Archive for the ‘Teachers who made a difference’ Category

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November 03, 2013: A Quality of Mercy

November 3, 2013

Twilight-Zone-animate-copyTo my mind, television writing/production/acting will never surpass the original 60’s “The Twilight Zone” series. As we were approaching Halloween last week, I thought it  appropriate to revisit some of the stories that I risked not only parental wrath, but also my own personal fears, to watch in my early youth.

“The Twilight Zone” had a number of never-to-be-repeated graces that allowed it to succeed. First, it was television when it was still  AOK to borrow heavily from theater, but add production techniques of early television. Secondly, as a new-ish (and potentially profitable) medium, it attracted the best writers, actors, producers, and directors of that generation. Thirdly, it was still an age when it was OK to tug on heartstrings. Younger viewers would most likely find TZ as schmaltzy and saccharine (and they would be right.) Oddly, this is what I find most attractive in the series. There also seemed to be a trust in, and freedom provided, the artists in the 60’s that does not seem so prevalent today. Last, the premise of the show was that anything may happen in the Twilight Zone.

I was able (through the help of my local library) to get ahold of Season #3 and it held not only the gems that I remembered, but also those that I had never seen. Here are my favorites:

[Here follow spoilers….so if you have never seen Season #3 of the Twilight Zone, I invite you to STOP reading now and revisit the blog when you have. In a pre-M. Night Shamala world, the “twists’ of TZ are its strength. I would not want to deprive you of these.]

“Little Girl Lost” Episode 91-March 16, 1962:  A young girl has inexplicably slipped into another dimension located just behind her bed, leaving her parents the sole choice to locate her in the otherworld and rescue her.  It’s like “Poltergeist” only better and much shorter.

“The Gift” Episode 97-April 27, 1962: An alien crash lands in village full of hostile humans, except a boy that he befriends and gives a gift. Ok…can anyone say “ET?”… Anyone?…Anyone? Mr. Spielberg???

“To Serve Man” Episode 89-March 02, 1962 Earth is visited by scary 9-foot aliens called Kanamits. Despite their appearance, they seem all helpful and even carry around a book called “To Serve Man”…only it’s a COOKBOOK!!!! OK, this as the one that after watching, I was so terrified, that my parents forbade me watch TZ. This didn’t stop me, however. I just continued to watch the show hiding behind the couch (much to the amusement of my older siblings.)

“Nothing In the Dark” Episode 81-January 05, 1962: An old woman afraid of the specter of Death is visited by him nonetheless, but in the form of a young and strikingly handsome Robert Redford. This Death is warm, intelligent, compassionate, caring, and patient…gently taking us only when we fully understand the inevitable.

The Changing of the Guard Episode 102-June 01, 1962: An educator, prematurely dismissed from the job and the students that he loves, considers that he has wasted his life. At his last moment he is visited by ghosts of his former pupils who assure him that his lessons of courage, loyalty, honesty and ethics have not been in vain. It’s like “It’s a Wonderful Life” only specifically for educators.

…and last…the one most pertinent to the blog:DS-American

A Quality of Mercy Episode 80-December 29, 1961: During the last days of WWII an American platoon is besieging a cave on a Philippines island occupied by starved and defeated Japanese soldiers. A hard-nosed, by-the-book lieutenant  (Dean Stockwell) shows up to stir the platoon into an assault on the cave to finally destroy the Japanese. The exhausted platoon resists the unnecessary loss of life on either side. In an inexplicable moment (common in TZ) the lieutenant is not only transported back in time to May 4, 1942 but has now become a Japanese lieutenant besieging the same cave occupied by Americans! He gains the insight that all armies would train out of every soldier if they were able: the sympathy that the “enemy” is just another human deserving of mercy.

3qualityofThe show nails its point by quoting Shakespeare from “The Merchant of Venice”

“The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

[Much thanks to the Hudson Public Library for procuring “The Twilight Zone, Season 3 and extending the loan in order to write this article.-SV]

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June 22, 2012: “Lost in Place” by Mark Salzman

June 22, 2012

I love finding books at the library that just sort of jump off the shelf at you. Such was the case, last week, when I found “Lost in Place” by Mark Slazman. Mark is a Renaissance man after my own heart. I know of him from a previous book he wrote: “Iron and Silk” about his travels through China while teaching English and learning kung fu at the hands of Master Pan Qingfu. One of my former students knew I was a big fan and generously bequeathed a rare signed, hard-bound copy of that book that I cherish. I also own the indie film of the same name which stars Mark as himself. Mark Salzman is an author whose autobiographical stories are rich with experience, characters, humor and honesty, so I knew what to expect when I picked up “Lost in Place” What I did not expect to find, was hope for the youth and parents of our time.

I do have a slight problem with the full title of the book “Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia” which feels like a publisher is putting a label on Mark’s book to make it more palatable to American readers. This is kind of missing the point. Mark’s life is far from “absurd.” “Unique”…sure, unconventional”…maybe, but “absurd”…no. Without a doubt, the story of Mark’s life, while having its genesis in probably the most mundane environment possible…suburbian Conneticut, is far from traditional. Truly an artist, as a teen Mark had pursuits of music (the cello) and martial arts. Choosing probably the most awful martial arts teacher imaginable (one who swears at and beats his students, drinks and smokes pot during class, and just generally acts like a total jerk) Mark’s perseverance and success in martial arts say more about himself than any guidance he had at this point of his life. His mother is a concert musician and so offers some guidance to his music, but typical of American youths, Mark rebels constantly against her. It seems parents could be the worst people to aspire to be a muse to their young, when it comes to music. She does inspire Mark however, and he searches for that muse in others. It is that searching for inspirational teachers carries Mark through not only his college years, but also later in his travels through China in “Iron and Silk.”

The youth of today may not like “Lost in Place” although it is one that would be beneficial for any teenager to read. They might not like it, because the book addresses a teenage experience from one of their parent’s generation. It’s funny that “Romeo and Juliet” gets re-made almost every year, and that is not a problem, but maybe the distance of fated 14C. teens is more easily swallowed than those of the last generation. Mark’s book has all the pain, insecurity, challenges and desires of modern teens, but most important, the book manages to convey that these experiences are not unique, that others have gone through this before…and ulimately can come out OK.

I can easily imagine parents grinding their teeth at Mark’s story also. Where were the parents when Mark was choosing this lame-ass instructor? Were they oblivious to the abuse Mark suffered at his hands? It is clear that Mark’s parents gave him enough slack to allow him to make his own decisions, and this by itself, is a laudable parenting move. The most important thing is that they seem to be always there when he needed them…and in the most loving way imaginable.

“Lost in Place” does not shy away from the travails of the teenage experience. It addresses drugs, bad decisions, bad mentors, bad friends and ultimately, great loss. It also encourages teens to follow their hearts and passions. I can’t think of a book better suited for an American family to read together, if such a thing is possible. I think Mark’s story would offer a vehicle of discussion between generations. Most of all, the book gives the important idea to both teens and parents: “Others have traveled down this path. You are NOT alone!”

As for Mark Slazman, all’s well that ends well for him: a successful author, Yale graduate, skilled martial artist, cellist, linguist and calligrapher, he may have been lost in place at some point in his past…and the road goes forever onward…but his experiences have led him…well, hopefully to be found by you at the next trip to the library!

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March 17, 2012: Green Stripes and Colcannon

March 17, 2012

St. Patrick’s Day always leaves me feeling a bit conflicted. I am a huge fan of Irish history, culture, literature, etc. but, St. Patrick’s Day, distilled down through American interpretation I find a tad….well….silly.

For me, the silliness started very early. Maybe because a lot of the nuns who ran my grade school were American-Irish themselves, they made St. Patrick’s Day a bit of a fest. Being the sugar-deprived child that I was, I would never turn down the cupcakes with green icing, but the “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” and “Erin go bragh” (Ireland Forever) buttons, along with the chintzy green bowler hats stuck me, even then, as a bit over the top. The worst it ever got was from the bar down the street. Every St. Patrick’s Day, some drunken idiot painted a green shamrock on the street, always forgetting (or not caring) that cars would roll right over all that fresh paint and make green stripes all up and down the street!

My perception of Irish culture, literature, and history changed drastically in junior college. Just about every student has that one teacher that makes a big difference in their life. My Irish Mythology teacher was that person for me. Not only was a fantastic teacher, but to this day, when I re-read his books, I am still amazed at his insight. That class lead to all the other wonderful Irish literature: Joyce, Yeats, etc. as well as an interest in Irish history…particularly ancient Irish history. In the Autumns of 1988-89 I biked across Ireland, photographing ancient burial chambers and dolmens that dot the Irish landscape. This was an adventure of a lifetime where I was completely immersed in everything truly Irish:  literature, art, artifacts, landscape, history, weather, people, and  food.

For the past couple of years now, Yoshio has invited me to talk about Irish food at the Showa Institute. Yoshio does a very unique thing in his class to Japanese students: he teaches American culture largely through American food. When I first did research for my talk, I was amazed to find how very little truly Irish food there was in modern life. What comes to mind, when you think of Irish food? Corned Beef and Cabbage? Cabbage…yes, quite Irish. Corned Beef? Nah, not so much. Beef was only for the rich in Ireland. The closest they have to this dish in Ireland is a kind of fat-back and cabbage dish. A salmon dish would be spot-on. Not only plentiful in Ireland, salmon appear in many ancient Irish stories, as “animals of wisdom.” But, in the two Irish cookbooks that I own, I couldn’t find a salmon dish without a French or English sauce! Colcannon comes pretty close to being authentically Irish. This is a mixture of kale (or cabbage) with mashed potatoes and cream, that is then baked. Absolutely delicious! The problem with this dish is that, as much as potatoes have made such an impact in Irish history, they originally came from America.

So, a few other historical reality checks on this St. Patrick’s Day: First, Phádraig (his Irish name) or Patricius (his Roman name) i.e. St. Patrick, was NOT Irish. He was most likely either Welsh or Cornish and was picked up by Irish pirates to be sold as a slave. St. Patrick had NOTHING to do with why there are no snakes in Ireland. He most likely did NOT use the shamrock to describe the Trinity. You know what the Irish do to “celebrate” St. Patrick’s Day? They climb up and down Croagh Patrick (Mount Patrick, County Mayo, 2507 ‘high) as an act of penance for their sins, some of them barefoot!

Hey, I’m not saying don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day if you want. Just make it real, not silly, and something remotely to do with Ireland. If you want to party and have some beer, please make it  one of the many excellent Irish brews out there…and please…leave the green dye…and for goodness sakes, the green PAINT at home!

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