Friday, May 22, 2009

Building a Library Builds Character

Teachers and parents spend a lot of time trying to “improve” children. In the sixties in grammar school one of their tactics was the Arrow Book Club or Scholastic Book Club. Each month we’d get a newsletter with different books and we would take them home and show our mothers and then buy one or two. Then we’d do book reports on them. “Encyclopedia Brown”, “Homer Price”, and many others.
In Junior and Senior High School we were introduced to the Bookmobile. This was a trailer filled with bookshelves and books. We would be given time each day for several days to visit the bookmobile and select books and purchase them. The selection was more sophisticated than in grammar school and the reading levels ran the gamut.
For me and my friends this was a chance to buy books on war. History books, war story books, anything with Nazi’s and bombs would do. Our other obsession was science fiction. This was one place I was allowed to purchase whatever I wanted. I just asked my mom for money at the beginning of the week and we were off to the races.
Since we were becoming young adults we were now being permitted to choose our own books for book reports. Bruce Catton’s Civil War books, Shirer’s Hitler, and a million other books on WWII. We read Heinlein and LeGuin and Bradbury and in general tried to find the coolest book to report on in class so we’d look cool.
Of course this was a serious error since only eggheads think reading is cool. But there we were, at the front of the class reading our reports on illustrated men and the battle of Midway and D-Day and robots.
We were reading…that was good. But we were still separating ourselves from everyone else. We were on a slippery slope to meaninglessness and didn’t even know it. By the time we woke up to see what we had done it was too late. Being smart wasn’t a skill set you needed in 1965. Nobody sent us the memo though so we went on raising our hands and buying our books and trying to out know it all each other. This is a habit that persists in me to this day. Perhaps it’s no accident that in my office my nickname is Encyclopedia Jack.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Avalon Hill and the World at War

In 8th grade I fell totally and completely into the role of geek and egghead. I hung around with the weirdo’s in my class, I read books even more than before if that’s possible, and I began playing extraordinarily complicated board games. Principal among these were the games put out by Avalon Hill.

These games were simulations of historical battles (with one exception) such as D-Day, the battle for North Africa (Afrika Korps), Guadalcanal, and the Battle of the Bulge among many. You used small cardboard squares that represented some military unit such as a brigade or a division and moved them on a hexagonal grid superimposed on the map of the battle in question. Each game had slightly different rules to address geographic and supply issues but once you learned one the others were easy to master.

Battles were fought and won with the roll of a die using a chart to determine the outcome.

A single game might take a week or more to play and this, along with the complexity of the games and their attempt to simulate reality made them geek heaven. We would play for hours and hours. Pale, pasty, greasy haired eggheads sitting around a card table discussing the arcane realities of battles that were twenty years old. Could the New Jersey beat the Bismarck? Should you play 1914 using the original line of march or choose your own innovative strategy? And then there was Blitzkrieg which wasn’t an historical battle but an attempt to simulate a wide ranging war across a modern Europe using today’s weaponry.

That meant atom bombs were on the table. Of course the game ended way to quickly if you used the nuclear option.

This was not a recipe for socialization. We learned no people skills other than how to trick people into doing something they shouldn’t by lying. No girls played these games. No athletes played these games. No greasers played these games. Just kids with good grades and few friends who had nothing better to do than sit around for hours playing at war. Frittering away our adolescence. Squandering our youth. Behaving like any other kid with a Play Station or an Xbox blasting away at aliens. Had we an Xbox we would never have picked up those cardboard squares but geeks use whatever is at hand to hide from the world and for us it was games of war played out with cardboard squares moving across a colored board.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Poetry in the Schools, 60's Style

And so we return to school in the fall of 1965. The 9th graders of last year have vanished, they’re off to Woodbury HS. Now all of us are bound together for the next four years.

The school is now complete. The auto shop, the wood shop, the gym, the auditorium. All done. We’re settled in with our teachers for five long years.

I think, though I can be wrong because I am old, that this is the year teachers began teaching us with methods designed for the kids. You may ask, what are you talking about Jack? What I’m talking about is the horrible, misguided attempt by older men and women to relate to teenagers by incorporating various elements of the teenagers life into the education process.

In our case it was bringing Simon and Garfunkel into poetry. And as I write this I realize I’m off by one year (because my enfeebled old guy brain remembered the album came out a year later) but I’ll continue anyway because I just finished National Poetry Month and participated in dozens of examples of teaching for the kids. Not all misguided but all spotted a mile away by their charges.

In our English class the teacher and God alone can remember who that was brought out the Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel and played “I am a Rock”. Then she played “The Sounds of Silence”. Then she asked us what we thought the songs were about. I should note at this point I was an egghead. Which meant I had to have an answer or I was a failure. So were most of my classmates. We instantly shot our hands in the air and offered our various thoughts on the meanings of these songs. Keep in mind that before this moment I’d never thought a song meant anything other than some vague, undefined feeling, like being sad or happy or lonely or brave. Now I intellectualize shit like this all the time but back then I had no idea this might be important to anyone.

Suddenly like a bolt of lightning we all understood “poetry”!!!! It was full of secret meanings and codes and all we had to do was figure them out! The “Rock” was something other than a rock. The sounds of “Silence” weren’t just silence but something else that only we the smart kids could understand. Oh, and the artists who made the songs and poems.

We also got to swing away at Edgar Allen Poe and his “alliteration” (the bells, bells, bells, the tinkling tintinnabulation of the bells) and a couple other minor league knuckleheads. I suppose if we were older they’d have tossed in Dylan and Baez but for now we got Art and Paul.

Years later I found out that every kid in every NJ HS in 1966 had the same lesson plan. It felt like the Ed Sullivan Show had come to all our schools with one for the kids. Then they went back to the jugglers and Perry Como and Topo Gigio. No wonder we hated poetry. Our teachers had no idea how to teach it so they resorted to some cookie cutter technique that seemed hip (they were all young) that they learned at the teachers convention in Atlantic City that fall. Poetry was as alien to them as it was to us. They drove to work listening to the Dave Clark Five or the Beatles or if they were older Elvis and Sinatra and then had to find some way to talk about something that looked like it had just landed from Outer Space.