Friday, April 29, 2011

A Tough Love Teacher

Throughout my years as a student and later, when I became a teacher, writing had always been important to me. In fact, my love for writing would eventually lead me to become a English teacher in college.

Once I began teaching, I was shocked at the poor writing and reading skills of at least half of my students, and wondered how they had even gotten into college in the first place.

Nonetheless, I was convinced I could  make a difference; I would be the one to teach them to love what they had grown to hate: writing an essay! I was a dreamer.

But what I grew to fear and hate the most about teaching was having to grade my student's work. Even more dreadful was the day I returned their papers. Students fidgeted, their faces full of anxiety as I handed them the graded essays, the one or two A and B papers, the many C, and the few D and F ones . I had resolved early on not to mark them up with "red ink" so I used blue ink, hoping it wouldn't hurt as much.

"Class, if I didn't love you, I wouldn't even bother to write comments on your papers. I would just hand them back and let you figure out why you got the grade you did. I could just write a single word or phrase 'good job', 'you can do better' on each one. I know it hurts but take time to read my comments and you will see that many are just suggestions and not errors you have committed. I try to suggest to you how you could have made yours a stronger, better essay."

Regardless, I could see the grief in their faces. "But I worked hard on this paper", "I thought I did good", "I have never gotten a C- on any paper before!?" Were their labored responses. Sometimes, it took 10 minutes just to quiet them down afterward so I could begin the day's lesson, so I started handing the essays back at the end of the period. I always ended that period by inviting them to see me during my office hours so I could go over the comments with them individually. Few ever took up my offer.

In each batch of 25-30 students there were always 4-5 who didn't even bother to turn in a paper. I would let them slide on the first essay, but once they failed to turn in a second one, I would ask to see them after class or in my office to inquire about why. I offered them the opportunity of turning in one of the two as a "late" paper. After the third failure, I would advise them they were failing the class, and to consider "dropping" it rather than risk a failing grade.Some made a serious turn around after these interventions and began turning in their work.

Elena was one of these students. After her failure to turn in the second paper I approached her one Monday. I told her that the way she was going, she would fail the class. I would give her one more chance to turn in essay number two late, and that if she failed to do so I might consider dropping her from the course. I got the usual "I've been so busy. There's lots of stuff going on in my house. I promise I will have it on Friday."

She complied. On Friday she turned in her paper. When I read it, I was shocked to see about a 6th grade level of writing. Her spelling, the grammar, and format was atrocious. "No wonder she has not been turning in her work", I thought. After much thought, I called her to my office. "Elena, you are so far behind in your writing that honestly I can't see how you will be able to pass this course. My advice to you is to drop it, and take a lower level writing class for at least one semester and then take the course again. You can take it from me, or another instructor if you feel more comfortable."

The student was devastated. Tears welled in her eyes. "Do I have to? I promise I will work harder if you give me a chance." "Yes, but I cannot even promise you C grade in this class. This course is transferable, and If you fail it, you will have to take it again anyway?"

After a long silence she asked "Do I have to drop now? I am learning so much in your course." I hesitated and said "No, you can wait until the drop deadline", which was still over a month away, "and drop then if you want. That way you can get the most out of this course and your time will not be completely wasted." We agreed.

She stayed until the deadline and dropped the course. I felt badly. Why had I been so mean to Elena? Why was I so strict? I had passed many with a C grade, though in my heart I knew they didn't deserve it. Why not her? Of those I failed, I never most them again, but when I did, and they saw me coming on campus and pretended they didn't know me, or quickly turned in another direction. I got no joy out of failing any one of my students, with the exception of one or two. That felt good, I must admit.

I did not see Elena on campus for a couple of semesters and one day on my way to my office I heard a young girl's voice "Mr. Rios! Mr. Rios!" She smiled and we shook hands. It was Elena. "I did what you told me, Mr. Rios! I took two remedial writing classes and this semester I am taking English 1A and doing B work!" She said excitedly. "I just want to thank you. Of all the teachers I ever had, not one ever told me I had any problems with my writing. They all just passed me along giving me the impression I was doing fine. You are the only one, Mr. Rios and I want to thank you for that."

Elena had just confirmed what in my heart I knew to be true but which was a burden to admit, that too many of our students are just "passed along", products of grade inflation, by teachers who do not want to take the time, are afraid, or simply don't care enough to be honest with them. How, in good conscience were they ever allowed to pass high school, and get into college, without ensuring they had the necessary skills to survive it?

I went to my next class and collecting another pile of essays, noticed that Juan had not turned his in. "Ah, I'll talk to him next week", I assured myself and went to the teacher's lounge for a cup of coffee. It was cold outside and the fog was beginning to roll in, again.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Life's Three Great Lessons

I heard the following folktale from my son's ex-wife who was born in Michoacan, Mexico. Like many storytellers, she could not remember where she first heard it either. And true to the oral tradition, and being a writer, I have taken some generous liberties embellishing it, though they are true to the story's intent, I think.

Jose Martinez was a hard-working, middle-aged man living in a humble village, Pocacosa, in central Mexico. A man of modest means, he dreamed of someday having a job that paid enough to support his wife Concha, and his 15-yr. old boy, Pedrito.

One day at the local cantina he ran into his old friend Fermin and they had a beer for old times sake. As usual, the pair talked of the corrupt government, rising food prices and the lack of work. As they readied to part, Fermin told his friend, "Amigo, if you are in need of work, I heard of a rich Hacendado who owns a large ranch in the mountains. I am told he pays well, and employs many workers, and perhaps if you were to go to  him and ask for work, he would hire you?"  On a soiled, crumpled piece of paper, Fermin scribbled the Hacendado's name and that of his Hacienda, "La Fregadera". Jose thanked him and headed home.

But before he reached his old  jacal, his shack, Jose had made up his mind. He would do as his friend suggested, work for a year or so and return with plenty of money to finish building his house, feed his family without worry, and perhaps even send his "burro" of a son to school.

Gathering his wife and son in the run-down kitchen, he announced "I have decided to leave you for a time to look for work. Pedrito is almost a grown man and he can get a job at the marketplace, and look after you while I'm gone, vieja", he assured his wife. "But go where?" Asked the woman with grief. He showed her the crumpled note. "It is about two day's journey from here. Pack me some clothes and some beans and tortillas and I will leave in the morning."

The next day, at dawn Jose kissed his wife and son goodbye and headed up the mountain path, confident he was making the right choice. With luck, he would reach the hacienda by dark the following day.

The journey was much longer than Jose imagined and by sunset he was hungry and exhausted. He settled in for the night in a small cave he spotted on the side of the road. That night he dreamed of things he would do with the money he earned.

The next day, the path seemed endless and at sunset, seeing a boy sitting in a field he inquired, "Hey boy, how much further is it to the Haciena Fregadera?" "Not far", just follow the trail and you should be there in about an hour's time", he said pointing.

The Hacienda was gigantic, a colossal spanish colonial structure with red tile roofs. At the huge doors, Jose meekly knocked. The pretty young maid answered. "Que quiere usted, Señor?" She inquired. "May I speak to Don Fernando? I am seeking work." "Un momento", she said and disappeared. Not long after a handsome young man in a Charro suit and fine sombrero appeared. Jose humbly introduced himself. "Ah, you are looking for work, Amigo. Yes, I need workers with strong backs. See my foreman there", pointing to the bunkhouse. We shall talk of wages in the morning."

Jose, said a prayer of thanks to La Virgen of Guadalupe just before he fell to sleep that night. In the morning, Don Fernando approached him. "I will offer you 5 pesos a day. I pay monthly. You shall help tend my cattle, my horses and my sheep." They shook hands, sealing the deal.

Jose took to the work naturally and as he loved tending the animals, the days quickly passed. He was used to hard work. So on the last day of the month, Jose approached Don Fernando for his first month's wages. "Do you plan to stay on with me?" He asked. "Of course!" Jose beamed. "Then, if you want, I can save your wages for you until you decide to leave and give them to you in one large sum." Jose agreed. "What good is having the money now?" He asked himself. "Somebody might even steal it from me."

So it continued month after month. And Jose's pay increased more and more. The months flew by like pigeons to their roost until before he knew it a year had passed! In fact, it had passed so quickly that Jose began to wonder whether he could just stay on for another year. "I will have twice the money". His mind scurried to add up the amount of his wages, but he was never any good at math. "It will be more than enough", he assured himself. A lengthy letter to his wife explained his decision in detail.

When the second year had passed, Jose again approached his boss. "Patron, you have been good to me, but it is time I return home to my wife and boy". He laughed at his reference to Pedrito as  a "boy", "why he must be a young man by now", he mused. "You have been a good worker Jose. I will miss you." Reaching into his safe, he pulled out an envelope stuffed with cash. "Here, you have justly and honestly earned this." But then, he hesitated. "Jose, before I hand you your wages, I have an offer to make to you which may in truth be worth far more than these bills."

"What is he up to now?" Wondered Jose to himself. "Does my patron wish to cheat me?" But Don Fernando continued. "In lieu of your wages, I will give you three life lessons, which if strictly adhered to will bring you life long happiness. They are lasting, not like money you will quickly spend. What do you think?"

Jose was floored. The thought of returning to his family with no money was unthinkable. "They will call me a fool! The whole village will call me a pendejol!" But after deep thought, Jose surprisingly agreed to the Hacendado's deal, blurting out "Tell me what these life lessons are, tell me now!"

"You will never regret this", assured Don Fernando. "The first lesson is never to take shortcuts in life. When you find a secure path, never be tempted to take an easier or shorter one. This mistake can cost you your life. Secondly, always mind your own business. Never, ever meddle in the affairs of others; it too can be costly and dangerous. Last of all, never act upon or make important decisions when you are angry. Always wait until your anger has subsided before you act."

With that, the two embraced and said their farewells. "Oh, and one last thing, I am giving you this package but I want you to promise you will not open until you are home with your family." Having promised, Jose packed some food for the two-day journey home. He could not wait to see his wife and son.

Later that morning, he began to notice the path seemed unfamiliar, and he wondered whether he might be lost. Still he continued on until he saw some travelers coming towards him. "Amigos", he called when they neared. "I am on my way to the village of Pocacosa. Is this the way?" The men looked at each other puzzled. "Well, yes but it is the long way around. There is a shortcut just ahead which will save you hours of travel." "Gracias", Jose waved as they left and walking on soon came to a fork in the path.

"I will take this shortcut home", he decided, and began to walk it. After about an hour, he thought he heard a man moaning near some bushes. He rushed to his side. His eyes were swollen and he was beaten badly. "Amigo, que pasa aqui?" Que te paso?" "I was just beaten and robbed by bandits. They nearly killed me!" He cried. "Do not continue down this path or the same may happen to you!" At that moment, Don Fernando"s words rang like a loud bell in Jose's ears and his whole body shuddered: "Never take shortcuts in life". Tending to the man, he returned to the road he was on, vowing he would never take a shortcut again no matter what.

That night he came upon a small house not far from the path. It was dark, but he saw a light on inside, and knocked. "Buenas Noches", he greeted a gruff man who answered the door. Jose could hear other voices inside, but could not make out who they were. "I am on my way home to my village of Pocacosa and need a place to sleep tonight." The man nodded to an old shed on the side of the house.

Jose prepared a bed of straw and plastic tarp for a cover, ate and fell fast asleep thinking about the joy he would have seeing his wife and son again the next day. But about midnight, he heard some screams coming from the house. He rose, and began to make his way towards the commotion. Were they fighting? The voices grew louder and more violent and soon he heard a gunshot! "O, Dios Mio, I must go inside to help them. Someone may be hurt!" But again the voice of Don Fernando resounded "Never, ever meddle in the business of others." And he held back.

In moments, a young boy rushed out of the house towards Jose. "Señor, you must leave now! My two brothers got drunk and fought, and now one of them is dead! You are a witness and my brother has vowed he will kill you too! Go, now!!" Jose grabbed his belongings and beat it down the path, thanking God for having saved his life. "If you save me I will never meddle in the business of others", he vowed.

Having walked all night, he arrived early at his village. Jose's heart pounded and his ears began to ring with excitement and as he saw his old jacal in the distance, he began to run. Nearing the shack, he stopped and decided he would sneak up to the kitchen window and look inside first, to see what his family was up to. He slid along the walls until he was next to window, then peered inside and what he saw shocked him to his core.

Inside, stood his wife embracing a man! "So this is what she has done while I, her faithful husband, has worked like a burro to provide for her!" Rage enveloped him. He turned a darker shade of brown. His eyes watered. He pulled a knife from his waistband and began to move towards the door. "I will accost the two in this shameful act. I will kill them both!

Jose forced open the door, and stood defiantly before the two. Consuelo quickly, stepped towards him, with open arms: "Get back, you serpent!" He shouted. Who is this man?" The man slinked behind her. "I saw you both embracing through the window!?"

A smile emerged across her lips. "Jose, mi amor, that is your son Pedrito, or should I say "Pedro", who is now a man!" Pedro shouted "Papa! Papa it is me!" Jose dropped the knife as the the final message of Don Fernando's words knifed his heart: "Never act in anger. Always wait until it has subsided before you make a decision." And Jose embraced his wife and son, swooning in ecstacy.

"Come, sit, tell us all about your work on the Hacienda", she motioned to the kitchen table. "Papa, here let me take your pack, sit, rest." Minutes passed in ceaseless chatter as the trio caught up on the two year's absence. But soon, Consuelo, unable to control her curiosity asked "So, Jose exactly how much did you earn? Show us!" Jose was silent. Embarrassed. "How can I tell my wife and son I have no money?"

"Well, when it came time for my  patron to pay me, he offered an alternative. He gave me three of life's most important lessons in lieu of my wages." Jose looked for some measure of understanding from the two but they sat there with their mouths ajar. "What, no wages!?" Cried Consuelo with despair. "Life lessons??" She smirked bitterly. "We already know plenty of those!"

Jose felt stupid. Maybe he had be cheated by Don Fernando. Suddenly, Pedro noted the package in his father's pack. "Papa, what is in the package, open it?" Jose was surprised. "What package?" He had forgotten all about it. "Do not open it until you have arrived home with your family", his patron had told him.

Placing the package on the table, he cut the string and unwrapped it. Inside was a circular loaf of bread. "Well, at least we have some bread it eat!" Hissed Consuelo sarcastically. With his knife, Jose parted the loaf. "Papa, look there is a letter inside, open it!" Jose slowly opened the envelope and began to read out loud.

"Jose, you have been a faithful and hardworking servant and for that I am eternally grateful. I am a rich man but I was once poor like you and have never forgotten my roots. I know that I led you to believe that you had chosen my life lessons over your wages, but here is all the money you rightfully earned. May God bless you and your family. I also hope the life lessons will serve you well. (Don Fernando de Cascabel)."

And indeed, in the envelope was the entire amount which Jose had earned over the two years. Jose, Consuelo and Pedro thanked God and ate the bread, in a sort of communion ritual. It was the best bread the family had ever eaten.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Perserverence: The World's Greatest Dishwaher

Many years ago I read (or heard), a great story about perseverance and determination that I found both hilarious and enlightening, one which I have recounted to my students many times over the years.
The parable redefines our defunct Western notion of what learning is and how it takes place. 

I no longer know how much of it is from the original account and how much I have deleted or flat made up, but isn't that the stuff of oral tradition anyway?

It seems there was a group of Japanese students had just graduated from high school, discussing what they were going to do with their lives. "I think I'll go on to an university" said one. "Me, I think I will work at my father's mill", chimed another. "I think I will marry", said a third, "and have lots of kids". "I have no idea", added a fourth.

All eyes turned to the fifth boy, Miyamoto who blurted out "I want to become the country's greatest swordsman!"

They all exploded into laughter. "You must be joking!?" They scoffed. "No, no I am dead serious. I heard that high in the mountains, there is a small monastery where monks teach this ancient art. Why, don't we all go?"

They stared at him in amazement, but the boy was serious. "Come on" he said, "we can put together some provisions and head out tomorrow morning." One by one, they slowly agreed to join him. "I can just see us all, great swordsmen. People will step out of our path, and bow at us with respect!"

The next morning the five set out with the highest of expectations towards that great unknown. Miyamoto led the way with great confidence. By noon, the group was tired and thirsty and sat down to rest and eat. "How much farther is it asked the first? "Not much", answered Miyamoto, Just over those hills."

By mid-after noon, the weary boys rested again. "Is it much farther?" Asked one. "Probably just around that bend", assured Miyamoto.  At sunset the group set up camp and slept like never in their young lives, there in the thick woods, under a starlit sky. They each dreamed of what the dim future held for them.

The next morning they arose refreshed and ready to make the final assault on the monastery. But by mid-morning the third one began to openly complain, suspecting the quintet might be lost. Miymamoto then reassured them saying "Trust me friends, it can't be much farther", and they plodded forward. But the grumbling continued. "Admit it, Miyamoto, we are lost aren't we? Said the fourth.  "Any fool can see that!"

Miyamoto stalled. He was lost but had a confidence that fate would open the correct path for them. But the first, totally dispaired said "We are fools for following Miyamoto into the forest! And I for one, have had it! I am returning to our village. Who will go with me?" They all stared at one another, not wanting to be the next to admit defeat.

When it was clear no one else would go with him, he decisively turned and headed down the trail back to the village.

"Let him go", said Miyamoto. "We shall not give up so easily", and the four ambled on into the ever rising mountain trail. By nightfall, a second one began to complain. "We should have joined our friend and gone home. We are hoplessly lost!" But Miyamoto pleaded: "Stay with me till morn, and if by then we do not arrive at our destination, we will all return to the village." That night, their dreams turned into nightmares, dark and dreadful.

But by mid-morn the next day, Miyamoto looked worried, knowing his friends were losing hope and that indeed they were hopelessly lost. "Shouldn't be too much further now", he said meekly. "You said that yesterday!" Shouted the second. "You're all fools to continue", he moaned, and bowing his head he began to trudge in the direction of the village.

That night, Miyamoto said to the the remaining three, "In my heart, I know we are on the  path to victory. But let's all give it one more day, and if by noon tomorrow we are no closer to the monastery, I too will give up and we can all go home."

By noon on the third day, it was obvious they were no closer to their goal. "I know this is the right path" mumbled Miyamoto, refusing to quit despite his pledge to the others. "If you two wish to quit, I will not hold it against you." The two friends stared at the ground for a long while, but only one headed down the mountain trail to the safety of the village. "I will stay one more day with you, Miyamoto", said the other. "But tomorrow if we have not reached your monastery, I too will go."

That evening the two bedded down. "Maybe this was just an absurd and unrealistic dream", Miyamoto thought but did not voice to his friend. "Stupid boys", voices from the woods seemed to taunt them. "Did you hear that!? Whispered the friend. "It was just the wind", Miyamonto falsely reassured his faithful companion.

About noon the next day the duo saw a large structure in the mist. "Come on!!" Hollered Miyamoto, galloping towards it. I knew it! I knew we would find the place if we just didn't give up!" Arriving at he entrance of the monastery, Miyamoto banged on the huge wooden doors.

In a few moments, a small unassuming monk answered. "What do you want?" "Well sir", said Miyamoto we are from the village below and we have come here so that you could train us to become great swordsmen." The monk shook his head smiling. "It is a tragedy you have come such a long way, but you are mistaken, we do not train swordsmen here. Go home", he said tersely, slamming the heavy doors behind him.

The pair was stunned. "And to think I believed you", uttered the the remaining friend in disgust. "I should have joined the others!" "Wait, wait", pleaded Miyamoto. "Let's knock again, maybe the old fellow didn't understand me?" So Miyamoto knocked again, and again the same monk answered the door. "You again? What do you want?" He demanded.

And again Miyamoto intoned "We want to become great swordsmen. Please train us." At his point the monk reached for a bamboo stick he had behind the door, and in one fell swoop struck both boys on the back, knocking them to the ground. "Go home! You are grossly mistaken! We do no such training here!" And slammed the doors behind him, even harder.

Reeling in pain, Miyamoto's friend moaned, "I can take no more. I am leaving with or without you!" Miyamoto, not yet ready to concede, embraced the last of his friends. "Be well, my friend", I hope we see one another someday, but I am convicted this is the right place for me." Soon, the last of his friends disappeared into the tree line.

More determined than ever, Miyamoto knocked again, this time backing up a safe distance from the door. The same monk appeared. "What do you want?!" He said in a gruff voice. "I have told you to go away?"  "Sir, I know what you said, but I truly want to become a great swordsman. Please allow me to train a while with you. I promise you will not regret it. If I fail, you can send me away."

Suddenly a monstrous, almost mischievous grin appeared on the monk's face. "You are absolutely right, my young friend. We do train the art of swordsmanship here, but the training is rigorous. Are you sure you want to undertake such a quest?" "Oh, I promise you sir. I will work hard and do anything you ask me to and will not complain!" "Anything? Are you sure of that?" "Yes, anything."

The monk then invited the new trainee to follow him, leading him to a grand kitchen, with an equally grand sink full of dirty dishes and utensils. "Start washing." He pointed to the mountainous stack and Miyamoto joyously entered the task, and the monk left. "Tomorrow, my training will probably begin", he mused. That night he slept as never before, proud that he had not succumbed to his doubts and fears, like the others who given up so easily.

The next morning at dawn the monk banged on his cot with the cane stick."Wake up sleepy head, time to go to work!" But again, he led the young inductee into the kitchen. "There", pointing to the mountain of dirty dishes, "Wash," and walked out of the roon, But just as Miyamoto, sure his training would begin today, was about to ask why, he remembered his promise not to complain so he began on the pile of dirty dishes. "Any moment now, the monk will probably come in and tell me when my training will begin," he consoled himself. Yet, at dusk, as he painfully washed the the final dish, there was no word from the monk.

On the third day, the monk's cane again rudely roused him at dawn. Miyamoto began to hate that cane! In the kitchen, the priest again commanded "wash", pointing to the pile of dirty dishes, seemingly higher than the previous day's stack. "This is ridiculous" hissed the novice, then recoiled lest the monk might hear his complaint. "Did you say something?" Asked the monk. "No, no sir I was just clearing my throat." Again, the monk left him to his day's labor.

But that evening, as Miyamoto was washing the last plate, the monk slithered into the kitchen and with his cane stick, struck a mighty blow to Miyamoto's back, knocking him to the floor, and without a word, walked out of the room! "Damn this priest!" Cried Miyamoto in pain, longing to rush after the monk and give him a piece of his mind. But he again recalled his vow not to complain, biting his tongue.

The next morning, as Miyamoto began on yet another stack of dishes, he had had enough. "He will not strike me again with that cursed cane! I will be ready for him when I wash the last dish". He listened to every sound, and jerked at every shadow. He was becoming a finely tuned machine and was growing proud of himself. But at mid afternnon, just as Miyamoto marveled over his newly acquired sensory acuteness, the monk slid into the kitchen unannounced and cracked him viciously across his back, exiting the room without a word. The pain was excruciating. "Damned that priest!!" Thought Miyamoto. "I'll be damned if this decrepit old excuse for a  monk is going to catch me unaware tomorrow!!. I'll show him, he can't fool me."

But each day the priest caught Miyamoto at the precise moment the lad even momentarily let down his defenses, but one day weeks later, just when the boy was ready to give up his quest to become Japan's greatest swordsman, sensing the presence of the monk in the room, he turned and deftly caught the priest's cane in mid-air, just before it slammed across his back!

"Well done, my son", announced the monk proudly: "Now, we are ready to begin your training!"

Miyamoto Musachi (1584-1645) would go on to become Japan's greatest swordsman. with statues throughout the country honoring him.