The View from Here

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-DVD-F

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.

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against the unknown

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.”

CST Blues

May 2, 2012

Or, Why I Will Feel like a Failure Every Spring

My freshmen took their English CSTs yesterday, and last night I got a bad case of the CST Blues.  I was a basket case—puddle-on-the-floor basket case.

I’m not against standardized tests; as a general rule, I’m a huge fan.  I appreciate the accountability, and the focus and drive that it can provide to administrators.  There are basic things that I think students should know and be able to do in each of their subjects, and the CSTs (and like tests) make a good stab at them.  They’re not perfect, but they’re okay.  And, as my master teacher told me, meeting the standards should be the easy part.  It’s the passing on a life-long love of reading and learning that’s difficult.

But, as I look over the standards that my students tested on this week, I know for certain that I’m not going to have more than 50% proficiency (>60%), if that.  My students, for the most part, came into high school below grade level (ranging from 3rd-8th grade reading/writing skills).  I’ve been a good teacher, but that’s not enough.  Effective teachers don’t teach one year’s worth of material.  They teach 1.5-2 years worth of material in a year, and they also motivate and instill a love of learning (while battling reduced budgets (i.e. no novels provided to students) and poor home and community support systems)

So, as I look at my students, as they traipse into my classroom this morning (lured by bagels, nutella, and OJ) to tell me that they “had that test”, “it was super-easy!”, “I kicked it’s ass!” … I’m sad.  I know that there was way more I could have done.  I know that I was clueless as to how to teach some of the standards.  I know that a couple of them failed before they opened the test booklet, weighed down by the shear number of words they wouldn’t understand.  I know that I wasn’t always consistent, that I caved to the occasional busy work, and that I didn’t always differentiate like I should have.

Even though I was here every single day, didn’t spend my class sessions texting while my students completed worksheets, and prepared upwards of 750 hours of mostly engaging and thoughtful lessons … my students are still way below grade level.

My only comfort, right now, is that I’m slightly above average.  And, that is small comfort to a driven woman who is firmly convinced this is her vocation.  I feel like many of my students as they opened their test booklets:

The standards are high and are where I’m supposed to be, and I know I have no possible way of meeting them fully.

So what is one to do?

Be sad and disappointed in oneself.  But, also remember that most of my freshmen haven’t dropped out and that my seniors are more ready for college than they were a year ago.

… and start planning for next year.

Ms. Card-Hyatt

New Every Morning

April 3, 2012

Because of the steadfast love of the Lord, we are not cut off;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning

I think, as a teacher, that I must be like Hosea.

Each morning, as I greet the students who enter my classroom, they all have a clean slate.  It doesn’t matter if a student has refused to learn and participate for the last 4 months … if she wants to learn today, I will be eager, ready, and willing to come along side.  If a student has struggled to respect me in the classroom for the entire semester, but decides today that he wants my help, I will be available.  I must constantly forget who students have been, even as close as yesterday.  I must allow them to change.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have students who are not going to pass my class, not going to graduate, and not going to do much with their lives.  I do, and it kills me.  But, it does mean that when the student with a 43% in my class shows up ready to work on Tuesday (even if it’s the only day that month that he or she does), he or she is going to get as much of my devoted attention as the student with a 97%.  I think this is what it means to never give up on a student.  I allow them to be new every morning.

I am honest with them, at the same time, I’m not going to lie to my student who shows up the afternoon before something is due, utterly lost but wanting to do well.  She’s not going to do as well as the student who has been working diligently all semester … but she’s here and she wants to work, and for that she deserves respect and attention.

Somehow this mercy, this not considering the day before, is balanced with justice, of course.  I’m not going to do my students any favors by letting them off “easy.”  Students who don’t turn in my work on time get zeros.  I’ve given an entire essay a zero for one plagiarized sentence.  I don’t run after students asking them if they need my help.  They must come to me, but when they do, I will be there.

I can tell, by the embarrassment, hesitancy and fear that my students bring when they ask me for help, that they’ve had bad teachers in the past.  They’ve had teachers who held grudges, weren’t willing to walk through the instructions for an essay for the fifth, sixth, or seventh time, and who made them feel like they were imposing, by coming in with questions over lunch.  I can see in my students’ eyes when they ask for help, apologizing.  I always tell them to stop.  This is my favorite part of my job, I tell them, working with you.  Seriously.

I don’t know if they believe me.

I know that it takes extraordinary courage to change your habits, to try at something you’ve never tried at before.
I know that it is painful to attempt something you’ve always failed at.
I know that I have the same grace being extended to me, new every morning; I have never been cut off.

R. Card-Hyatt

Over dinner tonight, CH and I hear the familiar sound of a police helicopter.  An unfamiliar noise follows– a loudspeaker urging ——, ——, —— to contact their parents, for anyone knowing their whereabouts to contact the police.

Lahiri reminds me that we have less control over our lives than we would like to think.  I am sobered by the slow unraveling of lives.  Nothing dramatic, simply measured disappointment.

A student asks me, in quick succession, how did you know you wanted to be a teacher?  How did you know you wanted to marry your husband?

Over lunch, I try to explain our summer reading group to my fellow student teacher.  “We read books … and talk about them …”  “That’s it?”

“‘Civil blood makes civil hands unclean.’ Ms. H… that can’t just mean one thing, can it?”

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask.”

___________________________

There are things I do not pretend to understand.