What to the slave is the fourth of July?

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America, perhaps now more than ever, finds herself in a tenuous political situation. As a nation we are a diversity of interests divided across political lines and socio-economic circumstances; in fact, America can hardly be considered one nation of united citizens. So what does the fourth of July mean to us? How is unity possible under such circumstances? Has the American experiment failed?

Perhaps America is most divided against herself because we have forgotten that it is an experiment in self-government, rather than a failsafe solution to suffering. In Federalist 1, Alexander Hamilton famously observed of this experiment that

it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind. This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event.

Although his statement smacks of declarations previous to his own, (The shining city upon a hill imagery is taken from Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” and John Winthrop understood that America was to become this city) the sentiment is worth remembering, for it traces the burden borne by us Americans. Hamilton wisely declares that “if there is any truth” in this American exceptionalist rhetoric, that our conduct, whether good or bad, will either provide a great misfortune for mankind or will be considered an act of philanthropy for all men everywhere. It was once believed that America had the opportunity to act as a beacon that shines her light to all men in all places, is this still evident?

No man understood the irony of such exceptionalist rhetoric more than Frederick Douglass. Thus, on July 5th of 1852, as a free black man, he dared to ask the question “what to the slave is the fourth of July”? Given our precarious political situation, his answer is one that we will soon be reminded of in our media: “Your celebration is a sham…There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour”. Why did Douglass believe that our celebration was a sham? Did he see any hope that this nation may right her wrongs? Is there any hope today?

Twenty years later, Douglass would deliver another speech. His aged reflections provide the tonic to his more candid rhetoric. Despite his earlier reminder regarding the great irony of the Independence Day, he reminds us Americans why Hamilton’s experiment in self-government is worth saving and worthy of our devotion. He reminds us

Nothing can bring to man so much of happiness or so much of misery as man himself. Today he exalts himself to heaven by his virtues and achievements; to-morrow he smites with sadness and pain, by his crimes and follies. But whether exalted or debased, charitable or wicked; whether saint or villain, priest or prize fighter; if only he be great in his line, he is an unfailing source of interest, as one of a common brotherhood; for the best man finds in his breast the evidence of kinship with the worst, and the worst with the best. Confront us with either extreme and you will rivet our attention and fix us in earnest contemplation, for our chief desire is to know what there is in man and to know him at all extremes and ends and opposites, and for this knowledge, or the want of it, we will follow him from the gates of life to the gates of death, and beyond them.

So is Trump’s America worth saving? Although it often seems that we are one nation divided under God, America still provides the greatest opportunity for kinship with our fellow man and honest reflection upon the nature and virtues of humanity. Is there any nation more diverse than America? Is there any city that dares declare that it will act as example to the world as much as our own? How many localities in the world organize county fairs under the premise of fawning over livestock, only to band together with their fellow citizens over a funnel cake or a box of popcorn? How many in America, on the other hand? How many races have been welcomed into our country, despite our more recent shortcomings? In other countries are such conversations regarding the propriety of immigration even possible, or are such conversations settled before the debate may even take place? Despite our recent tendency to close our borders, how many students of different colors, origins, and religions still study under the same roofs of our schools and break bread at the tables at those school? How many of those schools provide that bread that is to be broken? How many millions would be willing to provide that bread for those students if the common fund was unwilling? How many Americans would be willing to fight and die to save those children if a second 9/11 were to occur? How many have made that high sacrifice? How have we forgotten?

America is imperfect; the Founding of our country is riddled with contradictions, and sadly some of our founders held slaves in bondage. Today in America, slavery is illegal, although it can be argued that certain forms of slavery still exist. However, I like to think that Frederick Douglass smiles happily upon this divided nation as it attempts to grapple and work through its contradictions through civil discourse and disobedience, however misguided it sometimes may seem. I like to think that were he here with us today, he would understand the great strides we have made to realize the principles of our Declaration and solidify the rule of law under our Constitution. Although our government and our politics is riddled with contradictions to this day, and although our founders can be considered both saints and villains from different vantage points, our divided nation gives us that opportunity to “Confront either extreme [of man] in earnest contemplation” and endeavor to cement a brotherhood more lasting and more enduring. Because of the work of Douglass and the Founders both, we have the opportunity to endeavor to “follow them from the gates of life to the gates of death, and beyond them” and make our mark on this great nation and its experiment in freedom for all, no matter how great or small any of us may be or feel under the weight of the political burdens of our day.

So what is the fourth of July to an American today? It is a much needed respite to reflect on this great opportunity to establish brotherhood with so many unlike ourselves. It is a wonderful time to recognize our civic duty to extend our hands to one another and recognize our similarities rather than our differences.

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Childish Gambino’s “This is America”, and the Importance of Burying the Dead

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Burial rites have occupied a central role in human civilization from the beginning of time. The funeral, and the honoring of the dead, is perhaps the cultural norm that spans the human spectrum: we are all alike in that we see it fitting and proper to acknowledge the dignity of all persons by providing for them their rites upon death. For Homer, this occupation was central to the text, providing pauses in the action of his poems while also spurring the story forward. In Books VII and VIII of The Iliad an accord of peace takes place only in order that the Achaeans and the Trojans may retrieve their dead in order to bury them. At the end of the poem we witness Achilles’ fullest descent into the realm of the human as he tearfully yields the body of Hector to Priam in order that he may bury his son. Odysseus is only able to meet the prophetess Tiresias in the underworld once he has provided the seemingly foolish and insignificant character, Elpenor, a proper burial; this acknowledges even the debt owed by a hero of time past to the lowliest of citizens in the rites of burial. What is most significant is the meaning of the burial rite: the funeral is important because it honors and lays to rest the human soul, bringing to a close the discord and tragedy that is human life, and reconciling that human soul with what lies beyond, severing it from the pain and suffering of this world. As Americans, we are increasingly acting as Achilles did, dragging the body of Hector around the walls of Troy out of hubris and rage in order to flaunt our political triumphs. We are therefore increasingly avoiding the rites due to our dead and the peace and catharsis that ought to accompany the end of human life and the tragedy that it entails. Childish Gambino’s recent video “This is America” touches on this tragedy, but I am afraid we are refusing to learn from the poet’s message.


The visual effects of Donald Glover’s masterpiece are undoubtedly essential to the music that he has composed. Throughout the video, Glover dances at the center of a group of children as he murders eleven bystanders, he ironically iterates the lines that reverberate from the popular songs that occupy hip-hop culture, and reminds his audience “don’t catch you slippin’ up” and “get your money, black man”. Not only do his antics distract the audience from what lies at hand in the video, but his lyrics emphasis that which distracts us from achieving the progress that we so desire.

The story told by the video progresses in a linear fashion, and the music moves in accord with the linear fashion of story told. We begin in a warehouse, and the entire story takes place in that warehouse. Only near the end of the video does Gambino run down a dark corridor toward the light, followed by the masses, attempting to escape. The warehouse emphasizes the central contrast of the work: although we are all connected by culture, we are isolated by experience and opinion. The great paradox of America is that we are all united by very fragile bonds of the internet and digital media, but we utilize these tools in order to draw us further apart rather than emphasize our common humanity, our common creed, and our common aim. We enclose ourselves in the echochamber that is the warehouse of our own thought, using the tools that could strengthen the ties that bind for evil and dissolution rather than peace and concord. In an interview with The New Yorker, a reporter asks Glover if he “looks up to anyone”. He responded “I don’t see anyone out there who’s better… Maybe Elon Musk. But I don’t know yet if he’s a supervillain. Elon is working on ways for storytelling not to be the best way of spreading information (Musk’s new company, Neuralink, intends to merge human consciousness with computers, allowing us to download others’ thoughts) It will turn us into a connected macroorganism, but it will make our individual desires seem trivial… Sometimes I get mad at him—‘You think people are insignificant!’ But we probably are at the end of the storytelling age. It’s my job to compress the last bits of information for people before it passes”. Gambino’s newest release has in mind the goal of overcoming this empty connectedness that Musk’s Neuralink, and the most degrading forms of technological innovation, hopes to accomplish. In “This is America”, he captures us as we are, all too human and unable to escape.

The video begins with a man playing a peaceful melody on his guitar, seated on a chair, alone, with no audience. The first time we see Gambino he has his back to us, emphasizing the difficulty of a people to understand an artist. This difficulty mirrors the difficulties of the several sub-cultures to understand one another. What is lost in translation is not only lost between people of different cultures and colors, but meaning is also difficult to convey for the poet who shares the same skin color with his audience. It becomes clear that “this is America”, and nobody understands anybody. He proceeds to dance in an erotic fashion, we see his face twist as he hopes to conjure the courage to do what he must, he puffs his chest out, and proceeds to shoot the artist in the back of the head. He hands the gun to a young man holding a red rag, who carries the gun off in haste, and he proceeds to march forward, again dancing. A group of teenagers join him in his dance while abandoned cars and groups of people fill the background.

The second homicide takes place when Gambino enters another room. He slips through the door, as a choir sings. When they begin to sing “Black man, get that money”, he is handed an ak-47 and mows all ten of them down. The gun is again carted off by a young man with a red rag.

It would appear that Childish Gambino is voicing his thoughts on the Charleston Church shooting, where Dylan Roof killed 9 victims attending a bible study on June 17, 2015. Many have even asserted that this is precisely what Childish Gambino is attempting to do; however, such an interpretation would undermine the entire thrust of his work. It is a great disservice to dig up the dead bodies in order to make a contemporary political statement, and it would undermine what Childish Gambino appears to be interested in doing in his video.

If we are to consider the Charleston Church shooting the subject of his video, we either have to write Gambino off as a lax observer of the facts of the case (he included ten victims in the video rather than nine), or we have to charge him with inconsistency. In his video he wants to show how quickly we turn to chaos and mob rule in the wake of tragedy, rather than seek consolation and unity. His video is diligent in attempting to draw the attention of his audience away from victims and towards popular trends. As a protagonist he acts as a villain and a distraction, hoping to embody the character of the contemporary hip-hop artist who places the guns in the hands of the community of which he is a part. After Gambino’s first murder he remarks “guns in my area… yup, I gotta carry ‘em”. He’s showing that, although the community understands that gun violence undermines the sanctity of the community and progress, yet all feel compelled to carry them because they are so emphasized by our music and our media. Thus in our attempts to rectify injustice, we proliferate the problems that agitate the community itself.

Many have used the video to emphasize the care for the guns rather than the care for the dead; they employ this analysis in order to highlight the problems of guns within society and emphasize that all-too-many of us put guns on a pedestal at the expense of human life. What they do is commit the misjudgment that Gambino hopes to highlight. They themselves refuse to do diligence to the dead that lie in the background directly following the murders. Central to their focus is the gun, not the dead. They would much prefer to focus on the gun as the problem rather than come for the murderer; they thus act just as the mob does in the video as they run past and ignore the singular guilty party in the wake of the crime. All forget about the victims and leave the bodies to rot. Those of us who still refer to the crime of the Charleston Shooting as an act of racial prejudice, and hope to indict the many for the crime of the one, fall victim to the same folly. We dig up the bodies of the victims and parade them around for a political victory- we thus do them a great injustice rather than give them their rest.

Dylan Roof has been convicted and indicted upon nine counts of homicide and nine life sentences. He has been condemned to death, yet we want retribution in tenfold and we thereby express our forfeiture of our own humanity. We want revenge, not justice. Perhaps the addition of the tenth member of the choir is the addition of Dylan Roof. In taking the lives of nine, he has stripped himself of his humanity. Although he has murdered many, he as the murderer has suffered the worst fate in degrading his own human capacity, and acting as the antithesis of man’s highest end: to love his neighbor despite color, culture, or heritage. The best that we can do in this tragic, all too human, life, is have faith in, and strive for justice. We ought not place center stage the villian that is the murderer, for often this is precisely what white-supremacist, terrorists, aim for. Our attention to their villainy affirms the success of their deeds. Rather we must “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”.

 

The Innovation Schools Deserve

 

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School is no longer about education. From 2004 to 2016 teachers’ unions provided political endorsement that has grown from $4.3 million dollars to an all-time high $32 million. While their aims are peddled as what is best for schools and classrooms, teachers unions contributions have ramped up school budgets and made innovation in the classroom less dynamic. Their solutions do not address the problem that our modes are outdated. In 2013 the US collectively spent over $620 billion on public and secondary schools, numbering at around $10,700 per pupil. Education spending has nearly quadrupled since 1984, reaching upwards of $67 billion in 2014 while showing virtually no quantifiable results in eighth to twelfth grade reading proficiency and math scores. Admitting that the current system is broken and that we are merely average in world education today would force us to radically change the school system, so we refuse to do what is best for our kids and our country; however, there are a plethora of innovations that can and should be adopted by states and school districts immediately.

 

If you had spoken to a teacher at the end of the previous school year, you would have heard the woes of the fidget spinner. It was an epidemic sweeping classrooms throughout the nation, akin to the water bottle flipping fiasco of 2014-15, and it was a result of our students seeking to distract themselves. It is unnatural that our students do not want to learn. All human beings desire to understand the world surrounding them, but when students are wasting their time with test preparation they begin to believe that education is not worthwhile. The first innovation that our schools need is that our curriculum must become richer and more personal. National and state standards cannot address this, nor can educational experts or additional funding. Education can only be made interesting by good books and good teachers. We must allow students to read books that have stood the test of time, and we must have passionate teachers teaching those books. Our teachers must prove to our students that they are involved in an ongoing conversation with great minds throughout history. Computers and worksheets cannot provide this conversation, and arbitrary standards imposed by the state deter students from realizing that education is, after all, for their own benefit.

 

The school day and school week needs to become shorter and more dynamic. No university in the country forces students to sit in a building for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. There is no reason for high schools to so wastefully use time other than that the schedule is more accommodating for parents, and it is what the school day has looked like historically. Most states mandate that schools are in session 180 days of the year, and the average school day must be around 6 hours. It is little wonder that students wish to spin fidgets rather than learn: if the work is too rigorous they are worn out, and if the curriculum is too simple they become bored. Keep in mind that most classrooms are filled with students from any educational background. This makes it difficult for teachers to calibrate the rigor within the classroom to the needs of both the more advanced students and the weaker students. Advanced Placement classes have tried to remediate this deficiency, but they do not allow students the flexibility that they have merited; they provide the rigor without peaking their interest. What states should do is provide a more flexible environment for students who want to experience substantive work outside of school so that they may gain a taste of the real world and what they wish to do beyond high school; however, the high school schedule only provides students the time to work menial jobs after school hours. What the students miss out on is the opportunity to gain real world experience and learn about what they wish to specialize in for the rest of their lives.

 

The same is true for teachers: they need to be given flexibility. Although teachers unions are partially to blame for their defense of bad teachers, a plethora of studies show that millennials leave the teaching profession within five years of entrance. What teachers need is the flexibility to sharpen their academic gifts. While most businesses provide opportunities for development of low level entrants, our education system leaves teachers dead in the water within their first few years. Teachers should act as life-long learners who steward their pupils to pursue wisdom, but as teachers lack the time to pursue additional development themselves the discipline becomes stale through a lack of incentives.

 

Studies show that what fulfils teachers is appreciation, not money. Teachers need to be appreciated more and this begins with making school an extension of the home. Teachers face pressure from national and state standards, but also from administrators and parents. This detracts from what is done in the classroom and the critical voices often ring louder than the appreciative ones. Parents are too quick to blame the teacher when their child underperforms; however, it is difficult to blame them when high school achievement seems to set the path for the remainder of their child’s life. There must be more communication between parents and teachers, and parents need to take a stake in the education of their children. This begins with creating a partnership between families and schools; however this is incredibly difficult when teachers have so much on their plates. If the school week was shortened, teachers would have the flexibility to communicate effectively with families and provide one on one support with kids; schools could even facilitate such a program. Education should not only be about knowledge, but about wisdom. This means that a true educator must mentor pupils outside of the classroom as well as within it. This is not possible with given the amount of standards and regulations imposed on teachers. We have made it all but impossible for good teachers to go the extra mile.

 

Our school system was devised to meet the economic imperatives of the industrial revolution; since the conception of this school model, we have lacked innovation to fit the needs of the given day. It is high time that we take interest in the needs of education today, and tailor the school system to deliver what is necessary for students to succeed.

Chapter 1: I Guess I Named Myself

Cornelius Sheridan Dare Postell. Wouldn’t that have been a hell of a thing to go by? The day that I was born my Uncle said “He will always be Bob to me”.

The tale that was told me was my uncle Frank Smith come in the morning I was born and heard that name. He always did his business on a Sunday. He asked, “What’d ya name him?”

“Hoho!” He laughed “He’ll always be Bob to me!”

That name stuck. So when I went into the Navy that was the name I put in: “Bob Postell”.

But the recruiter said that was just a nickname. I said “No… It’s not a nickname. I was named Bob”.

He said “That’s not a full name- you’re going to have to go by Robert”.

I complied because at the time that was all there was to do. There was no fighting it. So I’ve always signed my checks “Robert S. Postell”. It is the deal between what I was given and what I took; what the Navy give me and what I refused to give them.

I always said that I’ve named myself.

In school I went by Deacon. I always went to Sunday school because Pop always made us go. I had a friend who was named Bob Bryner and he was a Jehovah’s Witness. His folks had me over for dinner one night and his mother asked me when I would go with him to “class”. You see, they always called church “class”.

I replied “I’ll come with him to class when he decides to come to the Baptist church with me!”

Oh boy, did that go over bad!

So that’s when I hung the nickname “Baptist” on him. From that point on I was known as the “Deacon” among us boys. Old Dale Ward was “Cedrick”, Rolly was “Rolo”. And then there was old Carol Reams who we called “Dutch”; he was a really good friend of mine.

We started nicknaming one another early on. It was a way of knowing who we were, and that is what that Navy recruiter couldn’t understand. He couldn’t understand how deeply American it was because, rather than his own self-reliance, his obedience to the Naval order defined his American-ness. There is nothin’ more American than naming yourself. There is nothin’ more American than defining who you are and what you will be.

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This is the story of my grandfather, my hero. He is an Ohioan who served in the Navy in World War II. He is extremely conscious of becoming too elaborate in his story-telling and when he heard that I had recorded him the first thing he said was “It wasn’t any braggin’ in there was it?”. He always defines these stories as “most of ‘em funny”. Every time he tells me stories he reveals that of which he is most proud saying, “I’ve had a good life, Sammy”.

He also reveals that which he wishes to be remembered by. He fathered three children with the same wife. He loved my grandmother deeply and faithfully. The first time I ever saw him shed a tear was the night before her funeral. He said “She was my left hand and my heart” and brought the entire room to tears. He wrote her every day when he was away at war while she was working in a factory and taking care of their first born daughter.

However, little of what is within these pages come from the letters. We were able to locate a plethora of pictures, keepsakes, notes, and Naval garb in my grandfather’s house, but only two letters that he had written to my grandmother. His story is that he saw her lighting them on fire because she was “bashful”. In my heart I know that my grandmother was too proud to relive losing him to the war for so long, and she was too “bull-headed” to admit how special they were to her.

The stories herein told are taken from several hours of recording on different occasions of his telling them to my brother and myself. At first, I thought it impossible that he could remember so many stories from as early as the age of eleven, but I have heard these stories on numerous occasions as have a few others. I have talked to others that he has spoken with and the stories are the same each time. He is either being honest or he has memorized lies. You may choose to believe what you wish.

My grandfather’s stories are important because they capture the character of a people and ennoble that character, shedding light upon the goodness of a people who are in great need of ennobling. What his stories capture are a dedication to family, country, and compass. He always put his family first, no matter how difficult, and he never thought a thing of it. He understood that family was the stuff of life. He always loved his country, honored it, and fought for what it stood for, despite the various things about that country that he could choose to hate her for. He always kept in view his own moral compass, never straying from what he thought was right and never backing down when had to fight for what he believed in.

My grandfather is my hero because he embodies what is redeeming about Midwesterners and about Yankees. My grandfather’s story is important because it preserves the character and the habits of a time past and it preserves the history of a time when Americans were dignified without believing themselves so.

The terms “Yankee” and “Midwesterner” that I use to describe my Grandfather ought to be synonymous; however, not all Yankees are Midwesterners and not all Midwesterners are Yankees. Nonetheless, I believe that a Yankee is what a Midwesterner and an American should strive to be.

Outside the United States all Americans are sometimes described as “Yankees”. This includes Southerners. The informal British and Irish English “Yank” refers to Americans in general. It is especially popular among Britons and Australians and sometimes carries pejorative overtones.

Within the United States, “Yankee” usually refers to those of the Midwest and the Northeast. It most precisely identifies those with New England cultural ties and descendants of colonial New Englanders. It is therefore more cultural than geographical. It ties Americans back to the settling of America before the United States became Independent from Great Britain and expanded Westward, allowing the descendants of those settlers to disperse. It recalls the grit and the stern Puritan faith of those who settled along that coast. They later migrated through New York, then Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio, later dispersing throughout the Midwest in no certain pattern.

Southerners often refer to Northerners as “Yankees”, and this certainly carries a negative connotation. It refers to the nickname of those fighting for the Union side in the American Civil War. The term Yankee implies holding one’s ground, willing to fight in order to “nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth”.

Yankees were the ones who migrated North, up the shore of America, and began operating fisheries and running towns. They were the ones who migrated West into what we now understand as the Midwest where they began to create the infrastructure that would later facilitate the industrialization that happened in the north. Because they were the first to define the habits and culture of the place that they inhabited to a great extent they informed the culture and the habits of immigrants who came to work throughout the next two centuries in hopes of becoming Americans. Throughout Industrialization, Yankees began to define themselves by work and work ethic in addition to grit and religion. It is peculiar the way in which a Midwesterner or a Yankee earns money and feels toward that money, especially if he becomes rich. Rich Yankees are different from any other rich men I’ve met.

If the hillbilly happens to become rich it is usually by chance. He takes a risk and stumbles upon wealth, only to expend that wealth quickly, lavishly, and foolishly.

The rich men on the coasts are always old money, or if they are not they feel self conscious that they are not. If their fathers were not rich they are burdened by this almost daily and conceive of a way to manufacture the circumstance of their birth in order to dignify themselves. They are defined by the wealth of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them.

Rich men in cities are self-made but often the product of calculated risk. They come to their own demise as a result of that risk, never taking a moment to cherish what they have got while they’ve got it, and never thinking about the provisions for the next day or for their children because they always believe that their industry and talent will provide income.

The Yankee, on the other hand, almost does not believe he has money even if he’s got it. It sometimes seems that he is bashful about having money for concern that he may appear to be reaching beyond his own means and therefore exercising haughtiness, but that is not quite it. The Yankee always deeply understands his past and his future and therefore he understands equality as the capacity of misfortune to bring any man to ruin. He does not feel exempt from the heaves and throws of life simply for having earned a few day’s bread. Even if he becomes rich he feels compelled to toil, often outlasting his necessary work years. The Yankee understands that work and toil define life and a man’s worth. It is almost as if the money is for naught. Even after the Yankee has ceased a life of labor and lives peacefully in retirement, he will conceive of a way to show those around him that he still struggles and works rather than rests. It is almost as if he believes that in giving up a life of labor he gives up life altogether. The Yankee feels self conscious if he is spending lavishly and frivolously and this will weigh on him. He will soon feel that his neighbors mock him and disdain him for breaking the appearance of equality of hardship and the fashion that is work.

This is but a mere sketch of what the Yankee is and what my grandfather has taught me is good within him. My grandfather’s stories should give vividness and expression to this description, and this should serve merely as a framework or reference to the themes throughout the book.

Education: the art of finding lost souls

When I was in second grade we were asked to create a small biography of ourselves. We were to provide information such as “favorite color”, and “favorite sport”, and “favorite animal”, and “favorite book”. My grandfather had been telling me stories about these three bullfrogs sitting on a log since I was the age of 3 and therefore I had grown particularly fond of the children’s series “Frog and Toad”. However, I had also been thumbing through my brother’s books and listening to him talk about what he was studying in his political science classes. Rather than writing down one of the many books in the “Frog and Toad” series, I came to a toss up between The Gates of Fire, a fictional book about the battle at Thermopylae, and The Presidency of James Madison by Robert Allen Rutland. I chose the Madison biography because I didn’t want the trouble of explaining The Gates of Fire to my teacher. All I knew was that there was a lot of blood and cursing (which was probably more than I could say about the Madison biography at the time). Nonetheless, my teacher was still troubled with my choice.

That same year when we were doing times tables for speed during class, the kid across from me was teasing my classmate next to him in order to rattle him during the competition. I got angry and threw my pencil at him which landed me in a corner in the back of the classroom for the remainder of the year. She didn’t believe me.

When I was in the fourth grade I opened a business. I was bored in class- we mostly studied science and I had decided that I wanted to be a lawyer and study history in order to bide my time in lower school in order to prepare myself. During many of our class “experiments”, which consisted of the teacher explaining diagrams and we the students filling in work sheets, I would make what I then called “bookies”. In other words, I would create small comic books on notebook paper and sell them to students, who at first, I think, bought them out of their sense of charity, and who later bought them out of their desire to be fashionable, for 55 cents. I also had a small jar on my desk that would hold pencils that my mother had bought for me and I would sell those for 10 cents or throw them in to sweeten the deal for the bookies. I saw no problem with it. The students in PACE, who were said to be the advanced students, but in reality were the students whose parents had close connections at the school, sold lolly pops for 50 cents every day before school and the principal sold pencils in his office. My teacher shut down my efforts nonetheless.

When I had gotten to freshman English class I had a teacher that I particularly liked. We read Shakespeare and the Odyssey that year. I suppose the Odyssey reminded me of my adolescent love for the battle at Thermopylae. I can even remember that I thought so much of Homer at the time that I found that the textbook which contained the Odyssey left out a few scenes of the work. It didn’t say so anywhere on the textbook, but I found that some things in the text just weren’t adding up or painting a full picture of the story. I can remember my teacher telling me that we weren’t yet old or mature enough to read the entire work. I know what this really meant was that she didn’t have faith that we were “smart” enough to understand it- whatever that means.

My junior year was the year that all of us began to think about college. In my English class that year we read Gatsby and I fell in love. I can remember the movie, but I don’t remember any lectures. We were also asked, that year, to write an essay on a topic of our choosing. A rather vague assignment, but we were told that this was what we would be asked to do on the state tests, and this is what would be asked of us in college. I decided to write on Political campaigns. I was accused of plagiarism that year for my essay because my teacher said that the words “didn’t seem” like they were my own. I’m not sure how she would know- we hadn’t written an essay yet in her class and this was the end of the year, nor had we, to my knowledge, typed any true essays up until that point.

I don’t mean to insinuate that I didn’t have any good teachers in school. I can remember my third grade teacher inspiring me to collect coins, and I can remember my eighth grade history teacher and her love for Lewis and Clark. I can even remember my Math class from my eighth grade year. I couldn’t see the white board because I refused to get glasses and I struggled very badly. I told my math teacher and instead of having me take notes from the back of the class he would have me do a work problem on the white board every single day in front of my classmates. I loved him for that. He was a basketball coach at the high school and It showed that he cared. He and I would struggle together in front of the class. He would struggle to flex his art of teaching a kid who didn’t naturally get math. I would struggle on the math problem, and he would struggle to find what made me get it. Furthermore, he would reveal to the entire class, and to me specifically, what leadership was.

Although I don’t want to insinuate that I didn’t have any good teachers, I do want to say that I didn’t appreciate teachers because the bad ones had the ability to overshadow the good ones. They tinged my pallet so badly that by the time that my senior Spanish teacher prophetically told me that I was going to be a teacher I cringed. I also want to say that I had never known why I was doing the things that I was doing. I had asked teachers this before and they had taken my question as an attempt to lash out and demean them in front of other students. I may not have known it at the time, but the answer that I was looking for was one that I try to tell at least one of my students every day. The answer is either one of three things: “Because its good”, “Because its true”, or more importantly “Because its beautiful”. That was all I wanted to hear, alongside a defense of why it was one of those things.

Throughout the long history of teaching, one that stretches back to the conception of the first man, the art has shifted in terms of its aim. This is because teaching, despite the contemporary understanding of it, is an art. Like artwork, its focus shifts as the subject matter that it attempts to capture shifts. I was lucky to have my brother growing up. He is the greatest mentor that I have ever had, or that I will ever have. He taught me about character and love by simply being around me. He didn’t have to do anything special- he just had to be there and his being there was inspiring. The focus of teaching today is to do for students what my brother had done for me: to help me find my soul.

Unfortunately, today we lack older brothers as a society. Today we do not have leaders that we can look up to and that can teach us about character and what it means to be a man or woman who strives to do something good an honorable and just. We lack people that imbue our lives with a sense of purpose and meaning. School is at least partially to blame for this.

As a teacher I struggled a lot with this, and I still do. How am I to lead my students? I don’t particularly care about teaching them, for they have their whole lives to learn. I care much more about guiding them. I care about putting them on the right path so that their parents can draw the goodness out of them for the remainder of their lives until they must set them free. As a teacher I couldn’t do this, and this is why I gave up teaching. My soul was in pain because of this.

Teachers can’t be leaders today. The idea of school generally lacks purpose. It is a place that parents allow their kids to go during the day so they can go to work. We settle for this default understanding of what has been understood as the highest good of human life for the majority of the history of humanity simply because we are afraid to give up stability. But the problem is that our kids deserve better than mediocrity, and our nation can’t stand long if we only provide them with mediocrity.

I worked at the greatest school that I can imagine and I still struggled with this. Teaching is supposed to be team work; however, from my experience I have learned that much of the time I was working against the grain. There is not enough time to create community because we are concerned constantly with the practicality of doing things by the book. Because some bad teachers have treated students badly, teachers must refrain from becoming close with students. Because administrators are enforcing standards that they cannot explain and that they do not believe in there is tension between teachers and those who are supposed to support them most. Parents don’t understand that the process of learning and growing is painful and they resent when you foster children through the healthy pain of growth.

All of this needs to change. I did not get out of teaching to stay out, but I got out of teaching because I understand that we are wasting the human capital that we severely need as a nation. I understand that school is the most sacred institution on God’s earth, and I believe that wisdom is the most beautiful thing known to man. I got out of school because I hope to evoke the change that will bring education back to school. I am not sure how we get there, but I hope I can fight tooth and nail to do it.

Hands and Hearts

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the only book in which the author writes what cannot be written. The book is highly experiential, arguably to the point of superfluity. Among my students, the whaling chapters are those which push them to give up the fight. For myself, my first copy of Moby Dick was burnt upon Ishmael’s description of the Italian paintings of Christ wherein the narrator claims that they are most accurate because they capture the “hermaphroditical” character of the Son. Melville even went so far as to write to Nathaniel Hawthorne that he had composed “a wicked book and (felt) spotless as a lamb” having written it. My argument is that Melville writes in such a way in order to accomplish what no author had yet, or has since, been able to accomplish: he not only makes his reader think about God, but he affords his reader the opportunity to experience God. Thereby, Melville is able to moderate the American soul in hopes that it may make use of the vast freedom that so quickly can dissolve into wayward discontent. His book becomes a symphonic experience through which you, reader, like Ishmael are plunged into the deep waters of baptism and forced to fight your way back to faith, experiencing a metaphorical resurrection. As we read the American epic we find that we are all Ishmaels searching to find something all the while knowing not what.

 

Everyone is familiar with the false opening lines “Call me Ishmael” (I say false because there are two important “chapters” preceding the “loomings” chapter). However, few understand the significance of “Call me Ishmael” just as they do not attempt to make sense of the title “loomings” which is of layered importance. The Biblical Ishmael is said to be a man “with his hand against all men”. How American is he? I see in him every political campaign to which I’ve ever contributed, and I see in him the faces of all of the students I’ve ever taught. As Americans our independent and enterprising natures are manifested in this fellow who will befriend us along this journey. He is an orphan and a wanderer, a son begat with no true mother, and one searching for some ounce of feeling all the while wandering off the path that he most needs to tread. Just as Tocqueville describes Americans full of restlessness and characterized by individualism, Melville creates an American working through his restlessness and grappling with his individualism.

 

The title “Loomings” is doubly important: first, it recalls the feeling that “looms” over Ishmael, and second it refers to the first step in the process of God’s weaving of Ishmael’s fate upon his loom. The feeling of having his hand against all other men makes Ishmael feel as if he must either walk into the street and “deliberately knock their hats off”, or commit suicide. Luckily for us, he chooses water as his “substitute for pistol and ball”. What we will learn alongside him throughout this journey is that love of his fellow man must displace this looming feeling of grief and loneliness. Only through knowing and appreciating others will Ishmael come by a feeling of self-love and appreciation. This communion with his fellow man will be a thread in the tapestry woven upon God’s loom throughout the tortured journey of the Pequod. Ishmael will find later that God is that weaver who “weaves and is deafened by his weaving”. Initially angered with God for his deafness, Ishmael reasons towards that thought which Ahab never does: that perhaps the reason that man can’t hear God isn’t because God is not speaking, but rather the word of God is drowned out as we place our word at the center of the universe, contemptuously displacing His plans for us with our own wandering desires.

 

Surprisingly early in the novel Captain Ahab symbolically nails his doubloon to the mainmast of the ship as a bribe for his crew to follow Moby Dick. Ahab proceeds to explain that his path is “laid upon Iron rails” as he rhetorically overpowers Starbuck in front of the crew. Ishmael remarks “my shouts went up with theirs because of the dread in my soul”. How often are we all damned to chasing cursed Job’s whale to the ends of the earth for no reason but our own looming loneliness? Melville really calls into question, in this instance, the extent to which man really desires to exercise rational judgment. At least for Ishmael, the easiest way out of loneliness is to succumb peer pressure; nevertheless, his coping mechanism proves a hollow one. It is not until about 200 pages later, when we have almost forgotten about the soft despotism that plagues the crew, that the spell over Ishmael is broken and his loneliness truly subsides.

 

Only in the “Squeeze of the Hand” chapter when Ishmael is kneading spermacetti with his fellow voyagers can he remark “I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it… while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.” The result: Ishmael “lowers, nay shifts, all expectations of attainable felicity” from philosophy to the home, the bed, the wife, and the hearth. He even remarks that on that day he saw “angels all with their hands in a jar of spermaceti”. Rather than trying to focus on his tortured fate and all that lacks sense, Ishmael begins to find pleasure in those small graces that we so often overlook. Only through this lens can Ishmael finally begin to make sense of his relationship with God. He must first see light in order to see darkness. For Ishmael, friendship makes good all the vices of his fellow man and cloaks all of the darkness of the world: it is akin to the forgiveness that God has given man when he sends his son to die on the cross rendering our sins moot in the respect to salvation. All that is necessary to gain this blessing is for Ishmael to turn his hands away from his fellow man, and use those hands to work with his fellow man instead of against him.

 

Thus goes the baptism of Ishmael’s hand in a jar of spermaceti. Melville wishes to make stark the distinction between baptism of the body and baptism of the soul; however, he understands that the physical baptism is necessary to make possible the spiritual baptism. The purification of the soul is harder than the baptism of the body because it is an active pursuit rather than a passive one. And, as no man is worthy of the mantle of the Son of God, each man’s discipleship will be riddled with tests and failures. Ishmael’s is no different. However, by the end of the book Ishmael is no longer Ishmael: he is no longer the biblical orphan with his hand against all other men, but rather he is claimed by the wayward ship “the Rachel” who weeps for her lost children. However, he cannot be claimed by the Rachel until he has been plunged into the deep in pursuit of Moby Dick, losing all of his comrades, and only surviving by attaching himself to Queequeg’s coffin. He thereby becomes a “loose-fish”, and he thereby suffers the same fate as Ahab. However, Ishmael turns the fate of Ahab inside out: where Ahab was claimed by the darkness as he was loosened, Ishmael is claimed by God. The epilogue (which was not included in the first edition of the novel due to a huge twist of fate, but that is a story for another time) begins with the first instance in which Ishmael accurately quotes the bible: “And I alone   am escaped to tell thee”. Melville thereby draws a parallel between the old, wayward Ishmael, and the new Ishmael. He thus renders his great novel digestible from another perspective for the reader’s second read: the perspective of Job. In short, through realizing who Ishmael is by the end of the novel, we are able to better understand his perspective throughout the journey by placing it in view of all of his suffering. 

America, and especially American kids, is experiencing an identity crisis. Moby Dick may be the book that my students most hate, but it is the book they most need. Today we are too quick to teach our children to be “nice”, but we do so at the expense of affording our kids the opportunity to explore the complexities of their souls. I hope that my students begin to hate Moby Dick the work, just as Ahab hates Moby Dick the whale. I hope that they burn their first copy just as I did- because this will mean that the book has touched them. This will mean that the book has pushed them intellectually and made them uncomfortable. After all, Ishmael must be made uncomfortable in order to come about change, in order to grow, and finally in order to come about a resurrection and a renewal of his faith. The way in which I gauge my success or failure while teaching Moby Dick is to evaluate how my students are working through their hate: whether or not they are taking it seriously. Soon they will no longer be children, and soon they will have to grapple with their souls as they roam free. The better part of “being nice” is not a continuous set of accommodating gestures, but rather it is the ability to rule the hatred in their souls that Ahab feels combined with the longing that Ishmael feels to contemplate the blackness in the world which seems to overrun all light. In short, what Moby Dick attempts to do is make sense of the erotic hatred within us all to which Ahab falls, and to reign in the false path that reason may take if we become an Ishmael rationalizing the darkness and its seeming consumption of the light. If our kids can do this, then they can learn how to rule themselves in a much more substantial way than they can by being nice at all costs. If we can teach them this, then we will not have to teach them to “be nice”, for they will be happy and they will be just.