Producing Culture, Provoking Empathy

I am continuing to puzzle over the intuitive leap I made the other day to “There is no transcendence, only empathy.” If you haven’t read the post about that, you probably should do so before you read what follows. Today I’m writing about other ways of trying to understand creative work. For better or worse, much of this post is going to be in an academic mode, though I’ll do my best to clarify any jargon. Ready? Here we go.

There’s a game academics play that involves reducing your dissertation to a single sentence. Mine (which you can find a link to in the “works” tab) boils down to “music is a product of its time.” This is a pretty common conclusion for musicologists to reach. It is also, on its face, facile. How could something not be a product of its time? Is it instead something from the future, accidentally abandoned by time travelers? Seriously.

I find, though, that a lot of nonacademics need reminders of this common sense point. People—westerners, anyway—have a tendency to buy wholesale into both Romantic mythologies of music and the ancient Classical ideas of music of the spheres and universal harmony. This pushes music, especially “classical” music (stuff written for the concert hall) into a transcendental space, and leads to utter nonsense like “music is a universal language.” (Uuuuuuugh.) I listened to somebody at a workshop (for English teachers) expound enthusiastically on this idea as he explained how he was learning about jazz. (Aside: music is not a language. The semiotics of music are hella messy and culturally constrained. Philosophers who write about music frequently have unhealthy fixations on the European canon and zero understanding of any kind of nonwestern music.)

Music is cultural production. It is made by people, mostly for people. As cultural production, it is limited by cultural constraints. That doesn’t mean innovation is impossible, only that it is limited. You can do crazy things from inside cultural context! Late Beethoven (especially the quartets), for example, is a marvelous cul-de-sac of musical geometries that have only tenuous connections to what surrounded them. Even rebellion takes its form from what it rebels against.

Anyway. My idea about empathy as a kind of transcendence sidesteps the question of cultural production. Fundamentally, “there is no transcendence, only empathy” occupies a shaky conceptual space that is simultaneously about audience response and about the ontology (philosophy of existence) of art. The transcendence-empathy theory also involves epistemology (philosophy of knowledge), because it suggests something about how art functions to encode and convey understanding. Culture doesn’t come into it until you get several layers in.

I leaned a lot, in my dissertation, on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu wrote about culture and power;  the idea of “cultural capital” derives from his work. (Cultural capital is the set of knowledge and skills that marks one as an elite without necessarily involving material power. As an academic with a broad liberal arts education, I have a ton of cultural capital despite what I get paid as a high school teacher.) Bourdieu writes about “field” and “habitus.” Field is the available conceptual space. The field of cultural production, for example, includes everything from romance novels to symphonies. (There are axes to the field, usually, but they’re not mandatory to understanding the concept.) The field of power, which Bourdieu (and I) spend a lot of time on, is a way of understanding who has power and who doesn’t. Habitus is the way individuals navigate the field.

auditorium chairs comfortable concert

You have some expectations about what you do in a place like this. That’s the field at work. [Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com]

Bourdieu’s theory doesn’t touch empathy or anything about the semiotics of art…at least beyond representing spaces in the cultural field and field of power. By Bourdieu’s theory, concert hall music (“classical”) occupies a space in the field closely aligned to the field of power. Think about the stereotypical image of a classical concert: musicians in tuxedos and black gowns, wealthy older people dressed up for a night out. There’s a lot of stereotyping in that image, but there are reasons it exists. It’s important to understand that music’s place in the field changes over history. Opera, which carries the same associations as classical instrumental music, began as a display of aristocratic wealth and became popular entertainment before gradually resuming its place as music for the elite.

So where does empathy fit into that? Let’s go back to the specific works I mentioned—particularly the Vincent Valdez paintings. Like most artists, Valdez occupies many different spaces in the field depending on how we’re looking at it—as a Latino from San Antonio, as an art school graduate, as a recipient of grants and awards. I saw his work in a museum on the campus of a state university, which has its own place in the field and lends a certain institutional credibility. By working in a “prestigious” medium (painting) and having that work displayed in an institution with authority (the Blanton), Valdez occupies a space in the artistic field that aligns to a significant degree with the field of power. None of that takes away his experiences navigating the broader field of power as a human being.

This is how we fit the one thing into the other. Art as a vehicle for empathy rather than transcendence can bridge distances in the field of power, even if the work as a cultural object is limited to a specific spot in the field (concretely as the museum, abstractly as a work in a medium with high cultural weight). Conceiving of art as cultural production doesn’t automatically preclude the intuition that I had at the museum. I can look at Valdez’s work and experience it empathetically despite the raft of privileges that go with standing in an art museum on a Wednesday afternoon.

I’m still not convinced that “There is no transcendence, only empathy,” entirely holds together. Experiencing art empathetically is great, but ignores many of the other elements of cultural production that affect the work, the creator, and the audience. The paintings that provoke an empathetic response in me won’t do the same for everybody else, because my experience is mediated by all the things I bring into a museum with me. The harder we push to universalize, the more the holes in the idea show.

Can something be true without being universal? Probably! Next post in this series is going to come at the question of empathy and transcendence from the other side, focusing on where our western idea of transcendental art comes from.

Thoughts?

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Mucking Up History

Worldbuilding is weird work. The goal is to create something that seems real to the reader, something with consistent rules, with both breadth and depth. It must be—or at least appear to be—plausible. Sometimes, people can get away with thin worldbuilding. Movies do it all the time. Give the audience just enough information to guess about what is going on, and move on before they can start considering details. Novels can’t just sub in special effects in the same way, but there are plenty of ways to suggest a world without actually building it.

This is trickier in fantasy, especially if the stories involve such mundane concerns as travel, economics, or politics. Or food. If you have characters drinking tea and coffee, it has to come from somewhere. You can handwave a certain amount of that, but the more specific your handwaved details, the greater the chance that you create the kind of snag that trips the reader out of the fiction.

Verisimilitude comes in degrees, as does similarity to the real world. George R.R. Martin has been lauded (sometimes) for making his work resemble European history. He’s made public statements about wanting to avoid the vague medievalisms of older high fantasy. Those claims are questionable. I read a blog post several years ago about just how selectively Martin picked the models for his events, and how messed up Westeros would actually be if the events in the novels actually played out. (Among the problems: massive peasant revolts.) I spent half an hour trying to dig up that specific post without any luck, but many of the same points are made by the Public Medievalist here. It’s great work by some great scholars.

The author of the missing post made a point about worldbuilding that stuck with me: everything in a fantasy world is there by the author’s choice. If you put in rape, or racism, or authoritarian ethnostates…that’s an authorial choice. You can claim verisimilitude, as Martin frequently has, but “verisimilitude” is a choice. As the author, you choose not only what is in the book, but what is in the foreground and what is in the background.

I am quite happy to have sidestepped medievalism questions. (I haven’t been able to write high fantasy stuff for most of the last twenty years, at least outside the context of specific RPGs.) The initial inspiration for Ghosts of the Old City was actually a paper I heard at a musicology conference on theater (musical and otherwise) in early 19th-Century New Orleans. I wanted trains and pistols and such.

This led to a different set of problems and a lot of research. The history of trains. The history of firearms. More importantly, it led me into politics. While they’re only in the background in Ghosts, they’re much more prominent in Spires of Trayan. That novel involves an attempted revolution meant to echo European events from 1848.

That drags you into economics, too, and leads to such fun questions as “what would the Industrial Revolution have looked like without chattel slavery?” Much different! Cotton produced via slavery and colonialism produced the explosive growth in production that, among other things, fueled the development of railroads. British textile mills were, at one time, making so much profit that their owners were having a hard time finding things to invest in. They settled on railroads.

I decided that I didn’t want chattel slavery in my books, and that I didn’t want colonialism to operate the way it did in our actual history. Those were decisions I made as the author. I’m still trying to sort out their consequences.

Part of the way I’m doing that is through reading history. Writers are magpies; we steal from any hopper we can get into. I’m learning things, but there’s a constant undercurrent of “what do I do with this?” and “how can I mess with this?” I’ve found myself drawing maps and writing encyclopedia entries that nobody is likely to see. None of the books involve such extensive travel that the reader will need a map to keep track of things. If I’m filling the history with war and political tumult, though, I need to know where things are. That’s why I’m gradually filling in this map:

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The vast majority of the work that I’m doing will only appear around the edges. References to foreign places as a character walks through a market, filling in secondary characters, occasional references to foodstuffs or factories and such. It adds up, though. Those little things are part of what makes a world plausible. The details matter, and it matters that they’re not selected arbitrarily. (Gene Wolfe is a master of this.)

None of this is meant to be a “how to.” There are writers who do awesome things with deep dives into exposition, and others who use a dinner plate to suggest volumes. My tastes tend toward the latter. What’s been most fun for me this summer is approaching history inquisitively and acquisitively, layering choices to create a world that is bigger than my characters, even if it will be smaller than their stories.

We Make Because We Must

I spent most of Wednesday afternoon at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas. I’d last been there two years earlier, when some of the exhibits were in the midst of renovation. There’s definitely something to be said for the experience of walking around quietly, looking at things humans have made. The Blanton’s current visiting exhibit is of Aboriginal art. That blew me away because its system of representation is profoundly distinct from Western modes, a difference more profound than anything I’ve encountered with natural language. I am still trying to make sense of it.

When I’d worked a little on digesting the visiting exhibition, I dutifully went upstairs and set in on the ancient European art. It was my usual mode of operation in a museum: I was looking at objects and images and thinking about what I could borrow or transform to use in my writing. In that mode, I was most struck by an ancient Armenian bronze belt. I scribbled some notes about it to perhaps use in a book.

I couldn’t cling to that “I’m a writer in a museum” mode, though, as I moved through the exhibition halls. The next line in my notes is “What place art in a disintegrating society?” The news has been awful. To say “our institutions are under assault” is a lame euphemism for “corruption is destroying our democracy.” Art has seemed so…futile, especially when I’ve been reading about 19th-Century revolutions.

I kept going, though, because I still love art. I particularly wanted to see again some pieces I remembered from my previous visit, two selections from Vincent Valdez’s The Strangest Fruit. These are life-sized paintings of Latino men in the physical attitude of being bound and hanged. The backgrounds are white. Neither noose nor ropes are shown. They hit me. I remembered them and wanted to go back. They hit me again. So did Charles White’s Homage to Sterling Brown, a painting that hadn’t been on display during my previous visit because of renovations. In it, Sterling Brown sits, holding a target before him.

Other works have, of course, arrested my attention. I vividly recall just staring at Picasso’s Woman with a Crow for long, long minutes at the Toledo Museum of Art. The colors of the Blanton’s 17th-Century copperplate paintings hold my attention in the same way. But neither the Picasso nor the copperplates forced me to think the way Valdez and White did.

We Make Because We Must

That was the next thing I wrote down: “We make because we must.” I’ve been messing about with writing with various degrees of seriousness since I was in third grade. (That’s when I first tried to write a novel.) I distinctly remember telling a teammate at an alumni tournament that I was working on my dissertation but kept getting distracted by wanting to write stories. (Best handler I ever played with, and a fine writer himself.) I don’t really seem able to stop.

That drive to make art doesn’t go away just because our hearts are sore. It’s harder. Some days it’s impossible. I don’t have it figured out beyond trying to take breaks from social media (especially Twitter, which seems to be fine-tuned to send me into fury or despair). Some days I get things written. Some days I don’t. Some days I do a bit of research. Some days I just stare out the window and think about made-up places.

There is no transcendence, only empathy.

When I was in high school, a wonderful English teacher got me the opportunity to go to a writing workshop near Sun Valley. While out in the woods near a stream, I was, for lack of a better term, thunderstruck by a poem. The world slowed down and sped up simultaneously. I could not make the words come out of my fingers as fast as they were coming to my brain. It was a paroxysm of language that felt more like a beast I was riding than a poem I was writing. I thought then that I had found some kind of transcendence.

The closest I ever really came to re-experiencing that feeling was a few years later during a breakdown. The quality of feeling like a spectator to my own mind, of grappling with something impossibly large, was nearly the same. I did not for an instant think of it as transcendence.

That statement up above, “there is no transcendence, only empathy” came to me in the art museum as I reflected on Vincent Valdez’s work, on Charles White’s work. I don’t have an entirely firm grasp on what, precisely, it means, but it resonates for me. It resonates so much for me that for the first time in a very long while I caught myself thinking about Capital-T Truth.

The idea of transcendence I had as a teenager, whether I knew it or not, was Romantic: the solitary artist walks in the wilderness, searching for the sublime. That sublime thing is higher and deeper than our usual perception and understanding, glimpsed and able to be glimpsed only in moments. It was absolutely a Capital-T Truth that only the most profound artists and thinkers could find. When they did, it was transportive.

There’s something to the idea that art can take you outside your habitual boundaries of self. That’s why we fall in love with stories. That’s why I could stare at that Picasso and be sucked in. That’s why I felt the need to return several times to the Valdez paintings, why they stuck with me after my first visit. Beyond the skill of their rendering and the brilliance of the approach, the images pushed me past my habits, past my usual inclinations. That’s empathy, and art puts you in a place where you cannot help it. You can’t “well, actually…” a painting. You can’t fence in a piece of music with questions. You can’t turn away from the discomfort a story might make you feel without turning away from the story itself.

We make art so we can understand. As creators, the process sometimes becomes the understanding. Sometimes we have something specific to say. Sometimes, we even manage to say that thing. We want to be understood even if—especially if—what we’re expressing can’t be articulated. Sound transcendental? Maybe. But there’s a hell of a difference between Ferdinand David’s wanderer up on his foggy hilltop, looking for something beyond human experience, and looking at Charles White’s interpretation of Sterling Brown against a backdrop of the man’s achievements even as he sits holding a brightly-colored target.

None of this means art “must” be about social justice, or about politics, or about experiences that cross the vast gulfs humans have collectively inflicted on one another. (Be wary of anybody who says “art must.”) We can make art about what we know intimately, experience things that remind us of what we already understand. Those are choices we face as makers. We just have to remember that choosing to avoid hard questions doesn’t make them go away, and that the avoidance is also a choice.

As a fantasy writer, there’s a degree of escape in my work. If I want to write a world that never experienced chattel slavery, I get to do that (although it leads to a lot of questions about what an industrial revolution might look like). I can tell myself “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and just do it. Try it, anyway. I make because I must.

Really, though, I make stories and go experience art because art is a place where empathy lives. We make because we must, because we wish to understand and to be understood and to connect, whether it’s with another person or an idea or an experience. It’s awesome, in both the casual and formal senses of the word.

We make because we must; there is no transcendence, only empathy. I feel like those are semi-colon close, and want to keep working on figuring out how.

Bones?

NfN: Garth Nix’s Sabriel

I brought home Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy (which has expanded to include five novels and two novellas) from my classroom library with competing, vague senses that I had read the first book before and also that I “should” read it. I thought I had read Sabriel, the first novel, in middle school, which, given the publication date, is impossible. I think, at some point in the past, I must have picked it up and read part of it. Reading it yesterday, I certainly didn’t have the sense I’d read it before. Mostly, I wanted something to hold my attention away from the news and social media. Happily, I found a good book.

Overview

Sabriel is the titular character of the first novel in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. At 18, she is just about ready to graduate from boarding school when her family history catches up with her. That family history comes from the other side of the Wall, a magical construct that (mostly) divides the kingdom of Ancelstierre from the Old Kingdom. Ancelstierre has early 20th century technology (cars, machine guns, and electric lights). The Old Kingdom instead has magic of a sort that keeps technology from functioning. Some magic bleeds across the Wall, particularly when the wind comes out of the Old Kingdom. Sabriel’s boarding school is close enough to draw on that magic, but the farther south one travels, the more magic ebbs.

The Plot

After the prologue, we first see Sabriel resurrecting a fellow student’s pet bunny. Shortly thereafter, she receives a sending from her father, Abhorsen, delivering her his sword and bells. (The bells are used by necromancers to bind and manipulate the dead.) Intent on finding her father, Sabriel leaves school, crosses the wall, and discovers that “Abhorsen” is a title, not a name, and that with her father dead (it’s complicated), she must become the Abhorsen. She struggles to rescue her father with the help of Mogget, who is not actually a cat, and, eventually, Touchstone, a young man displaced in time. They battle the restless dead, and eventually confront the Big Bad.

It’s a brisk adventure story that touches on enough of personal and setting history to make the relatively small cast shine.

The Cool Thing to Consider

I said “brisk.” I meant it. This novel flies, particularly in the first half.

Pacing is a tricky beast, one I wrangled with a lot as I hashed out the beta draft to Ghosts of the Old City (which I finally finished on Monday, incidentally). Too fast, and you end up with an action movie: trying to solve plot holes by jumping over them fast enough that the audience doesn’t notice. Taken to extremes, you end up losing the meaningful connections between events that make “plot” more than “sequence.” Too slow, and you lose the reader in a morass of…whatever your slowdown is (exposition, tangents, sidequests, S. Morgenstern’s loving descriptions of trees…).

Sabriel is brilliantly paced. The prologue sets a tone and suggests the mysteries that will come in the novel proper. We get fifteen pages to establish Sabriel-the-student and receive the mysterious package, both, followed by just enough time at the Wall to give us a hint of the Abhorsen’s responsibilities and the dangers that creep the Old Kingdom. All together (prologue included), that takes us to page 62.

The next 130 pages are, effectively, an extended chase scene. Sabriel is pursued by her enemies, finding respite briefly enough that she can do little but refresh her resources. It is not until her headlong flight results in a literal crash that Nix allows the reader to pause for breath. This is a risk for a number of reasons. First, Sabriel doesn’t have much to interact with. It is hard to reveal new aspects of a character when you keep her in the same situation. Second, it’s difficult to get the right balance of power for the opposition. Nix needs it to be overwhelming enough to chase Sabriel from even her best refuge, but not so overwhelming that the reader doubts the plausibility of her continued escape.

Nix manages this by altering the terms of the chase, gradually amplifying the magical interventions as Sabriel gets further and further away from the Wall. (This, in itself, is a neatly done bit of macro-scale writing.) Sabriel begins her journey on skis. After a fight with a frightening (but somewhat easily beaten) monster, she soon has to abandon her skis as a more powerful enemy appears behind her. This enemy could clearly overpower her…until she reaches a sanctuary that seems to offer protection. Then the fresh enemy proves to have resources capable of breaching that sanctuary, forcing Sabriel to flee once more via more powerful magic…

Framed this way, it sounds like simple escalation. It does not read like simple escalation, though, because Sabriel’s emotional state provides continuity. As readers, we see her fear, her frustration, her bewilderment. By keeping us grounded in the single character’s perspective, Nix is able to use what goes on around Sabriel to pretty incredible effect. That’s how he manages to zip along to the soft reset that occurs about 200 pages in without losing the reader or the thread of his narrative.

(After Sabriel’s crash, the story pivots from her flight to her assumption of the quest “proper,” and the pacing, while still great, works in the more usual way.)

What We Nick from this Novel

There are many ways to counterbalance pace. For Nix in the first part of Sabriel, that counterbalance is characterization. To a lesser extent, it’s also worldbuilding. Nix can whisk us along through quite a lot of material because he balances the frenetic pace of the action with what we’ll need to understand later in the novel. The reverse can apply, too, balancing slow parts of the action with dynamic changes to character.

Alternative lesson: take your chases to interesting places. Give your characters some interesting places to and modes of travel as they run for their lives or chase down their nemeses.

The Abhorsen Trilogy is available as a boxed set (ISBN: 978-0-06-073419-0). Sabriel, as a single volume, can be found with ISBN 978-0-06-447183-1.

Thinking Cap Swap

capsforsale

(Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina)

The parallel universe in which I hold graduate degrees in English isn’t that far from this one. For some reason, it never occurred to me to not go to graduate school. (I’m not entirely sure why this was, but it’s probably related to the time when somebody called a family reunion asking for Dr. _____________ and it could have been any one of seven people.) The only real question for me was whether I’d do English or music. I’d backed my way into my music major. (Instrumental lesson waivers are a gateway drug.) English seemed like a natural fit. I’d always been good with words. Why didn’t I dance with the one what brung me?

The short answer? I was sick of close reading. It felt less like a particular kind of thinking cap and more like a straitjacket.

I was never quite a traditional English major. My department allowed me to carve out a plan that balanced literature classes and creative writing classes. This allowed me sufficient training in literary theory and good writing that I started hating some of the genre fiction I’d so loved in high school. It never made me fall in love with “literary” writing, though, because so much of the stuff took itself so very, very seriously. It felt pretentious and the way we read it felt even more so. I wanted to read books without having to pick them apart.

I had a student this year who complained bitterly about Jane Eyre. It will be her Tess of the d’Urbervilles—a novel that I read and hated in high school and am still somewhat bitter about. I don’t feel bad about assigning Jane. There are much worse nineteenth-century novels out there in terms of length or difficulty or things to discuss. I also have a responsibility to get students ready for the exam the College Board writes. That exam include plenty of pre-twentieth century works. Jane Eyre had ample pedagogical merit, even if some students hated it.

The student’s seething made me think about that time at the end of my undergrad when I decided that I couldn’t put myself through who knew how many years of picking apart novels. It felt like killing them. Going for an MFA seemed useless, too, because I’d found my creative writing classes almost as bad as the literary ones for pretentiousness. (To be fair, it came mostly from the students. The professors I worked with at Mac, including the fantastic Wang Ping, were great.) I just didn’t want to hate what I read or wrote.

I’ve done a lot of writing since then, and a lot of reading. Some of it I’ve hated even as I was doing it. (Yay! Grad school!) There’s no doubt I’ve done at least my share of pretentious things, probably more. You don’t make a comparative studies omelette without breaking a few common sense eggs, and I still cringe at some of the things I forced into my master’s thesis. (Mikhail Bakhtin and mature Harry Partch go together better in theory than in practice.) I can’t get away from analysis. I tried! I was going to “just” do composition, but I added music history because I missed writing papers.

What I couldn’t understand—couldn’t have understood, really—when I was developing close reading skills as an undergrad (or, as it felt sometimes, having them inflicted upon me) is that it gets better. Getting better at close reading has meant I can pick up important pieces as I go along without having to let the close reading devour the attention that could be aimed at all the other good stuff in the writing.

Small digression: My college roommate was increasingly obsessed with traditional Irish music. He played it in our dorm room as he worked on learning tunes from recordings. At first, I could tell the tunes apart. Then they all started sounding the same to me, because there are a lot of similar patterns across the various jigs and reels. He insisted that when you listened enough, they started sounding different again.

Close reading is kind of like that. When you’re learning it, it can be miserable because every text becomes this series of discrete semiotic fragments—just a bunch of disassembled jigsaw pieces. Combine that with a 170-year-old text, and I’m sympathetic to the student I mentioned earlier literally burning her copy of Jane Eyre when we were done with it. When you have more practice with close reading, you can spot the shapes of the puzzle pieces without losing sight of the image.

…which doesn’t necessarily stop you from having plenty of pretentious things to say about it.

I have a long “want to write” list this summer, and a lot of related chores: reading up on 1848, revisions on existing pieces, blog posts, essays about some of the great novels I’ve read in the last year. Some of those things require my close reading cap. Other things require the “say something clever” cap. Others—most of them, really—require the “shut up and write” cap. The juggling of such hats isn’t easy. It wasn’t something I could do when I was sixteen and busy hating Tess. It wasn’t something I wanted to do when I was picking graduate programs. Now, it’s something I do out of habit as I bounce between the different paths of my wordwork.

Hopefully the monkeys stay away.

Favorites

My first year of teaching, I somehow ended up emceeing eighth grade graduation. I made a rookie mistake when introducing the class valedictorian: I admitted that she was one of my favorites. I knew that teachers aren’t supposed to have favorite students any more than parents are supposed to have favorite children. We do have favorite students, though. We’re human beings, and can’t help it.

What a lot of students don’t get, though, is that there’s not always much correlation between the students who are good at school and the students who are teachers’ favorites. It is definitely easier to get along with students who behave in your class, who get all their work turned in, who are respectful when they have questions. That stuff does matter, but personality matters, too. I’ve been pretty fond of students who think I dislike them. (They think I dislike them because they’re frequently on the wrong side of 70 in my class.) One of my favorites from this year actually ended up completing English IV in credit recovery.

(Please don’t ask me about credit recovery. There will be ranting.)

Graduation was last week. It was my third at this high school. (Almost) all the seniors I had this year for English IV and AP Lit crossed the stage. So did students that I’d had for English intervention, including the student who called me Mister Doctor Coach and a student who, as a sophomore, wrote me a thank you note and said that I was her favorite teacher. In that note, one I think she had to write for JV basketball, she explained that my class was the first time she had had a favorite teacher. Early this year, this student and a friend would swing by my class at the end of the day and hang out with my really small ninth period class.

Crossing the stage at graduation, she cried. She was supposed to smile with the school board member handing her the diploma folder, but she couldn’t quite manage it. I don’t know if she managed the “happy just got my diploma” picture that the venue took of every graduate to sell later. (The diploma folders are empty, by the way. Students have to come get their diplomas from the school the next day.) I do know that, when I finally tracked her down in the happy chaos outside the venue, she was smiling, and I was the choked up one when I told her I still had that card.

I do get choked up. Not for everybody, but for students like this one. Students like the one who faced incredible mental and physical health challenges all year, the one for whom I worried more about survival than graduation. Students like our valedictorian, who is one of the smartest and most humble students I’ve ever taught—and one of those exceptional individuals who has overcome the socioeconomic odds. He’s off to Yale in the fall. And some students I get choked up for for no specific reason at all.

I get choked up because I care. And it’s because I care that it matters so much when students tell me that I’m their favorite teacher or that my class was their favorite or the first time they enjoyed English.

It’s not an ego thing—not exactly. I’m not in competition with my fellow teachers. We don’t collect the nice things students say about us and go down to the lounge and have a competition about who is most loved…no more than we have competitions about who’s said the meanest things to us this year. I’d be happiest if my students liked all of their teachers.

The thing I dig most about hearing I’m somebody’s favorite teacher is that it means I’ve gotten through to them. Whether it was with a stray comment or checking in with them after they’d been out sick or, heaven forbid, some actual bit of class content, I’ve gotten through to the students who say I’m their favorite. There’s a connection there. I made them care, at least a little, about learning something, about dealing with the adults they’re becoming, about responsibility or humor or some part of being human. It also means, most of the time, that the student’s made a connection with me.

Successful teaching is about making those connections. It’s not just about content, which is where administrators and legislators so often go astray as they pine for the fjords of the quantifiable. When a student says I’m a favorite, it means I’ve done my job, no matter what the numbers show. Really, when those connections happen, the numbers get better anyway.

It’s one of the most satisfying things about the end of the year: the students stopping by (in some cases sneaking back in) to say thank you and goodbye and have a good summer. I love it when it happens for me, and I love seeing it when it happens to my colleagues. It’s one of the reasons teaching matters, and one of the reasons I’m happy to go back and do it again next year.

In Memoriam

My dad’s mom was the first person I told I wanted to be a writer, at least with any proto-adult sense of what that meant as an aspiration. I was 17, in a rented car on a winding road in Appalachia. I was, at that moment, technically a high-school dropout, but it was my graduation trip.

Grandma Plocher took each of her grandsons (and she only had grandsons) on a graduation trip after high school. It wasn’t a first trip with her for any of us. By the time I got mine, I’d already traveled with grandma on a jetboat through Hell’s Canyon, camped with her in what seemed like half the national parks west of the Rockies, and spent time taking advantage of her membership in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’d traveled with my grandma and brother, with my grandma and various cousins, but the Appalachia trip was the first time I’d traveled with just grandma.

We didn’t really get each other. I was 17, moody, and far from being a morning person. I didn’t need itineraries or specific plans…to a point that was probably annoyingly noncommittal. (I was really good at shrugging nonchalantly.) My grandmother was retired, an experienced traveler, somebody who—like my dad—wanted everything to go right now, precisely according to plan. The stays in the hotels were not always great, but that’s not what I remember. I remember being up in the mountains, mountains older and rounder than the Rockies on my youthful horizon, but still…a misty day on the ridge roads was a kind of magic.

So was eating at a weirdly fancy restaurant attached to the Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia. Restaurants, at least, I knew. We did Colonial Williamsburg. I pulled grandma to North Carolina, a quick detour to Kitty Hawk just so we could say we’d added another state to our trip. The Wright Brothers museum was much cooler than it had any right to be. We drove into Tennessee and ate at a McDonald’s just to say we’d done it.

The mountains, though, were the best part of that trip. We hiked, and didn’t talk all that much. Grandma got a number of pictures of my back as I walked or stared at the scenery. There are one or two that she convinced me to actually look at the camera for. Not many of those. (Most of the pictures of me from the trip  are of me reading plaques at the places we visited.) The longer conversations were in the car as we traced the Virginia border. I told her about Wales, about being at an international school, about what were surely my Deep and Profound Teenaged Thoughts. [Aside: the more time I spend with AP high school students, the more I realize how insufferable I probably was for spells when I was that age.]

I was bad at asking questions. I wish I’d asked more, or remembered any of her answers. We seemed to be in different worlds, from different worlds. I remember, not from that trip, but from other visits, the way she would throw her hands in the air, raise her eyes, and cry “Good grief!” Her grandkids inspired that reaction sometimes, but so did her own kids. So did the world.

She wrote, a few days into the trip: “…getting more comfortable. We talked about his school and his interest in writing. He reads much more than I do and more heavy stuff. More power to him.”

And that’s what made those trips so special: “More power to him.” She didn’t understand me, but she didn’t have to understand me to appreciate me. Grandma was great at appreciating the world and the people in it, even when she didn’t understand. She traveled all over North America, was active on Elder Hostel trips, and was constantly telling stories about people she’d met or things she’d seen. She was great at asking questions, at listening to the answers. Sometimes her only response to those answers was “Good Grief!”, but she didn’t stop asking questions. She didn’t stop listening to the answers.

Grandma Plocher died in her sleep this past weekend. Her health had been deteriorating for years; her memory was shot. The last time I sat down and talked with her, she needed occasional reminders of which of her sons I went with, and didn’t always remember that my dad was dead. It didn’t stop her smiling, though, to see my mom and my brother and me. We had a big party for her that summer, a belated celebration of her 90th birthday with all the kids, grandkids, and great grandkids. She held on most of the way to 93.

Death doesn’t get easier to deal with, even when you know that it ends a struggle. That makes it more complicated, sometimes, because part of you is relieved to see an end to suffering and an end to the complicated responsibilities that go with care. One of my first responses was a desperate sense of how unfair it was that I couldn’t help my dad through this, that he was already gone. Mourning grandma came later.

Grief is messy because life is messy. We only ever understand a small part of either, but we keep trying. And that is good, Charlie Brown exclamations included.

Rest in peace, grandma. The world’s a better place for having had you in it.