Disbelief of Atrocity

During a class discussion on Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, one brief moment in our conversation stuck out to me. We mentioned that there was a huge disconnect between the memoir’s lead character and her experiences compared to that of her ‘friends’ in the West–but we didn’t go too far into the conversation and mostly left it as an observation.

Specifically we talked on the surface about how the story’s heroine, Marji, had seen the real, visceral atrocities of war whereas her Western counterparts were much more distanced and saw war only through the lens of their privilege. They talked a big talk, but when it came down to it it was quite apparent that they had no idea what they were spewing on about and really had no interest in truly knowing what the reality was that Marji had faced throughout her childhood. This disconnect culminated into such ridiculous situations as her befriending an Anarchist group–a group she thought was prepared to start a revolution that could work toward changing the horrors she had seen–that only got together to play tag and eat sausages on the beach.

But what I really wanted to talk about is the fact that this disconnect isn’t just found in stories, and it isn’t something that happened only in this particular situation. The disconnect is real and perpetuating even today–think of how simple our lives are right now while our nation is at war in another country. Sure, we take time to thank our troops and people send care packages and dote bumper stickers on their vehicles and wave our American flags and share posts on Facebook about how someone who is ready to die for their country should make more than someone carrying a football.

But this isn’t war.

Unless someone has been in combat, or has lived in a war zone, they don’t know what it’s like. I know I don’t, and I admit my ignorance. Admitting this ignorance is what separates me from those Marji dealt with, just as it distances me from my great grand parents.

You see, my grandmother came to America from Europe. She was originally from Latvia, where she had to flee when she was only 13. She had worked for a Latvian diplomat and when the Nazi’s started rising to power, this diplomat and anyone associated with him had targets on their backs. She had to leave her family, her friends and her beloved pets and run. She remembers sleeping in ditches next to roads, being far away from a local town when an explosion occurred only to return to that town and see people and animals she knew and recognized dead in the streets. She remembers getting to the coast and being put on a large ship with far too many strangers than could fit comfortably and taking the trip to Germany.

There, she was lucky she had blue eyes and no one knew her. She eventually found work in an ice cream parlor owned by an American soldier during the war, and when she was 18 this soldier sponsored her and several of the other girls she worked with’s trip to America. She and her family now had an ocean and the Iron Curtain between them. She never saw them again.

In Grand Rapids, where she and these girls ended up, she met my grandfather and they got married. Meeting the family, however, was not a joyful experience. On the surface my great grandparents wanted to know this girl my grandpa was going to marry, but when my grandma tried to open up to them they denied her history. They dismissed her and her story and said that she was making it all up.

Eventually this took a toll on my grandmother and she stopped telling the story. She received a few letters and an even rarer image from her brother who had gotten past the Iron Curtain as he fought in the war, but she kept all of these things close to the vest. My mother and her siblings never really knew the story, only that they couldn’t contact their grandparents where they were.

The story, as it were, didn’t reemerge until I had an oral history project to do in middle school.

I called my grandmother. I had absolutely no idea what I was about to hear, and had to reassure her several times that I was still on the line because I didn’t want to interrupt her nor could I find the words to say to do so. She told me the story, and I took frantic notes in between tears. Decades had passed and she still remembered so much–including the complex she had gotten from my grandfather’s family. She tried to dismiss what she was saying, tried to tell me that it probably sounded silly or that it wasn’t a big deal, etc. I had to tell her it was far from it and that I really wanted her to tell me anything she was willing to share.

The call lasted over two hours and to date is probably the longest conversation I’ve ever had with my grandmother, who is naturally soft spoken and still speaks with a noticeable accent.

I will never know what it was like to grow up the way she did, and I will never claim that I do. I will, however, share her story that rarely got told for the rest of my life, and hope that it will reach a few in a way similar to the way Persepolis has reached so many, and possibly give some a new perspective.

Ambiguity(?)

Resumes.

I don’t know what to do with them and I don’t know what I really think about them. I’m not being silly here–I can and have made myself a pretty professional-level resume and I don’t spend late nights tossing and turning because I am unsure about my feelings for them–what I’m talking about is the ambiguity of making a “good” resume.

There’s plenty of ways to make a bad resume:

  • Being sloppy.
  • Not including pertinent information.
  • Spelling and/or grammar no-nos.
  • Giving wrong contact information.
  • Lying.
  • Under selling  yourself.
  • Over selling yourself.
  • Being redundant.
  • Not giving enough information.
  • Giving too much information.
  • Being redundant.
  • Only using vague buzzwords that mean nothing.
  • Making it look like some kid created it in Paint.
  • Making it too long.
  • Not catering it to the position you are applying for.

But how does one make the ever-illusive good resume? It’s something everyone is looking to do and something everyone has an opinion on. But where’s the truth of the matter?

Sure, there are some guidelines–like tailoring the information to suit the job you are applying for–that work as a good rule of thumb or two. But once you get past the most basic of all basic instructions like that everything cannon balls into the chaos of mixed messages.

Include dates; don’t include dates; they’ll be suspicious if you don’t ________; it’ll look bad if you don’t ________; it’s not necessary to ________; no one cares about ________; always use this font; it doesn’t matter what font you use; chronological order of most recent job experience; organize it by skills; include an objective; objectives are a waste of space; references should be included; no they shouldn’t; references should go on a separate page; always do this, that would be ridiculous; NEVER include THAT; you can if you want to; you should include; you might not want to include; put it in this order; no put it in thiiiiiiis order; why would you put that on there; how did you not think to put that on there; write full sentences; no full sentences

The list could go on.

The conclusion I’ve started to come to is that nobody knows. Nobody. The perfect resume is this ridiculous ideal that is completely put on a mystical pedestal far, far out of reach from the hands of mere mortals. We are all suppose to strive for it, but there is no right answer and there never will be.

I have a pretty standard resume that I created for grad school applications. I don’t think it’s bad and it made a decent enough impression to get the point across that I’m not a bum–but I know that there are better and/or more strategic ways I could be presenting information about myself to be a better self marketer. The problem, in my opinion, is how resumes work. They’re suppose to follow a format, but this format is completely vague and depending on who you ask the rules shift. You would think that this would then encourage the idea of thinking outside of the box to present the information, but such rebellion is not encouraged and could get your application laughed at and thrown out without any more consideration. We are suppose to assimilate, especially in this context, and yet stand out from the crowd–but only within the restrictive means of a structure that no one can unwaveringly define.

We’re all just free fallin’ here.

The Fork in the Road: Chillax

As I think is appropriate in a Senior Seminar class, we’ve been discussing a great deal about futures lately. Specifically, since we are all approaching the big graduation date (only THREE WEEKS (?!)), the question that keeps looming overhead is “well… what’s next?” For some it’s graduate school, for some it’s the work force, other’s is “a year off” (though I’m really not sure what that means considering you’d have to be doing something in the meantime). But as is the custom, the idea is that at some point down the road we are all going to be doing something to employ our time and pay us enough to support ourselves.

But who really knows?

Sure, we are picking a path now–or is the case for many of us, struggling to pick such a path–but as any “grown up” can tell you–nothing ever works out the way you plan it to. You could choose a career and hate it. You could choose a career and not be able to break into the industry. You could love the job and get laid off… Start a family that postpones a graduation date or a move to the big city… realize part-way through a graduate degree that your calling is elsewhere… Not be able to finish a graduate degree because of some unforeseen financial crisis… Have something happen that inspires you and ignites a passion you never knew you had and be diverged into a path you never saw coming.

Absolutely anything can happen.

So what are we suppose to do? How are we suppose to make these decisions? Who are we suppose to get advice from and how the heck are they suppose to really guide us toward anything?

I think it’s really crazy how we are suppose to be the “(wo)man with the plan” and yet what we are expected to know is the one thing that we really have no control over: the future. I get the idea behind wanting to have some goal to work toward, some idea, some notion in the back of your head that gives a direction to aim yourself–but I also don’t think that it’s realistic for us to really live in that way, at least not literally.

For one, picturing some idealized life for ourselves and stressing over getting exactly there is really nothing but a way to set ourselves up to fail and be disappointed. You can’t make your life be 100% what you want it to be–at least not through planning. Certain things you cannot control and I think too often we all forget that in the little fantasy lives we plan out for ourselves.

And for two, there’s no way for us to picture or plan everything there will be in our lives, no matter how hard some seem to try. When we picture our futures (in any number of ways or in the single “vision”) we will always be seeing some microcosm–some tiny spotlight of this future we apparently see ourselves having.

It’s too narrow.

Life itself is a huge orchestration of chaos, constant change and days where you just do what you need to do to survive with little to no regards to the regrets or consequences you’ll have later for what you “could have done today.” It is never just about one thing and there isn’t such a thing as only one way to do anything.

So what I really want to say here is that we all need to calm down. This includes me. I need to calm the heck down (seriously). Yes, the decisions we make today are going to influence our tomorrow and yes we might do something with these “big decisions” that we will say we regret later–but that’s going to happen no matter what we choose. In the end, it’s all going to add up to who you are as a person. Because that’s what we are. We’re people who will always be finding ourselves and trying to gain understanding of ourselves. We are not some story of some life that we play through in our heads like a movie clip.

Intellectual Curiosity

Intellectual curiosity is a key component of an English major’s personality. The investment in this idea is what drives us to turn to the next page, finish that chapter and strive to pick up another book when we’re done. It takes this personality trait to even want to open another book or any book at all.

This curiosity is key to what we were talking about during our class discussion on how a library differs from a botanical garden as far as how accessible/easy it is for a broad audience to be attracted to and appreciate. Reading is a matter that requires the drive to do it. In this case, it’s the drive toward answering the questions: what is in there, where will it take me, what does it mean?

I’ve always been dumbfounded when I realized that not everyone had this inert sense that they needed to know the answer to these questions, and ended up just labeling myself as immensely curious. I’d realized that my English background, particularly my study of literature, had started to form the way that I viewed the world and that the way in which I approached the world had gone hand in hand with being an avid reader. But it wasn’t until the conversation on and defining of the phrase intellectual curiosity that it all started to really make sense.

I’ve always been a reader and a listener, but I think the best way to start describing when I really noticed something ‘different’ about my approach to the world was in high school. My English teacher was very linear and very structured in her manner of expression, and one of my friends who was also in the class was much more fluid and abstract in her understanding. The two always had a remarkably hard time communicating with one another. Somehow I found that I was a middle ground–I understood both what my friend and what the teacher meant, and was able to explain what they meant to the other. Different people in the class would be able to understand one or the other, but not both, at least not on a consistent basis.

I ‘blame’ this on my extensive reading of books. Not only had these endless tales entertained me, but they had taught me to look at the world from different perspectives as well as how to use context clues to fill in meaning where there may be a gap. Both of these skills ended up serving me really well in cases like my high school English classroom, and have continued to do so well into my college career. In fact, I’m pretty sure if it wasn’t for me and my bookish ways that my relationships even with my closest family would be remarkably different.

My youngest brother and I, for example, are really different. I’m an introvert, have been shy for a majority of my life, and would like nothing more than to curl up with a good book and a hot cup of tea. He, on the other hand, is the kind of kid who can make friends wherever he goes, would prefer to never have to read, and will break out some pretty old school moves on the dance floor in front of all of his peers. Being how different we are and how busy our lives currently are, it’d be really easy to not know each other well. But I’ve been too curious to leave it at “that’s Brian” and have needed to know more of what’s behind it all–so I get him talking. The way his brain works is very different from my own and it fascinates me. I don’t know how to not be interested–except once and a while when he’s rambling on for over twenty minutes about a video game that’s about to get released, that can get old after the first five or so minutes.

The relationship between my other younger brother, my dad and I is even more interesting, however. This “other younger brother,” Nick, is really similar to me in a lot of ways: an introvert, intellectually curious, stubborn. Dad is stubborn too, and likes to be an instigator. Nick’ll take the bait, the two will argue, and then rather than either of them accepting that they could both be right or–heaven forbid–the other one has a point, they will always leave the room in a huff, mumbling about what the other wouldn’t hear.

That is, unless I’m home.

Through the years, I’ve become my Dad’s confidant. I let him decompress his day and ask questions about the stuff that other people don’t even want to hear about anymore; in return I tend to talk out big decisions with him (even though I know he will always just tell me to “sleep on it”). Nick will tell me things he won’t tell anyone else, and loves that he can talk politics with someone who will actually listen and argue thoughtfully rather than just to try to prove him wrong. But the real kicker is when he and Dad are in the same room with me when they start one of their nefarious discussions. I’ll sit and I’ll listen, and then I’ll translate and throw in questions on either person’s playing field. Instead of both feeling like they’re arguing with a brick wall, I have actually seen them come away with a cohesive discussion.

Nick has said that he doesn’t think Dad listens to him, but from observation I’ve realized that isn’t it: it’s a matter of translation and interpretation. The two speak English, but the way in which they communicate their ideas might as well be separate dialects, while their resistance to learning the other’s communication style might as well be a resistance toward multilingualism.

I would argue that my understanding of these styles and how to put myself in the position of either person without much strain was derived from my love of books. Each time I opened a new cover I was put in the position of a new narrator, or in the shoes or the head of a new character. I saw new worlds through new eyes and learned how to pick up clues and subtleties that different authors would hide in different ways, much like different people will hide in conversations in different ways. Intellectual curiosity, therefore, has bridged between my real world and my (often) fictitious adventures to the point where the people I meet and know are characters to me. They’re complex and they have stories to tell just behind the covers they’ve created for themselves. If I wasn’t fascinated by books, I don’t think I would be fascinated by people in the same way that I am, and if it wasn’t for books, I don’t think I would understand people the way I do.

Books, and my relationship with books, have made me who I am today.

In a World of Socialites–Where are the Bookish Ones?

I’d like to start this post simply by mentioning how much I have grown to like the word “bookish,” as I really have grown a liking to it. But, this side note aside, I’ll move on.

Not long ago in class, we were discussing how our society has been putting the emphasis on those who are considered extroverts–the ones who ‘go out there’ and ‘go for it’ no matter what ‘it’ might be–and how introverts, who might prefer to keep to themselves, tend to be devalued. We paralleled this with the value (or lack thereof) given to English as an educational path or focus, and discussed how reading has been seen as a tool rather than an action. I think all of these points are not only accurate, but completely intertwined.

We’ve all expressed concern over preserving or redeeming this field that we are all dedicated to, and I think I may have the beginning of a solution or at least a possible path to get us in that direction. It all starts with turning reading into an action again.

‘Back in the day’ reading was something that people did to gain knowledge. While this is still true, the entire idea of curriculum has developed into a multi-genre approach that has made reading sub-par in significance to the world. If reading is going to be valued, however, it needs to become an integral part of education again. With this I am not necessarily saying we need to hurry up and teach our children to read–as I think forcing it before they have fully reached the ability to communicate on a verbal scale is only exacerbating the problem rather than helping it (and probably stems from the overall “need” and greed of our country wanting to be first in everything–don’t get me wrong, this is good sometimes, but in other times is really not necessarily to our advantage). What I am saying is that we need to make reading a priority rather than cutting down reading lists.

Literature is a gateway to so much more than just a good vocabulary. Many have discussed how it develops creative thinking, problem solving, can be emotionally fulfilling as well as intellectually stimulating, among many other positive things. So why aren’t we using it to its full potential? Instead of cutting reading, or making it easier, I think we should be amplifying reading requirements–across disciplines. Why aren’t we using historical fiction, for example, to discuss history? Why aren’t we using books on scientific discovery to talk about the real application of the scientific method and how it has actually worked out for the famous names we are suppose to know about? Granted, some of this movement would be easier to do earlier on in our education system (elementary subjects, for example, would probably be easier to introduce more reading into for basic concepts), but starting here can be a launching point.

Socially, I also think we could be working toward this goal with a really simple solution: we need to start giving books and talking about books. This point is something that each of us could do, and could possibly make a change sooner rather than later (as we all know it takes a while to change curriculum/state standards and the like).

By doing this, I think reading might be able to start coming across as something active, or at least something that active people do. This might require bookish people to be a little outgoing, at least in my social requirement, but if we get it to catch on then the socialites can help make this happen as well.

Scratching the Surface

“Before my birth there was infinite time, and after my death, inexhaustible time.” – Elegant Effendi’s corpse, pg 3

One thing that has always fascinated me as a reader is when I re-read or at least re-visit the beginning of a text shortly after reading it in its entirety. The second time around, as long as it is not too far removed from the first experience, I often find little gems, like the quote above, and realize that it was something quite profound about the entire story that could easily have been forgotten, glanced over, or simply not absorbed by a reader the first time around–especially when it’s found so early on.

Orhan Pamuk placed this quote right at the beginning of his story, buried in the middle of the third paragraph of the first page. As a reader, I usually look at the first few pages as a buffer; the shallow part of the water on the beach that you wade through in order to get acclimated before you go under. This tends to mean that I don’t cling to sentences this early on in my travel through the text. I’m going to assume that I’m not alone in this phenomenon.

We spent a portion of the class discussing the subject of time, but I feel like we barely scratched the surface of Pamuk’s discussion of it. For example, one could really tear apart this quote from Elegant Effendi as his body sat at the bottom of the well. Not only is he quite literally talking from beyond the grave, a marker in one’s life that many consider an end to that person’s time, but he is talking directly about the concept of time in a way that parallels the way the entire book looks at it.

During discussion we came to conclude that this quote meant that “infinite time” implied that time was moving in both directions and would continue to do so forever, where as “inexhaustible time” was given a start point and could only move forward, not backward. I would argue that Elegant is not only talking about his own personal timeline in this way (i.e. he is not just saying that before he was born there was infinite possibility as to when his life would occur or make a difference and that after his death all he had to look to was eternity), but that he is also foreshadowing the entire conflict over the way art moves through time.

Specifically in context to this story, the murder of Elegant Effendi is a turning point for the rest of the plot. In this way, I think that Elegant’s quote could also be looked at to say that before he was born, the communication of art seemed timeless. That is to say that “infinite time” was exactly how it looked the art scene was going to progress–just as it had–in a way where the future and the past were parallel and they would continue to correlate with one another no matter how far back or forward you went. The time honored traditions would hold. But, as his quote says, “after my death, inexhaustible time.” This here would then imply the beginning of the end that we talked about in reference to the very end of the book–but once again I think as an audience we need to pay attention to the fact that Pamuk placed this at the story’s onset. This means the timeline he uses as he writes the text also embodies the themes he is talking about throughout it–no wonder this man has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he really thinks all of this out.

But, once again, I think even limiting the scope to breaking down this quote is too constricted for the full concept of time that is presenting through this novel. Yet another moment early on that Pamuk encompasses yet another aspect of it can be found on page 43 when Shekure says,

“I, too, long to speak with you who are observing me from who knows which distant time and place.”

While I’m immediately drawn to the implication of gender roles represented solely by the word “too” in this quote, I’m also moved by the way in which Shekure saying this shows how the art of book writing is also something that has an “inexhaustible time” to exist. Before a story is written, it could also be seen to have infinite time. It is not solidified into a crux, labeled with a time, until after it is penned and put into such a context.

This parallels what is talked about toward the end of the story as well, when Shekure says that she has told these stories and given the letters to her son, Orhan, who would then be the one to document the rest. The author then having the same first name brings in another element of time, as the story is set in the sixteenth century and is meant to have been written by someone who had lived in that same era, yet in reality the book was written and published in 1998 (then translated to English in 2001). This gap in time is yet another aspect for us, as an audience, to examine. Just as Elegant brings realization that he is speaking to us from beyond death, Shekure is illuminating the fact that her narrative voice is speaking to us also from some distant time and that her voice will continue to be speaking to people from any amount of distant time for as long as this book remains in existence.

But even with all of this… Even after a post of nearly one thousand words… I am once again only scratching the surface of Pamuk’s discussion of time.

What Is Story, What Is Life

“What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.” 

— Rabih Alameddine, The Hakawati

Last week, I couldn’t help but have somewhat of a mental throwback to my post ‘Fit the Arc or Bust‘ as we discussed “My Name Is Red” by Orhan Pamuk and I was reminded of this throwback again during today’s discussion. In my previous post, I discussed the misconception of our reality as it relates to the idea of “truth,” and how more often than not–even in our esteemed courtrooms of justice–we really put the weight of decisions into the hands of storytellers. We often look at several witnesses’ accounts of “the facts” and then whichever we deem the most believable is labeled the “truth of the matter.” However, as I discussed, there are several complications to this, including our own biases as an audience to want the story that is “true” to also be one that is recognizable, which brings in a distinct level of subjectivity and wish fulfillment into every search for this highly sought after, somewhat idealized truth.

In “My Name Is Red,” I was reminded of this same concept of storytelling as truth, but have found that this example furthers and complicates my earlier point. Whereas before I had been speaking of truth as being something that is determined based off of the recognizable literary arc that would be the least jarring to an audience or jury and how this truth that is derived from the situation then becomes something feasible and solid. The characters, particularly Black, in “My Name Is Red,” however, turn this idea on its head. Instead of listening to stories in order to form a truth about these stories, as one would do in a courtroom where they must determine which witnesses have made accounts that would add up to a believable explanation of what has already happened, Black listens to stories and uses them to form a truth that he believes is then destined to happen in the future. This idea can be seen most obviously in the relationship that unfolds between him and Shekure. He uses the story of Husrev and Shirin as the basis of his complete understanding of how love works and what love is. This ancient tale of two lovers to Black is the epitome of his ideal future life and he pursues it wholeheartedly throughout the novel. But what is really interesting here is that Black doesn’t just take on the understanding of how the plot line of love should go–see a beautiful girl, fall in love instantly and forever, marry her and be happy–but he also seems to understand the people around him as simple, base characters just like those in the storybooks. It does not matter to him that Shekure is a three-dimensional and multifaceted, real woman, what matters is what she represents to him: the beauty he needs to capture in order to fulfill the destiny he has laid out for himself in his head.

So, in essence, what Black is really doing is not only projecting these stories onto his future and making them his life goals, but also projecting the simplicity of these characters onto those around him. And in this way, he is using what is a past tense narrative to literally mold his life, choosing to edit out parts that don’t matter (who cares if your kids hate me…) to the overall important highlights he understands from the stories (we’re a family now!). He is quite literally constructing his own reality, editing by choosing to remain ignorant of deviations from the story in his head and in his picture books. But what I find truly disturbing to think about here is one question: Does this really stray far from the reality of our everyday lives, of our everyday interactions with others? I would argue that it doesn’t. How much are we projecting?

We Ain’t No Meltin’ Pot

  • Go to school.
  • Listen to your teachers. 
  • Take good notes. 
  • Do your homework. 
  • Try hard.
  • Study hard. 
  • Get good grades. 
  • Go to college. 
  • Be successful.

This is the system of education in America–it’s all up to you to find your way through to the end.

But what happens when the system fails you? What happens if you are ignorant of how to successfully do any of the above steps? Not willingly ignorant, striving for it, but being completely oblivious to how you are suppose to negotiate any or all of these steps we assume as the standard? Or worse, what happens if you aren’t even aware that there’s a step you are missing? What happens if you are in a position like Villenueva was growing up–one where his paperwork got mixed up causing him to be put on a track veering him far from that of a collegiate future, all without his knowledge and all in a system where there was no one double checking? If it hadn’t been for his English teacher taking special notice of him, if it wasn’t for that teacher going above and beyond his own job description, would we even be hearing Villanueva’s story or would it be lost among the thousands of untold stories of our educational system?

I have been thinking on this subject since we read Villanueva’s story, but I think the best way to discuss the subject is actually in terms of Hirsch’s text on cultural literacy. Villanueva was put into the circumstance we read about because of a few factors, the main few being: the mistake in paperwork that wasn’t double checked by anyone on staff at the time, the system’s failing to allow for any diversity (because he really shouldn’t have been held behind because of not taking California history while he was in New York), because of  his own ignorance of the system he was in, and because his parents were also ignorant of the school system he was in. These first two pieces of the problem Villanueva was facing are a matter literally a matter of the school system in place, but the latter two pieces are a matter of cultural literacy.

Villanueva’s parents were immigrants. They weren’t neglectful toward their son nor his education, they wanted what was best for him and they tried their best to provide that for him. They paid for schooling that was suppose to be good and they assumed that that was where their responsibility ended, that it was the school’s responsibility to take the matter of his education from thereon out. After all, how were they suppose to provide that education for their son when they were not able to get it themselves growing up? They had no idea what to expect from the system because it was as foreign to them as they were to it. Villanueva was just as inadequately prepared to deal with this system. Sure, he had been in American schooling and therefore probably had a better grasp on how the process worked than his parents did, but when he was uprooted from the school district he had been accustomed to and moved thousands of miles away, it might as well have been a whole new world for him to learn to navigate through. All of this could easily be described as Villanueva and his parents lacking in the cultural literacy they would need to work the school system to their full advantage. Had any of these three been aware of what the Voc-Ed program could mean for Villanueva’s future, if any of them had known to question the paperwork, to question the ominous school that they had put all of their faith into–his story would have been laid out far differently.

Luckily for Villanueva, someone who was culturally literate, his teacher, reached out and adjusted the situation, but not before some damage had already been done. He had already been treated as a second-class student for far too long. He will never gain back the confidence he could have had in subjects like math that was lost through the years of not being challenged to be a good student. Had he been caught in the system in a positive way, someone would have noticed him far earlier. Sadly, however, the only reason he was even noticed in the long run was because he happened to have some talent that got him attention. But this, along with the inflexibility of the history requirement he faced and the lack of any checks and balances in the system only brings to light just how flawed the system truly is.

I think the real question we need to ask in regards to our educational system is: Why are the students not taken as a higher priority?

Each individual student that passes through a door to a school in our country should matter. But I would argue that in our current system they do not. We currently look at students as some sort of livestock going by on a conveyor belt. All must conform to a set of standards that may or may not be reachable by all. Some, like Villanueva, start on the conveyor belt already at a disadvantage. If one lacks the cultural literacy that is expected of them, they might as well have an IQ lower than they actually do possess. But who is suppose to teach you to be culturally literate? Who is responsible? Right now it seems that we are passing the blame on to whoever we are not. Is it the parent’s responsibility? Not if they don’t have the knowledge themselves. It is the teacher’s responsibility? Not if it’s suppose to be “common knowledge” when they’re suppose to be teaching new things to their students. So, who does this leave?

We are a country built of immigrants. Our diversity is often pitched as one of the most interesting, beautiful things about this country and it is suppose to be one of the core components that make us a strong country. So why, then, are we expecting all of our students to fit within such a tiny box? Why are we leading everything in our educational system based on some standards that some old guys in a boardroom somewhere come up with? Sure, there are things that we need to have as standards taught to our students–math, some history, how to communicate–but that does not mean that we need to expect or require our students to then come out standardized as well. The old imagery of America being a melting pot where all of the diversity went in, mingled, and then came out as a consistent blob that was just “American” has been replaced with one that suggests America is much more like that of a mixed salad, full of a diverse set of ingredients all co-mingling in the same space. The pursuit of this change in description has been meant to encourage the embrace of diversity. If we are to continue along this trajectory and successfully embrace our students–thus engaging them, encouraging them, and allowing them to pursue their full potential–then we must embrace a similar attitude toward our teaching of them. Standardized test scores, for example, are remarkably ridiculous. Students who are not given level playing ground cannot be expected to perform equally, and we especially cannot expect great things from students who are written off and thus thrown into a ditch that is far below the ‘level playing ground’ that is assumed. We need to look at the stories of those like Villanueva as examples, as inspiration. If our educational system is really going to be effective, if it is really going to bring us further into the 21st century, if it is going to propel us forward rather than hold us back, then we need to make the education system reflect the students–not expect the students to all instantly mirror the educational system.

“What an astonishing thing…”

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” 

Carl Sagan