HoL 113 Special Episode – Introducing the Smart Awesome Show!

students-shadows

Are you frustrated by the news? Looking for inspiration? you’re not alone! On this special episode of the History of Literature, host Jacke Wilson introduces The Smart Awesome Show, a brand new podcast in which he talks to a series of guests about the work they’re doing to improve the world. In this episode, he talks to Rahim Rajan, who works in the field of strategic philanthropy, about his efforts to address problems in higher education.

Future guests include scientists, doctors, inventors, researchers, experts, nonprofit workers, and many others. Join us for this exploration of Smart People Doing Awesome Things!

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100 Objects Special: Back to School Week!

Summer’s almost over! Back to school time! This year I thought I’d celebrate the week with a tribute to all hardworking teachers and their achingly confused students…

Jacke Wilson’s Top 5 Stories Celebrating Teachers

Object #7 – The Keyboard*

I started on “Three Blind Mice.” I stopped halfway through. For some reason it sounded terrible.

“There must be something wrong with the piano,” I said.

Miss Steiner reached forward and for a second I thought she might choke me. Instead she seized her clipboard and flung it halfway across the room. It bounced off the top of a kettle drum.

“THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH THE PIANO,” she shouted. “IT’S YOU—YOU CAN’T PLAY!”  Read the whole story

Object #10 – The Spitwad

In other classes, the teachers released this energy with a few little quips now and then, letting the students laugh and tease and push back, so the air would clear and the business of learning could begin. It was like the quick open-and-shut of a pressure valve.

Not in Mr. Ward’s class. In Mr. Ward’s class it was all pressure, no valve. For months. Something had to give.

Which brings me to the glorious day when Mr. Ward told a joke. Well, sort of a joke… Read the whole story

Object #14 – The Bass Guitar

I was in a band with my son. A real band. A rock band. Who knew where this would lead? His younger brother liked to bang on things and claimed his favorite instrument was the drum. His mother had a beautiful voice. We wouldn’t be Van Halen or anything, of course. But maybe a few local gigs…? Not now, but maybe in a few years…? Read the whole story

Object #15 – The Coffepot

I had not realized how much courage this was going to require. Ms. Laporte, who was sitting in a student desk at the center of the room, reading words one at a time out of a notebook she kept locked in her desk, was an imposing figure in normal times. When running a bee, she took her intensity to a new level. Her straight black hair was pulled off her forehead and secured in a tight bun, exposing her forehead, which was lined with the permanent anger she kept just below the surface at all times. Read the whole story

Object #23 – The Passage

It was left to the wise professor to provide the comment that took me into a whole new world of literary possibility. Not, in other words, literature as what-have-you-read-I’ve read-that-too. Not lists and check boxes. Something else. Read the whole story

*The Keyboard comes with a special followup, in which I hear from an old friend whose artistic father memorialized the music teacher in a fantastic painting.

Onward and upward, everyone!

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #15 – The Coffepot

This is the story of a young man who was an excellent speller. He won seven spelling bees in a row, dominating the competition year after year after year. And then, in the eighth grade, with a trip to regionals (and state! and nationals!) on the line, this champion lost for the first time in his life, shocking the town.

How could this happen? How did he stumble?

Readers, I have some tough news to deliver. A difficult set of truths.

The Eighth Grade Spelling Bee of Cadbridge, Wisconsin, in the Year of Our Lord 1984, was fixed. Completely rigged. The boy, the potential champion, lost on purpose. For reasons that remained murky for years, he threw the bee.

I know because I was that boy.

It was the worst thing I ever did. But not for the reasons you might expect.

Continue reading

100 Objects Special Interlude: The Music Teacher and the Artist

music-teacher
Gui Lessin, circa 1981.

Okay, this is simply awesome.

As regular readers know, I’ve been posting a series called A History of Jacke in 100 Objects. These short stories are fictional versions of things that have happened to me. Like most fiction, they’re based on real-life experiences and drawn from people I’ve known, though the characters are typically exaggerations, or composites, or both.

The stories have been popular, and I’ve been pleased by how wide their appeal has been. That was my intention, of course – not just to share with those who were there, but to express something recognizable to those who were not. So I’m grateful when people I’ve never met tell me they knew coaches like the ones in #1 – The Padlock. Or that they’ve felt the same way as the father in #8 – The Burger Car. Or that they were inspired by the teacher’s triumph in #10 – The Spitwad. Even the ones who say they smiled at my battle with Jerry Seinfeld in #3 – The Blood Cake.

One post in particular, #7 – The Keyboard, about a young boy and his burnt-out music teacher, seems to have touched a nerve. And it has led to a couple of follow-up moments that left me shaking my head with wonder.

The first was from a music teacher who, like the narrator, was given a paper keyboard on which to practice as a young child:

Very, very moving, Jacke, and indirectly very nostalgic for me too. When we lived in Hong Kong in the 50s my parents tried to persuade a Russian piano teacher to take me on when I was four, again even though we didn’t have a piano. Too young, she assured my parents; instead, a dummy keyboard made from black and white paper strips glued to a cheap table was advised, on which I practised for a few months. Then we went abroad.

Fifteen months or so later we returned from the UK, and I was interviewed again and allowed to actually play on a real piano. Said teacher was amazed. “Why didn’t you bring him to me a year ago?” Clearly a few thousand miles was no bar to starting lessons properly. I haven’t looked back, and still teach and accompany now six decades on. Luckily for my students, I’m no Miss Steiner in my approach to pedagogy.

What a wonderful story, with such a lovely ending. So much better than the place I left the narrator in number 7.

An even bigger surprise came from a former schoolmate of mine:

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A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #10 – The Spitwad

Here’s something I’ve learned: teachers are human.

They’re not superheroes or gods. Not saints or demons. They’re human beings, with flaws and weaknesses like all the rest of us.

Don Ward was a fine man who taught high school biology to undeserving students in the same crumbling, run-down building for forty-three years.

How bad was our school? When I was there, ceiling tiles used to fall crashing to the floor. I’d never actually seen one drop, but at least once a month we’d see one in the hallway by the lockers, broken on the ground with a cloud of white smoke that was probably 100% asbestos. In the ceiling, there’d be a gap that stayed there forever, never to be filled. No money in the budget. Or maybe nobody cared enough to bother.

Not such a great workplace for Don Ward. How did he do it? Why did he stay? It was impossible to know, because he exhibited no personality whatsoever. Zero. His face barely moved when he spoke. With his plain brown mustache covering his upper lip, you literally could not detect any change in his expression for hours at a time. He never smiled. It was like being taught by Buster Keaton without any of the physical comedy.

That was our biology class. Day after day, Mr. Ward stood in front of the class in his drab plaid shirts, droning on about chlorophyll and flowering plants. And in exchange for his years of service he was mocked and jeered and verbally abused by the teenagers who knew everything and had all the power.

Yes, power. Who knows where this power comes from? Teenagers are desperate, scared, and self-conscious. And also cocky, fearless, and totally in control.

I used to feel sorry for Mr. Ward. If only he’d tell a joke once in a while, he’d probably have a better chance connecting with some of the renegades forced to take his class. That’s all it took for other teachers, who could pal around a little. Anything to prove he was not a robot. If only he’d ask if anyone had seen the World Series the night before. Or say he heard something interesting in church last week. Or raise his voice in anger. Or smile.

But no: Donald Ward delivered his lecture in the same way, sentence by boring sentence, until the class, forced to submit to this for months at a time, had developed a kind of of pent-up frenzy. These were high school students, after all. Adolescents! Their insides were full of raging energies that had to be discharged. They needed to show off, to thump chests, to flirt, to challenge authority. They needed all this to survive.

In other classes, the teachers released this energy with a few little quips now and then, letting the students laugh and tease and push back, so the air would clear and the business of learning could begin. It was like the quick open-and-shut of a pressure valve.

Not in Mr. Ward’s class. In Mr. Ward’s class it was all pressure, no valve. For months. Something had to give.

Which brings me to the glorious day when Mr. Ward told a joke. Well, sort of a joke.

Continue reading

Ordering Adjectives

Hmm. You’d think I’d have already known that adjectives in English follow a precise, well-defined order:

Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.

But then again, maybe not. After all, according to Mark Forsyth’s new book The Elements of Eloquence (reviewed here by Christopher Howse), apparently native English speakers have internalized the pattern. We know what’s barbarous and what’s not.

But now that I’m aware of the pattern, can’t I use the information? Maybe shift things around for effect? Well, no: the point of internalizing the pattern is that you already know how to do that too. There’s no gain in knowing what the pattern is. Your ear is enough.

That said, I’m sure I’d have put this little tidbit to good use when I was a teacher of English as a second language. But now? As a writer? Merely more useless knowledge, I suppose.

Ah, English. Has there ever been a more little cute maddening language?