The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Following my recent experience re-reading The Awakening, I was inspired to revisit some other pieces I loved in high school but haven't picked up since...Our Town, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace....

But Wharton's novella, Ethan Frome, was at the top of my "To Be Read Again List" because when I read it for the first time, I was totally caught up in the romance between Ethan and Mattie Silver...I desperately wanted them to run away together...and I was totally crushed by the ending. I wondered if, this time, I would feel differently. How would 15 years and a host of life experiences change my perspective on the story...the characters? Would I see Ethan as weak and selfish now? Abandoning his wife and his duty. Would I turn on him the way I turned on Edna?

I entered in to reading in a curious frame of if I was conducting an experiment. I tried to be completely objective and open-minded...letting the story unfold...waiting to see how I might respond. If anything, I may have approached it a little cynically...

But it wasn't long before I was completely swept up again. Ethan is just such a good, honest, hard-working man. He gave up everything--college...his dreams for the future--to take care of his ailing parents and save the family farm. He married Zeena because he felt like it was the right thing to do...the practical thing. He tries to be a good husband, to give her what she needs to be comfortable and happy. He sacrifices over and no avail. It's never enough. Ethan's life is's impossible not to feel sorry for him. And Mattie Silver is the only thing that brings him happiness. She's young and fresh and beautiful. She's genuinely interested in him. She laughs at his jokes and makes him feel alive again...and hopeful. He is "too young, too strong, too full of the sap of living, to submit so easily to the destruction of his hopes". It's impossible not to want them to be wish Zeena would just go away. And the fact that they resist slipping into an affair even when it would be so easy and so forgivable makes you want it to happen even more.

I never loved Ethan more than when he's headed to borrow money from Mr. Hale so he and Mattie can run away, and he stops dead in his tracks. It says, "For the first time...he saw what he was about to do. He was planning to take advantage of the Hales' sympathy to obtain money from them under false pretenses...the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could only have done so by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him. He turned and walked slowly back to the farm."

Right there...that's when I wanted him to have Mattie the most. And as awful as I feel admitting it, that's when I wanted Zeena to die...she's already so sick...I guess...and so miserable...not really living at all. She should just succumb. Or maybe it could be an overdose...a stray spark...a loose wheel on the wagon...How horrible am I? How masterful is Edith Wharton?

She's got me right where she wants me...feeling how trapped Ethan really is. Feeling the futility of it all. There is literally nothing he can do because he is virtuous and good, and his circumstances are so hopeless and miserable.

And that's when it hit me...Ethan Frome isn't just a love's ultimately a statement about social class. It's about how in many ways, money can buy happiness...or at least it doesn't hurt. It's about how so many people are limited by the lack of resources at their disposal...trapped in bad situations because they can't buy their way out. If only Ethan had been more comfortable financially...he could have left Zeena some money, and he and Mattie could have started a new life for themselves. They could have had a happy ending.

Ethan Frome is absolutely brilliant...vivid, captivating, subtle, nuanced...I'm so glad I read it again. I definitely appreciated it more this time around, and I look forward to experiencing some other old favorites again soon.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"A Book" by Emily Dickinson

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

I love this poem. It's always resonated with me...but not to the extent that it does now, following eye surgery. I had a detached retina...and the earliest days...right after surgery...when I couldn't read at all (or do anything else), were some of the longest, most restless days of my life. There was nothing I could do to pass the time. No escape.

I tried audio books, but I had a hard time following the plot. I kept having to rewind and re-listen. The words seemed to slip right through my fingers...I couldn't hold on to them long enough to construct the story. Maybe I'm more visual than I realized...maybe it was the narrator's soothing British accent...or maybe I was more drugged than I thought...but I was just lulled into the rhythm of the words.

The day I opened a new book, held a story in my hands again, and felt comfortable reading it, was pure joy! I was no longer stuck on my couch...confined to the same four my little August. I was transported...happily whisked away! The days since then have been filled with drama...with new people and places...sights and sounds. I've been living vicariously...and loving every minute.

Stay tuned...I have lots of blogging to do to get caught up!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Lessons Learned"

I just finished The Death and Life of the Great American School System...It was a truly fascinating read. In the final chapter, "Lessons Learned", Ravitch outlines her ideas for reform.

First, she makes the important point that schools are not responsible for all of society's problems...and while public education is an extremely important component of our democratic society, it alone can't save us. Ravitch writes, "Our schools cannot be improved if we use them as society's all-purpose punching bag, blaming them for the ills of the economy, the burdens imposed on children by poverty, the dysfunction of families, and the erosion of civility." She believes children from disadvantaged homes need preschool programs, medical care, and other social services to help them succeed...schools can't close the achievement gap on their own...rather they should be "part of a web of public and private agencies that buttress families." I couldn't agree more!

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites research showing that the standardized test scores of children from disadvantaged homes without a lot of direct parental involvement drop significantly over the summer, while the test scores of children from more advantaged homes tend to rise. That's a huge testament to the importance of the home environment. And another reason why teachers' jobs and salaries shouldn't be tied to standardized test scores. It takes a village...

That said, Ravitch does believe there are things we can do to improve education. Namely, we should focus on the development of a rich, rigorous curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences...ideally at the national level. She notes that those nations that tend to outrank us on international measures (Japan and Finland to name a couple) have national standards that spell out what students are supposed to learn in a wide variety of subjects. Massachusetts, one of the only states to have a strong curriculum in every subject, also has the highest scores in the nation on the NAEP and ranks near the top when compared to other countries. In addition, the 1,000 or so schools across the U.S. that follow the Core Knowledge curriculum regularly out-perform others on standardized tests. Ravitch says, "Having a curriculum is not a silver bullet. It does not solve all our educational problems. But not having a curriculum indicates our unwillingness or inability to define what we are trying to accomplish...if you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there." In other words, without a curriculum, all else is moot.

Ravitch also believes accountability must include more than the data we get from standardized tests. She proposes that every state establish inspection teams to evaluate its schools; and, according to Ravitch, any school that's struggling should receive extra support...professional development for teachers, smaller classes, after-school activities, additional tutoring, parent education classes, etc. She writes, "When schools are struggling, the authorities should do whatever is necessary to improve them." (italics mine)

Finally, Ravitch believes teachers should be subject-area experts and experts in pedagogy. Prospective teachers should be tested on their knowledge of what they will teach, and all teachers should be regularly observed and evaluated by their peers and supervisors. Ravitch also says schools will have to offer adequate compensation to attract and retain highly qualified teachers...but she doesn't elaborate much on that point.

That's it. Those are her suggestions. So...again...I'm left wondering...what needs to happen to make this vision a reality?

I'm also wondering what Ravitch's critics have to say. What's the other side of this argument? What am I missing?