Monday, February 24, 2014

Creativity's Fate

                Earlier this month, Laura Pappano wrote a story for The New York Times about the increase in creative studies programs at colleges and universities. With the workforce demanding more ingenuity from workers, colleges are teaching students how to think more creatively and seek out resourceful solutions to the problems of an ever-changing world.
            It’s rather stunning, as an educator, to see an article like this. For most of my teaching career, the focus of our national education dialogue has been on standardized testing – on ensuring that no child is left behind in mastering the essential skills. I’ve seen many teachers work very hard at ensuring that those skills are met. I’ve also watched teachers find wonderful ways to teach those skills while also incorporating creativity into their lesson plans. But still, it’s confounding to hear so much talk for so long about mastering the skills, and then hear calls for a shift of sorts.
            Of course, our strongest thinkers offer a balance of critical and creative thinking. They plan ahead, then figure out how to improvise. They analyze the reading or solve the equation, while also imagining new ways to see the text or the equation. To use a baseball analogy, they strive to be the Derek Jeters of the world. The New York Yankees shortstop, who prepares for his final season in 2014, has always worked hard to master the fundamentals. But, at the same time, Jeter has always known when to create – his flip toss in the 2001 Division Series against the Oakland A’s standing as perhaps the best improvisational play in the history of baseball.
            Most educators would suggest that we strive for that balance. But they might also warn us to be careful that we don’t push the concrete so hard that the creativity seems undervalued. It’s a lesson demonstrated beautifully in The LEGO Movie, the latest children’s film to feature a powerful message for kids and adults alike. Without spoiling the plot, let’s just say that the film’s final half-hour makes a very strong case against stifling the creativity of our children. As the film winds to an end, we are reminded of those moments in our early years when we sat with LEGOs or Star Wars figures or Barbie dolls or erector sets, and the world was ours to shape.
Times have changed, and we can talk all we want about the needs of our high-tech world. But we also have a long history in our country of honoring and valuing the innovators. In my classroom, I keep some old Apple publicity posters featuring famous artists and leaders, with that simple slogan “Think Different” next to the photos of Jim Henson, Pablo Picasso, Amelia Earhart, and others. Whether we’re parents, educators, filmmakers, or shortstops, we all share the responsibility to nurture the creativity in our kids. It’s a no-brainer.

Friday, February 14, 2014

February 1989: The New Girl

                She was in the back seat and I was in the passenger’s seat. We were sitting in a sedan, driving from the Staten Island Ferry terminal to my church in the Willowbrook section of Staten Island. I hadn’t really known this girl before the day began, but I knew her now. She was, in fact, all I could think about as our chaperone’s car cruised along Crystal Avenue and the radio station played Debbie Gibson’s latest song.
                It’s funny how the smallest of decisions can change a life or two. My church’s youth group was taking a February field trip to the Statue of Liberty and South Street Seaport. My brother and I, along with several other teens, were among those taking the trip on this Sunday. One of my fellow 12th-graders, a girl named Erica, had asked a school friend of hers if she wanted to go along. The friend had said yes, and she joined us in the crowd of teens traveling by cars and ferryboats to our destination.
This new girl chatted with me during the Circle Line ferry ride to Liberty Island, where our conversation was interrupted by a then-immature younger brother of mine, who was playing a game of “punch your brother in the crotch.” Somehow, the girl and I were able to ignore this painful distraction, and before long our voices and eyes became more flirtatious. By the time we were walking up the stairs of Lady Liberty, the new girl was massaging my shoulder. On the ferry back to Manhattan, she was snuggling up against me for warmth amid the chill of New York Harbor. At South Street Seaport, we ate pizza together, and I realized that my 18-year-old hormones were fully engaged.
So, on the walk back to South Ferry, we drifted to the back of the line and, when the moment was right, we stopped and let the others walk ahead. I knew little more than her name, the sing-song melody of her voice, her strawberry blonde hair and the high cheekbones that framed her face. But after turning toward the new girl, I now knew the taste of her lips. It was clear that this might lead somewhere.
In that car ride back, Debbie Gibson was singing her monster hit of the moment, “Lost in Your Eyes.” The new girl told me later that as she listened to that song, she thought about my brown eyes and the song felt right, in a mix-tape kind of way. When the girl told me later that she had a boyfriend, I said I wasn’t going to get in the middle of that, but to keep me posted. Two days later – on Valentine’s Day, no less – the girl broke up with her boyfriend. The next day, I asked her out. She said yes.
It’s a sweet and corny little high school romance story, and many of us have something like it. The difference here, I guess, is where this went afterward. While most of my peers waited to find their life partners much later, this girl and I couldn’t shake each other. In fact, we’ve been together ever since. Her name is Amy, and we’ve been married for 18 years. Tomorrow, it will be 25 years since I first asked her out.
Growing up together was not always easy, and I wouldn’t suggest this path for my daughters. But I guess we’re living proof that when it feels right, and the girl you see beneath the glitter of the Brooklyn Bridge looks like everything you’ve ever wanted, you might want to kiss her then and there. You never know where it might take you. The Debbie Gibson song is nostalgia now, but the girl is still new to me in all the right ways, every day.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Cinematic Soul

                Last night, my wife and I sat with our daughters to watch the Super Bowl together. We savored Amy’s chicken chili, laughed at Stephen Colbert’s pistachio commercials, and admired the Seahawks’ championship defense. But to be honest, Amy and I were thinking about something else on Sunday; we were mourning the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
            For more than 20 years, we’ve been astounded, time and time again, by Hoffman’s acting. Whenever you thought you’d seen the depths of human emotion plumbed as far as possible, another Hoffman film would surface, and you’d find him exploring the human soul even further. His obituaries do a fine job of listing the films, but picking your favorite Hoffman movie moment is about as difficult as choosing your favorite novel or dessert. Even my 12-year-old daughter, who recently saw Hoffman in Catching Fire, had become a fan.
            In my 12th-grade English classes, we recently watched Hoffman in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Truman Capote, after we’d finished reading In Cold Blood. We used the film Capote to close out a unit on how true nonfiction really is, and whatever students thought of the movie or Capote’s book, they had nothing but praise for this actor who had managed to re-create the mannerisms and moods of a man who had died more than 20 years before the film’s release.
            The thing I found most fascinating about Hoffman as an actor was his ability to bring dignity and accuracy to his roles, whatever they were: a music critic, a political hack, a spiritual leader, a boarding-school student, even a shy, gay boom operator. I’m no film critic, so I’ll be careful not to try and act like one here. But when I think of all the Hoffman movies I’ve seen, perhaps no role impressed me as much as his portrayal of a home-care nurse in Magnolia. In that film, Hoffman’s character, Phil, does little more than listen to the stories of a dying man, his trophy wife and estranged son. But as these characters share their pain with Phil, he feels their struggles deeply, even to the point of weeping. Hoffman’s character shows us that being present and compassionate is in many ways the essence of life.
            My brother, who is a film critic, saw Hoffman at the Sundance Film Festival last month. He, like many others who live in New York City, had also seen Hoffman many times in Greenwich Village with his family, just living an ordinary life. Of course, addiction often does not announce itself on the ski slopes of Utah or the streets of Manhattan. It’s often a solitary and dismal experience, one to which Hoffman succumbed yesterday. There’s no way to gauge the loss to this 46-year-old man’s family and friends, let alone to movie fans like Amy and me – it’s just deeply sad in every way.
            As a parent, Hoffman brought his family down to Cape May Point, just a few miles from my parents’ home. When I’d go out for jogs in that area, I’d keep an eye out for a blond-haired, bespectacled man, likely wearing a wrinkled T-shirt and shorts. If I had seen Hoffman taking out the garbage or helping his kids ride their bikes, I know I would have just nodded the same way I did for anyone else I passed on the roads there. That, I figured, was the ultimate respect I could have given to an actor who had achieved much fame and fortune, but who had never tried to present himself as anything more than the rest of us.
            I never saw Hoffman in Cape May. I’ll be back down there in a few months, and I’ll go out for more jogs. This time, I won’t be looking for my favorite actor. But when I’m passing through Cape May Point, I’ll think of Phil the nurse, or Scotty the boom operator, or Capote. The greatest gift an artist or craftsman gives us is a body of work that lives longer than he does. Hoffman has done this with astounding success, and his films serve to remind us of all that he offered in his brief time here, while also connecting us with the complex emotions we feel, hide, express and share.