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MIRACLE IN SILVER SPRING

Every time I’m overwhelmed by the apparent hopelessness of the next generation of non-reading, unthinking, and inarticulate youth, all I have to do is think of Michael [a pseudonym], and hope is restored.

Let me tell you his story.

Some years ago, in my Freshman Composition class in an eastern college one fall, was a young man from the inner city.  Always, Michael sat in the back row—for good reason: he didn’t want to be called on for answers.  Almost never had he completed an assignment; he could not write a coherent sentence, much less paragraph.  His reading reports were disasters—when he bothered to get one in.  In short, he was about as close to a mental zero as they come.

The most daunting assignment of all, the Nightingale Project (a six-week-long immersion in reading, thinking, and goal-setting), he abjectly failed.

Then came mid-semester grades.  I was relieved to see him stay after class: one more F I wouldn’t have to give out at the end of the semester.  He extended a drop-sheet for me to sign, saying, “Dr. Wheeler, I have to drop your class.”

“Can’t keep up, Michael?”

“No, I can’t.”

“How about your other classes?”

“The same.”  Then a long sigh, followed by, “It all seems hopeless.”

I knew why.  Early on he’d admitted there was almost no silence in his life.  At home, the television set was blaring from the moment the first person got up until the last person went to bed.  No place where he could think.

But his next words surprised me: “But, Dr. Wheeler, I’ll be back—and I’ll get the top A in your class.”

I managed not to choke: Sure you will—about as likely as your being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature!  I just nodded, however, chalking it up to braggadocio or face-saving.  He left the room, and I forgot about him—just another of those failures that make Bell Curve grading possible.

* * *

Almost a year passed, and it was fall once again.  Another batch of Freshman Composition students streamed into the classroom and found their seats.  When things finally quieted down, I looked up and did a double-take: It couldn’t be!  But it was. Here was Michael again–but with one big difference: he’d moved from the back row to the front row.  Strange!  What’s he trying to prove?

Since there were so many others competing for my attention in the large class, it took a while before things began to register in my mind.  Developments I chalked up to aberrations or possible cheating (a sad probability that all teachers today are forced to deal with): A’s on quizzes, answering questions correctly, hand raised when I asked questions, well-written essays and book-reports.

Finally, at home one night, I took out my grade book and did some tabulating.  None of it made sense to me: short of a brain transplant, this sort of 180E reversal just wasn’t possible.  Something—I didn’t know what—was definitely rotten in Denmark—uh, Silver Spring.  Decided to get to the bottom of it.

When the bell rang at the end of the next class, I asked Michael to stay.  When the classroom was empty, I unloaded on him, in my sternest voice: “Michael, I just don’t understand.  All your assignments are in, you participate in class, your grades are excellent, your writing is clear and persuasive, and to top it all off, you’ve read more pages of outside reading than anyone else in class.  What gives?

I was blind-sided by that radiant smile, the absolute last thing I expected.  “Dr. Wheeler, I’ve been wondering how long it would take for you to grill me.  Normally, you’re so quick, I’d expected it much earlier.”

I was totally at a loss for words.

He continued, “It’s this way, Dr. Wheeler.  You may remember that last year I told you there was no silence in my life, no books in my house—except my textbooks, no magazines, no newspapers—nothing but noise.”

I nodded.  When is he going to admit guilt?

“Well, during the Nightingale Assignment, you demanded of us one hour of silence a day.  First time I could ever remember silence.  Didn’t know what to do with it at first.  Made me think. . . .  But something else happened last year: You forced us to check out all those books from your paperback library.”

I nodded again.  I’d personally sought out, purchased, inventoried, and shelved all those 10,000 books—had a hard time finding a room big enough for them.

He continued, in a slower voice now, “Well, this may be hard for you to believe, but something strange happened to me last fall: I fell in love with reading!  Discovered a whole new world in those books.  After I dropped your class, I practically lived in the paperback library.  It was quiet there, so I studied there often.  That’s why I’m still here.  My grades came up—I was off academic probation by summer.  During summer months, when I wasn’t working, I hung out in the public library.  Kept reading: so many subjects, so many authors, so many new doors opening in my mind.”

“And now, how are your other classes going?”

“All A’s.”

What could I say?  I was too dumbfounded to process all this in just a few minutes.

“Well, Dr. Wheeler, got to run or I’ll be late for my next class.  Oops! [as the bell rang], I already am.”  And he rushed off.

* * *

At the end of the semester, I did something I’d never done before—nor have I since: I phoned a student about his final grade.  When I informed Michael he’d earned the highest grade in my class, I swear I could almost hear his shout 40 miles away from our home in Annapolis.

Then, he blind-sided me one more time: “Dr. Wheeler, I’ve been waiting and hoping for this to happen.  Is it . . . [he hesitated] . . . is it OK with you if I change my major?”

Why was he asking me such a question?

“Because I want to major in English.”

And he did.

* * *

And Michael is the reason I’m still hopeful about the possibility of life-changing miracles—even as late as college years!

Stay tuned.  See you next Wednesday.

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NON-READER’S DOOMSDAY

What I say today goes for both sexes: the results are the same. As I said earlier, I studied the effects of television for thirty years before I wrote Remote Controlled. Reading/Writing was one of my four doctoral areas of concentration. And I’ve continually explored the interrelationship between reading and writing during my entire academic career (as teacher and administrator), so this is anything but a new subject for me.

Here, in a nutshell, are my findings:

1. If you do not read, relying instead on the digestion of electronic imagery, you are incapable of creating your own mental connotative pictures. In short, you cannot imagine or think original thoughts.

Why? Because if you read, see live drama, or hear radio drama, no two people will create the same mental pictures, because each person responds to word-association according to known experience. Such imagery is stored in your brain as part of your own thinking apparatus. But, if you watch TV, video, cinema, or other electronic imagery, whether one person watches that image or three billion do, every last watcher gets the self same image—because it is pre-fab: someone other than you created it, so it is blasted into your brain’s archives, by-passing your own thought-processors. Over time, tragedy strikes, because being that everything in your brain was created by someone else, you have virtually nothing original to draw from. You’re a zombie.

When given a writing assignment, you’re all but paralyzed. When assigned a term paper, since there’s nothing original to draw from in your head, you cheat—you have to, or fail. You cannot even structure coherent sentences or paragraphs, for all you have in your head is the chaotic jumblings of media and advertising. I’ve seen it over and over in 34 years of teaching: the reader, having many stylistic templates of favorite authors to draw from, can hardly wait to begin; the non-reader just stares glassy-eyed at that blank piece of paper, hoping for a miracle. And today’s epidemic of cheating/plagiarism is threatening the validity of our entire academic system, as untold thousands are submitting research under their names, that were created by someone else.

2. The Chinese have a saying: “If you haven’t read in three days, you aren’t worth listening to.” Just listen to electronic junkies around you, or receive their text-messages—note how vapid, inane, and devoid of structure it is.

When you grow up and get a job, inevitably the day of reckoning will come: when you can no longer hide the fact that you are brain-dead.

3. Nor can your non-reading electronic junkie speak coherently and persuasively. Reason being: there is nothing structured or coherently organized in his/her head.

4. Nor can s/he handle complex thought. Only in simplistic sound-bytes. Recently an international conference of some of the world’s leading church leaders concluded that they question whether democracy and civil liberty can long exist without a literate reading public (routinely digesting newspapers, magazines, and books). For non-readers, being incapable of complex thought, are easy prey to demagogues, extremists, and would-be dictators.

5. They also make lousy employees. Fortune 500 CEOs often determine finalists for key positions by giving top candidates challenges such as five steps to achieving a solution (Steps A, B, C, D, E), and then deliberately leave out a step. The reader has developed a part of the brain scholars call the “Library,” in which the brain talks to itself. When the reading candidate reaches a missing step, she stops, thinks, and then sends out filaments much like a spider, eventually synapsing to the other side, then finishing the test. The non-reader could sit there for a hundred years, incapable of crossing.

6. Furthermore, all the studies reveal that the more hours a day you expose yourself to electronic imagery, the dumber you get—at any age! Because, again, it’s all second-hand; worse yet—well, let me quote Ted Koppel:

“Almost everything said in public today is recorded.
                              Almost nothing said in public today is worth remembering.”

It’s all, to use an academic term: “Majoring in minors.”

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll start applying all this to our boys and girls. Stay tuned.

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LITTLE BOY BLUE

So what is happening to our boys? They begin life, just like girls, brimming over with a sense of wonder. Each day far too short for all they want to see and do. Their sense of beauty is just as strong as girls’ are. They cry just as often and as much at heart-stopping beauty: be it a sunset, a story, a painting, a piece of music, or a face. They yearn with fierce passion to become, to learn all there is to know.

And then . . . they wither. They disengage. They begin majoring in minors—and never quit. Their dreams die stillborn.

Broken driveshafts litter the land. Why? No one seems to know. Or care. But I do.

* * * * *

Where and when did we lose them? It started early—very, very early. With:

“Don’t bother me, Daddy’s busy!”
“Will you just shut up! Your questions are driving me crazy!”
“No, I don’t have time to take you to the park.”
“No, you can’t play outside, there are perverts on the loose!”
“No, you can’t have a sandpile—sandpiles are too messy.”
“No, Mommy doesn’t have time to read to you,. Go watch TV—no, I don’t care what you watch, as long as you leave me alone!”

Since a boy deprived of action is a Ferrari limited to a thirty-foot-long strip of pavement, boys end up going where we send them—to video games (the wilder, the more violent, the edgier the better), to gameboys, to dark movies, to 24/7 sports (most of it vicarious). Vicarious . . . that says it all. Since we deprive them of action in the real world outside, they settle for a meaningless virtual world. All that pent-up energy that should be channeled into life-affirming growth is poured down a rat hole. Makes no difference, be it drugs, liquor, violence, porn, or lassitude: the results are the same, reminding me of a summer day in Nashville, many years ago. I was alternatively reading and taking notes from a large stack of books, and swimming laps in a rooftop swimming pool. A young man of about eighteen was sprawled out on a deck chair doing nothing. Out of the blue, he spoke up:

“What are you doing here in Nashville?”

“Me? Oh, I’m working on my doctorate in English. That’s why I’m reading so many books.”

“Oh, I’m just curious; you seem to really enjoy it—like you get high on it.”

I laughed. “I do. I do get high on it. It’s exciting to grow, to learn things I didn’t know before.”

Then the saddest words I’ve ever heard, accompanied by a sigh: “Guess I could never get your kind of high—it’s so much easier to just do drugs.”

I never saw him again.

* * * * *

Which leads me to a recent conversation I had with an area elementary school principal. She said, “Since you’re so involved with getting kids into reading, you’ll never believe what they told us at a reading conference I just attended.”

“What was that?”

“When you’re reading to small children, don’t show them the pictures.”

“Huh? You’ve got to be kidding!”

“That’s just what I said.”

“What possible reason could they have for not showing them the pictures?”

“That’s the part I can’t get out of my head. They say that most children today come from non-reading homes—hardly a book, magazine, or newspaper to be found anywhere—, replaced of course by a large screen/media center. . . . Well, everything in the house being electronic, these kids are so electronically overexposed they are literally incapable of creating their own mental pictures—”

“In other words,” I broke in, “they are incapable of imagining.”

“Exactly. So they tell us not to show them the pictures, as they’d be just one more visual crutch to keep them from creating their own mental pictures. So we’re supposed to read them but one line at a time, stop, then ask them what kind of mental pictures they can come up with, so that gradually, over time, we may help them belatedly to begin to think their own thoughts.”

I was stunned. Speechless.

So no wonder we’re losing our boys! Deprived of action and growth in the real world, and deprived by media overexposure of the ability to imagine, to conceptualize, to think, one by one they disengage, leave us, and spiral out of life into darkness. You can tell by the vacant stare, the bored look in their eyes, that they’re no longer with you. So it’s little surprise when they drop out, give up on college and real growth, and inertly slip down into a virtual world from which they never return.

So they’re just as dead to us as was Eugene Field’s unforgettable Little Boy Blue, whose toys

“. . . wonder, as waiting the long years through
In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
Since he kissed them and put them there.”

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll tackle the learning ramifications of being incapable of imagining.

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HERE’S TO THE LOSERS AT VANCOUVER

No, that’s not a misprint. It’s just that there were a lot more losers than there were winners at the 21st Winter Olympics. And thanks to our digital age, when a hundredth of a second may separate a Gold Medal winner who can then earn millions in endorsements from a loser who is forced by that fraction of a second to return home to cold shoulders—well, this makes the Olympics not only fascinating but riveting.

As for the venue, my wife and I love Canada—we have to. It all started when a Canuck named Duane captured our daughter Michelle’s heart and ventured into the lion’s den so he could ask permission to marry our daughter. His voice was near breaking, just as mine was when I asked Connie’s father if I could marry her. We have to be kind to Duane, for we may need him when we move north because of global warming. And we have two half-Canadian grandsons who, like their father, are rabid ice hockey and soccer players/fans. The three of them would have sulked for four years had Canada lost to the U.S. in that ice hockey Gold Medal match. It lived up to its hype, that thing so rare in sports: an absolutely perfect match between two great teams.

Another reason I measure my life by Olympic showdowns is because they accelerate life to the breaking point: when so much is at stake, when you have trained to the exclusion of everything else for four long years, just to prepare for a few minutes of action, the pressure to succeed may become all-consuming. And since so many nations value winning Gold over everything else, the system guarantees a disproportionate number of broken hearts.

It’s mighty difficult not to overreact when all your dreams are but shattered shards at your feet. Like Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko did when he lost Gold to Evan Lysacek in Men’s Figure Skating. Lysacek really rose in my estimation when he refused to take the bait when interviewers tried to get him to balloon Plushenko’s cutting words into a feud. Merely smiled and said he’d always admired and looked up to Plushenko—and still did. Then there were those who broke, like U.S. skier Julia Mancuso who was already green with jealousy over her beautiful teammate and Sports Illustrated swimsuit pin-up girl/Gold Medal Winner Lyndsay Vonn getting a disproportionate share of media attention. When Vonn crashed into a fence and thus aborted Mancuso’s run for Gold., Mancuso’s cup boiled over into spiteful words. As for me, I self-righteously condemned her for such poor taste—until I remembered something even more ignoble in my own past. The time I’d desired a college division chairmanship so bad I practically lusted for it. So when one of my best friends got it instead of me, in my raging jealousy I wrote him a note that pulverized any joy he might have had over landing the position. That ill-fated note destroyed our friendship, and represents one of the defining moments of my life, a Rubicon if you please, when I was forced to re-evaluate all my life’s priorities. And then there was U.S. Figure Skater Rachel Platt who was unfairly downgraded by judges in their evaluations. And how could anyone forget the sight of the great Dutch skater Sven Kramer who was only seconds from Gold when he discovered his own coach had given him the wrong lane instructions—and there he sat, head in his hands, all his dreams bleeding onto the floor.

And even that queen of figure skating herself, lovely Kim Yu-Na of Korea, admitted during the competition (before she won Gold) that she was terrified of failure, convicted as she was that so high were expectations that if she returned to Korea without that Gold Medal, her fans would abandon her.

For all these reasons, my heart goes out to the losers at Vancouver, for they are the ones America’s greatest poetess, Emily Dickinson, must have been thinking of when she wrote these lines:

“Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory.

As he defeated—dying—
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!”

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THE DEVALUATION OF MEN IN AMERICA TODAY

There’s a commercial airing as I write these lines, that says it all: Mom and Dad racing each other through the city streets in order to be the first to get a red box of McDonald goodies to their waiting son.  Completely out of breath, the father gets there first, only to see the boy look beyond his father to his mother, and say, “Thanks, Mom.”

For a long time now—generations in fact—, the media has orchestrated what seems like a calculated devaluation of fathers, of men.  It was obvious to me even during the thirty years of research that I poured into my book on the impact of television on the American psyche: Remote Controlled (Review and Herald Publishing, 1993); it is blatantly obvious now.  It is a moot question whether or not we men deserve it—it is a fact of life that men are consistently portrayed as being clueless about life; and women as those brave souls who sacrificially (and sarcastically) spend their lives mopping up behind their bull elephants. Watch virtually any sitcom, any movie, any commercial, and the trashing of men is obvious.

The price?  Last week’s blog addressed it.   The price is that men have come to believe the continual devaluing of their species—even to buy into it.  Quite likely, a man may even have written the McDonald commercial.  Just watch them: men are portrayed in the million plus commercials each child is exposed to during his/her growing up years, as bumbling klutzes, incompetent, inane, with the constancy of a rabbit; interested only in sloshing beer, couch potatoing in front of TVs during 24/8 sports (vicariously, of course), and so on.  Is it any wonder that so many boys are growing up effeminate, unsure of what it is to be a man, a father?

And because of our skyrocketing divorce rate, the norm today is no longer the nuclear family, but single-parent families.  Because the media devalues marriage itself, over one-third of all children are now being born out of wedlock.  Not surprisingly, given that it’s almost impossible for one parent to be equally effective in both mother and father roles, to say nothing about trying to do all this while also keeping a roof over their heads, working around the clock at several different jobs, shuttling the kids from one activity to another, at a near frantic pace—the children get shortchanged on all levels.

I spoke at a grandparenting conference not long ago, and was stunned to discover that today one third of all children in America are being raised by their grandparents!  The same percentage as out-of-wedlock children (with tragically obvious implications).  I interact with such grandparents a lot, and they are overwhelmed at having to be the primary care givers twice in life, when they no longer have the energy or emotional reserves for such a demanding role.

So, it’s no wonder boys are falling between the cracks.  For, in single-parent homes (the vast majority of the primary care givers being women), there is no dad to play ball with when the boy comes home from school; no dad there to mentor him, to teach him tough love, to build up his self-worth, to enforce behavior limits, to help steer him away from substance abuse, to show him what it means to be a father, a husband (99% of how we treat our spouses as adults is predicated on how our parents treated each other)—and, not coincidentally, to provide enough family income so the boy can feel a college education is part of his birthright.

I am not discounting the valiant efforts so many fathers who share joint custody of their sons make to compensate for their absence in the boy’s primary home, but it is not the same—it is not the same.

The strength of a nation is not money, prestige, possessions, or military power—it is the home.  Around the world, emerging powers such as India and China are flexing their muscles, and investing billions in higher education so that their children may grow up to help dethrone America as the world’s superpower.  Already, in areas such as engineering (traditionally a male preserve), the balance of power is shifting east away from America.  More bad news for the untold thousands of American men who have doomed themselves to minimum wage jobs by their failure to value higher education.

We cannot retain our world-wide leadership without once again valuing our boys as much as we value our girls.

But I’ve only addressed the tip of the iceberg so far.  Stay tuned for next week.

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CUANDO VAS PARA CHILE

Because of the 8.8 earthquake in Chile this week, I’m throwing in another blog ahead of Wednesday’s.

Last spring, Connie and I (and our cruise buddies, Bob and Lucy Earp) took a cruise from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Valparaiso, Chile, our first opportunity to get acquainted with a country that had been only a name to us before.

The result: we fell in love with Chile and Chileans. Unquestionably, the most poignant moment for us took place just a few miles from Chacabuco.  We had just watched Chilean folk dancers swirling around inside a club house—all the while we’d been gobbling up their delicious (and fattening) empanadas. After dancing a while as couples, the dancers delighted our cruise party by circling through our ranks, waving white handkerchiefs, searching for someone of the opposite sex to dance with them; this amalgamation of Chilean young people and travelers went on for over half an hour.

Finally, it was time to re-board our bus, and our group began filing out.  Unfortunately, we chose to exit during the most haunting song I’d yet heard in Chile.  I stopped, sensing something unusually poignant in the lyrics and melody.  I asked one of the bystanders what it was called, and was told in Spanish that it was “Cuando Vas Para Chile,” a song they sing to travelers so they’d remember and come back; a song so loved it is all but their national anthem.  Afterwards, I got on the mike in the bus and told everyone what they’d missed: our farewell song.  A song that ostensibly is about a loved one, but in a deeper sense the real loved one is that 2,500 mile-long slender strip of a nation, with incredible diversity and beauty.

So it was that we left Chile vowing to return, to get better acquainted with a people who’d captured our hearts in little more than a week.

Thus, now we can visualize the widespread grief that has rolled across Chile in waves since the earthquake devastated the country’s second-largest city, Conception.  True, everyone is aware they’re living on the Pacific Rim of Fire, a vast volcanic zone plagued by eruptions and earthquakes.  But, like most of us here, Chileans just take each day as it comes, hoping this day won’t be the one where it happens.  Unfortunately, Saturday turned out to be just that.

To Connie and me, this particular earthquake wasn’t merely the next earthquake after Haiti—but heartbreak for a people we now loved.  Real people who were no longer mere abstractions to us.  Not coincidentally, the people who make possible, more than any other, our being able to eat fresh fruit and vegetables all during our winter months.

So how can we not respond to their great need?

Si vas para Chile
Te ruego que pases por donde vive mi amada
es un casita, muy linda y chiquita,
que esta en las faldas de un cerro enclavada. . . .

And the song concludes by noting that Chilean villagers will always seek out the traveler and make of him a friend. . . .just as they do.