Posted by: Tom Triumph | October 4, 2011

Darling’s Law on Paradigm Establishment

Darling’s Law on Paradigm Establishment: A new paradigm has officially replaced the old when the former stops comparing itself to the latter.

For example, for thirty years Apple and Microsoft’s (but especially Apple’s) achievements have been compared to the Xerox PARC computer and the storied visit Steve Jobs and Bill Gates took decades ago. PARC engineers introduced GUI, the mouse, the scrollbar and pretty much every foundation bit we take for granted today. Still, when people talk about Apple or Microsoft innovation (but especially Apple) they mention the visit to PARC.

One day, Apple or Microsoft will roll out a machine or program or something that has nothing to do with PARC technology, and no mention will be made of PARC or Xerox. When that happens–the old is finally scraped off the shoes of the new–the new computing paradigm will officially have begun.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | July 8, 2010

It is a Pleasure to Burn

This story is also available for free upload for your ereader, phone, Apple device, Kindle or other electronic media. If you enjoy this your should read the novel version “The Attic Notebooks”. The link to both is on the right at smashmouth.com

It is a Pleasure to Burn
Tom Darling

I sit at the back.

For the past week our class has watched the film To Kill a Mockingbird in a darkened classroom. The movie is a substitute for reading the actual book. For the sake of experiencing literature—this is an English course, after all—we are assigned to read the dramatic courtroom scene as actually written by Harper Lee.

No one does.

Class starts out with the dramatic courtroom scene. Before the bell even rings, Mr. Jones has turned off the lights.

“It is,” our teacher says as students shuffle into their desks and seats, “an Oscar winning performance.”

Did Mr. Jones believe that we have all read the scene we were about to see? He not only doesn’t ask, but avoids mentioning that it had been assigned.

I don’t think he wants an answer.

Looking around the darkened room, I can make out the familiar student-created posters that serve as assessments; near the end of each unit Mr. Jones pulls out paper, markers, magazines and glue sticks and has us make posters that represent the theme of the book we have not read. As with the trenchant student analysis of the videos of Shakespeare and Golding, Harper Lee’s classic will be represented by collages consisting of women in short skirts, a beefcake guy with no shirt, a fast car, a host of adjectives like “glamour” and “star,” and some sort of alcohol. Mr. Jones must use a method of grading that is unclear to me, because after close study I can’t tell the difference between works being interpreted. The creators of these collages seem unable to even use a pair of scissors with precision, much less express precise ideas.

Mr. Jones starts the movie.

Three students come in just as Atticus takes the floor, noisily knocking a couple of seats while they make their way in the dark to seats near their friends. The cuffs of their pants are worn from dragging under the heels of their shoes, and they begin whispering even before they sit down.

“We’ve seen this part,” a boy from the front-left side of the room shouts.

“Yes,” Jones replies, “I know. Wait.”

Experienced at showing movies, Mr. Jones backs up the video a minute or two from where the previous class had ended. Memories are jogged and the whisperers finish their narcissistically important comments. Three minutes into this Oscar winning performance, three kids leave to go to the bathroom, while two go for a drink of water down the hall. Classrooms at DU have become uncomfortable living rooms. At times I find myself grabbing for a remote that I do not have, but muscle memory insists that I do.

Being in school is like a long visit to my Grandmother’s house: there are rules about movement and touching things, remnants from an earlier time that are now arbitrary and irrelevant. We are forced to watch programs none of us would choose, sold as good for us. There is nothing good to eat. Like my grandmother, Mr. Jones seems to be waiting for me to leave.

Until sixth grade I read every day. More accurately, I read a book every day.

As a child my parents read to me every night, and when I was older I could be found on the couch in the winter and on the porch in the summer, reading. Every morning I read while eating breakfast. At school I gulped down a few scores of pages while saving the rest for bed. My circle of friends all read, and my best friend, Sophie MacDonald, and I passed books back and forth.

Then, I stopped.

I stopped for the same reason most protagonists change their youthful habits: Betrayal.

At the start of sixth grade my best friend stopped speaking to me. We were in our second week at Devon Union Middle School when Sophie MacDonald jumped social groups and refused to speak to me. Suddenly, our book exchanges, girl gossip, even eye contact ceased. Sophie would not even ask me to move out of the doorway. I remember standing in the doorway to English class and she just barreled into me, shoulder slightly down and eyes averted, so that I fell a few steps back into the hallway. I stopped reading because I figured that it made me uncool. My status did not change. At that point I became willfully illiterate and isolated, eventually moping around my neighborhood before landing on the living room couch for three years until high school began.

My mother does not know what to do with me.

She cries when she reads about the book burning.

The adaptations of the classic book I have not read projects on the screen. In an attempt to rebuild my image over the years I adopt the persona of a deep thinking loner. Ironically, casting myself as a loner brings me a number of casual friends.

But none like my old friendship with Sophie.

Equally ironic is that my thoughtful facade is decorated by a seemingly endless knowledge about literature. I speak knowingly about books I have not read, and write papers on the insights gleaned from the cover, back copy and a randomly selected page. I carry around a worn copy of The Razor’s Edge because it seems intellectually hep. It has become my brand; a possession I care deeply about but do not read. In this school of the blind, I am a one-eyed queen.

And that is the paradox of my life—to be cool in middle school, I stop reading. Then, in high school, I try to embrace reading, to wear it on my sleeve in a school that politely praises the act while doing all it can to gut its practice. Wanting to read, though, I find I cannot. I become physically ill. Carrying on in a land of pretenders, I am the best, but also the only one who seems to want to change.

The movie is paused. I break out of my deep thoughts.

In his comments, Mr. Jones keeps referring to Atticus as Gregory Peck, the actor who plays him in the film.

“Just play it,” the girl in front of me calls out from inside of her sweatshirt hood.

Mr. Jones does just that.

Now, every English class has several plays on their syllabus instead of novels. No one reads them, but we see them acted on video. That, we are told by Mr. Chips, our academic dean, is how they are intended to be seen. “Shakespeare didn’t write for a reader,” Mr. Chips explains, “he wrote for the stage, for the audience. That is how you should experience it.” Junior year is a lot easier than freshman year when we were expected to read.

When Mr. Jones collects the packets from To Kill a Mockingbird, I pick my copy off of the counter and hand it in. It is clear it has not been read, but Mr. Jones does not notice.

Mr. Jones has us do a project about books in lieu of actually reading any.

“I want to write a paper,” I say.

He says, “Write what you know.”

I write about burning books.

For this I get an “A” and trip to Mr. Chip’s office. He gives me the look he usually reserves for Sophie MacDonald. I get praise for my insights.

Then he tells me to knock it off.

And, I’m in the alternative program.

The school cleans out the book room at the end of the English Department’s hallway. Stacks of texts lay on the floor of the room and into the hallway, while empty shelves outline their former space in dust.

Mr. Chips has asked me to “find them a home” as part of my alternative education.

I do.

So as to not break the spines, I alternate the direction of the books as I stack them into the boxes. As I do so, I open covers and see the names of my friend’s parents, and in some cases their parents’ parents. I wipe dust off of them with my sleeve. On the inside of Homer’s The Odyssey is my mother’s name. It is written neatly, in cursive, below five other names that had read the book before her. After her name three other Devon Union High School students have read, or attempted to read, or been assigned this book before it went into the closet for twenty years.

I put the book aside.

Stamped haphazardly on that inside cover of my mother’s copy of The Odyssey is an oval, around it the words Devon Union High School. Along the tail edge of the book is stamped DEVON UNION HIGH SCHOOL. This stamp is straight across and written entirely in capital letters. They are brands against theft, and points of school pride. Devon reads the Odyssey! Looking at the book, I wonder where the stamps are now.

“Find them a good home,” Mr. Jones says to me as I haul the last load of boxes to my father’s pick up truck. And I do.

I suppose they think I will burn them.

The English department gives me over five thousand books. I find them a good home.

Books speak; no lie. Take a book and raise it to your ear.

In your hands, now, you feel something reaching up to the elbows; do not ask what or you will miss it.

Now smell it.

Close the book; listen.

As part of my independent study, I listen to the books as I take them out. Inside of their covers, I write the names of people they have asked for.

The books tell me; I am only the messenger.

Each day, with a backpack full of books (no one carries books in them anymore), I spend the time when everyone else is in class slipping books into lockers until the school year ends.

The burning is now an event.

No flyers go up and no invitations are sent. No one even asks. Around town, in the coffee shop or passing me while I mow the grass, no one says a word. The burnings are a tradition. Time and place of the burning is determined by the last day of summer school, which itself has disappeared as nearly all students—all the students that matter—pass to a degree acceptable to the school board and Mr. Chips. Tradition, though, finds a date. That it became so in only its third year scares me. In my head, I, too, know what Friday is the day, but I willfully ignore what my gut tells me.

On the day of the burning I get an iced coffee on the other side of town. When I see the smoke rising from the direction of the mill, as the sun starts to hide, I climb the stairs to my room and close the door.

The pallets stack nearly thirty feet.

I am told that people stood on cars to create the initial pile, but even then they could not explain how it had gotten so high. And it was not only pallets, but chairs and boxes, barrels and random boards. Things that did not burn, like mental beams and bed spring mattresses, are pushed against the pile.

And books.

I wonder where they came from.

Some people do not bother to open the boxes, but throw them on whole. Perfectly stacked and packed books cling together even after the cardboard container has burned away. Books fly, with each strike creating an imperceptible movement in the tower. Music plays. People have just shown up with instruments—guitars and trumpets and sticks and recorders and whatever—and they all play when the mood strikes. It is loud and wild. The police are right to be concerned, but this is nothing I can control.

A bugle sounds, and this is thrown on the fire.

And then I hear a guitar smash or break or something in the darkness.

Twang.

HEY!

The owner yells, but it makes its way onto the fire.

People cheer.

They are all looking for something to burn; something more than books. If it occurs to them they might rip a chunk of pavement from below their feet and hurl it onto the pile. They want to burn civilization. Some of the men are shirtless, and I wonder if their clothing has been thrown on the pile. I hear glass break in the darkness; then another pane. Everyone ignores me. People run around, yelling and screaming and laughing. Adults—teachers!—stand with students and point and laugh. On the edge of darkness, by the gate, the light of the fire bounces off the police cruiser that has driven me there. The two officers, one a man the other a woman, lean against the car, arms folded, but do nothing. We are inside the gate.

“You came,” says Sophie MacDonald as a greeting.

I am looking at the fire, on the light side of the edge of darkness, and do not see her slip beside me.

“I was called.”

Sophie MacDonald then takes a book and throws it onto the fire.

Our junior year had been a tense one. Both of us had been opted into Mr. Chip’s alternative program. We spent much of our day at school, coming and going from random classes as we saw fit. It was like having a carte blanche ticket at the cina-plex, wandering from history video to adapted novel to science documentary. At first, our paths had crossed once a week, and we enjoyed coffee near each other on Thursdays. As the year progressed, though, Sophie MacDonald seemed to be around more. She had always rebelled against what was in front of her. In the spring, with my locker crusade going underground, she rebelled against me.

The books being thrown on the fire were mine, I realized. Again, betrayal.

I did say, “I was called” and she did throw a book onto the fire. More happened in-between, though. I want to get it right, out of respect for Sophie and my feelings for her, as well as the events that follow.

“You came,” states Sophie MacDonald.

“I was called.”

“Oh.”

“These are my books,” I say quietly.

“They’re just books,” she flatly states. “They would have gotten destroyed eventually.”

We stand in silence. In her rebellion—her opposition—she throws her lot in with the book burners. As our peers thrown on hats and shoes and some throw rocks—thwack—at the burning pallets, the rebellious novelty of burning books still holds with Sophie MacDonald.

For the first time, I turn my head from the flames and look at Sophie.

She is beautiful.

The fire makes her face a bright mix of yellow, orange and white, while the back of her head is darker than any black I have ever seen. It is a matter of contrasts, I know, but emotionally I am lost. Betraying no emotion, her face turns towards mine.

“I just don’t care.”

And then she tosses the book onto the fire.

Sophie MacDonald is not weak. Her throw of the book, though, is poorly aimed.

As other books, socks and random garbage flies to the top of the pile, Sophie’s sideways chuck barely makes the fire. It is from the hip, and out. The entire throw relies on the snap of her wrist. Opening like a lame duck, a few pages flutter. When it hit whatever is burning at the foundation of the fire, the book snaps shut. It lays propped up, the title upside down but clearly legible.

“People miss books.”

I say this out loud, months later. Sophie is sitting across from me.

They say that god punishes people by giving them exactly what they want. My middle school dream of being alone with Sophie on the desert island has come true—years later—as no one likes her increasingly nasty commentaries and my spending time alone in the cafeteria makes me a friend of whoever chooses to sit across from me. After hurling that book onto the fire the summer before, I hate her, but I am stuck with her. And we are oddly friends.

“People miss burning books,” Sophie MacDonald says to me.

I have scars on my arms, chest, and legs. The doctors say I was lucky, which seems to be the cliché in the case of any accident; even if someone dies, they tell you it was lucky because it was quick and painless. In fact, as Sophie and I speak, I am still healing, with bandages and compression wraps both visible and under clothing. When the pyre fell on me it broke no bones; only burns. Most of it is second degree burns, and easily covered by a long sleeve t-shirt and a scarf. If you are wondering how I could forgive Sophie enough to even sit with her after this tragedy, I will tell you one more bit from the fire that I left out of the original story.

When she held up the book, I leapt at her.

I did not even try for the book. I was so angry—furious—that I attacked her.

She was shocked. This gave way to pain when I ripped a chunk of hair from her scalp. Had I not gone after the book, I might have crushed her head into the pavement. Still, when she twisted in pain to get away our eyes met and she understood fully why I gave THAT book to her. I had put my book—THAT book—in her locker in the spring. Our friendship now rests on this connection, and her knowledge that I could kill her if I wanted to.

Slurping the milk carton dry, Sophie gets up and throws it away, leaving for class without saying goodbye.

I know I have to do something.

Destruction seems to be the solution in Devon, and fire the medium that works. Picking at my itchy bandages, I open a spiral notebook I have for the French class I never attend and begin mapping out my last course of action.

Over the next half an hour I drink my coffee. Much of the time my face is down, and I lose consciousness a few times. Without a word, not even small talk, I get up and go into the first classroom I can find that is showing a documentary (it is not hard). Slipping into the back, I slouch into my seat and fall asleep.

When I wake up hours later, the same documentary is playing.

It is in the same place.

Looking around, I note that these are different kids, and this is a different section. As I had entered, I slip out without a word, but knowing I have to act that night.

My solution makes itself known on the back shelf above my father’s workbench.

He has an electromagnet.

Every garage or basement in Devon is filled with castoffs from the factories. Basic tools such as hammers and screw drivers find themselves into coat pockets and make their way from factory floors to personal tool boxes. Stove parts and fuses leave the factories in lunch boxes. Scrap piles and dumpsters yield lumber for tree houses and garden sheds, electric motors for table saws, and chains from which to hang engines from. A perk of the job, the men and women of Devon take discards and make them into something new. From somewhere, my father had picked up a handheld electromagnet. About the size of a red brick with a handle, it sits on a shelf above his workbench, unused since I was six years old.

I want to see if it is still as destructive as the only time he had turned it on.

My father tells me later not to stay out too late before falling asleep on the couch.

Placing the magnet in the bed of the truck by my remaining boxes of English department castoffs, I turn over the engine and ease out of the garage. Then, I swing by Sophie MacDonald’s. With no friends or anyone close, I had called her. I need to share this experience; the solution.

Dark.

Late.

Sophie comes out to the truck, and as she opens the door and climbs in I see that her eyes are looking at the boxes in the bed.

“A burning?” is the first thing she says to me.

I put the truck in gear and move ahead.

“No.”

“What, then?”

“You’ll see.”

We pull into the back parking lot of the school.

From behind my seat I produce the aluminum baseball bat my mother has given me—she sensed a plan was afoot and told me to swing for the fences—and smash a small window on a door. Clearing the edges with the barrel of the bat, I reach in and push the panic bar.

Click, we are in.

Sophie stands apart, her hands dug deep into her fleece pockets.

“I thought they burned all of your books?”

“Some,” I say.

Finding a cart used by maintenance, I say, “Look, we are going to place a book in each locker. A book for each person.”

“You did that last year.”

“And it worked. Until Chips.”

I go down the hallway, kicking open each locker. Sophie takes books out of the boxes and places one in each. At times, she seems to overcome her fear of being involved and thinks about what book might be best for this or that student she actually knows. Most of the time, though, she robotically tosses in a book; punctuating her dismay by slamming the door shut. That echoes throughout the school, dying out when another slam shoots out. We go down the freshman, sophomore and half of the junior hallways when we ran out of books. Twenty cardboard boxes of books looks like a lot, but when you pass them out like Santa Claus it really doesn’t add up to much.

“Maybe we should break into our library to finish the job.”

“Good idea,” Sophie says. “I’ll go get your bat.”

I think she is kidding, but she turns and walks down the hallway in the direction of my truck. Ten minutes later I get nervous and look for her. On the front seat sits the bat where I had left it.

Sophie MacDonald has left me.

More betrayal. I know she is going to tell someone:

Reaching inside the open window of the truck, I pull the hood release lever. With a click, it pops. Pulling the battery out of the engine compartment, I slide it into my school backpack. From the bed of the truck I take the electromagnet. Threading its wires trough a small loop that is sewn into the top of the backpack, I clip the alligator clamps to the battery terminal inside. Pulling the straps of the backpack over each shoulder, the battery rests heavily on my lower back and some of the tender scar tissue. In my right hand I hold the magnet. With my pointer finger, I pull a trigger; the magnet sticks to the side of the truck.

With my free left hand I pull the bat out of the driver’s seat and enter the school.

Phase Two of my plan is to provide the students of Devon Union High School with a piece of literature to feed their soul. Sophie MacDonald has helped me through most of the night with that part of the plan. Every freshman, sophomore and most of the juniors are ready to be fed.

Portable electromagnet in hand, I am ready for Phase One: I need to create the vacuum that will be filled with literature. From room to room I wander executing Phase One until after the sun comes up. It surprises me that the police have not come. Perhaps Sophie MacDonald is struggling with a change of heart.

My plan is simple.

From computers to cameras to projectors, Devon Union High School is a dumping ground of technology. Each piece of machine is loaded with processors, chips and various storage devices that allow it to hold data, adjust volumes, illuminate bulbs, and send ones and zeroes down this wire and up that one. No brain and the equipment is just a collection of wires that do not know what to do. Destroy the machine and I kill the beast. Unlike a book, modern technology is vulnerable to concentrated magnetic fields applied directly to their hard drives. So, if someone takes a large, really powerful magnet and puts it against the electronic guts it will scramble the information stored there. A few seconds with an electromagnet of considerable size will kill a machine.

Wandering the halls, going from room to room, I place the brick-sized magnet on every electronic device I can find, hold the trigger for ten seconds, and move to the next device.

Zap.

Zip.

Blank.

By dawn, tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment are made useless. I am creating the vacuum.

Then the cops come.

Hearing the sirens I slip off the backpack and put the magnet down. Bat still in hand, I transfer it to my dominant right hand and head towards the exit. In the hallway, I pull the first fire alarm I come to. If the burnings have taught me anything, it is the more chaos is not always a bad thing.

I run.

There is one last part of this story.

When I run for the side entrance, figuring it is the least likely to be covered by the police, and closest to the woods, I encounter Chips. Sophie MacDonald had actually called Chips that night. It is Chips who called the police. Taking his keys out of his office door, he looks up to see me holding a bat.

Swing for the fences, my mother had told me.

“Ms. Jackson,” he says.

He does not seem surprised to see me.

Then he looks at the bat.

“Did you ever read ‘Casey at the Bat’?” I ask him. “I know literature is not your forte, but Casey is not the highest form so I thought you might have read it.”

“I think I saw the movie,” he quips. Then he looks at the bat again.

I need to leave.

Running towards the side entrance, I swing it wide to clear the way, but Chips does not flinch. Just missing a blow to his head, he comes up from a low position and tackles me. I am on my back, screaming, when two police officers come around the corner and hold my arms and legs. My head is bleeding from the takedown.

The alarms are still screaming.

No one seems to care that large parts of my body are covered with healing burns under the bandages. At that point, I am wrong.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,

And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;

But there is no joy in Mudville— mighty Casey has struck out

Rolling me over, they cuff me and take me to the hospital for my head.

In the emergency room, nurses change my bandages and clean up my face.

“He was a wrestler,” the one of the officers tells me.

It’s morning, and the one police officer trades watch while the other goes for breakfast. Both officers—the one at the nurses’ station talking to an older woman from his church, and the woman who goes to the cafeteria for an egg and sausage breakfast sandwich—know my father. The nurse does, too. Our community is small; they trust each other, and, by extension from my father, me. I am not watched very closely. Some guy in the waiting room is sharing some disgusting facts about early medicine. Then I walk out of the waiting room and into the night.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | March 30, 2010

The Future of Books is Books

The Future of Books is Books

The Future of Books is Books.

Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Gertrude Stein, as I’ ve just finished the wonderful biography Gertrude and Alice by Diana Souhami.  I am much for fixated on Getrude–”Twentieth century literature is Gertrude Stein”–Stein the person than her writing.  Souhami satisfied that itch more than those Stein works I found hard to focus on (it’s like free jazz and Shakespeare in that, after ten minutes of caucauphony, it suddenly flows).

The Future of Books is Books.

I’ve been reading about Kindles and ebooks, and how the nature of interaction is changing.  But I’ve only been able to picture a book with hypertext, which makes Wikipedia so addictive to me while watching television.  Any text would be a Norton Critical Edition, in short.  That seemed tame.  That I can read my i-touch in the dark, on my side, while my three year old goes down sold me on the e-reader.  The FUTURE!

Reading about the i-Tablet, though, killed that.

The Future of Books is Books.

Text is dead, Wired declared.  That was the paraphrase.  The reason, they effectively argued, was that text took a small footprint of the offerings of the new generation of tablet computer.  Video, sound and images would crowd out text.  Copyright, already shaken out in the music and video worlds, is holding firm in the written world and keeps most books out of the hands of anyone with a screen that’s not a Kindle.

When publishing does join the party, people will have moved on.  Romeo and Juliet was meant to be staged, not read, and the tablet will provide.  Media–art–is evolving.  Text on a tablet will be underwhelming.

Which is why the future of books will be books.

Because text makes sense in a book.  The tactile nature and ease of delivery–the emotional sense of it–will keep it locked on the page.  While bestsellers and pulp will migrate–heck, it will all migrate–the experience of text will remain on the page just as the experience of music has remained, after the advent of MTV, in the ears.  It just makes intuitive sense.  Art will move on.

The future of books, though, is books.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | April 24, 2009

The Night Librarian: Chapter Four

The Night Librarian
Chapter Four

Before he went to sleep the night of the library adventure, Joseph’s mother and father came into his bedroom. They spoke, and he listened. He was grounded. After school, he was to come home and go straight to his bedroom.

“Great,” he said to himself. “After a bad day at school I can be bored at home.” It was his last thought before falling asleep.

The next morning Joseph got dressed and raised his shade. Looking out of his bedroom window, he saw the library and sighed.

Then he noticed the book.

The Super Sleuth Academy Guide to Becoming a Detective.

Sitting on his nightstand, Joseph knew it had not been there when he fell asleep. It was a library book.  Had his parents put it there? he wondered. It seemed unlikely. They were really mad about last night.  Joseph flipped through the book, and then put it in his backpack to read later. Barely touching his buttered toast, he put on his coat, strapped on his backpack and walked the two blocks to his school.

* * * * *

“Morning meeting in five minutes,” his teacher chimed. “Make sure you check in on the board.”

In the middle of the room Joseph’s teacher always wrote out what they needed to do before morning meeting. Today it read:

1. Unpack bags.
2. Wash hands.
3. Choose your lunch.
4. Answer the daily question.
5. Choose a book and read.

After doing the first three, Joseph looked at the question.

What mystery do you want to solve?

Was he reading it right? He had a mystery. Who was the woman with the wings at the library, he thought.

“Get out of the way!” a voice barked at him. Joseph felt himself being shoved to the side. A rather large boy picked up the marker and wrote, Who stunk up the bathroom? Then the boy, whose name was Frank, laughed at his own joke.
That’s not a mystery, Joseph thought to himself. Everyone knew Frank himself did it.

After Frank left, Joseph picked up the marker and wrote, Who is the woman with wings at the library? He then found a book and waited for circle.

The teacher will know, he thought. But he was wrong.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | March 25, 2009

The Night Librarian: Chapter Three

The Night Librarian
Chapter Three

With a cup of tea in one hand, she walked around library foraging for the food that other people left behind. She did not know that Joseph had hidden in the bathroom. Eating an apple, the night librarian fluttered around cleaning up where the day librarian ended. Straightening books, she finished her tea and washed the cup before getting to her real work.

Joseph was woken by his mother.

He woke with a startle.

“Did you see her?” he asked. The question shot out of his mouth.

“Who?” his mother asked.

“The lady…” he started. As the words came from his mouth, he knew they would not believe him. A brief look at their faces, he could tell.

Peering behind him, the police officer was relieved the boy was found safe, but ready to return to his duties.

The day librarian seemed irritated at being dragged out of her warm home to unlock the building. Her face went from a tired look to a frowning annoyance and back again. While glad one of her patrons was safe, she was aggravated that his ridiculous questions from earlier had led to this.

In the faces of his parents, worry was quickly turning to anger.

Joseph felt ridiculous.

“Who?” his mother asked again, this time with a edge in her voice.

“The woman with wings,” Joseph whispered.

“What?” his father asked. “Speak up.”

But the boy did not want to say any more.

“Well, he’s safe,” the officer said at last. With this cue, everyone started moving for the door. Joseph got up and, head down, slowly made his way to the front door. He did not look around, and it was not until he was standing on the front steps that he noticed the dark sky.

“Do you have something to say to these folks,” a voice from behind asked. It was his father’s.

Joseph did not. Slumped over in shame and defeat, he went home and straight to bed. With his parents mad at him and no information about the woman with enormous wings, he started to focus on how much he did not want to go to school in the morning.

The Business of Educating Children

At a recent meeting, one mother, to bolster her argument, turned to the teachers in the room and exclaimed that the parents were the school’s customers and that the customer was always right.

Never mind that this cliché is rarely honored by American businesses, it is a statement that demonstrates how distant we are the days when communities came together in the name of the whole child.

It is not that business jargon has trickled its way into education—the two have a long entangled history—but that its players are adopting roles traditionally reserved for business. Parents as customers is an obvious one, but a lot of principals and superintendents describe themselves as managers, teachers discuss their role as workers, and students are simply seen as product. In the worse extremes, schools are described as “learning factories” or “warehouses”. The trend indicates a frustration communities feel with their roles in our current education system.

Still, there is much educators can learn from business.

While many a teacher, administrator, school board member or parent might reach for the latest book on pedagogy in addressing issues with their schools, they might find more inspiration in the business section of their local bookstore, instead. The following four books are a great place to start.

The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker

While U.S. politicians loudly shout how schools need to be run more like a business, American businesses are not doing too well. How can the local elementary school expect to get in shape, for example, when the once mighty big three automakers scratch their heads while in free fall? Easy: look towards Toyota.

While the labored concept of Total Quality Management has been grafted onto nearly any endeavor, most often as a gimmicky fad, Toyota has taken the basic concept and made it their own.  That alone—their willingness to experiment and commit to the concept over the long haul—is what makes Toyota a model for educators.

The Toyota Production System (TPS) was created after the company’s founder Sakichi Toyoda, his son and an engineer visited the Ford Motor Company. Unimpressed with the waste and inefficiency they saw throughout Ford’s plants, they found inspiration at a local Piggly Wiggly supermarket. There, inventory was restocked and reordered only when items sold. Drawing heavily on the works of Henry Ford and economist W. Edwards Deming, concepts such as Lean Manufacturing and Just In Time inventory systems were born.

TPS has several components, many of which are very subtle, but it boils down to a few basic concepts.

First, waste is bad. The elimination of waste, from supplies to time, is the foundation of TPS. Look, for example, at your students’ schedule. When the minutes are added up, students often spend more time passing from class to class than they spend in art class each week.

Second, question each part of the process. Does the daily battle over a student without a pencil distract and waste time or stress the importance of responsibility? That answer depends on the overall focus of that school.

Third, turn every employee into a quality control inspector. Change the word employee to student, parent, teacher and community member. The trick is to empower them, something too often given only lip service to. When all members are empowered, the loud complainers tend to get pushed aside by good, helpful ideas.

Most important, TPS stresses the long term outlook. What will students be learning in five, ten, fifteen years? Since students pass through a single district over thirteen years, this makes sense. Unfortunately, administrators, school boards and (in some schools) teachers do not seem to last that long. The constant assault of new, sexy teaching philosophies can make this element near impossible.

Liker and David Meier wrote a companion book The Toyota Way Fieldbook, designed to help people implement the philosophical concepts discussed in The Toyota Way. At its best, The Toyota Way confirms that the annoyances and weaknesses of your school is not a natural state, but systemic. That means it can be changed, which, in itself, is heartening to know.

The One Minute Manager by Kenneth H. Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

Having turned every student, parent and teacher into a quality control inspector, how does a manager get the hard work of student learning done?

In short, the one minute manager of the title sets clear, measurable and inspired goals.

He or she then, after some initial planning, makes it the responsibility of the person below them to accomplish the goal. As a mentoring teacher once told me when I was stressing about prepping for a project, make the student do the work. The “one minute” part refers to quick praising and reprimands to keep things on course.

Told as a parable, The One Minute Manager book can be read in a single sitting.

There is nothing radical here, save for the simple idea that education only works in the hands of the students. Active learning, as opposed to passive receiving, is not only effective for the students, but takes a lot of the burden off of over-extended teachers. For those who feel they spend more time writing comments on papers than the student did writing it, this book is a necessity.

Do not let the word “manager” distract you. This book is perfect for anyone from parents to administrators. Even students working in groups would benefit from a refocus of their role in the project’s learning goals.

This is not to be confused with The One Minute Teacher, also by Johnson. Johnson more recently had great success with his Who Moved My Cheese title and its spin-offs. There are dozens of “One Minute” offshoot books, including The One Minute Golfer, which dovetail off of the original’s basic premise. Copies of copies tend to be blurry; go to the original.

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

If you have not heard of this book, chances are you have heard of Wikipedia.

The basic concept is that collective knowledge is smarter than the all knowing individual.

How does it apply to education? How doe sit not!

A teacher stands at the board and lectures to a class of intelligent-yet-unappreciated students. Instead, use student knowledge and interest to guide the class. No longer just quality control inspectors, they are now solving the problems raised by the community.

Surowiecki focuses on four elements of the wise crowd: diversity of opinion, independence of members from one another, decentralization, and a good method for aggregating opinions. Each of these essentials becomes harder to come by in the classroom than the one before it, but with a little work students—too often overlooked as a resource—can be the engine for great classroom learning.

Or teachers! Schools spend millions to have these educational professionals in their employment, and thousands more to continue their education, only to lock them in an isolated classroom while the administration and school board hash out policy decisions. When systems are created that tap this knowledge base, schools win not only in the ideas generated, but the investment of its faculty.

Guerrilla Marking by Jay Conrad Levinson

Marketing and education seem not just incongruous, but distasteful together. The term brings the revulsion that the parent referring to themselves as customers did. But if education is as much about inspiration as knowledge—and most educational theories agree that it is—understanding authentic marketing may be the key to motivating organizations towards student learning.

More than any of the other business books mentioned, Levinson focuses on the nuts and bolts of business. This is not a theoretical tract, but a focused guide on getting your company product into the hands of customers via marketing. For this reasons alone Guerrilla Marketing makes this list.

Levinson focuses on small business and low budgets. Instead of money, an organization’s resources are time, energy and imagination. He writes that an acute focus on excellence, not diversified offerings, leads to success. Also, organizations should use a combination of methods for any campaign.

If you substitute a small school with a strapped budget, a pedagogy based in educational psychology, a resourceful community, high standards on the basics and differentiated learning Levinson could be speaking to educators. Unlike books about those topics, though, is his ability to shatter the box that holds traditional thinking. If anything, Guerrilla Marketing is so energetic that it forces you to defend everything you do. Unlike many books, he does not push a particular plan, but the ideas that any plan must have to succeed.

If you are open minded enough to use business books for an educational organization, Levinson will stimulate some important questions in how you proceed.

Schools as Models

Of course, there is no end of business titles that can be applies to learning. From Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point to Scott Adam’s Dilbert cartoons there is a business book to explain any phenomenon, or give advice for any situation.

What these four books have in common is that they expand the circle. Unlike schools, which can limp along, business must succeed or they die. It is why politicians and parents like to employ them as metaphors. If applied to schools, these books focus on educators being facilitators for learning. Students become active engines of learning, not products to be inventoried, while the community of parents, administrators, teachers and citizens serve as a collective resource guiding the outcome.

To be honest, for all of the bad publicity that schools receive there is a lot going well.

Now, if only businesses looked to its schools as a model we all might be buying American again.

A shorter piece on “Why Johnny Can’t Read” is posted elsewhere.  Throughout the Bush years I could only think about these books, and when I reread them I not only wondered if anyone in the administration had read them, but if any of the press or policy wonks had, either.  A day does not go by where I do not read some adviser or other put forth part of the puzzle that these three had pushed years before.  Bradbury is more of a prophecy than a road map, and so I end with it.

Everything Old is New Again

Three Books from the 1950s That Solve Our Nation’s Present Problems

If you browse the shelves of a sad used bookstore you will find all of the bestsellers from your parents bookshelves. Among the faded copies of The Thorn Birds and Kon-Tiki, long ago vetted from more upscale used bookstore shelves, will be political tracts, whose authors made the rounds of news programs and talk shows, and whose ideas were held up to the light—and then forgotten. You know their names, but probably have never read them: Why Johnny Can’t Read, The Ugly American, and Fahrenheit 451. Three books written in the 1950s demand at least a reread, and at best offer solutions to the three biggest issues facing America today: education, foreign policy, and control of our nation’s culture.

Why Johnny Can’t Recede

One measure of the impact of a cultural event or artifact is its catchphrase being perversely appropriated by any and all completely unrelated causes. From the suffix -gate to the got milk? campaign the sign of success in America is shameless exploitation. Unlike where’s the beef? the title of Rudolf Flesch’s classic Why Johnny Can’t Read is a chestnut that will not die. Still, while the phrase why Johnny can’t…. lives on fifty years after its publication, most educators are completely unfamiliar with the book.

Johnny promotes phonics. Actually, to say that Johnny promotes phonics is to say that Ahab did not like Moby Dick. It does not simply make a case for phonics, but lays down a persuasive argument that obliterates all but the strongest critics. It is a mind shattering read that will shake its reader’s belief about current reading strategies, or make them very, very angry.

It is shocking that those who push phonics have let Johnny gather dust. True, the research is now quite dated—it may not have been convincing at the time—but the force of the argument is crushing. Attempts to refer to it in modern texts miss the full impact of Flesch’s ardent, seething build. The Perennial paperback edition describes it as an “angry, practical book”; two words few people would ever put together. While its useful side consists of simple phonics exercises, it is the rage that sold the book.

Why revisit it? A fifty year old book whose persuasive argument is based on even older research, much of which he attacks, still resonates. Can it? It is the passion that demands the return.

Dear Mary

These two words begin the book. Flesch begins his tract with a letter to Johnny’s mother, who had hired him to teach her son. An emotional touch that allows him to introduce himself to the reader hat in hand (You know that I was born and raised in Austria, he writes on the second page—if she knows, why repeat it?), Flesch quickly abandons any pretense of it being an actual letter because Mary is us. By confiding in us as he would any sympathetic parent he now rallies against the other that is the educational establishment. And it works!

Quickly, Flesch lays out a wide reaching history of language that concludes that the faddish reading system of the fifties is like turning back the clock 3,000 years to the Age of Hammurabi, or learning Chinese—all argued in three pages.

It is on the fifth page that the passionate craze begins. Even as his frustration builds towards fury his punctuation remains a dull period. Wiley as a evangelical preacher, he baits his arguments with questions that he knows the answer to. Every paragraph starts to have a questioning sentence:

You don’t believe me?

You know what that means?

So what does he get instead?

Not until the fifth page, though, does Flesch really unleash the stylistic tricks. He uses his first exclamation point! His language up to this point assumed one, but he has craftily waited until now to use it. Every word in the language! is his indignant summation of the previous paragraph. The tone, already disdainful, turns to mocking. He uses contemptuous quotation marks, as in, used with the exactly “right” amount of repetition—you can practically see his fingers making the gesture as he speaks to the typewriter.

All the while he is weaving the text with learned historical references and titles of the classics. Finally, he unleashes his wrathful vocabulary in answer to the question of what Johnny gets as an alternative to Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott or Bulfinch.

So what does he get instead? He gets those series of horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers, the stuff and guff about Dick and Jane or Alice and Jerry visiting farms and having birthday parties and seeing animals in the zoo and going through dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-I.Q. children’s activities that offer opportunities for reading “Look, look” or “yes, yes” or “Come, come” or “See the funny, funny animal.”

He had us at Dear Mary, but this seals the deal. From there he takes punches at the usual targets of greedy publishing houses and ivory towered academics—sometimes at the same time. He writes to his rhetorical question, Who writes these books? The reply, Naturally, the stupendous and frighteningly idiotic work on concocting this stuff can only be done by tireless teamwork of many educational drudges. Who can argue that writing what he calls a “textbook” is not drudgery?

This kick in the teeth is why Johnny is still relevant to anyone who cares about how reading is taught. One problem is that we no longer believe that our public schools can do the job. Parents demanding change from the school board, the major thrust for change, are being replaced by parents demanding vouchers. As the repercussions of NCLB kick in, those parents who traditionally would have pounded their fists insisting on changes are now being bought off. It is not the best students who will be skimmed from the public schools, but the most active parents. The naysayers have no vision, but simply want to flee.

As Johnny ages past fifty it seems odd that no one has picked up Flesch’s torch—not of phonics, but of passionate belief in the power of education. Flesch believed in education. For all of his protest, bluster and rant Flesch supported public education. As an immigrant he knew that in a country founded on equality and opportunity our public school system has been the bedrock foundation for which these values have long rested. More important, Flesch laid out not only criticism of reading programs from his era, but also a solution. It was not only well thought out, but quite detailed. Indeed, the last sixty pages offer exercises for parents to supplement what Flesch felt should be taught in schools.

Why can’t all of the critical Johnnies do that today?

The Uglier American

First published in 1958, The Ugly American became a catchphrase that also took a life of its own. Like Johnny, the catchphrase came to mean something different than the original work, leaving everyone into thinking they had read the book, or got the gist of it, from the phrase itself.

They were wrong.

Co-written by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, the book is a collection of stories woven together around the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan. Each story offers a specific illustration of how people use their skills and resources for a positive change, or how self-centered, short sighted ignorance undermines native people’s natural goodwill for America. And while each story has a certain “duh” quality in the strategy’s obviousness, they are oddly inspirational in their subtle complexity. By the end of the book you want to slap every White House, DOD or state department talking head with a copy of it.

There are several minor stories, ranging from adventure seeking secretaries to wise-but-overruled military men, but the tale of Homer Atkins, the “ugly American” himself, is typical. Described as “ugly” because his nails are dirty from working with his hands, those same hands have built him a multi-million dollar business back in Philadelphia. In Vietnam as a consultant to large engineering projects, he disappoints handsome-but-incompetent government officials by suggesting decidedly low tech ones instead. Asked by the progressive ambassador to Sarkahan, Gilbert MacWhite, the one thread holding the book together, Atkins solves a water transportation problem using local resources.

But it is his method that piques our interest.

Atkins wants to turn a profit. Kind hearted by no Peace Corp volunteer, Atkins wants to help the locals but also recognizes that only a profit motive will sustain any permanent change. His native protégé, Jeepo (a.k.a. the “Ugly Sarkhanese), says, “…on the ones (pumps) we make, we deserve the profit. That is the way of working men.” Later, Jeepo, quotes Atkins to his sales force saying, “one of the best things that can happen to engineers like yourself is to be allowed to sell what they make.” And he is not an isolated case. The book starts with the story of John Colvin, a Wisconsin OSS operative-cum diary farmer who introduces dried milk as a profitable protein source. By the end of the book both are prospering, as is Sarkhan. In the end, it is a bootstrap Republican aid package.

It all sounds like the stories of microloans told during the lead-up to Mohammad Yumas and the Grameen Bank being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year. These loans have gone mostly to women, and the life-changing capability of funding bamboo furniture production or a cell phone to link a rural village to the world for a profit has been well documented. If it works in Bangledesh and countries without our help, why can it not work in nations we really, really want to pacify?

Unlike Why Johnny Can’t Read, where practice and success of reading strategies is still being debated, the lessons from The Ugly American have played out again and again, most notably in our failures in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And while cultural empathy and understanding are liberal boilerplates, Lederer and Burdick have made a sound case for those traits that make the world look to America despite our hapless blunders.

The Book About Burning Books

Out of these three, Fahrenheit 451 is probably the one book you have read, albeit in junior high school. When you read it, you focused on the irony of firemen burning things, mostly books, and the theme that great ideas are dangerous to social order. This is what you wrote a paper on, at least, or wrote on the quiz.

And that is all you can remember.

Now that books seem quaint, and buying them is more of a activity surrounding gift giving than actual cultural relevance, “Fahrenheit 451″ is a phrase used to impose images of fascism. Orwell corners the general market on references of totalitarian rule, with 1984 offering phases like “big brother” and “newspeak”, and having child story suggesting Animal Farm lend quotes to drop like, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Yet Fahrenheit 451 and author Ray Bradbury is evoked when the arts are involved. The first line, “It ws a pleasure to burn” sums up the desire of those in power to destroy the word of truth.

And if that is all you can remember, all the more the pity.

Bradbury might have seen books as a physical savior of society, but his portrait of television, violence and youth was fifty years ahead of its time. These ideas are the ones that are forgotten, even by those who read the book.

The radical of the book is a teen age girl Clarisse McClellan. Barely a character, she is a foil for everyone else. While everyone is focused on things, she is enlivened by nature. Her family does not own a television, while the protagonist, a fireman named Guy Montag, is married to Mildred, a woman who feels deprived because her television does not have a fourth wall. While Clarisse talks of ideas, Montag’s wife cannot remember the plots of her shows and is incapable of having a conversation. We are introduced to Mildred after she has overdosed on pills, which too handymen with a machine clean her out of for fifty bucks, while Clarisse is killed by a car (although a definitive end is never said).

And that car.

Society breaking into a bored violence is the point that many people miss when reading Bradbury. It seems that, without arts and literature and only the drivel of television, life becomes cheap. Teens amuse themselves when they go to the Fun Park to, “bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with a big steel ball. Or go out in the cars and race on the streets, trying to see how close you can get to lampposts, playing ‘chicken’ and ‘knock hubcaps’. She says, “I’m afraid of child my own age. They kill each other… Six friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of the died in wrecks.” And then she disappears, but not before acting as a wake up call to Guy Montag.

There is an overriding boredom in Bradbury’s world.

While dystopian overabundant societies are many in movies and literature, Bradbury’s conceits are simple acts of blandness. There is no running man as a modern bread and circus, designed to distract the population from the state. Mildred is excited because she has been chosen to perform in one of the teleplays. The script has been sent to her, and the characters speak their lines and pause for hers. But, unlike Winston Smith’s television in 1984, they cannot see her and the tape is unaware when she fumbles her lines and the play moves on without her. Still, to Mildred, it is the one moment she feels alive; that she belongs.

If everything sounds, well, done before it is Bradbury’s understated presentation of the world that makes this dystopian novel more current than Orwell and Aldous Huxley’s hedonistic Brave New World. It is not about what can happen, but the now. This is why we think of Fahrenheit 451 as being about burning books; our voting for America’s next singing idol or survivor distracts us from seeing more.

Two of the titles—Why Johnny Can’t Read and The Ugly American—have gone in and out of print, while Fahrenheit 451 continues to be a middle and high school staple. The subject you want to be upset most about is the way to chose which book to start with, but be ready to push the discussion beyond catchphrase at your next social gathering.

This is the original article on education and its use of acronyms, pseudonyms and how they create a divide between schools, parents and the community. If anything, it demonstrates my ability to go onto tangents, as demonstrated by the footnotes. With a lot of editing for length and brevity, it was published in “Edutopia”; that version is also a post on this site.

QT on the AAP
(Or, “Quiet on the Acronyms and Pseudonyms”)

INTRODUCTION

An exasperated parent, twenty minutes into a meeting concerning her failing son, cried, “Why doesn’t he have any study halls?” For a year-and-a-half she had looked at her son’s schedule and wondered why he had no time in-school to work and ask his teachers questions about his assignments. In fact he had four study halls each week, but they were called QUIPS.

QUIPS stands for Quiet Uninterrupted Independent Productive Study.1   This true form is a mouthful. While breaking it down into its components and examining each provides a depth of pedagogical reasoning, none of that subtext was transferred to the parent. In this case the parent had assumed that QUIPS was a subject that had been added since she had been a student. It did not help that the boy’s schedule, as written, also included L.A., P.E., Soc Stud, CMP, and another LA.2

In his appendix to 1984 George Orwell explains the purpose of the language, newspeak, used in the story by the party Ingsoc. Meant as a dark critique of government’s love of creating new words, Orwell writes, “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” (246) Schools and teachers that wish to create new paradigms often create an education version of newspeak. All do so in good faith, but the purpose is the same: new words for new ideas as we shed the methodology and pedagogy of the past.

Unfortunately acronyms, abbreviations, pseudonyms, and clever names too often keep parents in the dark and give schools a reputation for gimmicks over quality education. Words have meaning. To call something what it is can be an important tool in setting a tone and directing students towards the true desired outcome. Yet, even if there is a parent outreach, and we spend quality time explaining the truth behind our acronyms so that parents and students “get” it, is it worth the battle?

This obfuscication occurs in two main ways: acronyms and pseudonyms.

ACRONYMS3

Acronyms are a huge obstacle to direct communication.4  Many students would be hard-pressed to truly understand the profundity of QUIPS as an acronym. Only a few curious souls ask, and many more like to mock the silent part when a peer is too noisy. Jason, the Q is for quiet! Because it is a mouthful most mechanically call it QUIPS. A few even call it “study hall”, even though our school does not use the term.

The evolution of the term study hall and the tenacity with which it sticks is an interesting case study. A study hall is rarely held in a hall, and most often there is too little studying. Few public schools even have “halls”, other than a hallway. Indeed, few students could even define what a hall is in this context5 (and, again, too often they have trouble defining what studying is).6  In the name of accuracy, then, it is not unfair to quibble with the second half the term. Yet, the term remains from its private school origins because it stresses study and symbolizes the academic excellence that those schools are perceived to represent.

Study time, period, or room might be more accurate while still providing clear communication to parents. It is not endowed with the directives present in a Quiet Uninterrupted Independent Productive Study, but it beats DYMH (Do Your Math Homework). Yet, the symbolic nature of words should not be dismissed even as individual terms may be misleading. Study hall is a very loaded term, but in favor of the traditional good old fashion work load that stands mythically in our parents’ minds. They respect the image of noses to the grindstone over the unknown that is modern education. In our attempt to reconnect with parents we have readopted the term.

Acronyms not only fail to communicate well, but they are distractions. Class stops whenever I use what I think is a common acronym, as someone asks what FYI means and three students proudly announce “For Your Information.” While many students ignore comments on rough drafts, calls for rewrites ASAP yield a host of odd, misunderstood results. Students are, in fact, much better at deriving meaning from acronyms and abbreviations than adults. They even invent their own. Every student who hears Sustained Silent Reading’s SSR reworded as “Sit down, Shut-up and Read” acts as if they were the first to share such a thing.

In one case, Special Education (SpEd), the acronym became an insult. Calling peers “sped” was the modern form of “retard.” Things finally came to a head when a student wrote “SPED” in two-inch high letters on his forehead in indelible marker. After that it returned to Special Ed. in both speech and written communication. It took years to stamp out any use of the term, by both students and teachers.

For a taste of how annoying they are for parents, ask your students to write using IM7 lingo. Using a mish-mash of acronyms, numbers, symbols, and abbreviations the conversations, to the untrained, are like decoding a string of license plates. As it is ever-changing I suggest you speak to your students for a demo. After a time of head scratching you will be glad when they g2g (got to go).

Over time acronyms and short forms can lose their meaning. The Scholastic Aptitude Test long ago had its legal name changed to the SAT. Indeed, my seventh graders used to take an exam called the SAT 9, now in full acronym pronunciation “sat-nine”. What happened to the scholastic, much less the aptitude? Only the test remains.

PSYODEONYMS

While acronyms are one of the more common forms of miscommunication, clever pseudonyms are another.8

For example, a local school has “guided studies” instead of a study hall. The theory behind the name is that students are placed with someone from the department that they needed the most help in. So, a student with weak math skills would have a guided study run by a math teacher. In theory, that teacher would be actively helping students with math homework.

Instead, teachers at the school correct papers or read the newspaper. When asked students have no idea why it is called a guided study, and seem surprised when explained the rationale. Students seem to end up in guided studies that fit into their schedule, not scheduled into ones that compliment their needs. Unlike QUIPS, the word “study” at least remains.

Pseudonyms abound in education. Unlike acronyms, which create misunderstandings from an outsider being unable to decode its elongated form, pseudonyms misdirect through misuse. Too often new terms are created by educators to distinguish the new, subtle change from the familiar and worn. At some point someone thought the original machination behind the guided study deserved a new name, but the origins have been betrayed as the class returned to the traditional study hall. So now the name, itself a relic, unintentionally lies.

Examples abound, but perhaps the greatest is that of the middle school. In the 1950s middle schools were created as unique entities separate from the junior high. Middle school teachers, administrators, and academics have spent decades studying, developing and promoting a unique middle school philosophy that specifically addressed the academic needs of adolescents. Yet, if you go to most middle schools you will enter the traditional junior high, the complete antithesis of the middle school model.

Teacher Advisory is a dual misdirection—both an acronym and a pseudonym. Most teachers and students call it TA, and many do not know what the abbreviation means. While some schools do an excellent job promoting the idea of the teacher advisory, many are an old fashion homeroom complete with the teacher’s coffee being interrupted by roll call and the Pledge of Allegiance. Ironically, the term homeroom would, at least, promote the idea of it being a home, of sorts, where students could ground themselves before hitting their classes, as is there is little active advising going on.

Physical Education is stuck in abbreviated and pseudonym hell. While everyone knows what Phys. Ed. or P.E. means, people cannot stop calling it “gym.” As our P.E. instructor said, a gym is a place where Phys. Ed. is often taught. Even though the gymnasium has a glorious word origin reaching back to the hallmarks of intellectual inquiry it is still a place.9  To give this discipline its academic due only Physical Education passes the muster.

THE TOLL IT TAKES

Most parents can be divided into two groups: uninvolved and involved. For someone uninvolved and whose only contact is a quarterly report card Language Arts is a head-scratcher and SAFE-T is a mystery. Sure, their child might have gotten an A in the class, but what is it? Asking the child too often brings shrugs, or misinformation because they do not have the background to simply say “Oh, it’s what you called English.” Typically these are the parents who were unsuccessful themselves, and such clever terminology only serves to distance them further from the school. These parents know English, but they will never ask a teacher or administrator why it is absent from their child’s schedule. Many are critical of the “new” ways of teaching, and such monikers to traditional fare only fuels their suspicions that the three Rs are being subverted in some way.

Involved parents just laugh. A few who like to be a force for change embrace the terms as an improvement over their own, perfectly acceptable education, but most laugh. They see the subtleties introduced in changing English to Language Arts, but they also know that adding a unit on media studies and another on public speaking does not change much. Grammar is grammar. With a polite smile they correct themselves when “English” mistakenly comes out of their mouth.

Worse, many teachers, programs and schools change their terminology on a regular basis. After a long process involving teachers, parents, citizens and local businesses a local district crafted something they called “Performance Targets. In short, they were a short list of ten goals the district had that matched the state standards. An entire program was put into place that made students in the high school demonstrate their having met the targets in addition to collecting credits. It was a program that was eased in over a many year period, and thousands of hours were spent on developing and implementing it. Just as the first class of students was approaching graduation the district scrapped it. Now they have “Power Standards.” What are they? In short, they are short list of eight goals the district had that matched the state standards

This new initiative has negated the work of all of the people who spent time creating the original Performance Targets. Having invested so much time and effort in the original Performance Targets, why would the community allow itself to reinvest in Power Standards? While their may be subtle pedagogical reasons behind the new name and reworking of language, it is doubtful that the trust lost and effort needed to retool will make up the difference.

There are plenty of reasons to create acronyms and pseudonyms. It is the bread and butter that Special Education marches to, and they could not survive the sheer volume of terminology was it not for acronyms. There are, in fact, several states with websites dedicated to Special Ed. acronyms. In their case acronyms actually make the mouthful of information understandable and usable to parents.

Teachers and schools have the high road, as they have been successfully plying their trade for centuries and hold a unique spot in our societies psyche. Why, then, do we insist on repackaging programs that retain their core essence? Language Arts has changed in many ways, but at its core students are still reading and writing. Acronyms and pseudonyms are not madness, but teachers and administrators need to be aware of their detrimental effects and natural abuse before they start the renaming process. Let our parents have their study halls even if the definition is a bit off.

FOOTNOTES

1. I was taught that all abbreviations use periods (i.e., U.S.A.), but the bible of current grammar practices (i.e. The Chicago Manual of Style) deem them unnecessary.

2. Living Arts (formerly Home Ec., or Home Economics); Physical Education (formerly Phys. Ed., or “gym”); Social Studies (formerly History); Connected Math Program 3 (formerly 8th grade Math), and Language Arts (formerly English).

3. From the Greek: acro (head) and nym (word), according to The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD).

4. An acronym is a term that can be pronounced in its short form. For example, SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) is an acronym. USA (United States of America) is simply an abbreviation. Oddly, the website Acronym Server Simplified states that this differentiation is “a curious myth perpetuated by American dictionaries.”

5. a. a building belonging to a school, college, or university that provides classroom, dormitory, or dining facilities. b. A large room in such a building. c. The group of students occupying such a building.”

6. The AHD defines studying as, “to apply understanding of (a subject)… to inquire into; investigate… to examine closely; scrutinize… to give careful thought to; contemplate… to apply oneself to learning… to ponder; reflect.” It also includes, “to memorize.”

7. Instant Messaging: a popular form of communication between teens on computers that relies on abbreviations so that typed conversations move at a rapid, stream-of-consciousness speed.

8. From the Greek: pseudes (false) and onoma (name). A pseudonym is defined as “a fictitious name assumed by an author; a pen name” by the AHD. While my use of the word is incorrect, I am aiming at misnomers that rename ideas with the intention of breathing new life and paradigms into them, yet ultimately do not represent those ideas.

9. It is defined by the AHD as “an academic high school in various European countries, esp. Germany, that prepares students for studies at a university.” That is quite a pedigree compared to the view that P.E. is more about dodgeball. In Latin it means school, although in Greek gumnasion is “to exercise naked.”

This is my article as printed in “Edutopia”, a great education magazine put out by the visionary George Lucas and his education foundation.  Another, longer, original version is also on this site.  I like this version’s brevity, but the other seems to delve a bit deeper into the subject.  At this point it is hard, as the writer, to tell which is superior.  Each serves its own purpose, I suppose.

QT on the AAP (Or, “Quiet on the Acronyms and Pseudonyms”)

An exasperated parent, twenty minutes into a meeting about her failing son, cried, “Why doesn’t he have any study halls?” For a year-and-a-half she had looked at her son’s schedule and wondered why he had no time in school to work on and ask his teachers questions about his assignments. In fact, he had four study halls each week, but they were called QUIPS. QUIPS is an acronym for Quiet Uninterrupted Independent Productive Study. This true form is a mouthful, and will not fit on the schedule, so the acronym is used. While breaking it down into its components and examining each provides a depth of pedagogical reasoning, none of that subtext was transferred to the parent. In this case the parent had assumed that QUIPS was a subject that had been added since she had been a student. It did not help that the boy’s schedule, as written, also included L.A., P.E., Fr., S.S., Sc, CMP, and another LA.

In 1984 George Orwell introduced the fictional language Newspeak, which was “to make all other modes of thought impossible.” Schools and teachers that wish to create new paradigms often create an education version of Newspeak. All do so in good faith and in good cause, but the purpose is the same: new words for new ideas as we shed the methodology and pedagogy of the past.

Unfortunately education’s acronyms, pseudonyms, and clever names too often keep parents in the dark and give schools a reputation for gimmicks over quality education. Words have meaning. To call something what it is can be an important tool in setting a tone and directing students towards the true desired outcome. Yet, even if there is a parent outreach, and we spend quality time explaining the truth behind our acronyms so that parents and students “get” it, is it worth the battle?

This obfuscication occurs in two main ways: acronyms and pseudonyms.

Acronyms are a huge obstacle to direct communication. Many students would be hard-pressed to truly understand the profundity of QUIPS as an acronym. Only a few curious souls ask, and many more like to mock the silent part when a peer is too noisy. Jason, the Q is for quiet!

The evolution of the term study hall and the tenacity with which it sticks is an interesting case study. A study hall is rarely held in a hall, and most often there is too little studying. Few public schools even have “halls”, other than a hallway. Yet, the term remains from its private school origins because it stresses study and symbolizes the academic excellence that those schools are perceived to represent.

Study time, period, or room might be more accurate while still providing clear communication to parents. It is not endowed with the directives present in a Quiet Uninterrupted Independent Productive Study, but it beats DYMH (Do Your Math Homework). Yet, the symbolic nature of words should not be dismissed even as individual terms may be misleading. Study hall is a very loaded term, but in favor of the traditional good old fashion workload that stands mythically in parents’ minds. It respects the image of noses to the grindstone, and reconnects with parents.

For a taste of how annoying they are for parents, ask your students to write using IM lingo. Using a mish-mash of acronyms, numbers, symbols, and abbreviations the conversations, to the untrained, are like decoding a string of license plates. As it is ever-changing I suggest you speak to your students for a demo. After a time of head scratching you will be glad when they g2g (got to go).

While acronyms are one of the more common forms of miscommunication, clever pseudonyms are another.

For example, a local school has “guided studies” instead of a study hall. The theory behind the name is that students are placed with someone from the department that they needed the most help in. So, a student with weak math skills would have a guided study run by a math teacher. In theory, that teacher would be actively helping students with math homework. If it happened it would be an important distinction.

Instead, teachers correct papers or read the newspaper. When asked students have no idea why it is called a guided study, and seem surprised when explained the rationale. Students end up in guided studies that fit into their schedule, not scheduled into ones that compliment their needs. Unlike QUIPS, the word “study” at least remains.

Pseudonyms abound in education. Unlike acronyms, which create misunderstandings from an outsider being unable to decode its elongated form, pseudonyms misdirect through misuse. Too often new terms are created by educators to distinguish the new, subtle change from the familiar and worn. At some point someone thought the original machination behind the guided study deserved a new name, but the origins have been betrayed as the class returned to the traditional study hall. So now the name, itself a relic, unintentionally lies.

This misuse of the language hurts the parent-school connection, one of the most important tools in helping students. Most parents can be divided into two groups: uninvolved and involved. For someone uninvolved and whose only contact is a quarterly report card Language Arts is a head-scratcher and Living Arts is a mystery. Sure, their child might have gotten an A in the class, but what is it? Asking the child too often brings shrugs, or misinformation because they do not have the background to simply say “Oh, it’s what you called English.” Typically these are the parents who were unsuccessful themselves, and such clever terminology only serves to distance them further from the school. These parents will never ask why English is absent from their child’s schedule. Many are critical of the “new” ways of teaching, and such monikers to traditional fare only fuels their suspicions that the three Rs are being subverted in some way.

Involved parents just laugh. A few who like to be a force for change embrace the terms as an improvement over their own education, but most laugh. They see the subtleties introduced in changing English to Language Arts, but they also know that adding a unit on media studies and another on public speaking might not warrant the new name. Grammar is grammar. With a polite smile they correct themselves when “English” mistakenly comes out of their mouth.

Teachers and schools have the high road, as they have been successfully plying their trade for centuries and hold a unique spot in our societies psyche. Why, then, do we insist on repackaging programs that retain their core essence? Language Arts has changed in many ways, but at its core students are still reading and writing. Acronyms and pseudonyms are not madness, but teachers and administrators need to be aware of their detrimental effects and natural abuse before they start the renaming process. Let our parents have their study halls even if the definition is a bit off.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | February 28, 2009

A Sports Movie That Will Have You Singing

Since I wrote this years ago I have used “Lagaan” repeatedly in my social science class during our India unit. For my students, I edit it down to two-and-a-half hours. After some rudimentary lessons on cricket rules, they sit enraptured by the movie and stand up an cheer at the end. Not a single person believes it will be watchable, much less great, but each is won over. Yes, every still shot looks cheesy-the movie IS cheesy–but it conforms to every sports cliche and delivers like no other.

A Sports Movie That Will Have You Singing

A rag-tag bunch of ballplayers with everything at stake band together and beat the bad guys and the odds. The Longest Yard? Major League 2? The Fish That Saved Pittsburg? No, it’s Lagaan, a nominee for the 2002 Academy Awards. There are several reasons that you have not heard of it, but the major ones stand out. In short, its:

  • 4 hours long
  • In Hindu, mostly (with English subtitles)
  • About cricket
  • Has musical numbers

Yes, musical numbers. That is not to mention it’s a late 19th century period piece set in India (thus everyone speaks Hindu) and the Oscar nomination was best foreign film (it did not win). The plot is about an impoverished village accepting a challenge to play British soldiers at a game of cricket. If the villagers win, they’ll avoid taxation for three years; if they lose, they’ll pay three times their usual steep tax. Lagaan means “land tax.”

Why is it so great? Although the first two hours combine musical numbers, romance, stock characters, and the stock training sequence raised to the next level (where the village rejects learn the game, including an untouchable!), sticking with it builds a bond with the viewer. As Capt. Russell, the arrogant commander, Paul Blackthorne is the embodiment of British imperialism. Indian heartthrob, Aamir Khan, the leader of the local “team” is the ideal hero, who molds a crazy mystic, crippled untouchable, and an unlikely assemblage into a believable and formidable team. By the match, you want blood.

It is the second two hours, all cricket, that equal any sports movie. It is all tension. We follow both sides over three days as they battle down to the last ball, and the match winds down with more twists and turns than a googly. Unlike American sports movies that string out a series of games over the season, this is a single cricket match played over three days. The mix of tragedy and triumph, backed by an amazing Indian drum soundtrack, make it difficult to sit. And this tension is sustained for over two hours!

I have never seen a cricket match, but the movie makes it easy to follow. Always surprised by the amount of personal story in favorites like Hoosiers, Chariots of Fire, and The Natural I was forgiving. With the DVD you can easily skip around in the first two hours, if you must, but do not miss a minute of the match itself. If someone has been pushing you to rent a foreign film, and you think you have the stamina, rent Lagaan. You will find yourself being the object of disbelief as you push it on others.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 3, 2009

The Missing Box: Why I Started a Used Bookstore

Possession is about loss. That book becomes that lost book. As I left New York City and the world of publishing for an unknown future I lost a single box of books while moving. I could have lost Maugham, but was lucky in that it was in another of the seventeen boxes that moved with me that last day in May. Still, I lost an unknown quantity of other copies with real connections.

Out of college, working at the Triangle Bookshop in Ithaca, New York, I was taught how to properly pack a box of books by an exacting and tedious warehouse manager. Selling primarily textbooks and stationary supplies, we spent the months leading up to each semester receiving and unpacking books, and the months after the semester began packing up the unsold copies and shipping them back to their publishers. I have broken down boxes for storage and recycling, and taped them back together so that they survive tumultuous shipping back to their home. We surrounded ourselves with pallets of boxes waiting to be returned. Over the two years I worked for Triangle I had packed tens of thousands of titles, and loaded scores of UPS, RPS, Yellow and other miscellaneous trucks with boxes of books. I am a veteran of the box cutter, tape gun, pricing gun, and the special scraping spatula and gum cleaning goop used to take the prices off and clean up the books for return. It is a Sisyphus-like task that exemplifies the cliché practice makes purpose.

There is a right way to pack a box of books. An average cardboard box can hold between twenty hardcover books and sixty mass-market paperback books. In a well-packed box, the hardcover books are stacked flat, alternating the direction that the spine lays so that the pile crushes evenly when on the bottom of an entire pallet of books. Otherwise, the spines grind against each other until the cases are broken. Thus, the hardcover edition of Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance lays flat on top of a hardcover copy of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The edge of the cover connected to the spine of one lays atop the edge over the endpapers of the other. Hardcovers are prevented from shifting within the box, and cushioned from outside dings in transit, by misused mass-market paperbacks of Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro and a tattered copy of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. On top, a scrap piece of cardboard is put to protect them all from the receiver’s box cutter. Properly packed, they are safe so long as the box arrives at its destination. On average, the loss of such a box creates forty unanswered questions.

Somewhere between my 12th Street hovel in New York City and my parent’s garage a box of books disappeared. In late May, leaving the city and my first venture into publishing, I had packed a rental Ford Probe with all of my belongings. Those seventeen boxes would go from my old New York apartment, directly to the car, to my summer-sublet apartment, from the apartment to my new used and beaten Toyota Tercel wagon in August, and into the attic of my parent’s garage for storage. At no time did I open these boxes, or notice any missing. They simply moved from point A to point B and ended up at point C. Yet, somewhere that box disappeared.

My wife is driven mad, as I have attributed nearly every absent book I have thought of since to that missing box. I walk around our house sure that there is a specific title, only to come up empty handed.

“I know I have a copy of The Iceman Cometh,” I would say, trying to dissuade her from buying a new copy.
“We don’t have it,” came her reply, needing it for her graduate class.

It must be in that box, I think. Then I wonder what else must be in there.

There is no manifest. To list those missing books is guesswork. For the year after the move I am able to picture myself packing the boxes in New York City, remembering which books went into what box. Looking back, my sanity would have been dulled had I written these remembrances down. One book missing confirmed another’s loss. At one point I was mentally able to reconstruct the manifest. Not now.

Obviously, a box had been misplaced. Now, years later, the list has grown beyond the original, conceivable box. I can trace them all back to the move—I remember their being in New York City, but not after—yet it is impossible for all of those books to have been abducted by the same accidental misplacement. That original box is the one I wish I could find—to reconstruct the original loss.

My copy of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, one bought on the street from a dumpster-diving homeless man, and had warmed the toilet tank in my tiny New York City water closet for over a year, was in that box. It had been the same paperback edition as the one I had read in ninth grade, with a lonesome man looking reflectively at the ground in the foreground and a tree in the background. Reading Knowles again, slowly, over six months while I sat in a water closet in my tumbledown studio, I was able to appreciate it in a way impossible when, at age fourteen, a chapter was due each night. Now, that book was gone, lost to the box. That lost box.

Those seventeen boxes of books, moved to Ithaca and then to my parent’s garage in Massachusetts, all had a single tie. They were all that copy. Each had a history. Where did my original Rinehart edition of Steppenwolf wind up, the one plucked from the Clark University Bookstore bargain bin while visiting a college girlfriend? Herman Hesse fired up my imagination when I still believed that I would gladly adapt to any part of the world. Since then I have bought four other editions, including the same Rinehart edition, but it is not the same. In whose hands did my class copy of Three by Eugene O’Neil, the one from graduate school, find itself? That copy. One day I hope to know.

What is my secret desire? It is the box. The missing box created an insatiable desire to refill it. I could not tell you today what books were in it, although I know in my heart that there were a lot; perhaps thousands! Today I find myself looking at the shelves of a few friends who had us over for brunch. I am glancing over books donated to the local library book sale. Had I written down the titles, would my quest be as simple as ordering them again? My wife used to write her name in every book, although I am not one to do that. Just as I like the idea of reading about World War I more than actually doing it, my possession of books is not exact in its true manifestation. I have not looked for The Complete Lyrics of Lou Reed. It is unlikely that any copy I find will be that copy. Still, I look on shelves and in boxes and at the bottom shelves of sale tables because if I recover just one of those books then I can recapture the immediacy of the memories that it represents.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 2, 2009

How Bookstores Decline: Even a Megastore Loses Its Luster

Physical layout of a used bookstore is largely determined by necessity. Steep stairs, narrow aisles, dark corners, too high shelving units, mismatched materials, old carpets, metal displays, damp floors, cold drafts, crammed sections, low ceilings, back alleys, broken ceramic tiles, musty smell, and the occasional bit of natural light. There is no blueprint for a used bookstore. They can be found in strip malls, tenements, street corners, carts, remodeled used car dealerships, trailers, barns, alleys, pedestrian shopping streets, malls, basements, and converted brick, farm, or ranch houses. The enjoyment of used bookstores comes from the creative inevitability of having to use the space given them.

Each founder brings a lot of baggage to the store. Supermarket meat deep freezers used as bargain bins, unattached toilets as seating, and some of the most creative shelving units imaginable. And some uncreative, like random stacks littered about the place, as, often, reading a newly received book is more important than getting the rest of the books off the floor.

When I lived in New York, there was a storefront hovel on East 4th Street, off the Bowery, that was a cross between a bookstore and a dumpster. No more than seventy-five square feet, the books were stored in layers. Along the walls, you could see that there were shelves, but long since books had been stacked in front of them. And then stacks in front of them. And then stacks in front of them. The stacks then grew, until they reached near the top of the shelves. The ceiling was less than seven feet high, and it took two steps down from the sidewalk to get in. Cut through the room was a small, narrow aisle that was no wider than two feet. It lead to a back room, where it was obvious the owner lived; a flimsy sheet separating the two areas. There was no name for this business. Never did I see this store open during the day, but only at night; late at night, when we were leaving the bar on the corner and heading home.

I am unable to pass by such a store without looking in to see what design they have used, and taking mental notes for my own creation. On West 4th Street, two people made the space crowded, and the insensible owner hovered the entire time. It was difficult to browse, as other perusers, leaving shows and bars, would see the light and be drawn in by the covers of the books that lay on top of the stacks. In the thin aisle would be a dance of sorts, until someone would be frustrated enough at the lack of privacy to leave. For all of its flaws, it drew me in because of the mystery of what lay beneath the stacks and stacks of bland stock. The original nature of the independent bookstore is unique because each founder is unique, something that will not die regardless of the megastore infiltration.

In her introduction to Antiquarian Bookselling in the United States: A History from the Origins to the 1940s, Madeleine B. Stern writes of the bookstores themselves, “Their place of business might be a dark and tiny hole in the wall, or it might be an elegant literary emporium with frescoed ceilings and multiple floors.” I have admired both. The former is good for the hunt, while the latter is much more calming.

Bookstores are created in one of two ways: either built-to-suit or a bastardized improvisation of what is available. Larger chain megastores are designed for maximum efficiency, with thousands of decisions made for every hypothetical contingency before the plans ever leave the drafting table. The cafes are often exposed to natural light to create an inexpensive ambiance. A simple visit to the bathroom requires a visit to at least three sections of product between the front door and stall. Clocks are forbidden so patrons will be get lost in the atmosphere and lulled into spending precious shopping time browsing books instead of at the hardware store, toy store, or other errand destination (much the same as at a casino). Flow is a major consideration. Focus groups and architectural psychologists have created the ideal Skinner Box. Senses of awe, and a warm familiarity, are as important as easy accessibility and stocking. On paper and in practice, they are temples designed to separate book lovers from their money while minimizing buyer’s remorsebrowse the new Walking magazine, buy the new Jan Karon novel, sit down and drink your latte.

There are many opinions about what makes a great bookstore, but when you really listen to people closely about what makes a worthy space they are talking about the books they found there. When you take away the exposed brick, narrow corners, dark woods, dangerous stairs, and aromatic smell of coffee what is left is the find. That book. It always comes down to the book. A great bookstore is defined by the book found there.

When the two-story Barnes & Noble megastore opened in South Burlington, it was only the third set of escalators in the entire state of Vermont. The first set of escalators was at the Burlington Square Mall in the city’s downtown. The second were at the airport. There had been a third in a department store on the corner of Church and Pearl Streets, but that was before my time. Since then a few escalators have popped up, most noticeable being the new Sears at the University Mall.

Until Barnes & Noble dropped from the sky, though, a big store could still all fit on one floor. It was not that it had sufficient square footage to require two floors, but that the philosophy of retail had started to take on levels. Four months after buying A Separate Peace, my moving to Vermont with my then-girlfriend Cathy coincided with the opening of this new Barnes & Noble megastore. It was the perfect job for me, one who is anxious about filling small talk with strangers, as it surrounded me a hundred other bibliophiles in a town where I knew no one. Our day was filled with the work of unloading trucks filled with books and setting up a brand new store, while our initiating small talk was about books, unloading trucks, and the brand new store. Burlington was also one of the sites experimenting with used books, and I was able to get the job managing the department. I worked there for over a year, cutting my teeth in their used book department before opening my own store.

These escalators represented the direction of economic change coming. This was not just a chain store, as Vermont was finding itself with plenty of those after losing its long war against Wal-Mart, but a colossal monument towards the brave new economy. While the expansive entryway and the huge amounts of stock were impressive, these foreign escalators signified the degree in which the retail environment had just leapt in the state. This store was big and comfortable. The escalators fascinated everyone who came to the new store.

Provincial Vermonters were unaccustomed to the device, but they faced another construct that caused quite a bit of mental discord: Freedom of choice. It is wonderful in theory, but a frightening concept when staring it in the face. For most, books were taken out of libraries, recommended by friends, culled from the limited selection of the local bookstore, or given at Christmas. Books are read one at a time. They are linked to community. Walking in the front door to Barnes & Noble, the entire two floors of books are exposed. Bookshelves fan out into one’s peripheral vision, framed perfectly by the escalators. Now every section had its own bestseller list. More covers were displayed than other bookstores had titles. By each door were green plastic baskets that supermarkets have. After two hours, the basket full, it became difficult to put down one without putting them all away. There were too many books. Customers often left the store exhausted. During those first few months some people just turned around at the door, having seen the sheer size and selection, and left.

Both the unfamiliarity with escalators and the staggering size of the new store combined for a unique problem in customer flow. Stunned by the selection, customers would ride to the top of the escalator while spellbound by the sheer volume of volumes. The natural reaction is to stop and take it all in. This they did as they ascended. Unaccustomed to the procedures and necessities of escalator travel, though, they would continue to not move at the exact spot the escalator dropped them off. The patrons behind them, also mesmerized by the stock and oblivious to the impediment of the stopped person suddenly at their nose, would suddenly be deposited into the back of the person stopped in front of them. In the jarred awakening of finding themselves rudely slamming into a stranger, both customers would freeze. Of course, as two people now stood at the top of the up escalator and both were frozen into inaction, the line of other customers continued steadily up. The next customer, too, would be both unaware of the problem and unable to stop progressing forward had they known. For the first few months parents were constantly falling over their children, teenagers over the elderly people clinging white-knuckled to the arm rail—which, to their despair, moved at a slightly different rate of speed—and strangers fell over strangers. One second a person would spy the awe inspiring cooking section, which sat at the top of the escalator, and the next they would find themselves on top of the previous rider who was suddenly sprawled out on the floor.

Because the escalators were narrow, inexperienced escalator riding parents could not ride next to their even more inexperienced children. Instead, these parents stood behind their child. This moment, where the child will stand watching the steps come out of the floor, attempting to time their feet to these moving stairs, is cute when business is slow, but tense during the rush of Saturday morning. The children would finally make the leap, not holding onto the moving arm rail, and fall back into the parent. Multi-children families were a greater problem. Parents with more than one child watched the first make it to the top alone while the hesitant other one stood at the bottom, unwilling to make the crucial leap. This would result in panic on the part of the parent, as their one toddler ran around the upstairs out of control. Bellowing across the entire store, Suzy, get over here right now!, that parent stood in fear of pushing the second child lest they create a lifelong fear of escalators. Sometimes the bolder child would get on the down escalator just as the mother and timid child began to go up. To the despair of management, the escalators quickly became a toy.

“This is not a playground,” a mother said of the escalator after a bookseller had scolded her son for walking up the down escalator.

“But there’s nothing to do,” the child had replied.

“Go to the children’s section. There’s book there.”

“Books are boring. I want to ride the escalators.”

“Well, don’t get caught then.”

I worked in Burlington’s Barnes & Noble megastore for over a year. We operated one of five used book departments in the nation—an experimental section they were hoping to replicate in college towns throughout the country.

After a time, though, the store lost its magic. The escalators, still one of the few in the state, no longer baffled customers. Selection, once overpowering, soon seemed quite limited. The laminate fake wood flooring started to peel, and a few Starbucks popped up to offer strong coffee elsewhere and compete with the local cafes. Most important, though, was that Barnes & Noble’s stock started to seem routine. Every bookstore had the new big thing, but those two hundred copies of that single title soon pushed out the more esoteric titles. That book could be had anywhere, and this bookstore lost its enchantment.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | January 2, 2009

THAT Book

That book is W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.

I stole it when I was seventeen. Although I now have many editions, that edition was stolen from the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. The actual writing was not very interesting to me at the time, but because I thought of myself as an intellectual I talked it up to my friends. W. Somerset Maugham sounded scholarly as a high school senior. The topic, eastern mysticism and the quest for enlightenment after the horror of World War I, I thought, gave the impression of being profound. Only a few pages in, I stopped reading, but never told anyone. A month before I stole the book Bill Murray’s movie adaptation had come out, which I had seen it with a quiet girl I had been interested in for years. I wanted to believe that I was special, and was perhaps a step or two away from the Buddhist enlightenment I had just learned about in World Civilization and our unit on China. While I talked about Larry Darrell, substituting the events from the movie for those of the book, that copy sat in my room unread.

Inside the front cover is a bookplate from the library. Sigil. Phillp. Acad. Finis Origine Pendet. Per ampliora ad altiora. I used to look at it, although none of it made sense to me as I have never taken Latin. NON SIBI. Still, with that book I would imagine that I went to the school and would know, magically, upon matriculating, Latin. Or was someone that had read the Razor’s Edge and the other one hundred books that made someone well read. Imagining was less work that actual self improvement, and, in addition to my academic laziness, I suppose theft was proof of my inferior overall character. Every book in the prep school canon of literature has mention of an honor code, which often serves as an important plot point. That I went to public schools through my master’s degree is either a celebration of America’s bootstrap philosophy or a fitting testament to my low morals.

On the first blank card page of are written notes about the book in a soft, faded pencil that is difficult to read. On the last page of text—246—are notes in another hand, written in a violent ballpoint pen and decipherable only by the author. They continue onto the facing blank page. Not only is the penmanship illegible, but much of its contents are page numbers without apparent context. Although I could not even read the book, I pictured myself breaking it down and writing a paper with insights never before revealed in its forty years.

This imagined work ethic had also drawn me to John Osborne’s The Paper Chase a few years before. In ninth grade, after most of my studious friends had been skimmed from the public school for Philips Academy, I had stumbled over Osborne’s narrative of life as a first year Harvard Law student. As with Maugham, I was more familiar with the movie than the book. Sadly, I was even more familiar with the television adaptation of the movie. In the age just prior of the video recorder, I had caught part of the movie, but the cancelled television show was being rebroadcast on public television. Located between Boston and New Hampshire, I was able to see each episode multiple viewings as the two region’s public television stations aired them at different times. Up in my room, as an adolescent recluse, I would fiddle with the antennae of the small black-and-white television to pull in channels 2, 44 and 11, depending on the time of night. Later, I would imagine being the brilliant student who lived to study, and not only living up to, but thriving, the overbearing discipline of a professor such as Kingfield. Although I had read this book, Timothy Bottoms and John Houseman populated my fantasy scenarios. Never did I push myself to excel academically, beyond what my natural intelligence did for me.

From The Paper Chase to The Razor’s Edge the delusion of misunderstood brilliance substituting for academic laziness was repeated often. My sense of injustice was fed by Holden Caufield’s rage against Pency Prep and the world at large, which does not make me unique among readers. Although I had an obsession with Phillips Academy, the prep school canon, though large, did not feed my true torment. The Headmaster’s Papers, Lord of the Flies, and A Separate Peace were either skimmed or failed to make a lasting impression. It was the image of me as an unrecognized genius that fueled my imagination and lead, ultimately, to The Razor’s Edge becoming that book. Images of Bill Murray in the Himalayas, combined with a copy of the book stolen from the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library, fed my fantasy. In my mind I had read the book, and even felt that I could have lived it.

Not until college did I read the book.

Whereas the movie focuses on Bill Murray’s character, Larry, the book’s narrator is an unidentified, but clear, Maugham himself. When the book began with a narrator not in the movie droning about a character, Elliot Templeton, who was a minor character in the film, I paused. Maugham then spends the first dozen pages or so at boring parties, offering the particulars of Elliott Templeton. Subtly introducing the contemplative Larry as a foil to those around him, he came across in my mind as uninspiring. When I skipped ahead, Larry went from the ambulance driver of the movie to a pilot in the book. Murray’s brother, Brian Doyle, was a much more effective, and blunt, foil to Larry’s character. I put down the book.

Today it is not always that copy of The Razor’s Edge that I read. Some of the time I read a new paperback version, now about ten years in age. The paperback is published by Penguin, has an orange spine, and conveys the story well enough. It looks like most of the Penguin backlist; even the art work is of a similar vein. When something reminds me of the story I pull this copy out. This copy satisfies my interest in the story, which I enjoy and appreciate with each reading.

That copy—the one taken from the library—is the one with the strongest connections. Measuring five inches by seven it is smaller than most hardcover books today. Published in 1945 by the Blakiston Company of Philadelphia that book was not library bound until August of 1949, a job done by Wells Bindery of Waltham, Massachusetts. It now sits on a shelf, unprotected from my three year old son, Owen. His attempts at turning pages can be clumsy, and he holds a steadfast belief that there are more pages than there are, causing him to peel back endplates, remove dust covers and tear out pages. It was never a flawless copy. There are pages, even in that book, that have been folded by me in lue of a bookmark. I do nothing to stop my son other than keeping a lazy eye on him in general.

A blue grey cover, above the white leaf printing of PHILLIPS ACADEMY on the spine, the code c.4 is written in a white pen with a handwriting that all posthumous librarians seem to have possessed. This implies that it is the fourth copy of the library’s, although when it was stolen that was the only one on the shelf. Ninety-eight people checked that copy of The Razor’s Edge before I took it and never returned it. That was how many return dates are stamped in the back. Between October 5, 1949 and August 11, 1982 book 63091 was taken out ninety-eight times.

I never checked it out because I could not. I did not go to Phillips Academy, or simply “Andover” as it was called by those in higher social circles. Growing up in the town of Andover, I spent a lot of time on the campus but did not attend classes or graduate with what could have been my class. Yet, in my junior year at the town’s public high school—my alma matta—I was exposed to eastern philosophy, which in turn lead to seeing actor and comedian Bill Murray’s adaptation of Maugham, which came out the following fall. As a critical and financial effort The Razor’s Edge flopped. Although quickly forgotten by nearly everyone, the film did two things. First, it allowed me to ask a girl I had liked for four years on a date under the auspices of our mutual interest in eastern philosophy. Second, it inspired me to pick up the book.

A short time later I possessed that book. That copy. The Razor’s Edge, pilfered from the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. I imagined that I had taken the book out, and that I even belonged in the library. Technically, I was trespassing when I went on campus. That I used their athletic facilities was bad enough, but I stole from student lockers so that I could wear Philips Academy t-shirts and sweatpants. In the evenings I would often eat in the dinning commons, sitting in the wood paneled rooms at large, heavy wooden tables. This would be an honor code violation, except that is reserved for students. What I was doing was simply criminal. Surrounded by tradition, I was none of it. The book was a substitute.

The flaps from the jacket that describe the book are taped into the front pages, apparently cut from the dust jacket when the library binding was put on. Inside the library card pocket is a card with the names of twenty-two people who went to the school and, presumably, read it. Two people checked it out twice, while Doug Mansfield read it three times over the course of a year. Now I have read it several times, but it gets me no closer to having gone to the school. Yet the fact that it is stolen from a school I wished I had gone to, the details of its manufacture, and the shifting meaning I glean from the text are mere details to a simple fact—it is THAT book.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | November 16, 2008

The Literari

“So tell me.”

“It doesn’t work like that.”

Alex looked at Jenne and stood awkwardly with his arms straight, hands by his side. As he did, it was clear that the sleeves of his winter coat were too short for his long, thirty-four year old arms. Unbuttoned, the entire wool winter coat hung loose on his tall, thin body, as did Alex’s face, although the latter had a bit of tension visible behind it.

“How does it work?” he finally asked.

“I need to touch you.”

As they stood in near the front door of the local bookstore, Alex extended his hand as if to shake Jenne’s after an unsuccessful first date. As they lightly gripped the others’ hand, Jenne knew the book: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Her knowledge and vision were instantaneous and simultaneous; an image of the book on the shelf was before her, but she also knew it. Knew it. Reading the title on the vertical spine, its words also floated around this vision. The plot, characters and every word passed through her all at once. Judy Blume. And the location; she knew where the book was in the room: third shelf up, second bookshelf from the dark northeast corner. Dropping Alex’s hand, she walked to the young adult section, crouched down to the shelf and pulled it out.

“Here,” she said, extending it towards him.

“This book?” he asked. “Are you sure this is the book?”

* * *

She was sure.

The first time, though, years before, she had not been. Standing near the entrance to the school library, she had been coaxing Stephen into browsing. Jenne was a successful reading teacher at local high school in an aging red brick building. Her “gift” was in finding just the right book for people, which made teaching reading much easier. On this day—the day her talent first presented itself— Stephen was making her job difficult.

“Just take a look around,” she had prodded.

“Why?” Stephen had replied. “Look, every year the teacher drags me in and tells me to look around. I don’t find anything. Then they give me something that I don’t read.” He had his head cocked to the side, with a dull look in his eyes. His tone was dull, and he had clearly made this speech many times before. After a month of stalling and being generally uncooperative, Stephen was pushing against Jenne’s efforts in earnest.  Today—a Thursday—he was going to make things difficult. “I go through this every year,” he finished.

Jenne should not have taken the bait, but she did. It was unprofessional. She said, “And now you’re in high school and still reading at a fourth grade level. How’s that working for you?”

Fourth grade level.

How’s the working for you?

His eyes snapped into focus, and Stephen rushed to leave the library.

Anger.

The truth hurt. Teachers before had backed off, speaking sweetly to prop up his self esteem, or barked orders in a last ditch effort for compliance. He wanted to leave; to flee. Standing between him and the exit was Jenne. In haste and fury, he knocked her over.

Watership Down,” Jenne had yelped as she landed.

“What?” Stephen replied. He had expected coarser language.

Watership Down,” Jeanne replied. “Richard Adams.” Shocked by her reply, she studdered, “book,” and knew it was the one Stephen needed to read.

A few minutes later, both of them looked doubtfully at the cover. An old paperback Avon edition with a dated yellow design dominated by a brown bunny, neither imagined a nearly five hundred page story of anthropomorphic rabbits would be that book.

“This book?” he asked.

“We have twenty minutes left until the bell,” Jenne said. “Sit. Give it a shot.”

Perhaps it was guilt from knocking her down, or the irritated edge in her voice, but he sat and started reading the first page. For the next two weeks, it was all he did because it was that book. Had his skills been better, and his days not full of school and chores, he might have finished it in a day. After a week, Stephen’s mother called to complain about “that stupid rabbit book”, making this reading breakthrough out to be a burden rather than a long overdue achievement. “He stays up too late,” she groused, “and reads at the table.”

Over the next semester Jenne learned the rules of her power. That she had to touch people was learned over time. A few weeks after Stephen had seen Hazel go to meet with El-ahrairah, Jenne was in the library with a freshman girl, Sue. In trying to encourage her as they stood by the circulation desk of the school library, Jenne rubbed her head. Flash: The Three Musketeers. Over the course of the rest of the year the entire Dumas canon followed. A hand on another shoulder a week later found The Mouse and the Motorcycle. More children followed with success.

Because teachers are not supposed to ever touch students, Jenne had to figure out all sorts of ways to get in contact with them. Between offering handshakes and high-fives, Jenne developed rituals to become a miracle worker with those who had previously refused to read.

* * *

“Get the chai tea,” a voice said from behind.

“What?”

“The chai tea. You’ll like it.”

Turning around, she looked at a man in his late twenties with disheveled hair. He had tortoise shell glasses and wore sneakers with an oxford cloth shirt and tie. Standing, he was two inches shorter than Jenne.
Jenne bought a double latte decaf, and it was horrible. She went back, after the man had left, and got the chai tea. It was devine. Sensing this was someone worth knowing more about, she searched about in the bookstore that held the café. Finding him in the cookbook section, she tapped his shoulder.

Beard on Bread,” she said.

It was not what she had intended, but in touching him the image just flashed before her.

“Excuse me,” he muttered as he turned around. Looking up (slightly), he recognized her.

“The chai tea was good. I hate tea, but it was wonderful. Thanks.”

“Today,” he said. “Today it was good. You might not feel that way tomorrow.”

Beard on Bread,” she said again. “I think you’ll really like Beard on Bread. By James Beard.”

“Thanks.” He looked at her. “How do you know?”

“How do you know about chai tea?”

* * *

As long as Scott could remember he could taste things that he focused on. It drove his mother crazy.

“I don’t think this will be good,” he’d say, looking down at his plate after she made something for dinner.

“Shut up and eat it.”

Placing a plate of stir fry in front of him, he looked at her sadly. She tried, but Scott’s mother was a bad cook. Too much, he thought. A great artist, he learned later, knows when to stop.

“I think you went wrong when you added the nutmeg.”

Scott would watch his mother cook, and he could taste it as each ingredient was added. Then, she would add something like nutmeg and his hunger turned.

“Just eat it,” she would say. Neither enjoyed the meal. Over time, he learned to stop commenting, but she could read his face.

As his mother and he drove places growing up, Scott would look out the window at the various restaurants and he could taste their fare. Instinctually, he knew if this or that one was what he hungered for. When he would touch his mother’s shoulder of the back of her seat, he could tell what she desired, too. “Thai,” he would say. When she took his advice, the afternoons always went better. In time, the mother learned that her son was taking care of her. In the kitchen, she began taking his advice. By the time he went to college, her cooking skills were quite good even as she no longer had anyone to cook for.

“You drive me crazy,” one of his girlfriends told him years later. They were standing on a city street. He had just cautioned against a restaurant that had gotten rave reviews. It was not the first time they had had this fight, nor was she the first girlfriend to find his talent for choosing eateries irritating. “Can’t we just eat there.”

“You wont’ enjoy it,” he cautioned.

“So, you said.”

“But I’m right.”

“Perhaps you just ruin the meal with your bad attitude.” She was practically shouting at him.

“You pick the place. I won’t say anything.”

“You’ll make your stupid face,” she replied. She called it his stupid face. Then, her face tightened, eyes narrowing and her mouth turned down. It was somewhere between a monkey and an astronaut on a centrifuge. “No, let’s just go where you want.”

Of course, the meal was sublime. They broke up shortly after returning home.

* * *

“Ah, there you are,” Alex said, looking up at them. He was sitting at a table in the café of another bookstore. Jenne and Scott were standing; she with a cup of ice water and Dune and he with a double shot of espresso the current edition of Starlog magazine. “Right on time.”

“Do we know you?” Jenne asked.

“No, but I was expecting someone.” Alex looked at the empty table next to him. “Have a seat.”

They did.

* * *

Everything is timing.

That was what they said in business school. Luck. Alex always seemed to be at the right place at the right time, and he knew it. Applying at the right time for admission, seeking out professors at fortuitous moments, and going to just the right seminars he graduated at the top of his class. Now, he worked in a consulting company where he had a knack for brining people together at just the right time.

“I think we might be the lamest collection of superheroes ever,” Scott said after they swapped origin stories.

“Are we superheroes?” Jenne asked.

“Above average, perhaps.”

“Above average heroes.”

“I don’t we’re heroes.”

“It’s like those villains that everyone forgets about, like the Toad and the Grizzly. We’re kind of lame; we don’t fly or turn invisible or are super fast.”

“Do you think,” Scott posed, “that there are others like us?”

“You mean someone who can bake really great cakes?” Alex joked.

“Perhaps someone with some fashion sense,” Scott added. “You know, You would look great with that blue scarf.”

“Well,” Jenne thought. “We all need to touch someone.”

“Did you touch us?” Scott asked Alex.

“I ran into Jenne last week, at the dry cleaners. Literally.”

“You knocked the blouse out of my hand,” she remembered.

“And wrote this place and time into my datebook even before you had walked away.”

“So, are we alone with our powers?”

“I doubt it.”

“What do we do?” Jenne asked.

“You mean, other than having a really satisfying discussion about literature over a really nice meal?” Alex asked.

“At just the right time!” Scott added.

“Yes,” Jenne continued. “What do we do?”

“I don’t think we could fight crimes,” Alex said, taking a sip of his seltzer. “If that’s what you mean.”
It was. Jenne said nothing.

* * *

Besides founding a perfect book group, they continued to think of ways they could make the world a better place. It was Alex who got them together one night, near midnight, at a small bar on the other side of the city. As they sat in a dark booth covered in red vinyl they saw in the corner a man who seemed at his wit’s end. Over a tumbler of scotch, the man said nothing and drank nothing.

“Him,” Scott said. “He’s the one we’re here for.”

“How do you know?” Alex asked.

Scott looked at the scotch. “Because nothing is going to satisfy him. Nothing in here, anyway.”
Jenne managed to strike up a conversation as she bought a round for the others.

“I would try anything,” he said to her.

“Anything?” she asked. Then she explained who they were, and what they could do.

The man at the bar was named Michael Jump, but he was known throughout most of the day as Principal Jump. His school was called a magnet school, but it was quite the opposite. Instead, as two similar poles of a magnet repel each other, his school was full of rejects from the true magnet schools all over the city. The dumping ground was his burden. While every other principal and even the superintendent were sympathetic, he was still the designated fall guy. That not a single child wanted to be at school. How to change that was his challenge.

So low was Principal Jump that he accepted their help.

“Have an Irish crème,” Scott told Jump. And he did.

* * *

At an assembly the next week, the entire student body held hands. Principal Jump had come up with the ruse after Jenne had laid out their plan. To be honest, she had to convince him at first that their first meeting had not been a dream.

“That Irish crème was right on, wasn’t it?” Jenne had asked. It had been. He listened to their plan and agreed.

The students—all three hundred and fifty-seven—held hands under the guise of community. In the human chain, Jenne, Scott and Alex had blended in. Flashes of information came to them, along with lists of student names and their similar connections. After a few community building songs designed as cover their true intent, the three barricaded themselves in a conference room.

The wall was covered in attendance lists.

Everything was so clear. Over six hours the three wrote down every impression. Jenne wrote down at least one book title for each student, handing them to the librarian in sheets to have them pulled. To each, a sticky note was attached with the child’s name. Originally, Alex was to figure out a good time for students to participate in sustained silent reading, but he got much more. Instead, he figured out a schedule for the entire school—when to have math, science, and even open the doors. When Principal Jump got them a list of faculty, Alex scheduled them, too. Jenne found each a book to read. Scott wrote up a menu for the month, with options, and a list of who would enjoy what option.

It worked. They needed to raid the libraries and book closets of other schools, but with the option of failure, the school closing and those bad eggs returning, help was forthcoming. When December rolled around, they repeated the hand holding assembly. Again, it worked. By April, with momentum going, it seemed unnecessary. Test scores rose. Students felt positive. The school—and Principal Jump—was hailed by the community.

* * *

“Well, that’s great,” Scott said, looking at the article hailing Principal Jump. “We, of course, get no credit.”

“Heroes never get credit,” Alex replied.

“Why is that?”

“So they aren’t exploited,” Jenne said.

“Oh, I’m sure the super villains lined up against reading, eating and meeting would be on us, pronto.”  Alex laughed.

“Maybe a bookstore chain that would exploit us.  Or coffee house.”

“I was looking forward to spandex.”

“And secret identities.”

“A cape.”

“You can still wear a cape.”

“Except that we have to do these things covertly.”

“Or get arrested for touching people.”

Then, no one said anything. The silence lasted.

“What do we do now?” Scott asked.

They sat and drank their coffee. It was the one time that they all wanted the same thing. After doing something—perhaps a small thing—after saving a school full of young minds from ignorance, their coffee tasted good.

They sat and took it all in, and were happy.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | November 3, 2008

The Night Librarian: Chapter Two

The Night Librarian
Chapter Two

Joseph had tried to stay up until she returned. His stomach growling, sleep overcame him. Still wearing his shoes and school clothes, the boy fell asleep on top of his blankets.

The next afternoon he made a bother of himself around the library. It was closing time. Walking up to the circulation desk, Joseph asked about the woman with wings he had seen the night before.

“What woman?” the day librarian had asked.

“You know,” Joseph replied in a knowing whisper, “the one with the wings.”

He smiled. The day librarian did not smile back.

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” the day librarian said. “Do you have a book to check out?” She looked at the clock.

“No.”

“Where did you see this woman?” the day librarian asked, as an afterthought.

“There,” was his reply. He pointed to the door behind the desk. It led outside, but was never used, at least during the day. Both Joseph and the day librarian knew its threshold hung five feet above the ground.

“You saw a woman with wings leave that door?”

“Yes,” Joseph answered. He knew the day librarian did not believe him.

“When did you see it?”

“Last night,” he said. “After dark.”

“Hmmmm,” was all she would offer him. Finally, she said, “ridiculous.”

That ended the discussion. The library was closing, and Joseph was ushered out before he could ask another question.

Of course, Joseph was right.

Above him, in the attic, the night librarian was just awakening from a nice dream about elephants. She slept on a small, single bed in a corner of the attic that would not be noticed by anyone happening to venture up the pull-down stairs that lay unnoticed above the day librarian’s office.

As the day librarian took in the two flags—one of the United States, the other for the State of Vermont—the night librarian sat up in bed. Turning on a small light that sat on the table next to her bed, she walked across the floor and plugged in an electric kettle. Upon returning to bed, she picked up a book of on making French toast and read until the whistle of the kettle was just sputtering into a blow. With tea steeping, the night librarian once again returned to her bed. Reading to the end of the chapter, she punctuated its completion with a large slurp. The tea finished, she placed an index card in the book so she would know where to begin the next time, and dressed for the evening.

When she was sure that everyone was gone, she pushed down the pull-down stairs that led to the day librarian’s office.

The night librarian did not know that Joseph was hidden in a little used bathroom near the adult fiction section.</p

Posted by: Tom Triumph | September 27, 2008

Sarah Palin and the American Fantasy of the Underdog

When I went to my first game at Fenway Park I brought my glove. Eight years old, I imagined that the manager might come out of the dugout and stop at the warning track. Hands on his hips, he would scan the stands until his eyes fell onto mine. Shouting, “Hey, you! We need someone at first. Get out here!” he would beckon wide with his arm while ushers cleared the way for me to reach the field. The rest of the fantasy was a vague montage of close plays ending with a celebration with the big boys.

Writing the above paragraph triggers my cliché-gag reflex because the image is too perfect. It’s dumb. Yet, among many men as young boys, we really did buy into the fantasy. Having our own glove is part of the myth, liking putting cookies out for Santa: you just do it. The adult that is embarrassed by the memory also knows that—even if the Red Sox manager would pick an eight year old out of the stands and put them on a professional diamond with ninety-six mile-an-hour fastballs, skirting numerous contract and union issues, probably breaking child labor and safety laws—if I did not have my glove the equipment room would be lousy with them. The fantasy seems so stupid now, yet it also holds a certain fascination I have never shaken.

Part of me wishes I still believed without reservation. There is innocence there. Bernard Malamud captures it in The Natural by making the bat Wonderboy the central talisman for Roy Hobbs’ success The bat, Malamud’s symbol of childhood innocence, is used throughout Hobbs’ brief career as it is an artifact of his childhood innocence and dreams of playing in the big leagues, and serves to make his brief success a reality. (Spoiler alert: in the book, unlike the movie, he strikes out after Wonderboy breaks, but heals his loss of innocence in the end.). I do believe in part of it; I could not be a Red Sox fan if I did not.

Indeed, the American love of the underdog is based on the fantasy that anyone can be a winner over those with more talent. John Madden wrote an excellent essay on why hating the Dallas Cowboys is good for America, and I would say the same for the Yankees. That healthy hatred gives everyone else a chance to root for the other guy—any team but them, all underdogs.

Which helps explain the initial American fascination with Alaskan governor Sarah Palin. McCain’s tapping of her as Vice President was like the old manager coming out of the dugout and pointing at me. Who? They asked. They’re putting some boy from the stands at first base? After the hiccup of a pregnant underage daughter and state trooper scandal, Palin stepped up to the plate—or lectern—and hit a home run with her acceptance speech. The crowd went wild. Sarah Palin then ran the bases, with visits to the battle ground states attracting rabid fans and cheers.

For whatever partisan questions about her experience, let us remember that Palin follows the tradition of Jefferson Smith, the protagonist from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. True, he is a fictional character, but one that is so entwined with out idea of what is possible in America—where anyone can be president and our politicians should be citizens doing their civil duty for a few years before retuning to their trade—that Smith stands as an icon of both liberal and conservative idealists. Politicians from state representatives to U.S. senators absent-mindedly pound their fists into their gloves as the machine starts up every four years. Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Barak Obama are a bit thin in their resumes, but they have both proven themselves to be up to the minimum of the job requirement, with the former an icon. It is possible that the boy pulled from the stands is the future Joe DiMaggio or Willie Mays. Palin had nine innings to prove she was more than lucky on that first pitch.

Weeks after the nomination, another sports memory of youth comes to mind—this time from the world of basketball. I was at the Boston Garden when Connor Henry, in his first game for the Celtics, drilled three pointer after three pointer against the Milwaukee Bucks. The place was electric as he hit shot after shot, a lone bright spot in a hard, lonely stretch of a season marking the beginning of the end of the Bird era. A replacement player on a ten day contract, he got another ten days and then finished out the year. Most fans would have been satisfied that a bench player was solid, but Celtic fans looking at the aging starters wanted him to replace the devastating loss of draft pick Len Bias. He did not. It took another twenty years for the Celtics to recover.

With sympathy, Judith Warner writes in The New York Times that in Sarah Palin she, “saw a woman fully aware that she was out of her league, scared out of her wits, hanging on for dear life.” Like Connor Henry, even her supporters are starting to see that their hopes for the next Ronald Reagan does not wear stylish glasses and a hair in a bun. She might be great off the bench, and at any given time she could save the game, but she is not a franchise player ready to carry the team for four years.

Now entering middle age, I am more aware of those around me nursing old athletic dreams. Some use their kids as an excuse to pull out the old glove and bat, but the serious ones face their age with a fastball on the inside. Fantasy baseball camps allow the delusional to face the real thing, albeit older and retired. Still, no longer being offered a contract to sit on the bench for even the cellar teams, these baseball veterans still knock the dreamers on their behinds whenever they want to. Every person I have met that has gone to a camp is simply amazed by the difference between their high school or college skills and these aged, past-their-prime professionals.

And so, sitting with Henry Kissinger and being chauffeured around New York, Sarah Palin must be feeling that the world is a tad larger than Wasilla. Even presidents of the rinky-dink countries are not so quick to be pushed around, and what passes for Machiavellian political maneuvering in Alaska is nothing compared to the horse trading that allows our military to fly through some tin-pot dictator’s air space. Obama, for all his inexperience, has been put through then wringer of the national spotlight for two years and still has half of America on his side. Palin has got spunk, but being president is a bit more than that. As Warner describes it, “I saw this in the sag of her back in her serious black suit, in the position of her hands, crossed modestly atop her knees, and in that “Mad Men”-era updo, ever unchanging, like a good luck charm.” The burden of the job takes more than getting lucky with a pitch, and while Ted Williams missed two out of every three pitches our President cannot afford that average.

So, when her ten day contract is over, Palin will go back to the minors or retire. Kathleen Parker of the National Review calls for find a reason to drop out because she is just not ready. Perhaps, like Dan Quayle, she will make a bid in the next election catering to a fractional segment before fading into the cracks of political think tanks. As a fan of the game—both baseball and politics—I hope Palin enjoyed the cheers that followed the home run and keeps the ball on her mantle, but if the management offers her a four year contract my first instinct will be to tear up my season tickets.

Being a Red Sox fan, though, I know I’ll wait until next year.


INTRODUCTION

While reading is often sold as a gateway to other worlds, great books act as a mirror to the reader. In his prologue to How to Read and Why, scholar Harold Bloom writes:

It matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves. How they read, well or badly, and what they read, cannot depend wholly upon themselves, but why they read must be for and in their own interests… Ultimately we read—as Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson agree—in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests. (2000, pp. 21, 22)

In short, reading helps us know ourselves. The Harry Potter series has not caught fire because Harry is a wizard so much that he is a victim from birth facing an overwhelming world of pain and cruelty, yet somehow scraping by to the next book. He is us.

But so is Melinda, the protagonist of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a novel about date rape. Ostracized by her friends as they enter high school, she endures her pain alone, unsure of what to do. It is a painful journey of isolation and shame, but one that both boys and girls with no history of sexual abuse can identify with to some degree. In her classic book on teaching reading and writing to early adolescents, In the Middle, Nancie Atwell writes:

Much of the sentiment expressed in contemporary adolescent fiction mirrors and celebrates what Tom Newkirk terms the emerging power—that sense of independence and self—of the adolescent mind. As adults can turn to fiction for portrayals of the universalities of our condition, so our students can find their perspectives reflected and explored in a body of fiction of their own, books that can help then grow up and books that can help them love books. (1998, p. 36)

While books about abuse, drugs, sexual identity, violence, depression, and suicide are relevant to adolescents, it is necessary to recognize that not all children reach early adolescence at the same time. In addition, children are coming from differing perspectives that determine their readiness for such topics. Atwell caught this when she used words such as “emerging” and “grow up.” For some, Melinda may not be us, yet.

WHY THERE ARE CONCERNS

Feminist and anti-pornography activist Andrea Dworkin writes, “In most of Western Europe, England, and the United States, more often than not… writing has been most consistently viewed as an act warranting prosecution when the writing is construed to be obscene.” (1993, p. 256) She argues that writing transforms the idea of obscenity into an obscene act. Using Dworkin’s argument, the inappropriate young adult novel is obscene because it takes those ideas and experiences that exist in the young adolescent world—sex, drugs, homosexuality, self-abuse, etc.—and makes them real on the page. The hard, black and white depiction of these contentious issues, and not the issues themselves, are what bothers some adults in the community. These novels force communities to face the fact that teens are seeing themselves in stories that contain actions and themes adults wish to believe their children are not facing.  For communities, it is easier to get rid of the book than deal with the issue itself.

The reaction of the reality of adolescence put onto the page has been to limit access to these materials. From 1990 to 2000, the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association (ALA) reported 6,364 challenges to books, seventy-one percent in school libraries. Of those, 1,607 were challenges to “sexual explicit” material, 1,427 to material using “offensive language”, and 1,256 to material “unsuited to age group.” Other reasons for challenges included promoting the occult, violence, promoting homosexuality or a religious viewpoint. While content is clearly a concern, the age of the reader is of an even greater concern. Of the ten most frequently challenged authors of 2005 reported to the ALA, eight are young adult authors. This includes Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, and Lois Lowry. A ninth author, J.D. Salinger, wrote The Catcher in the Rye, an adult book often assigned in high school classes. Of the most frequently challenged books of 2005, eight are directed at adolescents, while Catcher in the Rye is the ninth. The tenth, the Captain Underpants series, is for early readers. Toni Morrison, an author also assigned in high school classes, is the only adult oriented author besides Salinger on either list. The concern is clearly with authors and books read by adolescents. (Challenged Books, 2006)

Challenges, the ALA points out, are not necessarily censorship, but attempts to deny access by a specific group to a specific book. This can take the form of having special shelves for mature books, placing them behind the counter, or removing them from the collection completely. “Censorship,” Dworkin argues, has, “nothing to do with striking down ideas as such; it had to do with acts.” (1993, p. 254) In limiting access to young adult novels, adults believe they are not stopping ideas, but only the act. So, in removing books containing swearing they are not telling people not to swear (censorship), but controling a child’s exposure to foul language.  There are two issues at work here, which vary by degree. First, Dworkin could be speaking for many parents when she argues that the themes can be addressed without sexually explicit scenes and offensive language. The problem with this argument is that it is the situations adolescents face, not the books they read, that children most need help with. In addressing the symptom and not the disease communities are not helping unhealthy teens.  Adults need to look at why children want to read these books, and address those issues.

Second, some adults believe that the books themselves give students age inappropriate ideas. By limiting access, they argue, they are stopping the act before it is even an idea. This idea has been explored by many philosophers, linguists, and critics. Ludwig Wittgenstein states, “The limits of my language mean the limits to my world.” In his essay “Politics and the English Langauge” George Orwell writes, “I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable.” The underlying theory of Newspeak, the language developed by the totalitarian regime in his book 1984, is that if something cannot be said, then it cannot be thought; control of language becomes control of ideas. This passes from the region of adult concern to that of censorship because it limits ideas. Even with the intent of keeping children safe from troubling ideas, it is not only a misguided stance, but also an anti-intellectual one that will lead us back to days of intolerance and limited democracy. (Newspeak, 2006)

Because they are not yet adults, in appearance and maturity, many adults still see young adolescence as the children they recently were. In addition, every adult has a desire for his or her child to be happy. Faced with issues that are mature, and realizing that their children may be facing them, many adults reasonably fall into the role of protector. This is their role, but too often adults do not recognize that adolescence is a transition period. Their concerns are often reasonable, but if this time of change is not recognized—if adults act with a knee-jerk reaction—it can be taken to a ridiculous extreme. For example, a Florida school board challenged The Diary of Anne Frank because it was considered “a real downer.” While the issues adolescents face can be harrowing to hear about, and young adult literature moves it from idea to act, limiting access to books only promotes ignorance while doing nothing to address the issues adults most fear children having to deal with.

WHAT AGE IS THE RIGHT AGE

In looking for an objective system of rating appropriateness, it soon became clear that there is none. Chris Varney (personal communication, July 25, 2006), a librarian of twenty-three years at Hinesburg Community School, writes:

I am unaware of any official measurement. It has always been a judgment call. That’s why there’s always been trouble with this issue. It’s a great question for the book reviewers to answer.  They are the ones who put grade levels recommended on the reviews. The same book can get a grade 6-8 from one reviewer and grades 9-11 from another reviewer. It’s really a judgment made by the reviewer. Essentially, my understanding is that graphic sex, drugs, swearing is always put at high school level and above- but there are many levels of ‘graphic’.

Another guide is the book jacket, which has no standard rubric on which to judge. While various organizations affix grade or age designations, they are based on a combination of reading level and social norm.

For example, in a pamphlet title Books for Grades 7 and 8 supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency, Speak and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War are both recommended (2005). However, Speak is about a girl traumatized by date rape, while The Chocolate War is often at the top of the ALA Most Challenged lists for reasons included language, violence, and sexual themes. Both are emotionally brutal reads, but also technically sophisticated, requiring a more advanced reading level. At the same time Goats, a story by Brock Cole that is suitable for sixth grade due to reading level and subject matter, is recommended for grades 8-10 by School Library Journal because at one point the two protagonists are naked and there is a very brief description (Goats, 2006). School Library Journal lists Am I Blue? Coming Out From the Silence, a collection of stories about adolescents wrestling with issues of homosexuality, some of which are quite sexual in nature or have adult themes, as appropriate for 7th grade and up (Am I Blue?, 2006). The standard is clearly subjective.

In looking at an adolescent’s psychological development, there is no clear guideline for when a child is ready for a particular topic. Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development is a founding theory. His fifth state, Identify Versus Confusion, which is identified as happening at ages twelve to eighteen, would be an appropriate age to tackle the more mature issues facing a young adolescent. The stage is described as, “adolescents experience new sexual feelings, and not quite knowing how to respond, they’re frequently confused. They are concerned with what others think of them…” (Eggen, 1997, p. 79) This does not happen on the day a child turns twelve, though, nor is everyone ready for all topics at the same time.

Similarly, studies on cognitive and moral thought show dramatic changes at about the same time. While pre-adolescents (children of eleven or twelve) do demonstrate logical thought, they “tend to reason in this matter only about objects with which they have direct experience, and only about events or situations in the present.” Adolescents can reason about purely abstract events. L. Kohlberg’s theories on moral reasoning also occur at this time. By age nine or ten, many individuals start to move towards what he terms the Conventional Level, shifting their basis for evaluating their own and others behavior. In short, by age thirteen most children have begun a dramatic cognitive and moral leap forward in their development. (Baron, 1989, pp. 259-261)

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is an excellent example of how ratings can vary for the same book, in the same year, depending upon the reader. It was the 1999 National Book Award Finalist, ALA Best Book for Young Adults, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, Horn Book Fanfare Title, and several other distinctions, and was on numerous “best” lists for young adults. It is a popular book with literary merit. When it comes to age, though, things are unclear. Both Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Review list it as for children ages twelve and up (sixth grade), while Library Journal and School Library Journal recommend it for eighth grade and up (usually late thirteen, fourteen years old). (Speak, 2006) Even with one title the appropriateness of it is up for debate.

Unlike books, other media outlets have industry-wide standardized ratings. The oldest formal media rating system is offered by the Motion Picture Association of America, which rates movies. Recognizing that PG, or Parental Guidance Suggested, was too broad, it acknowledged the change to adolescent with a PG-13 label in the early 1980s. In PG-13, or Parents Strongly Cautioned, “rough or persistent violence is absent; sexually-oriented nudity is generally absent; some scenes of drug use may be seen; one use of the harsher sexually derived words may be heard.” Television ratings further recognize cognitive changes, with warnings at ages seven and fourteen. In addition, each age has warnings as to why it is so rated. So, TV-14 contains:

…some material that many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14 years of age. Parents are strongly urged to exercise greater care in monitoring this program and are cautioned against letting children under the age of 14 watch unattended. This program contains one or more of the following: intense violence (V), intense sexual situations (S), strong coarse language (L), or intensely suggestive dialogue (D).

Both industries have decided that fourteen is where these themes can be appropriately presented to adolescents. This age not only fits into Erikson’s fifth stage and general theories of cognitive and moral development, but gives it a year or two for late-bloomers to catch up. (Entertainment Rating Systems, 2006)

Still, fourteen may be too old for some teens if literature is to help them make sense of the world. In the Time magazine article “The Battle Over Gay Teens”, author John Cloud cites a Pennsylvania State University study that found that the mean age at which lesbians first have sexual contact with other girls is sixteen, while it is fourteen for gay boys. In addition, Cloud refers to the book The New Gay Teenager, which cites several studies showing that the average lesbian desires girls at age twelve, while it is ten for gay boys. (Cloud, 2005) If the average gay boy is desiring the same sex at age ten, and, on average, having sexual contact at age fourteen, gender issues need to be addressed by some adolescents earlier than thirteen. According to the 1995 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 34% of sexual active gay students had sexual intercourse prior to age twelve. (2006) Perhaps School Library Journal got it right when it recommended Am I Blue? for seventh grade and up.

It should be noted that the physical changes of adolescence are occurring sooner, often before a student enters seventh grade. In addition, the media is exposing children to mature images at a younger and younger age; while television shows are rated, most children watch television without parental controls. In addition, commercials are not rated, nor are magazines. From television shows, video games, movies, magazines and other media children are getting mature messages with little of the context, depth, or opportunity for discussion provided by reading literature in school. Literature may provide one of the best and safest ways for adolescents to face issues in a safe environment, before they have to face them for real.


WHY LITERATURE HELPS

While adults are fine with children pretending to be a pirate from Treasure Island, they are understandably less enthusiastic about relating to fifteen-year-old drug addict Alice from Go Ask Alice. Young adult novels can be dark and depressing because adolescence is often dark and depressing. Yet, exploration and the mistakes that go with it are essential if children are going to grow into normal, well-adjusted adults. B. Joyce Stallworth is an Associate Dean in the College of Education at the University of Alabama. She writes, “Such books offer tweens the opportunity to learn vicariously, in safe classroom communities, about situations they may face as they make the transition into high school.” (2006) Through literature adolescents safely learn from the problems faced and decisions made by others.

It is essential that adolescents do encounter these problems if they are to develop into healthy, happy adults. In looking at the four positions of identity development offered by Erikson during this stage, Paul Eggen and Don Kauchak write, “With identity diffusion and identity foreclosure—less healthy positions—adolescents fail to wrestle with choices that will have important consequences for them throughout life.” (1997, p. 80) Similarly, cognitive and moral development is helped through practice. Schools offer not only a safe place to explore, but can guide students through the process, from choosing appropriate books to making sense of the choices of its characters and helping create the link to the reader’s life. Indeed, a gay adolescent says in Time, “I think there are very few age appropriate gay activities for a 14-15 year old… It’s Internet, gay porn, gay chats.” (2005). If adolescents are not allowed to explore their identity in a safe environment, they will do so wherever they can, often in unsafe places.

The lessons learned are often too realistic for adults, but that is essential if it is to be effective in offering a vicarious learning experience. Kenneth Donelson and Alleen Pace Nilsen wrote that, “Young people will have a better chance to be happy if they have realistic expectations and if they know both the bad and the good about the society in which they live.” (Stallworth, 2006). Not every ending needs to be as dark as The Chocolate War to be realistic, and most young adult novels have a happy ending that leans a bit towards facile. Still, young adolescents are keenly aware of characters that are too perfect. Offensive language, vices, and gross-out humor is often used in otherwise juvenile stories to lend an air of authenticity to an otherwise harmless tale.

Failure to learn these lessons can be disastrous. Regarding gay youth, Dr. Jack Drescher of the American Psychiatric Association notes that “nearly all mental-health professionals agree that trying to reject one’s homosexual impulses will usually be fruitless and depressing—and can lead to suicide.” (Cloud, 2005) The 1995 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports a variety of destructive behaviors among gay, lesbian and bisexual (GLB) youth. Indeed, 38% of GLB students attempted suicide, compared to 9% of other students. Sixty percent of GLB students have binged on alcohol in the last thirty days, compared to 31% of other students, while 63% have used marijuana, 57% inhalants to get high, 73% have smoked cigarettes, and 32% used cocaine compared to 27%, 26%, 36% and 3% of other students, respectively. With regard to sex, 56% of sexual active GLB students have used drugs or alcohol before their last sexual experience, and 27% were or have gotten someone pregnant. This is compared to the 29% and 10% of other students, respectively. In addition, 25% have vomited or taken laxatives to control weight, compared to 5% of other students. (2006) Gay adolescents are clearly in need of guidance in a safe, reflective environment.

The vicarious experience found by reading a young adult novel is also an important tool in building empathy in adolescents. In her introduction to Am I Blue?, an anthology of coming out stories she edited, author Marion Dane Bauer writes:

A good friend of mine once said, “I have never met a bigot who was a reader as a child,” and it is something I believe as well. The power of fiction is that it gives us, as readers, the opportunity to move inside another human being, to look out through that person’s eyes, hear with her ears, think with his thoughts, feel with her feelings. It is the only form of art which can accomplish that feat so deeply, so completely. And thus it is the perfect bridge for helping us come to know the other—the other inside as well as outside ourselves. (1994, p. x)

Indeed, according to the Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 61% of gay teens were in a fight during the past 12 months, 34% were threatened with a weapon, and 18% skipped school because of feeling unsafe, as compared to the 36%, 5% and 4% of other students, respectively. (2006) Lack of empathy is hurting our youth. The prejudice against being a gay youth is only one possible issue among many that an adolescent might face, but the experiences of one segment is often universal. Boys can identify with many of the issues facing Melinda, the protagonist who is date-raped in Speak, for example, and through classroom discussion and activities build empathy for their female peers and be more thoughtful in their social activities. By reading about minorities, women, boys, gay, handicapped, or other teens students are ready to bring an aware viewpoint to new situations they might face as adults.

The value of literature in helping young adolescents explore their life is unquestioned, but what material is appropriate is more subjective. Stallworth cautions, “…it’s important to choose titles that are developmentally appropriate and that fit curricular objectives.” (2006) Just as literature can help students explore issues they are confused about, it can also open them to new worlds. This is a mixed blessing. The power of the media on adolescence is well documented, and literature is no exception. Mature themes are not the only concerns adults have, as the ALA reports that 842 challenges of material were about material with “an occult theme or promoting occult or Satan”, while 419 for promoting a religious viewpoint. Parents are uneasy about how books with mature themes might influence their children, especially if they are not developmentally ready to wrestle, mentally or emotionally, with difficult topics.

HOW TO DO IT

First, adults need to make decisions about what constitutes literature, as opposed to superfluous prose. While adults for a host of reasons, including violence, language, a dark ending, and for being anti-religion and anti-authority, challenged Cormier’s The Chocolate War, nothing in it is gratuitous in its exploration of the cruelty and bullying found in many schools. On the other hand, Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl series has little literary value, while its depictions of sex, drugs and affluent lifestyle is meant simply to titillate. A good book works on many levels, and offers its readers new things with each reading. Bloom writes, “The strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the now much-abused traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure… There is a reader’s Sublime, and it seems the only secular transcendence we can ever attain.” (2000, p. 29) By demanding that students read deeper literature we are demanding that books fulfill their purpose of mirroring life and empowering students.

While the standard of what constitutes literature may learn towards the subjective, the discussion itself is important as it forces all parties to delve into arts’ role in reflecting life. In writing about creating reading groups that include both students and parents, teacher Jane M. Vossler uses three main criteria: quality, plot and conflict. She writes of these three:

Quality: Seek books with well-developed characters and inspired, excellent writing.

Plot: Look for intriguing story lines that will interest both adults and students.

Conflict: Look for books with “meat” to generate discussion and perhaps some disagreement. (2002, p. 134)

This can raise the deeper question for the community; does the literature reflect the teen’s experience, and how can teens be helped overall through these difficult issues. More important, it forces those students who are going to read the literature to move beyond mere reading and engage with the struggle presented. Because each community is faced with different issues and holds different values, each should develop a method of advising students, parents, teachers and administrators as to the appropriateness of a book for classroom use. While it may be difficult for all books to be reviewed by all interested parties, it could offer guidance to teachers and administrators about what titles are both engaging and appropriate.

Second, student choice is a good way to ensure that the different levels of development and maturity are being respected. Atwell’s program is one of reading and writing workshops where students make choices. She writes, “If we want students to grow to appreciate literature, we need to give them a say in decisions about the literature they will read.” (1998, p. 36) Students can also choose what not to read. Independent reading, literature circles and sustained silent reading (SSR) are all techniques being embraced by the middle school for these reasons. Through book talks, reading cafes, and other lessons students can gauge their interest and comfort by hearing from teachers, librarians, and peers as to what a book is about. In the end, though, adults need to recognize that even if adolescents are not yet adults, they are no longer children. Communities need to trust teens, and address the issues in the books, not the books themselves.

Students have a responsibility, too. They need to be self-aware. If a topic is making them uncomfortable, they need to advocate for themselves, from speaking up to simply putting the book down. When a library designates a book as “mature”, or a teacher warns a group that a story may contain an upsetting topic, it is the child’s responsibility to monitor their own comfort level and make choices. At the same time, students need to advocate when their needs are not being met. For example, a student making difficult choices about friendship should be encouraged to seek out books that answer their questions.

Finally, keep parents in the loop. While students need to be self-aware, this skill is still developing. While parents may be unaware of the issues facing their young adolescent, they are often aware of those issues of which their child is particularly sensitive. In addition, there may be additional background of which only the parent is aware. For example, a student who was sexually assaulted as a child may be too close to the themes tackled in Speak, hurting the child’s development more than helping them. Notification of class reading lists, or parent permission slips, allow the entire community to support student growth.

CONCLUSION

The cartoonist Walt Kelly once wrote, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Not only are we young adult books, but young adult books reflect us and our communities. Topics, issues and themes that we find disturbing as adults are even more frightening because the adolescents in our communities are facing them face-to-face. If they are come into adulthood as well adjusted, empathetic, self-knowing citizens we have to help them face these issues in a safe and intellectually rigorous environment. Literature plays an important role in this.

Of course, we must be aware that not all adolescents are the same. While some may be struggling with issues of body image, sexuality, or abuse, others may be exploring positive roles and activities that should be encouraged. In addition, not all middle school students have reached adolescence, and introducing subjects before they are intellectually and emotionally ready may be as confusing as not tackling them when they are. Similarly, not all books are the same, and the use of multi-dimensional, well-written literature, not titillating topic-centered tripe, is essential for stories to serve as a tool for reflection. The best course it to put students and their needs at the center of any use of literature, listen to them, and support their search for the truth in themselves and the world around them. Only then can we address the enemy within all of us and inspire adolescents to be heroes of our own lives.


References

Am I Blue? Coming Out From the Silence (Paperback) [Online] Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0064405877/sr=1-1/qid=1154293350/ref=pd_bbs_1/104-9333606-5031126?ie=UTF8&s=books. [2006, July 29].

Atwell, Nancie. (1998). In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook.

Baron, Robert A. (1989). Psychology: The Essential Science. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Bauer, Marion Dane (1994). Introduction. Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence. New York: Harper Trophy.

Bloom, Harold. (2000) How to Read and Why. New York: Touchstone.

Challenged Books. American Library Association [Online]. http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/ bannedbooksweek/challengedbanned/challengedbanned.htm#wdcb. [2006, July 22].

Cloud, John. (2005, October 10). The Battle Over Gay Teens. Time. 43 – 51.

Dworkin, Andrea. (1993) Letters From a War Zone. Brooklyn: Lawrence Hill Books.

Eggen, Paul & Don Kauchak. (1997). Educational Psychology: Windows on Classrooms. (Third Edition). Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Entertainment Rating Systems [Online]. American Academy of Pediatrics. http://www.aap.org/pubed/ZZZHRPJNASD.htm?&sub_cat=17 [2006, July 25].

Goats (Arielle Fiction). Amazon.com. [Online]. http://www.amazon.com/gp/produc

t/0374425760/sr=1-1/qid=1154292928/ref=sr_1_1/104-9333606-5031126?ie

=UTF8&s=books. [2006, July 25].

Institute of Museum and Library Services. (2005). Books for Grades 7 and 8.

Newspeak. Wikipedia.com [Online]. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newspeak. [2006, July 30].

Speak (Paperback). Amazon.com [Online]. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/product-description/014131088X/ref=dp_proddesc_0/104-9333606-5031126?ie

=UTF8&n=283155&s=books. [2006, July 25].

Stallworth, B. Joyce. (2006, April). The Relevance of Young Adult Literature. Educational Leadership. 59 – 63.

Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey. outProud [Online]. http://www.outproud.org/article

_vyrbs.html. [2006, July 11].

Vossler, Jane M. (2002). For the Love of Books: A Guide to Help Teachers Connect Middle Grade Readers with Literature. Westerville: National Middle School Association.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | August 20, 2008

The Night Librarian: Chapter One

The Night Librarian
Chapter One

Joseph stomped up the stairs and slammed his door.

He was mad.

He was irate.

He was livid.

Joseph was just plain angry.

He sat on his bed and glowered. After refusing to eat dinner (for what reason he could not remember), he had also refused to clear his plate. Then he yelled at his parents. As all good parents do, they sent him to bed early.

Still wearing his day clothes, because he refused to go to bed, Joseph pouted.

Then he moped.

Finally, he fell into a long sulk.

The night came. His window grew darker and darker. Streetlights turned on in the distance.

Joseph’s room was on the second floor, at the top of a very steep, very narrow staircase.  It was small, in a small house, and the room had a pitched roof that hung over his bed. His window overlooked the town’s library.  As the moon came out, his room grew darker than the night.

Sitting on his bed, most of his anger had left him. He did not know why he had not eaten dinner. Or why he refused to clear his plate. Yelling at his parents, well…. But he was no longer mad. He was hungry. There he sat, looking down at the library, and listening to his stomach growl.

And then he saw her.

She was about six feet tall and dressed entirely in black. At least he thought it was a “she”. It—she—seemed feminine.  She wore a long skirt. Her legs were clad in striped leggings. Over her body was a long, thick wool coat. On her head was a big, floppy hat. In her hand was a large tote bag. However, this was not unusual. Not compared to the other thing.

No. On her face she wore glasses that lit up.

Still, that was no too unusual. She was odd, but it was something else that Joseph would never forget.

On her back where enormous black wings.

The bird-woman (for Joseph did not know what else to call her) stepped out of a side door of the library. The library—formally called the Lawrence Memorial Library—had a door on the side that hung five feet above the sidewalk. The bird-woman stepped onto the stoop, somehow managed to close the door behind her, and spread her wings.

Then, she flew up into the night.

Joseph forgot that he was hungry. He jumped off of his bed and ran to the window. Looking up into the sky, he saw her wings flap as she flew high into the sky and over the rooftops of his town.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | August 19, 2008

In Defence of Burning Books

The following is an excerpt from Tom Darling’s novel The Night Librarian. In the book, the narrator buys a collection of discarded books and holds an annual book burning for her high school peers. Here, she defends the practice.

A word in defense of burning books.

For this discussion, let’s move beyond images of fascists and ignorance blazing the night sky with censorship. We watched those movies in World Civilization III. These are easy images that we do not see ourselves being part of, yet most of that World Civilization III class went to the third burning a few months later, even after what happened with Mr. Smith. (I tried to stop it.) That class included Dan, who ended the night with severe burns. If you are reading this book, your town probably does not have an annual burning. Your school probably funds its library. In that case, do you really know how you might act? So, instead, let us be honest: under the right conditions, you would burn a book.

Let us take a step back, though. While you look at this book now with a slender hope of finding a truly meaningful experience, the copy you hold in your hand will probably meet a predictably tragic end. At some point you will finish with this slender tome—perhaps in the bookstore after reading this sentence, hopefully after several introspective reads— and put it down. Prize it, recycle it, give it to your partner who has trouble reading an entire newspaper article without self-distraction, but the book in your hand at this moment will encounter an end few of us consider when we first pick them up. A book is hope, until it is not. Then what?

No, you care about books! I can hear you protesting now. You love them all. While this book, judged on what you have read so far, will wind up on the fire, let’s assume you have a copy of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace at home that you could not live without. So that we are on the same page, when I talk about the fate of books, I mean the physical book. Jack London and James Hilton will survive, but not the copy on your shelf that you do not read but cannot bring yourself to even lend, much less give to this fall’s library book sale (and excellent cause worth supporting). To understand, we must mentally move beyond titles and memories and personal biases. Think, for a moment, of each book simply as a “unit”. To an accountant at a large chain store, a “unit” means a single title or book. Some bibliophiles get upset when books are described as “units,” because it fails to delineate between a product with a soul (for example, books) and one without (say, different sized screws). Desensitization is part of business, though, at least to some degree. It helps keep the fires burning.

Just think about the physical books you own. Picture for a moment their actual bulk. Mentally, move beyond titles and memories and personal biases. Count the shelves of books you have at home, and multiply by their length. Forgetting for a moment each individual unit, give yourself a minute to internalize the length of shelving you have dedicated to books. Do you feel that this number is large? Small? Hold one of your heavy tomes in your hand at arm’s length and get a sense of weight. For convenience sake, use this book. Look at the book as you do this, and think about the feet of shelving and the tonnage they pull down on your shelves, walls, and floors. Now count units. For a moment, think only about that number. Forget the books. Forget them even as identical units in a bean-counter’s ledger. Focus on that number, and say it over and over under your breath. That number is the size of your inventory. In a very real, very hands-on way you have decided to save that number of books.

These exercises will help you create in your mind a finite numerical value to the collection of books you consider worthy of your space and resources. The Page, a used bookstore in New York City, advertises “57 miles of books.” Consider that in a typical year alone over 60,000 different titles will be published. Their figures are not as mentally tangible as yours now should be. Joseph Stalin, ruthless tyrant of the old Soviet Union, said the death of a single person was a tragedy, the death of millions only a statistic. His bookstore corollary: Your little personal library has emotional heft compared to your local bookstore. That is how I was able to sell and burn a few pallets of books my first year: volume.

If you wish to extend this little exercise, create a relative assessment within your own life. Compare your personal statistics about the books in your life to the linear feet dedicated to clothing: hanging, folded, and even shoes. Then count units of clothing. For those with a budgetary bent, do some quick calculation as to your budget priorities. A relative space, unit, and monetary comparison of your household food stores might also be helpful. Where do books really stand in your life, and how much of your talk is more a mental construct and based more on emotional attachment than hard numbers? How many, of all the books you own, are truly important to you? Books that you have read, admire, and will read again? You can throw away the rest, if only mentally.

So toss the following: That book your mother thought you would like but you knew from the first moment would never get read (Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for example). Old textbooks that you told yourself might get referenced again. All of those books that you bought because of the intriguing cover, but which never lived up to the art designer’s promises (shame: you judged a book by its cover.). Remember that British book that got all the praise, but seemed, well, too British (was it Goodbye, Mr. Chips)? They are doomed for never-returned lending or the eventual charity book sale, if only because of your lack of love for them. Mentally picture the heft of these books. Now let it go.

Now take that collection of “important” books, and imagine yourself moving to Mexico: how many are you taking now? How many cardboard boxes are you willing to collect, begged from that smelly grocery store guy with the bad demeanor, reassemble, carefully pack (you don’t want to crush spines), label, and carry not only down to the moving van but then drag back up the three flights of stairs to your new home? Are the friendships of those who will strain their back on Darling’s account worth the price of your beaten and chewed edition of The Night Librarian? Remember, you can buy the same titles once you arrive. It would only cost a few bucks new.

Will you lend any of the remaining ones to friends? After all, your friend who you never really trusted has always wanted to read Jack London’s To Build a Fire and Other Stories, and it was just sitting there and you could not say “no,” could you? These are gone, lost, destroyed by your chum’s dog, or lent to that friend of a friend through implied permission (“I didn’t think you’d mind, but since they spilled pasta on it I’ll just buy you a new one”). Now picture those still remaining. Are you really attached to those copies, or just any copy of Teen House Party that is readable? What makes them so special? Was it a gift, or did you have a personal revelation? Do you have any books left on your mental bookshelf that are personal classics?

My personal shelf comes to one title. THAT BOOK. I have a copy of The Razor’s Edge which I stole from The Devon School library that summer, shortly after that first burning. I have since collected several other copies of the book, from pulp editions to a movie tie-in. These, while fascinating to me, are replaceable. I am comforted by the old maroon covered Bantam edition of Phonies Kill Me, and the older Signet edition of Loving My Big Brother (it must have on the spine a little silhouette of the guy running¾he’s my fascination), but anyone could switch copies and I would never know it so long as I have a copy. Only my unlawfully obtained copy of Maugham passes my devastation test. Should I lose that particular copy, it would truly sadden me. That book!

At this point, we are talking about specific physical copies, not just titles. How many feet of shelving do you need now? What is the volume of the box you would pack? Well, if someone’s little sister doesn’t ruin it somehow, what is left in your house after the fire will have so much water damage that it will be one step closer to fire fuel. Or the binding will just break because you do not know how to properly store your books. Perhaps the clumsy movers misplaced it on the trip to Mexico, and some old man who moved to Durango is reading your copy of Human Hunter Survival Guide and Other Tales.

If you have any books left, I suspect that they would fit in a backpack. For all of your love of books—real, true love—all of the other books that have passed through your hands have found their way out of your life. A lot of things can happen to a backpack. When you die, chances are the contents will mean little to the benefactors and those precious units will end up on an unexpected journey just the same. An estate sale? Lot 49, miscellaneous books with a starting bid of ten dollars. Are you crying?

I know what happens to those books you hold most dear. Tens of thousands of “cherished” volumes from Woolf to Who-knows have passed through my hands. Inscriptions from parents, friends and lovers, bookplates recognizing library donors, and reader graffiti make their way onto shelves of used bookstores and are sold for a mere pittance of their emotional value, not to mention original dollar price. Or burned. Turning to the title page, in a hand only a loved one could read, are passions of the moment. Others are marked by their tattered edges; thumbed through copies, underlined passages, and copies with sand between the pages. To succeed in the dark and mysterious used book world, one must understand what happens in it. I know because, like a hard-boiled noir character in The Lime Green Suit, I dealt in people’s discarded sentiments: I know because I burned used books.

A typical conversation goes like such:

The Razor’s Edge (Penguin edition) at the coffee shop.

“I love this book,” he says with enthusiasm. “I must have read it fifty times. I wish I had a copy.”

“How come you don’t have a copy?” I ask, curious.

“I lent it to a friend and she never returned it.”

As I write this, I am looking at such a discard sitting in the corner of this attic. It is a paperback of the play They Defied Their Parents. On the half title page, “Helen” wishes someone named Karen “best wishes.” Karen, though, as told by the book being discarded, seems to have grown out of the social unrest that is called freshman year, or wants to avoid rereading the dangers of going to strange parties. The book is badly worn, dog eared, and has some water damage. Now Karen does not even have it. I do not know under what circumstances Karen might have found herself with a copy of They Defied Their Parents, nor where Karen is today. I do, though, know the fate of the book. I think of my copy of THAT book, and I miss it. 1-4-3.

Plenty of books will be trashed (recycled, I hope, or perhaps burned). Everyone shares the sentiment that it is a shame to throw out books, but realistically there are plenty that deserve it. Some books should never really have been published; horrible mysteries that hold no surprise, cookbooks using beef jerky, and celebrity bios. Forgetting about topical books like the Insert-Year-Here Rotisserie Baseball League Stat Book or Beating the Stockmarket in Insert-Year-Here, there are timeless victims as well. A cracked spine, bad glue job, or a bit of uncontrolled hot chocolate spill will take its toll on even the most lyrical classic. Some people over-highlight John Knowles (“Is there enough there to warrant such destruction, or deconstruction?” Mr. Chips once asked, as he was left to teach Mr. Smith’s classes and commented on Mr. Smith’s highlighted and heavily notated teacher’s copy), while others write comments in the margins of that even Maugham would find too cryptic (as in THOSE comments in THAT book). But some books just wind up being recycled because people are different. People also change. Perhaps Helen is a very different person than Karen—mother-daughter, casual friends, or misunderstood teammates. Or, Karen grew up: The obsessions and fears of middle school seem trivial by college.

The point is that most everyone, at least anyone worth talking to, cherishes books. Does that mean that every book is sacred? No. We all know people with basements full of boxes of tomes never looked at. They move from house to house, and with each house they add another twenty boxes and lose another five friends who are sick of lugging these volumes to and from the rental truck. Inside each box is an outdated title, or a biology text barely read (the first two chapters heavily highlighted and then nothing), or part of an encyclopedia, the other volumes being in a box long lost. These people say all books are sacred, but when do you see them read? No, they read paperbacks bought at yard sales before the spine cracks. The books in the boxes are never read, kept for reasons of good vibes, a mix of dharma, and rationalized with the belief that they will, one day, be read again. Burn them.

Even as romance novels and their readers have acquired the lowest position in the literary ladder, I have met several people who have built shrines to titles and authors most of us would not consider reading, even if doing so meant dinner with John Knowles (even if he was not dead). They eventually clear their stash, though. From these dedicated readers the specific, actual, book becomes a Zen aberration, a physical manifestation of an idea: reading, thinking, a good story. What Zen monks never talk about, though, is that when one moves beyond the physical, the body still remains. Someone has to dispose of the shell. In the literary world, that person was me. I was a book burner.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | May 9, 2008

You Can Change the Weather

It was with an intense desire to prove Mark Twain’s old saw wrong that caused Jill to start a radio call-in show about the weather. In her mind the operative idea in the line, “a lot of people complain about the weather, but few people do anything about it,” was the complaining. Her best intentions were to keep the dialogue open, and to get weather enthusiasts spreading the gospel of God’s gift to man. In time, she thought people would move beyond thoughtless comments and cliches and begin to appreciate the uncontrollable force that shaped so much of our daily existence. Instead people lined up for the chance to rally against the night. Those twenty or thirty other listeners in the valley who could receive the 10 watt signal heard dour after dour call not only grouse about the weather and everything associated with it, but made even good weather something to fear.

Sitting in an old office chair missing its coasters, the headphones she wore acting as a hair band, pulling the shortly cropped straight black hair behind her ears, Jill listened to the caller moan about the size of that day’s rain. She leaned forward. Never moving from the dials on the board, her gray-blue eyes rarely blinked while she listened to her caller describe their tenuously weather-related complaints. Thin bangs framed her stare. The caller lamented about the aches that went with a long life of hard work when a front moves in, in joints Jill had just started to notice would one-day give her pain. That night, in October, she wore a sweatshirt for a small mid-western college she had never attended over a t-shirt bought in her native New York. Her pants were baggy cargo pants that had, with a previous owner, seen military bases in Alberta and Newfoundland. The room was dark, except for a desk lamp, the dials, an exit sign, and the blinking lights of the phone.

Jill could not cut her listeners off. Regardless how epic their dirge had become, she had decided early in her radio career that she would not control the flow of the dialog, but only try and set a tone with her responses. This, of course, did not work. In a war of attrition, Jill was fighting generations of grizzled Vermont attitude. These stories had been honed through years of repetition, with each new weather pattern adding another coat to an already thick layer of dark sorrow. Each transgression was carefully spelled out with a slant in favor of the teller. In addition, the provincial nature of the callers, who were mostly born in Ragn and knew everyone’s business going back to the other person’s grandparent’s birth, left references to events that Jill could not know, nor was anyone willing to explain to her. It made her unable to respond in detail to most complaints. Instead, she educated and attacked the tone.

A typical exchange was like the one that occurred just a week before:

“I’ve been watchin’ hurricane Oliver,” Listener-James said, “and I wonder why they would ever name a hurricane Oliver in the first place.”

“Do you know how the hurricane naming system works?” Jill asked. She then explained it, including the more recent alternation of male and female names and the inclusion of more non-Anglo ones. It was all part of her attempt to breed tolerance in what she assumed was an incognizant town.

“I have to agree with the first caller….” came the next voice, after caller number one had provided the valley with a tirade fluctuating between freedom of expression and the lack of respect he seemed to get at work because of his background. “The problem I see is that we’ve had three Olivers in Ragn, if you count Bill’s cousin Oliver.”

“Why wouldn’t you?” Jill asked.

“You see, the problem with them namin’ hurricanes Oliver is that except for Bill’s cousin, the name just doesn’t make sense and it’s unfair. My sister Annie’s kid, Oliver, he’s five and he heard the name and decided to be a hurricane throughout the house.” The caller paused for a bit, thanked Jill for the chance to talk, and hung up.

It left Jill deflated. She was a volunteer, one of twenty, for the station only served their very small village of Ragn, in a cove down where Lake Champlain grows thin. Week after week it was the same stories about cars that broke down at inopportune times, family hunting accidents, and dairy herds that knew or did not know when it was going to rain, each with different names but the same contrary attitudes. They were vague tales, yet each seemed to carry the emotional load of a lifetime of wisdom. That they rung true was what bore down on Jill’s shoulders. They were not fascinating but haunting. Her week between shows was spent thinking about the details of offhand comments; calves drowned by rising marshes, dark cold nights filled with trepidation, and families destroyed by lightening strikes and falling trees. Death seemed to stand ominously in the background of funny stories involving barns burned down, lightening storms, and cold, fracturous ice. Always it came back to the ice, water, and the cold.

These apparitions did not come to her at night, but instead caught her off guard at work, bent over a drafting table. She was a graphic designer. There, she did not think about her life or the day’s problems. It was during drives in the car, long walks with the dog, or sitting in front of the television that Jill thought of issues she could do nothing about. Creating advertisements helped her brain stop. Now the weather wheedled its way in. Jill thought about quitting, and then came in for another week.

New York had given her similar fears. Never had the homicides, muggings, and drug-fueled violence fueled her anxieties. Instead, it was the quiet depression she would notice in the back of a bar, the loneliness of her neighbor carrying groceries up the stairs of their fourth floor walk-up, or electric confusion on the face of someone walking through the park on a cold Saturday. For months a half finished glass of lager beer burned itself into her closed eyes as it sat before a woman her age drinking an afternoon drink at Jill’s favorite bar. She could hear the song playing–Jonathan Richman’s Twilight in Boston–and hearing it now still brought back that feeling of desperation. Smoke from a cigarette, taken in silence, depressed her as the olfactory senses tripped synapses in the recess of her brain. There was no story to tell. Still, the image was there. It sat next to the veins bulging from her neighbor’s calf as she rested between floors. The eyes of that hyped child stopped her. They came fast, and then lingered about for days.

The station itself was little more than a room. Besides her worn chair and lamp, the control board, transformer, and amplifier were nondescript. Unfinished beyond the sheetrock being taped, a few wires led down to the fusebox on the first level and up to the roof where the tiny aerial stood. On windy nights it snapped around, and whistled. Overall, it was less impressive than a modest television aerial seen on most houses closer to Burlington. It took time to produce a show each week. She was not a professional meteorologist, only a semi-successful freelance graphic designer with some time on her hands and a desire to talk to others about the very wonderful natural phenomenon that is the weather. Now she wanted to quit.

She, in fact, started to hate the weather. Jill could only think about was how the weather, any weather, would play on among her listeners in some sad, horribly twisted way. In a small town a lack of rain might endanger crops, while too much could wash the topsoil into the lake. By the end of the week she realized that there was no escape, and came to appreciate the true wisdom of Twain: not only could you do nothing about the weather, but also there was no escaping it.

Living in a small house a short way outside of town, Jill walked the main street to the radio station every Thursday evening for her show. After thinking about the previous week’s theological discussion over the physical impossibility/possibility that the flood Noah lived through would occur in only forty days, Jill reflected that it had been raining in the cove for about ten. Some basements had flooded, and she dreaded the weekly calls that would come in¾the same people over and over and a lot of advice about sump pumps. They had nothing to do at night but listen and call. The only good news Jill had received was an article in the county coupon-riddled weekly Penny Market saying that the local cable operator had had an increase in people demanding the Weather Channel be available on basic service, with a nod towards Jill’s show being a cause.

One last night, Jill told herself. She walked through the rain, tramping up to the second story loft that housed the small studio. It was above the vacant former dry goods store; in what was once a storage room for hardware supplies, rubber boots, and bolts of cloth. It was barely lit, and she was running late. As she entered, Jill could hear the farmer’s son cum reggae d-jay that worked before her playing a rasta version of Stormy Weather. It went on four minutes after her arrival, but Jill was glad for the downtime. The lines were already lit, and the reggae d-jay was telling them over the music that Jill would be on soon and that the rasta Stormy Weather was a special introduction¾a dedication from one professional to another. Jill smiled at the boy, while the boy in turn bobbed his head to the music and smiled back. Finally, Jill got behind the mike and waited for the silence that would be her to fill.

“We are here once again to prove Mark Twain wrong, and not complain about the weather. We’ve had rain for ten days now, and I’d like to hear some positive feedback on that.”

“Jill, if you ask me I think its a damn shame that this flood has to come at this point in the season….”

“Well, the main problem with this rain is that it’s a cold rain, and my wood pile hasn’t dried out enough yet to stoke the furnace and warm up. I mean, I take a hot bath, but I can’t live in the tub….”

“Have you seen those lesbians walkin’ around town in the rain? They don’t wear bras. With the rain, I can see right through their two layers of clothin’ when they take that dog out for a walk. It’s a disgrace….”

“Listen, I thought we would talk about something positive today. If not about this beautiful rain, then about a beautiful weather day from your past. Certainly someone in Ragn has something good to say to me.”

“But this rain is about to wash away my flower beds. I know the season is over, and the fall will close everythin’ else anyway, but I don’t see anythin’ positive….”

“What is your name again, sir?”

“Frank.”

“Well, Listener-Frank, did you know that the word Ragn is actually Old English for rain?”

“It was named after a hamlet in Scotland,” Listener-Frank demanded.

“That’s where this town got its name, but that town, the Scottish town, got its name from the word rain,” Jill fought back. “The Middle English word is Ragn, with a g instead of an i. So we live in a town where rain is our legacy. It runs deep. You are participating in self-defilement as you curse the darkness.”

“It’s just too much….”

So it went on. Jill listed to caller after caller complain about the rain, taxes, how the rain would effect taxes, and lesbians in town not wearing bras and how that was indecent, especially in this weather. This last point irritated her, because it was an indirect attack on her. Although she always wore a bra, Jill knew that everyone in Ragn knew that she was half of the couple that had moved to town. Complaints about the weather were one thing, but cowardly attacks seemed to be on another level. When first moving here they had expected to be shunned or possibly harassed, but things had been subtler. It was disappointing, more than anything else was, to be reminded that she did not fit in. It was more real, more personal, that receiving straightforward hate.

Jill took a break. Putting on Sun, Sun, Sun, she took a walk around the booth. She was now the only one there. The station had been designed so no engineer would be needed. A remnant from the 10-watt under-powered pirate radio days, it was not registered with the Federal Communications Commission and served a community interest that had been needed since the closing of the dry goods store. In fact, the few radio shows they did have were pressed into service even more since the store’s closing. Now, with a simple turntable, CD player and microphone, they were the electronic porch of the dry goods store. Jill watched the arm and needle spiral slowly towards the center of the LP.

“Do we have anyone with anything positive to say, or do I have to fill the last two hours of the show with my personal reflections on the rain?”

The lights continued to glow.

“I swear, if any one of these lines has something bad to say about the weather, I will read rain poetry for the remainder of the evening.”

One light flashed. Jill pushed it.

“Hello.”

“Yes, I’m a first time listener and first time caller. I’m also the other lesbian who walks around town without a bra on. Actually, I wear a bra some of the time. In fact, I just moved up here from the city last month.” She stopped.

“Hello?” Jill said after a pause.

“I just wanted to say that I moved here for the rain. And the sun, and the snow. I moved here for the weather on the water, and the feel of it on me. I guess I did not even realize that I was offending anyone for not wearing a bra, but…. I am just amazed that you even have a show on just what is the most amazing part of this town. Sitting here, in my kitchen, for the first time, over a warm cup of tea and hearing the rain and this show… I feel at home. It’s the first time since I got here that I’ve felt that. I just wanted you to know that.”

There was a silence.

“And your name, listener?”

“Jane.”

Jill waited for her to finish, knowing she was done, but not wanting to comment and ruin the moment. Looking at the three-line switchboard, she saw that at least two people were eager to comment. There was a window in the back of the studio, albeit small. It was dark, but Jill could still hear the rain, and see the refraction of its drops on the pain. She did not respond, nor let others do it for her. The microphone for the station was something salvaged from the high school, unattached to anything and easy to move. She put it against the window, where drops of water were hitting hard against the pane. Throughout the rest of the show, and the evening, Jill let the silence and the rain last.

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