Friday, February 22, 2008

Front Porch Wisdom

When I was a few months past my fourth birthday, my parents had to make a quick change in the child care arrangements. Nanny Dodd, who had long said, “I raised mine, now you raise yours,” relented, and my paternal grandparents, Lee and Nima Dodd, were my baby-sitters until I began school.

Child psychologists tend to agree that the most formative years are those prior to age five, so Nanny and Papa found themselves with an audience with a sponge for a brain. The gray matter was there, but it needed filling up. During that next couple of years, I got a very practical education.

“It won’t matter a hundred years from now” was one of Nanny’s favorite sayings, especially when there was some job she’d just as soon put off. One look around my house lets a visitor know how much I took that one to heart. The stacks of books which need homes, the kid’s book bags on the floor, the stack of clothes upstairs that need to go to charity are all tasks I ought to do. But, really, in a hundred years, those items will be trash, so I just might find something else to do a while longer.

“Get yourself a good education. If you have money or property, someone might steal it, but no one can steal an education.” Papa told me this, over and over, and I have a higher level of education than either of my sisters (but not as much income.) In fact, I have worked in education most of my adult life, and while I have grave reservations about what is happening in public education, I am still a believer in both formal and informal education.

“Let ’em soak for a bit,” Nanny would say, as she placed the dirtiest dishes in the sink and went out to water her touch-me-nots. This morning, hubby was fussing about a dish that the didn’t come clean in the automatic dishwasher, so I told him to run some water in it so it could soak for a while. That technique works pretty well on ingrown toenails and rough patches of skin, too. Even a sore back will benefit from a half hour in the Jacuzzi. I wonder what Nanny would have thought about that contraption?

“If you have a problem, don’t mess with the first person you see. You go talk to the man that owns the business.” Papa told me this as he went around town, paying his bills. Folks used to do that here. Using stamps was a waste of money, and you can’t do much visiting down at the mailbox, either. As for the advice, I talked with seven different people when my laptop broke in December. If I could have followed Papa’s advice, I would have. On the other hand, the fellow who finally okayed the repair was named Steve. (If you are saying, “huh?” Steve Jobs is still the head honcho at Apple Computer.)

Lastly, when I learned to drive and got my license, Papa Dodd looked me straight in the eye and said he had some advice for me.
“Yes, sir?”
“If you can keep from hitting anything, you do that. And if you can’t; knock hell out of it!”
“Yes, sir!”

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 15, 2008


“....brainpower is the scarcest commodity and the only one of real value. Any human organization can be rendered useless, impotent, a danger to itself, by selectively removing its best minds while carefully leaving the stupid ones in place.” (Heinlein, Friday 37)

Working for the government has, in my experience, been both rewarding and frustrating. The public schools once attracted bright people, but that is no longer typical. One of my former student teachers was the valedictorian at her high school and became a wonderful teacher herself, but she was atypical as well. As the “old” teachers move on, there will be a dearth of talent in the classroom. The better teachers at my children’s school are in their 60’s and 70’s, and there are some talented ones who are a couple of decades behind. Among the younger ones, a great teacher is a rarity. A quick look at the average SAT’s for the college of education vs. the school of business at the University of Georgia will provide a quick confirmation of the lowering of intellectual standards in education.

Why are the better students shunning teaching careers? Many point to low salaries, but that is often not true. I just saw a full page ad for a local school system’s job fair, and the salary range was $37K to $80K, numbers that might not be attractive in some areas of the country, but those are not too bad in northeastern Georgia.

No, there are many forces that drive the better students away, and the number one deterrent may well be their experiences in high school. My own children have had a roller coaster ride, with fine teaching talent one class period, followed by a hack who is working harder on a graduate degree than teaching the next class period. (Additional degrees add some $7K here in Georgia, so there are plenty of doctors who don’t have any medical training.)

Modern classrooms are mine fields, with behavior and mentally challenged students sharing the same teachers and classrooms as regular ed students, due to government mandates. If you don’t believe me, just google “least restrictive environment” and read up on it. Some teachers refuse to administer tests, instead having students do “projects” which are casually awarded a grade based on an oral report. Essays are unread, leading to a big shock when the post-secondary instructor actually evaluates student work. One must postulate that the reason state and federal governments mandate tests is that teachers no longer use them. Smart students who have just endured four years of this treatment are not going to rush to gain teaching credentials.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote “Harrison Bergeron” as a not-so-subtle warning about government seeking to make everyone equal. In this story, intellectual equality equals stupidity. Mr. Vonnegut’s and Mr. Heinlein’s cautionary narratives certainly ring true when one contemplates the woes afflicting modern educational institutions.

Private schools and virtual schools may give concerned and better informed parents a way out of this morass, but many students will never understand what they missed by being born in an era when the public schools flunked.

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 01, 2008

Not Another Remake!

Recently, I have noticed that many television and films in the science fiction genre are retreads of previous offerings. I’m not just talking about Battlestar Galactica, Flash Gordon and even more Star Trek, which is going to be revived with a prequel film later this year. Actually, I am also talking about middle-of-the-road and blockbuster science fiction on the screen. Recent genre films included I am Legend, which is based on the 1954 horror novel by Richard Matheson, and Beowulf, which is very loosely based on an Anglo-Saxon epic. Later this month, Jumpers will debut in theaters. This film is based on a series of books for young adults which began in 1992, but the plot deals with teleportation, hardly a new science fiction concept. Further out, Universal pictures is remaking The Wolf Man, and Fox is remaking The Day the Earth Stood Still. Warner Brothers’ planned feature film version of Justice League, based on an animated television show, which in turn is based on fifty plus year old comic book heroes, has been delayed due to the writer’s strike. Not long ago, Entertainment Weekly published an article, Is science fiction out of ideas? Maybe.

As a long time genre fan, I have often asked why? Yet, as a teacher of middle and high school students, I do remember that teaching science fiction; a topic I seldom used in the classroom, did not endear me to many students. The excellent ezine, Sci Fi Dimensions ran a pair of commentaries on this topic a couple of years ago. The tone of “Kids and Sci Fi” is quite sarcastic, but the author’s points are well-taken. Students just don’t get science fiction themes, and young people are the future. If they don’t enjoy science fiction stories and films, the genre will die off. Kevin Ahern’s “Meekly Going Nowhere” is a more thoughtful discussion of the lack of new ideas in science fiction.

Yet, a look at the highest grossing films of the past couple of decades would indicate that science fiction is healthy enough on the big screen. Video games often use this genre for settings and plot. Unfortunately, many of those are also retro in theme, and again, there is a dearth of new ideas.

Editors and publishers must look for new and entertaining ideas in the manuscripts which come to them. Serious science fiction has long suffered from a focus on dystopia, which is just not particularly entertaining. Some of the mid-sized publishers such as Baen Books are doing a better job of finding action/adventure genre stories, but Baen loves the “series” writer, and the problem with those is that the same characters and themes naturally repeat.

As I have stated previously, I do think some of the small publishers have picked up some of the more entertaining manuscripts lately. Tigra and The Key were both printed by small publishers, and either of these would make a fabulous film, without resorting to a remake of anything. Now if Hollywood would just take a look at Pam’s Pages, I could steer them away from yet another remake.

Labels: , , , ,