Sunday, August 9, 2009

On the Importance of Excellent Teaching: A Tribute to Sally Littlefield | Kevin Swanwick

Study hall was quiet and I was deeply immersed in the complex moral crisis of Frank Campbell, protagonist of the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. novel, Mother Night. I was taken away, as a young reader can be, to a place less banal and more profound than what seemed an unsatisfying teenage existence.

“Kevin, another Vonnegut?”

“Oh, Hi Mrs. Littlefield, uh, yea I know it seems like a lot, but soon I’ll be done with all of the novels – I want to finish them.”

“Kevin, you need to start reading some other authors; there is so much more out there.”

I had not been a reader in childhood. It wasn’t that I had trouble reading, or even disliked the activity; it was more closely related to the fact that playing outdoors, riding my bicycle and studying dinosaurs were all more interesting. The reading that was compulsory at my Catholic elementary school was not of whole books, but bits of work exercises and short biblical retellings, packaged with pictures for the young mind. Most of it left me looking out the window. I didn’t know what a book could do. The first book I can recall reading all the way through, was the short and syrupy novel Love Story by Erich Segal. Originally written as a screenplay for the movie of the same name, Segal had been enlisted to write the novel so that it could be published before the film’s release. My encounter with it was by accident really. My oldest sister Debbie had been a foreign exchange student in Great Britain and in my thirteenth summer it was time for our family to reciprocate the exchange. Our house had three bedrooms: Mom and Dad’s, mine and my brother’s and the three girls’. It was decided that the girls would use temporary, nightly arrangements: younger sister Pattie bunked with little brother John, Debbie and Mary Kay would move into the cleaned-up basement where Dad had put down a cover rug and I’d be with “Andrew.”

When Andrew arrived from the UK, we all did what we could to make him comfortable, but his awkwardness was overpowering, especially in a verbally busy household like ours. There was lots of jousting and sarcasm, tools of the trade in a big family where personal rivalries and competition needed to be carried on with wit, when physical force was either ineffective or imbued with adverse consequences. In the evening, while Debbie was off with her British friends, I had the dubious responsibility of keeping company with Andrew. At thirteen there wasn’t much I could interest him in and he would answer most of my inquiries with one-word answers. Well over six feet tall, Andrew was gangly, with an overbite and looked oddly like the young T.S. Eliot sans eyewear. He reclined on one bed, reading and smacking away at a lollipop, while I uncomfortably reclined on the other. He kept the light on long after my normal bed time as he read his book. With nothing else to do, I noticed the paperback on the night table. This was my introduction to the literary form known as the modern novel. As I began to read the tragic love story, I was quickly drawn in. When it became apparent that Jenny Cavelleri was really sick, I encountered a dilemma: I was welling up with tears and shuddering. I’d been duped by Segal and there I was at thirteen, sobbing over a book. I had to finish the book in secret, so that no one would see me crying; this was not something that an Irish Catholic man-boy should get caught doing. While I wouldn’t count Love Story among the list of important books, it was my first encounter with the power of written words and their ability to evoke human passions, thoughts and emotions.

That was the last book I read until I met Sally Littlefield in a classroom. A pretty woman with an angular face, she had bright and lively eyes and a husky voice and when she conversed with you, you were keenly aware that she was paying close attention and thoughtfully considering what you said. I believe she was a student of people, particularly young people. I don’t know if this was an acquired skill, developed over years of teaching English or an innate gift that flourished in an educational setting. She was always teaching. I first met her at the age of 11 when my friend David and I fished, uninvited in her pond. The pond was set on a beautiful corner property at the bottom of Fletcher Street in Goshen, NY, just inside the village line. She came out to greet us and talk with us, certainly performing a discreet safety survey and then welcoming us to fish as long as we’d like and offering us some lemon aid and a cutting board with a proper knife to clean the fish with.

“Do you know how to clean a fish?”

“Oh yes, we do it all of the time; we just forgot our gear. Thank you.”

Several minutes later we would deliver her a grotesquely butchered sun fish, scales intact and chopped into bloody sections, including the head. Neither of us knew how to clean a fish.

“Oh, dear; why don’t we bring that inside?”

We didn’t have a clue that this fish was unsalvageable. We stepped inside her revolutionary war-era home to fetch our lemon aid and for the first time in our lives saw antique hand-hewn beams, over 200 years old, across the kitchen ceiling. She gave us a brief history of the house and we left with the idea that it was likely that some of George Washington’s troops had billeted there and perhaps George himself. The imagery was delightful and we returned to the pond looking around at nearby fields, wondering where the troops lined up and where the Indians were. Perhaps the Indians watched from the wooded hill above us, which separated the village from this lowland site full of rye grass and Queen Anne’s Lace.

I stayed in Catholic school until the seventh grade and then, at the urging of my friend David and the acquiescence of my parents, transferred to Goshen Middle School. Bigger sports programs, more kids, science labs and a real gymnasium had me lurching between the anxiety of being accepted in a new social network and the excitement of all of the new opportunity. Still, I read no books and left studying as an unexercised activity whose lack of existence in my world was an ontological problem for someone else, parent or teacher, to discover. The first day of ninth grade at the CJ Hooker High School building started with “home-room” where attendance was taken. From there we each set out for our first real class of the day. Mine was English. When I arrived at class, I knew something was peculiar: I recognized most of the kids, some of whom I knew, but I had never been in a class with them before. What is different, why am I here?

Mrs. Littlefield introduced herself to everyone and explained what kinds of things we’d be doing in class and it was clear that we would be reading and writing. The first book assignment was S.E. Hinton’s little novel, The Outsiders. We were to read as much of the book as we could and write an essay on it. For some reason, perhaps because I knew Mrs. Littlefield already and didn’t want to make a bad impression, I read the book and wrote the essay. The day after papers were handed in we sat in class for several minutes with no teacher in the room. Then suddenly, Sally Littlefield’s head popped in through the door, from the hallway.

“Kevin, would come here please?” She was holding a piece of paper in her hand.

What had I done wrong?

My mind was spinning, trying to think about what antics I had been involved in during these first days of school and who on the faculty had discovered them. I walked out to the hallway. Mrs. Littlefield addressed me softly, in a low voice.

“Kevin, you do not belong in this class and I want to apologize to you. You were mistakenly placed here.”

Holding my Outsider’s essay in her hand, she said “You have done good work here and you need a greater challenge than this class will give you. I also want you to know that I teach a creative writing class and I think you would enjoy it. Why don’t you sign up for it?”

“I’m taking you down to Mr. Miller’s class and starting today, that is where you will go for English class, OK?”

“Yes Mrs. Littlefield. Thank you.”

Much as my lack of studying was a non-event to be discovered by someone else, my lack of a correct academic placement in ninth-grade English was a non-event to be unearthed. And Sally Littlefield unearthed it. In Bob Miller’s class we would read from Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology and discover classical literature of different genres. Ancient Ionic images whirled in my head with the drama of Persephone being snatched from the fields of Enna by Hades and later being rescued - romance and treachery, side by side, woven into classical myth. Mr. Miller, perhaps anticipating some resistance to the material, used humor in a way that kept most everyone’s attention. In Mrs. Littlefield’s class we would study and practice writing, read and discuss lyric poetry, the short form and other samples of good exposition. We would write and reveal our work to others for criticism with Mrs. Littlefield pointing out good samples. When she graded your writing, she identified the cliché and the disjointed by asking a question as to the relevance of the image, phrase, sentence or paragraph. You were encouraged, but always asked to do better. Her written questions, seemed designed for the fragile adolescent ego and were delivered in a way that gave you enough space to figure out that you hadn’t really put in enough effort or you were being careless or maybe, you were trying to show off and in so doing, writing in an inauthentic way.

In Mr. Giattino’s Social Studies class we listened, from a 33 RPM turntable, as Bob Dylan sang The Times, they are a-Changin’. I had discovered, I thought, a poet of a different kind and immediately began to listen to more Dylan records and enthusiastically introduced this exciting artist to my friend and Beatles expert Tom Degan. In the midst of his own adolescent intellectual explosion, Tom introduced me to the Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novel Breakfast of Champions. We were off to the races. Later we discovered the influence of the French Symbolist and American Beat poets on Dylan’s work and then read those writers. The love of art and literature had begun and a new lens was placed in my mind’s eye.

What is a good teacher? This can surely be explained in a technical way, leveraging pedagogical theorem and science. But it seems clear that a student who has experienced the lasting influence of a teacher in their lives is uniquely qualified to offer an explanation. Sally Littlefield changed the way I think. She changed the way I looked at the world. She helped me translate undifferentiated musings - day dreaming – into a more disciplined and focused passion. She allowed me, and others, to develop an esthetic sense of literature and life, to learn history, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, politics, religion, spirituality and much more from works of fiction. In Shakespeare we learned about human nature and the discreet character of personality, realizing only later that anything Freud and the psychoanalytic school had “discovered” about human psychology, Shakespeare had described in detail centuries before and in a much more compelling way. Great books, with the guidance of a great teacher, offered us different views of the world and enough space to inhabit them, try them out and sharpen our own reasoning and esthetic sensibilities. Romanticism and Naturalism, the world as it ought to be in a hero’s mind versus the way the world is with its varying degrees of existential meaning. All of this came rushing like a wave from the stage that Sally Littlefield created in her classroom.

One day after a review of my latest writing assignment I asked “Mrs. Littlefield, do you write, you must be very good.”

She smiled and paused before she spoke, as if I had touched on something very personal. “Well I have done some writing, but not as much as I’d like. Do you know the book A Day no Pigs would Die?”

The book, a novel for young adults published by Knopf in 1972, was the first of many by Robert Newton Peck, and told the dramatic, hard luck, life-and-death story of a farm family in Vermont. In later years, when the Moral Majority would come into being, the book would make it on to banned book lists, due apparently, to its graphic depiction of swine reproductive behavior and slaughter in a small farm setting.

“No, I don’t know that one.”

“Well, Mr. Peck had a contract to write the book and his manuscript was delivered incomplete and needed more work to be finished. I was asked to finish the book and I did.”

“Wow, did you get credit for that?”

Her bright eyes twinkled. “He started the book and it was based on his experience growing up in Vermont, but I did receive a small attribution with initials, in a very tiny way, in the first edition. You have to look closely to see it, but it’s there.”

I was thrilled. Her modesty was genuine and I sensed she was a little embarrassed, but I could see that serious writing must have played an important part in her life.

More than any teacher I have ever known, including all of my college professors, Sally Littlefield used her version of the Socratic Method to both inspire and educate. Most of what I know about teaching others in my professional career I learned from her.

One of the most important things that can happen to a young person thrust into that uncertain space between childhood and adulthood is intellectual awakening. While it may appear on the surface that learning is a slow and gradual process, my own observations and experience tell me that it occurs in sudden upheavals and explosions of varying magnitude. Good teachers know this and are skilled at setting the stage for the mind-life drama and getting the players to learn their parts. Sally Littlefield was the best. God Bless and keep her.

”And since you know you cannot see yourself,
so well as by reflection, I, your glass,
will modestly discover to yourself,
that of yourself which you yet know not of.”

- William Shakespeare

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Garvaghy Road, 1997 - Part I | Kevin Swanwick

At 3:07AM the bedroom door burst open, breaking our uneasy sleep.

“They’re goin’ down!  I told yuz!  Get up. They’re goin’ down right now!”

We’d gone to bed late after some vodka, bitters and good craic and the long, covert ride from Belfast, easing through Army check-points, being held up in Portadown and finally making it to the short “Queen’s Highway,” known in this town land of Drumcree as the Garvaghy Road.  I had been drinking club soda, and received some curious glances, but now I was grateful for my alertness. 

The ride down had been interesting.  The driver of our small white sedan, Martin, was a former IRA man who seemed to navigate easily on our ride from the Europa Hotel in central Belfast, taking rights and lefts effortlessly and in all of the right places.  He’d spent eleven years in Long Kesh prison and when I inquired as to the nature of his incarceration, he flatly replied “Aye, bombin’ the Old Bailey.”  He was referring to the historic building in central London, which houses the Central Criminal Court.  And while he freely admitted his offense in the context of his "Freedom Fighter" vocation, he went on to tell us how members of his family, who were unrelated to the IRA or any of its activities, were arrested on trumped-up charges and jailed.  Such was the beginning of our adventure in Drumcree.

Kathy was up quickly and must have been wondering why I thought it was a good idea to go on “vacation” in Northern Ireland; how acting as “official observers” at a contentious Orange Order march would be a relaxing way to spend two weeks of hard-earned time off.

Our host Ann Marie, frenzied at first, paced back and forth to make sure that the newly arrived American couple was getting out of bed before she ran down the stairs.  I could hear her voice from upstairs, cursing and shouting about lies and treachery and history repeating itself.  Her husband Lawrence, a Protestant who married this Catholic girl and converted, had not awakened with her and four-year-old Nathan was still sleeping soundly in his room.  We arose and went to the window.  It faced the Drumcree road.  When Ann Marie had shown us the room earlier that evening, I looked out the window and could see the Church of the Ascension across the road, upon its rise, overlooking the Orangemen spread across a large field next to the church.  The Drumcree road itself was blockaded a few yards past the house by a tall, prefabricated metal barrier-wall erected by the Army to keep protesters on either side from getting at each other and to communicate clearly that no march would happen until the British government said so. 

Now looking out the window and into the dark, I felt my heart pounding as I was filled with a fear I’d not expected.  The small front yard and hedgerow were completely obstructed by the shiny black helmets atop flat black “spacesuits” of RUC men, carrying shields, truncheons and automatic weaponry.

“Oh fuck.”   I realized we were in a dangerous place; this was not a game.

The small road was occupied on the near side by RUC Saracens, parked bumper-to-bumper, while the middle of the road was a fast-moving lane for more Saracens and other armored vehicles moving in at sustained, high speed.  This all had the character of a science fiction movie set.  If only it wasn’t real.

When we arrived in Drumcree, we’d been dropped off at the community center where we met a smiling Ann Marie.  Lawrence was quiet, but gentlemanly and was holding Nathan by the hand.  They had thanked us for coming to their wee town to bear witness to their struggles, for to most of the world, Drumcree was an unknown and forsaken place.  We met with the representative of the local resident’s association, Brendan Mac Cionnaith, who it was reported, lived under the cloud of an active death threat from Loyalist paramilitaries in Portadown .  We discussed the challenges of the community and then took a walking tour of the Ballyoran estate.  Ballyoran at one end faced the Drumcree road and on the other, the Garvaghy road.  It was one of a handful of Catholic housing estates clustered together along a small section of Garvaghy road and an even smaller section of the Drumcree road.  These estates housed 22,000 Catholics in the middle of the larger Portadown population of 88,000 Protestants. 

As we walked about we met families and neighbors. Just next door to our hosts, the Spence’s, was the Hamill family.  As we met, the parents and grandparents of 25-year-old Robert Hamill were still grieving from his recent murder.  "Robbie," the father of two, had been beaten and repeatedly kicked, as reported by eye witnesses, in the full view of RUC officers while they sat in their armored vehicle.  He died 11 days later on May 8th.  Six arrests had been made and all of those arrested had asked to be placed in the Ulster Volunteer Force wing of the Maze prison.  The UVF were a sectarian, loyalist paramilitary group.

We walked out to the Garvaghy Road and looked up the hill and to the corner where it intersected with the Drumcree road.  A small "women's peace camp" was set up on the hill, staffed by what appeared to be the grandmothers of the community.  Signs were posted, urging the community's youth to abstain from alcohol during the run up to the march's go or no-go determination so that the youth could keep their heads about them if the march was forced through.  The ladies had set up small tents and were offering non-alcoholic drinks and sandwiches to all who would listen.  The Drumcree and Garvaghy roads, due to the absurd proximities that exist in Northern Ireland, offer a route from the Drumcree Church of the Ascension to the old Portadown Loyal Orange Lodge number 1, the first Orange Lodge in Ireland.  This is not any Orange Lodge, but rather the heart of the heart of Orangeism in Northern Ireland.  The Orangemen of this district have insisted for many years, that it is their inherent human right to march down the Garvaghy Road after attending church services at Drumcree, every year, on the Sunday before "The Twelfth" of July.  The Twelfth commemorates the victory of the Protestant king William of Orange over the The Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.  The Orangemen of Portadown made their first March down Garvaghy Road on March 1, 1807 before it was populated by Catholics. 

While the Garvaghy Road Residents Association had offered to have talks with the Orangeman to discuss parade planning in a cross-community forum, this invitation would not be accepted anytime soon as aspersions were cast about regarding each side’s representatives and motives.  While the residents were seeking to have the Orangemen use the adjoining Corcrain Road to walk from their church to the Orange Lodge, thereby avoiding the densely populated Catholic area, the Order would have none of it.  The provocative march would go on, the Lambeg drums would pound and accompany triumphalist songs while the British Army and its young – some very young – men, would secure the “Queen’s Highway” for another year.  The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the heavily armed and 98% Protestant police force, would deal with protesters.

After our visit to the camp, Laurence treated us to a delicious Chicken Fillet sandwich down the road a bit.  He had asked me if I wanted a "checkin fullit" and I had to ask three times what he meant before I got it. "Aye," I finally said.  Later in the evening we had gone to Mass at St. John's Catholic Church, at Ballyoran Heights, just a short walk away.  Little did we know that this would be the last freely held Mass of the weekend before the church was sealed off by the Army as it was purportedly determined to be a dangerous gathering area.

Now, throwing on my pants, I made my way down the stairs and turned toward the kitchen at the back of the house.  The row houses opened in the rear to a common area of grass and small trees and offered a setting for children to play and neighbors to congregate all within the security of the their estate.  It also made it easy for one to move from Ballyoran to Woodside and other adjacent estates.  Ann Marie was not in the kitchen and I saw that the back door was open.  I walked to the door and looked out into the tiny, walled enclosure where the waste bins were stored on one side and some chairs set on the other.  The outer, wooden door that opened into the common area was closed and latched.  I could hear Ann Marie's voice outside and she was yelling.  I quickly moved to the door, heart racing, and opened it.  As I stepped forward I was stunned by the enormity of force before me.  Having just seen nothing but black-outfitted and armed RUC men at the front of the house, I was welcomed by a sea of green.  Even in the twilight, the color of the British Army soldier fatigues was clear.  They were spread about evenly, too many to count, and their faces were painted with black pitch.  Ann Marie, at five feet tall was no match for the these armed men.  Despite this fact she began to curse them loudly.

"Are yez proud a’ yourselves? Are ye?  If I didn't have a wean, I'd join the IRA and make a bomb an' blow yez up!"

And with that she charged through the middle of a group of four soldiers, pushing them out of her way. 

“Get the feck out of my way; this is our estate and you're in my way!"

I was stunned.  I had never seen someone with such odds stacked against them act with this kind of unchecked ferocity.  The eyes of every soldier I could see were now trained on me.  To my front, a few feet away, was one young soldier.  He was facing me while he held the muzzle of his automatic rifle, aimed at the lower half of my body.  A non-smoker, I had just picked up the practice on the way down from Belfast, bumming cigarettes off of our group's guide Gavan Kennedy.  At the time, it seemed liked the right anti-anxiety medicine.  I quickly lit my cigarette, took a puff and offered a pleasant "Good morning" in my native, General American dialectThe change in expression on the young soldier's face was immediate.

I don't think Ann Marie was happy with my demeanor and I expected her to reprimand me for being nice, but she didn’t. The soldier tipped his chin down to his shoulder-mounted two-way radio and quietly announced, in perfect cockney, "American."  He lowered the rifle.  In and instant, this message made its way all around the estate and I could see some of the soldiers direct their attention elsewhere as other residents were beginning to roust.  I smiled.  I could see that this soldier was no more than 18 years old and looked even younger.  It was clear to me that he wished he were somewhere else.  Suffering was general all over the north of Ireland.

End of Part 1

Notes:  Ballyoran Park, Woodside Hill, Churchill Park, Woodside Green, Ballyoran Heights, Garvaghy Park, Rose Cottages, The Beeches.
The Dungannon and Corcrain Roads.
The Carleton Street Lodge.
The River Bann.  Saint John the Baptist Roman Catholic church.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Winter Musings | Kevin Swanwick

Winter changes its serious face daily; presents a mood to me that I can either follow without a thought or willfully turn from, while still being shaped by it. One day brings high pressure, dry air and bright cobalt blue sky, the next overcast ceiling and cold damp air with dirty, half-frozen slush.

Last night, while walking the dog in the heavy falling snow, I was drawn to the softly lit windows of a small country house a half mile down the road. The sensuality of light and warmth, seen from the winter night is unique. Comfort is there and images of the hearth are easily conjured. Perhaps they were drinking hot chocolate, or sherry? The dog was more interested in looking closely, quickly, this way and that, stimulated by the flying flakes and the brightness of the landscape, which strangely reflects and amplifies whatever light there is.

Winter is quiet and a snow storm brings a special solitude to anyone who ventures in to it. Someone could be walking two hundred feet away and you won’t see them or hear them. If the wind is blowing, you may not go far.

Today I saw a bright woodpecker, the Common Flicker, outside of my kitchen window hopping along the trunk of an old maple tree. He is an expert tree clinger. I wonder where he was last night when Dante and I took our walk. Winter requires looking closely. It reveals itself in the transitions, along the edges. Movements in the atmosphere carry a natural drama that changes how we feel life on the ground. It is not casual and easy, but it is a gift.


The east end of Newburgh, staring out over the Hudson, meets winter on bended knee with its leaky buildings and unplowed streets. The shelter, known as Winterhaven, has twenty two men tonight; all grateful to be sleeping on an old factory-room floor. The men have each received their cardboard boxes with folded vellux blankets and are settling in. Someone, a volunteer, was kind enough to bring food. This is winter in the historic city, the home of Lobster Newburgh and the great wide Broadway. This old building saw its manufacturing pass away long ago and now has become the silent witness to mercy.

Everyone is exhausted and the initial bursts of chatter that started outside of the door during the patient waiting for opening time have quickly faded as the warm air from the overhead blower makes the idea of sleep become sleepiness itself. A winter day is long and hard on the street, but John tells me that it is beautiful; he loves to be on the street when the snow starts and it makes him smile when he talks of it. It is the cold that he hates. Frank tells me how beautiful the river looks from his hiding places, one of which is in the operator's cabin of an elevated crane off of Water Street. He tells me that he sees the Hudson River winter in a way that no one else does and invites me to climb with him to his perch tomorrow.

I am thinking about the mercy and democracy of beauty, the beauty of winter doing its bidding for all, even in the east end. And I am seeing it through these people and it will stay with me long after I drive to my warm and peaceful home.