Pages

Saturday, December 26, 2020

A Christmas Carol, Past, Present, and Yet to Come

 






“Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that…Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

What a jarring beginning to the beloved A Christmas Carol. This was the beginning of several Christmas stories, written quickly for even quicker cash. Dickens’ family was a growing one, and he always needed to earn more and more to keep them all comfortable. He felt great pressure to be a provider his extended family could rely on.

There are several books I cannot remember reading for the first time…they seem to have always been a part of me. A Christmas Carol is one. The details are part of our world…the characters. We may not even recognize the allusions’ origins, but we recognize the truth of the allusions, the metaphors and symbols. That was one of Dickens’ skills – to create images and characters we recognize in our own lives.  What makes Dickens important for every year since 1843, is his surprise genius for staying relevant…no matter what year we read, reread, or watch this story, we find the parallels to our own lives. We find the words that resonate for our life.

As a later side career, Dickens read his own books aloud, and this one was especially popular. He both read and performed, editing for the occasion. The New York Public Library has the book Dickens created as his script, his own prompt copy, for his performances, complete with stage directions and notes. It is a treasure I’d love to see. In this recording the wonderful Neil Gaiman performs A Christmas Carol from the prompt copy. Dickens reading his story often drew large, appreciative audiences.

 

A Christmas Carol Past

If I can’t remember the first time I read the book, I remember the first time I read it to my own audience. My first year teaching. A tiny rural elementary school. 12 classrooms…two for each grade. I taught 6th grade, with an English Education degree. Out of my element in many ways, but determined to broaden the world for my students. 24 sweet rural Indiana students stared at me as I tried to figure out Base-Six math (my introduction to misguided school reforms); but I killed it when we worked with grammar and reading.

One of my favorite parts of the day was the sacred reading-after-recess. Hot, sweaty, odoriferous kids piled on the floor, listening to whatever story I happened to be reading. It was clear my students did not have a wide experience with good literature…so, for December, I decided to read A Christmas Carol. I learned quickly I had to revise the story on the fly. I didn’t have the benefit of Dickens’ prompt copy. I had to wing it. The vocabulary and diction were well over the heads of my Martinsville kiddos. So, I substituted words, rearranged sentences, even chose to omit some passages—Dickens’ lovely flights of fancy and descriptions that were timely for his time would have flown over the heads of my students. So I cut them…much like the author did in his own performance of the story. I’m sure I was not as artful…another reason I’d love to get my hands on that prompt copy.

My goal in reading to my young charges was to introduce the story…characters, plot. I wanted them to recognize the story in the future. I was planting seeds of literature, as their parents planted their crops. I wouldn’t be there to see them nod in recognition years later when someone was called a, “Scrooge,” or when someone piped up, “God Bless Us, Every One.” But I was there the first time they heard. I would have helped them understand those references we all nod sagely at. They could nod right along. They could get the jokes.

I overestimated our ability to get through the short book, so the last day before Christmas Break (yes, we called it Christmas Break, and the skies did not fall), as my students were finishing up their home-made presents to their parents and family, I read…and read. The room was busy, friendly, quiet. Students listened as they painted and drew, folded and wrapped. I read, “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One,” and closed my book, savoring that lovely moment of silence at the end of a wonderful story. My students spontaneously began to clap, something they’d not done before. But there were were, in the middle of the Indiana Uplands, at a school where we had no library, where one girl lived in a house with dirt floors, where students worried that using proper grammar would make them laughing stocks, where one boy couldn’t come to school one day because his family couldn’t find his shoes, there they were--my students felt the power of the story and they clapped. For the joy of Scrooge’s change of heart, for the new, promising future for Tiny Tim. For having listened to a classic tale. They clapped.

The combination of Dickens, Scrooge, Ebenezer, my students and I created the kind of magic that’s possible with a shared experience of art…any kind of art. But here it was great literature. That very first year of my career I saw in front of me, as the gift it was, children transformed for just a little while, connected to every other person who ever read or watched or heard this tale. Fifty years later, I can still see their faces as they realized we had, together, accomplished something special.

 

Since then, I’ve taught various adaptations of A Christmas Carol. We’ve watched films and compare/contrasted the stories. One of my personal favorites continues to be Bill Murray’s Scrooged. #SorryNotSorry. Reading it as often as I did, lines come to mind in totally unrelated situations.  Most often, as I watch the news, listening for subtext from leaders who too often seem to channel Old Ebenezer, before. I hear fewer echoes of the redeemed Ebenezer…I wonder why. I don’t have to search far to find those allusions in popular culture.

Five years ago, listening to the OK Legislature talk about planned cuts to #oklaed in another lean year for the OK budget, I could hear Scrooge whispering: “Are there no prisons…workhouses?” Politicians seem to unknowingly mirror the very worst of our man. They seemed more than willing to cut funding to schools, so they could prioritize their own goals. They seemed content to ignore Ignorance and Want…even as Dickens warns us of the dangers of an uneducated people: “The boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both…but most of all beware the boy, for on his brow I have seen that written which is Doom, unless the writing is erased.” The only way to erase that Doom is with strong, well-funded schools. But we fight every year for our students. We will fight the ghost of Scrooge next Session, too. Want and Ignorance are always ignored, even when they’re right in front of us. Still. Always.

 

A Christmas Carol Present

I’ve now experienced 75 Christmas seasons, and seriously can’t remember one that was as challenging, not even that year Santa brought me the cheap knock-off dolly instead of the one I asked him for. Covid and politics sucked out a whole lot of the joy of the season…and Scrooges abound. You can’t open a newspaper (Yes, Virginia, there are newspapers), or more likely a new link online, without learning more about our policy makers who seem horribly disconnected to the real suffering Americans are feeling now. Watching a journalist choke up on the air as he interview a couple in line at a food bank for the first time in their lives, seeing the desperation of people whose federal unemployment benefits will end soon, others who may be evicted with the new year, we need a Christmas miracle. But all we seem to see are Scrooges, coldly uninvolved in people’s lives and suffering. Going off to golf on Christmas Day, tummies full, presents opened…Scrooge Lives…and he’s working inDC. He’s working in State Capitols where legislators sign onto shenanigans that would disenfranchise voters in other states. He’s working to turn communities against each other.

Dan Patrick, the Lt Governor of Texas, earlier this year, as Covid was first spreading across the country waxed poetic that older Americans should be happy to expose themselves to the virus and die, so his beloved economy could open without impediment….and I heard Scrooge disdainly pronouncing, “If they would rather die, . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Umm, I, personally, would rather NOT die. I’d like to see my Grands marry and begin their adult life. The ugly heartlessness of Scrooge’s words really strike a blow when we hear a vile politician echo the sentiment. And I'm not holding my breath for a Texas epiphany anytime soon.

Look anywhere during this season and you’ll see someone referencing Christmas Carol…naming someone ‘Scrooge’. As I started writing this, I found a reflection by a writer who proclaimed herself to be the ‘family Scrooge.” And, right on cue, Wall Street Journal Opinion Page struck again with this beaut:  “In Defense of Scrooge, Whose Thrift Blessed the World.” Hey, WSJ, you missed another one. May I suggest you read the book again? You kinda missed the whole moral of the story.  This Twitter thread takes them to task better than I could.

A Christmas Carol is embedded into our culture. We need to know the story to get the silly jokes and cartoons, to know when an editorial board makes a huge mistake in referencing the characters. That was why I read it, 50 years ago to my 11 year old students…who are now nearing retirement age! I wanted those allusions and metaphors to make sense.

The book continues to be timely, sometimes sadly…and I keep asking why do our policy makers forget early Ebenezer is NOT the role model for us to follow. Did anyone tell politicians and WSJ and Patrick they are acting like the nasty Scrooge, not the loving Scrooge we are supposed to admire? Or, did they NOT read the last Stave of the story where Scrooge pleads for, and finds, a way to change the trajectory of his life?

 

I often reread the novel during Christmas season when I need to reconnect with this manipulative, sentimental, tale of redemption. Feel hope that, like Scrooge, we can choose another path and make mankind our business.  

Like this year.

So, when two friends in our FB Book Challenge group talked about a new book, Mr. Dickens and his Carol, by Samantha Silva, I got interested…A perfect way to end the year…Mr. Dickens, and then Mr. Scrooge.

I DID say I had taught A Christmas Carol, right? Well, I also taught Great Expectations, too…so I spent a lot of time with biographical information about Charles Dickens…his sad childhood, his forced labor when his family lived in debtor’s prison, his first love, his…complicated...marriage, his desperation for money to keep his growing family satisfied, his love affair with a glamorous actress, his second career as a performer of his own work…always with an eye to profit. So, I approached Silva’s book with a prickly attitude of someone who knows a bit about the subject. She won me over! This book tells the story of those weeks while he is being cajoled to write a ‘Christmas story’…for big bucks, money he and his family have already spent with their excessive Christmas plans. Of course he has writer’s block. He walks the streets of old London, looking for inspiration. He visits the old prison where his ne’er-do-well father lived for a few months, while young Charles was forced into child labor in a blacking factory. He meets a strange young boy who walks with a limp, a mysterious woman who appears and disappears. We hear lines from our novel used as dialogue, and we recognize settings and scenes. We see him slowly, scene-by-scene, inventing the timeless tale. Silva does take liberties with her story…how else could she add real Spirits? But she breathes life into the author, into his and Scrooge’s London, and into the text. She uses coincidences just like Dickens does. And she makes me cry ugly tears…just as manipulative and sentimental, in her own fine way, as her subject.

Then, I spent a few wonderful days with Ebenezer himself, nasty, hateful, and infinitely redeemable. Able to learn and grow…and change. With Silva’s words still clear in my mind, I reread, and the experience was deeper, more meaningful. Frankly, more fun. NOW I’m ready to listen to Gaiman read the prompt copy as *I* read my copy…I plan to make my own notes from Dickens’ own.

 

A Christmas Carol Yet to Come

 

Dicken’s preface is a short one:

“I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one with to lay it.” December, 1843. What does that mean for me, for us, going forward into 2021?

 

Covid and politics have made 2020 a tough year for us all. We have lost friends and loved ones. There are empty chairs at the dinner table, not unlike the empty corner of Tiny Tim in Christmas Yet to Come…Thanksgiving and Christmas, sheltering at home, even from my family just around the corner. Trading our signature dinner dishes in the garage, masked up. My granddaughters and I are planning marathon hugs in the summer. I’ve mused about kidnapping them all and running away. Eating in restaurants, shopping at the Mall. Seeing strangers’ smiles, unmasked. Hugs. Hugs.

Going to the grocery stores now and seeing other shoppers defiantly unmasked, or wearing their mask as an attractive chin strap. I find myself trying to follow the direction arrows in the aisles, trying not to make eye contact with others who are not masked properly, or blithely going the wrong direction, muttering under my breath, “Grace, grace, grace.” And yes, when I make a mistake and steer down the wrong way myself, I mutter, “Grace, please. Grace, please.”

Trying heartily to NOT participate in those online conversations where we knowingly or unknowingly misunderstand and misinterpret, where we jump to conclusions, make assumptions, see everything through our political lens. Where we’ve stopped listening. Again, I’ve muttered, “Grace, grace, grace.”  Working to not need the last word, to stop my teacher inclination to explain one more time what I meant, what I think the misunderstanding has been.

It’s been hard. That’s another reason A Christmas Carol seems important to me this season. We need to make some changes…each of us, and collectively as communities. And I return, not to Scrooge, but to Marley.

I know the last line resonates with most people, but for me, Marley delivers the words that bounce around in my soul. Words he learned the truth of too late: he is “doomed to wander among men, and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness...no rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse…no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused!” He sees too late. Seven years dead, and he is impelled to at least attempt to save Scrooge his fate. Marley’s words should challenge us all to reflect on our year, our years. To consider our misused opportunities.

Marley continues with the lament that breaks my heart. “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business….” Marley doomed himself to carry those chains-every mistake, every missed opportunity, every miserly decision, hateful word. He saw too late he He so wants to warn his partner and give him a chance to see the truth. We all wear the chains we forge in life. “…Link by link, and yard by yard…” Marley desperately wants Scrooge and us to reflect on the chains we are forging, and whether they support a life of charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence…Or whether they will shackle us to an unhappy eternity. Each link in a chain is a small thing…light, insubstantial. Each slight, each unkind word. Each rebuff is a small thing. But when rebuff is linked to unkind work, to slight, our burden grows.

Scrooge does see a way

Do we need a haunting, an epiphany also?

I’m left with a  question…how do we take what A Christmas Carol can teach us into the next year? How do we take charity, merch, forbearance, benevolence with us?



Friday, December 4, 2020

To the Superintendent and Board Members of Norman Public Schools

 

Letter to NPS Superintendent and Board Members:

 

Here’s what I think I know about Covid today:

 

Children DO get Covid.

Children DO get Covid here in Oklahoma.

It appears young children may be safer than older children and teens.

More kids get/have Covid than we know.

 

I’m speaking to you as a former teacher in Norman, a parent of two NPS grads, grandmother to two more NPS grads, and grandmother to one current NPS student, working remotely.

 

I have much invested in Norman Schools, and I still have dear friends who are teaching in our schools. That is why the anger and conflicts I see among parents and teachers hurts my heart. We all have the same ultimate goals: the best education possible for every student in Norman. Safe schools. Accomplished teachers in every classroom. All of us feeling supported by our administration, our Board, and our community.


I know your job right now is incredibly difficult and challenging. You must balance the needs of all stakeholders, as Rep. Ranson mentioned above. So, as a stakeholder, let me share what I think i know right now, and what I hope we will be able to accomplish together.

 

Covid has upended our country, our state, and our community, in ways we could not have anticipated. We find ourselves divided by masks and indoor gatherings, over Covid testing, and the expectations for our schools. My friend, Jena, Oklahoma Teacher of the Year was booed as she spoke to her district School Board, asking for patience in starting in-person school this fall. A beloved teacher was booed. 

 

Kids are often asymptomatic or have different symptoms we may miss.

Kids are carriers.

If we don't test youngsters for Covid, we can pretend they're fine.

If we use tests that give false-negatives, we can pretend they're fine.

 

In Oklahoma we have two vastly different examples of leaders responding to a global pandemic: the Cherokee Nation, working together, ‘following the science,’ and our Governor, calling for a day of prayer and fasting – in a state where nearly one in four children are food-insecure. These two extremes mirror what is happening in our communities, in our schools. Some follow the science. Some pray and fast.

 

If we send kids to school while waiting for test results, we can pretend they're fine.

If we send kids to school with coughs, or upset tummies, we can pretend they're fine.

If we send kids to school, telling them not to talk about a Covid diagnosis in the home, we can pretend they're fine.

If we pretend they're fine, and lie, and don't test, we can cram kids and teachers together.

 

There are too many unknowns with this virus, the research seems to be changing weekly (we are watching medical advances in real time here), and there are precious few proactive steps schools can take to keep our students, teachers, and all school personnel safe until a vaccine is made available.  

 

If we cram kids and teachers together without testing, we have plausible deniability when teachers get sick, more teachers, or coaches

Or bus drivers or librarians or office personnel or classroom aides or support personnel or cafeteria workers or custodians.

Or parents or grandparents or daycare workers or Sunday school teachers or neighbors or friends.

 

I’m not at all certain our state or district leaders are making decisions based on the best science and research. And when the decisions are not aligned with our goals, for education opportunities, safe schools, and strong teachers, our district is weakened.

 

But, hey! Schools are open.

Parents can go to work.

Schools get their Average Daily Attendance

"It's the economy, Stupid. Right?" 

 

Here’s what else I know:

 

Parents need schools to be open so they can go to work

For many reasons, parents may feel unprepared, overwhelmed, or inadequate when faced with supervising schoolwork for their children.

Schools depend on attendance for funding from the state.

Standardized testing  purports to measure the worth of a district.

While Oklahoma received a waiver for testing in 2019-20 school year, no such waiver is an option for this school year.

School administration must be responsive to the community.

Any community will have competing goals and priorities.

This virus has deeply divided our country along ideological lines.

In Norman, wearing masks has become a political issue.

In Norman, outspoken teachers were doxed and identified by their school.

Resources are always scarce, and teachers often supply their own cleaning and disinfecting products.

Teachers are often teaching in-person and virtually.

Teachers are burning out and leaving the profession…or leaving the districts to teach virtually for other districts.

Oklahoma State School Board will not lead the way and mandate masks in schools.

 

So, that’s what I think I know…today. Where do we go – together – from here? How do we respond to the science, to the realities of our setting, to the needs of all stakeholders? How do we stay united as a community, as a school district? How to we acknowledge and honor the concerns of all, and ground all decisions in the science we know today?

 

What’s my pie-in-the-sky wish list? Here’s a start.

 

No Covid. (pie-in-the-sky!)

All teachers and parents vaccinated.

Accurate Covid tests for children.

In-person school as our ultimate goal for all students, when it is safe for everyone.

Equity of opportunity and access for students – resources, wifi, books, laptops or tablets, someone to answer questions and supervise learning. Hot meals.

Stability in our schools and classrooms, interrupted right now by quarantines, substitutes, schools going virtual.

Teachers supported as they do their jobs, having adequate classroom resources, laptops and tablets, wifi, collaboration and planning time.

Parents supported as they do THEIR jobs, helping their students learn, knowing someone can answer their questions, feeling that the district has the best interests of their family in mind, transparency about Covid concerns

 Full support to our schools from the state and federal governments to provide services and resources.

Funding to keep the schools afloat thru this crisis.

Trust in our schools restored.

Schools and parents and community working together to make our schools work for us all. How can I help? 

 

And until that vaccine is rolled out for us all,

#wearadamnmask

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

#Notary4Pleasure--have stamp will travel!






Oklahoma’s law has required that absentee/mail-in ballots to be notarized before mailing in. Only THREE states in the nation do, so we are in a sad minority when it comes to making voting accessible for all.

Lots happened this legislative session to bring this issue to our attention…including the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling, striking down the notary requirement. We celebrated…for about a day. Then our Republican-dominated state legislature rushed SB810 through both houses, and Governor Stitt signed in…three days after the Court’s ruling. I agree with the Tulsa World, in these uncertain times, this requirement just adds a burden for voters.

I’ve been watching the legislature closely for over ten years…and I have never seen it move this quickly on an issue. Three. Days. But with complicated differences for the upcoming June 30 primary. For that day only, mail-in ballots can be notarized, or voters can enclose a copy of their photo id, just another complication.

I remember the first time I tried to vote by mail, and the notary requirement intimidated me…but, come to find out, Tag Agencies and banks are required to notarize ballots for free. Easy…IF you have access to a notary. Voting by mail is convenient, and what I appreciated the most is I could sit at home, and research every candidate’s position on the issues I care about. I could research every judge up for re-election. I could study every State Question on the ballot. I have never felt so informed as a voter as when I vote by mail-in ballot. I researched and voted, researched and voted.

There will be an important SQ on this ballot, and I really hope Oklahoma approves the proposed expansion of Medicaid for our citizens who lack access to affordable healthcare. Seems appropriate that we’re voting on this issue in the middle of a global pandemic. So, vote on SQ802.
After SB210 was signed, many of us looked for ways to be helpful, and several of us decided to become notaries public…This is my journey.

I started on the Oklahoma State Department website and clicked on “Notary Filing” on the right side of the page. On the next page, I clicked on “New Commission” and saw the initial charge was $25, for a four-year commission. Not bad. I filled in that info and paid.

Next, I needed to buy a stamp, to sign the loyalty oath, and pay for a surety bond.
I went to Norman Stamp and Seal to complete my application, but I learned there, I could have come to them from the beginning and they would have included that first registration step with the State Department.

I really liked the embossing seal, but went with a small round stamp. Folks at Stamp and Seal walked me next door to an insurance company to finish the application process with my loyalty oath…which must be notarized…for me to become a notary. I admit, we giggled just a bit at that bureaucracy.
Bond charge and stamp charge and filing charge to Stamp and Seal came to $70.99.

Then, I waited for some kind of notification from the State Department that my application had been filed and approved. And waited. And waited.

Today, I checked my ‘account’ on the State Department website, actually looking for a phone number to call and ask, and saw I am now considered an active notary!

With my new commission number, I need to contact my County Election Board and request a waiver to notarize more than 20 ballots for any one election (another sneaky roadblock our state sets for us…nothing’s easy when it comes to exercising our right to vote, is it?).  The link to the Cleveland County Notary Limit Exemption Request Form 2020 is on the first page.

Notaries need to request that exemption for each county they may notarize ballots. So, I will probably request an exemption for Oklahoma County, also.

I believe these exemptions are good for one calendar year and must be renewed.

So my journey:

1.       Apply on the SOS website for a commission. Pay $25.
2.       Work with Norman Stamp and Seal for the stamp, the loyalty oath, and the bond. Pay $71.
3.       Norman Stamp and Seal filed my paperwork with SOS.
4.       Wait. And wait.
5.       Apply for a limit exemption with the county election board.
6.       Let my friends know I’ll be available to notarize ballots.

Other notaries skipped my step 1, and went straight to a local company to do everything. Norman Stamp and Seal told me when I went in with my commission papers that most do it that way. In fact, google ‘how to become a notary,’ and here’s another link.  

Yay. I’m a Notary Public!

I’m currently printing and reading directions, collecting supplies, and wrapping my head around how to help voters safely for this election, and going forward. I need to create a log to keep track of my work (not sure yet if I file that with anyone).  

I’ve joined the Oklahoma Notaries Public Facebook group and have been learning from experts. I can ask my questions there, no matter how silly they appear. I’ll rely on the experts to help me. I’ll be extremely nervous notarizing my first ballot, but I’m eager to make voting as easy and safe as I can for my neighbors.

And I have to make absolutely sure I’m following all the rules: never look at a voter’s actual ballot.  Never volunteering to take a ballot and turn it in myself, which is a form of fraud called vote harvesting. A no-no. I will carry stamps for voters to put on their ballots and mail for themselves. But I cannot take that step for voters.

I will put together a kit containing clean pens (blue or black ballpoint), stamps (a ballot takes extra postage…yet another small speed bump in our right to vote), wipes and sanitizer. I want to get ‘I Voted’ stickers for voters.  I’ll wear my mask and encourage voters to wear theirs. I’ll practice physical distancing and work to keep us safe. I’ll encourage doing this process outside if at all possible.

I’ll learn as I go and make lots of mistakes.

I will make it clear I’m supporting all voters’ right to cast a mail-in ballot…If you're wondering, the notary never sees the actual ballot. The packet you will receive from the Election Board contains three envelopes. The inner envelope is where the voter deposits their ballot and then seals the envelope. Then, that envelope is placed in a yellow envelope. Notaries witness the voter’s signature on the outside of that envelope. When notarized, the voter places the inner envelope in the self-addressed (not stamped) envelope, places postage ($.85) on the envelope, and mails the ballot.

Don’t be intimidated like I was by the absentee/mail-in voting procedure. 

Friday is the deadline to register to vote if you are not a registered voter. Directions to register are here.   Applying for your mail-in ballot is easy! You can apply here, receive your ballot and instructions, vote in the comfort of your own home, researching as you go, and reach out to get the ballot notarized. Stay safe this election cycle. 

A former student came up with the perfect name for my new endeavor: #Notary4Pleasure. We called my class at North #Reading4Pleasure, so it’s a natural fit!

#HaveStampWillTravel


Saturday, February 15, 2020

Aggie, I'm Sorry.


Oh, Aggie…I’m sorry.

Senior year. Advanced English 4. My beloved English teacher, Aggie Lynch. She wore killer high heels to school every day. Tight straight skirts, and so much Estee Lauder “Youth Dew” to make you pause at the door to her room and inhale deeply. She was a tough grader, a cheerleader for every one of us. She demanded we rise to her expectations, and she cut you to the core when you didn’t. And I idolized her.

We did two book reports a year, choosing from books on her ‘College Bound Books’ handout. We chose a book, told her which book we were reading, and on the day of the book report, she walked up and down the aisle, handing each of us a 3x5 card, with our question to answer…we wrote for the entire hour…or we didn’t.

I chose Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It was too challenging to me, but I was embarrassed to tell Aggie that. So, I slogged on. And got behind, then behinder. Then that card was on my desk. I can’t remember the question…I remember the hot shame of sitting there, unable to even fake an answer. I didn’t know there was a murder…I knew there was a rape, but didn’t know when it happened.

I’ve read other Hardy, but never could get past my feeling of failure over Tess, and never faced her again…until this month.

We have a 2020 FaceBook book club, following a suggested book list I found on Pinterest…February’s book is “A book you wished you’d read in school.” Tess’s face, and rich auburn hair (I remember that, since my mom had the same beautiful hair…I did not and was envious). I certainly WISH I’d’ve read it. It would have saved my Eng 4 grade. 

So I did this month.



Oh, Aggie…I’m so sorry. I was easy to nail to the wall. I, in my warm home in NW Indiana, was not ready to understand anything about Tess, except maybe her younger sister…But the broader themes wrapped up in this sad, sad, tale were completely inaccessible to my 1963 self.

Tess Derbeyfield never had a chance. Between the three men in her life, she was doomed from before the opening scenes of this book. Her father, a fellow who gives n’er-do-well a whole new definition, is more than willing to use her to further his own schemes of greatness…Alec D’Urbervilles is a classic cad, with a streak of ugly meanness. And Angel Clare may think he’s one, but he ain’t (Aggie said it was a word, just one not to use in formal writing) anything resembling an angel. He’s a prig. So. Those are Tess’s men. My youthful, idealistic blood should have been boiling as a teen…IF I’d’ve understood what was going on.

The gender politics of Tess are oppressive, and Tess will not escape…her father has been convinced he’s related to greatness, and as such, work is beneath him…drinking and storytelling is his occupation. And making babies. He blithely leaves the unpleasant job of supporting his family to the women in the house. He’s a great man and can’t be bothered. He is more than willing to ‘pimp out’ (would not have known that word as a senior—I was sheltered!) his daughter, Tess, to a family purported to be the lofty D’Urbervilles of HIS lineage. Enter the rapist. Alec and his mother have bought their family name, and cannot be relatives, but Tess goes to work on their farm, with her father’s admonition  to catch the eye of that ‘distant’ relative so she can marry him and bring her family (wouldn’t THAT wedding be awkward?) the glory Daddy has decided they deserve, with NO effort on his part! Alec isn’t the marrying kind. He’s the deflowering kind, the predator kind. Because he has money and position (so she thinks) and property, he takes what he wants. And he wants Tess.
Returning home pregnant, abandoned, Tess has not showered the family with wealth and position…she’s brought another mouth to feed. Feckless father is deeper in drink, and Tess is forced to work in the fields, dragging the poorly infant along with her. Father’s fine with that, because HE is a D’Urbervilles, and can’t possibly be expected to *work*. But somehow his wife and daughters? Well, a man’s gotta live? Things get worse. The baby dies but not the social shame. Tess moves again…each move a step down (if possible) on the agrarian ladder. And, let’s face it…they were near the bottom rung from the beginning. Tess moves to a new area, where no one knows her shame. One thing about sweet Tess is, she is willing to work hard. She doesn’t shy away from pulling her weight.

There she meets Angel, but we know they’ve been in the same scene before (well, I wouldn’t have…if I got this far). When they were both young and beautiful and untouched and full of promise…Hardy hits us over the head with the ‘what ifs’ of the moment. Angel Clare is the sort-of-aimless third son of a rigid cleric. The older brothers are already established in the family profession, but Angel wants…more, different. He wants to be a landowner and gentleman farmer. To his credit, he’s spending time on different farms, learning the ropes. Or is he slumming? 


He pursues Tess, she tries to escape. She tries. When she finally agrees to marry (Angel is a traditional guy), she begs her mom for guidance about her secret…does she tell or not? Mom tells her not to, under any circumstances. We know she will…we wait, and…she does. Angel abandons her.
And Tess, if nothing else, but willing to work hard at any demeaning work, to stay alive, drifts farther and farther down into the pit of despair. Her family might have once been companions of ‘The Conquerer’ in 1066, but her circumstances are dire. Do the men who put her there care? Do they know? Would they care if they knew?

Of course Hardy now drags her three men back into her life..with final, tragic, consequences. Father dies. The family is kicked off out of their hovel…someone else needs it. Alec returns and wants her again, and Angel returns, not wiser, not better.

There is a murder…a violent one, with blood dripping from the ceiling (Lordy, how did I miss that??). There is a strange scene at Stonehenge. And there is what Hardy, ironically, calls “Justice”. I was totally shattered at the last scene. I know I never got to it the first time I tried to read this book.

Gender politics, power, the plight of the working class…the rural workers who feed the nation…they’re all there. The criticism is fierce, as fierce as anything Dickens would have written. But because Hardy ties his characters to a place he knew well, loved, and to the creeping industrialization that was destroying life for his neighbors, the criticism felt more oppressive to me, more inevitable. More inexorable, more tragic.

I was destroyed at the end of this book, with Tess. And full of apologies to Aggie. She was right to flunk me on that ‘book report.’ And I hope I redeemed myself in her eyes.

Sorry, Aggie. Here’s my late assignment…almost 60 years late.


Monday, January 13, 2020

Top 2019 Reads...Today


I read…a lot. The last ten years of my teaching career, I read for a living, surrounded by high school students also reading. It was heaven.

Now, I read exclusively for myself, and my own goals. I used to try to choose a Top Ten, but like Nancy Flanagan, one of my favorite reading buddies, I decided to do something different this year. I gave out a lot of 5’s on Goodreads, where I keep track of my reading…so I pulled out the titles I really, really loved and made categories. Then, I went with my top several for each category…180 books in 2019, boiled down to these. And I’m keeping Nancy’s blog close for recommendations for my 2020.

Individual #1 Books – After Obama was elected, sales of guns spiked. After Trump, the sales of books increased. Books about this White House has become a cottage industry, and I’m an enthusiastic consumer of many. I keep the books together in their own shelf.

This year, I think the best, most horrifying, most infuriating, books that are pointing out the obvious are:

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow – the story of the Harvey Weinstein abuse stories being covered up, caught and killed. The book qualifies for this shelf, because Trump’s dalliances are also killed by the tabloid media. It’s almost Gonzo-journalism, because Farrow chronicles his own struggles to get this story written. I’m eager to read more from him.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder – a tiny, dry tome with 20 rules for living in hard times, based on the fact we’ve lived through tyranny before – be kind to our language, contribute to good causes, be as courageous as you can…I have never actually gotten a hard copy of this book, because it cannot be published fast enough. But I have the audible and the ebook editions

It’s Even Worse Than You Think by David Cay Johnson – Johnson is an expert on DJT…has been watching him for years…and he can connect the clues better than anyone. It IS worse than we think.
The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy by Michael Lewis – be afraid! Be very afraid. We are being governed by people who know very little and like it that way.

Mueller Report – yes! I read it. More than most in Congress. Read, annotated, highlighted. And wrote several bad words in the margins.

Fiction – Of course I read novels!!

Testaments by Margaret Atwood – The long awaited, and for me totally satisfying sequel to Handmaid’s Tale. It was the book I needed to read in these days when On Tyranny reminds us we are in hard times. I read with friends who pushed my thinking and made the book even richer.

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky – another long-anticipated book…the second novel by Stephen Chbosky. Totally NOT Perks of Being a Wallflower…more early Stephen King – horror story reminding us children can save the world if we allow.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett -- Speaking of children saving the world: I love Gaiman, but had a bad experience with Pratchett, so I’d avoided it…but what a delightful book, and Armageddon is thwarted again!

Illiad by Homer – OK, so I never read Illiad, even though I taught The Odyssey. Yes, I knew the bare bones of the story…but to hear the words rolling over my ears was so moving. The ending…I was surprised by the abruptness.

Memoirthree total gems

Becoming by Michelle Obama – I listened to Michelle Obama reading her story to me. Honest, tender, loving.

Thick – essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom, an African American sociology professor. She writes a fascinating collection here…some searingly personal, some deeply academic, some funny…she makes us face inequity, and challenged me to follow more strong women of color on Twitter. Love the changes.

Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson – breathtaking memoir in verse by the author of Speak. This book gives us the back story to her amazing novel, and is a rallying cry for women and men who are victims of sexual assault. I cried buckets.

Education Nonfiction

The Privatization of American Institutions – written by my friend Lawrence Baines…how industry has taken over the military, prison system, K-12 education and higher education. Exhaustively researched (100+ sources for each chapter, y’all!!), every sentence is deep and frightening.

Lost At School by Ross Greene– an interesting look at behavior. Do kids (and adults) behave because they choose to, or because they don’t have the skills needed to mediate their words and actions? It reads like an advertisement for the author’s ‘system’, but still important for anyone who works with young people.

Nonfiction – Almost finished!

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Women by Caroline Criado-Perez – Oh, my gosh! All the ways women’s lives, bodies, and sexuality, are totally ignored by research. City planning. Snow removal, car safety. Men do the planning and arrange the world (NOT maliciously) to fit their bodies and their experiences. And that often makes the lives of women much harder.

Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean – The story of how MacLean found this story is fascinating, as is the rise of the libertarian millionaires who have used their money to quietly manipulate the levers of power. I did not know much of this started in the 50’s, with segregation in the South. Vouchers is not a new idea. Frightening, but we must read and learn.

Parkland by Dave Cullen – after Columbine, Cullen became the go-to author after any school shooting. In this book, he follows the Parkland survivors as they used their anger and grief to mobilize others for workable gun reform, and exciting young people to vote. This is the book Cullen needed after the horrors of Columbine, and frankly, I needed it too.

Blowout by Rachel Maddow – Another book I listened to the author read to me. Maddow reading Maddow…a treat! She weaves the story of Putin’s rise to power with oil and gas internationally, and in my home state, Oklahoma! Chapters jump from Putin to events I know much better.

Picture Book Biographies – volunteering in a school library let me to so many wonderful biographies of women forgotten by history. These books inspired my videoed lesson for my National Board re-renewal. Gems, every one.

Dreamers by Yuyi Morales– a sweet memoir of a young woman who immigrates to the US with her small child, and both discover the beauty of books and libraries. Illustrated by the author! A beautiful book all around.

Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome – there are many good picture books about Harriet Tubman, but this one adds new information for children to learn, and the lovely pattern of the words would give teachers so many ways to use this as a mentor text for writing.

Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark – a brilliant woman whose work is partly responsible for the technology we use every day in our cell phones, but is remembered only as a Hollywood movie star. Loved learning more about her!

Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science by Diane Stanley – did you know Lord Byron had a daughter? And that she was a brilliant scientist helped invent the Analytical Engine that could do all kinds of mathematical functions…A mighty girl!  



Whew! 181 books, with lots of great ones I didn’t put on these final lists…Right now I’m running a FB group of readers, Yearly Reading Plan,  using this challenge for 2020 – Lots of discussions about ‘a book you read in school,’ and I love seeing what friends are choosing for each month. I’m rereading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott for my January book. Eager to see what books this year brings.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

School Report Cards CAN Have a Happy Ending



This year’s unveiling of the ‘new and improved’ school report cards always creates the same knot in my stomach it has for nearly a decade. I understand some kind of school measure is a federal requirement...but I hate all the metrics that rely on testing data. And now the attendance measure has hit a special nerve. 


As I’ve said, I have history with this process. March 19, 2012 found the Board Room at OSDE packed to the gills. I saw a sign-in sheet and dutifully signed, then found a seat. The Spring Break morning was blustery and we were there for public comments. Much smarter folks than I shared their concerns and frustrations as a tape recorder (I kid you not!) whirled. My name was called. Little did I know, the sign-in sheet was a speaker’s list. I had written a message that I’d delivered to the superintendent and any other office that was open, so I dragged up my last copy and read. I used the name of the ancient heroine Cassandra, who, according to Aeschulus, was cursed to forever tell the truth and to never be believed. And here I am, seven years later, stifling my ‘I told you so!!’

So, this year, before I even studied the data when it was released, I was upset. I wasn’t the only one. Responses from educator leaders started pouring in. Rob Miller, Superintendent of Bixby Schools and Dr. John Thompson, retired teacher and school historian, are much more analytic than I am, and spoke up. More response in this Daily Oklahoman article. I will quote Superintendent Joy Hofmeister below. 

Teachers are, indeed, the most influential factor of student learning IN SCHOOL. That still is a small percentage of student learning. But we use test scores twice...one a straight achievement number, and one a ‘growth’ number. From what I understand, at least the growth measures the same students’ scores. But graduation (for secondary) and postsecondary opportunities? Attendance? We cannot control those. I spent weeks calling one student every morning to wake him up and get him to school. It worked. Until it didn’t. And now my school would be graded on what? My efforts to get my student up and dressed and to school? 

So, in this seething state, I browsed FaceBook and saw a post by my friend, Sandra Valentine. I’d noticed her response was more nuanced than my unfocused anger. Her question: 


Sandra works with schools and teachers to finesse the data and make changes to their curriculum. I know from experience, she understands our state standards and education issues. I was interested in joining the conversation, sooo...

I unloaded (shocking, I know). “Full funding. A revamped report card that reflects those variables under schools' and teachers' control.” But, truly, that is my wish list. I’ve talked about accountability and what is and is not within the control of classroom teachers and schools before. Sandra, as is her practice, asked probing questions to get me past that first anger...we had a spirited back-and-forth until she wrote: 

“For example, if the community looked at the chronic absenteeism and decided to say, like we have in Shawnee, more “Mom Transits” that would be helpful.

Until then it looks like a big stain on our schools. It doesn’t serve the purpose of here’s a problem, oh I didn’t know this problem existed, let’s come up with ways to help instead of hinder, brainstorm, brainstorm, bam, what once was a blemish is now a community commitment to get things going in the right direction.”

For me that was the nudge I needed to totally pivot my thinking.” It came in a flash as I reflected on Sandra’s words...we need to flip the entire conversation about school grades. These descriptions reflect the community in which schools are embedded. Even test scores are a community matter...what can families do to raise achievement? What kind of community support do they need to accomplish it? Questions swirled in my head.

And that brings us to this question...what if school report cards were straight descriptive, with no evaluative grades? Just statements of the needs of a particular school? And what if the next step was a community meeting with all stakeholders...to investigate the needs and brainstorm ways they could address needs? Public transportation routes? Public library access? More Big Brothers Big Sisters? What do our schools need from their communities? What can communities offer to their schools? 

That changes the conversation from: Rotten schools. Rotten teachers.

Now the conversation could be: Here are the needs. How can we contribute to addressing those needs with the resources we have at hand?

Interestingly enough, we both saw a short op-ed in the
Daily Oklahoman by Mary Melon. She brings up in passing the same idea we’re batting around...what if report cards were descriptive instruments, not evaluative? “Educators and the community can use this tool as part of the evaluation, along with many other measures. Knowing where you are is a critical part of determining the plan to get where you want to be. Finding common ground and changing the narrative about public education is the only way to truly make progressive change for our kids.”

So. Let’s flip this conversation. There is descriptive data in the reports. Let’s use it...convene groups of stakeholders. Let’s dig into the data and see, first what those descriptions mean to us as a community, and then how can we bring resources to the conversation?

Let’s ignore the letter grade that is supposed to be so informative. It’s not. It’s pejorative. It’s inflammatory. It’s abused by uninformed critics and reformers with their own agenda.

Let’s bring students and parents and teachers and administrators, AND city council members, AND Chamber of Commerce representatives. Let’s bring business owners, higher education representatives, technology center educators. Let’s bring them together to discuss the descriptions in the data.

For example, one of my favorite schools, an alternative high school for students who are struggling with many issues in their lives, got an “F” on “Postsecondary Opportunities.” This is measured by the state of ‘beyond high school’ resources available to high school students: industry certification, college preparation coursework (including AP), dual/concurrent enrollment, or work-based internships. Dimensions Academy ‘earned’ .2 points out of a possible ten. My first thought was, “well, duh! Some of these kids are struggling to stay warm and fed. Some have extra jobs to support a family. Some are working to recover credits to graduate.” There are too many reasons Dimensions Academy students might not be focused on POST graduation opportunities. That is a description of the challenges...

But rather than rail against the unfairness of the grade, what if that group of stakeholders could look at the description: students at Dimensions Academy are surviving in the moment -- how can WE support them and welcome them into the community of post-high school? Could we offer job shadowing? Internships for credit? What resources do we have to help? 

What if the community looked at attendance data and pooled resources...public transportation? Car pooling? After school care? What other creative solutions could be discussed by experts in their own fields, looking at ways they could contribute to their neighborhood schools? One community discovered that installing washers and dryers at school actually improved student attendance. Kids didn’t have clean clothes to wear to school, so they stayed home. But one community looked at that information and together found a creative way to contribute!
That ought to be the conversation. How can we help? Where can we fit our skills into the needs of our community public schools? What do we, as a community, have to offer our schools and students and teachers? How can we successfully partner to lift our schools?

Each school’s story. Oklahoma’s indicators and grades help tell each school’s story. More importantly, I think the community needs to look at what those indicator scores tell in that story.”

Superintendent Joy Hofmeister says it right there...Report cards are detailed, nuanced stories of each school in Oklahoma. Its strengths, its needs. Not hammers to blame, judge, attack. 

But for many the happy ending is up to all of us working together.