We spent a lot of time at school last year recognizing the value of grit, and I’ve found myself thinking about it this summer, more so now that the start of the year is imminent. Though some in the building are telling students in a “we’re almost clear on this now” way that we haven’t quite defined “grit” yet, “grit” is generally being defined in psychological circles as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” The concept has been on national social and educational radars for a few years. I read a few articles starting about two years ago, and a rather popular TED talk made its rounds in our advisory classrooms. None of this is to say that I wasn’t skeptical. I was. I think any time somebody drops something in your wheelhouse you had damn well better be skeptical to save yourself chasing your tail and wasting your energy on fruitless or half-thought ideas that charlatans tell you are a panacea for whatever may be ailing your classroom.
Here’s how we’ve been doing it. Each month, teachers are nominating students they feel demonstrate grit. They are strongly encouraged to nominate only one. It’s not going to be the nice girl who sits in the front row and answers every question and sometimes puts an apple on your desk; nor is it going to be the academic all-star who can skate through class without much difficulty. While those are both great types of students to have, you really have to look to the middle-range or struggling students who you can sometimes hear sweat as they work throughout the semester. They show up every day and put in their best effort as a matter of habit. They are the kids who internalize their frustrations when you demand more or better work instead of cussing you out or giving up and taking an “F”. They stay the course, and continue to stay the course until they achieve.
This might well be something that adults take for granted in themselves. Who among us hasn’t stayed up late the night before final exams to cover those concepts we’re still shaky on in order to preserve a “B” in a class? Who hasn’t kept running after the fifth mile, despite the stitch in the ribs from dehydration? Who hasn’t kept sending out the manuscript, despite dozens of rejections? You can’t get too far into adult life without demonstrating some kind of grit—at least not if you plan on living a productive and meaningful life. But our brains are developed as adults, and our reasoning centers, the last parts of the brain to develop, help us understand that gratification can be delayed and that which we struggle for is more meaningful once we attain it. It’s hard to convey that idea to a teenager, though. Which is where the recognition of “grit” comes into play.
So we call these kids out. They get a certificate of recognition, the card the teacher originally submitted to recognize the student, a “grit” t-shirt, and a decent recognition breakfast. I went to all of the breakfasts we held last year to give the students I’d recognized a pat on the back. Each breakfast had a few dozen students, very few of whom are going to be invited to the honors banquet or awarded an athletic scholarship to a Division I school. But the value of these students in a classroom is immeasurable. They are the ones you want everyone to watch as they work through their frustrations, and that includes the apathetic students and the academic all-stars (who, more often than you might believe, shut down when they are frustrated).
Something that stands out about grit is that it’s not moralistic. We’re not preaching good behavior and positive social skills and whether or not a student meets a vague ideal professed in the school’s mission statement. We’re also not rewarding behavior we already expect in students, i.e. “Johnny is being recognized today because he comes to class on time every day.” That kind of stuff kills me. Where in the real world does a person get recognition for something they are supposed to do in the first place? Chris Rock said it best in one of is standup routines when he talked about a “brother” who was bragging about not having been to jail. His response: “What do you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail!” Yet we’ve spent time on that kind of recognition in the past, and that includes a special recognition from a past principal who ended up recognizing faculty for doing the job they were supposed to do in the first place.
So recognizing grit sounds good, huh? We’ve found something that is true to human experience, valuable in the classroom, and will show dividends for students as they pass through the building and move on to further education and adult life. I’m buying it. But it isn’t all bliss. I’ve already experienced the hitches that not only undermine our push for grit, but that can pull the plug on it.
Here’s how it works: Patricia gives a speech. She runs over time, mumbles a lot, isn’t able to wrap things up when I am forced by time constraints to stop her, and turns in only half an outline. In short, she didn’t prepare herself properly. When she gets her grade back, she starts cussing, whips out her cell phone, and storms out of class. I pursue her, trying to track down a hall monitor to make sure she goes to the proper place, which is the dean’s office. There is a behavior problem. But Patricia is quick with that phone, and can push her parent’s buttons with as much ease as the ones on the phone. She orders her parents up to the school, throws in some extra drama along the way, and within a half hour, her parents are not only in the school, but in an administrator’s office. No need to demonstrate grit. No need to grind a few teeth, settle oneself down, and possibly talk to the teacher after class for a few minutes. No need at all because the parents are on call for this very type of episode so that Patricia doesn’t have to agonize over anything.
Want another example? Rick has to be removed from class one day… it’s the cell phone again. He’s listening to music when he should be typing a paper. He misses turning the paper in. He shows up the next morning during the time when he’s an office aide and asks to turn the paper in. He has seen on the electronic grade book that it’s a zero, and since it’s early in the semester, that really hurts his grade. I listen to him and explain why I won’t take the paper, and even refer him to classroom policies posted on the bulletin board. Instead of returning to his duties as an office aide running passes and whatnot, he finds a bathroom and hides himself in a stall so he can sneak a call to his mom. Within ten minutes, she has fired off an angry email to me about how my decision has ruined her boy’s grade, and demanding that I reconsider. The implied threat is tangible; the parent knows contacting me is the first step and if I don’t accede, she need only step up the ladder to my direct supervisor.
These are not unusual stories. Any teacher can tell either one of them, and more. Things like this happen a half dozen times a year to most teachers, though that first one is on the extreme end of the spectrum of parental tampering. What makes them more significant, though, is how helicopter parenting is working to actively undermine what is one of the best and most effective social initiatives we’ve had going at school for quite a while. Parents aren’t seeing the value in their child having to experience discomfort and tension in their educational experience, even when that discomfort and tension is a natural consequence to their decisions.
What’s more, these helicopters are subverting the systems we have set up in the school specifically to benefit their child. Any of these students is entitled to a visit with their counselor to discuss the issue. They have an advisor they see every day that they can talk to. There are numerous other venues through which any student can address a concern if they pursue them… coaches, social workers, activity sponsors, other teachers. Heck, they can even say, “I screwed this up, but in the future I’m going to do things differently.” So in addition to the sundry distractions that cell phones cause in a classroom, they are also providing students with instant gratification and a means by which to subvert demonstrating grit.
The problem is not the cellphones. Cellphones are a reality, and they’re not going anywhere any time soon. The problem is with the parents. When they set expectations that their child can call them instantaneously with whatever grievance and expect that immediate be action taken on their part, that’s the problem. The parent can subvert grit and put it off all they want, but at some point that child is going to have to build a cache of grit and demonstrate it. It’s better to do it in the formative years when the stakes are still relatively low.
I’m a big fan of The Killing. I got interested after the critical reviews started pouring in, but really got into it when I watched the first few episodes and saw that the plot is written with almost entire forward momentum. Not only is that hard to do, but it’s a perfect fit for a police procedural and heightens the suspense. It’s not a perfect show, but it’s darn close and definitely worth watching. On the whole, it’s better than True Detective. I got a friend to start watching it on Netflix, and when we were texting about it the other day, we accidentally stumbled upon what happens in every episode. Dig it:
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there is going to be a season 5, though the show has already been resurrected twice in four seasons. This might be it. If so, it was worth the time.
The Brewers are making a pitching change in the top of the seventh inning right now, trying to work an advantage against the Dodgers. I’m hoping for a win, of course, but even with a loss they’ll still hold a share of first place. That’s what is going on here—the Brewers are still in first place, not having fully faltered since April 5. They have stumbled for the last six weeks, but still hold the top spot. Elsewhere, the Tigers are atop their division, and the Orioles are soaring along nicely and have been for some time. So, like I wrote on May 11, the stars are still aligned. The improbability of this situation continues. I’m probably the only person who is digging this… can’t really think of anybody else who would be cracked in the head enough to follow these three teams as faithfully as I do. Somebody else in the MLB outfit is just as cracked in the head, that person being whomever determined that Iowa City is part of Brewers television market and therefore is in a blackout area for those who want to watch them on MLBTV and can’t seem to find them on whatever backward-ass cable TV system serves Iowa City. I can get Brewers games 50 miles south of the stadium, but I can’t get them 250 miles away? Somebody explain the logic of that to me.
Regardless of the ridiculous broadcasting situation, I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid regarding the Brewers. I’ll be glad if they make the playoffs and gladder still if they win the division, but with Pittsburgh and St. Louis charging hard and a road series against both teams at the end of the season, I’m not holding my breath. The Brewers were mostly inactive at the trade deadline, too, except for picking up another left-handed bat by signing Gerardo Parra. While they’re not really supposed to be in the position they are in, they also aren’t doing much to strengthen their hold. This makes me think that next year is really the year the Brewers are shooting for, and I can see that. With breakout years by Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy happening right now, they are solidifying their foundation. Another year of seasoning for youngsters Khris Davis and Jean Segura might give them a tough lineup next year, so I guess if they make another solid pitching acquisition, they’ll be back in the race next year, too. Unfortunately, not being able to live in the moment and make significant summer rentals is the curse of the small market teams in baseball. It takes a bit of luck to make it work, unless you’re the Yankees or Red Sox.
The Orioles were inactive at the trade deadline, too, though there has been less need for them to do much. They’ve been playing consistently solid baseball, which is only about the second time I’ve ever written that on this blog. I fully expect them to win the division and battle the Tigers in the first round of the playoffs, and I can’t even tell you right now who is going to win that. The Tigers stumble around a lot, but if their pitching shows up to stay any time in the next six weeks, kiss it goodbye. They’ll roll right to the A’s doorstep and possibly beyond. If the Orioles win, they, too can give the A’s a good run. It’s too bad that giving the A’s a good run is going to be about it for the baseball season, whether that comes from the Tigers or Orioles, or the Dodgers in the World Series. The A’s are looking like a buzz saw, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to capitulate on my predictions. I said Dodgers v Tigers come October, and I’m going to hold out for that. Brewers v Orioles would be cool, too, but I’m trying to remain realistic.
If these are the worst problems I’m dealing with this summer, I’d say I’m doing pretty well.
I’m going to pack up and truck out of the IC tomorrow as soon as work shop is over. I’ll be kicking it old school in the luxurious Seeker headquarters by tomorrow evening, and once I pick the cat up from her summer vacation, things will be pretty much back to normal. It’s going to sound strange to say this, but I’m not going to miss Iowa City. That has nothing to do with not liking the town and the campus. I like them plenty, and in tandem they have provided me with a lot of experiences and fun since mid-June.
My second day in town, I was at the grocery store stocking up for my stay when the cashier asked me if I had the local “savings card.” I didn’t launch into my typical routine, but instead told her I wasn’t from Iowa City, or even Iowa for that matter. She looked at me and responded, “Really? You look like you’re in your element.” She was right. I was in my element. It was confirmation that I’ve never really left college. Once I hit campus 26 years ago, the academic culture has never really left me, either. I’ve always been comfortable in a college classroom, even if some of the college classrooms and instructors were less than ideal. I’ve always enjoyed learning, and even though I’ve reached the end of my education in an official / monetary sense, that hasn’t lessened my appetite to keep going. Hence I can spend time at the graduate level without earning credit and not really worry about wasting time or money.
There’s a lot to be said for being somewhere where all the good bars you’ll ever need are in walking distance. Where there are more pizza joints than you can possibly hit even in two months. Where you can ride your bike pretty much everywhere. Where you’re working in a beer garden one evening and someone you don’t know but who saw you around campus comes up and says hi and you have a few drinks–and then someone else you barely know walks by, says “hi,” and sits down. Where you’re lost in a delirium of culture events that it would take you a year or two to find and experience individually.
So if this is indeed Utopia, why not stay? Why not pack it up and find a college town like IC or State College? Hell, why not move 30 miles south to Evanston, which I’m already familiar with and truly love? Evanston notwithstanding, and I have thought about moving there, it’s not a bad idea. But I know it wouldn’t work for me. It’s a false Utopia. I love college campuses because of all they are, but also because I can get away from them and come back at my leisure. More than that, and I would probably suffer from burnout or start disliking the place. I ultimately want to retreat, apply what I’ve learned, and come back when I want to. There’s a lot to be said for being home, sleeping in your own bed, lying on a couch (my house this summer has no couch!), and working in a fully functional kitchen. All the cultural events can still be experienced over a greater course of time; besides, they ultimately become a distraction from doing the work you should be doing.
The mission is accomplished here. I studied a metric ton of poetry, wrote a good deal of it, boosted my skills enough for the immediate (and even longer-term) future, and had more than my share of fun. There’s no more need to stick around. Home is waiting, along with all my other “adult” responsibilities. Six months from now I’ll be drag-ass tired of winter and wanting to hang out on my balcony or ride my bike outside. I’ll worry about all that then, and maybe find a way to write a poem about it.
Here’s the thing when you get exposed to so many different styles of poetry when you’re in a work shop setting: If you’re dead set on growing as a poet, you start to stash away the elements of craft you see in so many diverse styles, like spices and seasonings in your Lazy Susan. Before you know it, you’re throwing things into your plain old stew and perking it up to the point where you’re cooking something different, and even you are surprised at the flavors you’re conjuring. That’s pretty much what’s been going on out here with me this summer. It’s been worth the time and effort and the annoyances of the major shift that comes with being away from the homestead for so long this far along in life.
Despite my complaints about what some of us choose to write, very little of it has been completely lost on me. I’ve mostly appreciated the absurd and whacked-out elements some of my fellow poets have put into their work, and it has encouraged me be more experimental or even plain weird with my work. And I’ve made immediate application of some of these things, too—I set a goal to write a new poem each week for workshop so that I’m not trying to breathe new life into old work or find new angles with it but instead making that new life on the move; actually, putting some heat on myself to produce actively rather than observe passively and try to recall and apply these new insights later. What’s more, I’ve not tried to make myself equal to others. I’ve only worried about pushing myself and continuing to develop my own voice.
So, when I say “The Jumps,” I’m talking about the jumps in ability I feel myself making with each poem. Seems that every week for the last six weeks when I’ve sat down to start my newest poem, I can only get a little ways into it before I start running through my expanded schema regarding what needs to happen to make the poem better or have more impact, or where I can apply an quantum of vagueness to “make” the reader think while he’s reading the poem. This has been like inching across thin ice at points. Too vague, and I’ll fall through. The meaning will be lost or unfathomable, and I’ll be no better off than some of the stuff I’ve decried from previous weeks in the workshop.
Thing is now that I’m getting tired of writing poetry. Work shop ends in six days, and between now and then I’ve got enough poetic energy to get myself through, but I really want to work on some other things. I haven’t generated a fresh story for a few months, and even though I don’t have any “fresh” ideas, I know how to get started on things. I’m eager to get back into some fiction or whatever else comes down the pipe. I guess even if it’s poetry, I’ll still pursue it. I’m rediscovering what a luxury it is to work across genres rather than within a genre, and am still having trouble reckoning with writers in my own work shop who profess “Poetry Only.” It’s been difficult to get any of them to look at a short story I wrote last spring and have been wanting to get back to after somebody else looked at it. I can finally do that because one of my workshop members was receptive to looking at the story, but damn it took a while to find somebody.
Juxtaposition! One can’t scratch one’s ass out here without elbowing two or three people who just uttered the word, or who are writing the word in their journal, or who are debating the relative merits of it in whatever genre in which they work. It’s the word I’ve heard the most out here this summer, discounting articles such as “a,” “an,” and “the,” of course. The work shop leader quipped the other day that the University of Iowa mascot should be the Fighting Juxtapositions. I qualified that by pointing out that they’d actually have to be passive. Haha…
Juxtaposition: the fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect.
It’s an important concept, actually. Actually, it’s critical. It can be the basis by which a poet or other writer makes incisive commentary on whatever he is writing. Take two things and put them side by side and see what happens. What observations do you make? What things do you see that you didn’t see before? What unexpected things come up? Bingo… you got yourself something to write about, and it might be fresh and original or at least amusing.
I rarely have set out as a writer to intentionally juxtapose two things. Never have I sat down and said to myself, “Hmmm… what can I do with juxtaposition today…???” Nonetheless, I have done it. Heck, the first poem I submitted to workshop was about a two-for-one prostate exam I inadvertently received a few years back. True story. How the hell does one bring an uncomfortable and even disgusting (albeit necessary) medical experience to the elevated and insightful realms of verse? Well, that’s the poets job. And I did it. But truth is I set out to be an irreverent wiseass when I started writing it. Most of my writing starts that way. Turns out I was also using juxtaposition.
Two weeks into workshop, the “j” word was echoing through my mind when I was doing a cross-out poetry exercise with a fine dining article I found in a local publication. It sounded like the writer was using a lot sexually suggestive language in his writing, so I was crossing out the rest to focus my attention on what wasn’t crossed out. Then, later that night, I heard someone at a bar make an off-handed and dirty comment about his dating life, and for the first time perhaps ever in my life, my juxtaposition bell was rung. I worked on putting the statement with the language from the recipe article. Don’t know how well I did it, and I haven’t gone back to redraft it since it’s been workshopped, but in the least the practice was enough.
This all sounds well and good but that I’m on a college campus—one renowned for its MFA writing program. Thus we’re running the risk of “juxtaposition” becoming part of what a writing acquaintance of mine terms “MFAspeak.” That’s a type jargon that evolves when a group of writers or others in the same discipline start throwing around fancy-sounding terms without necessarily backing up the usage with solid evidence. All too often, speaking above one’s head is a cover for not fully understanding something or not having done enough work on it. One good example of this is the term “agency,” as in “Who has agency in this poem?” or “What can be done do increase the narrator’s sense of agency in this story?” or “I couldn’t really decide who has agency in this narrative.” Those are such general and vague questions that they can lead most anywhere, but they sound clever and insightful.
So “juxtaposition” is cool and all that, and I’m glad it’s fully on my radar as both a writer and reviewer, but it’s also on my bullshit radar. Hopefully the former will overpower the latter.
The question continues to dog me. What the hell are some of my classmates writing, and why are they writing it? I can’t be the only one of the ten of us to be asking this. We continue to face poems in which there is no place to “put your feet down,” as was mentioned in our second week of work shopping.
One remedy to this, rather than tell those poets to write something more readily understandable, was to refer us to an article about approaching poems that seem almost impenetrable. I read the article, and am going to go back to it and take more notes, and it helped quite a it. Something I needed to understand is why someone would write a poem that needs to be “solved.” The person who wrote the article suggested looking for a “persona” and a “world,” instead of an argument or a plot. Right there are two major ways in which my poems differ from some of these “new” ones. That’s actually what the author called it: New Poetry. Actually, Very New Poetry. Like it needs time to prove itself and see if anybody takes the bait and declares it is “worthy.” I’m not sold.
The author, Stephen Burt, also nailed the issue I’m struggling with: some of these poems tease or demand or frustrate; they’re hard or impossible to paraphrase; and they try not to tell stories. Bingo! So why the hell would someone write a poem like that? What’s the point in communicating if those are the precepts? Seems that some of this is a reaction to the conservative and staid academia who preached what quality verse was until students and others were tired of it being forced on them and reacted. So, it’s backlash against the establishment and it’s been dropped in my lap for me to deal with. Thanks, white dudes with the elbow patches on your blazers.
I’m not sure how much of the “new” poetry I’ve dealt with is reactionary. I keep getting the feeling that some of it was scrabbled together the night before workshop, and some of it is a turd sprayed not with perfume but with something else distracting and not necessarily sweet. I also tried to handle a poem recently in which I had to break the code in order to even read it correctly–that was made apparent when the poet read it in workshop. The poet had the “key” and read it as it should have been read. I reverted to my old habit, and once I got lost in it, I put it aside. Ain’t got time for it.
This hasn’t all been frustrations, though. Handling some of this “new” poetry has expanded my schema, and I’ve even worked in some vague ways that are new to me as I’ve composed my own poems. I’ve also become much better at handling the stuff. So despite my protestations, I’ve learned! I’m going to cling to my philosophy of dumping stuff that doesn’t engage me, or that I can’t put my feet down in. It’s just that now there won’t be so much of that stuff.