Burning Clove


Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on January 14, 2014

I recently found myself wondering whether certain aspects of a particular man’s behavior toward me had been appropriate. Nothing egregious had occurred, and of course things like this happen all the time, but the gender and age and power dynamics at play in this case–to say nothing of the fact that I will be working with the relevant person extensively in the near future–were enough to make me mildly uncomfortable. Not wanting to jump to conclusions, however, I mentioned the matter casually to a few friends and asked what they thought of it.

All three of the men I consulted–separately–were emphatic in their condemnation of the aforementioned man’s actions. They urged me to be careful, to call upon them or others for help in the future if necessary, to trust my instincts and acknowledge my indignation and refuse to excuse the man’s behavior.

Only one woman was among my confidants–a matter of happenstance more than habit–but her reaction was the outlier. No less sincere in her desire to help, she sought to reassure me by dismissing my concerns outright. “I think he does that with everybody,” she said, and “I’m sure he’s just not aware…” And she immediately changed the subject.

The sample size is small, I know, but the contrast was striking.

A Tale of Two Blind Spots

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on January 5, 2014

I got my master’s degree in teaching at a school devoted specifically to “urban” education. The choice made sense: education for me is above all a matter of social justice, and my program focused relentlessly on the inequities and indignities I most wanted to combat in my career. But the curriculum and pedagogy there were severely flawed. As elsewhere, “urban” was understood simply as a politically correct proxy for “poor and nonwhite,” and as elsewhere, the slippage severely undermined our discourse both ethically and intellectually. Professors’ attempts to discuss race and ethnicity were clumsy at best and horrifying at worst, while other types of marginalization–those based on sexuality, class, and geography especially–went largely unrecognized. Thoughtful analysis often devolved into mindless self-flagellation–our instructors assumed, all too correctly, that we came from relatively privileged backgrounds–and many lessons on “cultural competence” and “diverse learners” taught us more about how to use us/them rhetoric with impunity than about how to be effective teachers of children. I did learn a great deal, though perhaps not exactly what my teachers thought I was learning, and I did appreciate what I judged to be a good faith effort on the school’s part; I just didn’t quite think it “worked.”

So when I decided to enter a doctoral program after several years of teaching in a large urban (both literally and euphemistically) school district, I enrolled in a different university. Its location and history give it a great deal of urban “cred,” but it draws professors and students from a variety of settings, including suburban, rural, and private schools. This is a good thing: it gives me perspective, and it reminds me that effective instruction more than sociopolitical enlightenment is a teacher’s true lever of reform. But it also makes me overwhelmingly and unceasingly angry. Because the world of public education I worked in is entirely, staggeringly, removed from the world most of my colleagues inhabit.

I don’t get it. The exposés have been coming out for decades now: horrifying portraits of the schools that are not schools, the classes without teachers and teachers without pay, the abuse and neglect both mental and physical, the raw sewage and fire hazards and vermin and poison–all still relevant, all resonant with my own teaching experience and others’. And yet in class I can sit through a two-hour discussion of special education regulations in which everyone seems simply to assume that those regulations actually govern what happens in every school in the country–”Oh good, I’m so glad schools are required to do this now!”–and when I point out that many schools don’t do that at all, can’t or won’t no matter what the nice law says, people are stunned for a moment and then they decide that my experience was a very unfortunate aberration and absorb it comfortably into their worldview as such. Of course understanding what should be occurring is as important as understanding what is occurring, but mistaking the one for the other–that I can’t accept.

And it happens SO frequently.

Sometimes I find someone who is curious, who wants to hear more. And then, when I’m done talking, the response is inevitable: first “I can hardly believe it,” and then “Why don’t you write to a newspaper or publish a book or something?” Every time. And not only from undergraduates, but also from doctoral students, professors, even district superintendents.

Keep in mind that these are for the most part intelligent people at a respected school of education in a major city, people with “real-world” experience who have devoted or plan to devote their entire careers to education. Keep in mind too that Jonathan Kozol first published Savage Inequalities over two decades ago. This stuff should not be news.

It shouldn’t be an afterthought, either. My classmates shouldn’t be making broad statements about the education system in this country and then, anticipating an objection from me, qualify their claims by saying “well, except where you taught, of course.” Papers and presentations should not spend pages or hours touting a new reform agenda and then end with a few sentences on “implications for equity” that acknowledge that the innovation may not benefit all students equally(!).

Finally, I shouldn’t be viewed as everyone’s pet radical, because narrating simple events should not (have to) be a radical act.

I don’t understand.

They sort of forgot the “impact” part.

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on January 2, 2014

The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800 (Verso Classics)The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800 by Lucien Febvre

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is an exhaustively researched compendium of minutiae from which a compelling narrative might someday be crafted. “The coming of the book” indeed–I still await it.

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Watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on December 26, 2013

People often ask just what antidepressants have done for me. Does taking psychotropic drugs make me happy? Dull my pain? Make me smarter? Cloud my mind? Do none of these things, or all of them?

Here are before-and-after snapshots.

I have always loved Christmas–the decorations, the music, the giving, all of it. But throughout my teens and even into my early twenties, the anticipation of the season was always tinged with fear: I dreaded waking up on Christmas morning in the depths of a depression. Back then my psychological state had little if anything to do with anything outside my own mind: I frequently found myself inexplicably miserable in the midst of love and triumph, while very real misfortune often left me inappropriately unmoved. And so it was that I could, and sometimes did, spend my favorite day of the year in utter despair.

A sad Christmas is as conceivable now as it was then, of course. The difference is that when it comes it will not be a surprise. If something bad happens now, it makes me sad. If something good happens now, it makes me happy. And so this year, as in each of the past several years, I went to bed on Christmas Eve knowing that the next day would be a good one.

That’s all. It’s pretty simple, actually.


Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on October 6, 2013

I can’t get rid of the anger I feel coming to the general education policy conversation from a high-poverty urban school district.

“Oh, you ran out of time? WE RAN OUT OF PAPER.”

“Oh, your lunch break was short? WE HAD NO POTABLE WATER.”

“Oh, you value student voice? ONLY THE RIGHT KIND OF STUDENTS, THOUGH, AMIRITE?”

“Oh, your colleagues were annoying? MINE CALLED STUDENTS F*GS AND N****RS.”


I can’t stop. It’s not productive.

(Then people say, “I’m sorry you had a bad experience.” “MY STUDENTS ARE THE VICTIMS, NOT ME,” say I. “I went to private school,” say I. “DON’T LOOK AT ME LIKE THAT,” say I.)

(“Help me articulate this,” say I.)


Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on October 6, 2013

If There is Something to Desire: One Hundred PoemsIf There is Something to Desire: One Hundred Poems by Vera Pavlova

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My favorites, ranked in horribly unpoetic fashion:

4. Why is the word “yes” so brief? / It should be / the longest, / the hardest, / so that you could not decide in an instant to say it, / so that upon reflection you could stop / in the middle of saying it.

3. dropped / and falling / from such / heights / for so / long / that / maybe / I will have / enough time / to learn / flying

2. If there is something to desire, / there will be something to regret. / If there is something to regret, / there will be something to recall. / If there is something to recall, / there was nothing to regret. / If there was nothing to regret, / there was nothing to desire.

1. Basked in the sun / listened to birds / licked off raindrops / and only in flight / the leaf saw the tree / and grasped / what it had been.

I don’t usually read much poetry–especially not in the middle of the semester when I’m supposed to be reading a whole lot of other things–but this stuff was captivating.

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(Double-)Standards-Based Education

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on September 26, 2013

My class on education law this semester is taught by the superintendent of a nearby school district. Today he told us about a parent who sued him some years ago when a student newspaper and yearbook refused to publish a pro-abstinence advertisement. He then showed us an editorial the parent wrote after losing the case.

The thing started out with some stuff about free speech, that being the legal issue central to the case. The argument was cogent enough; I disagreed, but I understood. Then came Truth and God and Virtue and the disintegration of morals in contemporary society. This too I followed; I objected to the sentiments, I questioned their relevance, I rejected the worldview they represented—but I remained intellectually engaged.

Then came “the sexually promiscuous homosexual lifestyle,” and my brain broke.

I don’t know what the concluding paragraphs said. I was too angry to process them. Free speech was no longer the issue for me. Even the underlying debate over sex education seemed inconsequential. Here was a person, a Bad Person with Bad Beliefs, a person steeped in Error and Untruth and perhaps even Evil—and a person whose views I did not want to hear, whose lifestyle I could not accept.

I am as much an ideologue as he is.

(And I’m not even gay! Imagine something that attacked me personally…)

I read cases in which students want to protest wars, and I celebrate their right to free speech. I read cases in which students want to display the Confederate flag, and—I support their right to free speech in an intellectual sense, but would I really mind, really feel indignant or angry or scared or disappointed, if they were oppressed just a little? I don’t know.

Some judge in one of these cases noted that the right to free speech means little if it means only that we grant crackpots a space in which they are free to be crackpots. I agree. But do I really, truly want anything more than that for those I deem crackpots?

I wish I knew.

Another “should be required reading” sort of thing

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on September 12, 2013

Savage Inequalities: Children in America's SchoolsSavage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s nothing I didn’t already know from personal experience, but I suppose that fact just confirms its relevance.

One thing I didn’t like, though: the recurring suggestion that what makes our education system really shameful is that it complicates the narrative of “American” exceptionalism. “One might expect to find these problems in other countries,” the explicit or implicit argument goes, “but to find them here–how awful!”

That framing of the subject, combined with the title, made me rather squeamish. (Are we trying to avoid being “savage”? Because that’s not a problematic concept at all…)

But hey, if that’s what it takes to shake people out of complacency, then maybe it’s justified–I don’t know.

In any case, the book as a whole is excellent.

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Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on September 5, 2013

I’m taking a class called Educational Equity and the Law this semester. At the first meeting today, the professor asked (hypothetically) which of us would have a problem with his having everyone recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of every class.

I was the only one of the six students who immediately raised her hand.

One of my classmates said she wouldn’t object as long as she could stick to the pre-God version. The other four said they’d be fine with it.

I was surprised, but I’m not sure whether I should have been.


Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on August 30, 2013

One of the very first people I met in college is also one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. His suite was just below mine in what quickly became the closest-knit entryway in the dorm. I was rather shy and very sad at that time in my life, but we shared a nostalgia for the tropics–he is from Costa Rica, I am from Hawai`i, and our school was in Connecticut–and I always felt like I could talk to him about anything. When our first New England Halloween found us both without costumes, we cobbled together a couple of ridiculous islander outfits–a plastic lei for him, a coconut bra for me (over a long-sleeved shirt, of course: it was damned cold)–and spent the night celebrating our status as outsiders.

We never grew terribly close, but he remained one of my favorite people, one who could make me smile in almost any circumstances (and back then, that was quite an accomplishment). A couple of years after graduation, he and some other Yalies were in Boston for the Harvard-Yale game, and I went to a party one of them was throwing. He was there, along with his new boyfriend; they looked incredibly happy.

Just a week or so ago, I wrote to him for the first time in a while. My husband had surprised me with tickets to Costa Rica, and I was asking for travel tips. I also congratulated him: the boyfriend I had met years ago was now his husband. They had been married in July, just after DOMA was struck down. “It’s great to be married!” he wrote–and I agreed.

I learned today that his husband was killed in a car accident last night.

Said husband was a former army officer who had served in Iraq and Kuwait. During one of his tours, he became the first active duty service member to come out as gay on national television. He was discharged, of course; DADT’s demise came several years later–thanks in part to efforts like his.

He survived war to be killed in a car crash. He waited to have a federally recognized marriage only to die a month after his wedding.

I don’t understand.

“So what’s it like being a teacher?”

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on August 28, 2013

Well, less than a week ago I found out that a graduate of the school I taught at had been shot on the streets of Boston. For days his death overshadowed my Facebook news feed. His former friends and classmates–my former students–grieved mightily, and I looked on helplessly. One young man, himself now a father, noted that the local news speculated wildly about how the (African American male) victim may have been dealing drugs but never once mentioned the fact that he was the father of two baby girls. The cynical posts were the worst, because they were the best. But of course, some said. This is what happens to people like us.

Then, this morning, another former student sent me this Facebook message: “Hey! I just wanted to say thank you for everything you have done for me. I appreciate everything you have done and you inspire me so much. You were one of the very few people that continued to believe in me and pushed me to succeed. I don’t know where I would be without your support. Thank you!” It’s been over a year since I’ve taught her; recently she and I were trying desperately to find a way for her to attend an exciting faraway college that had granted her provisional admission, but it didn’t work out and now she’s going to some local school and living at home like she never wanted to do. And yet–the message.

That is what it’s like having been a teacher–a year and more after leaving the classroom. Extrapolate a bit, and maybe you’ll get an idea of what it’s like actually to be a teacher.

You cry a lot.

Still Lost

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on August 25, 2013

Paris in the Twentieth CenturyParis in the Twentieth Century by Jules Verne

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It’s possible that Verne deliberately disguised this unappealing piece of heavy-handed dogma as a novel so as to embody everything that is most odious about the dystopian future it describes–one, of course, in which utility has triumphed over beauty, science over art, machinery over humanity, and (apparently) dichotomy over complexity. If such was his intent, than he succeeded magnificently.

If not, then this is one of the most amazing exhibits of unintentional irony that I have ever seen.

I loved Jules Verne when I was a kid. I still do, in theory. Maybe he kept this “lost novel” unpublished for a reason.

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I do wish Goodreads had a cover image for it, though.

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on August 25, 2013

Nabokov's Dozen: A Collection of Thirteen Stories‏ (Anchor Literary Library)Nabokov’s Dozen: A Collection of Thirteen Stories‏ by Vladimir Nabokov

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

More than anything else, Nabokov writes about words. His best work balances gracefully the referential and other functions of language, so that the text is both a world in itself (with puns, ironies, bot mots, and so on) and a window to the fictional world it describes (with characters, feelings, other ironies, and the like).

That’s an oversimplification, I know, but the point is this: in reading these stories, I felt like the text was opaque. Each piece was lovely in itself, but that very loveliness obscured its “point.” The thing made a better door than window.

Once in a while a passage would resolve itself into a unit of meaning, and invariably that meaning was profoundly beautiful (hence the three stars). But then it would fade as suddenly as it had appeared, technical prowess replacing aesthetic vision as the author’s most salient characteristic. (Fans of Classical music, think of a cadenza in a Mozart concerto).

Overall, then, while I imagine that annotating this book would be a delightful exercise, reading it was something else altogether.

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BRB, breaking.

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on August 16, 2013

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know those Magic Eye thingies that were absurdly popular for a while when I was a kid, like in the early ’90s? They looked at first like nothing more than meaningless patterns of variously colored dots, but if you looked “through” them successfully they revealed a hidden picture?

So, imagine you’re looking at one of those. You know there’s an amazing landscape scene in there somewhere, because all your friends have told you so, but all you can see are dots. Once in a while some of the dots seem to resolve themselves into something. Is that a dead tree? That would make for a rather depressing landscape. But maybe it’s a beautiful winter scene–snow-laden branches and whatnot. That would be nice. It would be even nicer if you could just SEE the damn thing, though.

This goes on for a while. You become increasingly frustrated and increasingly invested. The picture is going to be f***ing mind-blowing if you ever manage to penetrate the surface and get to it.

Then, finally, it appears. And it is horrifying. Yes, it’s a landscape. But not only are the trees dead; everything is. Even the vultures picking at the carcasses look old and tired and uninterested in their activities. All the tragedy of existence suddenly leaps out of the frame at you, and you turn away in fear and trembling. You have seen It, and It was indeed amazing, but you never want to see It again.

That’s how it is to read this book.

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The full title is “The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations.”

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on August 12, 2013

Tragic Sense of LifeTragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

His stance:

“For my part I do not want to make peace between my heart and my head, between my faith and my reason; I prefer that they be at war. [...] My purpose is to war on all those who submit, whether to Catholicism, or to rationalism, or to agnosticism. My aim is to make all men live a life of restless longing.”

His thesis:

“If annihilation must be our portion, let us act in such a way that we make it an unjust portion; let us fight against destiny, even without hope of victory; let us fight quixotically. [...] And to act in such a way as to make our annihilation unjustified, in such a way as to make our brothers and sisters, our children and their children, and the children of these children, all feel that we ought not to have died is something within the reach of all men.”

At the end, where the focus turns from “men” to “nations,” he speaks more specifically to those who have in their minds a clear idea of what it means to be Spanish, to be European, to be Catholic. But it’s hardly his fault that I am none of those things. The book is amazing.

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Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on August 9, 2013

My husband listens to sports radio sometimes. At first this worried me, male-dominated discourses not being known for making women feel awesome about themselves, but I didn’t want to be unreasonable, so I gave it a chance. After all, said hubby is both an ardent feminist in his own right and acutely aware of my “triggers,” so I figured whatever he was listening to would be “safe.” And so it was. I had indeed prejudged these guys unfairly: all they seem to want to do, for the most part, is nerd out about statistics. It’s actually kind of cute sometimes.

But then one day recently they were reporting some mini-scandal in the baseball world. A well-known pitcher had done something during a game–I don’t know what–and the wife of the opposing team’s second baseman had said something about it on Twitter. I don’t know what she said, but the pitcher’s response had been to tweet, among other things, “Some people don’t know how to shut their women up.”

The “scandal,” however, was all about his “fiery temper.” His public apology was for “letting his passion for the game get the better of him.” The commentators went on about short tempers and fiery personalities and such for a minute and then moved on.


If the dude had a short temper, he would have told the woman who insulted him to go fuck off or something. And she may have deserved it–who knows. But telling the person who owns her to put a lid on his pet’s behavior–that’s not temper. That’s misogyny.

I waited for the commentators to say something, anything, about gender as they discussed this story. They didn’t have to go on a full-blown rant about denying women personhood–they just had to allude, however indirectly, to the issue. Just for a second.

But they never did.

How not to be a teacher

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on August 9, 2013

I read this recently.

And it struck me in many ways, but this is what it made me remember:

In my fourth year of teaching, I had this class that constantly pranked me. I loved it; they worked incredibly hard and did everything I asked them to do and more, so when they took five minutes of class time to do something unrelated to the curriculum that made all of us laugh uncontrollably–knowing and willing that thirty seconds later they would be back at work–I certainly didn’t mind.

So one day during class, when a knock came at a fire door leading to an empty classroom, I took the bait–gladly. When I opened the door, one of the students–a guy who had “gone to the bathroom” a minute before–was standing there in a full-body Tigger suit.

It was hilarious. Everyone laughed. I laughed. Tigger hugged me.

Then he really hugged me.

Because Tigger was not just Tigger; he was a six-foot-tall, 18-year-old man. And I was suddenly no longer his teacher but a five-and-a-half-foot-tall, 26-year-old woman. And he held my head tight against his chest and stroked my hair, and I stopped laughing and started squirming and said THIS HUG IS OVER and no one but he heard and he kept stroking my hair and everyone laughed on. And then he let me go and I went on with the lesson and never said anything more to him about the incident, ever.

Not because I didn’t think I should, but because I knew how the conversation would go. Never mind HIS voice–the inevitable I’m-baffled-and-sorry-YOU-felt-that-way line–I’d be too busy listening to the policing voices in my head to make my point effectively. “Why ruin your students’ fun?” “He didn’t mean anything by it.” “Stop overreacting.” “It was just a hug.” And in the end I would be the one apologizing for making him uncomfortable.

And so I failed.

The worst part is that, in this situation, I had ALL the power. I had fun with that class, but I also had total control. I could shut them up with a look. Over the particular boy/man in question I had long since established my dominance; if he got distracted when I was talking, for example, all I had to do was pause and look at him and he’d instantly apologize and get himself back on track. And if he didn’t, his classmates would yell at him (good-naturedly) until he did so. Because I had more than control; I had allies.

So there I was, surrounded by devoted supporters and enjoying both de jure and de facto authority over everyone in the room. And yet when I needed to assert myself as a woman to a man rather than as an adult to an adolescent or a teacher to a student, I failed utterly.

Now imagine how many women find themselves in how many much less advantageous scenarios every day, and do some extrapolation assuming that I am weak and flawed but not uniquely so, and then try not to cry with rage and shame.

Kierkegaard on Academia

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on July 29, 2013

“Nowadays a thinker is a curious creature who during certain hours of the day exhibits a very remarkable ingenuity, but has otherwise nothing in common with a human being.” [quoted in Unamuno]

There’s a metaphor in here somewhere.

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on July 28, 2013

I’ve just taken the first step toward weaning myself off antidepressants: reducing my daily dose from 40mg to 30.

Because the stuff comes in 40mg capsules but not 30mg ones, I’m now taking three 10mg capsules a day instead of one 40mg one.

Also, my doctor said that, while I will probably not experience any withdrawal symptoms from just a 25% reduction, I should be on the lookout for “slight dizziness and something like an electric light show” in my head.

So basically, my progress toward becoming less dependent on drugs involves tripling the number of pills I’m popping and possibly going on acid trips.

Oh and my version didn’t include “A Political Romance”

Posted in Uncategorized by burningclove on July 20, 2013

A Sentimental Journey with the Journal to Eliza and a Political RomanceA Sentimental Journey with the Journal to Eliza and a Political Romance by Laurence Sterne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The “Sentimental Journey” is profoundly delightful (yes, delight can be profound, at least when Laurence Sterne’s genius is involved). But the “Letters” are insufferably solipsistic and banal. There’s some oft-quoted line about how the best artists are the most boring “real-life” people because they pour all that is exceptional about themselves into their art. Maybe that sentiment was inspired by the juxtaposition in this volume.

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