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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Reading Back to Front

The residents of Annawadi picking through garbage for recyclables.
I have just finished reading Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece of narrative immersion journalism, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” It took me much longer than I expected—more than a month—as the story is so unbearably vivid that I had to alternate reading the book with other things. The clack of the subway was the easiest venue for me to read, not really a venue, but a moving, incessant, underground dystopian universe.

Indeed, the only way I could finish reading the story was back to front. There, in the final pages, I learned the fate of the a troubling trial in a corrupt judicial system, and I found Katherine Boo’s voice in an acknowledgment and an author’s note. In the preceding chapters, she had chosen to use a third person omniscient narration—to eclipse her presence she writes on her website—and focus entirely on her subjects. I understood the intention, but also missed the knowledgeable reporter’s mediating presence. Over a period of four years, Boo had used three indigenous interpreters and their observations had clearly been folded into the narrative, all of it so raw, I felt undone.

No tragedy or trauma is analagous and I do not mean here to compare in any way the travails of New York urban life--the beggars and homeless people on our subways, or the men and women scavenging for plastic water bottles in our garbage pails--with Mumbai. But reading the book underground, and then back to front so I wouldn’t worry so much about the children, afforded me a touchstone of awareness about what I am observing in my own enviornment. There is so much to report on wherever we reside—fugitive, precarious lives we cannot ignore.  Read More 
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Of Color

Plus ca change. I spent a decade teaching and writing in London at a time when the influx of immigrants from the Caribbean was challenging the antiquated post-colonial school system, its antiquated text books, and its racist assumptions. No people of color anywhere, no history of the colonized countries, whatsover. There were still golliwogs on Robertson jam when I arrived and a black and white minstrel show on television. I was in culture shock all the time, took notes incessantly, and started writing op-ed pieces and feature articles. Eventually, I gathered a few of my students’ stories and persuaded Heinemann Educationl Books to publish them as“Naomi,” “Paul,” and “Donnovan.” Combined with articles I’d written for the Times Educational Supplement, I was denounced in the House of Lords and told to return to America, where I belonged. I even received hate mail and one death threat.

And though England changed rapidly—the EU with its open borders and influx of educated, forward thinking “foreigners,” immediately put the UK on notice—I still thought America, land of my birth, beacon of democracy and opportunity, had evolved beyond the legacy of slavery more successfully. I was wrong. England has transmorgrified into a multi-ethnic society. Any lingering racism these days is reserved for the Muslim population. It’s not pretty, but these retro attitudes appear to be encapsulated in one backward-looking enclave. In fact, it’s an embarrassment to walk the streets of London today and feel the shock of realization that we, here in America, are struggling with our educational system and walled-in, albeit invisibly walled-in, homogeneous neighborhoods. Worse, the great economic/racial divide can be seen in every school, in every classroom. At NYU, where I teach, I have very few indigenous people of color in my classroom. From overseas, yes, but not from the United States. When I person of color enrolls in my workshop, it’s noticeable, because it is so unusual.

And now we learn that the children of color are still under-represented in children’s books. In 2014! What are the publishers thinking? Their mission statements are well intended, writes Christopher Myers, in a New York Times article on the front page of the Review section last Sunday. Lots of promises and commitments to diversity. But the reality is different: “an apartheid of literature.” And why? The Marketplace. Are these publishing houses out of touch or is it really true that no white adolescent boy wants to see a black boy on the cover of the book he is reading. Is this even possible?

In a companion piece, Christopher Myers’ father, Walter Dean Myers, says, “In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature...children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwhide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night, I ask myself if anyone cares.”

All children, all adults for that matter, and certainly all writers, deserve an expansive, inclusive landscape in which to dream and write and publish.  Read More 
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Welcome to the Dragnet

Julia Angwin, an award winning former Wall Street Journal reporter who now works for the independent news organization ProPublica, signs the flyleaf of her recently published book: “It’s an honor to be caught in the dragnet with you.”

Like several investigative journalists these days, she is concerned for the safety of her sources, many of whom are whistleblowers who may very well lose their jobs if they talk. The safeguards for Federal whistleblowers are nearly non-existent so Ms. Angwin is constantly searching for unorthodox ways to set up meetings. She sends snail letters, buys burner phones, uses secure electronic drop boxes and Duck Duck Go as her search engine.

Snail mail is cumbersome and problematic for a reporter working to deadline. On a recent trip to Washington DC, some sources didn’t answer her burner phone because they didn’t recognize the number. Several appointments fizzled. And this is one of many frustrations for journalists since dragnet data collection and other new technologies have outpaced our understanding of their damaging effects to the free flow of information in our democracy.

And what does this data collection consist of? Everything and nothing. And this is a paradox, of sorts. We release information to the cybersphere but have little knowledge of the day to day lives of many in our neighborhoods, in our country, and elsewhere. How many Indians know about the poor people behind the retainer wall next to the airport in Mumbai? There are 90,000 of them, collecting recyclable garbage from the airport hotels. It took a reporter, Katherine Boo, to expose the corruption and disdain of the Indian government in her Pulitzer Prize winning book: “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” I am just reading it now. I had no idea. I was blind and ignorant of this horror on the other side of the world. So, yes, drag the net and collect data—which costs billions by the way—and then--is it asking too much?-- do something with it for the common good.

Should all writers be concerned? The answer is yes. Should all citizens? Yes.

These rhetorical questions were addressed on Tuesday night at Fordham Law School by Ms. Angwin and a distinguished panel moderated by Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN American Center. Unlike other in this series, “Balancing Security and Social Justice,” the audience was a bit sparse. True, the weather was balmy, spring in the air, but I worried that the 24-hour-news cycle’s interest had waned. It would pick-up again if Edward Snowden returned to the US, was arrested and indicted. Hero or traitor? The arguments on both sides are fraught and heated. But at least we won’t be tossed into jail for arguing.

And that is the point, or one of the points, so far as I am concerned. Now that dragnet surveillance of both our trivial and important “information” has been exposed, we are able to talk about it, write about it, and attend panel discussions. For this basic human Constitutional right, we have to thank our Founding Fathers, and Benjamin Franklin, one of our first whistleblowers:


Venceremos.  Read More 
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The Evolving Classroom

1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.
2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
3. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two
evenings a week if they go to church regularly.
5. After 10 hours in school, teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
7. Every teacher should lay aside from each day’s pay a goodly sum of his earning for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.
9. The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.

Taken from One-Room Schools of Knox County, by the Knox County Retired Teachers Association

I started my teaching career in an Oakland, Ca high school, far from 19th Century Knox County, KY in time and place, far from the contemporary one-room or open-air schoolhouses in Afghanistan or Central Africa, their orthodoxy, their restraints, their children studying earnestly by rote and recitation. Most of my registered students were either football players, cheerleaders, truants, or members of gangs. They were privileged, if only they had known it. Far from war zones. Far, still, from economic hard times. Yet they were accustomed to boredom at school, and rage at their teachers, expressed as belligerence, or indifference. They cheated, threatened, fled. The words effort and self-respect were lost to them.

According to my California State Teaching License (Secondary) I was qualified to teach English and American History. There were required text books, a state curriculum, and too many desks crammed into a box-shaped room, albeit a clean one. It was before the days of high security, but there were incidences--kids packing, kids threatening, kids expelled. I took a look at my contract, consulted with the beleagured principal, the brain-dead, burned out heads of my departments and my union, and decided I could risk doing what I wanted. The kids—and I was still nearly a kid—were restive. I was over-confident, politicized. I knew I’d only be at the school for a year; my husband and I were headed to Europe, graduate school, travel, writing. So I tore the envelope, I made my own plans. The challenge was to make theater out of the classroom, to bring it alive, to make it real.

All that year, I went to bed at 9 p.m. and woke at 3 a.m. to read what my students had written; they submitted 500 words a day. Needless to say, I had more than one class and each class had more than 25 students. Because I was so young, I dressed in suits and pulled my hair up into a sophisticated “do.” I carried a bag lunch and never left the classroom; my door was always open for conversation and consultation—with other skeptical teachers, with students. In my English class I broke the desks out of rows into a seminar style and placed a Socratic stool at the center. I read up on Socratic dialogue and danced patterns onto the chalk board. I invested in an anthology of short stories and began the term with Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” I insisted that my students write all day long, that they take notes on what they were thinking as they worked and talked, what occurred to them. And not just in my classroom, in every classroom. In my American History class, we made costumes and conducted a Constitutional Convention. The ancestors of my students would have been slaves. So how to deal with that? More conversation. Word got out and some of the truants returned. Here was a teacher—little ole me—who understood something the “ school system” didn’t. No test at the end of the year could measure this. Most of all I was touched by the effort the students made, how much they wanted to learn. I had heard they were lazy—far from it. They worked to exhaustion, and so did I.

And it is with the memory of this wonderful early teaching experience—and many others since—that I enter my classroom at NYU every term. I am always so happy to be there, to meet my new students: who will they be? What will they be interested in? Will they commit, make effort, respond well to the constantly evolving, dynamic classroom? Will they continue writing when the workshop is over?
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