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ALUMNI WEEKEND TIME

Yep, it’s spring, so it must be alumni weekend time.  I’m certain of it, for we just returned from one in California.

By now, I’ve accumulated enough years on my vintage [in mercy, we won’t say how old] life odometer, to be a veteran of these springtime rites of passage we call alumni weekends.  In our case, they are inescapable because not only do my wife and I have collectively nine alma maters to keep track of, I’ve also taught at five educational institutions (three universities, one high school, and one junior high), over a period of 34 years.   Each of these can be counted on to schedule an alumni weekend each spring.  Translated: it means that rare is a spring when a particular alumni weekend fails to belt out an irresistible siren call.  And it’s all because of numerology.  Actually it’s an insidious attempt by society to keep us broke by reminding us (by snail mail, e-mails, telephone, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, et al) that somewhere, every year of our lives, a five-year-multiple of some sort has reared its ugly head.  And rejecting such a summons is almost a sacrilegious act: akin to burning a Bible—or a National Geographic magazine.

Well, as I said, we’ve just returned from another one.  And this one was impossible to resist: a West Coast high school class was circling its wagons for their big 4 0 reunion.  And I received an invitation that—oh, let me tell you how diabolically wicked it was!  One of those long-ago students e-mailed me, informing me that way back when we were both young and foolish, I’d been one of her favorite teachers, and she’d never been back to an alumni reunion because I wasn’t there and that if I didn’t show up for this one she’d boycott that one too—Did I really want to have such a dastardly crime on my conscience?  And she called in reinforcements for added insurance.  “Trip insurance,” I believe they call it in the cruise industry.

So, of course, we packed up our bags and went.  And it was worth many times over what we paid for it.  I must confess to you that, in life, I’ve had more than my fair share of honors and degrees, but none of them can compare to this tender-hearted former student of mine, who after agreeing to introduce me to the alumni crowd, sat there with me on the front row racked with anguish and embarrassment, declaring over and over in a shaking voice, “I just can’t go through with this, Dr. Wheeler!  I just can’t!”  And the closer we got to our place in the program, the more she shook.  Almost, I thought we’d lose her.

But of course we didn’t: the most moving heart-felt tribute a teacher could ever receive.  Complete with a conch shell in which she had somehow some way, I don’t know how! beautifully inscribed these words inside: “Dear Dr. Wheeler, you will always remain in our hearts”—words no one but me could see.

Of course I hugged her!  Indeed, for a time, I could not speak.  Not until afterwards did we discover she’d been given a standing ovation.  Because, in the brief terrestrial passage of this thing called “life,” rarely are we moved to such an extent that we’re incapable of speech.  All the way back, on our return flight to Denver, I dissected that precious moment to find out why.  The closest I can get to an articulate explanation is this: If we are lucky enough to live a rich full life and be the recipient of honors, the ones that mean the most come from the lips of those who have known us the longest, and say, in essence:

I knew you when—.  I knew you when you were young and crazy like us.  When you loved us unreservedly even when we were most unlovable.  There were times when you lost your temper, when you did and said stupid, even inexcusable things, just like some of us did—but we loved you all the more because we knew the love you had for us was Velveteen Rabbit real.  And it’s because of all that, that we haven’t been able to forget you—that we can’t even imagine not having you with us when we celebrate our 40th alumni weekend.

This is what alumni weekends are really all about.  For we are unreservedly vulnerable only once in life—when we are young.  And though we may be considered successful by the great world later on, if our long-ago peers don’t consider us to be successful (with qualities that really matter, that stand the test of time), when we go back to the old campus on alumni weekend, when we pick up where we left off all those years ago—then we are not really successful at all, no matter what the world might say.  And this is the reason that, if I should somehow live a thousand years, never could I imagine so undeserving, so heartbreakingly beautiful, a tribute as the one I just received.

May God bless her!  And bless all those others who shakily stand up in front of their long-ago-but-forever classmates, to express that rare kind of love that comes—if it comes at all in life—but once.

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THE CHILD IS FATHER OF THE MAN

“My heart leaps up when I behold
       A rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began;
So it is now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old.
     Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man.”
                 —Wordsworth

The child is also, of course, father, mother, of the woman.

When we consider the fact that half of what we learn in life takes place before we ever step foot into a formal classroom, it makes little sense to continue blaming our schools for our plunging test scores.   For several generations now (not coincidentally, beginning with the introduction of television in American homes after World War II), literacy test-scores have been in free-fall; so much so that our nation has dropped out of the company of the leading nations of the world and now finds itself in embarrassing third-world company literacy-wise.

Somewhere during the last three generations, the intellectual, moral, and spiritual education of our children has taken a back-seat to creature comforts and ever larger homes.  Paradoxical, isn’t it, that at the very time our homes are getting ever larger (larger than is true of any other nation on earth), the parenting/educating within those homes has proportionally decreased.  At an ever earlier age, we shove our children out of the house into child-care facilities and kindergartens. All this to avoid the God-given responsibility to be there for our child.

For each day, each moment, our pre-school child is becoming.  Never again in his/her lifetime will growth occur at such blinding speed.  Indeed, so much of a sponge is the child’s brain that linguists maintain a child could master 50 languages by the age of six!

Up until World War II, no higher priority was there for American parents than being there for one’s children.  As a result, each generation’s children earned ever higher degrees (and ever-higher paychecks) than did the one before.

That is no longer true.

Jackie Kennedy famously noted that the older she got the more convinced she became that no amount of fame, position, or income could possibly compensate for having failed as a parent.

In my own life, I owe whatever success has come my way to having been blessed by parents who considered me, my brother Romayne, and my sister Marjorie to be their #1 priority in life.  Because we were missionary kids, I was home schooled for 14 of the first 16 years of my life.  During those early years I was ferried once a week to the nearest American library where I checked out as many books as I could stagger home with.  As a result, guided by my remarkable mother (an elocutionist who had memorized thousands of pages of short stories, poetry, and readings), I devoured library after library—and have never quit.  My brother became an internationally known concert pianist, earning two doctorates in music, in Austria.  And my sister became an award-winning artist with the brush.

There is an epidemic of home schooling taking place in our nation right now.  It is hard for me to admit this—being the product of two masters degrees and a doctorate, and having dedicated 34 out of 36 years to formal Christian education in my pre-publishing career—admit that today I have grave doubts about the effectiveness of our current formal education template: ever larger classes, ever less time to devote to individual students, ever more complex bureaucratic paper-work to deal with, unable to so much as touch or hug a child without being accused of molestation, graduate students being forced to take classes from graduate assistants so that their ostensible faculty may continue to churn out scholarship no one reads. . . .  This litany could go on.

But I must return to the beginning: the home.  For it is the home alone—the mother and father working hand-in-hand, led by God—that holds the answer to the sad case of Little Boy Blue.  And each time such a twosome determine to sacrifice whatever it takes to be there, be home whenever the child is home during the growing-up years (for at least one parent—be it mother or father—to be there to answer all the tens of thousands of “whys?” that each small child fires machine-gun style each day); to take the time to themselves be the pulpit, to control the avenues to their children’s hearts, minds, and souls; to establish a daily story hour during which values worth living by may be internalized; to make possible the serenity which alone can enable each child to dream…. 

            Ah!  To dream:

“We grow great by dreams.  All big men and women are dreamers.  They see things in the soft haze of a spring day or in the red fire of a long winter’s evening.  Some of us let these great dreams die, but others nourish and protect them; nurse them through bad days till they bring them to the sunshine and light which always comes to those who hope that their dreams will come true.”

                                                            —Woodrow Wilson

* * * * *

See you next Wednesday.

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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!”