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Ridiculous Things

This morning , Tuesday October 16, in The Toronto Star, in preparation for Halloween, they display on the front page “the Anne Frank costume”, complete with a charming green beret, little girl coat and a destination tag at the neck. You have to guffaw at the bad taste, and as editor Emma Teitel comments, the cute model smiling might be a girl celebrating her bat mitzvah at Casa Loma. Truly absurd. But much today , it seems to me, lives in bad taste, thoughtless display, ignorance or ridicule of the past. With a similar thought, we observed the memorial for the dead in Berlin used as a backdrop for baby pictures or a labyrinth for adolescent hide and seek : as the tortured ghosts of the dead hovered above. By the way, I am not suggesting that adoration for Robert E. Lee or proponents of racism, colonialists, etc. be maintained. My quarrel here is with inappropriate appropriation of injustice, not the victimizers.

I’ve always wondered about the crossing of the line into taboo. Lenny Bruce did it. He did not accept society’s margins nor political correctness and by speaking ethnic stereotypes out loud, he forged a way to deal with bias and discrimination. Humour as social critic and commentary can go far in dealing with phobias and prejudice. Yet I do not find the misogyny dished out by certain comics the least bit funny at all. Yet it seems in my headspace that analyzes social issues there is a way to attack that goes beyond educating into ridicule or pain: for the comic’s own misogyny or racism delight. Larry David recently , irreverent always, tackled the fatwa, and made me laugh at him and by extension, ponder the extent to which a governing body will go. Truly he takes taunts and terrors to an absurdist perspective, perhaps making us wonder if we are sitting on the bench, also perpetually waiting for Godot. 

But the Anne Frank costume prompts an analysis of how and why anyone deems any aspect of her holocaust story might be acceptable for children pranking. The detailing of the felt tag is particularly hilarious: is there a choice of Auschwitz? Bergen Belsen, or Terezin, where 15,000 children passed, and the home of I Never Saw Another Butterfly.  

Ok, maybe, it reminds us of a scary story of war where little children can be lost, butchered and murdered. Pretty, pretty funny stuff. But of course, Halloween is not for the sake of laughter, except if you are so scared, you might laugh as a nervous reaction. So maybe after all, it does fit in the same way: prisoners in striped uniforms or the crushed skulls of the dead and skeletons are also resurrected for the night. They can terrify. My goodness, even a misshapen paper mâché head of Big Bird can be haunting. 
However, Halloween originated from an ancient Celtic festival where people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. So ironically Anne Frank is cast by the business community as a bad and scary ghost to be kept away, only allowed to prowl on the 31st, like other unwanted and unnecessary Jews as believed by the Nazis. So unless you concur that little girls and Jews are terrifying, she is an aberration. Similarly if she is a character to scare away ghosts, a child with a pen and a book, looking adorable in her beret, little Anne doesn’t really fill the bill either. I suppose she must exist in an space between the reality of cruelty and death in war and persecution while still being commemorated in plays and books as an unbloomed flower and an icon of innocence.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints. Eventually the evening before was called All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into trick-or-treating and carving jack-o-lanterns. Well, an Anne in the concentration camp might need beg for food or bits of candy. Not so sure about the pumpkin carving though as those activities were not part of her confinement back then.

Yet exploiting the death of an innocent appears to be a cheap way to sell merchandise although I suppose it is done all the time. It’s not too far from torn jeans that the poor have had to wear because they cannot afford new clothes, accepting the handmedowns of sibs and cousins and thrift stores so threadbare that their skinny limbs protruded. Years ago, a friend remarked that this was the first time in history that we’ve tried to emulate the poor, turn our eyes downward rather than upwards towards the finery of the rich. But as marketing will do, those torn, ragged jeans are paired with designer labels on the ass or carefully placed decoration to entice the buyer. Not exactly Anne Frank although one wonders if a line of holocaust dolls or little girl clothing is too far behind this offering. Complete with those funny destination tags. Maybe a board game too? 

The whole notion of the costume is interesting. The idea of the pirate or ghost easily constructed with an eyepatch or a sheet. The concept of princess, now disparaged as a fitting role for little girls, remains no doubt an expensive and still well sought out Disney product. Incredibly, even after the lambast of role choice, the National Retail Federation reports 2.9 million will dress as princesses this year. Transformers, pop culture, little heroes popular, but according to the NRF, 2.2 million will also be animals. Cute. Gentle. And as I write this, 13 days to the holiday.

Still the insensitivity of the Anne Frank costume sticks in my mind as a symbol of a society that is out of touch with certain values. I conclude I’ve gone like the costume beyond absurdity to unravel the possible meaning of said costume. But really, not only the creator, but the designer, manufacturer, stores on line and beyond accepted Anne Frank as part of their merchandising inventory. It does boggle the mind.

And if not, that’s really scary.

Stupid People

As I get older, I seem to get more crochetty. But perhaps there are more things that cause my blood to boil and more media distribution to relate tales of stupidity.

My daughter lives in a picturesque town outside of Philadelphia. Besides bird sanctuaries, downy paths to traverse and solid old stone houses, there is a caring community that will jump with home cooked meals should there be a birth or death. However, some of these kind folk hold religious beliefs that are in conflict with modern medical knowledge.

My two grandkids. ages 3 and 20 months came home ill from daycare – which everyone knows is the worst place to catch germs. However, with breathing issues and explosive coughing that lead to vomiting, the 20 month old wound up at the doctor’s. Shortly after, her little brother began to scream about his ears.which wound up being the site of infection. In the posts on FaceTime both adorable munchkins appeared lethargic and very sad, their pathetic little heads propped together on one pillow. Almost well, they were about to return to school when the doctor called: to inform. my daughter that both had pertussis or whooping cough. And so the children were quarantined for another week.

How ironic that unvaccinated children are allowed to wander the community, infecting while the victims of this stupidity are locked in. Now, I have no problem that kids who have been ill must refrain from spreading the germs, but to allow the perpetrators of the sickness to move freely in a society like so many Vika mosquitoes is unconscionable. And it makes me furious at the parents who refuse to vaccinate, ignorantly calling on some outmoded reason to validate their dopey contentions. Worse yet is a government that permits these violations to occur.

Not surprisingly I saw many Trump signs along the forested roads and charming alleys in Pennsylvania. And now with the election of this man, I again cannot but wonder at the stupidity of people who have voted for the man who now threatens the security of our children. Not just in the US, but in Canada and world wide.

Watching Meet the Press last Sunday, I heard Vice President- elect Pence, compared by John Oliver to a Salem witch hunter, downplay the telephone call Trump took from the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, referring to it as one of fifty calls of courtesy that week.. Beyond that rationale , perhaps worse yet was the dialogue with Chuck Todd , an apparent jeering, an outright patronizing and indignant quality to Pence’s words whose born again Catholic views prevail in his outmoded attitude towards women’s rights, especially abortion. On the same show Kellyanne Conway as well presented with that smug arrogance of the victor, unable to concede gracefully. Although Todd reminded her of the split in the nation, Conway ignored an opportunity to show humility but continued to berate the Press who did not take Trump’s pursuit of the country!s highest office seriously, she scolded. When Todd asked about putting the country first, suggesting Trump divest himself of his businesses while in office, Conway took the opportunity to again lecture and absurdly crow,” You know Chuck, he put the country ahead of everything else [by] running…”!! Taking a shot at the media, Conway was nicely told by Todd that” …that every knee- jerk push back is going to blame the media”!In deed pundits are suggesting that Trump used the media, rather than the other way around. John Doyle in the Star writes that Trump’s “ bombast and off- the – cuff blustering and rudeness is what gave CNN and other outlets staggering high ratings..” To the shame of the profession, focusing on this outrageous man was great for business and ratings so they overloaded the network, gave him airtime so his “tell it as it is” mantra instead of attacking his bigotry and lack of knowledge that just became de rigeur and was accepted in the homes of too many brainwashed Americans. So says Doyle in Monday’s Star,”He played the TV news outlets like fools.”

So not so stupid there.

But read Sara Kendzior in the Globe today ( Monday, December 5) about the fears of a Uzbekistan refugee whose only crime in his country was to teach about environmental problems. ( of course, we now know according to Trump that are none) or Dov Marmur on the rise of Anti- Semitic outbreaks across America. Marmur underlines that these attacks are” the consequences of xenophobia, misogyny and racism”( Toronto Star).

There is that old poem by Martin Niemollera prominent Protestant pastor eventually incarcerated by Hitler’s goons , that proclaims,

“ First they came for Socialists..Trade unionists…Jews…

Then they came for me- and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Although Trump’s vitriolic words have been downplayed as not meaning what he has said, we do in fact follow the words we choose to put out in the public arena , transforming them into action. Consider how years ago the language of inclusion was put in place, for example, firemen was broadened to include “firefighters” so both men and women might participate in the profession. . As we speak so we behave.

These stupid people who believed Trump was a panacea to “ make America great” should have realized the only thing Trump wants to make great is himself. Where a big mouth is the main quality for election, one can only despair. What do Trump’s voters think, if in deed they think at all, of Trump’s rumination to put a Goldman Sachs banker in his cabinet. And with Trump’s boast to bring back refineries and restore the use of coal, do they worry their children may again return to working in the mines: images of Charles Dickens come to mind.

These are troubling times when a person of Trump’s demeanour, but more importantly values are not only permitted but encouraged.

I realize protests do little good and the horse has all ready left the barn. Perhaps what we can do is to continue to talk and debate in multiple forums so the old ideas of diversity, equality, opportunity, and kindness will not die within the next four years. Although we live in a free society , with Trump’s lambast at the Hamilton cast ignored and the ongoing( thank you Lorne Michaels) critique on SNL and the memory of Barack Obama’s election , that civility and clear thinking can eventually be restored, people must persist in finding positive role models for their children, ignoring the elephant in the room.

So last night Saturday Night Live does what Saturday Night Live often does best, to  poke fun at the political and the powerful with satire: here suggesting the President-elect has a penchant for firing off tweets with the impulse control of a toddler. And President-elect Trump, in turn, does what President-elect Trump does, almost immediately, tweeting out an attack on Saturday Night Live: “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live – unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad”

Sad indeed. No sense of irony. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Teaching in Jane-Finch: response to Deborah Dundas

In Sunday’s Star A Belated Thanks for a Beloved Teacher ( Sunday June 26) describes the influence of Howard Rosen, Deborah Dundas’s grade 5 teacher at Shoreham Public School in 1974. Dundas is the books’ editor at the Toronto Star newspaper. She states that Shoreham Public was one of the “ toughest [schools]” just north of Finch at Jane and Driftwood.
I know what she is talking about because I started my own teaching career in that desolated area at Westview Centennial Secondary School in the 70’s; and we would be one of the recipients of Shoreham students. It was the years of the incredible Hall- Dennis Report with its concepts that shattered traditional teaching. With grand plans and lofty visions, its implementation only created greater havoc in the fragile neighbourhood of Jane-Finch. Instead of the Report’s proposed 16-18 students in a class with several involved teachers, the numbers ballooned to closer to 30 with usually one educator unable to properly supervise.No surprise that kids wandered off, took long lunch breaks, or found their education at the mall, the only landmark in that vast wasteland. When students arrived to our more or less conventional schooling at Westview, there were bound to be collisions.
How bizarre that in my very first year of teaching, I had to face a Grade 11 English class in a room with no desks and only a few stacked bleachers. When a young man angrily tossed his text book to the ground proclaiming “ This is rubbish”, I thought I was so clever to substitute the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. Maybe they listened and even interacted , but more likely,they merely scoffed. I was young, naïve, untested, idealistic. From that classroom I recall a scene of kids milling around, disinterested and unfocused, and me, confused, grimly smiling and attempting to harness interest that would provoke learning.
I’d heard some teachers received a kind of combat pay for teaching in the area and that in our motor shop, one teacher had been punched out. That may have been gossip. My only incident occurred in the art supply room when a lad rubbed up against me. But maybe the space was just too tight to prevent bodies colliding. Still I vividly relive my burning face as I returned to class, hands tightly clutching paint brushes.
Jane- Finch was my first real teaching job ( I went on to Forest Hill, Northern Secondary and Oakwood). Although I had completed my last practice teaching at Westview( always with superlative reviews!) , I surmised this school might not be my first choice as the vibe was so different from my other placements; however, I was off searching art galleries in Europe that summer and I was more focused on traveling and the school had wanted me back so it was easy to put hiring logistics into place. That summer there was a “Pink Letter “ that prevented hiring so I arranged for my father to sign a contract for me as soon as the letter was lifted. And after months of rambling abroad, I would come home to a job.
My English head at Westview was young and supportive and as an ingenue, he inspired me. My art head seemed to have other designs and I feared our relationship might become tangled. Fortunately I had a boyfriend so no boundaries were breached, but the too familiar undertone piqued me. He left shortly after my first year and his replacement became a treasured friend and inspiration.
The art classes were much easier to teach than English because the kids elected art as a subject. In contrast, they resented being stuck taking English. Those first few years, I had a mixed schedule of art and English. As a newbie, you are not given choice assignments so mine proved to be challenging; and my grade 9 tech boys were not exactly a prize to be welcomed by even experienced teachers.

I was barely 21, fresh face, anticipating I could make a change. I admit their noisy energy, forth right approach to language and dizzying behaviour both drew me in, but also made me a little fearful. They were a boisterous group, but when it came time to be evaluated for my permanent teaching certificate, I considered the class in which I had made the greatest strides and I felt proudest of my accomplishments with that Grade 9 all boy tech class.
Those days you were on probation for two years before receiving your permanent contract. I chose this group so I could celebrate how well I was managing and teaching. The superintendent who would decide my fate was Mr. G.-something. When he carefully navigated his way among the chairs and tables in the room, he seemed to be keeping his distance from the messy contingent of adolescents, who were checking him out. One fellow even called out“Yoh,, Sir!” To no visible response. I believed he would be so impressed with my obviously difficult class.

I used Leonardo da Vinci that day, carefully chosen because the boys could connect with machines and shops. They gathered close, falling over one another and we fixated on the brightly coloured examples I was pointing out in art books. They were quiet, listening, all gelled hair and over- sized running shoes. They were eager to begin their projects and except for nods, and the feeling of excitement, I had their attention for a full 10 or 15 minutes. I knew I had connected. Even as a young teacher, you are aware when a lesson goes over well, and that invisible web holds you all together, focused and sharing, all one. It was one of those experiences that locks itself in your mind and you, as a teacher, revisit it with pride and even- love -years later.
True, there were books heaped on the floor, Alice Cooper on the record player, the casual feel and gawky intrusion of elbows and knees into another’s space , but all so much less important than real communication occurring in a community of students.
I was soaring as they returned to their desks to implement my lesson:my pedagogy evident.

G. departed the room and I relaxed, smiling, confident, my own energy depleting.
At the end of the period, my department head knocked at my door and asked me a few questions: that I could not imagine applied to me. I figured the superintendent had marched out and on on to survey another victim. Maybe I was not listening because her words did not describe my magnificent performance.
Shortly after , I was called into the principal’s office and it was explained that student artwork on the walls was not properly hung. Period. The end.

And what of student engagement? Well -constructed lesson plans? Instructions well laid out and projects resulting that accomplished the task? What of enthusiasm of both student and teacher? What of an evidenced relationship that spoke of trust and support and a supportive environment? And what of my carefully prepared lesson plans and day book turned over before the class? Had I not accomplished the educational objectives for class, student, curriculum?The principal could not possibly be describing the class I had taught for my certification. Still in a fog, I felt removed, an outsider to this conversation: in which the chef topic was misaligned student work on walls!

But because the principal and especially my department heads had championed me, I would be given a second chance to re-enact a lesson and duly impress the superintendent. In deed, the fix may have been in.

I was stunned, wandering around in disbelief. I knew I had taught perhaps the most impressive lesson in my short career. Most importantly I had connected in a meaningful way to my students. I’d had their attention; they had listened with fascination at the gears and gizmos of Da Vinci’s , had followed instructions and proceeded towards their assignments, analyzing and applying newly gleaned information – that they actually found relevant. I had triumphed, or so I had thought. G. obviously did not agree.

It was a grey blur of pounding nerves in my head the day of trial number 2. My department head straightened the pictures on the wall, exactly employing a ruler to ensure they all lined up perfectly with the dooredge. For me, it was the students, the transfer of knowledge, not the context, that mattered so deeply. I would not have known how to change my presentation when I so fervently believed in a pedagogy that worked with the hearts and minds of students, that responds and builds and stimulates. Frankly, I do not recall one second of the followup lesson I was permitted to unfold. I do, however, remember the boys’ turning, craning necks and puzzled looks as Mr. G re-entered their space.

The meeting after this lesson declared I had passed muster and I was given my papers.
Not speaking, no doubt my face registering incredulous disbelief, G., in an airless room, observed me, saying” You don’t think you changed a thing , do you?”

Of course, I had not. But beaten down by the situation I demurred barely audible, “ Yes, sir”. We locked eyes but I looked away and down.

Still my memories are varied at Westview. One of my favourites concerns my department head measuring me for my wedding dress in the school washrooms during breaks, French Chantilly lace aside the garbage bins overflowing with paper towel; an English student’s insight into Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty, that maybe weeds are flowers to Nature; a camaraderie among colleagues and wonderful spirited Christmas shows where even I dressed in football gear for the predilection of the students. And perhaps , my proudest accomplishment : of helping one of the two students in the entire school who went on to pursue art at York university.

That was 1970 when girls were accompanied by overbearing parents, escorted directly to our front doors Abandoning their parents’, usually their fathers’ stern eyes, they would leap towards the washrooms to apply copious amounts of makeup and roll up waist bands. It was the same school in 1971 in which I dared to wear a pantsuit but was admonished that if I intended to dress like a man, I’d better keep my fly up.
Those were the beginning years of my immersion into teaching and the stories I would later capture in a book entitled Cases for Teacher Development: Preparing for the Classroom , published by Sage , when I worked as a program officer at the Ontario College of Teachers thirty years later. Narratives of this ilk would serve as implementation strategies when our standards at the College were finally released. We had examined the work of teachers and from their narratives, deduced what the tenets of teaching should be, decanting them into ideals of responsibility, collaboration, care, honesty, etc. We created a casebook entirely based on the lived experiences of twelve teachers, but chosen from several hundred ( two were mine) in Ontario. I invited international experts to provide commentary. From Australia to The United States, educators and philosophers at the forefront of educational theory and practice contributed to our book that was used by a number of universities here and abroad. Later a second book was added.

Too bad Howard Rosen wasn’t one of our many participants to contribute to that casebook .I’ll bet he had many a great tale to demonstrate what great teaching should look like.
Teacher stories are powerful, and meaningful.Reading Deborah Dundas’ piece recalled my years in Jane-Finch. Rosen made the difference for Deborah Dundas and so many more.

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