Friday, August 27, 2010

Where's the Creativity

There has been movement for decades to seriously restrict our students' ability to interact creatively. It began when districts began cutting art and music from our schools. No more band or choir. No more learning how to play the recorder or how to keep time on a drum. No more making mom a crude piece of ceramic pottery that she will treasure forever because it came from her child's hand and imagination. How sad. Even taking a social and historical perspective, how do we teach children all the words to America the Beautiful or teach them songs that are relevant to the diverse cultural building of our nation? How do we teach the importance of songs that tell the history of millions of people who otherwise never make it into our textbooks? Who is responsible for teaching the value of interesting visual composition? Is there a school out there who can teach why we, as a species, have created murals from Lascaux to last night's graffiti? Maybe politicians have been restricting the arts because artists are somehow dangerous, but they have also put serious cuts into home economics classes, auto and wood shop, and physical education. Why shouldn't we know how to cook, change our oil, or play kick ball? The answer is often that there is not enough money and besides, we need to help our children pass the high stakes tests. Now, we are one step further away from creating well-rounded students as some districts are choosing to chop literature from our English classes.

Of course, we do need to improve our ability to read, interpret, and respond to non-fiction writing, but not at the expense of millions of pages of important literature. Getting rid of literature from the curriculum is not the solution for helping students become better writers, but having students read and intelligently respond to themes found in all types of writing will. And that isn't all, students also need to create their own pieces of fiction and non-fiction texts. Those of us involved in education know that according to Bloom's Taxonomy, being able to find information in a text is lower level thinking. On the other hand, being able to connect ideas found in both literary and expository tests, understand the relationship between both texts, and eventually create an entirely new text based on what was previously read, is a form of higher thinking. Simply sticking to non-fictions texts such as newspaper articles and informational essays is no better than restricting students to the study of poetry, novels, drama, or short stories. However, one important responsibility of all teachers is to be scholarly enough to expose students to creative texts and the informational texts that help support these works. It is equally important for students to understand how creative texts are also a response to very real issues in our world. One effectively cannot read Ellison's Invisible Man or Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God without understanding pre-Civil Rights America in the 20th century; and we can learn about the context of those novels through non-fiction texts. Although we can also read the non-fiction texts without the novels, students lose a valuable component when they are not afforded the perspective of the characters in those novels. Imagine the ideas that students will never be exposed to if they are never exposed to the voices of literature.

Many of the texts to be excluded are also the voices of those who are left out of our general curriculum. History classes do not teach us slave narratives, indigenous creation stories, corridos, or the stories of the poor and disenfranchised, but we have their narratives to add new dimensions to our understanding of American history. The same is true of world history. Numerous cultures have flood stories, Cinderella stories, and morality tales that humanize people across the globe that are nothing more than abstract ideas to children sitting in desks. This humanizing factor also creates empathy and sense of common understanding, and on higher levels students can trace how these stories spread from one place to the other over time through commerce and conquest; or they can consider how similar themes are central to many, if not all, sustainable civilizations. It is ridiculous to remove these from our schools.

If anything, we should be exploring a more integrated way of presenting fiction and non-fiction texts together. Although it would be difficult at first, imagine what students could learn from reading Isabel Allende while also learning about Salvador Allende, the US induced coup on Sept. 11, 1973, how the coup changed Isabel Allende's life forever, and how those changes influence her writing. Students might even come to see the irony of the 1973 coup and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The same could be done for Walt Whitman. We could look at his romantic view of an emerging nation, the myth of American rugged individuality, and study homosexuality in 19th century America. We could study Sherman Alexie and the lives of those we call "Indians" and look at the reality of life on the reservation and what happens when one leaves the reservation. We might even be inspired to look at the lives of local tribes such as the Kumayaay, so they are actually seen as a real part of our community. How strange that would be. And still, this does not even take into consideration the large community of Chicano and Puerto Rican writers.

When we begin to look at Chicano and Puerto Rican writers we also have the chance to look at Manifest Destiny, the relationship between identity and national origin, how the government officially categorized brown people from south of its borders, and offers a myriad of views into economics, conquest, and immigration. Starting with Americo Paredes, we are offered a very different view of the American West than that told in popular American culture. As students continue through the Chicano canon, they will undoubtedly encounter Santiago Baca, Acosta, and Luis Rodriguez. All three discuss open racism in our court systems, prison, gangs, and drugs. These authors beg for students to continue research into areas such as U.S. military operations throughout the Caribbean, and all points south of the U.S.-Mexico border to see how our own government has helped induce mass immigration from these places into the United States. Committed in the name of democracy, our government's intervention in Central America contributed to the formation of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and the expansion of the 18th St. Gang, which built upon the Chicano cholos of the southern California barrios, and have become a near unstoppable force in organized crime. In addition, students could study the Iran-Contra hearings to learn how our government, through the CIA and military, dealt in many of the guns and drugs that flooded our streets. These are not some of Acosta's wild rantings of the 1960's and 70's, they are real parts of our history, and they add context for some of the Chicano cannon's greatest writers.

Even though Chicanos have an interesting history to look at, we cannot forget the Puerto Ricans, especially the NewYoRican writers. Piri Tomas and others are direct descendants from those who were told that they are Americans, but they are the "other" type of Americans. You get to be a citizen, but don't ask for too much. You can come to New York, but you don't speak enough English for a good yob. Students could read Pinero's Short Eyes and discuss the overwhelming problem of prison and poor youth on the East Coast. They could look at pedophilia in their own communities, consider how that effects how young males grow up, and look at how child molesters are dealt with in prison. In a larger sense, Pinero is talking about how so many people put their trust in someone or something, and are then betrayed. But life goes on, and Pinero writes about that, too. These can definitely be dangerous ideas, but not so dangerous as to get rid of literature.

Much of the literature that schools want to rid themselves of probably don't even include any of these writers. In the long-run, that ensures that millions of our students will never even be exposed to them in the first place unless they are lucky enough to make it to college. We need to find a balance that shows our students how to seriously dig into literature in ways that promote a greater sense of learning. By continuing along this path of ignorance, we only do ourselves harm by creating wider gaps between the informed and the uninformed. As this gap widens, so do other divisions, all one needs to do is watch the news to see how far we are growing apart from each other. Education is a way to narrow those gaps, but if we won't even teach the literature that tells our story, then how will anyone ever learn anything except what we are fed. It is logical enough to believe that our rebellious Founding Fathers never intended for an American public education system to become an instrument of tyranny; so it only makes sense to continue giving our students different ways of exploring the world around them, and like so many memorable things in this world, that probably begins with a good story.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Revelation and Acceptance

I was just watching a show on National Geographic about Revelation from the New Testamant and something very important occurred to me about who the people are that believe in the End of Days ideology and how they approach acceptance of Others. I don't claim to be any form of religious scholar, but I agree that religion has a profound impact upon our world, so I do try to learn what I can about different belief systems so I can have a better understanding of the world around me. Unfortunately, it seems that those Christians who believe that we are nearing the End of Days are not very tolerant of anyone who does not believe what they believe, in the way they believe it. In short, everyone who does not prescribe to their worldview, which appears to be built upon philosophy of very stark separation, are eternally damned. Whoah, slow down there Minister of Death, but that seems just a bit contradictory to the idea of love thy neighbor and turn the other cheek. What's worse is that this narrow vision of right and wrong is negatively effecting the immediate world around us by trying to force a singular point of view upon a nation that has been working for over 235 years to instill a sense of multiplicity when it comes to who we are as a nation.

As these bits of information about End of Days Theology sunk into my brain, this deep sense of division became apparent within the ranks of those who believe in some form of Christianity (not to mention any of the other Abrahamic faiths). Then, the show began explaining how the Rapture is a man-made contrivance based on the visions of a woman named, Margaret MacDonald, was spread throughout England and America by a man named John Nelson Darby, and later exploited by Cyrus Schofield who wrote the Schofield's Reference Bible. Before the 1830's Rapture-based theology was not even a regular part of Christianity; but, it was MacDonald's "vision" that was later passed-along to a new set of adherents and cleverly marketed as religious truth. There are those, however, who understand "visions" to be something altogether different. They might be dreams, delusions, schizophrenia, or just someone looking for attention from a miraculous story. For those who believe in prophesy and that God can talk to people, shouldn't the visions of all people in all faiths be accepted as truth? That would lead to too much contradiction, so it doesn't happen. But who is to say who's vision is the word of God and who's isn't? Well, it depends on who you listen to, and so few actually listen to one another. This same mind-set is also becoming a dangerous reality when it comes to creating public policy, and has become so much the norm that other voices are portrayed as treacherous or somehow un-American. However, according to the United States Constitution, those would silence alternate voices are the one who are the real traitors to the ideals of our nation.

This is also why we have the Separation Clause in the first Amendment, but these narrow-minded and self-serving groups often refer to themselves in one form or another as the "Chosen-ones", and create philosophies and ideologies to support their personal aspirations instead of looking for transcendence and bettering the world through the cultivation of a thorough and multi-faceted understanding of faith and national identity. Unfortunately, the United States is home to millions who believe in this sort of exclusivity, and so, I wonder how many of these End of Days adherents are also the driving force behind laws such as Arizona's SB1070? How many are against giving health care to everyone? How many wave their fingers and yell. "Socialist!" when we try to help our fellow humans when they need it the most? How many are against teaching more than one version of U.S. history? How many believe that English is America's official language? How many do not believe in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment? Or hide their bias against non-Evangelicals people by using the word "illegal" to describe immigrants, when what they mean is non-English speaking, middle-class, Protestant Evangelicals? How many of them believe in restricting the rights and lives of others as they see fit, instead of supporting actual freedom, such as the freedom to make your own decisions? How many of them believe they are better than everyone else? How many of them have trampled upon your life somehow?

When we look at the fight for the soul of the United States of America, maybe we should really look at who believes what, and how that influences the world we all live in. If the USA was completely in their control, I fear I wouldn't even be allowed to write this. That is not my America.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Ghosts in my Brake Pads

Sitting in the shade of the front steps, listening to Pancho talk about his tia's battle with cancer definitely stirs some emotion in my soul. He tells me about the effects of chemotherapy on her body and soul, and then balances it with the rituals she also participates in to cleanse her soul. Both take a heavy toll on her, and I can see that her demise is beginning to take a toll on Pancho. During the past 12 or 13 years that we have been friends, Pancho has become more in touch with his indigenous side through his tia by attending the danzas and temazcales she hosts in the mountains near La Rumorosa. He says that she seems to be more at peace with death these days, so maybe that is helping him a little, too; but death is a tricky thing and it always leaves ghosts, like shadows on the soul. He is in for a wild ride, and since he has help me over the past five years deal with my mother's cancer, her stroke, and eventual death, it is now time for me to do the same for him.

All I really wanted to do was get my breaks fixed. Jose had Thursday off, which he uses to help out friends with their cars, so I picked up Pancho and we headed to San Ysidro. Jose's house means beer, food, music, meeting new people, discussions about history, sociology, education, and even some some solid mechanics, but it moves at its own pace. "Can you wait a few minutes? Voy a cambiar el aceite de una amiga. Ella ya esta en camino y despues cambio tus frenos. No te preocupes, you got time. You don't pick up your kids from school until three, verdad?" "Yeah, como sea." What else am I supposed to say. Pancho points to the Tecate in his hand and I agree. As long as I'm going to be there for a few hours, i might as well have at least one beer, but at 10:30 in the morning I feel a bit like I'm back in my 20s living on Broadway with Guyo and my brother. Nostalgia is nice, and just a few days earlier I had the pulling desire for a beer at 10 in the morning, but didn't give in because there things to get done. Beer was for later. But in Sidro, with nowhere else to go, its easy to give in.

Al fin, llego la morra con totopos, ceviche, y mas cerveza. Jose wasn't going to even look at my truck for another hour, at least, so I might as well have another beer. And the conversation goes to Texas and Arizona, Mexicali, and a few steps south over the fence into Tijuana. Pinche cerca, we probably would have ended up in Dandys en la calle sexta por la Revu and never would have fixed my truck if it wasn't for that wall and all those officers and soldiers strutting around in their government issue uniforms with their guns, dogs, and laws that don't recognize the lives of everyday people here. So we stand and sit around eating ceviche and aguacate, drinking cold Tecates on a clear blue day, and things get taken apart and put back together.

Pancho works on deconstructing the past year and his tia's journey toward death and in doing so, he begins taking out pieces of his heart and lays them on the concrete next to a half empty bowl of cevice. He pokes at it a little bit and goes for another beer. I still can't touch it, and when he returns with two more beers he reaches in and pulls out chunk of his soul a little bigger than a baseball. It is uneven and examines it from all different angles using his eyes, his memories, and his words; finally, he begins to hear the music in there. The chants. The broken drum. The dusty weekend. La reunion. A conversation. And he stares off into nothing, possibly seeing more of the universe than the rest of us, but moments like that put a person in tune with something unseen and unscientific.

I turn to him and say, "Right now, at this moment, you made me realize someting about my mom's death. She was there for to bring me into the world and I was there for her when she was ready to leave it. That's the cycle of life." "Simon," he says, "You were lucky you were able to hold her hand as she passed. It takes a lot of strength to do that." "Yeah, I guess so. Maybe that's what you can do for your tia, he can help her into the next world." We both stare at my truck, lop-sided from the floor jack and missing one of the tires. Jose's drinking another beer, "No te preocupes, I'll be done in time for you to pick up your kids."

I guess it was a good day to get my brakes fixed.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Our individual explorations of the world are also a commentary on our perceptions of the world around us. Some are active participants, while others are merely observers; some are purely theoretical, while others are painfully practical; some are open to new experiences and ideas, while others consciously choose to only exsist within some pre-conceived notion of what they believe the world should be.

This is not to say one is better than the other, but it is a wonderful point to begin examining yourself. Like all great schools of thought (including religion), we must begin with a questions and an understanding that the world is far too complex for only simple answers, not becasue there are no simple answers, but because there are a multitude of points of view. Also, some of our most basic questions are also oversimplified in both the asking and the response because of there are so many possiblities and ideas to consider when sonsidering something such as, "What is the purspose of life?" or, "what is the best way to do "X"?"

Consider where you might begin to ponder the answers to such questions, and then create more questions. The ability to ask, the ability to ponder, and the ability to explore are some of our most powerful abilities. Ultimately, they may lead you places you never would have ever dreamed; but if they lead you exactly where you innitially believed, then that says something very important about who you are. Hopefully, it doesn't mean that you are too close-minded to see parts of the world for what they actually are, instead of simply reinforcing those already too narrow perceptions of our very intricate world.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Digging deep into who you really are is a very difficult thing. I often tell my students that it sometimes hurts to produce good writing because you need to be brutally honest with yourself, and in order to write something heart-felt, it must be authentic. In many ways, I feel like my entire life has been one lie piled upon all the others because truth is subject to perspective, and I seriously doubt that my perspective has been anywhere close to honest. That realization is difficult enough to admit to myself, but to admit it to the world is almost a relief. I am a liar. The truth about my life has been presented in bits and pieces where everyone is able to come to conclusions about who I am, but honestly, those are nothing more than the parts I have chosen to share. Is it possible for an incomplete story to be truth? Even more importantly, is it possible for a partial story to be The Truth? Doubtful.

So, I am a liar because I have never been comfortable with who I am. I have never been happy with the life I was dealt, and so I have never given the complete picture. This isn't anyone's fault, if anything its just bad wiring in my brain or in my soul, or maybe I'm just into suffering because its easy to be the misunderstood one. The real challenge is actually being a part of something. It is difficult to be accepted, and it is difficult to accept being accepted. The outcast is cool, the regular guy is so normal. The misfit doesn't have to stand up to norms, standards, or rules, he just has to be different and let everything fall into place without ever justifying a thing. Eventually, he finds other misfits and they get to justify each other. Now that's easy, they just have to say, "That's just how we are," and be done with it. That's what I did.

I remember crawling into the attic once when I was five years old and staying there for what seemed like an eternity. At one point I remember realizing that no one was looking for me. I was alone. I was sad. Later, it became a refuge as I began taking books up there to escape the feeling of being alone with others in the house, and I became a better reader, and I cultivated my imagination, and I created a different reality. But I did it alone, with no measure of who I was as a person. Unfortunately, I often still feel alone whether I'm with people or not, and I have become so accustomed to creating my own version of reality, that I came to believe myself.

I even came to believe in myself above all else. The ablity to believe in yourself above all else is possibly the most dangerous thing in our society because it means that no one, no thing, no ideology, or theology can is placed above your own personal beliefs. That, is what many call blasphemy. Many call it a lie. And so, whether in a crowded room or hiding away in some sanctuary, one of the most truthful things I can say about myself is that I am a liar.

The Night Can be a Freight Train

So I'm laying in bed and the nightime is mostly still, except for the cable box grindind away information onto some internal drive. Its just mashing and grinding the digital unknown like corn for masa. My brain wants quiet, but the innards of this box just keep grinding and grinding throughout the night. In the distance, a northbound freight train bellows its horn across western Chula Vista and I wonder why the conductor feels the need to wail out across the calm at 2:30 a.m. Does he feel the need to be heard, too? Maybe he is trying to warn the world about something that can only be told through the train's horn. Maybe his message is only meant for those of us laying awake as this mass of steel and cargo crosses H Street. Maybe the conductor is a woman and I have no possible way to translate her moonlit howl. At this time of night, the only thing that matters is that I'm awake again and the towel across my pillow and my shirt are so drenched in sweat that the fabric sticks to my body, and I can feel my neck become tacky to the touch as the skin cools and the sweat dries.

But my mind doesn't quite race, rather it lumbers at first, and gains momentum slowly, pondering not much of anything, but worried that I will wake Denise or the kids. I am ashamed that I cannot control this. Ashamed about how this hurts my family and everyone around me. Ashamed that I can't do anything right sometimes because my thoughts are scattered across my mind like embers and ash in the wind of an October wildfire, lighting the night orange and covering the day with delicate ash, soon to be trampled upon with the footsteps of the uninvited, eventually swept away, dropped into kitchen trashbags, and quietly dismissed.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Here we go

So here we go. Everyone pretty much agrees that I need a good creative outlet to move closer to finding whatever in the hell I need to find. Maybe the whole thing will backfire, but maybe I'll find some real peace somewhere down the road.
This is to save my family and I hope it works.