Monday, November 09, 2009

Mr. Holland's Opus and Harper Lee's

Too much schmaltz is not good for you. Sometimes dispassion is necessary and then austerity in one's entertainments is preferred. Or, if passion is to be sought, perhaps it needs to be of the transcendent type, where in spite of witnessing misplaced fervor we are nonetheless elevated from the watching, as we ourselves are not so possessed and greatly admire those who are. But other times, maybe when we're down or feel befuddled or see what appears to be our last opportunity to accomplish something of substance wash through our fingers like the ebb tide as we're kneeling at the beach, then schmaltz might be just the ticket, comforting for the most part, with perhaps a tad of an educational idea, but nothing too challenging.

Last night, Mr. Holland's Opus was on one of the movie channels. I'd been struggling with the most recent posts of my students - they blog weekly on a prompt I suggest for them or on a topic of their own choosing that is in some way related to course. The course is called Designing for Effective Change. Approaching the last lap of the semester, we're now supposed to be working on a class project, which is aimed at making some effective change on Campus. But reading the students posts, I was struck by how many of them are defenders of the status quo. After all, these students have done very well by the system, so why wouldn't they defend it. Yet somehow I expected them to see through their own experience, even to sacrifice some of that, if doing so would benefit their fellow student who has not fared quite as well as they have. Then, too, I've become aware that as writing exercises in other classes some students do design projects for change, but as an artificial form only, the goal being to deliver the paper for the writing requirement, not to implement the recommendations from the paper. I had wanted something real to come out of this class project. I still want that. But a real outcome is receding from probability to possibility and may fade out entirely from view. Instead we'll get another academic exercise that doesn't amount to much; the course as a whole may have touched a few students, but the class project probably not.

So there is Mr. Holland, the teacher who got it right, though he didn't know it while he was doing it, the teacher who devoted so much of his individual time to helping his students outside the regular classroom that he had no time left to write his own music or spend with his family, the underpaid music teacher who had to teach driver's ed in the summer to make ends meet, the teacher who fully committed to excellent performance by his students and so willingly persisted alongside them till they could deliver on this goal, the teacher who constantly worked at understanding student motivation and continued to try new approaches to tap into that. Mr. Holland, who makes the Quixote tilting that is teaching seem like a noble cause, who matters in the lives of his former students, enough so that they gather at his surprise retirement party to perform his yet unperformed "An American Symphony." Schmaltzy movies always have a happy ending. And in schmaltzy movies, the good guys matter; they matter a lot. Viewing this one got me ready for another day of school, even though the class project is going into the crapper.

The course is more than the class project. The students as bloggers are individual writers, some taking great pains to produce work with originality and creativity. It is my first time having students do this sort of thing and what I'm learning is that my job is as much about soothing ego as it is about coaching the writing craft. I've had an intimate relationship with angst since when I was a teen and through much of my adult life, so I thought I'd be able to understand the inner workings of these kids and be able to relate to them accordingly. But angst comes in different flavors. Mine does not feature the strong perfectionism that seems to inhabit many of the students. So I feel ill prepared to help them, though I do embrace most of the strategies for effective teachers at the listed at the linked page. (I don't talk openly about perfectionism, though some of the students do.)

Worse, on occasion I seem to be feeding the beast. Praise for work that I truly believe is well done turns into a short-lived benefit for the student and a long term cost, by creating an expectational floor for the upcoming work not yet submitted. The successful writer develops writer's block by dint of the past success. Surely this is pathology. Or is it?

I thought of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the great first novels of the twentieth century. For Harper Lee it was also her last published novel. It is unclear why this is the case since she was in her early thirties when To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and is alive still today. Was the fame which accompanied the success of the book so unwelcome that she didn't dare produce another masterpiece? Was it that having hit the nail perfectly square on the head with the hammer she no longer had use for other nails and no reason to wield another hammer? Or was she sent to purgatory by her own perfectionism, her one act play so good that it was simply too tough for her to produce a second act.

Knowing of Harper Lee, how does one coach a talented yet perfectionist student nowadays about the student as a writer. Everything seems so much more accentuated now than when I was a college student. I saw anorexia then but only in isolated individuals. Now the mindset, if not the physical manifestation, seems much more prevalent, especially in this group of high achievers. What then, should be done about it?

These kids very well might not see writing as their vocation for other reasons. Most are pursuing a career in some profession - engineering, business, or medicine. But in our first full book that we read for the class, Better, the author Atul Gawande concludes with a set of suggestions to become a positive deviant, including "write something." So the students have it on better authority than I can offer that writing should be something they do, in addition to their profession if not in lieu of it. Ahead of teaching this class I'd have given Gawande's recommendation my full throated endorsement.

Now I am less sure. For the perfectionist students in my class, will any produce an opus of writing? If so, when will it occur in their own career trajectories? Will it happen as with Mr. Holland, to mark a good and productive life, one with meaning for others? If it doesn't happen at all, will it be because as faux Harper Lee's they flame out before reaching their prime?

For me as a teacher, what am I to make of this, viewing writing at the path to deep thinking and learning yet sworn to "do no harm"? I can't see how to make progress with the students without putting them at risk. I fear that some may be too fragile for the journey.

No comments: