Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Memento Mori, again. . .

I can overdo this, I know.  One can get too much of a good thing.  But the fact is, they show up all over these days, in so many different forms that it's just hard to keep up--these little reminders of death, mementos of the end, visual reminders of what I all too often hear anyway--the clock ticking away in me.  

Still, those images, those reminders, march into my life like unwanted guests.

Yesterday, I sat just outside what was once the Lutheran church at Highland, Iowa.  The imprint that old edifice left in the earth is twenty-feet wide, maybe thirty-feet front to back, although determining just exactly how that tiny frame church might have been positioned, eighty years ago, is anybody's guess, its congregants long gone, some of them buried in cemetery just a few steps east. 

That little church was no Lakota teepee or else we'd know for sure that it opened to the east, to the sun, to the dawn.  My guess is that the graves would have stood behind it, the church itself facing west, the road in front of it.  No matter how you position it, it's just remarkably small.

The churchyard cemetery is a ecclesiastical feature lugged along by European immigrants and then, here in America, simply abandoned.  Graveyards on church property are long gone today, and who knows why?  

I can guess.  Once American Christians began to understand that to survive they had to do a better job of marketing, someone on the inside likely argued that we ought to let someone else carry out the morbidity of putting away our dead.  Why should the church bury its own?  Sheesh, how do you expect to get the unchurched in to hear the Word when they've got to zig-zag through a minefield of silent tombstones?  

Once upon a time, Highland Lutheran buried its own; but Highland Lutheran is no more, and no church I know of plans a graveyard any time soon.  

Makes all kinds of sense.  Not long ago, a new preacher in this community was asked whether the church he was now serving, a progressive congregation, would ever build a sanctuary instead of renting a theater, as they now do.  I can't quote his answer, but he said something like this--"Well, maybe, but I can guarantee you it won't look like a church."

I understand why he said what he did, but isn't there something really odd about that answer?  As if what a church should do is paint itself in camo?  Maybe I'm just getting old.  No, I am.  

Anyway, nobody in their right minds would ever get anywhere close to suggesting a brand new church plant, even here in the rural Midwest, should adorn their lawn with tombstones.  Think of your image.

Yesterday, once again, I sat there in the middle of that juxtaposition at Highland, Iowa, and was thankful it was there, really, thankful for the grassy outline of a building, a church long gone, a congregation no more than thirty people who used to meet out there from somewhere in the 1890s until the town disappeared, mid-Depression, 1935.  All that's left is the stones and the outline of the old church.  

Nothing else--nothing at all remains; but as some deeply religious writer once said about the wide-open spaces all around a Highland, sometimes nothing is really something.

It was a blessing to be out there with my students, and this morning I'm thankful for the place and the moment, for the wind, for a bright and glorious expanse of this good earth, an expanse only God can fill.

Enough of the memento mori stuff.  Today I've got to teach, and tomorrow I'm off the Willa Cather's Red Cloud.  Life is to be lived.

Last summer at Alkmaar, the Netherlands, slowly eating a couple of wedges of the smoothest Gouda my tongue had ever noted, I found this stone lady in the local cathedral, that blasted skull just beneath her hip.  Couldn't help but giggle then.  Can't help but giggle now.  

If old men are somehow destined to uncover endless mementos of death, as I seem to be, I'd just as soon do more giggling.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Swan Song VII--The Class at Highland

Sometimes I envy my friend Diane Glancy, who goes to places where significant events have happened--say, Wounded Knee--and then simply sits there, alone, often for hours until she begins to hear the voices of those who were there.  Her being Native--she's Cherokee--is a blessing, I believe, a blessing I don't have.  I'm proud of my wooden shoes, but they're for the barn, for this world, not some habitat of spirits.  But that doesn't mean I can't try.

So today, in two vans, I'm taking 23 writing students to a ghost town ten miles west--to Highland, Iowa, a town that's no longer there.  What's left on a rise in the earth--literally, a spot of high land--is a couple of grassy acres surrounded by pine trees, otherwise rare as hen's teeth here on the edge of the plains.  Inside stand a couple dozen grave sites and a remarkable indentation in the earth, the shadowy outline of a church so tiny that I can hardly get all 20 kids inside, an old house of worship.

Maybe, just this morning, my students and I can listen.  Maybe, just for a moment, we can be Native.

I've taken classes out there for fifteen years, I think, a long time anyway.  We're going again this morning, for the last time.

The playwright William Inge, a native of Kansas, didn't want anyone to call his homeland prairies flat, because flat suggests lifeless wine and archless feet.  He much preferred level.  

He was right, of course.  There's nothing at all flat about the plains.  We have no mountains, no escarpments, no canyons--except maybe what you can find tucked away in the Black Hills.  To some, the place where we live may seem altogether featureless, but it's not.  Not really.  The nearly boundless expanse of the plains tend, almost shamelessly, to feature any last thing that sits or stands upon it, like the old iconic windmills.  The literature of the homesteading era often includes stories of madness, people losing it all in the sheer emptiness, nowhere to hide. 

The adjective of choice may well be undulating--a sweet word full of soft, rolling vowels no less gentle than its consonants, a word that ends in a song.  But I may well be romanticizing because there really is nothing cushy about the place where we live.  While a sunset can spread a masterful palette of colors out over what seems half the earth and more open sky than you can imagine, the plains are not for aesthetes.

Look sometime at our cottonwoods, no matter how huge.  They huddle in clumps, like homesteads and towns, clinging to rolling land that seems determined to shake them.  Most of our trees are immigrants; they've been here no longer than the white man, 150 years.  Once upon a time, all of this was a grassy ocean. 

There's so much prairie out here, so much not to see, that I've loved taking my writing classes out to make sure they don't miss it.  What I love about old Highland is its lofty position on the landscape:  up a knoll, at the corner of two dissecting gravel roads that fall away from the intersection like unfurling ribbons of dust.  To the west sits the quintessential American vision--endless waves of rolling land flowing into a horizon often indistinguishable from the heavens. 

Now picture this.  None of my students is exactly thrilled to be out there.  The Iowa kids have grown up on the prairie; they'd just as soon leave.  West-coast kids certainly haven't come to school out here because they lusted for some Great Plains experience.  As much as they enjoy getting out of class, they harbor serious concerns about the sanity of the prof when he parks the van at the cemetery and tells them all, Joseph Smith-like, that this is the place.

Here's what happens.  They get out warily.  It doesn't matter if the sky is dark with clouds or clear as a bell.  They step out of the van, clutching their notebooks, their Bics in their teeth, and take a few slow steps down the gravel road.  

"Here we are," I say.  "Find a place to sit and fill up some paper."  That's all I tell them.  It's early in the morning, but all the way out there they've been talking.  Once they take a few steps away from the van, however, they're silent.  Maybe it's the cemetery.  

They stand there poised between the gravestones of a long-gone, slivery fragment of human civilization and the liquid dreaminess of endless prairie landscape west, and, I'm telling you, the place takes their breath away.  There are no curios here, no souvenir shops, and they can't get an Egg McMuffin for miles.  The place is so empty it's eerie, so expansive it diminishes them.

That's when they really "see" the world they inhabit.  I love it.

The older I get, the more I believe in the sheer necessity of stunning moments of bewonderment.  We can argue endlessly about the goals of a Christian education--a system I've forever been a part of--but for me, having my students stop, just for an hour, and look and see the endless expanse of prairie is the closest I can come all year long in any syllabus to teaching something that should be one of Christian education's most dedicated requirements--sheer awe.  

I don't have to tell them to work.  I don't have to reprimand a one of them for chatting or giggling.  I don't tell them they're responsible for some dinky 500-word essay to be handed in the moment we get back to the campus.  I don't even say I want to read what they write.  In fact, in all those years, I've never read a word of that assignment because I want them simply to look, to see, and to feel with their pens.

You don't need a mountain top for a spiritual experience.  A prairie will do.

I want my students to see what's so greatly there--God's own immensity in the sheer expansive landscape.  I want them to feel small in the wide, wide world he's given us just a mile or two down the road.  I want them to see and to smile, to listen to the whispers of the Holy Ghost.
I've got my reasons for class at Highland.  For just for a moment, I want them out there, to be still and to know that He is God.         

This morning we go again.  The temps will be great, the morning a blessing.  This will be the last time for them.

But not for me.   

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Swan Song VI--what's proper

The news reports it this way.  The singer Rihanna was somewhere up in rural Ireland doing some kind of photo shoot in a meadow of sorts when she decided to doff her top.  Pleasant enough, I suppose.  But the farmer who owned the land, who happened to be out on his tractor, came over and politely asked her cover her famous bosoms because he simply couldn't have her strutting about thus unadorned.  "I had a conversation with her," said Farmer Graham.  "I hope she understands where I'm coming from.  We shook hands."  After all, what's a man without a dress code?

Then there's this.  A young and gorgeous Canadian legislator named Rathika Sitsabaiesan, 29, lost her considerable cleavage when some Farmer Graham in the government admin photoshopped it away for her official portrait--now you see it, now you don't.  

Someone apparently thought that shadowy line not proper.

At strange times lately, I've been thinking about the virtual disappearance of the word proper, a word possibly relegated to the same waste receptacle as the word righteous, even though self-righteous remains in current usage.   What I'm saying is that you just don't hear this phrase much anymore:  "what's proper?"  You don't hear it as a question nor as an answer.  

My experience in this town and at this college reaches back nearly a half century, and some changes are not only dramatic but almost magnificent in their amplitude.  In ye olden days, I was, more than once, unceremoniously bounced from the food line at dinner for wearing jeans.  Not proper.  It was the late 60's and the times, they were a changin', but not here.  No sir.  The oddly jittery Dean of Students would take my arm and aim me back to the dorm to get into something proper.  Sandals, the footwear of flower children, were frowned upon too.  I'm not making this up.  

Back then, people knew what was proper, and what was proper often translated into what was righteous.  

When that happens, life can get scary.  

In the depth of winter, early January, young women back then were permitted to wear slacks to class--not jeans, of course, only slacks--but only when the temperature on the college radio station (not any other)  at six o'clock (not a minute before) was -20 (not -19 either).  Only then.  Otherwise, slacks weren't proper--only skirts were.  Pure idiocy.  

Such an edict ruled, ironically, despite the fact (mark this) that the late 60s was the era of the mini-skirt.  I remember sitting at dorm windows with a bunch of guys, for fun and relaxation, just sitting there looking over slippery icy sidewalks, waiting for female disasters happening every fifty minutes because they happened with that kind of regularity.  "Oops--you see that?  I'n't that great?"  Those were the righteous years, when things were proper.   

A half-century later we've all gone plain liberal.  A couple weeks ago I asked a young colleague, privately, whether or not he noticed that there was more Calvinist cleavage per square Kuyperian inch these days than ever before in his classes, and then felt great relief when he sat up tall and said, "No kidding."

It's one thing to grow old, after all, another to grow old and sleazy.  I was greatly relieved.

But it's hard for me to know what's proper these days.  You stand up in front of class, as profs are want to do, and look down at a row of coeds hunched over their books and suddenly there are more ripe peaches before your eyes than in all the state of Georgia.  But you can't look.  Or you shouldn't.  Or, as my Grandma used to say, you mightn't.  Not especially if you're an old fart.  I try to be proper.  I really do.  But there they are, considerably more than bushel.

I have no doubt the Dean of Students, a woman, would show up, just like Farmer Graham, should some young lady decide to pull a Rihanna.  That far we wouldn't go; but it seems without question that, a half-century ago, the college administration was vastly more sure of what is and isn't proper.  As are we all.

And, after all, what we're talking about is little more than fashion, finally.  If I were teaching in 1880 in some Fiji mission, my finest students could well be sitting before me in birthday suits.  Some early missionaries among the Dakota in Minnesota, some missionaries of the female persuasion, at times would remark on how, gulp, strangely disconcerting it was to preach the gospel to buff young braves bedecked in nothing more than a breech cloth.

Fashion.  Necklines rise and fall, after all.

In Dortrecht, the Netherlands, this summer, I noted in some craftsman's hand-carved re-enactment of the famous Synod of Dordt, the very confab that gave this college it's name, that just about every last delegate--even the greatly hated Remonstrants, those devotees of that heretic Arminius-- wore a beaver hat.  See for yourself.  I suppose it simply wasn't proper to show up at synod without one.

It's almost 400 years later, but here we are at a place named after that famous creedal council, a place where staunch Calvinists stood foursquare against free will and thereby blessed the Calvinist world with T-U-L-I-P and this institution with it's own odd name.  All of that doctrinal disputation accomplished in proper beaver hats.

The truth is, in fifty years at this place, I've never once seen anyone wear a beaver hat.  

That's okay.  I rather prefer the cleavage.   

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Swan Song V--The fall of Ozymandius

Professor Schaap,
I know that the paper is due tomorrow and i probably should have sent this email a couple days ago, however i am just a little confused on what the content of this paper should entail. If you could just email me a little of what im supposed to be talking about i can compare it with where i am/change some things.thanks for your help,
Names have been changed to protect the innocent, but this is a cut-and-pasted e-mail from yesterday, the day the paper was due.  Sweet enough, you say--and it is.  The kid's not a pain.  I like him, I think he likes me, and the class itself is off to a really good start (of course, I haven't taken a grade yet--things could change). 
I got eight of these yesterday, eight humble requests for more info.  Nobody's snotty or pushy.  Nobody's mad or arrogant.  Just nice requests for me, once more, to go over the assignment.
About a decade ago in some kind of in-service meeting, we faculty were told that students often complained about profs not being clear enough in their writing assignments.  My Calvinism speaks in such moment--I read my own sin into that kind of broadside.  I'm footloose as a pony when it comes making assignments, more often than not wandering hopelessly off the neatly printed syllabus I give them, first day of class.  I am--and I've been told as much for most of my years--more than occasionally hard to follow.
So I determined I needed to improve.  Once upon a time I suppose I simply expected them to determine the details, to think through the writing assignments--and if they weren't in class, to find out what the task was from some other studious classmate.  In other words, I told myself that, alright, these weren't the old days anymore, and students in the present era simply demanded more info.
Here's the thing.  The specific assignment the e-mailing student is referring to was the basis of the entire last class period.  I'm not making this up.  When we started that afternoon, one of them said, politely, that she'd appreciate a little more light on the nature of the essay they all had to write.  Blessedly, I was prepared to do just that, so we spent most of the class outlining what it was I wanted them to do by going through two other stories in a fashion which would, I thought, not only explain but even demonstrate clearly just what kind of surgery I wanted them to accomplish on the story in their hands, the one for the paper.
Eight people--of 36--asked me to explain again in an e-mail.  So I did. 
Maybe this Calvinist isn't so Calvinistic.  Maybe I'm simply too sweet. 
But my pounding out eight subsequent e-mail explanations reminds me of yet another really observable change from the days I started teaching in college, 35 years ago.  Today, the relationship between student and professor is remarkably different.  Forty-five years ago, when I was an undergraduate, somewhat known for my arrogance, I would never have thought of asking a prof for a further explanation of a writing assignment because I would have simply assumed that it was my responsibility to figure it out myself or else ask some other poor chump what he determined was going on.  The prof was a god--no upper case. 
Don't misunderstand.  There were profs we thought were bums, others--more than a few--lunatics.  But that doesn't mean they weren't gods.  And we were simply trivia.  What the heck did we know?  And I was, I admit, cocky.
Go ahead and compare.  Today, we dance to their piped tunes.  We kiss their sweet fannies to get 'em to enroll here, and once we're here we literally applaud them like conquerers before they've done one blessed thing on this campus.  We love 'em to death.  Who knows what they think of us, but I can tell you this--to them we're not gods. 
Now is that alteration in station good or bad? 
It's bad.  Good night, go ahead and count the years we each put into education, into the bejeweled crown of a Ph.D?  We deserve to be treated like royalty.  They rabble should go to their knees and genuflect when we come in the room.  And stand when we leave:  "The King rises."
It's good.  Ye olde days were putrifyingly elitist.  Good night, you could barely talk to profs.  Besides, professors are people who get so accustomed to students noting everything they say that they actually come to believe they know what the heck they're talking about.  Big, frickin' deal--I can make more money roofing.
I'll let someone else give the blessing or curse.  All I'm saying is that these e-mail notes asking me to go over the assignment one more time wouldn't have crossed my radar screen 35 years ago.  We live in a new age.  Of course, back then we didn't each have our own personal radar screens either.


That helps tremendously. Thanks for your help again!

So I answered Clark's question, took five minutes to type out the same response I'd give to at least a half dozen others throughout the day and night.  Then this one came.  I'm not accusing these kids of arrogance.   It's simply the nature of the system these days.  They've been blessed with extra help for the last 12 years of their education.  Why should they expect anything less now that they're up here in the lofty heights of "higher" education? 

Our Provost suggests that wearing jeans to class is something that's not necessarily beneficial.  Perhaps what he's trying to do is rescue some of our godliness with cuff links and pleated slacks, build us up a little, bring us somewhere closer to the divinity we've obviously lost.

But then, he also wants us to be in close and loving contact with all those high schoolers out there who are even considering Dordt College, to call them personally, pamper them all the way we pamper our blessed athletes, send them cards, call their moms, dispatch candy or socks or Dordt College frisbees. 

Sure.  But we're crossing some line with bluejeans?

Maybe this is what it comes down to:  I like Clark; Clark--I believe--likes me.  I've seen his eyes, and I'm even guessing he may like my class.  He's no English major.  He's in CORE 180 for only one reason:  he'll never get a diploma if he's not.  But we start here:  the two of us like each other.  I don't know that I liked my profs.  I deeply respected the really good ones, but I don't know that I was ever really familiar enough with any of them, back then, to say I "liked" them. 

Last Friday, parts of my heart got cauterized in a treatment called an "ablation."  I came out of it quickly, sparred with the nurses all afternoon.  Finally, one of them said, "You better be careful.  You're breaking the stereotype. . .you're no stuffy professor."

I didn't know I was supposed to be stuffy.

Professors, like Humpty Dumpty, have had a great fall.  So did Ozymandius.  But unlike a cracked egg or some unceremoniously dumped potentate, we're human enough to put ourselves back together again.

And comfortable enough, perhaps, to wear jeans when we're doing it.  After all, forty years ago you can bet your finest snakeskin belt no prof here would have ever thought of wearing Levis. 

His Levis.  Back then, of course, there were no women.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Minnesota's finest

Okay, the Twins have won only three games in their last 22.  On Saturday, the North Dakota State Bison trampled the Minnesota Gophers, 37-24, embarrassingly, given that the Bison are, in fact, from North Dakota.  So what if the Detroit Lions are, shockingly, 3-0 now?  The fact is, the much-feared Vikings got whacked yesterday by the otherwise hapless Lions, 27-24, despite the Vikes having run up a 20-point lead in the first half.  You read that right.  There's true sadness in Mudville, Minnesota, these days.

No matter.  I'm an Iowa Hawkeye fan, and my soul still belongs to Green Bay, even though I left my Wisconsin home years and years ago.  So who cares about Minnesota sports?

They've got the nation's best old-time radio show, one of American's finest story-tellers at the helm.  They've got a literary tradition that won't quit and won't leave and love the place so much they even write about it, despite the fact that one of their most famous favorite sons, Sinclair Lewis, hated its small towns and its people.  No matter.  If you eat downtown Sauk Center, you can get a big, fat Sinclair Lewis cheeseburger in an old Palmer House that has all the memorabilia you'll ever want to see of the old soak anyway.  Besides, today, who reads him?  Did I mention?--fries come with.  

The Twin Cities have created one of the healthiest theater climates in the nation, Minnesota's museums are superb, and their historical society pulses with life and publications.  

And what's not to like about "up north?"  Ten thousand lakes, but who's counting?  Lakeshores to die for.  Walleye and perch and pan fish.  Besides, a hearty winter kills off mosquitoes and deer flies.  The truth is, below-zero temps are plain good for the soul, an annual frosty reminder of original sin.  Tornadoes?--sure, but Minnesota nice means big-hearted neighborliness New Orleans knows absolutely nothing of.  Lutherans abound, countless church basement pot lucks most every Sabbath.

Garrison Keillor long ago taught Minnesotans to laugh at themselves and, in Fargo, the Cohn Brothers, also locals, taught them to chuckle at the way they talk, don't you know?  If you want a red plaid wool hunting jacket, you can still get one, made right there in Bemidji, as they've been for four generations.  Lots of people wear them proudly.

Maybe my wife and I will join them next year, at least for awhile.  I hope so.  It'll be a blessing.

So what if their sports teams are flailing like a wounded duck?  Minnesota's got a thousand other gifts, and maybe the best one of all, at least to an apple-a-day guy like me, is that juicy Honey Crisp I just bit into.  They're back again, available only in the fall it seems, a dream of an apple first concocted by researchers at the University of Minnesota.

Listen, if you get up early in the morning like I do, and, first thing, reach for the apple basket, then, even in darkness, take your first bite as you're going down stairs, you know right away it's going to be a good morning if what you just bit into splashes juice all over your jaw.  You got yourself a Honey Crisp, Minnesota's finest.

This morning, for the first time this fall, I bit into one, and I can't stifle the praises.  It's Honey Crisp season, even here in Iowa.  They're much more expensive than other apples, but they're the best, hands down.  

Just the same, I wish the Vikings well

Except when they play the Packers.    

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday Morning Meds--Mockers

 “Blessed is the man. . .who does not. . .sit in the seat of mockers”--Psalm 1:2

 The novelist John Gardner tells a story about coming on a car accident somewhere a long ways from anywhere.  The car was actually a truck, as I remember, and the driver, a woman, was alive but incapable of getting out of what was left of her pick-up.

The story he tells is not about the heroic efforts of the ambulance squad or the final dramatic moments of the woman’s life.  The story he tells is about himself, and what he confesses to is a certain species of intellectualism that is, I admit, pandemic among people who, like me, write.  What makes him remember the whole event is his own sad realization that, for a moment at least, even while he was right there at the scene, he found himself more interested in the details of the dangerous situation—as material for his own writing—than he was in the woman and her condition.

His sin was of the head, but showed itself in a certain kind of heartlessness.

The older I become, the less “involved” I feel myself to be—what I mean is, the less passionate I am about most things.  What fascinates me more than principles is the people who choose them.  I’m drawn into intellectualizing, I guess, into trying to understand why things occur the way they do, why people choose the causes they fight for.  With increasing age, I am less passionate about changing the world and more confident of our individual and collective ineffectiveness in the face of infinitely greater powers.  It’s easier for me to sit back and watch what often seems the useless passions of others.  I'm more cynical.

I’m not proud of that.  I’ve got all the cool, murderous objectivity of Roger Chillingworth from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  I’m an observer, and, somewhat regrettably, I even like it.

Whether it is a by-product of my own aging or a characteristic of all of those who, like me, write, I don’t know.  But in some ways these days, in life itself, I often feel like Gardner at the scene of that accident, more of an oddly estranged bystander than an engaged participant—some kind of rubbernecking satirist, maybe.

Wouldn’t it be great if Psalm 1:1 described the sinners we should not be seated beside as scoundrels rather than scoffers (KJV), or murderers rather than mockers (NIV)?  I mean, here in rural Iowa where I live, staying out of a den of murderers doesn’t require much vigilance.  Scoundrels are, for me at least, far easier to avoid than scoffers.

I’m a college prof and a some time writer, and I’m aging, and it’s probably far too easy sometimes—in church especially—to be scoffer and a mocker, to ascend to some lonely point atop the vaunted rise of my own estimable intelligence and look down sneeringly the silliness we sometimes call life.

It’s amazing to me that King David picks out the scoffers and the mockers as those seemingly most unfit for the company of the righteous.  I wish it weren’t so.  I rather like poking fun of other people and their silly passions.

But then, maybe that’s the point.  Ouch.              

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Thirty years ago, my grandma took me aside and blessed me with a cache of ancient photos--the brownish ones with thick backing.  Included among them were photos of her grandparents, the immigrant Dutch folks who came to Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, a couple of decades before the Civil War.  

I was smart enough to have her write some things on those old pix because, Lord knows, today I wouldn't have a clue who some of the photographed are--including this one.  What's on the back is her grandma-like chicken-scratching, a name and a description:  "Walt Sprengers" and then "clondykers."  I remember her explanation--a foursome of local tough guys who'd decided to pack their weapons--look how prodigiously they wear them--and head up the Yukon in search of gold. 

I love it.  It's a wonderful photo, even though I don't know who the men are or whatever on earth happened to them.  But it reeks with yahoo dreams, doesn't it?--a bunch of locals trying to be desperadoes, heading north and west to get themselves their very own share of all that bright and shiny gold.  Look at 'em.  It was 1896 or so, and they likely saw themselves as about to step into a real dime novel about the Old West.  

It's a powerfully male picture, too--you can't miss that.  They weren't taking their women, after all, if they had 'em.  More'n likely they had 'em too, maybe even two or three--"heh, heh, heh."  These guys are seekin' fortune, blowing the Oostburg pop stand for real son-of-gun adventure.  No more drug-store sarsaperella, just good, hard rotgut.

It's easy to turn them into cartoons.  

But it's a bigger story than just these four hooligans.  It's an American story--for better or for worse--in this picture.  By golly, we're going to do it, we're going to get us some gold from them thar hills.  We been dreamin', and we're just tough enough to make it all come true in them mountains up there.  We got each other, and we got our guns, and we're going to get some of whatever can be got and maybe even come back rich. Shoot, yes.

It's both dumb and wonderful.  It's the siren call of the unsettled West, the open spaces where a man--a white man--can still be a man or die trying.  It's a dream of a better life out there somewhere, the possibility of something really good we can make with our own hands if we just dig hard and long enough where there ain't anybody else quite yet.  It's a dream, a purely American dream, a white man's dream.

We can start all over again, and we can make it.  You wait and see.  We're going to come back rich, if we come back at all.  Maybe we'll stay.

I just wonder what happened.

There's a story there all right, an American story--boom or bust, a story much bigger than they are.  Maybe that's why they wanted the picture taken--this one, the one I found last week
 in an old White Owl cigar box buried in the bottom of a trunk I hadn't opened for years.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Swan Song IV--Grading

The truth is, I didn't know another way of doing it.  When I started teaching, I'd give a test, then, in a single long line down a blank piece of tablet paper, I'd arrange all the grades, as in 98, 95, 91, 88, etc., straight down the page.  Then I'd play a math game I was taught somewhere along the line--the top 10% would get As, the next 20% Bs, the next 40% Cs.  The following 20% would be Ds, and 10% of the class would, I apologize, flunk.  That was called, I think, a curve, a bell curve.  There was about as much justice in it as there is an ordinary hangman's noose, but it's what I did.

I'm sure--I'm positive--I was never particularly militant about it.  That is, I'm sure that I fudged on the bottom, maybe on the top too.  I've got too weak of a heart to simply, quite arbitrarily, flunk 10% of my students.  I was never ruled by the bell curve.  If my students hugged the line, I'd give them the benefit of the doubt.  Who on earth or in heaven ordained that every time every teacher in North America gave a test, a priory 10% had to fail? What educational Machiavelli determined that standard to be just?  

But I did it.  However, I'm sure, even back then, I was a marshmallow.

But, my being soft-heart didn't mean that no one flunked, that there were no Ds, that there were no Cs.  It seems to me--call this the confession of a educational Nazi--that I thought it only just that the biggest chunk of my students got Cs, or average, or that few got As.  I was definitely enlisted in that grading core.  You didn't want to give things away, after all.  Who values what's free?

So yesterday, the brand new Harpers Index includes this incredible factoid:  Percentage of college grades that are As--(go on, give it a guess yourself?  Twenty percent maybe?  How about 25?--sounds reasonable since everyone knows we suffer from grade inflation).  


Here's the number:  43.

You read that right.  A whopping 43% of college grades are As.  

We're edging ever close to a time when half the grades on a gadzillion student report cards (I'm sure they're electronic these days) are As.

Now I humbly confess to being way too much of a sweetie.  I confess to getting vastly more smiley with age.  I confess to being downright embarrassed sometimes about how many of my students score well on my tests.  I'm a marshmallow.  But, good night, my stats come nowhere close to that kind of number.  

43%??????  Call me Ghengis Kahn.

The institution where I work has accumulated enough statistics to fight off a Martian invasion, it seems, and two of the most recent findings absolutely floored me--English majors (of whom there are fewer and fewer every year, it seems) score either first or second in SATs among incoming freshmen.  In our department, we got smart kids.  

You think engineers are bright?--you haven't gone out to lunch with English majors.

Really fine students go pre-med.  Okay, I'll give you that.  But sheer brilliance matriculates in English.

I'm being silly--but facts don't lie, do they?

And then there's this.  When it comes to percentage of high grades, the English Department (that's us, folks) grade lowest of any department in the college.  I'm not making this up.

I know you're bright enough to read the tea leaves here, but let me just spell it out--what the stats people declare imminently verifiable and totally true is that at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, English majors come in with ye highest IQs, yet, once here, they meet--high noon at the OK Corral--with the toughest graders.  Those smart kids meet bears--no, grizzlies--the moment they step into English classrooms.

But there's this too from the number-crunchers--our students are the best writers and readers in the school.  

There.  Maybe all the sweat and blood is worth it.

So what does all of this mean?  I don't know.  I'm really sure that I grade more easily than I did when I started teaching 40 years ago.  I am absolutely positive that I'm not alone.  I'm reasonably sure that American education--higher education--isn't what it once was, and I know there are tons of reasons for that, some of which are understandable and even worth saying aloud--as in, education used to be simply for the elite.  No more.  Thank goodness.

I'm know our students now compete in a new global environment and that, internationally, we're getting our butts kicked by all kinds of Asian countries--and even the Russians.  I played four sports in high school--and I loved almost every minute of it; but I really do believe that our culture places far, far too much importance on athletics and celebrity and other silliness, and that athletics should be--on the college level if not on the high school level--entirely separate from the schools they've come to dominate.  

Maybe most importantly, after 40 years of teaching I'm more sure than ever that the sine qua non of successful education is not the teacher, important as the great ones are; what matters most when it comes to success in education is community ethos.  America gets what it wants from its educational systems--and vastly more Americans care about their football team's blessed weight room than about what happens, day to day, in a sophomore biology or senior civics classroom.  

Is there grade inflation?  No doubt.  Is that bad?  I'm not sure.  Is American education--and higher education--going downhill?  It's just plain hard to fight with stats, and the stats say, unequivocally, yes.

Who's fault is that?  Bad teachers, sure, but a community who values a cabin up north (like me), a four-car garage, an iPad in every kid's room, and annual Sandals vacations.

Take it from Gehngis Kahn, a marshmallow.   

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sioux County History--II

The prairie grass was tall, very tall, as far as the eye could see back then, an immense, shaggy hide over the slowly rising hills of Sioux County, Iowa.  So tall and so wide and so thick was the tall grass that it was a hazard for those white folks who determined to settle the county.  The only way to be sure you knew where you were going, should you want to be neighborly, was to dig trenches between sod houses.  

So they did.  And thus, like the deer and the muskrats, those pioneers out here went visiting.

Two young ladies determined to visit some old friends four or five miles away one day, so they followed the furrows until they brought them to another homestead, where the wife was just then making pancakes, the stove outside the sod house.  Happy to have visitors, the wife begged the girls to stay for a plateful, which they did.

After stirring up the batter, she turned around to take care of something else.  The moment she did, the dog, Caleb, a big, black lab, started snorting up the mix--and loving it.  Once she saw--and heard--what was going on, that neighborly farm wife pulled the mixing spoon out of the batter and chased Caleb away, whapping him with it until he ran off howling.  Then, she simply plopped that spoon back in the mix where it had come from, gave the batter a few more powerful turns, and let well enough alone.

Now the young ladies, who, in Holland, were from a bit higher class than the gracious pancake-maker, noted all of this behavior sourly, as can be imagined.  But when, eventually, the good wife served up those pancakes, bedecked with sugar, it never really dawned on the girls to refuse them, even though they took not a bite without seeing that long red tongue flopping the from the snout of that big black dog.  

And thus their traveling interlude ended, and the two young travelers soon departed along the furrow, the highway, their stomachs filled but queasy, having learned a lesson in neighborliness and the American way of life. 

"Well, Caleb," they might have said, "we're not in Holland anymore." 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Swan Song III--The Scarlet Letter

I finished Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter for the umpteenth time last night, the last time, just as perplexed as ever.  It's a romance, people say; and even though you wouldn't find it amid that genre at Barnes and Noble, it's not without its frantic breathing, its heaving chests.  

Maybe it's not strange that Edgar Allen Poe liked only Hawthorne of all the mid-19th century greats.  The two of them were both loners, and there's probably as much heart-rending guilt in Arthur Dimmesdale as there is in that lunatic narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart."  And how about this?  Did that "A" appear in the sky at the end of SL, was that some ghastly apparition or simply a projection of the dirty rotten guilt of all kinds of self-righteous Puritans?  There's a touch of magic realism in Hawthorne, enough, I suppose, to enchant Mr. Poe.

Some profs like to say they "taught" Scarlet Letter, or whatever other piece of literature.  I've said it myself, I'm sure.  But there's a kind of mathematical certainty to what that phrase claims, as if SL, for instance, is little more than a direct object one passes along, like a family bible.  Look at that cover shot--Hester and daughter like the Madonna and child.  Hawthorne says as much himself--how some thought the two of them looked like Mary and the Babe.  That's preposterous, isn't it?  Maybe.

When it comes down to it, nothing's for sure in SL.  

After umpteen readings, I still don't know that I understand that complex love triangle well enough to "teach" it, well enough simply to hand it to my students as if it were a series of propositions they have to memorize for the test.  It's not.  It's a puzzle of deliberate ambiguity.

Is Hester Prynne a great hero or a holy fool?  What what about her lover, Dimmesdale?  When finally he does his big public confession on the pillory, does he become the hero?  Or is he just wretchedly pitiable?  Does Hawthorne hate the Puritans, his own lineage?  Or is he captive to it and its penchant for the horrors of sin?  Is he more Puritan than he himself ever knew?  And why on earth is this cuckolded Roger Chillingworth such a dark villain anyway?  He got sinned against, for pity sake.

When Hester reminds her lover/pastor, dark in the deepest wilderness, that what they'd done together on one hot and steamy night had a consecration of its own, as if it were its own kind of communion, does Hawthorne agree with her?  Or is she yet a darker sinner for uttering such sacrilege?  

And the answer is?  

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Hawthorne says, belching that wicked laugh his  most damned characters always do.

Yes, we would like to know, dang it. 

But we won't, because Hawthorne isn't sure himself.  Some claim SL to be the first modern novel in American literature because of its infernal ambiguity, its doubt, its playful juggling of what we like to think of as truth, its insistence on toying the way it does with the verities of the human heart.

He's exasperating--that man Hawthorne.  But goodness knows, he understands sin.  

Even though I've been through the novel a hundred times, it remains a puzzle to me.  I don't "get it," but then, I'm not sure I'm supposed to.  

It's not a novel that preaches, that tells us the truth.  Instead it opens up our hearts and pokes around, explores the secret territories within, not unlike Roger Chillingworth, really, the villain.  

That's an awful thought, really.  And it's an awful novel.  It doesn't just make us think; it makes us wonder.  I know this--it's more, much more, than I've ever "taught."

And this too--it's been a joy.  A mystery too, but a joy.