Friday, March 14, 2014

What I Meant to Say…

In the past few days, philosophical thoughts have been stewing in my head. The ingredients for such a deadly concoction have come from my master’s program as well as from one inquisitive student who always knew the right thing to ask or say.

One day, in the midst of a writing lesson, he asked, “How do you study for English?”

That is a question that has always been on my mind as I argue with students about the importance of English, the importance of reading, and the importance of understanding one's own identity. This question is always in the back of my mind because I mulled over on how to answer it appropriately. I had all the answers in my head, stockpiled like ammo, but when he put me on the spot that day, I didn’t know which one to tell him. But as a teacher, it wasn’t my job to give him the answers; it’s a student’s job to seek the answer that will best satisfy him. I gave him a response that probably only confused him more, but it totally made perfect sense to me: “You can’t study for English.” And since I said this aloud, I’m sure I confused my other students who twitched at my reply. They were probably thinking, “Then why am I taking English?”

I went home that day feeling unsatisfied. I was unsatisfied because I felt I failed at any attempt to enlighten my student, I failed to grasp a teaching moment and run with it and have a deep discussion, and most of all, I failed at getting my own meaning across. That last part was the epic fail: failure to communicate my ideas. It became the epiphany in my career because I’m finally putting down the words of what I believe. I am an English teacher, but “English” doesn’t even begin to encompass what I really teach.

How do you study for English? What I meant to say was English is beyond grammar and vocabulary. English is more than a composition of parts of speech, syntax, and sentence diagramming. Those are just rules that can be applied. They are the mechanics to help you edit your writing. You can’t memorize every single grammar rule or every vocabulary word, just as you can’t ride a bike by memorizing bike parts. You ride a bike by getting in the seat and falling a few times until you find your balance. Grammar and vocabulary are the same way. They are building blocks to help you with your writing, but if you never write and see the training wheels of my red pen, then you are not building your skills.

How do you study for English? What I meant to say was that we are studying communication skills. We are studying how to read, write, speak, and listen effectively. Just because you talk in English or read in English doesn’t mean you are fluent in English; just as healing yourself when you’re sick doesn’t make you a doctor. To help you practice all the grammar and vocabulary, we are going to practice with the English language because that is what we speak. I’m evaluating you on your effectiveness in your communication skills. It’s not about whether you got the right or wrong answer; it’s about whether or not you clearly organized your thoughts and then conveyed them clearly to me so that I understand you.

How do you study for English? What I meant to say was English is not about loving literature and books. Literature is a just a vehicle for ideas, so English class really focuses on exploring ideas, whether you agree with them or not. Literature—whether it’s nonfiction, novels, poetry, short stories, or plays—gives us something to talk about, and learn about the world, too. With books and poetry, we can sympathize with lovers of the past, we can travel to a tropical island and watch the downfall of humanity; we can read about political strategies of evil masterminds and ponder their morality. Literature is so varied, so we can talk about anything and everything. It makes you think outside of your immediate space. You can hate a book and its characters, but if you want to debate and criticize, then you’re exploring ideas that are not your own. That’s all I ask. If you love a book, it’s not because you love the characters, it’s because you agreed with an idea and you felt justified in your own thoughts. That’s what literature really is: it is a gift of perspective. You will learn of a life outside of your own. It is a gift of empathy, for you will learn how to understand people that you may meet in your real life. Literature is a dress rehearsal for reality. It can strengthen you or break you, just like life.

Dear Student, when you asked me “How do you study for English,” what I meant to say was that there is no way to study LIFE. English falls under the humanities, and humanities means exactly what it means: to study what makes us human. It is the study of music, poetry, arts, politics, philosophies, ethics, language, and cultures. In the nine months that you sit in my “English” class, I cannot give you any advice or instruction on how to understand the depth of humanity, nor do I have the time to teach all of that. To understand humanity, one must embrace and understand how we live. Simply put: we must practice at having and living a life.

I wrote this essay, dear Student, to show you that one moment in the classroom became a learning epiphany for my career. One simple question you raised inspired me to think about my life and my role as a teacher. My reflective thoughts became an essay. My essay became the literary vehicle to express myself. Now I share it with you, dear Student, and I ask you, “Was I effective in conveying my thoughts? Did I answer your question? Do you understand my values and ethics as a teacher? Do you understand where I’m coming from now?”

How do you study for English? What I meant to say was “Let’s explore ideas. Let’s express and communicate our ideas through writing and speaking. We are practicing English, not studying it.”

So don’t study this essay. I’m not going to quiz you, I’m not going to ask if you know what certain vocabulary words mean, I’m not going to ask if you recognize the rhetorical strategies I used (and I did use some), I’m not asking you to memorize this because this piece of literature will be useless to you in college; but I hope the idea will be useful for you in life.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Reality is... (or the Second Boston Massacre)

As I'm starting this entry, there are so many thoughts going through my head that I second-guess myself and think I shouldn't be writing this now. The country is still reeling and investigations are just beginning. Everything I am reading on the internet are somewhat incomplete stories and tidbits of the explosion at the Boston Marathon.

I am taken back to 9/11. When that tragedy happened, I was still in the teaching credential program. It was a normal school day, but it wasn't so normal after watching the replayed events on TV that morning. I started a journal for myself on that very same day: I was angry that so many innocent people died, I was angry that a group of paranoid and cowardly hijackers had to attack America by taking hostages, but I was also angry at myself. I had never felt so ignorant of the world than at that moment. I promised myself that I would pay more attention to the news and politics and global relationships. Although I feel myself more knowledgeable than a decade ago, I still feel that I'm not doing enough or that I still don't know enough.

Earlier today, in the middle of a patriotic celebration to commemorate the start of the American Revolution, the Boston Marathon was ruined by two explosions. The White House called it an "act of terror." And again, I am left with those same feelings I once felt on 9/11. I am angry that so many innocent people are injured and dead; I am angry at the individuals who did this, for they struck at blameless civilians; and I am angry at myself again, because I feel helpless and paranoid and ignorant all over again. As a logical person, I need to control my anger--which I admit, is a strong word. Maybe I am more frustrated, and in my frustration, I entertain ignorant and racist and stereotypical thoughts. This is dangerous, and so I realize that I must let my frustration end as it is and not let it fester unleashed.

In an effort to feel less ignorant, I began to search on Google News and Yahoo! News for any information on the explosions in Boston. There were quite a few personal stories of families finding each other in the chaos, of runners' firsthand accounts of the explosion, of the technical difficulties of cell phones, and of the efforts of policemen and women and emergency services to control the scene. I was interested in reading about the details--who was at fault? When did it happen? How many people were hurt? Where did it exactly happen? What happened afterwards? On the internet, I found a good amount of websites that offered both stories and photos.

I was very hesitant to look at photos. The experience of looking at photos from a current event is entirely different than looking at photos from historical events. This Boston Marathon-Massacre will be a historical event that will be logged in future textbooks and archived on the internet for all time, but right now, it hits too close to home, and the images are too shocking and painful to look at. I have seen captions with warning signs of raw video footage and graphic photos. I saw two photos of a blood-stained streets and sidewalks and that was enough for me. As I skimmed through websites that offered visual representation of details, I began to worry about the amount of pictures and video that made its way to the web for everyone to see.

News is ubiquitous, and so is the internet. We are becoming a very visual community due to slick advertising, Instagram, and companies with visible and popular trademark logos. In our media, which is saturated with either too much reality TV or fantasy films or consumer-made media (aka YouTube), there isn't much context for visuals. Seeing two photos of blood on the ground was depressing and sad enough for me. It hit me deeply that this event just happened at noon, earlier today, and as of this moment, three people died, including a small child. It hit me that, although Boston is on the other side of the coast, this is still America and it happened on my homeland. It hit me that this is the third terrorist event that I have seen in my lifetime. It hit me that we are living in an increasingly volatile world. This is my reality.

I skipped over links that had warning signs "due to their graphic nature." And then I began to think of my students. I honestly have doubts that people younger than me would not hesitate to click and see those photos. In their reality, this tragedy is so far from their own lives. They would view those photos to test their own courage and squeamishness over graphic content. They would empathize for a brief 10 seconds, but be glad that it didn't happen in Southern California. Maybe I am generalizing too quickly, but for a high school student--who has social media to connect with friends, who watches reality TV, who watches fantasy films or romanticized movies with happy endings or America will always win--reality does not set it too deeply with young people unless it is of a very personal nature. Unless some of my students have family in Boston, this historical event is as meaningful as 9/11--too distant to feel its impact.

This second Boston Massacre was reported on Twitter and Facebook alongside credible news agencies. Photos were uploaded independently in all types of media. We are picky about our news sources because we seek objectivity in information, and at the same time, a wealth of photos and news of this event all over the internet can cause such overwhelming confusion because some of the information has no context. We want our information to be free of bias, but raw footage and graphic photos are so unsettling that we can barely construct our own moral parameters to reflect on our own thoughts, our politics, or our feelings. Photos are so instantaneous that we don't have time to think except to just be shocked and disgusted, and then hate the people who did this. Sometimes we are too shocked and disgusted that we can't even sympathize and shrug it off with shallow words: "Oh well."

I am curious to know what my students think. When 9/11 happened, I saw teachers who decided to ignore the event and I saw teachers who watched the news with their kids, but most of those teachers were too afraid to talk about it or did not know how to make live history be a learning moment for kids. I will probably come to that tomorrow morning. I might bring it up or they might bring it up. What will their comments reveal about their feelings? What will their reactions say about their understanding and their ability to empathize? I know that I have to prepare myself not to get angry or frustrated in order to answer their questions and address their confusion.

Right now, my thoughts are with Boston. It was a city I have always wanted to visit, for its wealth in American history. I know that when I visit it in the future, it will be a city changed by this event. But I know Boston will pull through this, just as New York City had, just as Oklahoma City had, just as Honolulu had.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

My Car

Recently, I got into a minor car accident. Nothing much: a typical rear-end collision while waiting at the stoplight. As my car jumped forward, I sat in my seat in disbelief and surprise. Thoughts of “Why me?” and “What did I do?” and “Are you serious?” and “Are you kidding me?” and “What the hell?” filled my head and I didn’t know how exactly to process the incident. As the car behind me pulled forward, I immediately thought that he might try to escape. That was what happened at my last rear-end collision: the teenage driver of that car sped away after he carelessly apologized. When he ran off, I began to hate humanity, especially irresponsible teens who drive without licenses.

But not this driver. He pulled up beside me, rolled down his window, and asked if I was all right. I said I was a bit shaken and shocked, and he suggested we pull over to the side of the street. The young man immediately came out of his car and humbly and respectfully apologized. He checked the damage of my car and his car. He apologized so many times and then offered his insurance information. We talked for a brief moment, and he admitted that he wasn’t paying attention. In my gut, I knew he was sincere. After we had exchanged information, I arrived at work and tried to forget about how my day started, but in the back of my head, I kept thinking how much this accident was going to inconvenience me in the next few weeks.

The last time I got into a major accident, I had to make appointments for my car to get it fixed, rent a car and pay out of my own pocket, and make phone calls to adjusters to make sure paperwork was filed. These were hassles. These were extra errands that were added to my day that I did not need to do. But the whole day of this new collision, I wasn’t worried about that. I was worried about the young man who hit me. I knew he was probably feeling guilty. I knew he was a good person, and for some reason, I felt bad if I decided to call up my insurance company and tell them that this good young man was irresponsible. Like a teacher that I am, I did not want to see a good person get into trouble. Initially, I hated all young irresponsible drivers who caused accidents, because they reminded me of that one teenager three years ago who hit my car and then ran off. I promised myself that if an irresponsible driver ever crossed my path, I would THROW HIM TO THE INSURANCE COMPANIES AND FILE POLICE REPORTS!!!

But this driver was nice, he was polite, and he was responsible. I didn’t want to get him in trouble. He would not be the scapegoat for the previous driver who hit me three years ago.

Later in the afternoon, I got a personal call from a woman—the driver’s grandmother. Even she apologized and offered more information as well as reassured me that her grandson was really a good boy. I believed her. We actually had a short conversation and even laughed together. She informed me that she would report the incident with her insurance and she encouraged me to do the same with my company. Then she reassured me that there would be no hard feelings or grudges. She said that this was a lesson her grandson needed, for he shouldn’t have been driving too fast anyway. After I hung up with her, this great weight suddenly lifted from me. Her grandson was in trouble, but not because of me; he had his grandmother and mother to face. He suddenly had more financial responsibilities to be accountable for, and according to his grandmother, he was still feeling guilty about the accident that morning (eight hours earlier). That guilty feeling of getting someone in trouble vanished. Even though my day started with an accident, it ended with comfort and smiles. It is quite unfortunate that I had to meet very nice people in what could have been a potentially litigious scenario.

The next day, I called my insurance company. When the other insurance company called me, they offered a few places to get my car fixed. I took the addresses down, but only recently did I decide to get my car even looked at. Why did it take me so long to even get an estimate?

My car is old. The clear coat is faded, the paint has begun to oxidize, there are dings and scratches everywhere, and recently I found gang tagging written on the dust of my trunk. The hubcaps are all gone. There are hard-water stains everywhere. When my students see my car, they either make fun of me or ask me why I didn’t just go buy a new one.

I don’t like to admit that I’m a materialistic person, but when it comes to my car—I’m very materialistic, maybe even to the point of Seven Deadly Sin status. In fact, I used to be quite vain about my car when it was first new. I washed and cleaned it every weekend. I was careful when driving in parking lots. I bought cute accessories to personalize it. When I got into my first accident, I did not hesitate to call up my insurance and get my car fixed immediately. My perfect car was going to stay perfect. No dents or scratches or mess ever. It was the perfect car for my perfect life.

Over the years, my car has grown with me. For every car payment, I learned financial responsibility. For every ding and scratch, I have learned to accept that my life will also have bumps and troubles. For every engine breakdown and flat tire, I have learned to appreciate my own physical health. For every accident, I have learned to roll with the punches. I have learned many lessons from my car. It may be hunk of junk to some, but to me, this car is a huge part of my life. This is not a car that I can easily throw away just because it’s old. It may even be considered ugly, but it’s mine and it’s still going strong. I am loyal to it because it has been loyal to me. I have had many accidents with this car—and that is not to say that I’m the bad driver--but at each accident that I have been in, I have never been to a hospital. My car took a beating so I didn’t have to. I love my car.

I kept the name of the body shops in my purse for about a week. It took me a while to set up an appointment just to get an estimate. I thought that my car was so old that it would look odd to get a new shiny bumper while the rest of my car was oxidized and faded. That would be like getting four out of five nails done at the salon. That new bumper is going to look odd.

But my car is loyal to me. It deserves a new bumper, even if the color is mismatched from the rest of the body. I drove my car to the body shop and the estimate was over $600. I informed the specialist that the last time I had a bumper replaced, it was only $500. Why was it so expensive, especially for an old model like mine? (Not that I was paying for any of it anyway, but I was still curious.) The specialist said that my car (this particular year and model), although old, is unique—especially its durable bumper frame. There are no “certified replicas” or parts of equal value. They have to order straight from the manufacturer. If the frame is damaged, it has to be replaced and they will have to order the part. If the bumper is still intact, they just have to repair the bumper cover.

I smiled at this bit of information. I got a tough car. I made a good investment. I should be proud of my car.

I have taken my car for granted in the past few years; maybe this accident is to remind me that I should not take my life for granted. People tell me that “it’s only a car” and it was made to stay safe; that that is its function. I don’t want to think of my car simply as an object. It has obviously saved my life plenty of times. The only way to thank my car and show gratitude is to make sure it’s always in tip-top shape, so nothing is too good for my vehicle.

I hope that I won’t have any other accidents—whether the driver is irresponsible or not. I value my life, which only makes me appreciate the durability of my car even more. I hope to keep this car for as long as I can.