“SPEECH AFTER LONG SILENCE”
January 17, 2002
It has been months since my last posting, and the missives have dribbled into my e-mail box on the very infrequent occasions I have checked it: “What happened?” “Have you given up on your webpage?” “ARE YOU OK?” Be advised: I am fine. My webpage is fine. It is now more than five years old, and I hope to continue it until I die. I look at it as an organic expression of myself: always growing and changing (no matter how slowly), never static - moving towards greater focus and vision. When I do die, I hope it will be something not entirely without value.
But any project that lasts longer than a few months will have a natural ebb and flow, and the last year or so have been a rather extended ebb. As there have been times when I have done little else besides labor on my webpage, the past seventeen or so months I have hardly even looked at it. Other tides and currents in my life converged to focus my attention elsewhere temporarily, and I took a sabbatical from my webpage. I knew I would return better than before when the time was right. The time is now. Some explanation is due.
What happened to me? Life over the past year and a half has been hard but fruitful. I moved to Ventura County to help start a brand new technology “magnet” high school for the Ventura Unified School District. I knew I had to earn a reputation both for myself and for the new school; there would be long hours involved, as the curriculum would be custom built and all involve technology and complex task-driven projects. I have worked between 50-60 hours a week for more than a year. Much of my workday is spent "on stage" where I am actively teaching in front of students, and so any sustained lesson planning or research must be done after hours. So I work all day, go to gym, grab some dinner in town, and then go back to work for a couple hours. I get home around 10 p.m. and go almost right to sleep. I have met not a single person outside of work in Ventura County in my entire time here. I have no contacts in the community apart from school. I have worked, visited the gym, biked all over the beaches and mountains here, spent the gobs of time with my girlfriend that such a relationship requires, worked some more and then slept, and that is it. I listened to very little music. I saw few movies. I read almost nothing for personal enjoyment. It has been atypical.
And it has gone very well professionally. My reputation is sterling and now I teach an honor’s class at my school; next year it looks like I am going to pilot a special joint Advanced Placement English Literature and U.S. History class. In the K-12 public school system, it doesn’t get much better than that! (It took me eight solid years to arrive at this point in my career! Eight years!) I am specializing in integrating technology and digital media into the standard humanities curriculum, and therein is the good and the bad: the good in using multimedia and project based curriculum so that it brings the subject matter to life and makes class more involving and exciting; the bad in that in the beginning there is a steep curve in terms of time spent on the computer creating all the lessons and projects. (It is not a product one can buy from an outside source. A truly effective teacher will build it custom from scratch.) Occasionally I speak at conferences, etc. about what I do and fifteen minutes into the presentation some teacher always raises his/her hand and asks me, “How long did it take you to do this?” It takes hundreds and hundreds of hours of work to build custom curriculum with the latest technology, as well as considerable practical experience in the classroom, creativity and innovation, a profound grasp of one’s subject material, and cutting edge tech skills; but what I have done over the past two or three years will serve me well for the rest of my career (another twenty-thirty years, hopefully). All the lectures, video clips, webpages, class projects, and examples of exemplary past student work are saved on disk; I don’t have to re-invent the wheel every new school year. If I have not written any webpages for my personal site, I more than made up for it authoring hundreds on my professional site. And finally I am being publicly recognized for my work: last year I was a co-winner of an award for “world class teaching,’ and I made the local newspaper twice for projects I developed. Every year I am a better teacher and it gets easier. Every year I am more enthusiastic about the future of teaching. I find many enormous frustrations in teaching, but the rewards are as large. I love my job! Not many people can say as much.
Besides the good and the bad there is the ugly. The ugly is that in working so hard last year and in typing incessantly on the keyboard the muscles in my forearms failed and then collapsed. I developed severe tendonitis to the point where it finally became painful in my wrists just to perform simple tasks such as brushing my teeth or driving a car, not to mention typing all day long. I thought maybe I would be unable to do my job – and after I moved all the way out to Ventura just to do it! Oh, the irony! Could this really be happening?
The experience was frightening, to say the least. Would my students, who were well settled into my class and my way of doing things, have to start over in the middle of the year with a substitute teacher - and probably learn very little as a consequence? They were my students; their education that year was my responsibility. Would I let them down? Might I even have to change my career? How would I support myself? Was I getting that dreaded "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome" which necessitates surgery? Was it the early onset of arthritis? What job could I perform that would not require the use of one’s hands? "Abba! If it be thy will, let this cup pass from me!"
I was a bit paralyzed emotionally, and there was the constant physical pain. I felt very vulnerable and a bit panicked. I had never had any real problems with my health before, and I felt a bit let down by my body. I would look at my wrists and hands in a new light, as if they belonged to someone else. I could not believe God would have presented me with this opportunity and then have afflicted me with an injury that would make me unable to bring it to fruition. The idea of being afforded the opportunity, the means, and the freedom to create from nothing a new custom curriculum at a special new technology high school and then letting it slip away because of failing health was an intolerable thought. I couldn’t believe this was an injury that lasted for months and months and months. It is still with me a year after it first started. It hurts a bit to type these lines. I longed for – and I still long for! – those earlier days when I could effortlessly type for hours. It is valued only when it is missed.
Finally, I started getting physical therapy. I took it very seriously. I started rehabilitating my forearm muscles with various exercises, and I also moved back into the gym in a big way for the rest of my body. For some reason, when I lift weights intensely using the major muscles in my back, shoulders, and arms, then the subtle muscles in my forearms feel better. (Ironic but true!) Slowly but surely the tendonitis has been dissipating as my forearms grow stronger. (And I have never been lifting heavier or steadier at the gym, generally speaking. For every disaster there is some silver lining!) But this pain in my forearms has a lot to do with I have not updated my webpage for over a year nor answered nary an e-mail. I have just been trying simply to hold my own in performing the computer usage I could not avoid at work and nothing else. (This unavoidable computer work at a technology school is considerable.) But the improvement in my wrists over the months has been slow if steady; and even with my better and worse days I begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The worst is behind me. I don’t worry. The body heals itself amazingly well, if one is patient and conscientious. One needs faith. I have faith.
So, besides doing the best job I can at work in a new job at a new school (the edifice being not even completely built yet!) and maintaining the relationship with my girlfriend, I have had hardly a moment free. Not the most “fun” year by any means, but a sobering year of trial, endurance, investment, and growth. The older I get the more I trust the ebb and flow of life. If this year was a certain way, it does not mean it will always be thus; change is a constant, and one passes through different epochs in one’s time: readiness and flexibility is all, and fighting the tide is useless, beyond a point. Despite our best efforts, we have less control than we think. We endure. We persevere.
But now I am coming out of my cyber-slumber. In teaching you give, give, give – day after day, day after day. I am going to take better care of myself and stay more in touch with friends and former students. I am going to write for personal enjoyment and enrichment on my webpage, etc - a bit more like I used to be before this new job. I plan to give to myself, for a change. It is time. In fact, it is way overdue. I have overindulged the physical and the intellectual facilities; I have let languish my emotional, spiritual, and social selves - with the notable exception of Maria, the love of my life. Health, in the complete sense of the word, is a continuous process of maintenance and prevention, for anyone over thirty.
THE END OF THE CLINTON ERA
Many have commented on a similar change in the United States since September 11 and the onset of economic hard times: The days of roses and champagne when money fell from the sky and the good times rolled on and on is supposedly over. According to this narrative, the Clinton era and the 1990’s era of excess were a new Gilded Age of profit, greed, indulgence, and decadence. It was the O.J. Simpson saga, Princess Diana, Monica Lewinsky, 24/7 celebrity watching, stock market gazing, and gossip mongering. It was the Internet as cash cow, and everybody watching the NASDAQ rise and their wallets bulge. It was an America of parties and easy wealth that would have impressed even Jay Gatsby: America the trivial, entertainment as the sine qua non of the good life, rampant materialism, all glazed-over with a glitzy shallowness. Americans were not Americans, but “African-Americans” or “Asian-Americans” or “Mexican-Americans.” Americans did not put their private differences or backgrounds aside to be citizens, but insisted on highlighting their ethnicities, gender, or sexual orientations in order to accentuate the different and divergent. America was a nation divided: half the population inhaled marijuana in college and loved President Clinton, while the other half could not believe a man so cheesy and sleazy occupied the White House. It was a time of Oprah Winfrey, Hollywood, Michael Jordan, and day trading on the stock market.
But America was never like that for me. It was never about blockbuster movies, blue jeans, rock music, the super bowl, television talk shows, or making it big. It was not about brand name cars or clothes or any other trendy fashion. As John Steinbeck said, “Having too many THINGS," John Steinbeck once wrote, "[Americans] spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and Nature throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick." But now materialism and egoism are out and the more selfless traits are in. "Everything is different now," as numerous commentators have grimly pointed out since September 11th. What a wakeup call for many to what is real and important in life.
So if tragedy has focused Americans more on the real and the important, then the tragedy of the World Trade Center will not be without its positive effects. People are now feeling towards the United States how I felt about it before a handful of religious fanatics on a bright autumn morning in New York and Washington D.C. plowed airliners into Manhattan office buildings and the Pentagon, murdering thousands and bringing normal life for hundreds of millions almost to a standstill. They are sober minded and in touch with what is important and real: family, country, service, endurance, and sacrifice. Sir Francis Bacon put it perfectly: "Certainly virtue is like precious odors, most fragrant when they are incensed, or crushed: for prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue." The nation is almost universally mobilized on a war setting; Americans, they say, have never seen the country so unified or patriotic. Maria tells me she has read about the United States like this in history books, such as after Pearl Harbor in 1941, but has never seen it herself. Maria says it is “cool” to see. During the 1990’s and before September 11 people didn’t much care about public life, politics, or the greater good of the country; they were lost in their private pursuits - no need to worry about anything larger than oneself. Now the bigger picture is back in mind. If this is true, it is a healthy change. But how sad so many innocents have had to die to bring about this change!
Terrorists and their apologists - as well as America sympathizers such as as Alexis de Toqueville - have long excoriated America for many of the same reasons I do: the greed, materialism, vapidity, the tawdriness and mediocrity of much of modernity. But there is a vast difference between pointing out error and seeking its correction and declaring it anathema and working towards its violent, inexorable erasure. Osama bin Laden would purify the Middle East, and the wider world, of the stain of American depravity and sinfulness in the name of Allah with the cleansing solvent of blood. They would excise the globetrotting businessman from Long Island or the young female college who hails from Amman but studies at Princeton; they would bring back the purity of the pious desert Bedouin at gunpoint. Bin Laden's call for jihad against Americans allows them to kill the infidel without compunction, remorse, or second-thoughts. As he observed in a 1998 interview for al-Jazeera TV: "Every grown-up Muslim hates Americans, Jews, and Christians. It is our belief and religion. Since I was a boy I have been at war with and harboring hatred towards the Americans." I doubt not that if Osama bin Laden could get a hold of a nuclear weapon, he would explode it over New York or Los Angeles, if he could. I would attempt to improve the world through the example of a active life lived nobly and heroically. (A schoolteacher? Heroic? Yes!) I consider teaching first and foremost a duty to myself, my father, my community, and my nation.
What did I do September 11th? I watched disbelievingly and in shock. On September 12th, however, with my students sitting shocked in front of me, I walked into my classroom and immediately displayed a photo of one of the World Trade Center buildings exploding the day before. (The projector that broadcasts the contents of my computer onto the large video screen in the front of my classroom does so in vibrant color; my students physically cringed when the dramatic image appeared in front of them.) I told them I was traumatized, as they were traumatized, as the whole country was traumatized. It would be hard for any of us to focus on school. All air traffic in North America was grounded because of the attacks, I told my students, and baseball had been cancelled in the United States for the first time since D-Day in 1944 during WWII. I told my students on September 11th the terrorists won: they killed thousands of innocents, and they brought normal life to a standstill for hundreds of millions. The terrorists want to kill as many Americans as possible so as to create a climate of fear that would bring down the civilization we have created which they hate so much. It was no coincidence, I told them, that the terrorists chose targets symbolizing so directly American power and prestige - the Pentagon and World Trade Center Towers. Yes, the terrorists won yesterday, but they will not win today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day.
I told my students to put the attacks out of their mind during class so we could learn; similarly, I would put my anguish away so I could teach. In our own time and in our own ways we could mourn September 11th outside of class. But I told my students that going to school, teaching, learning, and working to become critically thinking, capable individuals is what enables the United States to build skyscrapers, the Internet, or jet airliners. If one of my students - especially a female student who, if bin Laden or the Taliban had their way, would not be permitted to attend school or walk unaccompanied in the street - continue to learn and grow up to be educated hardworking Americans like so many millions before them, then bin Laden loses. If our way of life perseveres, young people of today will grow up to be the architects or engineers that will design and build the structures that will replace the buildings damaged or destroyed on September 11th or others like them. Envy and jealousy of American power and technology plays hugely into why parts of the world hate us. It is not buildings like the World Trade Center Towers or the Pentagon that represent our true power but the engineering and technology that make them possible. The rubble of the New York skyscrapers will be cleared away night and day and within a few years the country will work around them, without forgetting what happened. America will continue into the future successfully. Whether Syria or Yemen can say the same is unclear. Few are the students in the Middle East who get the quality of education my students receive. That is our true strength: a good education, and the opportunity to put such an education to use. Take the long view: What is happening to the young people? To those who will lead tomorrow? Who is raising them? How? To what end?
In the end it comes down to ideas and how a person should live. If I am teaching American kids in the liberal humanist tradition, there are other teachers - in a madrasas in western Pakistan, for example - who are providing a much different education. The one stresses an open mind and a sense of curiosity and wonder about the human. The other stresses a strict obedience to the divine and rote memorization of texts exclusively concerned with Revealed Truth. The one tries to achieve balance and moderation in all things. The other finds value in a single-minded devotion to the absolute - Allah, God, Yahweh, Caesar, the Fuhrer, Comrades Stalin or Mao, whatever. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow I put my faith in the former and not the latter. It goes to the heart of who I am as a teacher and a human being.
There is a power to a sophisticated and liberally educated humanist (a Boccaccio, Voltaire, Erasmus, Ben Franklin, a Victor Frankl) that defies and outlives grimness and fanaticism. (The Islamic world, when it was less in decline, back in the 10th century A.D., was renown for its humanism and wide scholarship. There are moderate elements still in the Middle East, although they seem cowered and intimidated.) As Denis Diderot stated, "There is only one step from fanaticism to barbarism." Witness September 11, 2001. Exclaims Milan Kundera, "Extremism means borders beyond which life ends, and a passion for extremism, in art and in politics, is a veiled longing for death." Witness al Qaeda and the Taliban. (They typify neither all Muslims nor all Arabs, but they seem in the ascendancy in the unquiet Middle East.) I would try to teach my students life, rather than death. Teach them to learn to build rather than to waste oneself with hatred. To die in a moment of fury and blind hatred is easy; to learn to live, love, build, endure, understand, be patient, and to have faith and hope is hard. On September 12th I told my students to put Osama bin Laden and these attacks out of your mind when you are at school and focus on what we are here to do, and that I would do likewise. In this way the terrorists lose and we win. Much of the Middle East is subsumed in hatred and anger, and ultimately it only poisons themselves; God forbid that this poison, more than it already has, seeps into the American soul and poisons us. We have little or nothing to gain from the vitriol of the Middle East. We do fine without it.
And I am heartened by what I see around me; in the months since September 9th, I have not seen any appreciable difference in student achievement: the United States, in my classroom, took a blow and kept on going. September 11th might be a seminal day in the lives of my students, to be remembered sharply in later life as other Americans remember Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. But America will survive and even thrive in the wake of September 11th. Witness the spectacle of President George Bush in the aftermath of Islamic terror urging Americans not to lash out at Muslim Americans, as they have a place at the American table as much as anyone else. Witness the reaffirmation of liberal society and secular pluralism - not only in the United States, but around the world.
Like the Cold War, the struggle taking place now will be one of hearts and minds as much as in guns and diplomatic maneuver. I consider myself a combatant, although I doubt I will ever hold or point a gun in this conflict; and I will not stoop to hate Osama bin Laden, if at all possible. But I will do my best to strengthen the country he hates and the civilization it produces (and as a teacher year after year my role is not inconsequential). Bin Laden, and some others, will argue that America is nothing but depravity and emptiness. I am only one person, but I flatter myself that I am standing proof to the contrary. And I am not alone.
If America were only vacuous pop singers, mindless movie stars, drug-sodden youth, and greedy businessmen, as bin Laden evidently believed, then his side would win easily. Bin Laden claimed America is a "paper tiger" with no stomach for war, exactly as did the Communist Chinese during the Korean War. "The Americans love Pepsi Cola, but we love death," claimed a Muslim warrior to a British newspaper during the first week of this current Afghan war. Just because no Americans yearn to be killed in combat doesn't mean they won't make that sacrifice. Witness CIA Agent Mike Spamm, killed in the fighting in Afghanistan. Witness U.S. Special Forces soldiers Daniel Petithory, Brian Cody Prosser, Jefferson Donald Davis, and Nathan Ross Chapman - all killed in action in Afghanistan. Witness a mere handful of American casualties during all the combat with thousands of bin Laden's terrorist organization hunted down and killed - including many of the top leaders. Witness American forces and their allies victorious all across Afghanistan in a few weeks, with the Taliban and al Qaeda vanquished. "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse," exclaimed bin Laden as he gloated shortly after the the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Indeed! Now witness bin Laden himself gone deep into hiding, perhaps dead. The irony! Witness a new government in Afghanistan under the first statesman from that country (a Mr. Hamid Karzai) who I have seen that speaks any sense at all. Witness the beginnings of hope for Afghanis for the future.
WEARING ONE'S PATRIOTISM ON ONE'S SLEEVE
But, alas, the new patriotism goes too far! I again flatter myself in that I consider myself as patriotic as any of my fellow Americans, and even a cursory review of this essay and the rest of my webpage will show as much; but I will be damned if I will fly an American flag from my car, as so many have taken to doing since Sept. 11. There is too much herd mentality in it. It is easy to just wave the flag when everyone else is doing so; it is hard to stand up for America when the rest of the world is slamming her. I remember being in Latin America where everyone dumped on the United States, envying its power and wealth; and I watched many Americans scrape and apologize to them when they should have told the whiny Latinos to take responsibility for their own falling apart nations and quit blaming outsiders. Now the same Americans are probably sporting the Stars and Stripes on the bumper stickers of their cars. And it is easy to wave a flag now, but it might be harder to do so when the body bags start coming home. Nevertheless, if September 11th helps others finally to see that the United States is - despite its many grave and much discussed shortcomings - a great country with a way of life worth standing up for and defending, then it is not entirely bad. The sadness that more Americans (and foreigners) did not see this before September 11 mitigates much of the pleasure I should take in seeing so many of my fellow citizens move towards a point of view congenial to my own.
America is bad at staying on top of problems; it ignores them until they become crises. But in crises the innovation and restless creativity of the country comes into its own as America shows its greatness. (Witness 1775. Witness 1861. Witness 1941.) Todd Beamer, an account manager for a computer company on a business trip, as well as a host of other unsuspecting ordinary everyday people, suddenly found themselves caught in the middle of History on the morning of September 11th when Islamic terrorists commandeered their Boston to San Francisco flight and then turned the plane around and pointed it at Washington D.C., where God only knows what important government building or monument they intended to crash into. Beamer and his fellow passengers took stock of the situation, recited the Lord's prayer, said goodbye to their loved ones on their cell phones, and took action. They huddled together, took a vote, and decided to rush the cabin to stop the terrorists. “Let’s roll!” Beamer exclaimed. Indeed! Let’s roll! Bin Laden and his associates have sucker punched us and thrown down the gauntlet. We shall see how the next act turns out. Prudence. Patience. Focus. A knife in the darkness, a blow from the Medieval Age, has slashed us. These assassins would force women back into the home, barefoot and pregnant. They would re-insert militant theocracy into the world again.
Not really America but the 21st century has been attacked. But you just watch: the 21st century will win. In ten years my students will be graduating from college to go into their professions and help America progress foraward into the future in a dynamic, free society. Osama bin Laden, if not dead, will still be living in a cave.
Patience. Focus. Faith.
So, gentle reader, this is where my head currently is, both in the personal and public senses. Welcome back to my webpage.
Very Truly Yours,