Working with at-risk students is a unique occupation. Their lack of filter and lack of awareness of their own precarious psychic state can manifest in some surreal behavior, projecting both fantasies and real experiences into the classroom in the form of drama that can simultaneously reach the level of the lowest comedy and high tragedy.

One day a group of young women came to give a talk on teen pregnancy. With them they brought one of these strange little dolls that simulates a human child at a very basic level. If you mishandle it, the thing emits a warbling, distorted cry that only faintly mimics that of a real human infant. It’s a horrible sound, which perhaps it’s intended to be. At one point the doll began to “cry” and was passed from the arms of one student after another who attempted to soothe it’s artificial agony. Suddenly, one of my students leapt from his seat, grabbed the doll by its arm, wrenching it from the lap of a hapless student.  He then proceeded, with a look of studied determination on his suddenly altered and older seeming  face, to whack it several times across the cheeks with his palm and the back of his hand. This caused the tiny chip that serves as the doll’s brain to come unstuck or become corrupted so that its cry then sounded like the strange gurgling of a dying baby seal . At this point, of course, the entire class broke into uproarious laughter and any serious intention brought to the event went right out the window.

But my point is not about the inability of this particular educational community to be effective in trying to help these students cope with life and the real world beyond the doors of this high school where they will very soon find themselves. That would be material for another, much longer conversation. What floored me was something caught between the violence of the act and the carefully studied manner in which he performed it. And this is why, when he came to my classroom later that day and had trouble staying in his seat and became agitated and jittery for no apparent reason as he so often does, I allowed him to be free to roam about the room, to try to relax those internal demons that appear to keep him from attaining any kind of stillness or from being at peace.

Book Review: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live – The Collected Nonfiction of Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, 2006)

“What could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience? . . . Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect that we are already there.”                       

 from “On Morality,” 1965

I try not to judge a book by it’s cover, but it’s difficult in cases like this, especially the cover of this one, where the woman in the Stingray is looking out at me from the past, drawing me in and through the process of wrestling with the silently implied question

I do, also, have a habit of judging books by their weight. I have this superstitious belief that the knowledge between the covers of a book is directly proportional to it’s mass. And this book is heavy. But the convenient size of this book makes it perfectly comfortable to tuck under one’s arm to carry wherever you go, and this book should be carried often and far, because it’s content is, well, the kind of stuff that will tend to bend your head simultaneously in several interesting directions.

“Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect . . .To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free ourselves from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.” 

from “On Self-Respect” 1961

And it’s times like these, when the going has gotten way past weird, when the grey skies of winter refuse to give way to the blue skies of spring and the very winds that breathe life into the planet are beginning to protest the vanity of the human species by withholding their currents, and the compass cards are spinning in their boxes like mad dervishes under the influence of mad, dull-eyed salesmen and professional hucksters, that what you need is a little sanity and wisdom.

And Didion’s words provide the kind of cold hard sanity and sense that keep me awake at night, reading over and over these passages that give me serious pause and at the same time put all the bad craziness  into a comprehensive perspective. From the silences between her carefully parsed and laid out thoughts comes an idea that life in the midst of  this vast global conspiracy ought, and could possibly be at least different, if not exactly better.



An American Tune. . .

American Tune
Paul Simon

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea

And I dreamed I was flying
We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

Songwriters: Paul Simon
American Tune lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group


I’m sitting here in the dark

wondering if it will ever grow light.

The gravity has pulled me down

into the core where the hydrogen freezes

and the rock melts.

I’m sitting here wondering if

this is all there is

now that the dog faced man

has been swallowed whole

by the giant tree.

I’d sit there in the shade

if I could

and she might bring me

some papaya or a pear or a coconut

and we could watch the waves come in

to the shore

washing it all away.


whooping slides and fluttering cries of gulls

the gravity and the light

the swell and pull of the tide

like the moment just before

a kiss



I’ve been scratching

at this doorpost for so long now

the paint has peeled back

the wood has splintered

my nails chipped and torn

the pads of my paws blistered.

I think I should probably stop but there

seems to be some disconnect between my toes

and my will

i will

won’t you

open the door. . .



long after the king had thrown his feathers into the air

long after the three boys had decided to settle their affairs

the queen appeared in the form of a toad

green and wet and slippery

and she laid down the law

in the form of a great carpet

inscribed upon which was  a mazy marking

the center of which was a great tree

from which grew a beautiful wish fulfilling jewel

like crystal water that flowed into the air

and fell to the earth like the webs of a spider

made of snow

and from the roots of the tree

which spread out into the four directions

four mice scattered toward the sun

which sunk below the western horizon

and as the night settled over the land

and all the people found their rest at last

the heart of the king beat its last

and the queen had finally found surrender.


via Daily Prompt: Quartet