5 Bodies: a true story

The first was Thomas, a cat, ashed at 18, interred in a Pier One Indian carved box, shelved by my wife’s mother, whose house was being emptied by her daughters of all but the firmest shared history.  All her brittle coral chipped from the reef, all her old paint sanded from the walls.  Strokes had taken her memory and her independence.  The rest was slowly shoved out the door by her daughters.  My wife had been charged with ‘taking care of Thomas’ by her sister, who’d assumed the role of caretaker of their mother – to whom the cat – one of the last in a very long line of borderline crazy-cat-lady succession – had belonged.

Thomas on a shelf, below a shelf-bending row of Modern Architecture ‘83-’92, beside a cut glass vase and platter, porcelain cats in play, a dusty tasseled lamp, a tea set, a knock-off Lladro ballerina, a tiny basket and an ash tray.  Everything but Thomas (and the other bodies) free from metaphor, empty of simile, symbolism, tone or mood.  

‘All you are at the end of your life is one big yard sale,’ my wife says on one of the many Saturday mornings.  Her mother’s life is slowly stripped from the house, as if by a kind of wind made of people, who shake, grab, tossle and tip and slowly lift away down the street and around the corners the sand that was the sandcastle of her mother’s life.

But you can’t sell a corpse even if the casket’s fine, so the cat had to go.

My wife’s mother had had a cousin – Poor Bill, we called him, derisively.  He’d shambled his life, de-closeted at 50, badly.  His wife and kids, not liberated, not joyous at his escape, but, as too often when one slips the chains, betrayed. And he too, not liberated, but still angry and wounded and therefore mean and self-pitying. Someone knows his kinder story, but it wasn’t us, who knew him only as Poor Bill, reclusive, a distant sometime denizen of my mother-in-law’s rental, and her confidant in her later, meaner, bitter days before the strokes gentled her spirit.  

He’d died a few years back, skipped the family reunion of our lives like an awkwardly invited guest, the misplaced friend of a friend who simply leaves.  She’d kept his ashes, though, and one assumes there was no welcome plot, no space among the headstones, no crypt or keep with corner enough for his remains.

So on the shelf he was, body number two, beside the cat, in a smoky porcelain urn richer in glaze and shine than anything we remembered of his living days.  

Our educated guess was that the third box was Bill’s late lover, who’d slipped the bonds before him, and himself a drifter had briefly drifted off with Bill for some cloud-filled happy time in which they’d found – we imagined – some short and happy peace and quiet.  There was no ceremony at all in his casket: a white cardboard box, of better paper than most but paper none-the-less.  It still had the mailing address on the flap that made a lid. 

There is no easy digging on the Island of my wife’s childhood.  Inches below the topsoil it’s alluvial coral, bleached white, a gritty, fossilized marl.  You want a grave, even for a body reduced to 5 pounds of ashes, to be rich, dark, pregnant.  And easy to dig.

But the ocean promises a fertile burial. Ashes can drift, disperse, nurture and mineralize.  The pier up the street had long since lost its ships.  Now it was peopled by dog walkers, bicyclists, tourists, its only traffic with the sea the occasional fortunate fisherman -kid or -woman.  The rest just stared: poets and dreamers and drunks, fantasizing midwesterners, building impossible lives out of ocean wind, horizon, cloud and sun and vacation.  

I emptied a canvas beach bag of towel and snorkel, sunscreen and frisbee, and we hauled the three bodies down the street.  We’d spent the day driving boxes in the other direction, to the Salvation Army next to the liquor store.  Dinner had come and gone, with wine and beer and fruity rum drinks made with mango fresh from the tree in the backyard.  So we were not a little drunk.

The cat, Poor Bill, Poor Bill’s lover: boxed and bagged.  Remarkably heavy.  The cat went first.  A grey stream of powder, the occasional bit of bone slapping among the dry hiss atop the ocean.  The water was evening calm despite the breeze coming out of the ocean’s night, and we’d found a spot in shadow, away from the streetlights and fishermen and tourists, facing inland (lest the wind throw the ashes back in our faces, you know.)  There must be oil in ashes, for they clung to the surface momentarily, something in their molecular decomposition less than eager to sink.  But eventually the water clouded, the surface cleared, the current took and the waves stirred.  Thomas the cat, interred in the sea.  (He was a good cat, I reflected, the thinking a kind of eulogy.  One of those orange fellows, a little larger than most, affectionate, and one of the few creatures in my mother-in-law’s post-stroke life who didn’t leave her mind when he left the room.)

The lack of ceremony was slightly appalling.  My wife and I giggled, hunched around the urn and boxes lest we be caught.  It has to be illegal to dump a body in the ocean, no matter what the state, no?  Waves slapped quietly against concrete.  You want there to be some quality to the air, but there was nothing special to the night.  There were clouds enough to dim stars already dimmed by the town’s glow.  There was wind enough to dull the air, sound enough to break the silence.  You think, ‘This is death I have in hand, pouring out a plastic bag, twist-tied.’

Next to go was Poor Bill.  One thinks when tossing ashes that it’s perhaps not even him. There was an article a few years back about the business practices of crematoriums, the ashes gathered in a pile over time, all mingled together, just a shovel to the bag if you wanted something back.  What do you say, anyway, of a man barely known, nine years after his death, at his impromptu funeral?  What do you say about a man you’d gossiped into a joke? What do you say when the funeral’s ten years too late, forty people too shy, ten drinks too far, ninety degrees turned, a hundred boxes light?  The funeral was a shrug, this writing the only homily.  Poor Bill whitened the water, clouded the sea.  I expected fish to come, and prepared a thought about the mingling of flesh and fish, but no fish has a taste for ash.  

Only Poor Bill’s lover left, his body in a box.  I used a house key to slash the seal, fingernailed the rest.

There were three bags inside.

Two were fist sized and fist heavy, the other the expected size, about as big as a pineapple.  At first we thought them pets, thinking this funeral was bookended by cats, but one said, in black sharpie, ‘Aunt Dorothy’ – name and title as light and easy, as familiar, as an old plot.  Aunt Dorothy?  Who even has an Aunt Dorothy outside a movie?

The other: Michael.  No name for a pet.  Mike, maybe, but not Michael.  Poor Bill’s lover’s lover, we hazarded, one more victim of 90’s scourge?  Just names, of course, with attendant invented history.  

So we dumped Aunt Dorothy, then fed the sea with Michael too, whoever the hell they were.  And finally Poor Bill’s Lover, who streamed into the sea, whose molecules moved together one last time, one long limb left, a final stretch before dissolution.  The water had been seared from all five of them, in whatever kilns were used, and now they were back to liquid and salt.

I read somewhere once that the salt in our blood is roughly the same percentage as the salt in the sea.  Somehow that detail felt slightly eulogistic, and I mentioned it to my wife.  We’d talked through the whole event, like a rude couple at a movie.  Maybe; the demand for silence on the pier came not from people (if it came at all) but something vague in the air of the moment that asked for seriousness and solemn respect.   

Asked, perhaps, but did not really receive.  Without a soul to mourn your loss, a lifeless body’s journey – in whatever form, however finely dismembered one might be – is little more than one more wave in the endless tidal ebb and flow of matter.

How hard we sometimes search to find some meaning in that restless oceanic current.  Nobody around us had any idea what we did.  Not the German tourist family on rented bikes, the Cuban father and his two sons fishing, the people with their dogs (though several did sniff their ways over curiously), the couple dressed alike who looked like they’d been sent home early from some quiet restaurant shift, or the ceaseless flow of story-less humanity that moved beside us on the pier that night.

The five bodies had been with us for years, on the shelf, idly recognized every so often.  Our daughter had asked once about the urn when we were visiting, back when my wife’s mother hadn’t completely lost her mind (or so we thought).  Or no, I’d pointed it out to her once, because that’s the kind of thing parents like to introduce to their children, precisely for her response of ‘eeww!’  And then she’d told her brother, and later their cousins when they had visited.  They opened the urn and looked inside, but I never told them about Poor Bill’s Lover in the cardboard box next door, and they only had passing interest in Thomas.  When my mother-in-law had mind enough to mind herself there’d been too many cats altogether.

I left the urn and Thomas’s wooden casket on the concrete railing of the pier.  More than likely it was taken up by one of the island’s homeless, one of the many who slept in all the shadowy unowned (and sometimes owned) corners of the island, and who emerged before sunrise, as I’d learned one summer when our daughter as an infant woke reliably and crying at 4 am and I’d been charged with tending her into dawn.  I can’t imagine where that urn is now, or what purpose it might be serving.

Though it is amusing to speculate.  

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Are Rubrics Really Good for Me?

Anyone else stumble across the feeling, every once in a while, that your carefully crafted Rubric, so precise and efficient, so clear in its expectations, just turned your entire assignment into ice?

I get this a lot:  ‘Is that a 4?’  And you look at the work, and it kind of is a 4.  (We’re on the 1 to 4 scale here.  4 is an A.)  Kind of, because they have the rubric next to the assignment and technically everything has been done as described.  There are no mechanical errors, so 4 on Mechanics.  The sentences are clear, and the paragraph has support, so a 4 on Informative Writing.  But something about the writing is flat and sterile.  It’s a paragraph that goes through mechanical motions like a machine and you just know, reading it, that the paragraph is really ABOUT getting a 4 and nothing else.  If there is any joy at all in the assignment, it is only the joy the kid feels at getting the 4.

When we had mere grades, in all their arbitrary looseness and vague indecision, one was allowed to recognize that so much of what we do is rarely simply about going through motions like a machine.  It’s impossible to truly rubricize the magic and mystery of purpose.  Rubrics mechanize skill, and dehumanize effort, which is half of a good thing. We want kids to have clear skill sets, and we want to be able to define those skills down to clear and precise actions.  We want to take out the arbitrary value judgments that muddy the cold window of mechanical action.  And yet, the closer we get to that precision, the further we get from those fuzzier Emotions that make the job worth doing in the first place.

I don’t mind using Rubrics.  They make my assignments efficient; they clarify purpose; and they make most things a hell of a lot easier to grade.  I used to spend too much time writing all over a kid’s essay.  Now I just look for whatever it was I put on this particular rubric and circle the right box.  Takes me less than a minute to grade an essay.  And if the kid doesn’t have to invest very much in the assignment – other than some attention to expectations, some alignment of their action with the definition on the scale – neither do I. You can’t rubricize emotion, which is the point, I suppose, to the things in the first place.

Still, there are times when I tire of being so cold all the time, even if it does make the classroom cool and clear and efficient.

Why Are Teachers So Often Liberal When School Is Anything But?

Consider the military.  Ignoring for a moment the Officer Class (who enjoy perks and benefits to  a ridiculous degree of comfort, safety, and economy), the majority of soldiers survive in a profoundly egalitarian system.  Labor is distributed evenly, as is salary.  Food and housing are provided by the system.  Achievement and reward is merit-based on individual talent, skill, and ability.  Individuality is thoroughly discouraged.  Identity and personality take second (actually, third, fourth, fifth, or more) place to cohesion and function of the whole.  You remember how everyone in China wore the same clothes back in the day?  That wasn’t because they didn’t have clothes or colorful fabric.  I could go on building this case, but there are bigger points to make.

One being this:  If you were looking for a conveniently collected source of Republican-leaning individuals, you’d go find a military barracks and start there.  If you wanted freedom-loving, pro-individual, capitalist thinking, greed encouraging, free market, John Wayne, anti-government purists, you’d find the most stalwart, hard-core, uncompromising idealists in the most communist place in the country.

Now consider School.  Schools are the most Darwinistic, survival-of-the-fittest, merit-based, unequal, capitalist jungles in our society.  On the macro-level they are dependent upon the value and worth of their location for any kind of success at all.  Do you live in an economic desert, someplace sparsely fed with that essential, water-like nourisher of schools: Money?  School life is going to be hard and mean.  Enjoy the metaphorical benefits of water and good soil?  A diverse, thriving school economy, with ample opportunity for growth and success.

In school, everything depends upon your own individual, non-cooperative effort.  Equality in schools is a barely maintained illusion.  For one, you are constantly measured against your peers.  Success or failure always arrives as a comparison against your classmates.  Yes, nominally success in school is supposed to be independent of any variable but one’s own individual talents, but we all know this is nowhere near the truth.  Every class is a competition.  The foundational economy of grades guarantees it.  And as in pure Capitalism (and pure Darwinism) success is a product of inherited traits, not individual success.  Wealth, in schools, is the greatest predictor of future achievement.

School is, despite some modern efforts (and a lot of editorial grousing), intensely, fundamentally competitive.  Conditions change dramatically from environment to environment (from school to school, to grade to grade, to class to class), so success is not merely a product of skill, but adaptability.  As in nature, change occurs over time and distance.  Survival depends on the ability to adapt either as the environment changes in time (as in year to year) or as one moves from one environment to another in place (as in class to class).  School is a daily re-enactment – sped up to impossible levels – of that natural struggle.  Students move from environment to environment, and their success is dependent upon their ability to shift gears, change processes, maximize and minimize specific traits to the landscape.  One class may demand gregarious extroversion while another asks for introverted silence.  One may use logic, the other creativity.

Inherited strength is fundamental in schools, as it is in Capitalism.  Inherited capital has more power than developed.  Success is far more likely if you enter school at a competitive advantage, whether that means you already know how to read, have an aptitude for math, or are the stock of parents who can afford tutors and encourage breakfast.  If your parents are successful, you are likely to be so.

(One might be forgiven assuming that schools are more Fascist than Capitalist.  After all, each classroom is ruled by a dictator with absolute authority.  But a teacher receives so little physical reward from a student’s labor that they can hardly be said to be ‘exploitative’.)

I could go on building this case as well, but there is another point to make, namely:  If you wanted to find the most liberal, socialist-leaning, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, pro-big government, pro-union, competition-fearing, anti-bullying, marginalized-population-loving, suspicious-of-power  group of people in the nation, you’d find the nearest public school and gather together the teachers.  

Failure Does Not Instruct, Success Does

We’re on a bit of a ‘let’s embrace failure’ trend these days.  Lots of articles across the internets about the benefits of failure, the learning potential, the need for coddled students to experience the wonderfully instructive power of being told they are wrong.  As so often the case, the central thesis comes at us in fairly easy to catch, sensible sounding nuggets of wisdom, which we’ll address in a moment.  More interesting, as usual, is the subtext, and also the actual, usually unstated, intent.  In this case: School is too easy.  People are given too much without needing to work for it.  Pain is not merely instructive, it’s essential to wisdom and moral order.  

So, a few Bromides out of the way first.

  1. Yes, it’s true, Failure is a way we learn.  Success has rewards, but ‘learning’ isn’t entirely one of them.  Most learning occurs before success, in the trial and error process, where one is neither winning nor losing, just working.
  2. Yes, it’s true, Failure is not unnatural.  Much of our life is spent fundamentally failing in one way or another.  Only those born with exceptional gifts are denied the experience of struggle that is intimately married to failure.  
  3. Yes, it’s true, Failure creates strength.  Though it’s not exactly a muscular strength.  The strength of failure is in callous, tendon, cartilage.  The strength one gets from failure is the thickened skin of scar.  

But let’s not kid ourselves.  Failure is not so very often the product of natural disaster, or chance, or unanticipated event.  It’s not so often a blind spot, or an absence of essential.  And when it is, one doesn’t really ‘learn’ anything but to move on, around, through.  The failure that we experience confronting the external world is mostly a kind of failure that we go to great lengths to ensure we never have to experience again, or at all.  If the building falls because of an earthquake, we don’t chalk the disaster up to a learning experience.  The building was not designed as some kind of learning experience; it was designed to avoid the failure of falling down.  Perhaps more importantly, the more we know, the more we anticipate failure, the more we do to make sure it doesn’t occur.  The ‘knowledge’ we gain from the failure of disaster is less about skill or fact or detail as it is about resilience, about moving on after the tragedy.

If failure was so very instructive, so very powerful, most of the world would be a hell of a lot more successful.

But the other failure, the failure of school, most often, lies in Character.  We fail because we lose courage.  We fail because we can’t force ourselves through the present moment’s discomfort, or uncertainty, or struggle, or pain – and not because the pain itself is good.  The pain of work is painful.  It’s boredom. It’s tedious repetition.  It’s sacrifice – of time, attention, pleasure.  It’s embrace of struggle.  But none of it is really related to failure.  We embrace all of it because of success.  We embrace struggle to achieve success, and the fact that we fail really has little instructive value.

We know, most of the time, exactly why we have failed.  We failed because we were lazy. We failed because we are stupid.  We failed because we didn’t work hard enough.  Or we failed because we didn’t really care.  We failed because the task was pointless, or stupid, or meaningless.  Often times, our failure is neither a flaw in our character or an instructive step towards future success.  Often times our failure is a product of injustice – of other people’s moral or character failings – and there’s little lesson there except anger or submission.  We fail because the other side cheats.  We failed, quite simply, because the task was impossible, or unfair, or out of our control.

There’s no ‘lesson’ in that.  There’s no strengthening of our skill, just a hardening of our heart.

Kids don’t really learn through failure.  Kids learn through success.  Failure, a good deal of the time, isn’t instructive at all.  Students don’t make mistakes on a math problem and then ‘learn’ the correct answer from the error.  They don’t write a shitty essay and then fix their mistakes.  Any teacher can tell you that kids glance at the grade, ignore the comments, and move on.  If failure were so very instructive, the most effective education would be guided failure, which it most assuredly is not.  Education is guided success.  We reward the students who succeed.  We only punish the students who fail.  We don’t reward them at all for it.  And rarely, rarely is that failure much responsible for how they improve.

I know, from years of experience, not to mention my own intimate friendship with failing, that nearly all students fail because they simply don’t really do the work.  For some, the absence of effort is extreme, and the failure equally severe.  Most teachers will tell you that it takes a lot of work to fail a class.  It takes consistent and persistent absence, because the system is designed to get them working, to keep them succeeding, in however small a capacity.  The threat of failure, and the actual presence of it, is fundamentally, almost universally, an attempt to get students to do the work through fear or suffering.  The threat of failure is not about learning, it’s about motivation.  But does it motivate?  And more importantly, does failure create learning?

Failure does not instruct.  Failure may drive, it may motivate, but even this subtext is wrong.  Because teaching is about instruction.  Students learn through investment, through care, through diligence and concentration.  The goal is to learn and grow.  And failure, however you frame it, is rarely growth.  The threat of failure will motivate a student to invest more time in studying, or writing and revision, or practice, but it really doesn’t motivate a student to actually learn.  Students learn through the success that stands opposite failure.  Our job as teachers is not to instruct students through failure, but to encourage students through success.

The subtext of all these little editorials we keep reading about the spoiling absence of failure aren’t really about learning at all.  They are about character, and if we want our education system to be ‘teaching’ character, we probably ought to start saying so.

Grades Are Currency

Imagine your job looked something like this:  Five days a week you are forced to go to a place and perform a series of tasks.  Sometimes you enjoy the work, often times not.  You have many bosses throughout a day of moving from job to job, place to place.  A great deal of your time is spent sitting and simply listening.  Your basic needs are met.  You have food and water.  There is shelter.  You arrive with clothing.  You have limited decision-making over your assignments.  Opting out, when an option, has serious consequence. You often take your work home with you.  

Both the product and the payment are…interesting.  Neither has much immediate tangible value, though you must collect a minimum amount of ‘reward’ in order to simply escape the cycle.  (For many of your coworkers, the only goal is escape.)  You are told that the payment is mostly internalized, that it’s built into the tasks, that the tasks themselves, the experience gained, is the actual reward. You are told that the built-in reward nature of the tasks will allow you, in some future, to continue doing such things for a currency that allows the purchase of an infinite variety of goods and services, but that is a world you are not yet allowed to enter.  You are reminded, repeatedly and with variety, that the longer you remain in THIS system, completing tasks and accumulating that strange reward, the greater your ability to accumulate a far more powerful currency outside.  You are working, in other words, for a reward that has extremely limited present day value.  If you like the work, that is the reward; if you don’t like the work, the reward is the promise of escape.   

There is a more specific ‘reward’, if one could call it such, and here is where things get even more complicated.  Periodically, you receive a mark for the quality of your work.  Some bosses are generous, others less so.  This mark has little immediate value at all – you cannot trade it for anything.  It cannot be used to purchase tangible goods.  Like the work itself, this payment is supposed to have intrinsic value, though it also bears the oft-repeated promise of future value.  The amount you can earn is capped, and the value is in how close you reach that cap.  

Most often, that product and reward arrive after a long period spent simply trying to get a handle on the material.  Sometimes, that product arrives after a long period of not doing much at all, with a brief spurt of furious activity just prior to the deadline.  You build your earnings slowly, and the formula for growth has an almost infinite variety within each job.  Roughly twice yearly you get a report outlining your savings and their value, though again it is assumed that the tasks themselves are a kind of reward.  This is so painfully NOT true for many of the tasks that it hints at conspiracy.  Enjoyment of the tasks is scattered incomprehensibly throughout your group, but it is expected that you perform to the best of your ability and with maximum enthusiasm to every task.  What happens if you do not, besides reduced payment, is a vague hint of some future painful consequence.  Should you fail to perform the task satisfactorily to the boss of the moment, you risk repeating the entire experience.

Competition varies from job to job, boss to boss, but mostly you are rewarded not for victory over another but for completing the tasks placidly, on time, in abundance, and with skill.   

There are some strange rules and contradictions.  For example, there is a vague promise that if you earn enough from performing the tasks either in abundance or with excellence, you can parlay your earnings into more of the same yet harder!   Your ultimate goal is to escape the job itself, by doing the job so well that you can then go do the job for a different currency, though just as often you are reminded that the job is its reward, and upon exit you should continue to do the job for the sake of the job.  Like string theory, nobody really believes this or understands it completely.  

You are fairly confused about the purpose, nature, and value of the whole affair, but you have no choice or voice so mostly you muddle along as best you can.  The work itself is often vague of purpose, and most of the time seems strangely self-referential.  Final products seem backward thinking, reflections of what was experienced rather than directed towards the future, even though the ultimate goal is leaving the job for someplace else.

And that, friends, is school.

 

As much as it might pain us to imagine schools as an economy, the reality is that they are.  How, in fact, can one even avoid the idea of school as an economy, when so much energy and attention IN school is purposefully designed to acquire skills and experience to function in one upon exit?  Do we imagine students will not internalize the final purpose of all that education?  Do we imagine that if we can divorce the purpose from its form, that somehow it will not intrude?       

Grades are currency.  They are the most powerful currency a school has to offer, and as such, they are treated as a currency by everyone.  Teachers use the currency of grades to get students to do the work..Students work for the payment of grades.  Moreover, taking away the currency of grades does not mean students will suddenly change their ideas about school.  

The other currency of school is the learning itself, but we have no clear way, in the present construct, of turning that currency into value.  Until we do so, we will continue to expect unreasonable engagement and investment from our students.

We would like to deny that grades are a currency, that the world of school does not function like the one we enter after leaving it.  One would like to assume that the structure of school, with its intrinsic motivation and teachers impassioned by the joy of their subject material, should not – cannot – function like a market.  One would like to emphasize that grades are not a currency, not tradeable, and that their value is connected to the skills of students and nothing else.  All true, yet not quite true at all.

It’s easy to anticipate many of the objections,  But I think most objections, like much of what we do in schools, blatantly ignores the fact that students are people no different from ourselves.  If we could not imagine ourselves abiding by such circumstances, then we ought not assume students are something different.