Monday, March 28, 2016

2014 Winter Olympian OR Charles Dickens Character?

Guess who is who . . . 

1)               Noddy Boffin
2)               Caleb Flaxey
3)               Jerry Cruncher
4)               Chemmy Alcott
5)               Rosamund Musgrave
6)               Flora Finching
7)               Seth Pecksniff
8)               Michael Goodfellow
9)               Wackford Squeers
10)                                  Slim Sellis
11)                                  Simon Tappertit
12)                                  Richard Shoebridge
13)                                  Kit Nubbles
14)                                  Winston Watts
15)                                  Jeremiah Flintwich
16)                                  Rowan Cheshire
17)                                  Luke Honeythunder
18)                                  Jesse Cockney
19)                                  Anne Chickenstalker  
20)                                  Huang Xingtong

Dickensian characters:       #1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19
2014 Olympians:                #2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 

Starting Oliver Twist with My Seniors

Reflections on beginning Oliver Twist
with my High School Seniors
March 28, 2016

My students asking me for "more" Dickens!

On the upside, they didn’t throw anything at me.

With essentially one month to go before my seniors take their exams and graduate, I had a choice to make.  I could read a high-interest contemporary novel – Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity perhaps, or Alan Lightman’s mind-bending Einstein’s Dreams.  I’ve had success with both of these books.  Former students have enjoyed them.  My other options included a creative writing unit or some short stories or maybe some World War one poetry.  Nothing says “spring” like the trenches!  Seniors would consider all of these choices reasonable.  It’s nice Mr. Pawlyk cares enough to still assign things, they’d think.  These would be sane springtime schoolwork options for seniors accepted into college and waiting for their lives to really start.  But in our British Literature course, a vast majority of my seniors have never read Dickens.

‘God forbid,’ you might say.  Or ‘heaven forfend!’  Or ‘bollocks!’  Yes he’s my favorite writer but you may think, ‘well sure, you’re an English teacher.’  You might further believe that I am contractually obligated to like books in which a painting is described for two pages, characters gaze endlessly out of windows, and the funny parts are never laughed at by anyone outside of a tweed sport-coat.  Strangely, most English teachers I know don’t love Dickens.  My 18 years in the classroom have taught me that Beowulf, Chaucer, and Shakespeare are ALL easier sells to the modern high school student.  Like epic poetry and Hamlet, Dickens is work but he seems to be the sort of work that makes students grimace in a uniquely Dickensian and theatrical way.  I could describe their grimaces for, like, two pages.

Early in my career, I taught Hard Times, arguably the most commonly taught Dickens novel in American High Schools.  Like a flue shot, however, its best quality is its brevity.  Its worst quality is that it’s like the funny bits that pepper each Dickens novel were taken out, leaving only a sour-faced seriousness, the Scrooge without the Fezziwig.  It’s heartless and formulaic.  My students read it because its plot was easy, its satire obvious, and it was a little over 200 pages long.  Then, during two particularly delusional years, I decided to teach what I consider to be Dickens best, if not certainly his most ambitious novel - - Bleak House.  God bless my students, seriously.  Those guys read all 12 books of Milton’s Paradise Lost and just a few short months later a 900 page Victorian novel.  The fact that my tires were not slashed that spring is nothing short of a miracle.  I loved and knew Bleak House well.  I just didn’t spend enough time thinking about how I would teach it.  If I was Oedipus and Oedipus was an English teacher, this would be my hamartia, my fatal flaw.  I sometimes let my affection for a book trick me into thinking my sheer love of it will be enough to make it work in the classroom.  Nerdy love is never enough in teaching, however, so I have settled onto Dickens’s second novel, Oliver Twist.  It fits my three basic criteria for a Dickens novel in a high school survey course: relative brevity (about 450 pages[1]), some amazing condition of England satire[2], and regular comedy.[3]

So this past weekend I read the first six chapters of Dickens’s Oliver Twist for class.  Oliver has asked for more and punched Noah Claypoole so Bumble is on his way to Sowerberry’s.  Despite my love of Dickens, I can readily admit that my students may not feel equally enthusiastic about these opening pages.   

I have two observations about the novel so far.

First, my favorite detail.  One prominent reader of Dickens (whose name I forget) stated that Dickens’s narrative lens prefigured the film camera.  There is a conscious zoom that his narrators use.  We have spent many early pages watching Mr. Bumble the parish Beadle verbally and physically beating the kids in his charge.  Sowerberry, the caretaker and coffin-maker, notices the elegant button on Bumble’s parochial coat on which is imprinted the ‘Good Samaritan healing the sick and bruised man.”  Most authors stop there and enjoy their moment of irony but Dickens takes it one more step, with Bumble telling Sowerberry that the board gave it [the button] to him and the first time he wore it was the night he “attended the inquest on that reduced tradesman who died in a doorway at midnight.”  I think that in order to enjoy Dickens one needs to imagine him smirking in verbal victory as he writes these lines.   I think we all love the exposure of the unjustifiably self-important.  This exposure is the root of much of Dickens’s comedy and is the reason why Bumble, while an awful man, is so much fun to read.

Second, in Dickens’s youth he lived next to a workhouse and across the street from a cemetery.  Early in the novel, Oliver and his new employer Mr. Sowerberry attend to the burial of a woman.  Dickens describes the circumstances with eerie authenticity (including the indifference of the minister and the shallowness of the grave, prefiguring Nemo’s burial in Bleak House).  If one learns to read with the heart and not just the head, this burial scene is one of many that should move the reader of Dickens.  Like Shakespeare, Dickens is aware of the social panorama of any human scene, especially its margins.  Remember in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare knows that at Juliet and Paris’ wedding there would have been musicians.  In Macbeth, some hung-over Porter would have to open Macbeth’s gate.  And in Hamlet, someone needed to dig Ophelia’s grave.  Wedding musicians, porters, and gravediggers were not new ideas to Shakespeare.  He was just the first writer to make them real people.  Having read his Shakespeare (the most quoted author in Dickens), early in Oliver Twist Dickens is writing this emotional burial scene.  It would be easy for him too focus solely on the burial, the loss of this nameless woman, and the tragic circumstances of her remaining family.  But Dickens always reminds us that there are other perspectives, other lives, men who just dig and fill graves, boys who play games in the graveyard, and workers who read the paper as families bury their dead.   The next time someone tells me that Dickens’ isn’t realistic, I need to remember moments like this.  I need to remember that someone will have the job of picking up my trash tomorrow morning as I go busily to work.  Other people will be mopping my school’s floors and making the students’ hamburgers.  And all of these people have hobbies, loves, fears, and dreams that make them infinitely interesting.  And if a writer can make me pay more attention and can make people more mysterious and interesting to me, isn’t that enough?

[1] Dickens’s best books, in my opinion, are David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend.  Each of these novels exceeds 800 pages and could be used as weapons if attacked while reading.
[2] Leaves you wanting “more,” if you know what I mean!
[3] Particularly dark comedy, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


I would like to take this time to offer my sincerest apologies
to my first students – Freshmen English, 1997.

I was a fraud.
Sure I had read lots of books
and didn’t embarrass myself in graduate school.
But your adolescent posturing,
your theatrical sighs, missing verb exercises,
and varied attempts at coolness
mystified and paralyzed me.
I was staying one chapter ahead of you,
hoping for questions I knew the answers to.

I worked with cagey, gray-haired veteran teachers
who knew, as if by smell,
when to enforce the syllabus’s lateness policy
and when a boy’s eyes made the syllabus irrelevant.
Was I really not supposed to smile until Christmas?
Had I just signed a contract for $26,000 a year
to be miserable, or worse, to feign misery
even when I saw the occasional flicker of your understanding,
like houselights going on and off during a storm.

It’s easy for me now to answer the alarm,
tie my tie, carry my props with me
in this play I’ve grown to love
whose blocking and script never stay the same.

But to you, my first students,
so patient with my sad attempts at authority,
I say, “I’m sorry.”

I went into this job
thinking Beowulf and Hamlet
would be really hard to teach.
The truth is that any one of you
with untied shoes and questionable hygiene
is infinitely more complicated and mysterious
than anyone in any book
any English class has ever read.

I know this now.
You taught it to me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

"Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"

Why Do Fools Fall in Love?

The wise predict every outcome,
their long-reaching gazes with far-sighted eyes
reading the unseen future,
forecasting every business deal,
seeing the result of every nod and handshake,
forever marrying objectives and outcomes.

But we meet too many football players
 who fall for dancers,
professors for cashiers,
doctors for secretaries,
party animals for wall-flowers.

It’s the lack of vision that guides the lover,
blindness the hand that leads her
through this shadowland without pattern,
without lists of common interests,
the blindness that is the way to love,
the embraced mystery
that is the sole province of the fool.

"Teenaged American Renaissance Cheerleader"

“Shakespeare does a great job making us really wonder if Hamlet is crazy.”

                                                From a student’s essay

I’m sure that in his crumbling grave
at this moment
the Bard is spinning in his dusty tights
at this compliment,
born across continents and centuries
from a 21st century American teenaged boy.

He was told for his whole life
to be positive and supportive,
a parental edict, he figured,
which extended to every clumsy nerd,
every boy who struck out,
every pimple-faced girl who grew out her hair
to shade the world away,
and even to an oak desk
in an early 17th century London inn
full of the scratchings of the hopeful quill afire
with the brilliant confusion of the Danish prince.

I can almost see the boy’s encouraging smile
as he typed this introductory sentence.
I want to penalize him for having
the nerve for thinking that someone
who doesn’t even shave every day
could extend this compliment to the world’s greatest writer
but in his own way he has exposed Hamlet’s greatest gift,
the protean speech,
the chameleon mystery of him.

I smile looking at this essay,
knowing that my hero lives on at the moment
in Johnny’s mind, beneath the Family Guy poster
in a bedroom thousands of miles from the Thames
and four centuries away from Shakespeare’s London.

I imagine Shakespeare smiling from the great beyond,
having always loved applause, after all.

Monday, March 14, 2016

"The Future of Teaching"

At the end of the my teaching career,
decades from today,
will there be rows of desks,
posters on the walls,
newspaper clippings narrating your many victories?

I’m not sure about desks 
but screens of some kind will displace the newspaper,
your accomplishments flashing in lights around the room.
Desks will be out of vogue.
Rows, a laughable anachronism
from the days of paper and homework.

I myself might even be a hologram,
a shadow full of Dickens and Shakespeare
teaching other shadows.
I will never see your face.
I will never know, really know, what you think.
I won’t even enjoy catching you texting each other,
intra-mental computer chips making your fingers unnecessary.

And I won’t even laugh when, like today, you -
18-year-olds who can vote and go to war -
become immobilized
by a beeping telephone truck outside our classroom,
because, like you and me,
the truck too will be a mere shadow,
not even kicking up dust on a street no longer there.


Time travel,
Rapper’s Delight
rockin’ my ’99 Honda,
tiny car seats  in my back seat
vibrating with the bass.
I doubt this is what the Sugar Hill Gang
had in mind,
their future a soundtrack
for young children on the way
to second grade,
better than dad’s music
(not realizing that this was once dad’s music!)

A slick yet aging business man
glides towards Starbucks,
feet away from the music yet
in perfect time to the beat,
confidant in the caffeinated pattern
of his morning,
his wingtips like auxiliary percussion
behind the Sugar Hill Gang,
who from a million miles away
are making him cooler than he ever could imagine.

"Class Full of Albatrosses"

Coleridge stares at my students
struggling to listen to his Rime,
face-down like the dead mariners
draped on the welcome wood of their desks,
rocked asleep by the soft tide of that ghostly music.

Coleridge sighs atop his cloudy perch
and falls asleep,
tired of zombies,
dreaming of eyes wide-open.


When breezes blew through the tulips at my window,
when you turned your head at the crash of the bowl,
when your mouth made an “O” at the perfect destruction,
then its splintered triangles paved the floor.

"In Reverse"

8 out of 10 American homes
eat meals while watching TV.

The days of sharing our adventures at recess,
tales from the office,
or our latest doctor’s appointment
are like episodes from a 1950s sitcom,
polite, black-and-white, and buttoned-down.

But here at the pub
is the home in reverse.
TVs surround me on the ceiling, on the walls, at the bar.
TV sound is only on in the bathroom.
I can't even pee without Donald Trump yelling at me.

But in the bar we fight a muted war on ISIS, 
Isaiah Thomas' latest 4th quarter jump shot
falls silently through the net before open-mouthed fans,
and flies buzz soundlessly around a refugee's face.

All silenced in favor of pub cacophony –
that great brew of businessmen tired from endless meetings,
hitting on the young, equally tired waitress,
housewives grateful for a break from Elmo
and retirees between doctors appointments and the golf course,
all accented by pictures of news-anchors,
diving outfielders, and men gesticulating in front of large maps,
like a schizophrenic silent movie
playing side by side with the plot of our real lives.

"Father and Son"

So as I drive past the barber today,
an old man walks arm-and-arm
with his middle-aged son who dons a fresh hair-cut,
a lollipop, and a wide grin under his neat salt-and-pepper hair.
The father walks cautiously, as if on ice,
clutching onto his son as if teaching him
to skate for the first time, the son overanxious
and excited about his trip to the barber,
much taller than his father but still very much, a boy.

I imagine the elderly man raising his adult kid,
needing to curb and also embrace
his son’s excitement over neatly trimmed side-burns,
I imagine the odd question about whether his adult son
could please – PLEASE – have a lollipop.
I imagine the need to hold his son’s large hand
so he doesn’t run across the busy street on the way to their van.

And I imagine the father, late at night,
his son finally asleep, the questions and the daily outbursts
all resting under the too small Superman blankets.
The father closes his eyes and tries to sleep,
a kaleidoscope of regret and joy disturbing his rest.
He is haunted by images of his friends’ healthy families,
the joy of grandchildren,
those tiny hands around his neck he’ll never know.
Surrounding these images of the perfect family
is always his own broken son, his smile as constant
as his joy at seeing his dad enter his room
to pick out his clothes and wish him ‘good morning.’

Sleep finally comes as his own son dreams
in a room that hasn’t changed in decades,
dreams without aspirations and regrets, without jealousy and hate,
just imagining a perfect haircut in the mirror,
ice cream dripping down his chin,
his father choosing just the right socks,
and holding dad’s hand for ever and ever.

The baseball players on his walls lull him to sleep
until he wakes up to Frosted flakes
and his father’s veiny hands folding over
the Velcro on his sneakers,
keeping everything together.

Jesus's i-Phone

If Jesus had an i-phone,
it would --   Morse-code-like  --
feverishly blink with the urgent needs
of strangers,
the blind woman’s fumbling, mistake-laden pleas,
the deaf teenager’s silent screams on the small screen,
desperate fathers’ virtual prayers,
full of exclamation points,
begging that their daughters would not! die.

If Jesus had an i-phone,
he would know when to use it.
More importantly,
he would know
when to put it down
on the rocky Judean soil
as he'd kneel in silent prayer,
asking his Father for the strength
a god needs on earth.

"Hamlet at the Workshop"

“A little more than kin and less than kind.”

The Elsinorian air around him full of poetic pronouncements,
            straining against their iambic boxes
            and his misguided promise to a ghost in the woods.

He never follows directions.
He doesn’t know that he needs a clear tragic flaw.
He never learns from Sophocles
            how to heed the fatal danger 
            of overstepping one's bounds.
He has sworn away all bounds, 
forever living in the “goodly frame”
            of the eloquent stage in his mind.

The father whose airy armor demands revenge
            is trumped by the un-poetic cruelty of murder.
The would-be father-in-law suffocates 
on the figurative air he can’t seem to breath,
            mocked by this Danish drop-out at every turn.

The young prince flees from the love he desperately seeks.
He is cruel to be kind to be cruel.
Best friends gone, mother a betrayer or, worse, ignorant,
            only the pedantic comrade left,
            not even a shadow of the Protean hero he follows so helplessly.

Pirates, gravediggers, sword-fights, staged murders,
            secrets behind every curtain,
            the readers’ eyes widen at every new surprise.

Every 21st century teenager gets Hamlet,
            the comedy, the sarcasm, the hatred of boundaries,
            the chameleon moodiness of him – 
even though he is a 400-year-old ghost.

So I smile when the workshop leader, addressing 50 teachers, 
pronounces, “All stories fit into this 4 step pattern,”
proudly pointing to a list of plot devices on a large computer screen,
the bullet-listness of them demanding self-evident agreement.
My fellow teachers are actually writing this down.

I imagine Hamlet sitting next to me, twirling his quill sarcastically, that smirk on his face.
I wonder how long it would have taken him to get up, push his chair in,
            and walk out of the conference room and into the lobby
            for the illumination of a hot coffee and an ironic Danish.