“Hold on there, Evangeline”


This photo I took yesterday of tracks in the Szolnok snow (on the Zagyva promenade) reminded me of Mark Twain’s Whittier Birthday Dinner Speech, delivered on John Greenleaf Whittier’s seventieth birthday, at the Hotel Brunswick, Boston, on December 17, 1877—that is, 140 years and a week ago. I hadn’t read it since high school, but I remembered how Twain mocked Longfellow. The speech is a story within a story. It begins with Twain tramping through the southern mines of California and then resolving “to try the virtues” of his “nom de guerre,” that is, his pen name. He knocks on the door of a miner, who, after letting him in and feeding him, reports dejectedly that he is “the fourth”—that he just hosted three “littery men” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) the previous evening. The miner proceeds to tell Twain what a difficult lot they were; toward the end of his deluge, he comes to this:

“They were pretty how-come-you-so by now, and they begun to blow. Emerson says, ‘The nobbiest thing I ever wrote was ” Barbara Frietchie.”‘ Says Longfellow, ‘It don’t begin with my “Biglow Papers.”‘ Says Holmes, ‘My “Thanatopsis” lays over ’em both.’ They mighty near ended in a fight. Then they wished they had some more company — and Mr. Emerson pointed to me and says:

“‘Is yonder squalid peasant all
That this proud nursery could breed?’

He was a-whetting his bowie on his boot — so I let it pass. Well, sir, next they took it into their heads that they would like some music; so they made me stand up and sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” till I dropped — at thirteen minutes past four this morning. That’s what I’ve been through, my friend. When I woke at seven, they were leaving, thank goodness, and Mr. Longfellow had my only boots on, and his’n under his arm. Says I, ‘Hold on, there, Evangeline, what are you going to do with them?’ He says, ‘Going to make tracks with ’em; because:

“‘Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime;
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.’

As I said, Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in twenty-four hours — and I’m going to move; I ain’t suited to a littery atmosphere.”

The whole speech is pugnacious and funny, but the newspapers reported it as an “attack.” Longfellow then replied in Twain’s defense, stating that everyone present understood the speech as humorous and that the newspapers themselves had caused the “mischief.” That’s sublime, in my view: to take such mockery in good spirit and even speak up for the lampooner.

I think about that kind of goodwill and how it can’t be taken for granted. It comes not  only from individuals but from ways of thinking and living.

At school, the calendar year of 2017 ended with an abundance of goodwill. Friday was filled with treats and caroling. Here are the videos of the eleventh-graders’ first caroling visit of the day. (They went from classroom to classroom all day long and performed for the teachers as well.)

I end with three photos from Thursday and Friday: one of a funny student skit (the scene took place in a restaurant and involved the flashing of credit cards), one of the students rehearsing the carols, one of me in the classroom, and one of the eleventh-graders in the hallway before their first caroling visit. Reverence and irreverence combined to make this a day that will leave tracks in the snows and staves of time. Boldog Karácsonyt, Kellemes Új Évet, és Kellemes téli szünetet!

The Not-So-Brief Soul of Wit

chasing the last laughI have not yet read the book pictured to the left (Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks). I learned about it yesterday, early in the morning, when looking lackadaisically into humor and wit. Although I had resolved to buy no more books before leaving for Hungary–no more!–I broke down and ordered this one, because it looks too good to pass up. I didn’t know that Twain was a stand-up comedian or that he went on a world tour–or maybe once upon a time I knew this, “But, being over-full of self-affairs, / My mind did lose it.” (I did know that he was friends with Tesla, but that’s a separate matter.)

Yesterday I was thinking not about comedy in particular but about what makes some people uproariously and endearingly funny. Comedy and funniness are not identical; comedy is not always funny, nor do funny things necessarily constitute comedy. Funniness has many sources: it can come from setting up and breaking logical, semantic, and conversational expectations; taking an idea to an absurd conclusion; bringing a particular rhythm, tone, and timing into your speech; performing an exquisite imitation; and more. Today I will look at one ever-gurgling spring of funniness: the ability to exult in your foibles.

We all have foibles of one kind or another; many of us struggle with them daily. A comedian takes them and makes the most of them. Human fallibility attains splendor while retaining its clumsiness and silliness.

For example, some of us can be a pest at times. I am generally patient and unfazed by things–but when I really want to get something done, and it depends on other people, I will bug them until the thing is accomplished, whatever it may be. Sometimes I feel guilty about this; I type and untype an email, hover over the “send” button, delete the whole mess, start over, and repeat the process several times until I end up just sending the thing. It’s always polite–I don’t “flame” people–but still I may feel like a pest.

So when I listen to James Veitch give one of his talks about replying to spammers, I see that he’s taking this quality–being a pest, or feeling like one–and lifting it to its pinnacle. If you are going to be a pest, whom better to pester than those who are aggressively pestering the world: spammers with spurious business proposals? Veitch managed to get one of them so annoyed that he or she (the spammer) finally replied, “PLEASE STOP EMAILING US.” Now, in daily life, with people I know or even with strangers, I wouldn’t want this to happen–I’d be sad and remorseful if it did–but with a spammer, it seems beautifully fitting.

My one objection to his talk is that, in keeping with the TED worldview, he tells his audience, “do do this at home.” He qualifies this by saying they should use fake email addresses, but still, that’s bad advice. He can do this because he has a flair for it. Others could get themselves into trouble. It wouldn’t be the same. The TED illusion–that everyone can do this, whatever “this”  may be–detracts a little from his act. The best way to share in humor and wit is to laugh along, to recognize oneself in it, while also letting it belong to someone else.  Most of us know the feeling of trying to retell someone else’s joke: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but either way, it’s not the same. Funniness is like a soap bubble. Its air is internal.

Another foible (if one can call it that) is awkwardness. Many of us know the feeling of being a little out of sorts and out of place in a setting–not quite saying the right thing, or saying too much, or not saying enough. Some comedians–such as Ismo Leikola–take their own awkwardness and turn it into a glowing orb. Many performers transcend their awkwardness, but certain comedians actually preserve and exalt it. You see Leikola stuttering and puttering around, flapping his arms, and having a grand old time.

On a different level, and in a different way, this foible-lifting is part of what I love in László Krasznahorkai’s prose. He takes you dancing in the characters’ vanities and exaggerations. When reading The Melancholy of Resistance, I burst out laughing many times; when reading Mrs. Eszter’s funeral oration at the end, I laughed myself to tears. The laughter came from the recognition of mind–not the brooding reminiscence of Philip Roth’s characters, but something inflated, clumsy, profound, absurd, and wondrous.

To make the most of foibles, comedians, humorists, and writers perceive kairos (in the ancient Greek sense of the word, not the Christian sense): the opportune moment, which comes again and again in life. Foibles are not always fun or funny, but each one has its spectacular hour or series of hours. That takes us into comedy itself. If comedy turns a potentially threatening, destructive, or even catastrophic situation into something life-affirming (or, at worst, darkly persistent), then, by playing out a foible at just the right moment, by being both flawed and exquisite at once, one can launch a round-the-world comedy tour, not like Mark Twain, but in and along an unrepeatable way.


I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.


Teacher Ratings and Rubric Reverence

Some seven years ago, when I was taking education courses as a New York City Teaching Fellow, we had to hand in “double-entry journals”—that is, two-column pages with a quotation or situation on one side and our response on the right. On one occasion, I needed far more room for my response than for the quotations, so I adjusted the format: instead of using columns, I simply provided the quotations and my comments below each one.

The instructor chided me in front of the class. She said that this was a masters program and that I should learn to produce masters-level work. (She wasn’t aware that I already had a Ph.D. from Yale.) If the instructions specified a double-entry journal, well, then I was supposed to provide a double-entry journal. She had no quibbles with my commentary itself, which she found insightful. She just took issue with my flouting of the instructions. I have no grudges against the instructor, who meant well and knew her stuff. But it was an eye-opener.

Up to this point, I had not encountered such rigidity regarding instructions. In high school, college, and graduate school, we were expected to use certain formats for term papers, publishable work, and dissertations. But on everyday assignments, it was substance and clarity that mattered most. The teacher or professor even appreciated it when I departed from the usual format for a good reason. I did so judiciously and rarely.

The double-entry-journal incident was part of my induction into New York City public schools. There, the rubric (which usually emphasized appearance and format) ruled supreme; if you did everything just so, you could get a good score, while if you diverged from the instructions but had a compelling idea, you could be penalized. I saw rubrics applied to student work, teachers’ lessons, bulletin boards, classroom layout, group activities, and standardized tests. I will comment on the last of these—rubrics on standardized tests—and their bearing on the recent publication of New York City teachers’ value-added ratings (their rankings based on student test score growth).

A New York Daily News editorial asserts that teachers with consistently high value-added ratings are clearly doing something right. (This is the argument put forth by many value-added proponents.) But that’s not necessarily so; all we really know is that their students are making test score gains.

In New York State, on the written portion of the English Language Arts examinations, it matters little what the students actually say or how well they argue it. What matters is that they address the question in the prompt and follow the instructions to the letter. A student may make erroneous or illogical statements and still receive a high score; a student may make subtle observations and lose points for failing to do everything exactly as specified.

Here’s an essay prompt from the 2009 grade 8 ELA exam. (For an example at the high school level, see my blog “A Critical Look at the Critical Lens Essay.”)

Bill Watterson in “Drawing Calvin and Hobbes” and Roald Dahl in “Lucky Break” discuss their approaches to their work. Write an essay in which you describe the similarities and differences between the work habits of Watterson and Dahl. Explain how their work habits contribute to their success. Use details from both passages to support your answer.  In your essay, be sure to include

  • a description of the similarities between the work habits of Watterson and Dahl
  • a description of the differences between the work habits of Watterson and Dahl
  • an explanation of how their work habits contribute to their success
  • details from both passages to support your answer 

To get a good score, a student would only have to write one paragraph about similarities, one paragraph about differences, and one paragraph about how their work habits led to their success. By contrast, a student who began by considering definitions of “success” (as G.  K. Chesterton does) would not fare so well, even though that might be the more thoughtful essay. Likewise, a student who questioned the direct link between work habits and success (as Mark Twain does) would be at a disadvantage. Students are better off if they write a predictable essay, even a bland one, that meets the criteria. Their teachers are better off, too; every point counts when it comes to value-added scores. 

I have scored ELA exams. Human judgment has little place in those scoring rooms. To maintain consistency, everyone is supposed to follow the rubric, and, if there’s any doubt, the state’s own interpretation of the rubric. It comes down, in the end, to following instructions rather than judgment. On the one hand, this is fair and justified. If teachers were to use their own judgment when scoring, two essays of similar quality could receive wildly different scores. On the other, it means that there’s no way to acknowledge the student who struggles with the question becausethe question is tricky or problematic—that is, the student who pushes beyond the obvious response. 

Now let’s consider the consequences in the classroom. Teachers A and B teach at a relatively high-performing school. Teacher A tells students that to write well, you should have something to say and should take care with words. Her students read G. K. Chesterton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, and others. They discuss these essays, look at their structures, respond to favorite passages in them, and write essays inspired by them. Teacher B, within the same school, has a different approach. She brings in reading passages like those on the tests. She teaches students how to read essay prompts and produce the expected responses. She has them do this every day. Now, arguably, one can teach students to write thoughtfully and follow directions precisely. But the latter has the greater test score payoff.

So, teacher B’s students make more test score gains than Teacher A’s students. Teacher B gets rated “high”; teacher A, “below average.” (This is a plausible scenario in an unusually high- or low-performing school, where a slight difference in points can account for a large difference in ratings.) Then the ratings appear in the New York Times and elsewhere. Many readers will assume, even with caveats galore, that teacher B does better work than teacher A. Teacher A then finds herself under pressure to do what teacher B is doing. That means ensuring that her students follow directions.

How do you get teachers to teach in this manner? Train them in education school. Impress upon them the sacrosanctity of instructions. Teach them that if the assignment is a double-entry journal, then that is what they must produce, period.