Monday, August 31, 2009

Portrait of an Artist

“Here come real stars to fill the upper skies, and here on earth come emulating flies, that though they never equal stars in size (and they were never really stars at heart) achieve at times a very star-like start. Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.” -Fireflies in the Garden, by Robert Frost

When I was 18 and heading off to college my sister Lisa gave me an anthology of poetry she said would arm me against the horrors of the world. It was full of such great epistles as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s To a Skylark, Rudyard Kipling’s If, Alfred Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s My Kate.
I would venture out into the George Fox canyon by Hobson dorm with a flashlight and read under the trees by cover of night and surround myself with mist and scurrying rustles of bushes and wait for the dew to rise and persuade me back to the warmth of my little cot bed beside the radiator that clinked and the window that iced over with the blustery breath of a winter’s wind. What I loved most about this book though were the faces of each poet at the head of every page: Portraits and busts, etchings and lithographs, and each of them at different stages of the writer’s life. There was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with wispy white beard, and Ezra Pound with fedora and fresh goatee cut to a point at his chin. Vachel Lindsey staring down death, and Anne Sexton all boozy and broken and smiling seductively.
Yet my favorite by far was a stone statue of Robert Frost. Young and neatly coiffed in a neck tie and scarf. He looked like a college boy across the hall, sprite and spry, ready to leap some hurdles or raid the girls floor at midnight. I imagined he and I were friends, and I took his poems everywhere I went: Birches, Mending Walls, After Apple-Picking and especially his Fireflies in the Garden. Such simple truths this young man knew. How, “He is all pine, and I am apple orchard,” or that “The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his long sleep,” or about “some boy too far from town to learn baseball, whose only play was what he found himself.” Oh, how he spoke gently to me, making me a believer in the natural truth I saw all around me. Even his name, Robert Frost. Was there ever a name better suited for the moniker of a poet?
You can then imagine my shock the first time I heard his voice. Gravely and shaken, full of pain and ancient sorrow. A professor played a recording of Frost reading The Gift Outright at John F. Kenney’s inauguration. I sat in class in shock long after everyone had left. Was this his real voice? That’s certainly not how I heard it in my head, full of sweetness and mirth. No, this man was aged and wearied by the toil of life. I hurried to the library and looked up his picture. There, staring back at me from the back paper jacket cover was this sorrowful, droopy eyed, wrinkled man like a hollow mask of death, raging against me, mocking my naivety. I hated those facial lines, that worrisome brow, because I realized then that his poems were not about the soul of budding life but the harshness of overripe harvest instead. About the bitter end of our days rather than the luscious start, and I wanted nothing of it.
I looked again at all those faces in my sister’s poetry anthology, just scanning and looking no more at words. I had always admired anyone who could draw. My architectural friends who sat around all day etching landscapes or my graphic design hall mates who could sketch anything, the shade beneath a pear, the movement of hummingbirds in flight. But mostly I loved friends whose shapes I’d never imagined possible. Monsters really. The artist who could draw demons of the soul.
As a boy I used to stare at Dr. Seuss creatures and Where the Wild Things Are is still my favorite children’s book, this world of imaginative solitude Max creates when no one around him will listen or love. A world through the looking glass of poetry and irony where monsters show true friendship and the prisons of four walled rooms are really nothing more than the jungle of our dreams. I’d always wondered about people who drew these beasts. What secret fears did they hide? What furious nightmares manifested themselves when they put pen to page? Was it that they wanted others to see the horror of the world? Would that keep them from fearing death, from worrying about age and the dread of growing old alone? Or was it something else, to live a fantasy where none of those things existed or mattered and no one was bound to the limitation of truth, reality, and the physical world?
I was thinking about this again while traveling north to Jhuhon over the weekend and stopping at Loo Fung Taoist Temple in obscure Zaociao Township along the western coastline. The windmills of Miaoli and the beaches of Ciding sprouting in the distance. The impossible Chinese road signs and hair pin exits leading through rice fields and one way cement farm roads. Old men hunched over dusty stoops smoking long, dreary cigarettes and dogs traveling in packs. A mother at the temple gate with two sons burning paper prayers in an urn while a man, naked to the waist, lights incense and breaks prayer disks on the floor to scare away evil spells.
We park and head toward the gates, which is guarded by demon statues and fierce spirits cut from stone. Statues of the sickest monsters of human imagination. Black and red faced warriors. Swords hot for battle. This month is Ghost Month in Taiwan, where the gates of hell are opened and for one lunar phase of the moon the dead walk the earth visiting relatives, haunting streets at night, and dragging souls back toward the fiery pits. I’ve seen these faces before in the sketchings of demons. These manifestations. These self-portraits of how we all have devils inside us that must be exorcised. Those demons inside us that hurt for pleasure, those others that cause us to break apart the ones we love, still others that strike back at what we don’t understand. Where is the shelter from this? What refuge do we have when these devil come to call? Most my students wear a talisman of some kind to ward them away, but is that enough?
The truth is, that sometimes I don’t know what to believe anymore. I look at the lines on my face and I’ve begun to age like my old friend Robert Frost, does that mean I will fall into sorrow as well? Then what is it, what will keep me from the monsters?
Poetry, huh? Really? Why Brian Hartenstein you fool. You might as well believe that stars are the smiles of gods. That the bump under your bed at night is some unearthly creature sent to guard you from evil rather than tear off your flesh, and that fireflies are meant to show us how to live, to shine brightest just when we fear all hope is lost.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Sloop John B

(Hartenstein channels his inner Walt Whitman for a little O' Captain, My Captain before class)

“We come on the Sloop John B, my grandfather and me, around Nassau town we did roam, drinking all night, got into a fight, well I feel so broke up, I want to go home.” -the Sloop John B, by the Beach Boys.

Most people are surprised when they learn how much time teachers in graduate courses discuss the first day of school. Should I smile or sneer? Greet students at the door or stand ominous and foreboding behind an all powerful podium? To Break the Ice or Not to Break the Ice…? That is the question. But teachers know everything depends upon that first impression, and they want their behavior to set the mood. This usually means dictating a presence of absolute authority and fear that causes kids to run off screaming with pee stains on their pants.
We’ve all had those classes, usually taught by a beef necked, buzzed cut talking sausage with whistle hanging around his barrel chest. He’d rather coach a death sport than teach history, but hey, at least he gets summers off, right. He goes by the motto, “Give kids an inch and they’ll take a mile. That’s why I don’t crack a smile until the day before Christmas break. Oh, did I say Christmas? I meant, ‘Winter Holiday.’” He rolls his eyes in his fat sausage head, imitating deftly the teenage girls that have been irritating him for years.
He’s matched only by his mirror counterpart in math, the hall waddler, the tenured lifer, the woman with the rolley backpack who hands out detention slips like Halloween candy and says phrases like, “Is if Friday yet?” To which she modifies come January, “Is is summer yet?” She’s the one who fills the staff room with the union flyers and makes comments like, “If you arrive on time, you’re late,” stating proudly, “I don’t smile until the last day of the year when the little cretins shove off. Buh bye!”
No wonder most kids think the only thing worse than going to school is having cavity check-ups at the dentist, and most adults look back on their twelve years of publically funded education about as fondly as their first colon check.
That’s how I always felt going to school, that I was just a nameless, faceless, twerp. My teachers hid behind newspapers in class, showed the same videos year after year to us, and some days never even got out of their easy-chair. They gave extra credit points to the suck-ups, punished the weak by forgetting their names, and handed out worksheets like they were going out of style.
When I started my teaching career I vowed to never be like that, promising myself I would make a difference. I would make students feel special, needed, listened to. Of course, I’ve made every mistake in the book, and for those kids at Aspect International I made recite Shakespeare with sock puppets, please forgive me. But if there is anything I have ever gotten right in this job, it is the first day of school.
For you see in my class, I always come in the first day singing.
Yes, singing.
It usually starts that first week of summer. The sun is out, I’m winding down from finals, and I begin to hear a song in my head. It stays with me all through July and August, and by the time Labor Day rolls around, I know it well enough to sing in front of a group of venomously wicked and spite filled teenagers. Over the years my playlist has included Sinatra’s Swinging on a Star and I’ve got you under my skin, the Beatles’ Day in the Life, Armstrong’s As Time Goes By, and My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music.
I know, I know, coming in singing, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” to a group of hard edged 12th grade remedial readers is akin to picking a knife fight with the biggest guy on the cell block your first day in the can, but that’s just who I am. I can’t help it.
Yet this year when school started, I found myself far away from home again, on the other side of the ocean, at a faraway place where my skin color sets me apart and my native tongue makes me a commodity. Still, I didn’t forget my song. It’s been with me most of the summer ever since I began going back and re-reading Carl Sandburg whose The John B Sails made its way into his American Songbag, and that made me re-listen to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds all over again, which I hadn't in years.
Man, what a great album, all about love and loss and letting go, doing your best to go it alone but realizing you need other people to make it. How we become stranded in life and need others to lift our sails, to help us get back on track.
I must admit though, I scared my Taiwanese students half out of their chairs during the first verse. Jaws hit the floor and eyes looked away. “My new American teacher is crazy,” I could hear them telling their mothers and fathers around the dinner table that night. But I wouldn’t stop, moving up and down the aisles, saying the words, trying to show them that this year was going to be different. They were never going to think harder or deeper, be pushed to create and communicate more elaborate and complex ideas, and more than anything, never have more fun. As in most things, time will tell won't it, but isn’t that what school is supposed to be? A sense of home and fun, well, that’s what it should be.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Girlfriend in a Coma, I Know. I Know.

I am driving with my mother the first time it happens. We are eating hot apple pies from the McDonalds drive-thru when the logging truck crashes through the passenger side window sending us tumbling like a cyclone of twisted screeching metal, turning over and over again with the spinning shards of glass and hamburger wrappers and cassette tapes and little coins from the ashtray, until we land hard at the base of a ravine in the bottom of a dry creek bed. I reach up but my arms do not move. A sticky wetness fills my eyes all warm and stinging and I blink just enough to see an ant crawl across a stone and then I am dead.
I am ten years old.
The second time I am leaping off rocks. There at my secret swimming hole down at George Roger’s park along the muddy banks of the Willamette. My grandmother’s cottage just a quick two minute bike ride away where I used to trick or treat the gingerbread houses along the lane leading down to the water and now my body is being pulled under by an eddy and I am screaming and gulping white bubbles and drowning and I can see a light above, dancing like gas in the heat but then I am dead.
This time I am twelve.
After Columbine it happens every night for a month. I am in front of the class at the chalkboard when the first gunshots echo from the cafeteria and I throw a chair through the window crashing the glass so that all the students could escape and then I run out into the hallway and come face to face with the gunman. He is a different boy each time, his face always changing, wrapped in a hood or black stocking cap. I know him, the boy from remedial reading or the one from wood shop. I say his name loudly and then the gunpowder stench fills my nostrils and there is hot steel in my throat and I see the back of my head splattered against the wall and then I am dead.
I am twenty-nine.
I have always dreamed my own death: Falling from the airplane crashing through the sky, chased by monsters my feet stuck in the sand, the downed electrical wire writhing like a snake I take in my hands like a magical flute. There is a jolt, a brace of impact, and then black. I am dead, and there is nothing.
Today it happened again.
I am squatting on the outer stairwell on the side of the library of my new school when the earthquake hits. The men unloading the bus throw their cigarettes on the ground and brace for impact. The woman in black umbrella visor wrapped like a Bedouin stops her cart full of flattened cardboard boxes and stands still. The building guards washing their hands from the garden hose put up their arms like gymnasts balancing on beams.
This is not a dream. No, the earth shaking violently around me is real. The tops of buildings sway back and forth gently as if tree branches in a lulling wind. Car alarms sound. Landscapes become blurry. I half expect the asphalt road to split in two seams right under my feet, and I reach to brace myself but my hands can take hold of nothing. The space around me closes in and I hold my breath until it stops.
The following morning I am sitting in the living room with Xi’an and Rebekah. We have skipped church again, playing hooky and rolling play-doh into long noodle strips we pretend to bake in the oven instead. They know nothing of the three earthquakes that have struck since my arrival this week and have only vague recollections of sitting in a hotel room during the typhoon unable to leave the east coast because the train tracks had been washed out. No. We just sit and do crafts instead. I cut out paper dolls and dresses and color them with markers. We lay a blanket in the middle of the floor and drink tea from cups. I play with them all day. Through bike rides out in the sticky humidity and into the pool after lunch with life jackets and goggles, then games of Jenga and floor puzzles and an evening walk through the park with camera and juice. Just me and my girls. My mind numb. My body's sense flat and dull. My hands have stopped shaking finally. I notice this as I tuck them in at night. Good thing. My heart has long ago stopped racing but I'm still scared to death to close my eyes. Other than that… sure, I’m glad to be back.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

This American Life

This is just to say Thank You to all the family members, friends, and former students who put me up on their sofas and floors over the past few weeks while trying to sell my house, bum around the northwest, and pack up the last of my American life before heading back overseas for good. I start the new semester this week in Taiwan, but my thoughts are mostly with you. Thank you again. (See American Pics on flickr account to right)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

One Night in Tokyo


"Outside there's a boxcar waiting..." - The Pixies, Here Comes Your Man

The summer after graduating college I jumped freight trains for a couple of weeks through Oregon and Washington to the Idaho border. There were these tracks outside Newberg that ran all the way north through Portland and every night across the George Fox campus for four years I listened to the train whistles blow like lonesome coyotes on a faraway hill taunting me to come out and play. Groups of us boys used to gather along the tracks out past the apple orchards along a deserted stretch of wheatfields and race the train to the wooden trellis, stopping just short of the canyon below with its dark pitch black hole dropping off the face of the world with nothing but the city lights flickering in the distance to lead us home.
These were stout, hardy boys. Good Christian God fearing boys who came to this religious campus and were scorned because we didn’t speak in tongues or carry our Bibles to Biology class or lift up hands in praise when the chapel lights dimmed for the Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith songs and then began weeping on cue for the climatic playing of “As the Deer Panteth for the Water,” and the alter call, when the virginal boys and girls couldn’t wait to rush the stage and lay hands on one another and cast out devils and save souls.
No. We were not those boys, standing in the back row gulping hard and sneaking out the fire escapes as student after student would cry out very publically, red faced, and re-dedicate their life back to God. Rather, we would meet at night crouching in the bushes along the train tracks, waiting for the oncoming engine while the cop cars rolled by, then standing tall on the hard rocks and waiting for the light. Dropping into runners stances, taking off just as the engine approached so that we could reach top speed when the explosion of heat and roaring, blasting locomotion powered past by us. Breathing down our necks and legs, we pounded our bodies against the hard stones surging forward, sprinting and flying down the tracks toward the abyss and giving up because the train was just moving too fast. Other nights we would hang from the trellis and wait. Screaming at the tops of our lungs as the train careened overhead, kicking and howling and shaking all over, holding on for dear life. These were our defining moments as Christian boys. These were the moments we knew that God was real, because only God would give man moments of such exhilaration and couple them with doubt and awe. We tested it, and it became true.
These were friends like the Nienaber brothers, Brian and Jeff. Two blue-bloods with chips on their shoulders from Bellevue Washington, the Kennedys of my youth with their million dollar Lake Washington properties we would lounge on in the summer times and talk philosophy. I’ve never seen them back down from a fight. They taught me to not scare easy. Hutch was another buddy. Older. Wiser than us. He’d come back to school to find solace but gave us credibility instead. Ron was another. A mid-distance runner and future church pastor, Ron could quote scripture inside and out, but had his demons too. I remember him hanging from the trellis with that goofy grin, this boy that would grow up and counsel hundreds of people through divorce, bankruptcy, suicide, death, prison, and all the way making his relationship to Christ seem as believable and real as wood and steel you grasp on to that saves your life and not an infinite blackness dangling beneath.
Later those nights, back at my campus apartment, I was approaching God the same way, as if I could just catch him as he passed. I would lay my Bible on the desk and hold it in my hands very tightly. I kept an old worn version then, salvaged from a thrift store, and suddenly I would open it and point to a verse as if this was somehow what God wanted me to hear and read at that precise moment. I believed I was being illuminated by the spirit. I believed with all my heart God was talking straight to me. Sometimes the verse next to my finger was about encouragement. “For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” - Romans 14:9. But other times I would become wrapped up in amazing imagery. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” - John 15:5. I would lay the Bible down and imagine myself as a tree soaking into the ground with God's love pouring out of me. The intensity would exhaust me into delirium and I would fall into deep sleep, awaken only at dawn, with the last engine whistles of a train that was passing through the outside of the city, bound for someplace faraway.
My buddy Rolf was a kindred spirit. Tough, insightful, and interested in Kerouac as a post-modern St. Paul. We talked many times about jumping trains, and then one day we caught a break. It was discovered that a sociology professor at George Fox had lived as a hobo in the years following World War II. We looked him up and sat at his feet while he gave us the rules for jumping trains:
1. Never jump on a moving train. (Obvious, yes. Try sprinting twenty-five miles per hour next to a sedan and leaping on the roof.)
2. Never ride with your legs outside an open box car door. (Doors close suddenly. Could snap them off at the knees.)
3. Never stand up in a box car when you are going through a tunnel. (Gas and heat rise, could cause you to pass out.)
4. Never drink anything you find in a bottle. (Good way to wake up robbed or raped.)
5. Never talk to any of the other hobos. (Bad criminals ride the rails. Stay safe.)
We never looked back.
Our first attempt to board a train was at the Portland shipyards. Rolf and I traveled light: block of cheese, couple tins of sardines, gallon of water. We scoped it pretty good and waited in the bushes. In front of us lay a long train full of empty box cars, lumber and grain, and black septic tanks strapped to steel poles. It must have been one hundred cars long and when it suddenly began moving, the air was filled with a series of Crank! Crank! Cranks! As the train bolted together and jolted forward.
In an instant we were gone, tearing off after her, sprinting with our packs toward the first empty box car we could see. Legs throbbing, arms reaching, straining, I rose up on the high surface next to the train. I had never gotten this close before. The powerful wheels were a spinning, churling death, like rapid fists being punched into an open palm. Bam! Bam! Bam! I looked up and threw my pack inside, then braced my shoulders, legs still pumping, and leapt inside. I had made it. Covered in sweat, Rolf was right behind me. I pulled him inside and we lay in a heap on the dusty, wooden floor, laughing to the verge of tears. We had made it. We had broken Rule Number One of Train Jumping, but we had made it.
Almost instantly we broke Rule Number Two, riding for over an hour with our legs swinging out the empty box car door kicking and hollering like Huck and Tom. I pulled out my harmonica and Rolf slapped his leg to the clicking of the tracks, and we sang a bluesy version of Amazing Grace, and looked away and dried our eyes at the chorus.
The adventure lasted for days. Through Pasco, Walla Walla, Pullman and Spokane. We were run off by sheriffs, scalded by sun, and frozen by chilled mountain passes curled up in potato sacks cuddling on cold metal floors. The trains would stop suddenly in grass fields for ten hours at a time with nothing around for miles to see or race through tunnels at night with jagged cliffs and jutting rocks close enough to cut our whiskers. We broke every rule: drinking tea over tin can stoves with hobos who told us their life story, sharing gulps of water drafted straight from the Columbia, slam dancing in the darkness of tunnels without light or safety to whatever was around us. We lived. Yet the whole while, each night before I laid down to sleep, I would randomly open my Bible and read the verse God wanted me to hear. On the last night, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” – Philippians 3-12.
We arrived back in Portland changed men. We would never look at the world the same way again. Life was not about cramming yourself inside an idea that didn’t always fit, but about stepping outside it, and making it real.
I was thinking about riding trains this past week when I ran into former student Simon Simoncinni. Yes, that Simon. The kid with all the hair. The one bouncing off the walls. The one who almost choked another student to death in my classroom because he didn’t know when to quit. The one his senior year all the freshman girls would beg me to introduce them to. That Simon. About half a year ago Simon did the unthinkable. He dropped out of school and flew to Japan without telling anyone. He just arrived, couple of bucks in his jeans, and began to make his way in the world.
People thought he was crazy. They thought he was off his rocker, his meds, that he was suicidal. I admit, when he first contacted me I told him to call his parents immediately, but Simon had different plans, or so he explained to me as we sat down for tea just off Alberta last week, recounting how he basically went penniless, needed a job, and for the past seven months had been living in a hostel, traveling all over Japan, learning language and culture, barely making ends meet, but finding his way, his true path in life.
It was amazing to hear. That this kid, who I know on so many levels, some good and some bad, some actually very scary, could pull off something like this. I was proud. As Simon rambled on in Japanese, telling funny story after story, I just smiled to myself. It’s possible, isn’t it? To randomly put a finger on a spinning globe, to open up a book by chance and just believe something is leading you. This is the very nature of faith in God, isn’t it, to guide us in these moments? Moments of exhilaration and doubt that take us to awe?
I was thinking even more about Simon as I boarded an airplane and left America yesterday. The flight was delayed and so I ended up in Tokyo for the night before being connected again to Taiwan the next day. All alone in the cramped room of the Hotel Nikko Narita, I walk out into the night at 3 a.m. with jet lag and stumbled miles out along the highway on the cusp of Tokyo. Here tourist buses collect drunken salary men, middle aged and bloated, with their baseball caps turned around backwards and ridiculous spandex cycling shirts glistening in the headlamps. Perfectly manicured sidewalks. Crickets. Humidity. A white horned goat tied to a Volkswagen bumper. A man in a silver Prius slurps ramen with chopsticks. I take a strange turn and end up in the parking lot of a good sized church. It is white with a steeple next to a bell tower and looks very much like the mission San Juan Bautista from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I step up to the door and peer in the window. It is empty, but perfectly aligned. Pews. Aisles. Red felt seats. Red cross hanging from the ceiling. Red carpet wall to wall. Suddenly I am overwhelmed with sadness, as if I were being swallowed whole and could not escape. There are places meant for God that are just empty. Churches empty. Classrooms empty. Universities empty. But nothing is empty about a man alone in a room reading his Bible. I remember as a kid kneeling beside my bed and laying things between the pages of that book that I feared had control over me. How I'd lost my temper or said something mean to a friend. This was replaced as I got older, hiding beer labels or crushing cigarettes in the folds of scripture and closing it tight like an alter. That was how I prayed as a boy. Prayer as a plea for meaning, that whoever or whatever created all this universe around me was actually reaching back to me, singling me out. This was the meaning of everything, to reach back and take hold, no matter where it leads.
When I returned to the hotel room, I looked out the window and watched the world become light under a gray overcast sky. Doorways flooded in life, crows in the distance screamed. There was a train tunnel rolling beneath a tree covered hill, it's tracks laid so straight. My cellphone rang, surprising me. There is no reception here. Outside the window again, birds chirped, then there it was, the sun.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

O Absalom!

“O Lord My God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my savior God to Thee, How Great Thou art.” - Hymnal

The story of David running from his son Absalom, the beautiful man who plotted the death of his father. He returned to the land of Saul and was cursed by the former king’s offspring, but David said, “It may be that the Lord will look on mine affliction, and that the Lord will requite me good for his cursing this day,” –Samuel 2, 16-12. No great exaltation comes without some kind of humiliation. I’ve been driving around Oregon humbled by God’s beauty: golden Wheatfields, snow peaked mountains, alpine meadows, and wide blue skies dotted with clouds. How beautiful is God’s world, but how more saving is His grace. (see wheatfield pics on flickr account to right)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Brian and Steve Hike Mt. Hood Pics!

We dumped our stuff at McNeil camp ground just past Zig Zag and headed up Lo Lo Pass on forest service roads to north side of Hood, parked at Vista Ridge Trail head 626 and hiked up three miles to Wy'east then a mile and half through alpine meadows and rock slopes to Barrett Spur to look over Ladd Glacier and a view of the mountain where Steve said, "Now we can get right with the Lord." Amen.
(See Flickr pictures posted on the left. Click away)

Monday, August 3, 2009

I Will Fight No More, Forever

I’ve taught ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for years and my favorite unit has always been American Romanticism. I start with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, to Thoreau’s Walden: "Let us first be as simple and well as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores. Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.” Then Emerson’s Essays on Self-Reliance, “Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Then to the speeches by Frederick Douglas, “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence,” and Abraham Lincoln, “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable - a most sacred right - a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.” From there we study Chief Joseph who said, “We live, we die, and like the grass and trees, renew ourselves from the soft earth of the grave.” Then Geronimo, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez, and Jack Kerouac who wrote, “Maybe that’s what life is… a wink of the eye and winking stars.” Finally we end with the poetry of Bob’s Marley and Dylan and conclude with Tupac Shakur.
I always ask the students at the beginning of the unit what they think of Romanticism and they laugh and high five and make cat calls and whistles, shifting upward in their seats as if now, finally, this class is getting interesting. ESL classrooms are always a funny mix of people. Irma was born in Chihuahua, Mexico and became a mother at sixteen; she is famous for a tv commercial in which she poses with a plate of enchiladas at Mazatlan on NW Cornell. She turns to Hugo, an illegal twenty-year-old from Vera Cruz who crossed the border through a tunnel outside of El Paso and was robbed at rifle point by a Coyote guide who stole his shoes.
“Romanticism, eh?” They smile and rub shoulders.
Alfredo is a new breed of kid: Latino Skater punk with baggy thrasher pants and brand name sweatshirts. He doodles throughout the class and has a crush on Jenny, the quiet Korean girl who sits between Russian brothers Khalil and Seykhan who arrive to class one after the other in perfect stride reeking of Camel lights and Axe body spray. Alfredo pipes in.
“You pick the girl up in your car,” he starts giggling here and looking at his skate buddies for help but they just smirk and point, “then you drive her someplace nice.”
“Like McDonalds?” Maya, a heavy set Latina from Nicaragua shouts. She doesn’t like that Alfredo crushes on Jenny, thinks the Asian girl is too skinny and white skinned.
“Ka-ya-tay!” He shouts back in Spanish. “Then you take her to a movie and do this,” he mimes a yawn and lays his arm around an imaginary girl to his right. “See, the man must make a move.”
The class erupts in gags and laughter. Somebody hits him in the head with a crunched up notebook paper ball. I usually jump in about here.
“No, romanticism is not about kissing or touching. It’s not about canoe rides on lakes beneath the moon or playing guitar beneath someone’s window. No.”
The eyes of the classroom tilt to one side as if I have said the day is night.
“No, romanticism is not about the stirring of the heart,” I clutch my chest. “Romanticism is about what makes us human. It is the action of the soul.”
I know. I get carried away sometimes, and it’s a little heavy at first for ESL kids to handle, but I just love the subject. After reading about famous romantics we watch James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and discuss characters connection to nature which leads us to Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn where we write about society verses individual rights. From here we move to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to analyze isolation and violence against the weak, destruction of the land and the loss of broken dreams. This leads to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and a giant end of the semester project where students create a mural that stretches across the entire classroom wall of personal images of their own Romantic search for liberty and truth. It is usually very powerful.
I remember once a librarian at a former school asked me, “Why are you making the ESL kids check out Catcher in the Rye? What do they know about Manhattan prep schools?”
She was completely serious and a bit offended that I was wasting class time pushing this book to kids who were obviously incapable of understanding it.
I’ve also been asked numerous times, “How can you teach ESL, you don’t speak Spanish?”
Again, totally serious.
I just smile and file it away for later, go about my business. I’m not usually swayed by others. In fact, isn’t that the point? I’ve been working on this unit for ten years. Quotes etched on the back of my hand or the tops of diner napkins. It began with a simple reading of the Declaration of Independence. Students had been arguing about acceptance and equality in America. The brown skinned boy who gets followed by store managers every time he shops in Thirftway or the Russian girl who wonders why she can’t get help at Nordstrom, “I ‘ave plastic. I dink dey is da plastic one.”
But nothing works ESL students up more than the seclusion of education.
“Why can’t we sign up for better classes?”
“Why do we only take ones with the same students over and over?”
We would read excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But they would balk, scoffing at the Bill of Rights, “They exist, sure, but not if your skin isn’t white.”
My colleages would cry foul.
“A lot of these kids are illegal. They shouldn’t be allowed free education.” But what is the real cost? These people were here anyway, weren’t they? What, should we deport them all? Years ago, when I first returned from teaching in Korea, I worked at a small language school downtown and every week we would take the students on trips around Oregon and SW Washington: Silver Creek Falls, Deschutes River rafting, Mt. Hood sledding at Government Camp, Lincoln City. To see student’s faces marvel at the natural wonder of Oregon. I remember Rui, a red headed Japanese skater boy, laying down on the baseball field grass in the middle of Sauvie’s Island corn maze screaming, “This is America! Finally, I see it.”
Such a cool moment.
I thought about them this weekend as Steve and I headed up the north side of Mt. Hood, past alpine meadows and sliding on glaciers. I remember in the Romanticism unit getting to Chief Joseph and him leading the Nez Perce people through this area from Washington through Idaho into Canada. The students always loved his story because they could touch the clothes and walk around seeing the art work and feel his life. How at the end of the story he said: “I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed… The old men are all dead… No one knows where they are… Maybe I shall find them among the dead. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad … I will fight no more forever.”
“What? He gave up?” Jose, a shaved-head boy from Ecuador gasped. “But he was their leader?”
“No, he was broken,” Alfredo quipped back. “That’s what the white man does. He breaks you.”
“No esse, he was just old,” Anthony, an L.A. born Chicano who’s father came to parent-teacher night stoned, chimes in. “Chief J. is like my granddad. He just sits at the table and smokes one long all day cigarette.”
I ask them then, what is your breaking point? How much are you willing to take as a person? As a man or woman on this world, how strong are your beliefs, your convictions? As Steve and I trudged up this mountain, past stream and rockslide, through sloping gravel hill and thick dead wooded branches, we both felt like quitting many times. We both felt like turning around and heading back down. Yet it was our Romantic spirits that kept us going. When we finally reached the summit of our bluff we were screaming, howling, mad with life. We lived to fight another day, and may you, dear reader, as well.