30 March 2011

The Jig is Up.

Sometimes I think that people have a hard time with the idea of consequences. Our culture breeds the idea that if you are mediocre or try really hard, then the universe should give you a cookie and a hug and a shiny letter A and a gold star and a one way ticket to success for the minimum amount of work. It's the Music Man "That's my Barney on the Clarianet!" idea - just because you're cute and you blow your instrument with vigor, you should be amazing.

I've never really sat well with this idea. I think much of this comes from the fact that I've spent so much time in the arts, particularly in the worlds of writing and theater. In theater this principle is quite easy to spot: a person can love the theater as much as they want and practice as hard as they want but at the end of the day, if they're not good, everyone knows it. Trying just doesn't cover it. You see this all the time in audition segments of shows like American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance - people can dance with as much heart and excitement as they want, but if they don't have the technique, they're out of luck. In the real world - you have to have both to be successful. A friend of mine puts it something like this: "I can give your kid the grade, but it doesn't change who they are or what they are actually capable of."

But there are plenty who would try and tell you otherwise. And, to a degree, there is a place for these people. (Heck, most of the time we call these people "mom" and "dad". These are the people who are stuck with you and should honor what you do for what it's worth.) When you're trying to change or influence the world, though, you have to be a little more accepting of reality. Mediocre is simply not good enough. It's not an insult, it's just life.

You see this principle outlined pretty clearly in The Social Network - a movie which, for what it's worth, I didn't really like. Personal opinion aside, the history is pretty clear: Two people, two ideas. One was better than the other. Thus, we have Facebook and not. . . whatever the other idea was. The other idea is only relevant because the movie has made it so. If the movie hadn't been made, almost no one would know (or care about) the difference. If you're going to make a difference, you have to be better than the next person - and that takes work. It can't happen by checking things off a to-do list.

So, to the individual(s) involved in making my day more stressful and frustrating and obnoxious: please remember that my job description requires me to teach. Furthermore, my humanity encourages me not to settle for mediocrity. I'm sorry if yours does, but if I'm going to do my job with any level of integrity, it means being a bit of a hard nose sometimes.

18 March 2011

Absolute Purity and Entertainment

I taught Huckleberry Finn in one of my classes this year, and at one point asked my students how they determine whether or not entertainment is "good" or "bad". Being the wonderfully conservative creatures that they are, most of them repeated lessons they've learned (I'm sure) from their parents and from well-meaning Sunday School teachers who insist that one bad part of a movie ruins the entire thing.

We've all had the lesson. Someone bakes brownies with a bit extra salt. Someone serves ice-cream with mud instead of chocolate sauce. The point of the lesson is to prove to us that if there's an ounce of wickedness in something, then it's evil and needs to be shunned.

I've always hated this lesson. I think it's a terrible way to teach what they're really trying to teach, which is that we need to keep our thoughts pure, and viewing things that aren't pure (heedless of context) is frustrating to me for three main reasons:

1. First, it's a little too easy for people to say that there is absolute evil in the world and absolute good and not acknowledge the grey. OR, they acknowledge the grey and then discount it, too, as not worthy. This becomes a problem when you consider. . .

2. That the majority of people and what they create and how they live on this earth lives in that grey area. I've never met a person that wasn't flawed. I've also never met anyone so wicked that I couldn't find at least something good in them. Maybe I'm sheltered. Maybe I'm naive. But I doubt it: people aren't all good or all bad. And if we teach our youth to treat entertainment that way (don't watch it unless it's 100% free of anything that might in any way taint your thoughts), then how do they end up treating other human beings? Well, at the extreme, like the former students of a friend of mine who end up believing - truly, honestly believing - that there are people on this earth that are not worthy to be with them. I find that rather tragic. In fact, it goes very harshly against the values that the Savior set for us.

3. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I am infinitely more offended by trite, boring, cheap "clean" entertainment (books, movies, TV) than I am by entertainment that earns it. I mean the kind of stories generally produced by a large number of LDS Filmmakers or playwrights or authors. I mean books that emotionally manipulate or films that don't honestly earn the story they try to tell. I find those stories more offensive because they cheapen the beliefs I have fought so hard to earn and to maintain. I find them frustrating because they scratch the surface of human existence. Not that every movie with violence or swearing or sex is good by comparison - that's not at all what I'm trying to say. What I mean, ultimately, is this:

The brownie/ice cream metaphor is not completely without merit. It just needs some tweaking. The dirt brownies only apply to entertainment (or people) where there is an extreme that can't be ignored or associated with. Pornography. Mass murderers. These are things that just can't have any place at all in the brownie without ruining it completely. The better metaphor is this. Ingredients like baking powder or flour or salt or even chocolate and eggs all belong in a brownie. They are all good ingredients. But they need to be used well, and in appropriate amounts, and with appropriate context to be understood correctly and appreciated.

The King's Speech, for example, has a scene in which King George VI lets loose a string of F-words that is quite long. The movie is rated R because of it - but not because of anything else (except incidental drinking, I suppose). Many people would see the rating or hear about the language and absolutely turn it down just because it exists. What they don't take into account is the context of the scene (therapy), or the context of the man (George VI is not a swearing man) or the context of the language itself (it isn't used crassly or insultingly or crudely - they're just words.)

Ultimately, I suppose what I really mean to say is that I have a very hard time understanding how people of faith, particularly those of LDS faith, can honestly allow themselves to be sheltered conveniently away, content with everything they have, when the foundation of our church was built on the power of a single question (and continued to expand because of more questions.) If we are not a people willing to question, to learn, and to grow from everything around us - even those things that are not absolutely pure - then we are holding ourselves hostage to acquiring knowledge. We would do well to remember that the glory of God is intelligence - and we have a responsibility to acquire it.

14 March 2011

Talent and Work

I should be working on grades right now. They're due tomorrow after school and I have a ridiculous amount of late work to grade this term because I was out with the plague of death for so long that I am showing mercy (even though I don't want to) to death-bed repenters. But I can't focus right now because something is eating at me, and until I get it out. . . there will be no focusing.

In all my time involved in theater, I have had many opportunities to greet an audience after a show and have many nice people say how much they enjoyed the show. In all this time, I've hoped that they meant it and weren't lying. None of those opportunities meant more to me than my time in Music Man last summer in which I hoped so dreadfully to hear people say what I wanted them to: "I get it now! Marian isn't an idiot for falling in love with Harold!" When people said that - life was gold. It meant that all my hours had paid off and that the show had touched someone. It was wonderful.

On the other hand, nothing made me more internally frustrated than to hear someone say: "Oh, you're so talented!" This may seem a strange thing for me to be annoyed by. And to be honest, annoyance isn't quite the right word. I know that what they're really saying is: "You're so good at what you do" - which is not a bad thing to hear at all. But there's something about the word "talent" that gets in the way of people understanding the amount of stress and hard work it takes to truly perfect something, even when you are naturally "talented" at it.

Theater, for instance. After looking through my calendar and estimating that I spent approximately five hours a day rehearsing roughly five days a week for three and a half months (and even a bit once the show opened), that meant around 350 hours of rehearsal (and it was more than that once we started Saturday rehearsals, plus pre-show runs that we would do to make sure we were still on our game.) That's got to be at least 400 hours of rehearsal alone - for one little community theater production. I'd gladly have put in more time than that if it had been at all possible, because I knew I needed it. That's not counting the 15 ish years of time spent in theater learning the craft before then.

But not many people see that. Even people who see that don't often see that. People in the ensemble of shows rarely see the number of hours put in by the leads, so it's not always easy to appreciate the weight they have on their shoulders. I've been on both sides of the coin long enough to know that it's almost always a labor of love for those who really care - you do it until the job is done, no matter the cost. I got very tired last year of people assuming that because they didn't see me, I wasn't supportive of the cast or I wasn't working. Unfortunately, this time and energy and stress is often reduced into a single word: Talent. Talent is fine and wonderful and great but without work it can only take you so far.

I've had students use the "I'm not good at it!" excuse with me before. My response (in my head, if not out loud) is generally two fold: First, if you aren't good at it, that's fine. It just means that you have to work twice as hard. It's not an insult, it's just how things work until you get better. Second, even if you were good at it, it wouldn't be easy. When you're good at something, it means you're better able to spot the flaws and less able to live in delusions of grandeur. It means setting a higher standard of achievement.

It's so easy to look at the accomplishment of someone else and assume that they must be naturally talented at it which is why they're so good. But that's ridiculous. That's not how things work. In the parable of the talents, harder work leads to greater reward. I used to think this meant more talents in terms of a greater variety of skills in different categories - but that's not the only thing. It means expanding your ability to use (or "spend") your talent. And the only way to obtain more talents is to get out of the dirt and go do something about it.

There. Now I can get back to being responsible. I can take a breath and let it aaaalllll go. . . .

07 March 2011

Stapling Lessons

I've been thinking lately that I ought to take some time at some point to make a list of things that I've learned teaching Junior High students. Mostly silly things, I'm sure. Like how you have to be careful when telling stories or mentioning animals or vacations or holidays or weekends or anything interesting or risk getting a barrage of maybe slightly a little bit related stories. (Last year I learned to always preface acknowledging a hand raise by asking "is this a comment or a question?" If the student had to think about it, we moved on.)

But one "lesson" in particular has been making me giggle lately, because my team-teacher didn't believe me when I said we'd need to teach them how to do it. That's right. I'm talking about stapling.

I'm pretty sure that junior high students (and upper elementary, I'm sure) are responsible for keeping staple companies in business. In fact, if I ever leave my job as a teacher and get hired on by a staple ad campaign, I will base all of my advertising entirely on that age range of students. Because they are utterly fascinated by and incapable of using staples correctly. It got to the point last year where I threatened to take points off assignments if a student had more than one staple in their paper. And if the paper was stapled ANYWHERE but in the upper left corner (re, the middle, the right, the top and center, the bottom - all happened), I'd refuse to grade their work until they fixed it.

You think I'm kidding? I can provide evidence if needed. Students don't know how to staple.

Yes. I recognize that I'm a little bit organizationally obsessed. But it saves me valuable grading time and sanity and it's a good lesson, right?