the decline of daring

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Wisdom is an automatic by-product of age. At least that’s what most people believe, but my experience suggests otherwise. Although there may be some truth to the link between wisdom and age, there are also clear losses that make the validity of that relationship more difficult to assess. In particular, I mourn the loss of daring, the gutsy moves you can only make when you don’t know any better, when the twin Harpies of wisdom and experience have not yet begun to whisper caution into your failing ears. Yes, it’s true that those voices can keep you from falling into some deep dark abysses, but they also deprive you of some amazing adventures of discovery. Although my focus here is on matters of work, you can draw your own analogies to affairs of the heart. Here’s a case of early daring drawn from my own work life.

               The school was located adjacent to the new interstate – Highway 91 – that cut through Vermont, connecting southern New England with Canada. The town of Fairlee sat alongside it, nestled between the highway and the Connecticut River that marked the boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire. In one of its annual exercises of popular democracy, the residents had voted at Town Meeting to build an addition to the school to accommodate the expected influx of new residents they expected to course up that ribbon of highway. Since the highway hadn’t opened yet, the jury was still out on the wisdom of their investment. In the meantime, that stretch of virginal highway provided a grand federally subsidized playground for the kids at recess and during the after-school hours, where they ran relay races and tossed Frisbees in the spring and sledded in winter.

               The enterprising Superintendent of the Bradford School District decided to capitalize on what everyone hoped was only a temporary surplus of space by inviting me and several colleagues who had run a writing program in the New York City public schools to replicate that program right there in Fairlee, far from the classrooms of East Harlem and the Upper West Side, where it was born. Why not create, he proposed a writing center in that vacant space that could simultaneously serve the town’s children at the same time that it offered new models for teaching writing to the teachers who served the 3 and 4 room schoolhouses of this sparsely populated district.

               So, he bequeathed to us a room roughly twice the size of a conventional classroom, newly carpeted, with large sunny windows that looked out on that ghostly highway as the home of the Fairlee Writing Center. In quiet, somewhat isolated towns like Fairlee no change goes unnoticed, so I’m sure the townsfolk looked at the arrival of these big city folks with a mix of interest and suspicion, a combination which proved to be energizing and lethal  as the work unfolded. In New York, our program, Teachers and Writers Collaborative, operated in classrooms set up by the teachers who hosted our presence. None of us had ever had our own teaching space before, so this was a heady invitation. What could we fill this empty box with that would entice students to write richly and with imagination? In our experience most kids associated writing with punishment, the dreaded 500 sentences of “I will not…” or the dreary book reports they had to crank out periodically. One middle schooler who was labeled a “reluctant reader” said to an interviewer that he would rather be assigned to clean the scum off the rim of a bathtub than be asked to read a book. That summed up the attitude of most students to writing as well, at least as they had experienced it in school.

               It’s 48 years later and I can still diagram every inch of that space, so there must have been something compelling and right about what we crafted there. Along the wall opposite the windows, we built lofts with space both above and below that students could claim as their private offices for the day. Let me pause for a moment on the simple phrase “We built…” I had never built anything in my life. I was the son of a father who was clueless about how to change a light bulb. Jewish luftmenschen should not be diverted from things of the mind by work of the hands. As a result, I had no idea how to join two pieces of wood at right angles, as I had so effectively demonstrated in the many shop classes that made my high school years a torment, with one exception that I’ll explain shortly. Fortunately my fifth and sixth graders were products of a different tradition, one we can thank for building this country. Almost all of them had raised houses and barns with their self-sufficient fathers, so all we had to do was to lay before them the plywood and the 2X4s and pray that they would not hack their fingers off while sawing or pound them to a pulp when they hammered the pieces together. Here we have the first example of youthful folly we would never allow today because of the visions of lawsuits dancing in our heads, yet look at what those risks yielded – a space unlike any other the kids had ever worked in, one that by the labor of their own hands they owned and valued in contrast to the dreary impersonal space they were assigned for the 12 years of their forced march through public school.

               We filled those newly created spaces with typewriters straight out of Hollywood newsroom movies of the 40s and 50s.  They were scavenged from people who were abandoning them for the wondrous new Selectrics with the whirling balls of type. I know it’s hard to believe in this day of high- tech miniaturization, but these clunky old typewriters with the multi-colored ribbons that had to be replaced periodically and the rolls of correcting tape that obliterated our annoying errors were a huge attraction for our students who were still limited at that time to the unglamorous world of pen and pencil. The hammering sound of those keys hitting paper was intoxicating enough to even inspire a musical piece by Leroy Anderson called The Typewriter.

               This was also a time of transition in the printing business when everyone was dumping their hand presses and type cases in favor of lithograph machines that were soon to be overtaken themselves by copy machines and the all-conquering computer. We were the perfect customers for these discards, as we imagined our kids setting type for their own stories and poems, which they eventually did. My one successful shop class experience had been in 7th grade print shop, so I actually knew something about setting lines of type in a type stick and locking them into the press to be inked and cranked.

               We were deep into the era of tie-dye and batik, so the students produced colorful banners using these messy, but gratifying art forms which were arrayed around the room. Any visitor to the room couldn’t help but be struck by the explosion of color that greeted them and which presented such a marked contrast to the pervasive drabness of school and classroom environments.

               One corner of the room was given over to a darkroom, somewhat casually constructed around an existing sink counter and draped in yards and yards of funereal Black material. Inside we placed trays, an enlarger and a red safe light which did no harm to the light-sensitive paper on which the photos were developed. Without an exhaust fan, the smell of the developing chemicals required leaving the space every few minutes to avoid being overcome, but not before those images would begin to emerge, as if by magic, on the submerged paper and were permanently fixed in place in the final chemical bath. Some of the best teacher work is inspired by the teacher’s own selfish interest to explore a new area that peaked their own curiosity. That is certainly what drove my desire to have a darkroom, and sure enough, the students were eager to join the ride as they photographed the familiar faces of friends and family, shadows, the variety of window designs on the town’s house, etc. We encouraged them to write about the images, and one of our most reluctant writers wrote a manual of instructions for the darkroom, and I’m sure to this day that it’s the longest piece of writing he’s ever done.

In the far corner of the room, we assembled a collection of palettes, the kind on which Home Depot’s fork lifts moves its products to create a stage. It couldn’t have been more than 8 inches off the ground, but it was just enough to suggest a separation between actors and audience, a place apart on which students could enact their zany visions. It turns out that parody is a very powerful form for fifth graders on up. Time and again students demonstrated their mastery of various forms of writing from songs to plays to text books by creating parodies in those structures.  The stage became the site of many memorable performances of parody-driven scripts labored over by our budding playwrights, and each production became the inspiration for more scripts as students experienced the intoxication of having an audience hanging on your every word, and sometimes even rewarding them with laughs, such a contrast to the typical writing assignment that traveled no further than the teacher’s desk and back to the student.

And talk about zany, our most bizarre and inexplicable addition to the space, positioned dead center in the room, was what appeared to be a circular shower stall, suspended from the ceiling and enclosed by a translucent shower curtain, but, thank heavens, no water. What we had in mind, I think, was a magical space where kids could be alone with their imaginations, a place where their images could take flight. I don’t actually recall any students using it in this way. Even in that hum-drum little Vermont town, where nothing much of note happened, children, once given permission, had imagination to spare and didn’t need gimmickry like our shower stall to activate it.

We had learned in our work in New York that the materials we provided – writing implements and writing surfaces – could stimulate even inhibited students to write, and that the kind of writing they did was influenced by the materials they had access to. So, on shelves strategically situated the students could find small spiral pads, colored construction paper of many sizes, huge rolls of butcher paper, wax blocks, balloons, story board paper, markers of varying colors and sizes, styluses, crayons, charcoal, even lemon juice for producing the old trick of invisible writing. The products of these efforts were on display on any free surface in the room, both horizontal and vertical.

At some point during our time in Fairlee, the superintendent asked us to take over the classroom adjacent to the Writing Center when a teacher resigned mid-year for health reasons. This was his response to our constant complaints that the creative work we were doing during our pull- out and after school sessions was being undermined by the tedium the students had to endure when they returned to their classes. Now we had a group of students all day every day, for whom we were no longer the side show, but the main attraction. If we were going to live in that classroom space full time, we had to infuse it with some of the magic of the adjoining space. We learned from someone in town that, stashed in the basement of one of the buildings of the state college north of us, in a part of the state fancifully called The Northeast Kingdom, were a series of giant photographs mounted on 4’X4’ sheets of plywood. They were left over from a World’s Fair-style event called Montreal Expo in 1968. (Montreal was the nearest big city to Fairlee) and had somehow migrated south of the border. The photos – sports scenes, interesting portraits, landscapes – were taking up space and could be had for the asking. So we borrowed a pickup and transported them to Fairlee and set them up in our new classroom as space dividers to create individual and small group working areas. They made for a striking contrast to any conventional classroom you’ve ever seen, but whether the kids continued to notice them after the first sighting was questionable. I once asked my students in another school what was on the bulletin boards outside our room that the principal had forced me to fill before the start of the school year and not one of them could tell me what was on them. At the very least, it sent a signal that what was happening in this space was not business as usual.

I’ve never since done anything approaching the daring of what we fashioned in Fairlee during those two years in the 70s, before NCLB was even a glimmer in W’s eye. That legislation stifled a lot of creative teaching and certainly played a part in my retreat to greater conventionality (or more carefully masked unconventionality), but for the most part the wounds were self-inflicted. The willingness to take big flamboyant risks went into hiding. Was it a reflection of greater wisdom? After all, although our work was well-received by many parents, there was enough opposition to the sight of kids sprawled on the carpet or sitting on their haunches as they typed suspended 8 feet above the ground on the top deck of one of our lofts (“That’s not the way school looked when we were students.”), there was enough opposition to earn us a pink slip at the end of our two years in town.

Job security was never a high priority for me. That’s not what threw a blanket over all that creative energy. It had more to do with what statisticians call a regression to the mean, the tendency for things to retreat to the middle of the curve over time. The more our experience gave us some perspective on just how far beyond the pale of conventional practice our efforts in Fairlee were, the more inhibited we became to replicate them elsewhere. The exuberant ignorance of inexperience was no longer available for us to draw on. My wife describes the same drift toward the more conventional in her own work as a writer. In the transition from poetry to prose, with which she had no prior experience, she embarked on what other people may have seen as bold experiments, but which were, in fact, a result of her ignorance of the conventions of the form. Eventually, with both feet firmly planted in that new world, she became more aware of those conventions and more their captive. Something similar happened in my transition to being a regular classroom teacher that tempered my earlier daring. I like to think I was still a “creative” teacher, albeit a more tamped down version of my early Writing Center self. The good news is that the transition to this new teaching self enabled me to survive and flourish for 35+ years in the classroom, while that brash earlier teaching self was on track for an early crash and burn. Nonetheless, I do wish that young teachers in this data-driven era could get at least one crack at the kind of no holds barred teaching that cemented my commitment to this, by turns devilishly frustrating and intoxicatingly rewarding work.    

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Marv Hoffman

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