Tag Archives: literature

Symphony 53

They parked at an underground garage at the hotel where the conference was being held.

Since Carmen had shown him only coldness from the first, Neil had tried to avoid thinking about her. He hadn’t had much success. She figured prominently in his erotic fantasies, and in spite of himself he always noticed what she was wearing and how she was wearing her hair. Now he studied her covertly while she took time to fluff up her shoulder length curls. Her eyes were deep brown in a cafe-au-lait face. Her nose was thin, her features were finely modeled, and her skin was smooth.

In the elevator, her perfume surrounded him. He felt sixteen years old. He felt foolish and elated at the same time.

The elevator door opened and Carmen stepped out. Neil came a bit behind, enjoying her trim figure. She wore a short, close fitting black skirt and a patterned silk blouse of many blues, with her hair loose on her shoulders and a yellow scarf at her throat. The high heels she wore exaggerated the motion of her hips. She had the look of a hot, chic, young Chicana on the prowl; and the fact that she seemed unaware of the effect she was having on Neil — and all of the other men she passed — only made her more desirable.

It was going to be hard to keep his mind on business.

# # #

The conference was titled Literature Based Learning: a New Approach to the Teaching of Reading. The hotel had set aside a long conference room with a speaker’s table at one end and rows of tables facing the front of the room. They had shoehorned nearly a hundred teachers into a space that would have comfortably held half that number. Neil and Carmen appropriated a spot near the front, then Carmen left to run some errands of her own. Neil stayed behind to listen in on the conversations around the room.

Neil liked to circulate before things started and get a feel for the crowd. That way he could pick out the dull and the pompous, and zero in on the interesting ones who remained in case he had to get into a group.

The conference was advertised for grades K through eight. All the conferences Neil had attended before had been only for high school teachers. The difference between this conference and those was striking. Those conferences had been seventy-five percent male; this one was ninety percent female. As Neil circulated, he found that most of the conversations were about other people. He heard, “He said . . .”, and “She did . . .”,  and “They went . . .”.  At the high school conferences he had mostly heard, “I said . . .”, and “I did . . .”, and “I went . . .”.

Carmen returned and they took their seats. The superintendent of a local district spoke briefly and then introduced the main speaker, Anne Marie Chang. Carmen whispered, “That is the woman who gave us a bad rating last year. Whatever you do, don’t tell her you’ve grouped your kids!”

The speaker did not look that formidable, but when she began talking it was clear that she had an axe to grind, and that she had had a lot of practice in grinding it. After a brief introduction to the new language arts framework, and a hint that she had had more than a small role in shaping it, Ms. Chang passed out xeroxed copies of something she wanted the participants to read. Once they were distributed, face down, she told everyone that they had two minutes to read the passage and then they should be prepared to discuss it. Neil and Carmen turned theirs over, and Neil chuckled. Carmen said, “What is this?” She sounded irritated. “Can you read this?” more tomorrow


442. Life is a Tunnel

Every once in a while, a phrase appears, demanding to be used. Sometimes it fits into whatever is being written at the time. Sometimes it hangs around for years before it fits. Sometimes, it just hangs around.

The phrase at the top came to me when I was considering a sequel to Raven’s Run. There were several stories on audition, and none were chosen. I don’t even remember which sequel this was supposed to go with. I do remember the scene it was to be part of.

Iain Gunn was looking out a second story window at an urban street. South San Francisco, I think. It was just beginning to rain. A girl with long black hair had just gotten out of a car. She was wearing a tight, short dress, and she was, of course, lovely. Gunn was waiting for someone to come along who was connected with the business he was just getting involved in, and this girl certainly was not that person, but she caught his attention.

She hunched her shoulders when the rain first hit her, but then she straightened her back and looked up. She raised her hands to the rain and smiled. No dancing around — she was a serious and sophisticated person — but she accepted the rain and appreciated the moment. She stood for a few more moments, facing Gunn but unaware of his presence. Her hair began to flatten against her head and Gunn could see beads of moisture trickling down her face. Then she turned and walked purposefully away. For her the moment was over, but it would remain with Gunn.

Life is a tunnel, three feet wide and seventy years long. The phrase hits Gunn (as it had hit me). She is just another of the million people he will nearly meet, nearly have some kind of relation with, one whom he could perhaps come to hate, or perhaps fall in love with. But he will never know.

If this were cliche #472 in the detective story handbook, he would meet her again and this would just be a foreshadowing of things to come. Meeting her again would be expected by the reader.

It is not meeting her that will make the incident meaningful. She will now become a symbol for all the things we miss as we live our random lives.

It’s not a new idea, and not the first time I’ve used it. These words in the opening paragraphs of Valley of the Menhir set the stage for what is to come:

Out there in the night that stretches away from us all — there where consciousness ends; where experience missed sets an iron boundary on our lives — there is a land of red sky and green sea, Poinaith, and another land where the gray sky leans down to lock hands with the sliver elfin forest.

Experience missed sets an iron boundary on our lives. Another phrase that jumped into my head, but in this case, just as I needed it.

We all live lives of found and missed opportunities. Our lives are a path from birth to death, as wide as our shoulders and as long as we last. We see so much, but if we were to turn three feet to either side, there are a thousand other lives we could live instead.

I’m satisfied with my life so far and I’m glad I was wrong about its length. I have more things to do, and more books to write. These last seventy years have been great, but I‘m not done.

Symphony 52

They rolled past Tracy and onto highway 580. For as far as the eye could see in every direction were windmills. Most of them were tall, slender, high-tech monstrosities. Seen in isolation, they might have a functional beauty, but here on these hills they were starkly out of place. Neil said, “I had read about these windmills, but I never guessed they could be so ugly.  How could they do this to the landscape?”

“I know,” Carmen replied bitterly, “and notice how few are turning.”

“Almost none of them.”

“Right. I’ve been watching this take place for a couple of years now. Every time I come through here there are more windmills, but I never see them turning. If we need wind energy so badly, why aren’t they making electricity instead of just standing there? If they don’t work, why are they building more of them? It makes you wonder if someone lining his pockets on government money?” see below

For a few minutes, the conversation lagged; then she said, “How do you like teaching sixth graders?” It was almost the same question she had asked thirty miles before, but this time it sounded real. Neil answered, telling her some of the feelings he had for his students, and explaining how different they were from high school students. Carmen warmed to him as he spoke. He could feel her relaxing.

Then he told her of his conversation with Pearl, and how he had grouped his readers. Carmen laughed and said, “Don’t let Bill Campbell hear about that.”


“Last year he caught hell during our Program Quality Review. They said we were tracking. We weren’t really, but one of the inspectors had an attitude problem. She was one of the new guard, and gung ho for literature based reading. Her report was so unfavorable that Bill had to do away with leveling even before we had anything to take its place.”

“I had wondered about that. You seemed to be out of synch with yourselves. You’re all set up for literature based reading, but the books aren’t literature — they’re horrible.”

“Yes, they are. We have some new materials ordered, but they haven’t come in yet.”


“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get your hopes up. Bill only had so much money, so he only ordered for Pearl and me. He said he would order literature for sixth grade next year when Gina was ready to come back.”

After a long silence, Neil asked, “Did he come to that decision before or after he knew who was going to replace her for the year?”

“Before,” Carmen said, but he was not sure he believed her.

Paranoid! Don’t let them make you paranoid, he told himself sternly. Then he had to laugh. Don’t let them make you paranoid? Them?

“What are you laughing at,” Carmen asked, but he couldn’t answer and she looked miffed. He thought, “Serves you right.”

The rest of the trip was friendly. Neil traded stories with Carmen, telling of his boyhood and youth in Oregon, and finding out more about what it was like to grow up as the daughter of a field worker. They dealt with surfaces and first insights, speaking as if their lives had been without pain. It was not intimacy, but it was a beginning.

It had been several years since Neil had been to the Bay Area, and he was shocked at its growth. It had spilled over the first range of the foothills to fill up the Livermore Valley. All the lovely hills and pasture lands were giving way to stucco and concrete. “People are even moving as far as Modesto to find affordable homes, and commuting to the Bay Area,” Carmen said. Neil could not imagine a seventy mile commute.


Out of fairness, I have to add that the windmills did look like a big government hoax in 1988 when this was written, but today they provide much of the state’s energy. more tomorrow

Symphony 51

He shouldn’t have run. Until then, he had been clean in conscience and in action. Running had weakened his position; worse, it had shown a weakness within him that he had not known was there. In the six months since the incident, he had faced that weakness, and had grown because of it.

Still . . .  If he had stayed, he would never have met these children. They were so fresh, so new, so open and unafraid of the world around them. They were like Neil had been before Alice Hamilton. Their Alice Hamiltons were all still ahead of them.

He loved them. There was no lesser word to describe the warmth he felt whenever they flowed into his room like a river of life. It didn’t matter that some of them were rowdy, that some of them were incorrigible, that some of them were — be honest; use the right word — stupid. None of that could stand up for a moment against the sheer elemental liveliness of them. Little Randi Nguyen, face shining, skinny legs sticking down from her shorts, standing her ground to correct him when he made a misstatement. Oscar, so cool, so self-contained, but containing what? What mysteries made him turn against his intellect and act out a dumb-Mexican stereotype? All of them, even Tony Caraveli and Jesse Herrera, were precious to him, each in his or her own way.

Carmen broke his reverie with an unpleasant, “Ugh!”, and he smelled the sugar processing plant at Manteca. It fouled the air for miles around. And with that honest stench in his nostrils he admitted that, for all his other feelings, he could kill Jesse Herrera sometimes.

Apparently the silence had become uncomfortable for Carmen. She said, “How are things going for you after two months?”

Her question fell false on his ear. He said, “Fine,” and let the silence put its pressure on Carmen again. Whatever was wrong between them, was her problem. He could do nothing about it until she gave him some clue what it was all about.

Two miles slid away beneath them. She was concentrating on her driving now as the oncoming cars had the rising sun full in their faces, and were two-thirds blinded. Finally, the road widened to four lanes again, and she visibly relaxed.

“Tough driving,” he commiserated.

“I hate it. I would rather drive through the heart of L.A. than through that stretch of highway.”

She was quite a good driver, but he couldn’t say so. The compliment would sound false. Neil looked out the window to hide his irritation. It looked like it would be a long day.

The coast range rose up before them, low, golden-brown, and rounded like breasts in repose. Now, in late October, the grass was grazed to the ground and they were empty of animal life. Someone — Tom Wright — had told him that they were as green as the hills of Ireland in the springtime, and that for a few months they were covered with fattening cattle. It was hard to believe.

“I’ll have to come this way in the spring.” Neil said. “Tom said these hills are beautiful then.”

“They are,” Carmen responded. “If you really want to see something beautiful, though, go eastward into the foothills. They are similar to these, but with scattered live oaks, and they are covered with California poppies in the spring. These hills are pretty enough, but they are so overgrazed that the wildflowers really don’t have a chance.”

That, Neil thought, is what I’ve been wanting. An ordinary conversation without all those overtones of hostility. more Monday

Symphony 50

“For now, Carlos, you will read with the group in the fifth grade book. Later, we’ll see. Give me that detention slip.”

Carlos fished it out, looking puzzled, and handed it over.

Neil took it and said, “Now you have a decision to make. Have you learned that I won’t put up with rebellion in my classroom, or would you rather take this home for your mother to sign and have her see that you were defiant?”

Carlos brightened when he saw that he was going to have a reprieve. He said, as if by rote, “I understand that you won’t put up with no defiance.” There was so much relief in his voice that it left no room for sarcasm.

Neil crumpled the form and tossed it into the trash. Then he motioned with his hand and said, “Go play.”

Carlos disappeared, as if by magic.

# # #

Grouping his readers was no panacea. It cost Neil time he would have like to use for language, because he had to teach reading three times a day instead of once, and it threw the students who were not reading onto their own resources. That worked well enough for the high readers. When he was working with the low readers, the high readers were quite capable of doing independent work in language. For the low readers it was a problem. If they could not read, they certainly were not self-sufficient in their language studies. Within a week, Neil was feeling ragged from shuttling between groups, and the misbehavior was way up. Students who are left alone to work by themselves at materials which are essentially above their grasp, will find other ways to amuse themselves.

But . . . the children could read.

# # #

At the end of that first week of leveled reading, Neil got a day off from teaching. On that Friday, he and Carmen went to Oakland to a conference.

Conferences and in-service training are a blessing and a curse: a blessing in that they allow teachers to stay up on the latest thinking in their field, and to see different way of approaching old problems; a curse in that they are usually bad and frequently very bad. Neil knew this already from the high school conferences he had attended, but he was not prepared for how abysmal elementary conferences could be.

During the second week of school Bill Campbell had called him in to say, “I want you to know what is in the wind. There have been so many changes coming out of Sacramento during the last year that I can’t keep up with them myself. Since you and Carmen are at the heart of it, I am sending you.” So Neil found himself paired off for the day with the one teacher at Kiernan who apparently couldn’t stand him.

He met Carmen at the school parking lot when the sun was just beginning to stain the sky with dawn. They had agreed to take her car because his was so old and decrepit. She pulled out expertly and headed for the freeway. As they passed through the same flat, oleander lined corridor he had traversed six months earlier on his first trip to Modesto, he reflected on the changes that had taken place in him since that time. The problems he had faced in Oregon had faded in his mind, but the bitterness remained.

If he had it to do over . . .  If he had it to do over, he would have stayed to fight it out. It was a mark of his callowness that he had chosen to run. He had never really been hurt before. He had never had a friend, lover, or institution turn upon him and damn him for no reason. more tomorrow

Symphony 49

Neil was rapidly losing patience. “Carlos,” he said, “I will always try to have good materials to teach you with, and I will never intentionally embarrass you. You’ve been with me long enough to know that. But this is the best book I could find for you right now. Maybe it won’t work and I will get rid of it, but I will make that decision, and you will read what I give you to read. Do you understand?”

Carlos did not reply and did not open his book.

“Carlos, this is the only warning you will get. Open your book and participate.”

Carlos looked out the window.

Neil got up, went to his desk, and returned silently with a detention form. He filled out Carlos’ name and in the line marked offence, he wrote, “Defiance. Refused to open his textbook.” The room had become completely quiet. He pushed the slip in front of Carlos and said, “Sign it.”

Carlos jerked the form angrily to him and read it. His face went pale at the word defiance. For a moment Neil thought he would start to cry, but even at eleven years old he was too macho for that. He scrawled his name angrily across the paper and spun it back across the table. Neil tore the top sheet off and handed it back and put the second copy into his shirt pocket.

“Now, everybody open to page eleven.”

This time Carlos opened his book.

It was easier when the children read at something closer to their own level, but the stories were even more insipid. Worse, they revolved around the interests of fourth graders, making it clear in subtle ways that these children were reading below their level. Even at that, Brandy and Pedro were unable to read.

After half an hour, Neil sent them back to their regular seats and called his poor readers together. He also called Carlos and Dixie back. This time there was no rebellion, even though most of these children had already read the fifth grade book. Tony Caraveli said, “Mr. McCrae, we read this book last year.”

“I know.”

“Do we have to read it again?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see. Let’s just read today and we’ll see how it goes.”

After Carlos’ rebellion had been summarily smashed, no one else gave him any trouble. Neil felt badly about riding roughshod over their very sensible objections, but he had to see for himself and decide for himself. They might be unhappy with his methods, but they were getting nowhere with the present system. Something had to change and that change was sure to make somebody unhappy.

Dixie and Carlos had been the best readers in his other group. He had not explained why he was having them read again, but they could guess, and they did their best. Even though he stumbled, Carlos put more effort into his reading than he ever had before. He would do anything rather than endure the shame of reading out of a fourth grade book.

When the bell rang, Neil motioned for Carlos to remain behind. He said, “Carlos, I am the teacher and I won’t ever let a student tell me how to run my class. But I understand why you didn’t want to read out of the fourth grade book.”

Carlos looked fierce and said nothing. Neil had no intention of trying to break down his machiso. He doubted that he could anyway. “You worked pretty hard today when you read out of that fifth grade book. Do you think you could keep up that kind of effort?”

“Yes.” Carlos was the picture of an eleven year old Chicano boy in trouble, with a stiff, solemn face trying to protect his image, but close to tears. more tomorrow

Symphony 48

According to the latest pendulum swing, that was all wrong. Students who were segregated into “dumb” classes were given a stigma from which they could never escape. They would never have the opportunity to hear what good students sound like, and would have no model to emulate. Worst of all, gifted students would be reading literature while remedial students were reading Dick and Jane. Literature and a common cultural base are the rights of every student.

It all made sense, stated that way, and it was a fine goal to aim toward. But when it came to the reality of the individual classroom, the Pedro’s and Sabrina’s of the world were forced to face their incompetence on a daily basis, building up a mountain of failure from which they would never recover.

Doubtless, the pendulum would swing back. It always did. But for this generation, it would be too late.

# # #

The immediate solution to Neil’s problems in reading came in a conversation with Pearl Richardson. He asked her what she would do in his position, and she had tossed the question back to him. “What would you do if this problem came up in freshman literature?”

“It doesn’t come up; that’s why I have no experience to call on. I couldn’t teach freshman literature if the kids couldn’t read. I would have to back off and teach them reading first.”


“Okay, Pearl, I’m dense today. What do you mean ‘precisely’? Precisely what?”

“If you couldn’t teach in a literature style to freshmen who couldn’t read, how can you teach in a literature style sixth graders who can’t read? Do what teachers always do when a new system doesn’t work; go back to the old system and keep your mouth shut about it. Go out to the bus shed. It’s never locked. Go through the cardboard boxes that are stacked beside the bathroom and you’ll find old textbooks. Get something the kids can read.”

Neil just shook his head at the simplicity of it. He said, “Is that what you do?”

“Hell, no, and I don’t want to. Thanks to Gina and Carmen, I have always gotten kids who can read. I teach literature and always have; I didn’t need an edict from Sacramento for that. And I don’t want to start teaching eighth graders how to read, so you go solve your problem! Please!”

# # #

Remembering the “keep your mouth shut” part of Pearl’s prescription, Neil waited until well after school before going out to the bus shed. There he found more boxes of books than he had imagined possible. He was seduced into spending an hour longer than was really necessary, exploring the possibilities. Eventually, he found suitable books. They weren’t literature. In fact, they weren’t particularly good, but they were better than what he had, and there were books for several levels of readers.

His plan solved some problems and created others. Carlos Ruiz took one look at the new textbook, slammed it closed, and said, “This is a fourth grader’s book. It says so right here on the cover.”

Dixie Margaret Trujillo said, “I’ve already read this book. I read it in Mrs. Jamieson’s class.”

“Me, too.”

“So have I.”

Neil said, “Let’s try it, anyway, and see how things work out.”

He had his ten very slow readers clustered around him in the back of the room while the other children did seat work in language. Nine of them reluctantly opened their books, but Carlos sat with his arms crossed and stared out the window.


“I’m not reading out of no fourth grade book.” more tomorrow