Guest Speaker: David Shipley '81, deputy editorial page editor and Op-Ed editor of the New York Times.
Lark, members of the faculty, members of the Catlin Gabel community, parents, friends, class of 2009, thank you for that warm welcome.
I guess I should also extend a reluctant welcome to the H1N1 virus. We met back in New York. I hope his stay here is short.
I’ve had the chance over the last few weeks to read and think about commencements.
And I’ve come to a number of conclusions. The speeches tend to break down in a few different ways.
Long and less long.
Unbearable and barely bearable.
There are speeches where the speaker tells you all the things you don’t know.
There are speeches where the speaker tells you about wonderfully impressive things he or she has done — and how those wonderfully impressive things somehow apply to you. But they really don’t.
I’d like to try to do something a little different tonight.
I’d like to talk to you about all the things that you do know.
All the things you learned here. All the things that Catlin teachers, past and present, that the Catlin community, past and present, have taught you and instilled in you — things that will serve you well in the world — but that will also serve the world well — if you just hold onto them
Let me tell you why I feel this is important. My guess is that most everyone in this room would agree that this has been a tough couple of years. In too many ways, our world is fractured.
Everyone has a perspective on this. Mine is shaped in some measure by my job at the Op-Ed page.
The page is a national bulletin board. It’s a crossroads for conversation. It’s the main spot in the paper where the window is opened and the intelligence of the world is allowed in, to sweep across its pages.
And as I have seen the problems unfold — in economics, foreign affairs, and so on – as I have seen these problems documented and analyzed in the thousands upon thousands of articles we receive for consideration, it has occurred to me that some of the mess we are digging ourselves out of right now might not have come to pass had some Catlin thinking been applied.
If the approach to thought and learning and ethics that I was exposed to here, that you have been exposed to…if the culture that we are celebrating tonight had been more manifestly in play, then we might be in better shape today.
What does this culture look like?
I have an example. You do, too. You will find it in your program.
A while ago, I asked members of the senior class to answer, anonymously, the following: “What is your biggest question about your future?”
I then took the answers and ran them through a computer program called Wordle, which creates word clouds. It sizes the words according to how many times they are used. The more frequently a word is used, the bigger it is.
This piece of paper is the result.
What do we see?
Well, for starters, no misspellings. Thumbs up, English department.
“Jail.” A little troubling. I’m sure there’s a good reason.
And the rest of it?
Let’s ignore “future,” because that was part of the question. But that aside, look at what’s big. “Content” or “con-tent.” A positive either way. “Wonder. Work. Concerned. Life. Choose. Happy. Find. Figure. Matter. Know. Love. Able.”
And notice not just what’s small — Want, Need — but what’s not there at all. “Personal” isn’t there. Nor is “Mine.” “Own.” Possess. Deserve. Status. Due. Win. Entitle.
This is language about others, not about the self. It is language about connection, community, intellectual life and service.
It is language that is purely reflective of the Catlin Gabel ethic.
Which is great. But it begs the question: Will it last? Is this way of thinking and being going to slip away after you walk across this stage and out that door? After you leave this place?
I don’t think so.
At least not in my experience or in the experience of my classmates.
Here’s why. Preparing this speech, drove me — naturally, I guess — to look back on my time here, nearly 30 years ago. And what stood out was how much of that time I remember.
Which is kind of odd. You could come up to me and ask me what was on the Op-Ed page two days ago and I would pause. Or stare at you blankly. Eventually, it might come back to me.
Why is that?
It’s not because I’m not proud of it. When I look back over the page, it’s almost always with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
And it’s not, I think, attributable entirely to the fact that memory weakens as you get older. Though this, I fear, is increasingly a factor.
No…it’s the importance of the memory that gives it its durability.
And my Catlin memories are strong.
There are the simple ones. I remember where I napped as a first grader and the color of the towel on which I napped. (It was yellow.) I remember the corner of the lower school library I liked best. I remember the smell of the barn on a wet day, the quality of the dirt on the path down to the soccer fields, the way pine cones pile up in the fir grove. I even remember when the pod outside this building would light up and slowly rotate.
And there are different memories, more complicated ones – ones that encapsulate the ideas and teachings and qualities of thought represented on that piece of paper in your program. Maybe they came from Schauff. Or Clint. Charlotte Ohlman or Sid Eaton, Ed Hartzell. Maybe they came from someone you’ve heard of — or not. Those memories are indelible.
Here’s why I think that’s so.
There are a lot of different theories on memory and how it’s stored. One school of science says that memories with special resonance are those that interact with more than one part of the brain. The memory-related regions of the brain team up with the emotional regions of the brain — to bank the memory, giving it added staying-power and durability.
What you have been taught here isn’t neutral. It has an ethical dimension. For that reason, it’s likely lodged in your head good and tight.
And what’s been lodged? What are those Catlin-teachings that would have been useful had they been applied on Wall Street or in Washington?
Here are a few of them.
One: Show your work.
My math teacher in Middle School was Mary McFarlane. Mrs. McFarlane. She was small, of indeterminate advanced age, wore a lot of nice wool. And she was wonderful. Now 8th grade algebra, I must confess, did not come naturally to me. In fact, as I watched my daughter work through 8th grade algebra this year, I was amazed at how much of her work looked completely unfamiliar to me.
But there is something I remember from the class. It’s a phrase I saw over and over in Mary McFarlane’s precise cursive: “Show your work.” Show your work. Prove to me that you know how you got from there to here. Be transparent.
Why do I bring this up?
Because in a year darkened by opaque derivatives and credit default swaps and mortgage-backed assets and all manner of untransparent actions, the belief that you should show your work — a lesson passed down by Mrs. McFarlane and Lowell Herr and many other people I encountered here — seems to me to be more important than ever.
Two, and this is related: Know how things work. Again, this is something that would have come in handy with regard to those complex financial instruments that got us in so much trouble.
When I was in first grade, we made wooden boxes. I remember Ed Adamy, the shopteacher, in his Ben Davis coveralls, helping us pick the wood, helping us put that wood in little red vises, helping us saw it, saving us from driving small nails through our tiny fingers. The boxes we made were shallow, with a bottom and four sides. They were basic, simple, elemental. But Mr. Adamy taught us how to put something together.
There are other Catlin examples. In 6th grade, we worked on go-carts, taking apart lawnmower engines and, theoretically, putting them back together again. Each year had a lesson that was meant to deepen our elemental understanding of increasingly complex things.
I mentioned transparency a moment ago. Transparency is great. I’m all for it. But for transparency to mean anything at all, you have to be able to comprehend that which has been made transparent.
There’s a wonderful passage in the second Harry Potter book — the Chamber of Secrets. Adorable Ginny Weasley has been possessed — really possessed — by the Dark Lord via a compelling, angst-ridden and completely bewitched diary that tells her to do all sorts of evil things.
After the diary has been destroyed and Ginny has been freed of its power, Ginny’s father has a few words of wisdom for her.
He says — or J.K. Rowling has him say, “Never trust anything that can think for itself unless you can see where it keeps its brain.”
Good advice. And close to the Catlin rule: We are taught here to learn to understand at the most basic level. That is at the core of experiential education. And we are taught to question the things we don’t understand.
Except for the iPhone. I have no idea how that thing works.
Three, another Catlin lesson: Hills. Every day of every soccer season Bob Ashe would have us run up the hill from the lower field to the track, and back again. Over and over. With a new hill added every day.
What’s the lesson here? Besides sadistic coaching? Hard work pays off.
I know. It seems kind of obvious. But think about it.
We’re emerging from an era where the operative idea was that you really didn’t have to do anything to get ahead. Real estate values would go up. So would the stock market. Anyone could flip a house or make money on borrowed money.
It’s a lovely idea. The notion that that essay will write itself or that you’ll get stronger by not going to the gym. But it’s just not so. And yet a lot of people in my generation forgot this.
Four: Step out of your shoes. In junior history with John Wiser, I had to make the case for slavery. I had to get up in front of the class and explain why something that was morally inexcusable made sense.
John’s intention, of course, was not to advance the cause of slavery. It was to force me to approach an issue from a fresh perspective, to change the frame.
How would this idea — and it was one advanced in lots of other classes I had here — have changed the world today?
Think for a moment about Iraq. Whatever your feelings about the war, it is now clear that Saddam Hussein’s regime did not have weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was putting up a front. Bluffing. He was trying to appear stronger than he actually was.
Had we done more to put ourselves in his shoes, understood what he had to gain by giving us and his neighbors the impression that he was on the verge of developing weapons of great power, would we have acted differently? I don’t know. It’s not a topic for tonight. There are sincere arguments on both sides. What is indisputable, though, is that in the process of decision-making, this would have been crucial information to have.
Five: Sort. If you go to Catlin, you understand rummage. If you understand rummage, you understand pretty much everything — and one thing in particular: you learn how to sort.
Is that shirt at the bottom of the moldy box garbage – or vintage? Is that tableau of a penguin riding in a Chevy convertible junk – or a collector’s item? Ditto with lawn gnomes, unicycles, steam tables, C.B. radios.
These questions are not unlike the questions you will be faced with in the years ahead. With information. What’s real? What’s fake? Is the news you get on Google the same as news you get from The Wall Street Journal? The Times? Do you believe everything you read on the Web? Is Huffington Post the same as Talking Points Memo the same as Drudge? Does a healthy Dow mean a healthy economy?
Treat information the way you have been taught to treat rummage. Ask where it comes from – what’s the source. Put it in context. Then decide if it’s good, bad or moldy.
And remember: This is not trivial. The decisions you make as an informed citizen depend on how you choose to be informed.
I want to share two last lessons — lessons that are ingrained in experiences that took place in this very building.
Acting is believing. Back when I went here, the drama program was run by a remarkable guy by the name of Alan Greiner. We had one textbook. I still have it. Acting Is Believing. At the time, I pretty much made fun of it. It was heavy. And Stanislavskian. And mildly new agey.
But as the years have gone by, I’ve come to appreciate its message.
What the book — and Alan — were trying to get across was this: A play is a work of fiction. You’re pretending...whether you’re a prison guard or a French sailor or a goat. But for that pretending to be effective, it has to be rooted in truth. Your actions as an actor have to be based on something real.
I bring this up because in the last year or so we’ve had notable examples of people who believed the opposite. People who asserted truth when it was actually fiction.
Recent example: The other day the CEO of Countrywide, the giant mortgage company, was indicted for doing the opposite of what Alan Greiner taught us: pretending something was real when he knew it wasn’t, telling consumers that his product was fine and then turning around and writing emails to his pals calling those same products “toxic” and “poison.”
Alan’s lesson was one that’s stayed with me: if your fiction has to be truthful, then your reality had better be truthful, too.
Last lesson. Something I did many times on this stage. Something maybe I’ve even done tonight. Make a fool of yourself.
This lesson is distilled in a timeless and emotionally charged work of art that has touched us all: St. George and the Dragon. In St. George, you are compelled to make a fool of yourself. You have no choice. Whether you’re a dragon or a janitor or a twinkly-fairy.
Why do I bring this up?
Because you will see that in the world beyond this room people are afraid to make fools of themselves.
And it seems to me that many of the problems I mentioned earlier must be attributable in some measure to this phenomenon, to people being unwilling to stand up — in meetings, in boardrooms, in the White House, on the Senate floor, at newspapers, wherever — because they were worried about embarrassing themselves or getting shot down.
And the fact is, there are good reasons for this. Life is easier if you don’t make a fool of yourself. If you always sit quietly.
You probably have more friends. Lower blood pressure. More hair.
But what’s lost by that silence, that missed chance to hear another point of view, that possible challenge to the prevailing wisdom that just might be right?
So if one day you find yourself trying to decide to speak up in a room that’s against you, think of St. George. And remember that most of the people who graduated from this place took part in it. Even if they’re now adults. In positions of gravity and power. Once they skipped across this stage. In pretty pink tights. With a wand.
Also remember: If you were in St. George, you were nervous beforehand. Petrified. The risk of embarrassment was high. But afterward — didn’t you feel good? The risk of foolishness was worth it.
I end tonight with the knowledge that maybe it was cheesy of me to have spent the evening telling you what you already know. But what you know, what you learned here, all this place represents, is truly, crucially important.
Look, as someone who works in an industry that is desperately trying to find its way, I would be lying if I said it was easy out there. Even at this stage in my career.
I would be lying if I said that the generation that came before you didn’t mess things up. They did. And you have your work cut out for you.
But I would also be lying if I didn’t say something else. What you learn and experience here dies hard. If you keep close that knowledge, if you stay in touch and remind one another of it, then you will be equipped not only to make your own way, but also to repair this fractured world. For many years to come.
And judging from this little [Wordle] printout, it seems to me that you’re off to a really good start.
Now I think all that stands between you and these beautiful blue diplomas is…me. And so I will do what every generation should do for another: I’m going to get out of the way.
Good luck and godspeed.
Climbers near the halfway point. The shadow of Mount Hood is visible at sunrise
On Tuesday June 16th students from Catlin Gabel school found themselves looking across the entire state of Oregon (and Washington) from the summit of Mt. Hood. The day was perfect, with a light breeze, and the students made the ascent in less than six and a half hours.
Just below the summit at 9:15 am
Snow school the day before the climb
On the top
Carefully descending from the top
After the climb
Twenty-one members of the Class of 2009 are Lifers. The Lifers joined current preschool and kindergarten students in the Beehive to give advice, sing songs, and say, "so long it's been good to know you."
Teacher Mark Lawton and his sister Sheila present their account of Sheila’s decades-long battle with mental illness and its interplay with a large otherwise “normal” suburban family. It includes video and narrative interviews as well as Sheila’s artwork, which is at times light-hearted and playful and at other times haunting. The presentation was made to Catlin Gabel Upper School students in the spring of ‘08.
The Upper School's Catlin Gabel Players presented two evening performances of Shakespeare's great romance. Each night offered a different interpretation. All 30 cast members played two roles: one on Friday and one on Saturday. (Apologies from the photographer who was unable to attend the Friday show.)
For a long time the Upper School English department focused mainly on teaching literature, and students wrote papers. It’s fair to say that most graduates gave credit to the history department for teaching them expository writing, especially Dave Corkran and John Wiser. The emphasis of the English department before the 1990s was mostly on workshopping, where you pointed out emblematic or egregious details of a couple of papers, thoroughly examining only one paper. The process hit almost no one and missed nearly everyone. It made it hard to keep some students interested.
A major difference came about in the push for student involvement in student writing, led by English teacher Bob Ashe in the mid-1980s. During this time educators such as writing theorist Peter Elbow spurred a revolution in the teaching of writing. So this movement at Catlin Gabel was a result of academic innovation and inspiration, a new way of thinking about writing.
A systematic and serious approach to teaching writing has developed mostly in the years since Art Leo’s arrival in 1995. He brought with him philosophical underpinnings from his graduate work on Aristotelian rhetoric. Over the course of his first six years here, we defined that better and worked with all teachers in the department so that they would understand and accept the process.
It was a period of getting the process under control, of changing the idea that another generation of kids would graduate and say they learned to write in history classes rather than in English classes. I was determined to make that change. Then teachers started working with the system in all four grade levels and even in the Middle School. It works, and the department continues to refine its approach.
It’s also important to note that for a long time the school supported a term or yearlong course in creative writing, focused mostly on poetry, which allowed wonderful teachers like Jane Glazer and Laura Conklin to inspire student writers. Other good recent writing projects include the Agents of Change project that Art Leo began some years ago, where students had to write persuasively to the person in charge of what they wanted to change and improve about Catlin Gabel. This year Art Leo started a “gratitude” project, teaching 9th graders to write successful thank-you letters, as he had started an earlier letter-writing project for 10th graders. In all cases, the important goal we try to teach is learning to take the audience into account. These projects allow students to think about a different audience, and to understand how varied writing can be.
Big news: Clint Darling has announced his retirement! More about that will appear in the next Caller. Clint came to Catlin Gabel in 1967 and has served many roles, including that of interim head of school.
In my recollection, the English department taught writing well, especially Gene Jenkins, Jane Glazer, and Pru Twohy. They stressed creative writing and writing as a mode of selfexpression, with less emphasis on expository writing.
I laid great emphasis on expository writing. I thought that a Catlin Gabel education should develop powers of the mind, and processing ideas through the act of writing was the most effective way to help people learn to think about difficult and complicated issues.
I developed my own way of doing that, which came out of an effort to develop evaluation criteria for student work. In about 1970 we were going to do away with grades, so we needed written comments and had to figure out what they could address. Kim MacColl, Ed Hartzell, Sam Crawley, and I worked together on developing a list of criteria that we would teach to. We had to develop words and phrases that would identify what was required so that students could understand the criteria. For writing these included focus, accuracy of fact, reasoning from facts to conclusion, relevance of generalizations, and accuracy of conclusions. Students received a criteria sheet, so they knew what was expected and what they were supposed to know. There was a big gap at first between expectation and performance, but then we narrowed it.
I gave my students one to three weeks to write a paper on a difficult and sophisticated question. After they handed the paper in, I’d spend the next week reading them from A to Z, for all the criteria including grammar and spelling. I made comments in the margins, and wrote a summary of the paper’s strengths and weaknesses. I would hand papers back and require the students to come in for a conference. In the conference we would go over the paper and my comments and review the student’s questions and complaints. Together we would figure out what had to do done next time to do better. Then we’d start all over again in three weeks. Most students learned from this, although it usually it took a few papers before kids caught on.
The work to read 40 to 50 papers of 7 to 15 pages each was an enormous job. After 20 years of writing pretty much the same comments on papers, I had a set of rubber stamps made with the comments in red ink. All that red ink provoked a great deal of fear of those stamps, but kids seemed to learn more quickly as a result. In the mid 1980s the school hired learning specialists to help students with different learning styles who had trouble writing. Dixie McKay, Molly Kohnstamm, and Kathy Qualman came in and gave these kids new tools for learning. When that happened my teaching of writing improved because the kids showed me some techniques they got from the learning center.
Was my teaching successful? Alumni have said that what they learned was useful in college, so it was a limited success. The purpose of education is not to go to college but to develop powers of the mind. I’d say that if our graduates were just able to write college papers, then we failed, but if they became thinkers, we succeeded. In education there is never success. There is excitement in getting a new insight, the joy of mind rubbing against mind, and a sense of camaraderie in seeing how far students and teachers can get in their thinking. But we always might have gone farther.
Senior Karen Morse tells a story about writing her first paper for Art Leo: “He tore it apart and talked with me and told me what to do. I wrote another and the same thing happened. I wrote a third and he tore it apart and told me what to do. After five months I went back and read the first paper and could see that it was worthless.” In five months she had internalized the standard to where she could re-read her first paper and see what was specifically wrong with it. She had developed a sense of what was possible, what was good, and that you strive for good writing even if you don’t get there.
That’s what I aimed to do. If I was as successful as Art Leo with Karen Morse, I’d say I was successful and it worked. My whole teaching career was devoted to showing kids their writing and thinking might always be better, that there would always be someone better, and that their reach should exceed their grasp. I and they would never get where we aspired to be, and that was okay. But I had a hell of a good time trying to get there, and I hope they did, too.
By Art Leo
|Art Leo and a 9th grader in a paper conference|
Visitors to Catlin Gabel frequently note the progressive elements in the writing program offered by the English department. The steady mix of analytical and creative writing assignments allows young writers to recognize more clearly both the analytical components of creative writing and the creative opportunities inherent in the best analytical writing. We have in place a system of collaboration between student writers in the generation and revision of texts, a process that reaches its zenith in the peer editing process. Other effective components of the program have little or nothing to do with the ways in which I was taught to write in high school: the many assignments in which students write about their writing, the one-on-one conferences between instructor and writer that conclude every writing assignment, the web-based tools for the management of documents, and the use of laptop-based technology to enhance peer collaboration and encourage revision.
At the philosophical heart of our approach, however, lie some very old ideas about communication derived from classical rhetoricians, primarily Aristotle. From these stalwart thinkers, we retain the idea that rhetoric—the art of persuasion—is first and foremost a civic art. We believe that our primary goal as teachers of communication skills is to empower young citizens to be more persuasive so they might become agents of positive social change through their compelling use of logic and language.
We help our students understand that any act of communication is made up of the three components of rhetorical context: the speaker’s purpose, the thing being said, and the needs and values of the audience. When our students speak and write, we want them to analyze their own communication to assess how best they might entertain, inform, and persuade their audiences. Whether it is freshmen learning to craft effective thank-you notes, sophomores preparing original tales to share with 1st graders or working on their Agents of Change projects, juniors arguing readings of American poetry, or seniors laboring over the personal statements at the center of their college applications, they are all learning to be more persuasive through their analyses of specific rhetorical contexts and their burgeoning control of the written word.
Like Aristotle, we realize that we run the risk of creating powerful sophists capable of persuasion without virtue, but we also understand that mastery of rhetoric is central to the perpetuation of civilization. As the rhetorician Isocrates noted in his Antidosis, “We are in no respect superior to other living creatures; nay, we are inferior to many in swiftness and in strength and in other resources; but, because there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other and to make clear to each other whatever we desire, not only have we escaped the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts.”
As we send Catlin Gabel students out into the world, we recognize that some of them will make laws, invent arts, and found cities, but we hope that all of them will be able to apply their mastery of rhetoric to improve the communities of which they have become part. We know that many of them will soon take a first step by beginning to teach their college classmates the lessons they have learned at Catlin Gabel about rhetoric.
Upper School English teacher Art Leo came to Catlin Gabel in 1995.
|Paul Dickinson and students in science class|
Everyone knows that Catlin Gabel students do a lot of writing in English, history, and foreign language classes, but a considerable amount of writing is required in science classes, too. Just as there are different expectations and writing forms in English and history, we teach a particular form—the formal lab report—in science.
While intuition is a nice faculty to possess, it is not a basis on which to draw dependable conclusions. One of the primary goals of teaching the formal lab report is to help students who have relied heavily on intuition to develop a more logical, provable way of reasoning and to present that in writing.
We may ask students to carry out an experiment that already has a procedure to follow. We assign such experiments to make important concepts more understandable to students who would otherwise just read it in a text. Another kind of experiment is one that students design themselves. Both kinds of experiments require a clear, concise statement of purpose to show that they know exactly what they are looking for.
This purpose statement needs careful attention. Often we ask students to go back and reword the statement so that it is concise and accurate. Once the purpose is clearly worded, a student may come up with a hypothesis in which he or she will try to predict the outcome, backed always by logical reasons. Writing a purpose and hypothesis for a science experiment is similar to writing a thesis statement for a history paper. It must be accurately worded because the writer is about to gather together facts that will support a thesis or discredit it.
Another important part of experimentation is the background section of the report. Students bring in ideas, concepts, and equations learned in previous labs, class discussions, experiments, or life experiences that they will use in the current experiment. This section is, perhaps, the most difficult for freshmen. They are not yet used to the cumulative nature of their science work and are often used to studying for the test and then forgetting much of what they have learned. Time for reflection is not a common occurrence in our busy society, but this forced reflection reinforces the ideas they have learned. The more ideas they remember, the easier it is to write about the connections in their next background section.
Just as students might hear, “What is the evidence?” in a history class, they must report supporting evidence in science. We teach them to organize their data in a table to make it easier—for both writer and reader—to better comprehend and recognize patterns. Here students learn to decide if they have gathered data that answers their purpose and supports their hypothesis, or if significant errors make it impossible to draw conclusions, with a clear explanation of their calculations and reasoning.
At first these explanations must be good enough to satisfy their reader, the teacher, but eventually students internalize this process, and they can realize for themselves if they have made their point and supported it. This process often takes more than a year, especially if it is the teacher making the student work on it, and not just the student wanting to improve.
Finally, in a discussion we ask the students to look back at their purpose and think again about what they set out to prove. Then they summarize what they really found, after all the little glitches and errors, and conclude whether they accomplished their purpose, and whether their hypotheses were correct. We feel that students really learn to carry an orderly approach and thought process into all of their work in science because of the orderly and thoughtful way they are asked to write about it.
Upper School science teacher Paul Dickinson (“Mr. D”) has been a faculty member since 1969.
By Jens Tamang '07
|Jens Tamang '07|
As editor in chief of Pegasus, the Upper School’s literary magazine, it wasn’t my wrenchingly awkward adoration of literary minutiae, nor my manic demand for creative control, that endangered it. Rather, it was the combination of my die-hard desire to Do Well and the fact that I did not know what was expected of me. Like a cow that only knows it ought to make a sound, I spent the first months on staff barking when I should have been mooing. Aimee Bender, the first 2006–07 Jean Vollum Distinguished Writer, taught me how to moo.
Bender is a magical realist who presents supernatural occurrences in a nonchalant fashion. Angels, in her work, are just as unremarkable as cabbages. One story, “The Healer,” concerned two girls, one with the hand of ice who possessed the ability to heal ailments upon contact, while the other with her hand of fire could only cause harm. After her reading in the Cabell Center, Bender led a workshop in our creative writing class. “A hand of fire, a hand of ice. What did you mean by that?” asked one student.
To anyone who has never undergone four years with the Catlin Gabel English department, this seems like a perfectly legitimate question. However, we were told never to trust what artists say about their art. Why? Because, as Jean Cocteau once said, asking an artist to talk about her work is like asking a plant to discuss horticulture.
A smug grin stretched across Bender’s face. “A symbol is just a provocative image,” she said, running her bony hands through her coarse black hair. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
After the class I approached her. “Okay,” I said. “I know you said that the whole fire-ice thing doesn’t mean anything. But it does, doesn’t it? It must.”
Bender cocked a brow, stood up, put her jacket on. She placed a hand on my shoulder. “I liked your story,” she said, in reference to an exercise we had done. “But if you don’t relax the way you think about writing you are going to wear yourself out.” And on that note she exited.
I stood in the classroom for a moment, stunned. Relax, I thought. I wonder what she means by that.
When I decided that Bender probably meant “relax” in its most literal sense I decided to attempt writing a poem that had no preconceived meaning, symbols, motifs, or themes. One day, riding the bus to school, I watched a girl ogling a young man. She fixated on him and looked so calm and unwavering, like a flame in the dark undisturbed by wind. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, nor could I ignore the placid beauty of the boy sitting near her. She to him, me to her, and he somewhere else entirely, we were a love chain. I was so caught up in the moment that when I bit into my sandwich I neglected to see that I had wrapped it in cellophane.
I documented it and submitted a poem describing the incident to the Pegasus editorial staff, and it was published. Hell, I thought, if this relaxing business works for poetry why shouldn’t it work for everything else?
I began to ease my death grip on Pegasus. English is a language, not a religion, and somewhere along the line I forgot that. Production became much smoother, and Pegasus became a success. I shudder to think what might have happened had Bender not shaken me loose. I still have to remind myself from time to time take it easy, to mellow out, and I don’t always succeed. When I do manage to lighten up, things always seem to work out better for me and those I care about. Go figure.
An American studies major (and diving team member) at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jens Tamang writes for various publications and is working on a documentary film.
In and Of It
Jens Tamang's "relaxed" poem from the 2007 Pegasus
A young man, sitting on the bus,
Is reading a book, open in his lap.
She sees him there, she who rides the bus each morning,
And she places his face amongst the infinite faces of boys
That maunder in her head like beads of oil in water.
Which of them does she like the best?
The homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
They needn’t have Adonis lines and beefy shoulders to be beautiful:
This boy has neither; yet, she is entranced by the curves of his chin,
His incarnadine cheeks, his privet face stands out from the rest.
If you had him, Miss, what would you do with him?
For I see you.
To you, you are holding his hand.
To you, you are stroking his hair.
To you and to no one else.
You saw him and loved him:
The light from the window illuminating his skin,
His hair hanging over his eyes like the vines of a willow,
Or moss off an oak.
Her unseen hand passed over his body, obeisantly caressing him.
Please excuse my asking, Miss, but you see:
My mother loathed those certain slants of skin-illuminating light
So excuse me, excuse me, for asking, but
Is he worth these thirty seconds of your morning commute?
And, to you, what is anything worth at all?
And, might thriftiness be your call?
And, are your thoughts just foofaraw?
Her unseen lips touched the back of his neck.
I was there, on that bus when her lips came down.
I was attempting to eat a sandwich.
I was watching her watching him; when,
As I bit down, into my sandwich, I realized,
Amongst the myriad people watching each other,
That my sandwich was still wrapped in fine clear layers of cellophane.
I saw teeth marks in the plastic. Then, looking up, I noticed,
In a moment gone by, they had disappeared (to their stops most likely),
And then, I was alone.
But, luckily for me, loneliness is an art
And I do it very well.
"The Last Day"
It’s over, one of these days.
I’ve realized this only now, just as
I’m peeling away the skin of a grapefruit
And my tongue is wet with bitter anticipation.
I’m wondering if that day will bring leaves,
Skittering across the sidewalk, like those little orange
Plastic cars we used to race across the porch—
Or maybe it will bring sticky, salty, sidewalk heat,
The kind that bites the virgin skin of toes.
And what about the roaring women of that day?
Mouths twisted, tears skating down cheeks,
Because suddenly there are babies,
And two minutes before, there was, really, nothing.
That’s what it is, right?
Birth and death every second?
Or are the rates all topsy-turvy these days?
Twisted and arbitrary, kind of like this tree—
Bent-backed, knot-kneed, crouched outside my window?
By an 11th grade student
"Four Twinkling Stars"
Little clear diamonds still twinkling
in a dusty black spiral, engulfing
but those four gems,
spinning almost cheerily
until they gravitate to the center
and morph into more brilliant
The explosion is shattering,
a million pieces of awesome light
that rock and vibrate the darkness
until everything is more
than it ever could have been
By a 6th grade student
"This Dark is For the Light"
I’ve always loved small spaces, safely surrounded and enclosed by something. Wrapped in warmth and simple physical darkness rather than the expansive suffocating kind. This dark is different. This dark is loving. This dark is only dark to make you brighter, letting your light filter through, filling the space with each breath you take, until you are breathing light. Then your entire world is bright, shining bright, and you know.
And you know too, that when you step back into the world, you can hold it. Imagine sitting low to a ground that is rich with the scent of chocolate mulch and the subtleties of Hyacinth, waiting in this diffuse willow-dusk, surrounded by singular beautiful branches, which filter the light softly through, making it dance, filling the space until it can’t be filled anymore. And you are breathing light. Light from a sky that continues even beyond the Earth’s imagination. And you can feel it, exactly like that.
By a 12th grade student
"Where I'm From"
I am from wide-angle lenses
Seeing everything, everything present
If just from a different perspective
I am from swimming in blackberry thorns
From finding old pathways
Lost to time
I am from the chunk of asphalt on a blown-apart road
The road that I walked down for miles
I am from collecting that chunk
From placing it on top of my dresser
I am from short cuts and long-cuts
As long as they’re out of the way
From climbing cliffs to avoid the crowded path
That wide, flat, paved track
Which carries everyone, everyone but me
I am from running
Not to run, but to get away
I am from the yearning to escape
The yearning to be free
Free from life’s maelstrom
The hustle and bustle that is omnipresent
This is my time to go away
I am from that which strives to act
From the things which are unspoken yet understood
From the passage to danger, to triumph
From the secrets of nature
But that is more than I am
I am from collapsing on long journeys
Too tired to carry on
I am from waterfalls and crumbling cliffs
From recklessness and adventure
But also from the relief of safety after a long,
From fresh-cooked dinners
And my homemade puff pastry
I am from memories, photos, and my family
I am from me
By an 8th grade student
Death penalty debate statement excerpt: pro
The death penalty may be cruel, but certainly not unusual, as the ways in which it is practiced are not unusual at all. Society changes over time, so what may be seen as unusual changes as well—for example, whipping. It was considered normal when the Constitution was written, but now it is seen as unusual. A punishment for a crime is unusual if it is ridiculously high for a crime lower than it, such as life imprisonment for felony. But as the death penalty is far milder than the crimes for which it is given, it is not unusual. It is also not in violation of Amendment V of the Constitution, which states that no one shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”
By an 8th grade student
Death penalty debate statement excerpt: con
The death penalty is a “cruel and unusual” punishment, and an ineffective crime deterrent. It needs to be abolished before more innocent people are executed. For every eight people put to death, one innocent person is released from death row. The system in deciding punishments is not equally balanced with the crime committed, and the whole system is rampant with racial prejudice. Also, while there, people can change, and regret what they have done, but are still put to death. When someone is sentenced to death, they are not only going to be executed, they will have to also stay on death row for many years, and pray to be freed. . . .
By an 8th grade student
Excerpt from science lab report
The charged strips of acetate and vinylite attracted and repelled various bits of string. To quote Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” [Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Sc. II)]. Although we cannot pass this off as a scientific fact, it is logical to assume that a name has little to no effect on the object to which it is tied. This led my partner and me to believe that changing the name of the charges would change nothing about the nature of the charges themselves.
By a 10th grade student, in answer to a question about whether changing the names of positive and negative electric charges would affect how these charges act
"Its a Boy?"
As babies we sleep and occasionally coo
Boys and girls both, our differences few
But similarities end in just a blink
When boys dress in blue and girls dress in pink
We face gender choices at every growth stage
And they powerfully shape us into old age
Dolls and cute animals aren’t much of a hit
For boys dangerous toys are a much better fit
Boys hide their emotions and shed fewer tears
Putting away feelings and childish fears
Watching ballet is tough for a boy
Nothing can beat a slam-dunk by Roy
Passing, shooting, or kicking—boys want control
In all types of sports being first is the goal
Shopping for clothes is not a boy’s cup of tea
Unless shopping includes buying games for the Wii
No make-up or heels or dresses with lace
For boys it’s just clean and no food on the face
What’s important to boys is big, brave, and strong
And in a perfect world to eat all day long
But is all this true? Is this who boys are?
If it is, then we haven’t come far
The male nurse or secretary, the stay-at-home dad
Breaking gender stereotypes should make us all glad
We are impossible to classify
Except girls are xx and boys are xy
By a 6th grade student
I can feel the difference in the terminal’s width.
It’s smaller and we’re bigger. We take up too
Escalators that had appeared dormant wake to
take us up, too fast
Unloading its cargo, it drops us off like
baggage on the empty floor above.
It’s smaller and we’re bigger. Why do we take
up so much space?
We sink into the thick green carpeting,
swallowed whole and unable to speak.
We’re like our cargo, dropped us off like
baggage on the empty floor above.
Our smiles flicker off, like the open signs on
the shop doors.
The thick green carpeting cushions the blow,
swells our throats until they are tight.
The calm voice from the PA matches the air
conditioning, soothing our dry skin like lotion.
Somehow we can’t turn our smiles back on.
Her eyes are weighed down with fear but she
keeps a brave face on. We all do.
The air conditioning soothes our wet eyes
when she turns away while the woman on the
PA tells us everything will be alright.
Our words run through the conveyor belt,
making sure nothing sharp or metal enters our
We keep on our brave faces and don’t look up.
I watch her plane roll on to the runway.
Our conversation is littered with tiny shrapnels,
no matter how hard we try and keep them out.
Escalators that had appeared dormant wake to
take us farther from her. It’s too fast.
We watch her plane from the empty shell of
the parking garage.
I can feel the difference in the terminal’s width.
By an 11th grade student
Of Chang Tuan’s cats,
Cloud Pattern was the loneliest.
She would look upon her brothers
Silk Brocade’s fur was the softest in all of
Drive-Away-Vexation’s dainty paws were the swiftest rat-catchers
in all the land.
Purple Blossom had the most gentle mew ever heard in that dynasty.
Guardian of the East’s ears reached the farthest; she heard the
cream bowl hit the tile before it had.
White Phoenix’s tail was the bushiest and waved about a great deal.
And lastly, her brother, Ten Thousand Strings of Cash.
He was the most well-loved among the staff and visitors at
Chang’s house for his golden eyes.
Of all those magnificent felines, those careful creatures
Cloud Pattern was the loneliest.
His fur was often matted;
His paws, at times, had failed at Cat’s domestic duty.
His voice was loud, and screeched at Master Tuan’s ears;
He was always last in the scramble for the cream, since he
never sensed the delicate clink of porcelain on tile.
His tail was thin, and oft hung limp;
And, above all, Cloud Pattern’s eyes were not gold;
They were green, green on his stained fur.
And for these reasons,
Cloud Pattern was Master Tuan’s favorite.
By an 11th grade student, inspired by Wang Chih, 1100 C.E.
"The Night Painter"
sweeps over my face
cleansing my soul
twirling and dancing in the wind
bringing on a heavy sadness
in the water colored air
with gently painted strokes
dipped from a stormy ocean
Grey wisps which kiss the silent leaves
flying through the stars
continuing on forever
as I stare out my window
on a dark night
By a 6th grade student
"The Two Aliens"
Once there were two aliens and they liked pie. Their names were Bob and Joe. Bob looked like a shark. Joe looked like a firebreathing orange-headed wolf. It had been ten years since they blasted off the planet.
The next day they landed on a pie-covered planet. There were frog leg pies and pasta pies and spaghetti pies and bunny pies and eraser pies and underwear pies and rice pies and ball pies and seaweed pies and feather pies and hair pies and they didn’t know if they were poisonous.
They walked around to see if anybody was there to tell them if the pies were poisonous. Six years later they found some fish to tell them if the pies were poisonous. None of the pies were poisonous, so they started eating the pies. Then one day they were too full. They went to sleep and they got knocked off the planet. They did not know where they were. They were on their home planet. They wanted more pie.
By a 2nd grade student
I am a small, free-flowing river rushing through
I feel energetic as I stream over damp, mosscovered
I laugh as fish tickle me as they dart upstream.
I hear deer softly trample grass as they come
to lap up my water.
I feel frisky as I hustle over waterfalls.
I feel good when the sun heats me up on a
I feel scared and race away when bears
come lumbering in to eat my fish.
I am curious as I flow into
a larger river bound for
By a 4th grade student
Excerpt from essay "Gods Soldiers"
Eight years later, September 11 has had a larger impact on recent global history than any other date in the last five decades. Two wars, countless bombs, and endless amounts of civil unrest, misery, grief, and sorrow have defined the results of this monumental date. Dozens of nations engaged in painful arguments and arrangements, all involving the increasing interest in the Middle East and her oil. Car bombs killing hundreds explode every day in India, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, many traced back to the same causes that fueled 9/11.
I remember this date myself, although I was thousands of miles away from the catastrophe; the date was a day of shame, despair, and unity for all Americans. I recall being shuffled into the school library, and being informed of the recent tragedy just hours after the event. The nation was on red alert. I also remember knowing that my uncle worked in the World Trade Center, and I remember thinking for days that he was dead until he finally called, and notified us he had actually just taken the day off to spend time with his family. All his colleagues were dead. All their deaths in vain because of one single cause: religion.
By an 8th grade student