Monday, September 24, 2012

What Are the Preoccupations of Our Time?

In August, 1986, I read an article in Harper's called "Reflections in a Glass Eye:  A Videocassette Best-Seller List."  From the themes of the ten, top-selling videos, the author, David Black, drew conclusions about the preoccupations of the late 1980s:  the zeitgeist.  Black showed how all 10 videos, which included Jane Fonda's workout video and Rambo, shared themes which pointed to the struggles and values of the day.

One can attempt this exercise with any selection of current cultural artefacts, from top ten iTune songs to current best-selling novels.  Because of its international flavour, the just-concluded Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) might be an excellent lens through which to view our times.

TIFF screened 289 feature films from 72 countries.  I attended 13 of these.  My films were chosen somewhat randomly by friends curious about international trends and familiar with the track records of various directors.  Spoiler Alert:  The spoilers are minimal - but with the exception of Argo and Midnight's Children, it is unlikely very many of these films will come your way.

What was the weather of your film selections?
My films overall were quite stormy and dark - not a single comedy.  The funniest was Argo which involved rescuing Americans who were hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador during the 1979 hostage taking.  It had sharp, humorous banter, but overall very dark.

What was the "season" of your film selections?
Arab spring (After the Battle) quickly becomes Arab winter; A Few Hours of Spring:  winter; A Late Quartet:  winter.

Does anyone win?
People mostly lose or gain a bitter victory.  For example, in A Few Hours of Spring, a woman takes advantage of a company in Switzerland that offers death with dignity to terminally ill patients.  While she fights with her son throughout the entire movie, they are only able to express their love for one another after she takes the life-ending concoction.

In Out in the Dark, a gay Palestinian student and an Israeli lawyer develop a beautiful love relationship, but the student's family want him dead and the Israeli military want him to betray the militants in his family.  Lose-lose-lose

In After the Battle, angry, frustrated Egyptians want freedom from dictatorship.  In the end, it seems one set of generals are replaced by another set.

The Attack begins with an Israeli-Palestinian surgeon being acclaimed by the Israelis for his contributions.  We gradually discover that he's not really trusted by the Israelis nor by his Palestinian relatives.  Meanwhile, his wife becomes a suicide bomber.  Dark dark dark.

What is the dominant imagery of the films?

Walls and borders - all kinds of walls:  walls around the pyramids, separating villagers from a source of livelihood; walls around the Palestinian territories; walls of small rooms where people are crowded; walls preventing communication between mother and son, between men and women; and borders thrown up between India and Pakistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh; borders thrown up all over post-war Germany.

Walls suggest separation, and walls also imply prisons.  People in these films are trapped and, if they transcend their own prejudices, they are trapped by the prejudices of their society.  Sarah Polley's mother in Stories We Tell feels trapped in her marriage; the characters in Midnight's Children are all trapped by the circumstances of their birth. Shira in Fill the Void feels trapped into a marriage she doesn't want.  To a certain extent, all the characters of all the movies are trapped by their socio-economic status, race, and religion.  Escape is attempted, but only occasionally successful.  Hannah Arendt escapes from Nazis and goes to Eichmann's trial to try and understand the evil she faced.  Wandering through the landscape of post-war Germany, Lore, a child of Nazis, gradually escapes from the tyranny of the beliefs she inherited.  In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez  escapes from the greed and materialism of the corporate world.

Does redemption seem possible?
Midnight's Children is on some level a search for home and family.  Saleem creates a surrogate family, a baby lives, and magic is alive.  (In Inch'Allah the baby dies.  InThe Attack a lot of babies die.  Note:  No matter what the genre, babies represent hope; dead babies represent hopelessness.)  Fill the Void is redeemed by the compassion of the rabbi.  He will not perform a marriage if Shira's heart is not in it.  In A Late Quartet, the power of beautiful music redeems all the characters.

Can you draw any conclusions about our times?
  • These are dark times.
  • Dictators fall, but there are always more dictators.
  • The country you love will not necessarily protect you.
  • Your birth family will not necessarily protect you, but any family based on love and compassion is your true family.
  • Humans seek peace and freedom through politics, but also through love and art.
The films were
  1. After the Battle (Egypt, Yousry Nasrallah)  Poor people living outside the wall around the pyramids are befriended by one of the rich activists who is protesting against Mubarak in Tahrir Square.  
  2. Out in the Dark (Israeli/USA, Michael Mayer) A gay Palestinian falls in love with an Israeli.  
  3. Stories We Tell (Canada, Sarah Polley)  Sarah Polley goes in search of her bio-daddy and finds her mother.
  4. Inch'Allah (Canada, Anais Barbeau-Lavalette)  A French-Canadian works in the West Bank, but lives on the Israeli side.
  5. The Attack (Lebanon/France/Qatar/Egypt/Belgium, Ziad Doueiri)  A successful Palestinian surgeon working in an Israeli hospital finds out that the latest suicide bomber was his wife.
  6. A Few Hours of Spring (French, St√©phane Briz√©)  A trucker screws up his life and ends up in jail.  The film begins with his release from jail when he moves in with his terminally ill mother who is seeking an assisted suicide.  They have some communication issues.
  7. Midnight's Children (Canada/UK, Deepa Mehta)  The political events in 20th century India as experienced by the children born at midnight the day India gained independence from Britain.  Events include the separation of India and Pakistan and the war in Bangladesh.
  8. Lore (Australia/UK/Germany, Cate Shortland)  After their Nazi parents are arrested, five children, led by the oldest, a 14-year-old daughter, cross the destroyed German landscape to their grandparents home.
  9. Fill the Void (Israel, Rama Burshtein)  An orthodox Jewish girl is looking forward to her wedding when her older sister dies in childbirth.  Her family wants her to marry the widower.
  10. A Late Quartet (USA, Yaron Zilberman)  When the cellist and leader of a famous string quartet becomes ill, each member of the quartet has to adapt.
  11. Hannah Arendt (Germany, Margarethe von Trotta)  An examination of the trial of Eichmann through the eyes of Hannah Arendt.  Her conclusions challenge the philosophical community.
  12. Argo (USA, Ben Affleck)  The US government chooses the least worst solution to rescuing six Americans who are hiding in the Canadian embassy after all the others in the US embassy are taken hostage.
  13. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (India/Pakistan/USA, Mira Nair)  A brilliant South-Asian American rises to the top of the financial world, but the all-profit mentality of it (merging companies, slashing jobs) combined with the post-911 harassment of American Muslims, causes him to return to Pakistan.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Can You Make a Difference?

"Success isn't about how much money you make.  It's about the difference you make in people's lives."      -- Michelle Obama

This quote from Michelle Obama's speech (September 4, 2012) reminded me of an essay I wrote in 2000 when I taught in a jail school.  Here's my thoughts on making a difference in that one context:

In September, school begins again for most kids.  I've been teaching in a detention centre for young offenders, and our school runs all summer.  This is a good thing because by the time these kids end up in custody, they have usually missed a lot of school.

When I tell people where I work, their first response is to express concerns about my safety.  After all, children are in custody for assault, manslaughter, robbery -- the same crimes adults commit.  I reassure them that a detention centre school is safer than many high schools.  Their next question is, "Do you think you can make a difference?"  I dance around the question, perhaps replying, "Of course I  make a difference.  While they're in my class, they're not out stealing your car."  But I suspect that's not the answer my questioners were seeking.

Can I make a difference?  Those of us who work with young offenders wonder this a lot, especially when a child returns three months after his release.  If children do stay out of trouble, it's due to their own efforts and the hard work of child care workers, social workers, parole officers, parents, as well as teachers.

Will I have some kind of intangible effect on these students?  One day, 20 years from now, the students may remember that I encouraged them or trusted them -- and  that helped them get their lives on track?  My friend, Rachel, worked in an education program with disadvantaged youth.   Many had been young offenders and some were in the program as a condition of parole or bail.  Rachel expressed despair over what she called "the unremitting and heartbreaking disappointment intrinsic to the work."

"There's so little immediate positive reaction to the classroom experiences," she says, "that teachers dream up this 20-year theory to comfort themselves.  When activities are constantly rejected by clients in the present, how can they be viewed as positive 20 years later?"

The math teacher at my facility, Hilary, has a different point of view.  She uses the stock market to help children practice math skills.  Everyone in the class invests 100,000 imaginary dollars.  As they follow the changes in the market and become aware of economic forces, they practice adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.  Hilary says she ran into one of her former students downtown.  The first thing this 14-year-old said was, "Hey, Miss, did CIBC and TD merge?"

Amazed, Hilary realized that she can make students more aware one step at a time.  She sees that when the children return to jail, they slide back into the program and pick up their math lessons where they left off.  These students perform well in a small, structured, consistent environment.  Hilary says you can't look at the big picture.  We have to look at small individual differences.  All of these together can add up to a significant difference.

We never know just what will make a difference to another person.  My friend, Bernie, played high school basketball.  Once, in a playoff game, he missed every shot in the first half.  His coach was still willing to play him in the second half.  He says the willingness of that coach to play him made a huge difference in his life.  He was ready to give up -- but the coach could see something in him that he couldn't yet see himself.  He sank every shot in the second half.  Now Bernie's a jailteacher too.

Most of us in this job believe that the best place for these kids to be is around us. One of my students is reading Romeo and Juliet while listening to an audio cassette of the play.  He then watches two versions of Romeo and Juliet on video.  He can experience Shakespeare's story of tender love amidst senseless hate for an hour a day in a quiet, supportive environment --  an experience he never had on the outside.

Can I make a difference?  I honestly don't know.  But a girl in custody in British Columbia sent me an e-mail with her answer to the question.  She says, "I can tell you from my personal experience of being in a jail, that yes, you teachers do make a difference.  It may not seem like it at first.  Most of us aren't used to someone trying to help us, so when a hand is offered, we get wary.  My teacher has done a lot for me.  He has not only taught me how to keep from swearing at a piece of wood, but he taught me that if I have patience, wood can turn into a thing of beauty.  In addition, I can talk to him about everything.  It's great to know that there are people out there that even want to try to make a difference."

"What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make."      -- Jane Goodall 

What do you think?  Can you, can we, make a difference?

Monday, September 3, 2012

What's the Best Advice Ever?

Advice has a tendency to be site specific.  For example, the best advice I ever received was from a high school principal who told me this:

-- The more you teach, the less they learn.

I think of that every class I teach.

My brother, Len, tells a story about the best advice he ever heard.  He played double bass in the high school band.  A string broke during band class and there were no extra strings in the school.  The teacher, Mr. Roberts, said, "Len, go downtown to Ann Foster's Music Store and get a box of new strings and fix that bass before you go to your next class."

Len:  "Mr. Roberts, it'll take me an hour to go downtown and back.  I have a double French class coming up."
Mr. Roberts: "Always keep your instrument in good repair and ready to play.  Get those strings now."

This message stayed with my brother for years after.  He played guitar in rock and roll bands, always keeping his instrument ready to play.  He witnessed the downfall of many musicians who had not received that advice.

Ten years later, the high school had their 50th anniversary.  My brother saw Mr. Roberts, quite aged now and walking with a cane.  Len said, "Mr. Roberts, in high school you gave me the best advice ever about keeping my instrument ready to play.  Do you have any advice for me now?"

Mr. Roberts said, "Len, from where you're standing on your side of the street, you don't know which way the wind is blowing on the other side of the street."

My brother became a screenwriter and for the next ten years had to deal with Hollywood directors and producers and actors, each one making script changes.  He remembered that from where he was standing, from his position, he didn't know the constraints and issues of the others in the business.  That perspective helped him cope with the pressure.

Ten years later, the high school had a 20-year reunion for Len's class.  Mr. Roberts arrived, held up by his two grand-daughters and two canes.  My brother approached him again and reminded him of the advice he'd given Len in high school and at the earlier reunion.  Len asked Mr. Roberts if he had any further advice.

"Len," said Mr. Roberts, "you still don't know which way the wind is blowing on the other side of the street."
I keep that bit of advice in mind as well.

What's the best advice you've ever received (or given for that matter)?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How Do You Know When You've Hit Bottom?

The phrase goes, "When you hit bottom, there's nowhere to go but up."

Maybe - but I sure wouldn't count on it.  Meanwhile, bottom might be a moving target.

I was once in a relationship with a man who had violent outbursts.  I had been planning and planning to move out, but I couldn't just then.  I had left several times before,  but, as lame as it sounds, that day, month, year, I was too busy.  I had just been hired full time, I had a pre-schooler to look after, and a lot of other excuses.

After a major glass-smashing binge, I fled with my baby and stayed the night with friends.  

All my projects, teaching materials, and life files were organized on shelves in my office.  The shelves were built by a friend of mine and covered an entire wall.  I would have been teaching at least five courses that term.  Each course had its own shelf for course books, marking, notes, and more.

I left that night, but the thing is this:  after taking my daughter to day care the next morning, I would have gone back.  This was not going to be my great escape.  However, when I got back to the house, the entire bookshelf had been dismantled and all my papers were thrown around the room.  There was nothing to go back to.  I finally and absolutely left.

My conclusion is this:  You never hit bottom, but if you're lucky, the bottom will come up and kick your ass out the door.

What about you?  Where was your bottom?