The Goldfinch and Why You Shouldn’t Be a Teacher

“Vacant faces.” –Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Ah, the ever-popular, two-word fragment. So what are your thoughts when you read this one? Whom do you think it’s describing? Here are some options. Pick one:

  1. children who have lost a parent
  2. students in the classroom
  3. terrorists
  4. the faces of dead bodies

And now we play the “One of These Things is not Like the Other” game. Which is it, friends? The sad thing is that even though option 2 should stand out as being the positive option among the negative, ask most middle or high school students, and it’s most definitely not. And, yes, “vacant faces” is absolutely referencing students in the classroom:

Vacant faces. The classroom was hot and drowsy in the late afternoon, windows open, traffic noises floating up from West End Avenue.”

Theo Decker is in his English class (stab to my heart) reading Walt Whitman (another stab to my heart) when Tartt describes the faces of all the students as “vacant” (and I’ve keeled over and died). Sigh.

So I’m reading The Goldfinch right now, and it’s awesome. I’m about 200 pages in, and I’m fully invested. (I considered putting off writing this post because I wanted to just keep reading.) When I got to this classroom scene, though, I had to pause and do some reflecting.

Because I’m an English teacher.

I’m an English teacher who teaches students in a classroom.

I’m an English teacher who teaches students in the classroom on hot days (I live and teach in Florida) — and sometimes . . . Walt Whitman is involved.

And I LOVE Walt Whitman. In fact, I’ve already referenced him in three of my blog posts (here and here and here). So imagine my chagrin when I read this scene. Chagrin, and . . . sadness.

Call me an idealist, but I don’t think the classroom has to be like Theo’s classroom. I mean, the classroom was described as drowsy. Who is going to learn in a drowsy classroom, let alone enjoy learning! No chance.

Poor Theo (and poor Theo for so many other reasons, and at this point I’m only on page 221 out of 771).

And poor students of those kinds of classrooms. On behalf of all drowsy teachers in all drowsy classrooms, I’m sorry.

I have a sign on the outside of my classroom door that says “Enter With Alacrity.” On the first day of school, my students know that it’s something I make sure I do before I cross over the threshold and into my room. I hope that the students can do it, but they can always count on me to. I can’t guarantee many things in life or in my classroom, but alacrity from me is one thing. I’ll be ready for my students, yes, but I’ll be cheerful, too.

There is no degree for this.

When I realized I wanted to be a teacher, I was already in the classroom. I had gotten a job (yay for a job because that meant being able to sign the contract to rent an apartment — more about that here) at a small private school because I had enough English credits to be able to teach. I certainly had no education degree. (In college, I certainly never even wanted to become a teacher.)

But when I was in the classroom, I became alive in a way I hadn’t felt before. I loved the energy and potential (and even the sarcasm) of teenagers. I loved their quick minds and short attention spans. I saw teaching as so much more than participial phrases and literary reduction worksheets. I may have been called a “teacher,” but I’d say that what I did was closer to comedian-therapist-actress-friend-singer-mime. It was a lot. And I enjoyed it! Teaching energized me (certainly more than my other job at the time — working part time at Pier One Imports and coming home smelling like ginger peach candles).

And here I am still in the classroom, 15 years later — still jumping around yelling things like Shakespeare just told his lady lover that her breath REEKS! Or wildly gesticulating to the preposition jingle. Or getting down on hands and knees to imitate Jack from Lord of the Flies when he puts his face next to the still-warm pig poop.

It is a wild ride in my classroom.

And I take pride in it. I challenge myself as a teacher to never have a boring lesson (split infinitive, LPETA*, and I LIKE IT BECAUSE I LIKE THE WAY IT SOUNDS AND SOUND COUNTS FOR SOMETHING IN WRITING SO THERE AND NOW I’VE WRITTEN A LITTLE RUN-ON RIGHT HERE INSIDE THE PARENTHESES WITHOUT EVEN USING ANY COMMAS). Even if I’m teaching independent and subordinate clauses (stifle your yawns here, people), I will somehow find a way to jump around the room or sing or wildly gesticulate — or get the students to. And while I do take pride in my energy in the classroom among other things, I will never reach that point when I would say “That’s it — there is absolutely nothing I could do better this school year!” (See my post about always being better here. And more about my journey and epiphanies about teaching here.)

So when I read about poor Theo’s drowsy, Whitman-infused classroom, I say to teachers everywhere: FIGHT! Classrooms don’t have to be like that. We can be excited about Whitman (that should be easy), but we can be excited about transitive verbs, too. Or at the very minimum, we can have energy.

And if you can’t, I have some simple advice for you — something you can do right now:

FIND ANOTHER PROFESSION.

I have enough respect for the students to say that. They deserve our best. And if you are a human reading this, you know that teachers are so much more than teachers. I’m reminded of the Taylor Mali poem “What Teachers Make.” It’s a good one, and I’d highly suggest you interrupt your reading of my post to watch him perform it.

Did you watch it yet? Just do it.

(Do it now.)

Now that you are feeling inspired or maybe convicted, I’d like to revisit The Goldfinch. Sixty pages after the doldrums-classroom scene, Theo is with his buddy Hobie learning the differences between quality, one-of-a-kind furniture and machine-produced reproductions:

[Hobie] was a good teacher and very soon, by walking me through the process of examination and comparison, he’d taught me how to identify a reproduction: by wear that was too even (antiques were always worn asymmetrically); by edges that were machine-cut instead of hand-planed (a sensitive fingertip could feel a machine edge, even in poor light); but more than that by a flat, dead quality of wood, lacking a certain glow: the magic that came from centuries of being touched and used and passed through human hands.”

And while I could write another 1000 words about this beautiful beast of a sentence, I’ll simply leave it at this: Hobie isn’t a teacher in the classroom. He certainly doesn’t have a degree in education. (Side-note here: Please don’t think that I am discrediting teachers who happen to have education degrees. More power to you! But I believe that we are much more than what a diploma says about us.) For Theo, Hobie is the best teacher. The richness of this one sentence is what teaching can be. It’s the kind of experience that’s difficult to fit into one sentence (and certainly not one without some parenthetical elaborations); it’s an experience that feels full but in a satisfying way; it’s an experience that buzzes with energy — all the way to the end.

So if you’re still with me in this (longish) post (it’s nothing compared to the 771 tome that is The Goldfinch), hear me when I say that in whatever you do — whether it’s teaching or blogging or parenting or sitting in a classroom or fill-in-the-blanking-in-whatever-specific-profession-you’re-in — be fully invested. Find the excitement in it. Keep it cool.

And if you teach Whitman? For the love, be excited about it.

*LPETA: Literary Prude English Teachers of America

The Absurdity of Life . . . And Other Bits of Inspiration

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” –Albert Camus–

So this is a tricky one. If you squint, you might even think that this is an inspirational life quote.

And that, of course, is completely absurd. Because if you know anything about Camus, you know that he adhered to a philosophy of life that renounced hope and embraced dissatisfaction. He also lived a life of philosophically “searching.” So by his own standards, he may never have been happy.

I do not resonate with this.

But there is something really special about his words. Camus acknowledges that if we are constantly in a state of “searching,” we won’t be happy. And if we are constantly in a state of “looking,” we won’t be living.

Oof.

Just do a quick “search” for self-help books on Goodreads, and there are 25 pages of results for just popular self-help books. It’s overwhelming! And clearly a sign that we are searching.

We are searching for happiness.

We are searching for meaning in life.

And actually I think it’s great that we have such an innate drive to find happiness and meaning. The people I know in my life who are the most secure in themselves have a good sense of both. I like to think that I do, too. I hope to instill a good drive towards happiness and meaning to my children. To my students. To family. To friends.

But the struggle is real. Just take Sisyphus, for instance. Punished by Zeus for his trickery and deceitful ways, he spent a good portion of his life pushing a boulder up a hill just to let it roll back down and start again. This is the ultimate struggle: laborious and nauseatingly repetitive. Just — for a moment — think about that being your life.

Absurd, right?

Futility is the enemy of hope. And without hope, what do we have? We don’t search for self-help books thinking that we’re not going to find anything. We don’t go out to an expensive dinner thinking we’re going to hate the food.

But it’s important to temper our expectations. We can’t expect that once we find and read that one great self-help book, we’ll have all the answers and be happy and fulfilled in all aspects of life. The danger with this mindset is that we will keep putting off happiness and meaning until we reach some mythical (imaginary) point. Reminds me of a poem I read to my students every year. C. P. Cavafy’s “The City” illustrates to us that if we think we’ll only be happy if we go to another city[/insert any other noun here], the problem isn’t the city[/insert any other noun here], it’s us:

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,

find another city better than this one.

Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong

and my heart lies buried like something dead.

How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?

Wherever I turn, wherever I look,

I see the black ruins of my life, here,

where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”



You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,

you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

Like I tell my students, this is a fresh call-out for us all. Let’s reject the cliche “the grass is always greener on the other side” and do our very best to enjoy our lives right here, right now. Because what happens if we just keep waiting and searching for the right “city”? What happens if we believe that the city is the only place we can find happiness and meaning? “Here is the deepest secret nobody knows”: if our eyes are only trained ahead of us to the city that lies beyond, we might step in dog poop.

If you’re like me, the idea of stepping in poop is repulsive. In fact, I am scarred from an experience in my childhood when I stepped in still-warm dog poop.

Barefoot.

(It squished between my toes.)

So instead of (only! ever! always!) thinking the best is yet to come, take a moment and look around (and below). Don’t discount the grass you’re standing on just because some other grass looks greener. (And don’t forget: looks can be deceiving. Remember Shakespeare’s famous sonnet about his (kind of ugly, bad-breathed) lover? She didn’t have conventional beauty, and yet he recognized her as being the best.)

Maybe at times my life is ugly. Or has bad breath. But I love it for what it is: mine. And it’s the only one I get (more about “first-and-only drafts” of life here). I’ll be sure to appreciate the grass that I’m on, but I won’t fully discount looking forward as well.

After all, there is joy in the search. I’d venture to say that searching is an essential element in really, truly living. Just because I am continually searching for happiness and meaning doesn’t mean that I don’t experience happiness or feel I have meaning in life in the present. Every year of my life, I think,

“That was the best year!”

And each one is better than the last — I think because I am continually searching. In my dissatisfaction, I’m finding my meaning and living my best life. So maybe I can resonate with Camus’ sentiment about embracing dissatisfaction in that regard. Camus knows — and I agree — that there is authenticity in dissatisfaction.

And dissatisfaction driving meaning? That is authentic living.

Paired with hope, it is a powerful force that can be used for good.

Here are the takeaways:

  • Find happiness in where you are in life.
  • But also find joy in the search for better.

Beyond that, life is going to come at you in ways no one can predict. Do your best. Try your hardest. But allow yourself to rest. Allow dissatisfaction to drive you but never to embitter you.

Above all, don’t waste your life “here, in this small corner.” Because if you do, “you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.”

Happy searching and looking, everyone. But don’t forget to live your life right now.

Authentically.

Sourdough, Love, and Life (And an Oxford Comma, of Course)

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” –Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

So I’m making bread today. And I say “making,” not “baking,” because the actual baking of the bread will happen tomorrow morning. Let’s just say that making bread is a process — for me, a process that normally takes around 24 hours. But about six years ago when I popped that first loaf out of the oven, I was hooked. I’ve been baking sourdough bread just about every weekend since.

And I confess: I really wanted to write about bread today. So I “cheated” and found this quote on Goodreads. I haven’t read the book (yet!!), but it is definitely on my “to-read” list. (Quick update: I FINALLY finished Dance of Thieves for those of you who remember the promise I made on this post.)

Taking a quick look at the quote itself, the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA, for those of you who don’t remember) would be simply appalled. It’s clearly a run-on. “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone” –> independent clause. “it has to be made, like bread” –> independent clause. What connects the two? JUST a comma? THE HORROR. Any self-respecting, English-speaking human knows that a comma by itself cannot connect two independent clauses. AND THAT’S NOT EVEN WHERE THE SENTENCE ENDS! Le Guin then goes ahead with a semicolon (LPETA, deep breaths here), and what follows is a fragment. (OK, I’m — proudly — not a part of the LPETA, but this punctuation makes even my English-teacher blood pressure go up just a bit.)

So here’s the deal: Look up Le Guin, and you’ll see that she’s clearly a very intelligent, very prolific author. Her books have extremely high reviews, and she has the kind of readership who reads her books more than once.

Well.

I will say it’s yet another reminder to me as an English teacher to SETTLE DOWN when it comes to following all grammar and punctuation rules ever in existence (more about being a rule-following robot here). And if you’ve ever experienced my correcting your grammar (i.e., if you’ve ever said “I just want to lay down . . .” *shudder*), here we go . . . I’m sorry. But I will say this: in a weird way, if I correct you, it’s like a compliment. It means that I consider you a true friend — one who can laugh or shrug it off and continue putting up with me.

But back to the delicious bread. As I mentioned, it’s quite the long process. I use what’s called sourdough starter (fermented flour and water) as the leavening agent (i.e., what makes the bread RISE). Because I don’t use commercial yeast, the entire process takes longer. My basic timeline typically consists of the following:

  • In the morning, take my starter out of the fridge and “feed” it equal weights of flour and water.
  • When the starter has fermented and bubbled and doubled in size (around midday for me in the heat of a Florida summer in a house that is always quite warm because I married a man who likes to save money and the thermostat is one way he does that), I start putting bread ingredients together: water, starter, white flour, whole wheat flour (lately I’ve been on a spelt kick; 10/10 recommend), salt, and perhaps some seeds or other whole grains if I’m feeling particularly clever.
  • Mix all that together and then let it sit for around 6 hours, stretching it about every hour.
  • So at around 7 pm, let’s say, I dump out the dough onto the counter and form it into balls. Balls on my kitchen counter. It’s a treat. I let the balls sit for about a half an hour.
  • Then I shape the balls according to the proofing container I’ll be using.
  • I put the shaped dough into the proofing basket and the loaf pans, and I let that sit for about another hour.
  • Then I stick the basket and the pans into the fridge to slowly continue proofing until the morning.
  • The next morning, I bake!

Repeat every weekend. Whew! I’ll tell you, it’s certainly not difficult, but there is also definitely a learning curve. I’ve been baking for years now, and I still don’t get super consistent loaves from week to week. I can understand that for some of us, the lack of consistency (especially when doing something we’ve done hundreds of times before) would drive us mad. (Quick pause here: I did the math, and baking an average of three loaves every week for 6 years adds up to 936 loaves. What a great number, by the way — all numbers divisible by 3.)

UPDATE: As I am working on this blog post, my dough is in the I’m-stretching-every-hour stage, and WOW is the dough wet! I keep looking back at the recipe, making sure I weighed everything out correctly — and I did. SO WHO KNOWS.

But that’s life, isn’t it. If we think about it, what we have the most experience doing is living life. And life is most definitely inconsistent. Sometimes plans turn out with wonderful (maybe even delicious) results. I like to think of those times like my loaves that come out with a nice rise, open crumb, and crisp crust. Sometimes plans turn out with awful results. Those times would be my loaves that come out looking like glorified pancakes instead of artisan sourdough.

But here’s the delicious part of it all: even when my loaves come out flat, the bread always tastes good. I have to remind myself of that when I start getting uppity about how my loaves look. (Speaking of which, I am a wee bit nervous today because I do plan on bringing a loaf to school tomorrow to share with the English department. So as I am in the process of making my 937th loaf of bread, I’m nervous. And actually, I think that’s OK.)

And apart from the bread always tasting good, I’m constantly learning and tweaking (tweaking, not twerking). So it’s a win-win for me.

It’s how I try to live my life.

It’s how I try to love.

Like Le Guin says, love has to be made and remade and made new. It’s not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of deal. I don’t dump my ingredients into a bread machine to have perfect loaves pop out. I take my time with the dough. I use my hands. I come back to it again and again. I let it rest. I help shape it. And at the end of it all, it’s still going to do what it wants.

So whether you’re baking bread, loving another human, or living life, there’s a lesson here. Do expect a process. Don’t expect consistent results. Do expect a learning curve. Don’t expect to become an expert. Do try your best anyway.

And my hope for you today and always is that even if your bread doesn’t quite come out the way you’d hoped or planned, it still tastes good.

Good bread, good love, and good life to you. (And now I’m up again to stretch my dough.)

Sourdough Bread Resources:

  • Bread Baking for Beginners, by Bonnie Ohara: This one is best for beginners who are OK with starting the learning process by using commercial yeast. The book is in order of easiest to most difficult breads, and it has great step-by-step instructions that anyone can understand. I don’t own this one, but I borrowed it from the library and read it cover to cover like a novel. I ate it up!
  • Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, by Emilie Raffa: This is good for intermediate level to advanced bread-bakers. Every recipe in the book uses sourdough starter, so you’ll want to make some or get your hands on some. I own this book, and I’ve been using it as of late. I love it.
  • Tartine Book No. 3, by Chad Robertson: This one is for the bread foodie, the broodie. I’d recommend it for the more advanced bread baker. I read this one like a novel and felt a genuine understanding and love for sourdough after reading it. It has lots of background information on the history of sourdough along with interesting tid-bits about different types of whole wheat flours. The recipes are more difficult mostly because they call for a higher ratio of wheat flour. I felt kind of snobby reading this one. Which was kind of fun for a crisp minute. I own this one and find myself coming back to it every now and again.
  • Me! I always have sourdough starter to share, and it makes my heart happy when someone actually wants to give sourdough bread baking a try.

Dwight, Dirt, and Dangerous Assumptions

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” –Isaac Asimov–

Oh, this is a good one, my friends. As I’m in the midst of starting a new school year (15th one — whoop whoop!), I know I need to take a little look at my own assumptions and possibly do some scrubbing. (Nobody likes dirty windows, am I right?)

I think if we were to sit down and write down allllllll the things we make assumptions about, we’d . . .

have a long list. (Cue “I’ve Got a Little List” from The Mikado.)

And you know what I’ve noticed about dirty windows? They sneak up on us. Before we know it, we’re looking through a layer of film with some smudges and maybe some water spots and definitely (so, so many) little boy fingerprints/handprints/toeprints (how, though) and just plain dirt. Even just a film hinders the light from coming through (and barely are my windows ever covered in “just” a film).

Yes, the dirt sneaks up on us, but I’d venture to say that a dirty window is a bit easier to notice than a stockpile of assumptions inside of our brains. And that’s why I love the quote. Asimov gives us the metaphor as a reminder to check ourselves. We might just be due for a scrub-down.

As a teacher, I find myself making assumptions about a sundry of stuff: best practices, best books to teach, best books to read, how many books to read, best management style, best writing activities, best communication style, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I base these assumptions on articles and books that I read, learning from other colleagues, and –more than anything — experiences I’ve had in the classroom with the students. So for these assumptions — because I’ve based them on reasonable, rational, logical things — I feel justified.

STOP! Go directly to jail.

Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. (And if you don’t know that reference, find a friend, and play Monopoly.)

It’s one thing to feel confident as a teacher based on experience and knowledge, but it’s quite another to assume I know best. Even writing the words “I know best” is a little embarrassing. (How could I possibly have the audacity to think I know best??) And yet that belief creeps up on me. And then the pride weasels its way in. And then before I know it I’m walkin’ around like I own the place.

NOT GOOD.

So I try to stay humble. As best I can. And part of that humility has been starting this blog. I’ve wanted to write for a long time now, and pride has kept me from it. I thought that because I was an English teacher, my writing had to be “perfect,” or I’d lose all respect and then people would find out that I’m really not smart at all and then I’d have to leave my job and my home and go find a cave and live in it. (Can you tell I’m around fatalistic teenagers a lot?) I thought that if I started a blog and it wasn’t successful, I’d be ashamed.

I thought.

And it kept me from doing.

And you know what the sticky goop holding that pride together was? Assumptions. How presumptuous of me to assume I knew how (all the) things would be if I started blogging. Those pesky assumptions distorted my view.

Lucky for me, I’ve kept living and learning and growing in confidence to get to where I am today: not afraid to write. And not afraid of people reading what I write.

But I don’t think Asimov’s quote is about blogging. Or teaching.

Or any one thing.

His quote is about life. And wherever we’re at in life, it’s for us.

So when we “scrub” ourselves of assumptions, it’s not just about our jobs or our hobbies or our parenting or our diets or our religious beliefs or our political beliefs.

It’s about it all.

And I think we can all agree here that never making assumptions is very difficult to do. If we’re really being honest with ourselves, never making assumptions is just plain impossible. So what are we to do with this impossibility? I see some options here:

  1. Resign ourselves to the impossibility, make our assumptions, stay close-minded, and condemn anyone who disagrees with us. Engage in Dwight Think.
  2. Be mindful in our humility and ever increasing in our empathy, gracefully accepting the fact that we’ve been gifted with only our one perspective from which to view the world. (Oh, and while we’re at it, we’ll go ahead and be perfect as well.)
  3. Understand and accept that we’re human — and that means seeing the world through the window of our (potentially and more-than-likely fallible) assumptions. But we’ll be aware of that, and we’ll clean the window on a regular basis.

But there might be a reader out there thinking These aren’t the only options. What about science? What about facts, and evidence, and research, and numbers, and proof? And these are valid questions. Mostly. If I drop a book, I assume it’s going to fall.

Because

that’s

how

gravity

works.

But even science doesn’t deal in facts. It deals in observations and theories. Gravity isn’t a fact. It’s a theory. In Mordechai Ben-Ari’s book Just a Theory: Exploring the Nature of Science, he acknowledges that facts are ultimately observations:

We can define a fact as an observation backed up by such a preponderance of evidence that no useful purpose would be served by doubting it.

So while we might need to pump the brakes on our assumptions, it’s still OK (and good!) to believe things based on a “preponderance of evidence.” As Ben-Ari says, there would be no useful purpose in doubting these things.

What we need to try to avoid is Dwight Think and Dwight Speak, believing everything we think to be fact and then stacatto-speaking-all-our-words-as-truth-ordained-by-the-deity-that-is-us. (And if you dare disagree, he very well might lodge a formal complaint against you to Toby, and we all know that Toby sends all the complaints to a special file in New York.) Lucky for us, we don’t even have to imagine the carnival that is two people speaking Dwight Speak; just watch this clip when Jim impersonates Dwight. It’s gold.

So this post goes out to all humans in all professions with all backgrounds. Whether you’re a biology teacher or a poet, a stay-at-home dad-philosopher or a pastor, let’s go back to option 3. Let’s accept our humanness. Let’s accept the tendency we have to assume. But let’s scrub up every now and then.

And then let the light come through.

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

John 8:12