Archive for October, 2010

The Angel in the House

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Here’s a confession:  I still dress up for Halloween.  This year’s costume was inspired by a cool set of glittery, dark angel wings I found in a Halloween store and an essay by Virginia Woolf titled “Professions for Women,” originally included in her book The Death of the Moth.

wings

In addition to writing fiction, Woolf made a living by writing book reviews and other pieces of journalism.  In “Professions for Women,” Woolf describes a moment when she was about to write something critical in a book review–negative commentary.  She suddenly felt like she was battling a “certain phantom.  And the phantom was a woman… I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, The Angel in the House.”  This Angel symbolizes every writer’s inner censor, the little voice saying, “What will people think if I write this?  Will they think I’m not a nice person?  Is my humor too uncouth?  Will my opinions be too unpopular?”  To these questions, this Angel, this censor, whispers:  “Yes, yes, and yes.  Do not write anything except sweetness and purity.”  Or, as Woolf says, the Angel whispers, “My dear, you are a young woman.  Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive… Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own.  Above all, be pure.”

So what does Woolf suggest we do about this sweet, whispering voice in our heads?  “I turned upon her and caught her by the throat.  I did my best to kill her.  My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defense.  Had I not killed her, she would have killed me.  She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”

Since Halloween is the time to become creatures of evil–ghosts, witches, and the cast of Jersey Shore–I chose to dress up as the Angel in the House, the inhibitor of writers.  After all, would we have The Lovely Bones, How to Breathe Underwater, or Nineteen Minutes if writers–women or men alike–felt they could only write about sugar, spice, and everything nice?  I think not.

So I beseech you writers and artists out there–join me!  We must kill our Angels, because only then will our creativity live freely.  Happy Halloween!


Who’s Your Dead Mentor?

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I am so proud to announce that The Christian Science Monitor picked up my article, “Who’s Your Dead Mentor?” for their Chapter & Verse blog.  Inspired by the teachings of Virginia Woolf, I wrote the piece this summer and am happy that it has found a loving home. 

Be sure to check out the awesome picture of Virginia Woolf the editor included–what more could I ask for?


You’re the Boss, Tony Danza

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When I saw an ad for Teach:  Tony Danza, a reality show about the actor spending a year teaching tenth grade English in Philadelphia, I cringed.  The world doesn’t need another Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers, films that romanticize the profession.  Arms crossed, chin stuck out in front of a chalkboard and ratty desk, Tony Danza seemed to respond to my thoughts:  ”You don’t want me?  Too bad.  I’m the boss, and I’m teaching.”

What could be worse than a “reality” show romanticizing reality?  I found out when I caught a few minutes of the show last night.  Tony Danza crying in front of the principal.  Tony Danza, with unabashed conviction, refusing to follow basic procedures for special needs kids (for the non-educators out there, this is illegal).  Tony Danza singling out students, crouching over them, demanding to know what’s wrong–in the middle of class, with twenty-five other kids looking on.  Tony Danza listening to an uncontrolled open forum of students criticizing his assessments.  In short, Tony Danza was making embarrassing mistake after embarrassing mistake, for all of America to see.  If the public saw Tony Danza as an example of the average high school English teacher, I fumed, then it was just a matter of time before our stock completely plummeted.

When the episode ended, though, I realized what bothered me the most about Teach:  Tony Danza.  He was making the mistakes many first-year teachers make.  He cares for his students and wants to do a good job, but, being a rookie, he’s still learning how to channel that caring into the most effective avenues.  He has yet to learn how to compartmentalize, the art of tact, the basic laws that govern twenty-first century teaching.  Watching his mistakes made me angry because, truthfully, my own rookie errors in the past haven’t strayed too far from his–and, as much as I hate to admit it, I’m sure there are many more mistakes that I have yet to make. 

I turned off the TV wishing I could give Tony Danza some advice on getting through that difficult first year.  Just relax, I’d like to tell him.  Focus on your objectives.  Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers; don’t worry if the kids don’t see you as their best friend.  After all, you’re the boss.


Dear Mr. President

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Dear President Obama,

I heard you’re going to be in town for dinner tonight.  While visiting our state, would you mind talking some sense into our governor?

Respectfully yours,
A concerned teacher


The Origins of Tragedy

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By now, news of the Rutgers freshman that committed suicide after being outted by his roommate on the Internet has spread like fire.  Never before has a news story hit me so close to the bone.  I’ve been saddened and angered by news stories, but for some reason, I felt like a complete zombie the day I found out about this case.

I don’t know what consequences will face the perpetrators, but I seriously doubt they would have committed this crime if they knew what would happen in the aftermath.  We hear the same plea in so many circumstances, over and over.  “I didn’t know.”  I didn’t know that he was crossing the street when I zoomed around the corner.  I didn’t realize that leaving a nasty, anonymous comment on someone’s message board would hurt her feelings as much as it did.  I didn’t think that laughing over a rumor or contributing to the spread of gossip would have such devastating effects on another person’s life.

I can’t speak to the intentions of the victim’s roommate, but I do believe that we aren’t immune to tragedy just because our intentions aren’t vicious.  I don’t say this because I’m innocent and everyone else is guilty; I just think it’s true.  Tragedies can spring from carelessness as much as they can from malice. 

A popular essay topic following the reading of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is whether fate or free will is to blame for the tragic series of events in the play.  Students usually blame the witches for spinning Macbeth’s fate, Lady Macbeth for manipulating her husband into committing the crimes, or Macbeth himself for favoring ambition over human decency.  An essay, I tell my students, is good if you can support your claim with ample evidence from the text, persuading your reader to agree with your perspective.  In a similar way, the reasons for the Rutgers tragedy can be open for interpretation.  I don’t think there are any foolproof ways of avoiding all tragedies like this in the future, but my perspective is that it might help if we stopped and thought about the good old golden rule when interacting with fellow human beings.