The Man on Thursday 2: On Friday (Sigh)

Alas, my promise to myself last week to keep up on these “Man on Thursday” posts is broken- in the second week.  I blame my over-preparation for the coming school year.

That being the case, let’s make it one on education, a rather pointed critique in an age of FCAT and “Race to the Top”:

Obviously it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby.  But in a school today the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself.  The flopping infant of four actually has more experience, and has weathered the world longer than the dogma to which he is made to submit.”


The Chronicles of Oxford Part 4: The Lost Canterbury Tale

I wrote this soon after an excursion to Canterbury, sponsored by Exeter College at Oxford.  This meant an approximate 2 1/2 hour journey to get there.  I guess that kind of factors into what happened…

I went to Canterbury on Saturday with about 45 people from the Exeter college program.  This offered us a chance to visit Canterbury Cathedral in all its vastness, walk the pathways of the Canterbury pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and see many of the other historic landmarks and cultural highlights which make up this ancient city.

Canterbury Cathedral

Inside Canterbury Cathedral

Arriving at 11, we had about 6 hours to explore the town.  We were to be back at the bus no later than 5:15 to return to Oxford.

Guess who was late.  By 30 minutes.

I had a wonderful time perusing the ruins of the St. Augustine Abbey, marveling at the structure which had stood there since 598 AD before the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII.  It is purported to be one of the oldest monastic sites in England.  I have a real interest in Christian monasticism and the types of communities which formed under the Rule of St. Benedict, so this was definitely a treat.

Around 4:45 I decided to wrap up and head back.  Now please let it be known that I have NO sense of direction whatsoever.  It’s only through literature that I know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  This puts me in company, happily, with GK Chesterton, who once famously had a taxi take him to an address which was right across the street from where he was standing.  But since I lack the inherent joy and adventurous spirit of GK Chesterton, my situation was a little less charming.  I panicked.

Reading the map incorrectly, I went to the wrong bus station, which was clear across the other side of town.  Then Vicky arrived.  In my growing panic I collared the first person I saw on the street and asked “WhereamIandhowdoigettothebusimsolatetheyregoingtoleavewithoutmehelp?!?!?!”  This fantastic person walked me all the way back to the station, about a 25 minute walk, taking time out of her day to help a strange half-witted American.  I did not get her email or phone number to call and thank her.  But Vicky- Ph.d student in Statistics living in Canterbury- thank you so much for your heart and kindness in leading me back home.

Needless to say, there were some grumpy people on the bus, but most were gracious and kind and forgave my blunder.  Except for Isabella, for whom I owe dinner and a drink.  (But now that she’s in Spain and I’m in the States, I might be off the hook).

You try to look for blessings in all things.  For me this is a constant struggle as my mind usually veers toward worrying about the edge of the cliff.  Given that I’m the type of person who always likes to be “in the know,” the experience of being lost and having NO CLUE was disconcerting to say the least.  And yet what happened?  There was a person out there willing to help.  Not exactly the end of the world, right?

Funny enough, the lectionary reading for the next day was about the Good Samaritan.  Happy to say I met her.


I realize that the last I posted on my experience at Oxford was near two weeks ago, but the thing about experiences such as this is that they keep happening, so actually settling down to write about it while its happening is like petting a kitten while mowing the lawn.  It’s either one or the other, or someone loses their head.

For that last simile I claim myself under the influence of Terry Pratchett, of whom I have been reading in my spare time.  At Blackwell’s, I picked up The Wit and Wisdom of Discworld, a collection of pithy comments and funny lines from the 35+ book series.

So, in lieu of Oxford, here is a Pratchettism for you from his Discworld novel Interesting Times, especially fun if you are a teacher…

“You sound like an educated man for a barbarian,” said Rincewind.

“I didn’t start out a barbarian.  I used to be a school teacher.  but I decided to give it up and make a living by the sword.”

“After being a teacher all your life?”

“It did mean a change of perspective, yes.”

“But…well…surely…the privation, the terrible hazards, the daily risk of death…”

Mr. Saveloy brightened up.  “Oh, you’ve been a teacher, have you?”

The Chronicles of Oxford Part 3: Finding Narnia

On Erin’s second-to-last day in Oxford, we took a literary pilgrimage to the Kilns.

Before this, we searched out the lamppost from Narnia- yep, the one Mr. Tumnus was under with his books in Lewis’s first images of Narnia.  It is in an area called Parson’s Pleasure- a park with wonderful hiking and bike paths, and much to Erin’s delight, baby swans.

The Kilns was CS Lewis’ home for the last thirty years of his life, so named because it was previously a brick making plant, and the super hot furnaces in which they used to bake the bricks were known as kilns.  The CS Lewis Foundation has spent the last decade or so restoring the home, and it is now a center for Lewis scholarship and seminars.  Kate Simcoe is the current steward of the Kilns, along with Kim Gilnett, and she graciously invited us to come over for a tour at 2.

Following the “friendly” advice of a local bus driver, I took the 7C bus from Oxford to Headington, instead of the 9.  This meant a bit of a hike to the house, but let me tell you, it was well worth the hike.

Lewis’s home is off Kiln Lane, tucked into a corner at the end of the street.  It is, in a word, beautiful.  Gravel crunched under my feet as I made my way to the front door, the heady fragrances of flowers wafting from the ornate English gardens. I joined the tour as they were meeting each other in the Common Room, where Lewis often greeted visitors.  Kim ran through the history of the house, and led us through each room telling Lewis anecdotes and filling us in on the role and function of each.  We saw Lewis’s study, Joy’s room, Warnie’s study and bedroom (Lewis’s brother), the Music room where Lewis collapsed in 1963, dying within one hour of JFK.  The Kilns also has the original sign for the Eagle and Child Pub (aka the Bird and Baby).

Erin joined me after completing a tour in Oxford, and we trekked up Shotover Hill behind the property and got a great view of the countryside.  We got a little goofy with the pictures and- I swear- a Sound of Music reenactment (singing courtesy of yours truly). From there it was about a ten minute walk to Holy Trinity church, Lewis’s final resting place.  The light gray stone marker is adorned with a simple cross and the dates of Lewis’s birth and death, with the quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear “All men must endure their going hence.”  His brother Warnie lies right beside him.

After a number of years intently reading Lewis’s works, it is still hard for me to articulate the impact this author has had on my life and faith.  There’s a hearty handshake and an offer to sit with him with a pint, and after a bit of conversation, and some anxious questioning on my part he jumps up and says “Let me show you something,” and leads me out the door to show me the landscape of faith, with its towering mountains, leafy glades, and roaring seas.  We go hiking, swimming, climbing- and he knows or has struggled with every root in the path, every crested wave, and scrambled to find every foothold.  And the best part is after a day’s journey finding an out of the way pub, where we sit and he pontificates on the sheer joy of the landscape and breathing the fresh air.  He is not there to revel in the obscurity of it all, but the remarkable clarity of all things.

Coming across Puddleglum’s assertion to “Live like a Narnian,” in The Silver Chair, the peeling off of Eustace’s dragon skin in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Wormwood losing his patient in The Screwtape Letters, longing for the irrigating of deserts in The Abolition of Man, tin soldiers becoming New Men in Mere Christianity, and impatient chargers stamping their hooves in Miracles, and Aslan’s roar throughout…there is much much more, but these images and situations have resonated within me, urging my soul to look up instead of down.  Lewis allows the world to become larger because he sees the eternal beyond it.  Not many writers do that nowadays.  Lewis still does.  And I say still not in the sense that he is still here among us, but in that larger sense a good writer attains when his/her work is around long after they have passed.

The Chronicles of Oxford Part 2: Standing Up

It is the second day of my program at Oxford, and the third day that I’ve been in town.  Much has happened in that time and within that time a sense of the inability to actually sit and write down some impressions and experiences, for fear of missing something.  So it is with a sense of relief that I am finally sitting down in Blackwell’s Bookshop on High St, directly across from the Bodleian Library and typing on this laptop.

If I try to encapsulate my experience thus far, I have to begin with standing up.

Not right now in Blackwell’s.  I mean two nights ago, in the Exeter Dining Hall.  Here’s what it looks like:

And here’s me with a drink in hand in the Dining Hall:

Notice I’m wearing a suit?  Required.  Our first night consisted of a champagne meet and greet in the Fellow’s Garden, and a four course welcome dinner with wine flowing freely, served and poured by Exeter’s wait staff.  But what really struck me was what happened before we ate.

We stood up.  But why?

As sudden as a light switched turned off, all pre-dinner chit chat in the dining hall stopped, and we all stood as the faculty made their way to the high table, their black robes flowing behind them.  The sense of ceremony in the room was palpable during that moment, and to me, it set the tone for the whole program.  This was a tangible statement of respect for learning.  The positioning of the head table and this ceremonious walk stated very clearly “Learning is set on a pedestal here.   It is worthy of respect.”  For those who are teachers out there:  Can you imagine your students actually standing when you walk into the room?  I really liked that moment.  One might think it smacks of elitism and inequality, but the fact of the matter is, I am not their equal.  They are my literary and educational betters.  But that’s ok.  Because they are taking time to teach me, and who wants to be a student and have a teacher who knows just as much as you do?

My rooms overlook Ship Street, off Turl.  I am situated right in the heart of the University, with Bodleian Library and the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theater next door.

Radcliffe Camera

I’ve met many people thus far, and there is a whole coterie of us representing Florida, especially because of scholarships given out by the ESU.  In addition to the US, however, I’ve had conversations with people from New Zealand, Pakistan, Denmark, Germany, France, and Australia.

Exeter is the college of Tolkien- this is where he studied English Literature and Languages in the early part of the 20th Century.  There is a bust of him in the Exeter Chapel, sculpted by his daughter in law in 1977.

Bust of Tolkien in Exeter Chapel

My mind still feels a bit scattered, but I feel totally at home here.  I am surrounded by wood and stone and grass and books and coffee shops and PUBS.  I am sitting in places my favorite authors sat, and looking at buildings and structures which have been here for centuries.  tolling church bells tell me when to go to lecture.    I was sitting in class in the Morris Room, and noticed elaborate tapestries showcased in each corner.  One girl said, “Those are great replicas of William Morris’s work!”  Our professor gave her an odd look and coolly stated “Ah.  Actually, those are the originals.”

I am still echoing many of my fellow summer students: “I can’t believe I’m here!”

Next: A trip to Canterbury, and what the heck am I actually doing here?

The Chronicles of Oxford Part 1: London

Yesterday began a journey which brought me to England to study at Oxford for the English Literature Summer Programme, with a focus on Middle English and Victorian Literature.  This will be an intensive three-week graduate level course with visiting professors from their respective fields.

My wife Erin joins me for the first part of the week, and we decided to take a couple of days in London to get this experience off the ground.  Booking a hotel in London proved to be a challenge, but we landed a sweet stay at The Mad Hatter Hotel for two nights.  The hotel is situated not far from the Thames, and it is a far cry from being the Nanford.

I served myself a large portion of humble pie over packing for this trip, as in, quite literally, overpacking.  I am now convinced that a person’s level of insecurity is directly proportional to the size of their suitcase.  Want to know if a person is not sure of himself?  Have him pack for a small trip, and the answer will soon become clear.  The nagging, sometimes plaguing questions of “Will I need that?’  “Can I do without that?”  “What if something comes up, and I am at a loss?” followed by the statements, “I know I will lose my toothbrush, so I will pack eleven of them.” will slowly but surely render the suitcase not so svelte.

Thus there I was, hauling a well over 50 lb suitcase up and down the stairs of the London Underground.  At one point, trying to board the Westminster connection to Southwark,  managed to jump on board just as the doors were closing.  Feeling the crush of the doors, the futility of the situation dawned on me as I realized my gigantic, heavy suitcase was still on the platform with my forearm and hand still attached to it.  Desertion of  insecurities proved impossible, and I squeezed back out of the Tube’s car, observing before I let go the widened eyes of London’s locals, who, had I been absorbed at that moment by an amoeba, could not have shown less surprise and pity in their countenances.

Onto grander things.

We visited Kew Gardens, the site of Virginia Woolf’s short reflection, and enjoyed a quick doze on the grass after walking around for a while.  The magnificent glass building is actually only one of several greenhouses on the grounds.

Peter Gabriel once equated looking into someone’s eyes like looking “through the doorways of a thousand churches.” The comparison is strong, and gains strength upon remembrance when one actually does step through a church doorway, especially a doorway like St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Erin and I went to observe Evensong, a church service blending the liturgical hours of Vespers and Compline, which utilized the full polyphonic cadences of the gentleman’s choir.  Prior to service, we found we had about an hour and a half to gaze upon the immensity and awe-inspiring architecture, meticulous artwork, mosaics, sculptures, and engravings which make up St. Paul’s.  My neck craned upward trying to take in the sheer magnitude of the structure.  We even climbed up to a walkway at the top of the dome, about three stories up, in which a.) the Lord reminded me I need to exercise more, and b.) I ‘m still afraid of heights.

Now, not too long ago, I would have balked naively at the utility of the cathedral.  “Melt all that gold down, and I’m sure you’d have enough to feed the poor, and please God better in the bargain,” were my uncharitable and self-righteous thoughts.  Now I think I understand.  It is part of our need to get a picture of the glory and majesty and infinity of God in our lives.  No matter how “in tune” one can possibly be the awesomeness of God’s nature, it only takes us so far.  So why not (so said the medieval artists of a much more willing generation), create something to aid us in that vision?  The tininess of an atom’s nucleas is not real until we try to picture a grain of sand in the center of an orange, the orange equaling the size of the earth.  And for that picture we need the tangible realities of sand and oranges.

Artistic and eternal needs dictated a response such as St. Paul’s, with gold, stone, wood, and dye.  Every square inch of the place, from floor to wall to domed ceiling told a story of eternity and our welcome into it.  And such a place is meant to enhance a time of worship.  The acoustics from the choir were perfect for Evensong, and the ethereal Latin canticles gently but insistently pierced the solemnity of the service.

About 7pm we were back at the hotel, very tired.  A quick dinner of Mad Hatter’s pie and a pint of Fuller’s Honeydew wrapped the night.

Today we are planning on visiting the museum of Charles Dickens, a walk to Cecil Court, and dinner and perhaps a show at Piccadilly Circus.

This is the Morning.

“The term is over: The holidays have begun.  The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

So states Aslan at the end of the Narnia series, in The Last Battle.  I have been listening to the series via audiobook for the past couple of months in my car, as I drive to work, church, run errands, etc. and I find it wonderful divine coincidence that I should finish the series on Easter Sunday.  Many Lewis fans may allude to the scene at the Stone Table in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe today, given it is the strongest resurrection parable in the Chronicles of NarniaBut somehow the last passage of Last Battle evokes that Easter feeling of a New Beginning, of a Great Story just beginning to unfold.  A story of life after life, a rolling back of stone to release empty space, a recalibration of reality, of everlasting Spring.

Now, I suppose the irony of going back to school tomorrow should taint this a bit, but it doesn’t.  It did at times over the course of my Spring Break; a sort of looming dread of settling back to grade papers, discipline students, getting up before the sun, the weariness of a teacher just trying to make it to the end of the school year.  I felt I was procrastinating on my lesson plans.  There were times to buckle down which, through my laziness, I simply allowed to drift by.  But now, in the late morning of Easter Sunday, as the glorious ringing of the bells during the Sunday liturgy at Ascension still echo in my ears, and a warm blue sky lights up my room, and the knowledge that this world was meant for goodness and love, no matter how we conspire to twist things to the contrary, I feel I am ready.  Ready to lead my seniors to their own new beginning, to lead them to their transition from high school students to the world beyond my classroom.

And the wonderful thing is this feeling is only a mere part of the joy.  Things are certainly put into perspective on this day.  Responsibilities still remain, the mundane chores of maintaining house and home and preparing for work go on, but these things are under a light: by grace I am moved forward, rather than pulled down by the weight of despair or worry.

So the term is not quite over yet, but it is a new morning.  Christ has risen.  He has risen indeed.

The Devil Likes the Education System

As a teacher, this quote from CS Lewis (in the voice of the demon Screwtape, from “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”) makes me cringe, wince, laugh, cry, nod, shake my head, gasp, and sigh.  Yep…all at once:

What I want to fix your attention on is the vast overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination of every kind of human excellence- moral cultural, social, or intellectual.  And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” (in the incantatory sense) is now doing for us the work that was oce done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods?

…The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils.  That would be “undemocratic.”…Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma…by being left behind.  The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way.  All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish.  The few who might want to learn will be prevented, who are they to overtop their fellows?  And anyway the teachers- or should I say, nurses?- will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time of real teaching.  We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men.  The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

Off to Oxford

I am pleased to report I have won a scholarship to attend the English Literature Oxford Summer School program at Exeter College in July.  I’ll be spending three weeks under the spires where JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and the rest of the Inklings taught and created their works.  Just imagining I’ll be in the place which was the genesis of Narnia and Middle-Earth gives me the chills.  The scholarship was provided by the English Speaking Union of Central Florida, and you can find their website here.

My wife and I journeyed to England this past summer (2009), and I was able to record some video focusing on Oxford to show my students in the fall.  Here’s a brief discourse on Addison’s Walk at Magdalene College, where CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien used to take long walks:

I’m On a Shirt

So one of my students made a shirt on cafepress or one of those other make-your-own-t’s sites with a quote attributed to me. It was rather surreal. The quote was an odd one too, one of my random, silly verbal gestures when I was trailing off discussing Desdemona’s thoughts as Othello spoke of her imminent death in Act V of Othello.  I argued that right up until the last minute, Desdemona was subservient to Othello, wanting to please him or placate him in any way.  “I mean, what was she thinking?  Something like ‘Can I make you some pancakes, dear?'”

“Can I make you some pancakes?” is now proudly worn on the back of one of my AP students.

Life is wonderfully weird sometimes.