Essential Wisdom from the Fall of 2011
It was over two weeks ago that that I shaved my wannabe goatee (I know what you're thinking: Why would you do that? It looked so cool! Well, it was my imperative after playing the Resolution Game, the game where you get to pick other people's New Year's Resolutions!TM So thanks, Aimee. I hope you are following through and no longer texting at meals...) and hopped on the first of three buses for a Megatrip from Manchester, NH to Washington, DC, just in time to avoid the primary but not so soon that I didn't score a Fred Karger Frisbee from one of his minions passing them out at the bus stop (Fred's an unknown fringe candidate and he's super-duper; yeah, I'm supporting him -- he gave me a Frisbee).
In DC, I've been working for a small nonprofit that teaches poetry at Hart Middle School. Nine out of ten students here receive free or reduced-price lunch. Ten out of ten have to pass their bags through a metal detector on the way in. The school is stationed in a rough section of town, to say the least; on my third day, gunshots went off outside the building. Accustomed to Oberlin, my first thought was what are those crazy hippies setting off fireworks for now?
These are some seriously unprivileged kids we're talking about, and not all of them attend our after-school program to hone their poetic craft. Many of them are just looking for a place to go hang out with friends and get a free snack, which is exactly what the Workshop is happy to provide if it keeps them off the streets (the free snack is what keeps me off the streets). Still, the atmosphere and audience make the poetry teaching a bit harder than it's been in previous gigs of mine. Redirection and motivation are essential (as are mad skills at Uno and Zobmondo [would you rather always have to simultaneously pick your nose when speaking to someone or only be able to speak ten words a day?], which we play after the poems have been written). The best strategy for leading off-topic discussions (such as whether I'm whiter than Taylor Swift) back to the poem prompt is to ask lots of questions. Once you get the students talking, you discover they've got way heavier material for their poetry than you do ("Woe is I, an undergrad most slighted; too many damn exams and all my love is unrequited"). Oddly enough, they often shrug off my entreaties to put the harsh details of their lives in their poetry. A recent prompt dealt with writing about where you come from & who "your peoples" are. In a conversation that developed with one student I was trying to goad along, I learned that both his brother and his cousin are facing the death penalty.
On a less heartbreaking note, I also learned that saying "dude" is uncool. I say "dude" at least twice per sentence, so it looks like I'm doomed to the bottom of the social hierarchy here at Hart Middle School. Fortunately, most of the students still seem to like me. I think what a lot of folks forget when dealing with young people is that the more you treat them like adults, the more they'll live up to it. A number of the kids in there are two or more years behind grade level, so some of them almost are adults. There are notable exceptions concerning the general affability towards yours truly, but I believe in those cases I've just got to stick around longer to earn their respect in the long term. Alas, I'm taking off for Manchester again in a week, where Fred managed to snag a nifty 485 votes while I was gone.
I haven't managed to hit any of the DC staples yet (except for Filter Coffeehouse, where I met up yesterday with two very good pals of mine, the optimistic artist Abby Squire and the cynical scientist Justin Chen), having wholly dedicated myself since arriving to the finishing of fellowship applications and the consumption of Clif Kid Z Bars for fuel. Last weekend I had a span of five free days (our program runs only Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday due to less-than-ideal funding -- and thank you, Mr. King, for your well-timed birthday) and wrote for over fifteen hours each day, revising pitches, working out final details on budgets and timelines, and trying to get a program plan longer than all my blog posts put together compressed into two pages.
A big batch was due this past Wednesday, and my plan for the following day was to celebrate by watching Minority Report. Instead, I began working on more grants because, honestly, I find my current goals even more exciting than watching Tom Cruise beat up bad guys. Though I've started to grind my teeth again in my sleep, my passion for bringing this nonprofit to life (and lots of Clif Kid Z Bars [only $8.00 for 18 of them -- it's a steal!]) has carried me through Mission 1 of the launch plan and is diminished not a bit going into Mission 2.
I dare say the work has been far better-going here than it could have been at home, not because of the absence of fun temptations in DC (indeed, Washington provides many more of those, lacking only nearby mountains named after an Indian word for "woman's breast"), but because I live in a cottage where someone can talk upstairs and you hear them down in my room (a corner of the basement with a dirty slat of window and no desk or overhead light), I have to yell at someone every fifteen seconds to shut the door since they're letting out the scroogian quantity of heat, and our toilets usually throw in the towel halfway through their sacred task. Not to mention the fact (which I do mention, to everyone I talk to, since I find it so remarkable) that my powerlifter brother sometimes goes out into the backyard with his 200-pound pet rock (technically known as an Atlas Stone) and grapples it up his body onto his shoulder before dropping it and shaking the house.
In DC, I've been living with an awesomely munificent couple in Alexandria (thanks, Carol and Dave!) with a bedroom on the second floor and the use of my own bathroom (with a real go-getter of a toilet). Carol is a '65 alum whom I reached out to through ObieWeb, scrambling for a place to stay three days before I was due to arrive in the District. I can't imagine how people make it through an Oberlin career without using the alumni network. It's surprising how many alumni there are, too, and the frequency with which you can run into them. While waving signs at an intersection in Seattle this past November, a man who stood twenty feet away waving signs for his reelection to the School Board came over to talk with our frozen little gang and saw my Oberlin jacket. I thought he was pulling my leg when he stated, quite matter-of-factly, that he'd gone to Oberlin until he told me he was the uncle of my lovely classmate Julia Maier. A few days later, the Washington Bus swung by our November Election Party and Toby Crittenden (the Ms. Frizzle of the WB) noticed my Oberlin jacket and informed me he too was an Obie. This was particularly funny to me because a few months prior, he'd hosted an event -- Candidate Survivor -- that featured me expertly ripping pages off a flip chart to accompany a very important public service announcement my candidate was delivering, and then-stranger Toby came to my aid when my ripping got too ferocious. See, Obies even help each other out when they don't know they're both Obies. Dean Kalyn calls our alumni "the most generous people" she's ever met, and her words ring true to me.
Meeting someone who shares your alma mater somehow inspires instant camaraderie. On a run the other day, a guy biking past caught sight of OBERLIN TRACK & FIELD splayed across my sweatshirt. "Oberlin!" he said excitedly, and I was so thrown off guard by someone shouting something besides "fag" at me on a run that the only thing I could think to say in response was "Cool!" I'd worn that same sweatshirt to church a few days earlier, and after mass a young woman named Kate came up to me and said her father used to be the track and field coach at Oberlin.
Like how many Obies find families in co-ops or sports teams, you might think of alumni as our extended family. Family members care about one another even if nobody's done anything to earn it. My recommendation is to buy an Oberlin sweatshirt (even if you're not an Obie) and wear it everywhere, including the shower. It'll help other Obies identify you and lead to a bunch of conversations and new pals.
So those are my Words of Wisdom, which I'm deftly using as a segue to get to the actual point of this post because I'm in danger (already guilty) of doing exactly what I did last time; I honestly didn't mean to talk about finals for more than a few paragraphs in my last post, but I had more to say than I thought I did. The original idea was to share a few Words of Wisdom from last semester, and though I've gotten in my own way once again, I'll be darned if I'm going to quit just because I've gone off topic for a thousand words or so. And so, before I can find some more ado to play with, I present to you -- rather abruptly -- fall 2011's Quotes that Struck and Stuck with Jakey.
This past semester introduced its fair share of tough days, and I would roll these words around in my mind like Baoding balls when I felt like pulling a Lamoureux toilet and taking a breather halfway through an important mission. It's easy to be great when it's easy to be great, but what separates the champs from the chumps is that the champs power through it even when it sucks and it's hard. As my Dad says, particularly of writing fiction, "If it were easy, everybody would do it."
Ray makes the list twice. Before practice one day, he showed us a letter he received in college from an elderly painter named Dean Shaw, who'd read an article about Ray's intense and unrelenting training regimen and his life philosophy. In the brief letter, Dean expressed his admiration of Ray's work ethic and drive and said that because of Ray, he was going to sketch ten times more. Calling the letter one of his most treasured possessions, Ray implored us to make every decision "intentionally," to live our lives in a way that "makes the Dean Shaws of the world sketch ten times more." I'm not sure I fully captured the essence of that speech here. Did you get the chills?
Dammit. Well, believe me, it was good.
What an intriguing observation. No commentary needed.
Talking with Shirley (aka "Mama 'Sco") after the Sexy XC Pageant as our funds were being counted, I was saddened to hear that she no longer allows herself to get attached to the students she works with. A few years back, she developed a close friendship with a certain student and even went to see him graduate, then never heard from him again. This serves as a poignant reminder of the importance, in our busy lives, of keeping in touch with the people that care about us.
You probably skipped this one, so let me summarize it for you, the most mind-blowing insight (of many) from macroeconomics this semester: The dismal economic conditions in Germany that led to the rise of the Nazi party can be linked back to poor policy implemented by the seven people on the Fed's Board of Governors.
The terrifying thing about life is that what you do matters a lot more than you may want it to. The unimaginable pressure of power.
Also maybe read that again if you doubt the usefulness of good economists.
I pulled the quote from its ironic citation in the Times reporting Gupta's arrest. Good advice from a bad guy.
Though the desire to help your buddies goes without saying, proactively striving to have a hand in the success of an ever-larger circle isn't necessarily the natural human instinct. But as someone who wants to help the world in a big way, how stupid is it not to start by giving minor boosts to the people around me? Plus, I want as big an "in-group" as possible, and I definitely want to see my friends become powerful and famous. If I can contribute to that in any way, how cool is that? In that vein, READERS UNDER 20, CHECK THIS OUT! Makes me wish I was born later (thanks¸ Mom and Dad, you couldn't have held off for another six months?), or that I'd found the site sooner...
Gupta's words (or my interpretation thereof) speak to a conscious effort to help even acquaintances, and since Reshard's a longtime friend, the following example isn't ideal, but it does illustrate another benefit of keeping your eyes tuned for others' interests. Link-hopping around the web for ideas, I stumbled upon a site I thought might be helpful for my friends Reshard & Jack to know about, since they're launching a website of their own next year. Reshard already knew about the site, but he sent me one in return that I didn't know about and which led to more productive link-hopping and resource-gathering on my end. In short, my attempt to help him helped me.
Long story short, in order to get the conviction the prosecutor withheld evidence that would have resulted in Joe D'Ambrosio being found not guilty. When your purpose is no longer your goal, when it's replaced by a self-serving thirst for professional success, people suffer. Father Neil is a great speaker and I found this line returning to my mind over the next month, echoing my man C.S. Lewis: "It is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began."
Most of the priestly wisdom I receive comes from Sacred Heart's sagacious Bob Cole, who frequently presides at Oberlin's Newman services. A recent bit of his wisdom: "What you bring to Christmas is what you celebrate," an intriguing variation on the standard "remember the reason for the season" homily, worth mentioning here because it calls to mind the Oberlin experience. "What you bring is what you celebrate" is a lot like "what you put into it is what you get out," and this is definitely true for a college career. The more work you invest in a class, the higher your educational dividends, even if your grade doesn't always reflect that. The cool thing about Oberlin is that, perhaps unlike Christmas (which feels quite a bit like a regular day if you don't approach it meaningfully), everything it offers makes you want to work harder and get involved; it's hard to come here and remain uninspired. Even if they don't get to finish a assigned book during a class, you'll often find Obies reading it to the end after the semester.
There are dozens of other quotes that deserve a place here, but I want to slough off some of the work on you. Did anything stick in your head this semester, any WoW that you found guiding your behavior or serving as inspiration when the going got gruff? Please share it below for everybody's benefit! I think at last count my readership wasn't quite on par with that of David Brooks, so this might not generate as many responses as his call for Life Reports, but it would still -- nah, I'm only saying that to be modest. This project is gonna crash Oberlin's server.