posted closing thoughts on my year’s film watching project. JRC and I watched a series of AIDS documentaries this year, as both a personal and societal project. Reactions to this crisis (for better and mostly for worse) shaped our parents and our generation, much of LGBTQ+ experience, and the situation of medical activism, and we wanted to understand it better. I hadn’t watched many documentaries prior to this year; one outcome has been that I’ve learned better how to watch them (see my latest Examined Life article).
We Were Here (2011) and How to Survive a Plague (2012) give the most straightforward discussions of the horror and confusion of the outbreak. We Were Here focuses on five individuals who lived or worked near Castro Street in San Francisco. It masterly weaves together the voices of straight and LGBTQ+ individuals, of medical professionals and community members. Each person fights the battles that are given to her to fight, whether it be disease, medical abandonment, political whitewashing, or individual prejudice. Of all the pieces I watched this year, this articulated best the horror of an disease that is unknown, that so quickly spreads and destroys. It unapologetically shows the culture of hysteria, quarantine and discrimination that politically and socially grew up around the AIDS outbreak. We Were Here hints at the issues of medical activism that are fleshed out in How to Survive a Plague.
David France’s documentary tells a similar story on a different coast, discussing the outbreak of AIDS in New York City. Although it addresses cultural reactions and some personal stories, it focuses on the work of early activists and on the formation of ACT UP–the organization primarily responsible for speeding up the efforts of the FDA and the medical industry to provide research and new drugs. It is an incredible story of the power of self-education, the power of knowledge. There are a lot of angry people shown, and the documentary does an excellent job of showing why. It’s an antidote to the problem Ryan discusses in his article:
The unfortunate side effect of this continual soft-pedaling of homophobia is that the queer community — our anger, our mistrust, our fear — is rendered incomprehensible to the viewer. If everyone else behaved so well, why were (and are) we so angry?
Before Stonewall (1984) and After Stonewall (1999) weren’t originally on our viewing list, but they ended up being incredibly helpful in providing context for the experience of the LGBTQ+ community in the United States. The AIDS outbreak in the 70s and 80s didn’t occur in a vacuum, and the larger societal reaction was not out of character with the treatment of the subculture prior to that time (or after, for that matter).
Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993) and Angels in America (2003) are both less about a movement or a societal experience as they are about the experience of individuals (non-fiction and fiction respectively). I wrote about Silverlake Life last fall; it is still forcing me to consider terrifying questions about dying, the human body and what it really means to love until death. HBO’s miniseries, Angels in America (adapted from Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer winning play), is the only non-documentary on this list. As we watched films this fall, though, I realized that thinking well about tragedy requires one to walk about in others’ shoes. Angels in America does this powerfully. It wrestles with questions of identity, of abandonment, of selfishness and love. It provides an emotional context for the interviews and images in the documentaries we watched. It provides, too, a concretely depicted political context for tragedies of the AIDS outbreak.
I cried a lot in front of my TV screen this year. I was, at times, ashamed to be an American, to live in a world with the continued stain of non-action and discrimination. I’m terrified to read articles like Ryan’s (linked to above) that reveal the subtle retelling of our history in a way that alleviates guilt. But, I was also inspired by the moral fortitude of people fighting for their lives and for the lives of people around them.
Ryan writes in “How to Whitewash a Plague”:
Bad history has consequences. I’m not afraid we will forget AIDS; I am afraid we will remember it and it will mean nothing. If we cannot face the root issue — that we let people die because we did not like them — AIDS will become a blip on our moral radar, and this cycle will repeat every time we connect an unpopular group with something that scares us.
Ryan closes his article commenting on the fear that he witnessed on the faces of fellow subway riders as they considered sitting next to individuals of Middle Eastern descent. He rightly connects past cultural patterns with future injustices.
It’s not enough to mourn the past if we are not willing to be honest with ourselves about why it happened as it did.
This is important, people, really important.
P.S. These are the last two films on our list …….. which have yet to be watched due to difficulties finding them:
United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012)
August 3, 2013
What though, wedded, we would have had annulment’s
Consummation early, and though in darkness
I can see that glimmerous rim of folly
Lave our condition,
Had we not so stumbled on grace, beloved,
In that chanced day brief as the sun’s arising
Preternaturally without a shadow
Cast in its presence.
Odi Barbare XXVIII (Geoffrey Hill)
And somehow, without my realizing it, the year of living on two continents has been over for two weeks. Perhaps it is a precise quality of grace to pass by unnoticed. It is not simply that we stumbled on grace this year, but, as Hill points out, we so stumbled. Grace is uniquely opposite what we would have had. We saw clearly the glimmerous rim of folly that we were risking, or rather, we thought we saw it. And it turns out that even in the midst of it we were spared. There was no shadow, no sign of the sun’s presence, but the mere revelation that we are still wedded. The humiliation of grace is its utter lack of reliance upon our floundering steps, our stammering words.
June 20, 2013
This is a nitty-gritty teaching post, fair warning for those who aren’t in the classroom. My one sentence summary: Don’t make excuses for teachers who don’t get results, but do realize how freaking hard their job is.
I made myself and my students a promise when I started teaching in the public sector.
I promised to not make excuses for my failures.
I’ve been a teacher for long enough to know that teachers are full of excuses. There is always someone (or something) else on which I can blame the failures in my classroom.
But, I promised to not double-speak my failings. I made this promise because I believe that my students deserve the best possible education. They deserve teachers who can teach them to read and to write. They deserve respect and high standards. They don’t deserve to be sacrificed at the altar of teachers’ egos.
This is not to say that poverty, lack of parent education, insufficient prior education, poorly designed tests and curriculum don’t affect my students. I know that they do. It is ridiculous (and prideful) to think that one teacher can alter a lifetime of less than excellent educational and social experiences. This is why we need to hold teacher evaluations based on test scores with a wary hand. Anyone who is looking to “solve” education without a holistic understanding of larger socio-economic issues is just simply crazy.
But, at the end of the day, I believe in teacher accountability. Teachers should be held responsible for the quality of instruction in the classroom, for the gains or losses that students make while in their care. How? I have absolutely no idea, but it does need to happen. It is a matter of justice.
So what does this have to do with me, this year? Well, I just received the raw CST data for my sophomores … and it’s not so hot. That’s an understatement. It’s awful. And, even as I write this, and as I look over my scores, my mind is coming up with a thousand and one excuses while this doesn’t mean I am a bad teacher–ways to spin the data (i.e. compare to other schools or LAUSD), explanations for certain students, fingers to point at other factors, poor administrative direction, etc..
But, I’m going to refuse to make excuses, as painful as it is to my ego, to my sense of vocation, and to my hopes for teaching in the future.
To be concrete, last year, 50% of my freshmen tested at proficient or advanced (roughly >70-80% of the questions correct). 32% of them tested at basic (roughly >55%-60%) and 19% of them tested below or far below basic.
This year, as sophomores (being tested on the same standards but with a harder test), 46% of them tested at proficient or advanced, 45% of them at basic and 10% at below or far below basic.
The biggest take away is that my proficiency levels went down. Around ten of my students who tested proficient last year, did not this year. Many of my students raw scores went down as well. This is awful, and makes me almost sick to my stomach. The thought that students lost knowledge or stayed static while in my care as opposed to increasing their knowledge makes me cry. It is inexcusable.
Now, I know as well as the next teacher this test doesn’t measure increased student motivation, writing, the books we’ve read this year, or non-multiple choice reading comprehension. But, having spent several years with the CSTs, I do know that they are effective at measuring some things. And this data means that for roughly half of my students, I wasn’t able to improve their basic reading comprehension or grammatical understanding. And, there are no excuses for this.
The data does tell me that for the other half of my students (mostly my lower performing ones), I was able to bring their reading comprehension/grammatical understandings from the below 40-50% to 60-70%. This I am happy about. These are students who couldn’t really comprehend at the paragraph level, and now can show basic comprehension at the several page level.
But–No excuses. In many ways, I failed this year. I didn’t fail in all the ways, and I succeeded in some ways. But, I do know that I let down some of my students (whether or not they are aware of this). And so, because I care so desperately about my students and this work, I am angry at myself. It is a terrible feeling to have worked as hard as I possibly could, to have put in way too many hours, to have creatively exhausted myself trying to get as many books as possible into my students’ hands … and to not have seen the results that I hoped for.
What does one do? I’ll think about what was effective this year, and what was a waste of time. I’ll try to examine specific students and figure out why I didn’t see growth. I’ll look over specific lessons and try to analyze why students didn’t retain information. I’ll think about what I would have done differently had I planned to teach my students next year. I’ll try to be humble and talk to other teachers. I’ll cry a little.
And, I will remind myself that I am in this for the long-run, and it is the height of pride to think that I would have mastered the art of teaching underperforming students in two years.
I won’t beat myself up (as I’ve told my students over and over again). But, I won’t make excuses. I did my best this year, and it wasn’t enough. But, the stakes are too high for me to give up. My students deserve better.
So, next year I’ll strive to be better than I was this year. And for right now, that’s all I can do.
June 11, 2013
Graduation Speech / Class of 2013
Here’s a secret I’ve learned from years of teaching: Many high school students are boring.
But this is the last thing that is true of you. Our conversations this year have given me just a hint of all that you do. You make music. You support your families. You paint and draw. You play sports. You help your classmates where they are weak. You explore your city. You party. You volunteer because you love it–not for the hours.
You are a class of students who does things and goes places. You know Highland Park, Downtown and Hollywood–your cities–better than most of your teachers.
Going to college won’t magically make an unmotivated student motivated… but for those of you who already live a life of activity and service, college is going to give you the skills to do that better.
And because of that, I’m not worried about you. Don’t get me wrong, college is going to be hard, and it’s going to be harder for some of you than for others. But the key to success (and you know a little part of me dies when I say this) is not reading books and writing papers. The key to success is being able to love people, to serve people, to work with people and to live well in your city, your home.
And this, class of 2013, this is what you have taught me this year. You have taught me, by your example, how to unconditionally love and accept each other, how to give people second chances, how to never give up on your friends. You have taught me to take risks, to do the thing that seems impossible. You’ve taught me that when in doubt, sometimes you just need a dance party.
You’ve taught me that if you keep working at it, the thing you don’t understand will eventually become simple.
You’ve taught me that all things, including APEX math and a very long year, will at last come to an end.
Thank you for letting me join you this year.
My charge to you, the class of 2013, is this: Keep exploring, keep taking risks, keep working hard and keep loving each other … and you’re going to be just fine.
March 7, 2013
I tell my students that classrooms shouldn’t be silent.
A place where learning is happening isn’t chaotic, but it isn’t quiet either. Questions are noisy and don’t always follow a raised hand. Frustration can be even louder. Conversations that connect readings to life are often accompanied by laughter. Passionate arguments that lodge ideas and information deep into students’ hearts are loud.
The silence I hate most of all in my classroom is the silence of the standardized test. It is heavy, overbearing, and depressing. It makes my soul start to shrivel up. I’m all for tests; I think it’s important to be held accountable to teach information. But, the oppressive silence of students weighing their choice of A, B, C or D makes me want to punch somebody. As I proctor, all I want to do is to talk to students about their choices, to crack a joke, to say something that will make hands shoot up and wave for attention.
There is one silence I love, through, and it boggles my mind that the same absence of noise can feel so different. When every student has a book in open on his or her desk and is intently reading, the silence is full. The draw of a story or a character cannot be broken by sounds in the hallway or my moving around the classroom straightening up from the last class. There is a peace in the classroom that I feel at no other time. When I tell my students we have to move on to our lesson, there is the briefest of sighs as they close their books. Their eyes light up and they want to tell me what happened in the couple of pages.
The moral of this story? Testing days make for a grumpy teacher and sad students. Reading days make for a happy teacher and contented students.
Sometimes educational pedagogy isn’t rocket science, people.
October 26, 2012
N.B. This is a difficult, mature film to watch. I highly suggest that parents of minors preview the film prior to broader viewings.
One of my students asked me a couple weeks ago about the text we’d been reading in class–a memoir of a child soldier in Sierra Leone (A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah). After we’d discussed a couple pages, she sighed and looked over at me. “Ms…why are you having us read such a sad book?” I replied, saying, “The world is a sad place.” I expected the fifteen-year old to challenge me, but instead she agreed. “Yeah Ms.–It’s a true story–but I just really wish it wasn’t.”
A couple days later, after watching the 1993 documentary Silverlake Life: The View from Here, I had to remind myself of this conversation. The world is a sad place, and it’s important that we listen to its stories. Even when they’re uncomfortable, we must. Why? You ask again. Because they’re true.
My sister and I are both currently living alone, several states away from each other; we decided to embark on a film watching project together this fall, trying to keep ourselves accountable to watch and discuss good films, despite our busy schedules. After reading several recent articles, we settled on documentaries addressing the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. Besides personal interest (our uncle died of AIDS in 1993), we were interested in the way that this epidemic has affected both our parent’s generation and our own generation. How has it changed the way we view the homosexual community? How has it changed the way we view medicine, the body, epidemics, etc.? What can we learn about the way humans die and deal with death? These are not light topics, by any means, and each documentary we’ve watched and article we’ve read has been a struggle. Death is hard, and dying of AIDS is particularly hard. Watching a nation largely fail to love and care for the dying is hard to come to terms with. But, each conversation we’ve shared about each film has underscored how important it is to hear and interact with these stories.
Silverlake Life: The View from Here is a self-documentary told by an independent filmmaker and professor, Tom Joslin.When he and his partner, Mark Massi, are diagnosed with AIDS, he decides to begin a daily film diary, to chronicle his last months. The documentary is obviously a pre-digital documentary project. It doesn’t have the cleanness of our iPhone drenched, YouTube saturated “self-made video” world. But, it is always obvious that Joslin knows how to set up a shot. His footage is all-encompassing. We see him sitting in the car, too exhausted to walk into the grocery store. We see several of his doctor’s appointments, tense family moments, arguments with friends, happy outings, and even a counseling appointment. We see conversations, and we see middle of the night strugglings with insomnia. The desire for the viewer to see his entire life, as it slowly (and rapidly at times) comes to an end is overwhelming. It is rare to be invited, with such abandonment, into the intimate process of dying.
As death quickly approaches, Massi takes over the filmmaking, and we watch Joslin’s body waste away. Even weeks later, it is difficult for me to relate these portions of the film. There is something uniquely awful about the toll that AIDS takes on the human body. It forces death in one’s face. It is uncomfortable, in the way that death should be. Death, the lasting effect of sin on our world, is not comfortable.
Peter Friedman, who finished the documentary after Joslin and Massi died, wrote that the project was a “… perfectly natural thing for Tom to do because as an artist, his way of dealing with just about anything was to make a film about it” (www.truelives.org). Besides the ever present questions of how humans deal with death, this film raises questions about the place of art in allowing us to face and comprehend death. In a startling scene after Joslin’s death, Massi reads a trite book written to “grieving loved ones.” The pat advice and terrible poetry is set in stark contrast to the film that the viewer has just experienced. In Silverlake Life, we see instead that emotions are rough, uncut and complicated; death is ugly, and the world does not always make sense.
I hesitate to write more. This is a film that, more than most, cannot be boiled down to scenes and shots. It’s a rare glimpse of the most painful part of human existence. It is a story about the love and commitment required to be present for someone’s last months, days and hours, as you continue battle for your own life.
It raises many questions, some that I’ve already discussed. But, culturally, it raises, perhaps more uncomfortable questions about society’s past treatment of those with AIDS, how families deal with death, and perhaps, our discomfort with beauty and self-sacrifice obviously displayed in a homosexual relationship. In whatever ways this film is uncomfortable for you, as the viewer (and yes, it will be), I strongly urge you to engage with that discomfort. Why is this hard? is the beginning to many a self-examining conversation.
Massi notes, towards the end of the film, that experiencing Joslin’s last days and death together was transformative for his relationship with Joslin’s mother. They were united by the common and personal experience of human suffering. The differences and bitterness that had seemed so large were no longer important. This kind of transformation is at the heart of each shot, interview, and whispered monologue. Suffering, if we let it, can redeem and transform.
June 12, 2012
a speech given on 11 June in honor of the graduating class of 2012.
On behalf of the staff and faculty of LAICHS, I’d like to thank you all for being here to celebrate the graduation of the class of 2012. It is an honor and a privilege to have taught these students who are before us today.
We began the year by reading Beowulf. It’s the story of a warrior who saves a city by killing a monster. It’s a classic image of courage, of a brave hero who is willing to sacrifice himself. A hero is one who is willing to fight even when the odds are against her. Sometimes, or perhaps often, it is hard to connect this kind of courage to our daily lives. For high school students, this is merely a fairy tale (that their English teacher is forcing them to read). It is not something they expect to see as they walk through the halls of their high school. It seems less than real.
As I graded final papers over the last weeks and considered this class of students whom I’ve grown to love, I looked for something that united them all. What is it about this bunch that has grabbed the hearts of each teacher and staff member here? Each one is unique, and talented, and hilarious in their own way (and some in more ways than others), but the quality that immediately came to mind was the one we began the year discussing: bravery.
The students sitting before us, more than any I have ever known, are brave.
Some are brave, because each morning they wake up with the full knowledge of past (or current) tragedy—and every morning they move forward. Some are brave because they took the academic challenges their teachers threw at them this year in stride and pushed themselves to write clearer and think harder than they ever had. Some are brave because they are treading upon untried soil, they are the first in their families to earn this diploma and head to college. Some are brave because they passed classes this year that it took them years to pass. Some are brave because they faced personal failure, but chose to not be defined by it, but rather, to learn from it and keep growing.
All are brave because it is the scariest thing in this world to keep getting off the floor and trying again.
It is fitting that you, the class of 2012, have named yourself The Last Standing. You’ve kept standing these four years, and I’m confident that you’ll keep standing over the next four years and beyond. Your desire to keep running forward, despite odds being stacked against you will keep you standing. Your bravery is worth more to you than grade point averages, and college acceptances. It’s what will keep you in college and pursing your dreams even if no one else believes in you.
We, the staff and faculty of LAICHS, are proud. Unbelievably proud of you—today. We are proud of where you have come from and where you are going. But most of all, we are proud of who you are. Today you can say, with Beowulf: “We have gone through with a glorious endeavor and have been much favored in this fight we dared against the unknown.”