Reading · Teaching

Once More to the Grail

My students are in the midst of their third Grail romance this quarter.  They read Thomas Malory’s account (in Middle English!), Chretien de Troyes’s Perceval, and they are now intrepidly trotting through Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.
They are doing wonderful work.
They are comparing the object of the grail, and the procession accompanying it.  They’re interested in the different qualities a grail knight requires in each tradition, and in how the character of Percyvalle, Perceval, Parzival differs and stays identifiable.  And they’re doing admirably with the maze of similar but wacky-in-new-ways names. 
They’re trying to get at a core character for Percy.  He’s got to be young, naïve, and not worldly-wise at all.  This innocence seems key to his success in the grail quest.
He still makes plenty of mistakes. His mom tells him to accept love tokens such as rings from fair ladies, so he wrenches the ring off an unwilling maiden.  His next teacher tells him not to ask so many questions, so when the grail castle appears out of nowhere, he witnesses the miracle of the grail, and asking whom it serves would heal the Fisher King and the Wasteland–he stays silent because he’s honoring his teacher.
He seems to apply instruction too literally.  Instruction only gets one so far. Real life is more nuanced than any simple rule can predict.
I think this is why college students like him.  He demonstrates that no matter how well-educated you are, it still matters how you live your life.  You can have bad instructors or great ones, but it matters what you do with your new knowledge. And sometimes the learning curve is pretty gradual: what you have been told takes a while to internalize.
Percy looks on the surface like the “least likely to succeed” in the grail quest, but he lives his way in to the answers (thanks, Rilke!). His experiences shape him, and he fails as often as he wins, but he perseveres.  He apologizes and fixes things when he messes up. He keeps trying to improve himself.
And he achieves the holy grail.
All that remains for us is to do our best, too, then—to own our mistakes and to learn from them, to stand up for people when they need help, to keep going even if we get lost along the way.  It’s not over until the grail castle appears, and the grail castle won’t appear until we’re ready for it.
Innocence, then, isn’t just chastity or virginity. It’s faith that there is order in the universe. We can all achieve that.

The Problem with Reading Incentive Programs

I have a hard time with reading incentive programs. I remember when I was a kid, and my mom made me read novels for the Read-a-thon, when other kids were reading picture books, and I got creamed, even though I was reading a lot more. I learned that kids will game the system if they’re allowed to.
I was reminded of this when my kids were learning to read. There were the Pizza Hut incentives, but they didn’t work well because we didn’t make it to Pizza Hut very often (like once, maybe). And then there was the Accelerated Reader program. And that took my general disenchantment with external motivation incentive programs to new heights of fury.
I think it’s true that if you set up an external reward system, a significant number of kids will find a way to get the prize without doing the work, and when it comes to reading, the stakes are too high for that.
We want kids to love reading.  If they do, so much is easier for them, and they have a lifelong source of solace and inspiration.  There is a lovely time, right around third grade, where kids are supposed to move from the “learning to read” stage to the “reading to learn” stage, and if they love to read, this period can feel like a rocket launching.
If they don’t, it’s miserable for everyone.
But the solution is not external motivation.  The AR program is a system of points accumulated by taking quizzes over books the child has read.  Let’s start there. That presumes the book has been rated (so it’s worth a certain number of points), and that there is a quiz available to take. The quizzes are content-based, checking recall, and they’re multiple choice.  The system-gamers just got pretty good odds; they can take quizzes without having read or read carefully, and hope to do ok. And the kids who read books that aren’t approved, rated, and quizzed up, can’t get points for reading what they like to read.
In fact, on some questions, kids who haven’t read may do better than the kids who have, because the questions are sometimes so detailed, they don’t have anything to do with the big aspects of plot or character. I remember a question that asked if Clifford the Big Red Dog used a phone pole or a tree to sharpen his claws.  It doesn’t matter, really—you have to know he was a big dog, so he didn’t use a toothpick, but if you couldn’t remember exactly, you could still get plenty from the story.
And look at what else kids are learning: that details matter more than plot.  That what happened is more important than how it made you feel.  That reading superficially–for recall—is good. If they get anything about critical thinking from the new Common Core, they will be spending the rest of their years unlearning these lessons AR taught them.
I teach literature. I do use these kinds of quizzes at the beginning of my classes, so that students have a concrete reason to keep up with the reading. It’s part of their grade, so it keeps them honest when the realities of life threaten their best intentions. I use these quizzes to take attendance; that’s it.  Then I spend an hour or more talking about what the text is really about.
AR keeps these quizzes as an endpoint. When you’re done with the book, the culminating experience is a multiple-choice quiz. I want my kids to get so much more out of books than that. I want them to want to read because they love it—because they get to go places they’ve never heard of, meet people different from themselves and surprisingly similar, learn lessons about human nature and Mother Nature, and hear the beauty of well-wrought words. I want them to understand that when the book ends, their imaginative experience of it does not, and that what is wonderful about a book—what they felt as they read it, what they learned when they talked about it with their friends, and how they will carry its lessons with them–is not ever going to be contained in a quiz.
Living · Writing

Metamorphosis–Giving Myself Permission to Change

I got my fifteen year pin at work. That’s half a career. It feels like a perfect time to shift some gears.
I sometimes have to remind myself not to be afraid of change. I’m pretty good about trying new foods and restaurants, but big changes, I resist. I’m done moving. I chose a career with job security.  I’ve been married to the same guy pretty much all of my adult life.
But I know change is good. I know it’s invigorating, and I know it’s necessary. Since I’m not willing to trade in my husband for another model, it had to be work that changes.
I certainly am not stopping teaching, although some shifts are coming there too, as we change to semesters, and I step out of the King Arthur class and in to some new territory after “semester conversion.”  But this is a multi-faceted job I’m in, so I’m shaking things up in terms of writing.  Really, I’m giving myself permission to revisit a dream.
If you had asked me at fifteen what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d have said write, and at that point, I’d have meant poetry. I wrote a lot when I was young, but I could never have been so bold as to try to make a career out of writing creatively.
After about twenty-five more years of reading, though, I feel like I have something to write.
It started with a book for my kids. After reading so many books to them, I felt like I could tell where the gaps were, and what worked and didn’t work. But I still wasn’t ready to commit to thinking of myself as a writer.  It took five years to write one little novel. The kids I wrote it for have grown up; that doesn’t sound like I’m a writer—more like a scratcher in the sand.
This year, though, I’m picking up speed. I got awarded a sabbatical to wrap up the novel. That was very validating. I started a blog about reading. It turns out that counts as writing! Before I finished my first novel, I started thinking about the second one. And as I start getting in to critique groups and searching for an agent, I find I have reached a critical mass of baby steps toward a new identity and now don’t feel like an impostor when I call myself a writer.
There is a delicate dance, being a reader and a writer, and we can go from being one to another and back again in an endless circle. I have always considered myself a reader, but only a dilettante writer.  But I have come around to writer again, and this time I’m not begging off.
The best bit of wisdom my dad ever gave me was “If you do what you love, you’ll never work again.”  At the time, I dropped the biology degree and ran headlong in to literature and languages.  And he was right (except for grading). What he forgot is that there can be more than one thing you love.

The Music of a Language

I have the excellent good fortune to teach English in a department of English and Modern Languages.  This means the hall where we live is filled with people who are bilingual and multilingual. It means we have majors in Spanish as well as English, and minors, certificates, and courses in several other languages. It means I hear different languages daily, some of which I can pick out words and follow conversations, and some of which I know next to nothing and can only hear the music. This post is about why that is valuable.
Recently I had a discussion about the sounds of different languages.  You know the stereotypes—Romance languages sound lovely, but Germanic sound harsh, like you’re being yelled at. In fact, it was sparked by this meme:
In some ways that’s not wrong—languages that have a preponderance of words that end in vowels, like Italian or Spanish, sound like the words run together more fluidly, since the vowel of the last word joins to the consonant in the next word just like the syllables do in a single word. This makes the words flow together in a way that the consonant-heavy Germanic languages can’t achieve. In German or English, words more often end in consonants, which means you have to stop the flow of air more often. It sounds like you pause on purpose after each word so you can pronounce them all, and also to differentiate between words. It means you get more of a staccato, shotgun sound as you utter the sentence.
Compare, for instance, part of a line from Dante’s Purgatorio : “Lo sommo er’ alto che vincea la vista…” (Purg. 4.40)–where every word ends in a vowel except the one that’s been abbreviated for the sole purpose of keeping the musical vowel-consonant alteration–with a line from Rilke’s “Evening”: Der Abend wechselt langsam die Gewӓnder,” where the only word that doesn’t end with consonants is an article (‘the’).  Americans tend to view the Italian as more musical and the German as more aggressive, just on the basis of whether there are more vowels or consonants.
Imagine our dismay, then, when we think about English—that glorious bastard tongue of “German spoken with a French accent,” as one of my French professors used to say.  Is it German?  Is it Romance? (English has a whole lot of Latin borrowing as well, and American English is busy borrowing from Spanish as we speak.) So which is it? Both?
The difference for me is not that one is more beautiful than another. (I have heard people be very seductive and debonair in German.) It’s more that they are both musical until we know what they say.  When we have no clue, we can focus on the sound—the lilt of Romance or the rhythm of Germanic. As Jorge Luis Borges says in his gorgeous essay on his blindness, when you don’t know a language, “each word [is] a kind of talisman that [you] unearth.” Each word rings with strangeness and music, and comes out more a chant than a sentence.
This is a reason to study another language. In addition to making you more cosmopolitan, introducing you to other cultures and gaining a better understanding of your own language’s grammar, you get to experience that music. You get to enjoy the process of turning that music in to meaning. Because that’s the problem with listening to a language you already know, particularly natively:  you are so busy making it mean something, you forget to listen to how beautifully it sings.
Reading · Teaching

Transfiguring Grief

I taught the story of Phaethon in my Myth as Lit class last week.  In some ways, it’s become trite:  Young Phaethon gets caught up in his desire to drive his father’s car, to step in to his shoes too soon, and ends up literally going down in flames.  Phaethon’s dad happens to drive the sun, not just a Camaro, so when he goes too high he scorches the heavens, and when he drops too low he sets the world on fire.

Jove, his grandfather, has to shoot him out of the sky with a thunderbolt. Apollo, his father, mourns so that the world is sunk in to darkness, for he is too distraught to go to work. The only light comes from the burning wreckage of the earth. This sounds pretty dramatic as I write, but still the story of Phaethon taking on his dad’s role before he’s ready is pretty well known, and can feel obvious.

I classify it in class as one of the 18-year-old-itis tales—one where the only “tragic flaw” is youth. He is in that period of life when boys (girls too, but statistics bear out mostly boys) start taking big risks without realizing the consequences. When they feel bullet proof.  But they’re not.  And they die.  Icarus falls here too, of course, and for similar reasons—flying too high, too fast.

So that’s why it feels overused, I suppose, because it is. There are lots of stories of young men dying because they underestimate laws of physics and overestimate their own abilities. But reading it this time, I was struck not so much by that lesson, but more by the grieving family he left behind.

In Ovid’s tale, Apollo mourns his son with a depth and a humaneness that staggers me.  When he refuses to show up to work, he cries, “Let someone else/ now guide the chariot that bears the light!/ If none will do that, and the gods confess/ they can’t, let Jove himself take on that task!/ And when he plies my reins, at least for once/ he’ll have to set aside the thunderbolts/ he uses to strip others of their sons.” He is devastated, and he is a god. What chance, then, have the mortals who love Phaethon?

His mother mourns.  She wanders the world looking for a sign of him, any trace of his lost body.  When she finds the grave that nymphs have made for him, she throws herself on it and bathes it in tears.  His sisters follow, and in their grief, they transform in to poplar trees.  The mother loses more children, as she tries to tug at the branches to free them, only to be told the branches are their arms, and she’s hurting them more by holding on. 

A cousin, too, transforms in his sorrow, this time to a swan.  (His name is Cycnus, which means ‘swan,’ and we still have ‘cygnet’ in English, meaning a baby swan.) Ovid uses this and other opportunities to show that we have an underlying nature that can be revealed by transformation. Cycnus wails for Phaethon as a swan, while his sisters are rendered immobile by their grief.  Paralyzed.  They are able only to cry tears of sap, which, beautifully, transform in to amber. Those who could not abide the pain of grief gave themselves over completely. 

This message seems clear to me: grief is transfiguring. If we let it, it can undo us. It always changes us. In the context of Apollo and his creed–Know thyself; and Nothing in excess—we can come to see even grief can be excessive, but the gods also grieve, so there must be something noble in feeling loss so profoundly. 

In the larger context of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it anticipates the story of Proserpina’s (Persephone) marriage to Pluto, which bonds life to death in an unbreakable union, promising that death will never just be death; there will always be life attending—following in sequence as the seasons follow one another, and living together with death, so we can bear death more easily.

This scene struck me last week when I taught it. It resonates even more today, in the aftermath of the largest mass shooting in recent American history. I hope we let this grief transform us too, and resolve to take action to prevent it happening again.  Young men do lots of crazy things that put their lives at risk, but going to a concert shouldn’t be one of them.
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