#4 With Freedom, Responsibility: Postcard from our travels

As a new year quickly approaches, the pressure’s on to complete all the postcards.  Shall we journey onward?

In January, we traveled through the galaxy to become Citizens of the Galaxy traveling through Heinlen’s book- not a well-known one, nor a common-core-canon-classic, nor frankly, the best written, still a favorite of mine.  Thorby, our main guide, is found as a child slave on a planet and thrust into a place familiar to those here on Earth, one with a gulf between the wealthy who exploit those who live dismal lives of the oppressed.  On a Hero’s Journey of sorts, Thorby is taken in by a mentor who makes it his mission to show him a world beyond what Thorby can see from one rather short perspective (as a child who cannot remember much of where’s he been, save the torment).  It’s not a bad life for Screen Shot 2019-07-16 at 9.12.58 PM.pnga slave that could’ve been subjected to far worse.  (By the by, one year, when I taught the novel, a student stated with conviction that slavery didn’t exist anymore.  Sigh. ) And like many a Hero’sJourney, his mentor bows out to leave the hero to face what comes on his own.

Along with Thorby, we were swept into and out of this first world, zooming into and out of three more, complete with their rules and language and idiosyncrasies of culture. For a clearer understanding of themes, we tracked the growth of Thorby and compared what he had experienced in each “world.”  In a bit of fun, we even created our own worlds.  We noted allies and enemies, resources, and other highlights of their culture, including the creation of an original document to glimpse their history.  With one group, I worked on a simulation of pitting the places against each other, but the students who were interested worked out any problems behind the scenes, while another group focused on the fun of imagining a world of cheese in all its silliness.  I’d like to build on the simulation in some year to come (please post in comments any reasonable ideas).  Alas, we had to hurry on to the other worlds along with Thorby.  Each giving us a new lens to look at our own lives.  I won’t share all the fun details of his travels in hopes you’ll read this one or maybe take the clue to hop on a ship of your own adventure and head into places you’ve never been (like those places you may have been less likely to visit in your own city).

Like our cities here on Earth, Heinlein’s version of space is a busy place, what with ships and transports and negotiations and protecting one’s interests and learning all the rules.  Heinlein’s novel is like life in that way.  (Funny how writers of science fiction manage to reflect life on Earth.)

In the end, what we learned is the most important thing we take with us through life.  The values we possess, the friendly people we’ve met, the ability to observe keenly, to analyze fully, speak languages -those are the critical things we have. (No, the iphone X and the Tesla aren’t the critical things in life. And while I’m on the subject, do we ever wonder about the people who put them together?) In the end, Thorby must tap all he has to assert himself, to face his final battle (of the novel, not of his life), using what he has learned to defeat the monster.  Of course, it’s only a first step of many to defeat slavery.

By the time we leave this little known novel of space, we have been offered the most essential lessons of our lives:

  • What have we learned from the people that matter the most, that must carry us forward when they are no longer here?
  • What do we value and why?
  • For what are we willing to stand and fight?  Screen Shot 2019-07-16 at 9.15.35 PM.png

And the beauty of this journey is that everyone answers the questions as his/her/their conscience guides.  Thank you to Heinlein and my students for such a memorable, entertaining and eye-opening trip.


The Cloths of Heaven

W.B. Yeats

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;

I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

I first read Yeat’s poem on the syllabus of my Creative Writing teacher, Josh Pelletier, at De Anza.  I had taken the class when I realized nothing but writing could help me move through the grief of losing my parents.  When I read the brief poem on Josh’s syllabus, I took it as an offering from him, a love note saying he would give us all that he could give in his class.  That we should have compassion because our dreams were represented by the drafts we’d hand over and our dreams were mixed up in each other’s dreams.  From the poem, I believed he’d hope his guidance would be enough and that we’d value his own dreams of writing and teaching.  I’m grateful for Josh and the “light” he gave as I tread through the dim and dark ideas I wanted to write.

Later, the point of view of a writer folded into my reading. I so longed to unfurl only the most beautiful words out on a blank page. Though I have only a “poor” understanding of the best words and how to put them together to tell my story, I promised to bestow only my best, what you deserve.  And I think I have — though, I’m far from done– if over 200 pages written is any proof.  The youth who searches for who she is and who she can trust has made it out of her cave.  I feel less poor now, though I still live within the dreams of finishing my novel.  I have so much more to write and so much more to learn.  Sigh. Then again, life is learning.  

I reread the poem again today once I decided to post it here.  I wondered what your dreams are.  What do you hope to spread out as your finest?  If no dreams come to mind, then how much would it take to impress you?  Heaven’s embroidered cloths?  Light from a divine source?  Would you “tread softly” on the dreams someone has spread under your feet or would you walk over them without a thought, without a clue?


A Sirocco with its Magical Voice Swept By

Postcard #3

Sirocco: A hot, dry, dusty wind that moves air from the Sahara into northern Africa and Italy. Over the Mediterranean, it picks up moisture and becomes humid, caused by a band of low pressure moving east across the southern Mediterranean. ~ “21 Wonderful Words for Wind” Mental Floss)

Swept into the lands of Andalusia (the place of Flamenco, the dance that stirs the emotions and enriches the soul), with its lush, fertile lands where we see Santiago contently tending his sheep. Content, until a dream leads him across the Mediterranean to Tarifa and away to the glass merchant who lives in Tangiers.  Sadly, the old man’s dream is covered in dust, like his glassware, a poignant reminder that life is fragile, and fear can hold us back, so our belief in ourselves is essential to reach our goals.  Shall we move on or shall we stay? Continue reading

A postcard from Ancient Greece

Postcard from Ancient Greece

As if the city of lights wasn’t enough, my other class elected to sail through the centuries with Odysseus and Telemachus, both exploring manhood within a tangled, tricky and twisted world of monsters, gods, and humans– some who act more like animals.  We scouted a couple of poems along the way, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” for annotation strategies of his resplendent praise of explorers. The other, an “Ancient Gesture” by Edna St. Vincent Millay connected a modern woman waiting for a husband with the ancient figure of Helen, further highlighting Helen’s oft times overlooked power.   Continue reading

The first postcard: France and Italy with The Count of Monte Cristo

Gratitude goes to Dumas, for a diverting fall journey through Marseilles, Paris, Rome and the island of Monte Cristo. Dumas’ dashing young man, Dantes, is our main companion. First filled with a passionate love for his ship, its captain and shipmates, his old father and most importantly, his beloved bride-to-be, Mercedes, Dantes is set to marry and settle into a warm life filled with love.  Alas, as he is tragically deprived of innocence and justice, and the plans of a loving wedding are impeded by the damp walls and solitary confinement of Chateau d’if. We redirect ourselves to an argumentative essay on solitary confinement that helps clarify Dantes’ pain and magnify the roots of his revenge.

Continue reading

Postcards from my year’s travels

white and blue cardboard box

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Teaching travel literature and writing suits me. This academic year, I decided that instead of calling the course World Literature, I’d teach Travel Literature and Travel Writing.  

Traveling not only echoes the lives of the independent students I teach who rarely stay home, preferring instead to take classes in various places from master teachers but also reflects my own weekly itinerary and attitude about what I teach. I like to wander through material, thinking of myself as a tour guide.  Visiting a text full of places to stop is like taking a tour of big cities, where we never see everything yet head home bursting with memories and hopeful plans of returning one day.

My goal at the outset included writing along the way of the places my students and I visited. One book leads to another, and I became immersed in the language of an author, my co-travelers’ ideas, and the joys and trials of being the tour guide.  One expedition ends and another begins immediately, and another year slips by.  Keeping pace in a foreign country can feel breathless, even when I’ve visited before.  Nevertheless, to meet my writing goals, I’m squeezing time in May to post highlights of our tours. Since they are but a brief look at my journeys with my various students, I encourage looking at them as if they were postcards arrived after the journey is over.

Traveling the World

This past semester I chose travel as a theme for my high school classes. What I expected: a clever way to explore World Literature –travel the world from your chair!–but something else came, something I hadn’t fully anticipated.

My fascination and passion surrounding the voices of authors, homegrown and from further afield, surges each year. I keep waiting for my job to get old. Yet every single day, I joyfully dive into the pages of books searching for ways to help connect odd couples — youth bursting with ideas and questions and great authors entreating conversation. This past term middle schoolers and high schoolers examined the works of Dumas, Coelho and Homer (as well as Wordsworth, Shelley and St. Vincent Millay). The questions raised make what I do the best job ever. Who else do you know grapples with defining justice, the corrosive impact of deceit, the concept of destiny and free will, the fervent hope and strength of a woman who is cast in the role of victim but surprises everyone, and the balancing act of contemplation and observation?

I anticipated the meaningful discussions students would lead. I expected writing analytical essays, especially from a group of academically inclined and prepared middle schoolers. What I hoped for, but didn’t dare presume was the impact of a focus on travel writing for another of my groups. Most of the students in the group/class who worked on travel writing could write a reasonably logical 5 paragraph essay. While evident was the need to tweak this and that, and learn such and such to improve writing, something hadn’t seemed so obvious: the detrimental impact of the five-paragraph essay. I had inspired plenty of bored students to improve and build confidence, but had I simply overlooked their disconnection to the question of why do we write?

Over the course of a semester, we wrote about must-see places and must-do events — both locally and abroad. Students wrote and reviewed each other’s work for elements of persuasion, information, description, narrative elements, and entertainment. We analyzed how other writers tackled subjects. Was it the intimate trusting writing community we had built, the examination of good writers (and a few poor ones) or had I hit upon an authentic, mixed-genre essay curriculum that promoted student engagement? Our time together covered the mechanics of writing and we discussed various topics, but most importantly, we honored the purpose of putting a bunch of words on a page. Students who truly wanted to communicate with each other and the world began reaching into the depths of their capability. How do we express the beauty of something heavenly? How do we inspire others to discover the joys of hot ballooning or the eccentric sculptures of desert artisans in a rare once a year event? Who will read our words? Does what we write matter?

This past semester what we wrote mattered to each other. This semester we will take another step towards publishing, to cast our words out on the sea of human discourse. We’ll also toss more research skills into the mix and explore how media colors the process of writing. I’m hoping the travel writing class I took at Stanford will enrich the writing experience of students.

I can say that while I always enjoy the shift that happens in January as we turn or deepen our learning, I don’t remember when I was this excited about what my students will bring to the table, er… page.