Monthly Archives: July 2014

School Day Memories, and a Call for Better Funding

For the majority of its 202 pages, Lewis Buzbee’s Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom is a lovingly written and unremarkable school-days memoir. What makes it a worthwhile read is that Buzbee mixes his recollections with notes on how California’s education system, and America’s, have declined since he was a student in the 60’s and 70’s, and calls for change.

Buzbee also touches on the history of education, tracking the development of innovations such as kindergarten and blackboards, and compares his experiences with those of his daughter, currently in high school. At its most significant, however, Blackboard is a call for schools to be better-funded so that today’s students can have the same opportunities that Buzbee did.

There’s nothing particularly unique about Buzbee’s story: a working-class student reaches the middle class through the opportunities provided to him by public education. This is, he reminds us, a good thing. When he praises the educators who helped make him who he is today, he doesn’t hold them up as exceptions; through them, he praises public education as a whole. “My teachers,” he writes, “were only exceptional in that they were exceptionally ordinary. I mean this as the highest praise. School, when it works as we know it can, is more available and ordinary than the movie version. This is school’s ultimate triumph, that it is so common.” This “exceptionally ordinary” resource has become less so over the past few decades, due largely, Buzbee writes, to underfunding.

The author’s love for his teachers, and learning itself, shines throughout Blackboard. He recalls how his teachers encouraged him to write and helped him learn about the world, often on their own time and despite their meager salaries. Of a teacher who helped him navigate his adolescence against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, he writes “I was stepping into an ever more confusing world, but there was a mentor beside me now, a guide who, ill paid for her efforts, freely offered her space and time.” He repeatedly writes, acknowledging both the cliché and its truth, that school saved him—he went wayward after losing his father to a heart attack in 7th grade, but his teachers helped set him on a path to college and future success.

He also praises a style of teaching with more memorization, discipline, and discomfort on the student’s end than in vogue today. Here’s a rhapsody on drilling the times tables: “Today, when I’m required to multiply, I look up and away—a natural instinct—gazing somewhere into my past, and there are numbers, waiting for me, the chant still running through my head and my body.” He also writes that, while he grew close to many of his teachers, they were ultimately mentors, never peers. Last November’s memoir Strings Attached praised a similar teaching style through a Ukrainian-born music teacher who embodied it, but more explicitly, and with a slew of asides about coddled-kids-these-days thankfully absent from Blackboard.

Though Buzbee briefly mentions that all the characters in a reader were White, he rarely acknowledges that while the schools in his day may have been better funded, they were also less inclusive. This is another case of a White liberal growing nostalgic for the “good old days” that only he benefited from. It’s not particularly egregious, though, because today, Buzbee calls for better schools for everybody.

As much as I enjoyed Blackboard, I can’t help but wish that some passages had been further developed (like the one about the teacher quoted above) and others had been excised (like one in which Buzbee catalogs the contents of a student’s desk). Most of this book is written in general recollections rather than scenes, making it hazy and sometimes dull.

Perhaps this reflects on the genre more than the book. In memoir, unlike fiction, you can’t make stuff up, so the memoirist has to step into generalities where a novelist could invent something clear and specific. A novel, however, couldn’t make an explicit call for better-funded schools (though it could still make an effective one).

Apart from its literary qualities, Blackboard is commendable for presenting the unpleasant truth that schools can be reformed, but all that has got to be well funded for it to work. Fiscal conservatives may disagree with it, but everyone should appreciate the candor of Buzbee’s conclusion: “read my lips: raise my taxes!”

–Available 8/5 from Graywolf Press


Mary Gordon’s The Liar’s Wife Gives its Characters Compassion and Scrutiny

The characters in these four lovely novellas—mostly Americans in Europe, and vice-versa—are often torn between greatness and happiness, between practical matters and philosophical concerns.

Take, for example, Genevieve, a Frenchwoman living in New York City during WWII in “Simone Weil in New York.” She spends her days caring for her toddler son and her crippled brother, a scholar, as her American husband fights overseas. When she meets the title character, the philosophy teacher she once idolized, she recognizes that domestic responsibilities have overtaken the life of the mind she pursued as a schoolgirl:

She had believed, once, that it was possible to grasp reality through thought. That it was a human being’s most important responsibility: to understand reality through the labor of the mind.
She no longer thinks this way.
What has taken its place?
Something she calls getting on with life. Something she calls, now, living.

Genevieve also feels guilty for being removed from tragedy, and has run into the expectations that can keep women from fully participating in public life (she recalls that during puberty, a girl’s “gallantry…[is] required to transform itself into the smaller compass of maternal ardor”). This is felt throughout The Liar’s Wife, by, among others, an elderly American woman getting in touch with her Irish ex-husband (the title novella), or an American art scholar travelling in Italy after the breakup of an affair (“Fine Arts”).

Gordon’s prose guides the reader through the characters’ thoughts, often step-by-step as in the passage above. The characters feel, and they act upon their feelings, but they examine and question them as well, making this book tender but never sappy.

The collection’s only misstep is at the end of the last novella, “Fine Arts,” where a generous twist of fate makes things a little too easy on the protagonist—she can now avoid the consequences of the choice she made just a few pages earlier. I’m not categorically opposed to happy endings, but at its most useful, literature can show us how people deal with disappointment, not that we can have our cake and eat it too. For the most part, The Liar’s Wife succeeds in that.

–Available from Pantheon on 8/5

An Intimate (if Intermittently Boring) Look at a Guilty Psyche

Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog follows the intricate, guilt-ridden thoughts of an unnamed American expatriate working at a fund controlled by a wealthy family in Dubai. Plot threads—such as the disappearance of a fellow expatriate, or the narrator’s babysitting his boss’ dull teenage son—come and go, but most of this novel takes place in the narrator’s head.

He examines, and often rationalizes, his inaction in the face of the wrongs around and within him. After musing on the situation of immigrant construction workers in Dubai, he concludes that “I have run the numbers, and I’m satisfied that I have given the situation of the foreign labor corps, and my relation to it, an appropriate measure of consideration and action.” Such trains of thought aren’t commendable, but they’re honest—he’s not the only one who pushes a social issue out of thought because of how little he can do about it.  (In his defense, he does speak of making a monthly donation to a relevant NGO.) Coupled with moments of vulnerability (“I think what I’ve wanted, most of the time, is someone nice and safe to hang out with.”), these make him a compelling if unsympathetic character, not only a vehicle for musings.

The Dog is an indulgent novel, and much of the time this works in its favor. There are many long, meandering sentences that make up long, meandering passages on topics including the narrator’s stamps, or the relief he feels when he’s on the toilet. The best of such passages illuminate his psyche, but some, particularly the technical, faux-legal ones, merely revisit his earlier thoughts and add nothing but clunky prose.

It’s tempting to say that The Dog could have been a slimmer and better-edited novel, but as the boring and compelling bits are so tightly interwoven, it’s hard to see how O’Neill or an editor could have taken out one without removing the other as well. The dull stretches here are the tolerable byproducts of such an intimate look at a guilty inner life.

–Available 9/9 from Pantheon Press

In Brief: Eric Liu’s A Chinaman’s Chance

In A Chinaman’s Chance, TIME contributor and former Clinton speechwriter Eric Liu weaves between history, politics, linguistics and memoir as he explores the significance of being Chinese American. (He eschews the hyphen often placed between those two words, for reasons he explains in one of the brief asides between chapters.) A recurring idea is that some Chinese values, particularly the Confucian sense of obligation, can help foster “a vision of patriotism in America that’s more about barn raising and D-Day and less about rugged individualism and lone cowboys.” Liu’s rhetorical flourishes are often breathless and mundane (“This was an age when thesis and antithesis sat side by side without any imminent prospect of synthesis.”), but that’s forgivable. This book has the potential to enlighten both well-intentioned Whites who think discussions of race are unnecessary or oversensitive, and Chinese (and other Asian) Americans struggling with questions of identity.
-Published July 8th by Public Affairs