Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Of Rat-Rods and Reality

     When I was in 7th grade, there was a cute 8th grade girl who used to stand across the hall with her boyfriend every day.  Brazenly they would break the rules embracing and French-kissing, her eyes closed and dreamy. My friends and I were envious.  He looked so average and she was so Heather Locklear.  She took no notice of me or my other gawky friends. One day I think that I had been called to the office for something fairly insignificant, pick up my lunch or deliver an item, I don’t remember. On my way back I stepped outside and I saw her coming out of the door to the hall.  The wind was just right and her light brown hair blew off her shoulders and she looked at me; looked me right in the eyes, smiled and said, “Hi.”  To my seventh-grade sensitivities this was an amazing moment.  A beautiful girl noticed me and said hi. I have never forgotten it.  I think that sometimes it is the little things, the seemingly insignificant experiences that we don’t plan on happening that stick with us.  And some of those experiences change our lives.
I think everyone has these sorts of experiences throughout their life.
As a child, I cannot tell how many times my parents would drag me to wherever they were going.  It is the experience of all children.  Dragging me to FedMart, I hated FedMart.  Maybe because I threw up there once or was it diarrhea? I don’t recall.  But I’m not just talking grocery shopping I’m talking, Model Homes, Antique Stores (don’t touch anything), and Swap Meets.  But the thing I remember most vividly were the Car Shows.  Car Shows where we would walk around looking at new cars, experimental cars, classic automobiles and, my favorite: The modified cars, tricked out with glossy paint and chrome accessories; some with steering wheels made out of chain, tuck and roll leather seats and gear shifts topped with a black eight ball.  They reminded me of my Hot Wheels® and Matchbox® cars; but talk about not touching anything. Stanchioned ropes surrounded most of them. Signs posted DO NOT TOUCH! Well I was small back then so I couldn’t always see the cool stuff in the engine compartment or the inside the passenger compartment.  It was frustrating.  Occasionally, someone would start an engine and rumble the place with loud idling and then the revving of those beastly engines: Wow!  It would shake my insides. It was awesome.
I’m sure it was the inspiration for me to modify my Hot Wheels® cars.  I would drill out the two rivets holding the hull onto the base and then sand, repaint, lift, and change tires and axles.  Then I would reassemble them and use them, playing inside imaginary towns and scenarios on carpet, tile and in the dirt. 
I always knew that my dad wanted to build his own hot rod.  His own car that he could take to car shows.  There were always car parts, engines or transmissions around the backyard and in the garage.  He used these to barter for other things.  He was gathering the things he needed to build his dream and, once he retired, he did it.  He built his dream. Four, two-barreled carburetors mounted on top of a Man-A-Fre Manifold, Chevy small block, riding in the front of a modified, wood-lined, open-carriage 1923 T-bucket.  His Rat-Rod!   And it rumbles the block when he starts it up!  It is the calling card for all the gear-heads in the neighborhood. He loves taking it to car shows. 

Let me reassure the reader. His car is cool!  Many of these car shows have various awards they give out to the top participants.  My dad wins!  He has started a little collection of trophies, plaques and numerous other awards he has won.  He enjoys winning, no doubt; however, this is not why he does it.

There was always something that has bugged him about those car shows that he drug my brother and I to.  The unwritten, “no-touch” rule! He brazenly and gladly breaks it every time he shows up. 
The invitation is for all, young or old, to come and sit in the car.  He even brings a flat-cap and steampunk goggles for them to wear and pose.  For more fun he has equipped the car with a Klaxon Ahooga Horn which he gets people to push with great reaction.   This machine is meant to touch and sit in.  It is meant to experience.  It is his great pleasure to see people get in that thing.  The problem is that his is practically the only one that allows people to do that.  Folks are so hesitant to approach and climb inside, but my dad rarely takes no for an answer.  My dad is a salesman and he offers a chance to sit inside his dream for free and, when they do!  Grandmothers grinning from sitting in that car and posing for pictures. Grandfathers try and act cool but when they enter, they can’t hide the youth they once were, it sneaks out behind their straight lips. Little boys and girls light up sitting in that car.  They can’t believe that they actually get to touch and sit inside one of the coolest cars at the show. 
What is my dad doing?  He is giving some of these kids an experience that they will never forget. A tactile, auditory, multi-sensory experience that will be with them for the rest of their lives. It is like a beautiful girl looking an awkward skinny boy in the eyes, smiling and saying hi. This experience, this little adventure, could be the thing that ignites a passion inside a kid and in more than a few adults, if you ask me.  To be a mechanic, to be a craftsman, an artist, to pursue a dream or finish a project, who knows? 
Seeing the fear and excitement at the turn of that key as the throttle viscerally shakes their insides. Them covering their ears; little faces simultaneously smiling and scared. It goes beyond any expectation, but it isn’t a fantasy. What is the reward for putting a child in front of an awesome hot rod that can be touched, can be sat in, and to press that ahooga horn? The car is not just there, it is there and they can touch it. When he revs it, it touches them. The reward: The car and their dreams become real. -TK

Thursday, December 29, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Silence by Shūsaku Endō

I think that there are many popular missionary stories out there that generally have a happy ending. Even in martyrdom there is hope. This story is not really one of those. Yet I think it is an important story to be told.

This review is for the book Silence. I have not seen the new film by Martin Scorsese as of this writing so there may be some plot spoilers in the following comments.
In the 17th Century the Japanese decided to systematically rid their country of Christian ideas, belief and practice. Up to that point in history, Jesuit missionary priests from Portugal had made many inroads to Japan and Christianity seemed to start flourishing. Then the leadership in Japan decided that they were no longer going to tolerate Christianity.

As the book begins, the church in Portugal receives word that one of their own, a well-loved and faithful missionary priest, had apostatized. Some younger priests cannot believe this news and request permission to go to Japan, seek out the missionary and discover the truth. This book is the story of Father Rodrigues, his travels and trials.

When the Japanese first started weeding out Christianity, they would torture and kill the priests and their followers in the hopes of destroying leadership and thus killing it off. But by killing priests, all the Japanese were doing was making the priests martyrs. In essence, people’s faith became bolstered by the death of priests. In a calculated way, the Japanese leadership reasoned that to keep Christian ideas at bay, the practice of killing priests and/or followers needed to change. They realized they needed to BREAK the priests and make them apostatize. The Japanese figured out that when a person puts any part of their faith upon an object or a human it becomes a trap! This the Japanese used to their advantage. They recognized that, for Catholics, religious objects like medallions, paintings and priests were held in high regard. These items were revered and essentially worshiped. Because this was so, they would force believers to trample underfoot the fumie, a painting of Christ or the Mother Mary. It was recognized as apostasy not just in public, but in the heart of the one trampling. It sounds too simple, but its effect was vast. This practice became more effective in wilting Christianity than killing priests. When a priest would do this publicly it became terminally effective because the mindset behind priesthood only allows for those specially designated (like priests) to give sacraments. Basically, all things Godly hinge on a priest, a man. Without a priest in good standing the people have no spiritual leader to follow or from whom to get Biblical instruction. And an apostate priest is no better than a regular man.

It was brilliant and evil.

This only points to a piece of a larger problem because the priest himself begins to doubt; he is, in essence, alone. Before apostatizing, he thinks in his heart he cannot step on the fumie. He wonders why God remains Silent. This is what the title refers to: God’s Silence. Many priests had long held romantic beliefs that torture was itself a blessing, specifically referring to passages like Matthew 5:11-12 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (NIV). However, each priest, in time, realized that there was nothing romantic or glorious about torture. In Japan, a priest did not just endure the torture of his mind and body, but also the torture and martyrdom of other believers for his sake and, in the end, those priests had to publicly give up their faith to save people.

The problem of Silence becomes even more complex because the church remained silent. After those priests were sent out, they gave up everything, lived in hiding, were captured and tortured, then the church turned their backs on them. Once they apostatized, the church no longer recognized them. So, those priests were forever shut out by the church that sent them. Consequently, these priests had to live in shame and dishonor. This was never e
nding because their apostasy was continual. It was made so by the Japanese. The Japanese were not mean and awful about it though. It wasn’t personal. The Japanese were actually kind in a way and made the former priests’ prison a sort of saccharine freedom by allowing (forcing) the men to live as a Japanese, taking on a Japanese name, a family, a home and a job. 

No one came to rescue those priests. Even after their apostasy I believe that these priests were still willing believers in their hearts, but forced to live otherwise. This for the sake of the Japanese families around them who would have been tortured and killed otherwise.

The book poses some complex questions and ideas that are not answered simply. An assumption made by many in the church seems to be that a missionary will get rejected or accepted; allowed to stay or killed. But what if there were another option? Reject the missionary, not kill him, force him to apostatize and keep him there for the rest of his life living in apostasy. This with the added benefit of his own people, the ones who sent him, remaining silent. -TK

Update 1/14/2017
I have now seen the film Silence and have not written about it yet. Not sure if I will except to say this:  I feel that Scorsese does capture much of the essential and important ideas of what Endo was saying in his book.  I think he was true to Endo's vision and message.  If folks have a problem with the film they should really go back to the source and history.  Also, I have great respect for Brian Godawa's movie reviews. Although I am not always in agreement with him, his experience in writing and film-making creates a thorough and thought provoking blog.  -TK
His film review of Silence can be found here: 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

NETFLIX - The Little Prince, and the Desk

“…Philosophy, like art.... has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” CS Lewis

Some Spoilers...
Through all her mother’s worry and her own preparation to get accepted into Werth Academie, the Little Girl failed to answer the One Big Question, “What will you be when you grow up?” Sadly, the answer was “Essential”. This major devastation becomes only a minor setback though because the mom had another plan to get her daughter into Werth Academie. How else will her daughter be essential if she cannot obtain some “worth” through academic rigor? Thus the mom moves into the school’s district and sets up a meticulous study schedule, every minute of every day, for her Little Girl so that, by attending Werth, she may become a good grown up. The movie produced by Netflix, tells the famous story of the classic book The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It is a book for children, written for grown-ups, and has some interesting things to say about the American education system. 
There is one scene that stands out in the film, particularly because it is not in the book. It speaks to the current state of educational affairs in America. In our nation there are many educational experts out there that seem very set on the idea of a common core set of standards that are to drive the direction of public school classrooms.  Through teaching these standards and continuously testing students, they can gather all sorts of data. It is called data mining and the Common Core springs forth with it, determined that the answers to the best teaching practices will be found among the numbers. With this data, school officials believe they can also study both the knowledge of kids and a teacher’s effectiveness. These standards comprise what the experts consider the essential ideas of what a growing young person absolutely needs to know to be a productive member of the adult section of our society.  In the words of the experts, it is supposed to prepare our youth for college and/or a career. These are the two choices we give our young: More schooling or more work. This is the focus of the Common Core which, experts believe, can be achieved with a concentration on English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics.

The crucial scene in the film The Little Prince, the Little Girl character lands on a dark planet of the businessman where everyone is going, going, going and there are no kids or anything else non-essential.  The audience is introduced to the character of the Academic who stands before a large pair of doors and says, “You see, it’s really a magnificent thing the businessman has created here. You might even call it a work of art… but you’d be wrong.” Of course it is wrong, art is creative. Inside the room the audience is shown a lone school desk in ominous shadow (Fig .001).  

The Little Girl sits in the desk. She is immediately cuffed to the desk (Fig. 002).  What a symbol of the American education system, kids cuffed to desks; quite literally for twelve years. No wonder so many kids reject our approach. It is as if they are all chanting, “We don’t need no education, teacher leave them kids alone,” (Waters and Gilmour). The Academic then proceeds to lecture the Little Girl from his table and says, while holding up the story of The Little Prince, “No. There is nothing essential in here at all.” (Fig. 003).

 He is standing in front of a chalk board completely filled with scientific and mathematic-like writing and symbols. (Fig. 004)  This placement of the Academic in front of this board infers that the idea that teaching is more of a science than an art.
It is interesting but the idea that teaching can be studied as a science is quite prevalent. Experts believe teaching can be analyzed, observed, and repeatable with human students. By the way, this is what that data gathered from test scores is for. The true usefulness of data, the end game of it in schooling, is revealed best in the fact that not only is the “art” of teaching becoming the “science” of teaching, but that education experts are also using a business model for a majority of the way decisions are made. Good thing she is in the world of Mr. Businessman.
The funny thing is that most people understand the fact that teaching is a creative endeavor and science is not.  To be a scientist (not a science teacher) requires one to make concrete conclusions about the repeatable observations made; meticulously keeping track of methods, amounts, temperature, control, etc. Things happen for a reason and in the same environment with same factors, they will happen again. There is nothing creative or spontaneous about science.  Do not be fooled, however, “…today…scientists themselves have taken to styling themselves as ‘creative,’ but nothing could be more contrary to the spirit of science than the opinion that the scientist fabricates rather than discovers his results.” (Bloom 182). Even one of the most respected experts in the field of education, Robert J. Marzano, fancies the idea that he and his team can “surely help move teaching from an art to a science.” (Marzano, Pickering and Pollock 9). How is this possible? To be honest, this should scare the hell out of any real teacher. Creativity and scientific study are directly opposed to each other. 
Everyone knows that science is observable and repeatable. This will never be true of teaching, for the simple fact that teachers deal with sentient lives. Those are kids and they are creative and spontaneous.  They make up stories and go on adventures. Students have feelings and experiences. Kids are not blank slates and they are not simple. Adults tend to not be so impulsive and more set in their ways. Teachers are not dealing with elements on a periodic chart, samples from pond water or carburetors from a vehicle. And even though they are just kids, teachers are working with real, living, intelligent human beings.
At this point in the film, with her arms shackled to the desk, the Little Girl is given a book: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO ALL THAT IS ESSENTIAL (Fig. 005). 

This is a bold reference to the Common Core Curriculum that has scientifically been determined by experts in the field of education to be the essential stuff all kids must know.  Here are the exact words from the Common Core website: “According to the best available evidence, the mastery of each standard is essential for success in college, career, and life in today’s global economy.” (NGA Center and CSSO).  Another telling fact is that so many states in this nation have termed their version of the Common Core as “The Common Core Essential Elements,” including Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the list goes on.
In the film, the Academic then proclaims that they have an accelerated approach to learning, a.k.a. growing up.  All of a sudden, the wall in front of the desk opens, appearing as if it were a mouth with dangerous metal teeth (Fig. 006). 

Suddenly robotic, spidery tentacles reach out of the mouth to attack the Little Girl still cuffed to the desk (Fig. 007). 
These tentacles make the girl do things against her will (Fig. 008). 
The academic tells her, “You’re going to feel a slight pinch. Just Relax.” It is as if one were listening to
 “Comfortably Numb” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall,
Just a little pinch…
But you may feel a little sick…
When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown;
The dream is gone.
(Waters and Gilmour)
Which, by the way, is exactly what has happened to the character of the Little Prince.
Experts cannot force students to do things and this angers them (Fig. 009).
  Even teachers cannot force a kid to learn, to do work, or perform well on a test. The idea behind a scientific approach to education means that experts think kids and teachers are predictable, observable, and repeatable.  This means that they believe kids and adults need to be basically compliant. “Our political leaders today have been taught to see [our kids] as material to be shaped and perfected by experts who have the proper technical training.” (Arnn). If students and teachers are not compliant then they are to be made, forced, and coerced.  Today the stakes are higher than in the past because the student will not just know the standards but teachers will be held responsible. It appears that teachers need to learn that they are the real target of the Common Core. Make no mistake, teachers will be graded on whether or not the kids in their classrooms met those essential elements by administering federal, state, and district assessments that measure student knowledge of standards. This knowledge will be divorced from content because it is only knowledge of the standards that is the important outcome.  
Afterwards, teachers will need to come up with Student Learning Objectives (SLO) for the next year based on the data that they collected on the students from the previous year. The business world has used this method, a scientific method, to great success for inert products.  How many products sold last year, what methods were used, how much did they sell them for? And here is one more area where the business model breaks down. Even though the schools have their numbers too; graduation rates, dropout numbers amount of dollars in scholarship offered. Yet, a school full of young people and teachers is not a business!
In the film the girl has traveled to the planet of Mr. Businessman by plane.  This is where the girl is being subjected to this schooling. It is a world where people live mechanical lives doing only what is essential and where there are no children.  It is a world driven only by the essential. As the Academic says, “That which is not essential will be made essential.”  Which means that these people really are not functioning as human beings, rather they are robots. Mr. Businessman has even captured all the stars in the sky so that people will not stare up and be distracted by dreaming. It seems ironic that the education world has adopted a business model. In the real world of business, like that of Mr. Businessman, the future is based on the past performance of lifeless products; determined through things like marketing, money and mass appeal. This management model does not work on human beings.  How many professional sports teams were predicted to win their next championship based on their past performance and didn’t make it? Even stock trading is a volatile market where we are told that, past performance is no predictor of future results.  Continuing to do this to our youth and our teachers is a travesty; especially considering the simple fact that they are working and walking among living thinking people, not products.  This is much of the meaning and message in the film The Little Prince.

The Common Core burst on to the educational scene like it was a panacea for all of public education’s woes.  It was not to be studied, practiced or examined.  It was to be accepted and followed without question or pause.  Compliance and conformity were expected and still are, but what really needs to happen is a sly little fox needs to come along and set students and teachers free from the shackles of The Common Core, to release the star teachers held captive by Mr. Businessman, so that they may shine down on all of us enriching our children and us with their light and dreams. -TK

Works Cited
Arnn, Larry P. "Education, Economic, and Self-Government." Imprimis 38.12 (2009): 5.
Bloom, Allan. "The Closing of the American Mind." Bloom, Allan. The Closign of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988. 392.
Marzano, Robert J., Debra J Pickering and Jane E Pollock. "Classroom Instruction That Works." Marzano, Robert J., Debra J Pickering and Jane E Pollock. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001. 179. Wokrbook.
NGA Center and CSSO. Ed. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & the Council of Chief State School Officers. n.d. 10 October 2016.
The Little Prince. By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti. Dir. Mark Osborne. Perf. Mackenzie Foy, et al. 2015. Electronic.
Waters , Roger and David Gilmour. "The Wall." Columbia, 1980.