Sunday Soliloquy: Flames Ignite Flames

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Hey y’all, sorry to have been ghost for a while,

I just got back from a short road trip up to the Tampa Bay area, and I have to say that I witnessed one of the coolest, craziest, and most terrifyingly awesome things I’ve ever seen in my life. On the road up and on the way back, I witnessed a massive forest fire in Big Cypress National Park. On my way up to the Tampa, Saturday night, you could see the glow and the flames from the beginning of Alligator Alley (Interstate 75, that cuts across the state) and for a solid ten-fifteen minutes I was driving adjacent to the fire, fully visible in the distance. On my way back, it was daylight, and what I thought was a rain cloud revealed itself to be smoke from the still burning fires, two days later. I was driving through a reddish gray cloud of smoke, my car was illuminated as if I was driving through a tunnel. I was truly shaken to my core.

Fire is a beautiful and dangerous element. As a long time fan of the Avatar and Legend of Korra series, I find it hard not to recognize that fact. The truth is, that beauty from a distance, that coolness, spells the end of life for so many living organisms and ecosystems. I have to respect the fire for it is powerful. I have to admire it because it is beautiful.

Now I can’t say that the fire experience had consciously led to this, but I found myself writing more background information for a fantasy series I’ve been ideating for years. Thinking about the different elements and how they work together, how fire destroys wood, but leaves room for new life; how in enough abundance fire can withstand even some heavier rain; how fire and water regularly cancel each other out. I can’t say that I’ll ever “publish” the work because it feels extremely derivative of a lot of different stories that I’ve encountered in film, in anime, in books, but the exercise is helpful. For the first time in a long time, I felt my mind developing aspects of a world, adjusting placements to allow for better and more interesting conflict. I dropped the pressure of writing a story from beginning to end, a practice I learned about years ago, but never really practiced until this weekend. I sat for hours working on one scene/section would likely never make it into a “final” or even “rough” manuscript because it felt so pivotal to the fabric of the world. It was invigorating, it was tremendous.

Honestly, I never felt like I could write fiction, whether in short story or in long form. I may not actually succeed in drafting this project…but I definitely feel like I am better for putting pen to paper (figuratively). I’ll let you know how it goes. I might even post some samples over the course of the years that I spend writing it.

Have a great week!

Peace,

Rafi

Sunday Soliloquys: Discussing Dear White People Pt. 1

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Good morning interwebs and a Happy Mother’s Day to all the Mothers and Mother Figures on earth.

Today I decided to forgo my general trend of writing my soliloquys at night and chose to instead write on this bright and sunny morning. I hope that’s ok with y’all!

Recently I binged the Netflix show, Dear White People, after enjoying several aspects of the source film and, to put it bluntly, both have some major issues. The film largely suffered from the spectacle of the film and inexperience of its creator (first major film). The show, while more detailed and developed, suffers from the need to draw grandiose spectacles and the inexperience of its writers (creator and others).

The glory of the show is that it provided opportunities for several Black writers and filmmakers to try their hand at an aspect of the “satire” (I’ll explain the quotation marks soon). The show is a character film cast over the course of a five hour show…much more in line with the works of Ingmar Bergman, who was often hailed as creator Justin Simien’s greatest influence. The directing for the show was absolutely terrific. The actors brought life and charm to their characters. Unfortunately, the writing often left them flat. The writing also suffered from the need to make these very real experiences a spectacle to get its satirical message across, a message that falls on its face often because the satire isn’t self-aware enough. To put it simply, Dear White People is a series that is saved by its novelty, its direction, and actors. The writing, from both a technical and critical perspective, fails to fully enliven and develop its characters, its situations, and fails to create enough of a suspension of disbelief.

Both technically and critically, Dear White People, is written in a clunky and hokey way. Many of the conflicts present in the show feel shoe-horned in, or are generated simply because that is what media based in young adult environments should have. Frankly, everyone’s personal motivation is to find someone or to deal with their love or lust for another character BEFORE the other conflicts. Lionel wants Troy (or someone that he can have). Sam wants Gabe (but also Reggie for a short period of time). Jo wants Reggie. Reggie wants Sam. Troy wants A$$. CoCo wants Troy (or suitable male equivalent). To be real, even Kurt Fletcher, problematic provocateur, WANTS Sam. He lusts for her “power”. All of the show’s relationships are tethered around sexual or romantic attraction, for their person, or for their power.

A more self-aware satirical series might underscore this main critical point related to character motivations: “Everyone wants something” in a more nuanced manner. Instead of the message reading as “no matter where you go, there will always be personal relationships for love, lust, power, prestige, and, realistically, survival…”, the theme here is more legible as “Young people’s political pursuits will always be problematized by love and lust”. Romantic relationships have bearing on activist and political projects, BUT they aren’t the only relationship that can derail or distort them. Romance and lust aren’t the only things that leave activists confused and uncertain about how to continue on. However, the vast majority of the show’s conflicts, the ones that get the most screen time, are based on lust or romance. Not fire.

In light of the show’s personal conflicts between characters, the larger political conflicts are also presented inauthentically. The show’s setting itself, at fictional Winchester University, a 9th Ivy League school, is never fully fleshed out in writing whether via dialogue or exposition. Clearly it’s a PWI (pre-dominantly White institution), but as someone who graduated from a larger Ivy (Penn), the school seems more Dartmouth (under 5,000 undergraduate students) than Harvard (6,000+). It’s also definitely not one of the city Ivy’s like Penn (Philly), Brown (Providence), Columbia (New York), or Harvard (Boston) for that matter. The political turmoil that is only partially race-based on Winchester’s campus happens conveniently in an environment where, besides the campus, there aren’t very many other political battles.

*****

Wow, so that got very intense very fast. I definitely have a lot to say about the show. I’ll stop my soliloquy here, but I definitely want to continue expressing my thoughts on the show. Look for a follow-up sometime in the next week!

Peace,

Rafi

Morning Musings: The End of A Journey

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Two years ago, in about a week or so, I will be two years removed from my graduation from the University of Pennsylvania. Two years removed from the stress and rigors of an Ivy-League Education in the 21st century. Two years removed from the feeling of dread that came on as I realized I was ending a journey and parting ways with, to date, the greatest people that I know. And today I’m beginning the end of my first adult journey.

By this time next week, the restrictions and strains of a long school year will be loosened and, in many ways, lifted. My second crop of AP English Language students are taking their AP exam as we speak. My second crop of high school juniors will be taking their end-of-course exam Friday, Monday, and Tuesday. And thus, for all intents and purposes, my journey as a TFA teacher is all but complete.

In the span of these two years I’ve learned quite a lot about myself, the educational system in the struggling communities that frame my own childhood and adolescent realms of living, and far more importantly, I’ve developed a myriad and variety of bonds with the first future leaders of “Generation Z”. I’d  never say that it was an easy journey, but to say that it wasn’t rewarding would be to tell a lie of Trumpian magnitude. It’s been worth it.

And yet, despite my passion, love, and desire to support my roughly 400 students over these past two years, I’ve learned something else that is weighing heavily on my now: I’m not as competent as I wish I was; even more sadly, I’m viewed as competent enough to many people. I was discussing this reality with one of my students, Lyric. She was going through the angst-fueled musings of a highly effective and ambitious student just yesterday. She noted how most people’s expectations of her fall far below her own lofty expectations for herself. She was struggling with the strings of people’s acceptance of what she would note as her above-average, not stellar work.

I’ve seen these kinds of thoughts in many other students, whether as a teacher or as a student myself. I’ve also had similar thoughts, moreso now that an ever increasing number of my students call me one of the best teachers they’ve had. As a quasi-perfectionist who made considerable efforts in middle school to “go more with the flow”, it irks me. I learned very quickly WHY many students would say this, especially at the school that I teach at.

My students give me that badge, that accolade, because I present learning as a flexible concept. Knowledge is not only fixed. Instead it is malleable, and more importantly, it is not restricted to the academic realm. Over these two years, my students have been vulnerable about things that they value. They’ve written poetry about themselves and their experiences. They’ve analyzed rap music and movies. And they’ve written A LOT. Yet, for some reason, probably very good reasons, most of my students would tell you that my class is easy (maybe not my AP students this year, but you could ask them). I joked to one of my Honors students this year that my AP class was my “[honors] class on steroids” and her response was: “we barely do any work in here”. I chuckled at the time, but her response made me again consider my competency. We didn’t AND don’t do a lot of work in my Honors class. Compared to my AP class, and even compared to my counterpart next door. Yet even with my feelings of not pushing my students enough I start to think relatively.

My student population is a tricky one. Students whose parents are wealthy nursery, landowners, and old money wealthy study with middle class kids whose parents are store managers, teachers, firefighters, and both study with a large mass of students whose parents, or themselves, are immigrants, working class, and low income. At the beginning of this school year, only 34% of the roughly 700 juniors at the school had demonstrated acceptable achievement on their state English exams. All of my junior English classes (4) are Honors, and a little more than half of them had not passed their exams.

Last year my regular students complained that when we read stories from the textbook, we didn’t listen to the audio. Most of them were still reading with their fingers. They had never really considered the value of their life experiences and their family history; they struggled to do creative projects that asked them questions about themselves. This year my Honors students complain about doing work (because why would students want to?), but we read. The teacher next door’s students listen to audio, but they answer every single question in the textbook for the selected story. I choose which questions my students answer and HOW they answer them (with a partner, independently, as a class). I extend some two sentence answers to short responses. We also share a lot about each other. We learn each others’ goals. We learn each others’ struggles. We develop a classroom relationship and culture that varies from period to period.

I’m not a perfect teacher. Yet I firmly believe that if my students build on the foundations that we’ve developed together, they WILL be OK. Systemic oppression is a mofo. It will shatter dreams, shatter lives. But if my students continue to reflect, to question, and to seek help, they’ll piece themselves back together no matter what happens. I’m confident about that in a way that many of my peers are not because I’ve seen people come up. I don’t believe that I alone will be the reason why my kids can and will be successful, but I recognize that I have impact. As the curtain falls on my final year as a TFA Corps Member, and my penultimate year of teaching (God Willing), I won’t forget that mantra that I picked up in life and that I will unpack here: “Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best”. As an educator, I will continue to give students the tools they need to be their best selves through English and any other medium or subject that I am instructed to teach. The worst is oppression, mental health, trauma, family emergencies, life circumstances; the best is my students. The ones who believe fervently that they’ll be successful if they work at it AND the ones who need a few more people to keep that idea on their radar. If we spread the skills (academic and personal), and pass the knowledge on (again, academic and personal), our people will make it. Period.

That doesn’t mean that every student in the hood will be a doctor. But every “well-off” kid won’t either. It means that ONE DAY, every student in America (plus the World) will have the opportunity to maximize their potential through education. And as long as I’m a living person, I am committed to that goal.

It’s been a great two years, and I’ve got about a month to go. Excited for the my students continued excellence.

Peace,

 

Rafi

Sunday Soliloquy: Origins

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Today, I’ve been thinking a lot about origins. Where my family is from, what history we’ve made, and how I’ll pass that all down to my hypothetical sons and daughters.

A lot of this reflection has come from my 23andMe results. They came in last Sunday and I discovered…surprise, surprise, that I’m almost 95% African descended. My hunch that my granny’s grandmother was half English or Irish was also semi-confirmed. However, just having the DNA data hasn’t been enough for me. There’s something missing when all you have is data and you don’t have the stories.

More and more as I grow and develop as a young adult, I find myself being drawn to the stories of everyday life. Everyday heroes. Unsung foundations and cornerstones of change, of community, of culture. In her acceptance speech for her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Viola Davis asked us to “Exhume the bodies” of those hidden figures, dead and gone. I’m interested in extoling the lives and exploring the experiences of those hidden figures that are still living. One of my favorite books growing up was Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom, where the title character challenged the people in his life to give him a “living funeral” as he was dying from ALS. Right now, I feel that more people need to have a space to reflect on their lives and to understand that they have had impact. Too often, people question or ignore the value of their experiences because  they are everyday life and no one seems to write about or make movies about these experiences.

I’d like to change that. Starting with my grandmother and moving from person to person as the connections build and the desires expand. My drive to collect, spread, and develop the skills and comfort with sharing life experiences is a major force in my work as a teacher. I provide many an opportunity for students to understand that their lives and experiences can be valid. That these experiences can be keys to new doors and to more fulfilling experiences. If I’ve had no other impact on my students than that, I’ll say that I was successful and effective.

That’s what’s on my head tonight!

I’ll be back next week! Have a good one,

 

Peace

Rafi