Friday, February 26, 2010

Hardship License

In 1952, when I was 12, my mother sat down with my older brother, Curtis,16, our step-father and me to discuss a little inheritance we got from the death of our father. He died a few months before I was born. Curtis wanted a clarinet and I wanted a motorcycle. Mother gladly agreed to use Curtis’ portion on the musical instrument, but she said, “Danny, a motorcycle is too dangerous. Loy (my stepfather) and I want you to get a car.”
“But, Mother, I don’t know how to drive and I do know how to ride a motorcycle. I have ridden one.” This revelation was a real shock to mother, and she questioned me with some alarm about whose motorcycle it was, where I rode it and she admonished me not to get on the evil machine again.
“Curtis can teach you to drive. He’s a good driver. And you can lend him the car sometimes in repayment,” Mother countered.
I saw that the plan was all laid out. I feel pretty sure Mother and Pop had already bought the car, because the next day they drove home a 1939 Chevy and said, “Here’s your car, boy.”
Curtis immediately began his insane tutorials. He would drive the car out to some of the scarcely used logging and oil well roads and put me behind the wheel. He would say, “Drive.” So, I would struggle to get the floor shift into the low position on the “H” and give all my effort to matching pressure on the accelerator with release of the clutch to take off. It was a ragged start, but in a day or two of whizzing down two-rutted roads and across two-plank bridges with Curtis yelling, “Faster, Danny, faster,” I got the hang of it. I would still forget to press the clutch in when I stopped from time to time, but I was getting there.
Final exam time was about one-week after I got the car. Curtis, Mother and Pop got in, and, following their instructions, I drove to the First National Bank, downtown, where Mother worked, made a block, and returned home. Every time I stopped, Curtis would yell, “Clutch, Danny, clutch!” Overall, I drove pretty well for my final exam.
The next morning, Pop took me down to the courthouse. He told the man at the counter (who lived across the ditch from us), “This boy needs a driver’s license. He has to take his mother to work every day.” The man asked, “Can he drive?” Pop said, “He does pretty well.” So our neighbor wrote out what he described as a hardship driver’s license for a 12-year-old car owner. Their logic, as I understood it, was that I could drive legally because it was a hardship on my mother if I couldn’t drive her to work.
I always got my mother to work on time, and then drove the car on to school. Curtis drove the car a lot on dates and to go out with the guys but I never played his clarinet.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

John Henry, Cousin

One of my older cousins, John Henry, was stationed at Bitburg Air Base in Germany while I was stationed at Hahn Air Base, about an hour and a half from Bitburg. Not long after I arrived at Hahn in the autumn of 1959, John Henry called me early one Saturday and said he and his family were on their way to Hahn to take me out to lunch. They showed up at around 11 a.m. in their 1951 Mercedes and took me to a great German restaurant for a scrumptious meal and some good conversation.
I had only seen John Henry a few times before at family reunions, funerals and other gatherings. He was 20 or so years older than I, so I really didn’t know him very well at the time. He had married a woman named Gussie who had two children from a previous marriage. They made me feel like a part of the family during my 3-year tour of duty.
One thing John Henry had always wanted to do was to look up the grave in France of our cousin Morley Joe, who had died as an airman during World War II. John Henry and Morley Joe were about the same age and had been close as kids and had enlisted together. We discussed their friendship on that first luncheon, over brats, great potato salad and hot mustard.
“Danny,” he said, “no one in our family as far as I know has ever been to Morley Joe’s grave. Would you like to go help me find it? It is near Nancy, France.”
“Of course,” I replied, even though I didn’t remember Morley Joe. I was just a baby when he died.
So we started laying plans, map in hand, for a camping venture, one in which John Henry, his step-son, about seven and I would camp along a stream near Nancy, France and go searching all day for a couple of days. It was a big military cemetery. We continued to plan intermittently for our camping trip and quest for the grave site throughout the winter. Both John Henry and I took a few days leave in the spring. We packed a couple of tents, some sleeping bags and other necessities, threw them into the 1951 Mercedes and left on our venture.
We found a wonderful camping place beside the swift stream and set up camp. Immediately, John Henry discovered some trout in the stream. He improvised fishing equipment from string and a safety pin and caught three or four nice ones on grasshoppers. He fried them and we had a great supper there in the chilly French countryside. The sleeping bag felt good that night.
We were up early the next morning and started our search. Just before noon, in the austere maze of symmetrical markers, Stars of David and crosses, John Henry found the site. I know now, but I didn’t realize then, that John Henry was hiding his emotions behind his camera. He took photograph after photograph and later sent them to Aunt Sis, Morley Joe’s mother. Aunt Sis treasured those photographs, as any mother would. I treasure the memory, especially since John Henry’s recent demise. He was a mighty good cousin.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Teaching Through Questions

Creative teachers know that two processes are foundational in any educational enterprise, pre-school through graduate school: first, some form of collaborative group work and, second, going through the research process to present logical conclusions. Show-and-tell is the backbone of learning, because it requires working with a group and sharing the results of research. In its ideal state, show-and-tell both satisfies and stimulates the curiosity of the group. “Leave them wanting more” is sound advice for any presenter on any level.
The Greek model for education is attractive in its simplicity, isn’t it? Young curious people sat before a teacher of renown and responded to his questions which were designed to force them to think deeply and discover truth logically and on their own. The curiosity came first, along with the thirst for knowledge and the desire to become educated and respected citizens in their community. The parents who sent them to the wise one apparently recognized that the curiosity of their children would require more nurture than they were equipped to supply. Perhaps the parents didn’t know how to ask the right questions and judge responses for logicality.
Humans have always been curious by their nature and thus motivated to “ask” and learn as those in ancient Greece were. But, today, instead of asking questions designed to force students to think, discover and thereby own knowledge, some schools have turned to providing answers to questions the kids have not asked. In other words, some schools have developed test-driven “education” that answers questions the students are not seeking to answer. In many cases, education has become declarative instead of interrogative. Requiring students to memorize answers to questions they have never asked leads to a state of boredom wherein all questions cease and students become smug in their ignorance, even proud of their ignorance in some cases.
Creative teachers--and we still have many--tend towards the methods of collaborative group work in their classes along with carefully monitored research writing. These two educational practices go a long way towards recapturing the ancient Greek model. In the collaborative groups, students grapple with a problem or question that emerges in the group, discuss it at length, deepen their understanding by bouncing their conclusions off each other. They learn good citizenship by respecting their own ideas as well as those of their group. They learn not only collaboration, but courtesy and the highly important skills of articulate persuasion. And, because they “own” their conclusions, lasting learning has taken place.
As to research writing, the student learns to ask questions in an organized fashion, forming conclusions into modules of integrity as he or she produces a document in accordance with strict formal guidelines. The student draws logical conclusions based on a kind of artificial collaboration, that is, various sources from books, journals and other media.
So, to you creative teachers out there who have kept themselves from joining the ranks of the jaded, I say, congratulations. I feel certain that you have done it through engaging your students by an interrogative mode, showing them how to become their own teachers through collaboration and research. Plato, Aristotle and Socrates would have been proud.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

There is a Reason You Are Here

Michael Angelo said that when he got a new block of marble, he knew there was a beautiful work of art inside of it and that his job as artist was to chip away all that was not the work of art until the beautiful creation showed up polished and perfect. That is an unusual way of looking at the creative process, but one we understand intuitively. Any activity requiring creativity, such as writing a newspaper column, offers several paths to our goal and our task is to narrow choices down to the one that emerges in our consciousness as the correct one.
Thus, the process seems both random and planned. I think that’s what Robert Frost was expressing in “The Road Not Taken.” It is a poem about two roads making a “Y” in the woods and a traveler deciding to travel on the one less traveled. The conclusion of the poem says that, looking back ages and ages from now, he will see that the road taken made all the difference. Interestingly, the title of the poem leads us to believe it would be about the other road, the one not taken. In a sense it is, if we see the poem as a celebration of taking a chance on leaving the standard, expected life style, that is, the road not taken, to pursue an unknown and unknowable future, wherever it would lead.
Everything in the universe seems in one sense random. Especially when we look at the unevenness of interstellar space or the dicey DNA spiral. But in a deeper sense, there seems to be method in the madness. Scientists are beginning to understand anti-matter and formulate explanations for black holes. But it seems that no formula has been able to encompass the vast unpredictability encompassed in the familiarity of creation. The Hubble telescope continues to blow minds with photographs of phenomena billions of light years away. Witnessing something now at this moment that happened billions of years ago tells me that our concept of time is both shallow and flawed.
One reason I liked the novel and the movie “Forrest Gump” so much is that these works explore the contradictory randomness and planned nature of existence. At his beloved Jenny’s grave, Forrest proclaims that life is both random and planned. He has it both ways and is satisfied with the contradiction. The best exchange in the movie shows the benign practicality of Forrest’s view. It is between Forrest and Bubba. Bubba is mortally wounded, lying in the arms of his best friend Forrest. “Forrest, why did this happen?” he asks. Forrest replies, “You go shot, Bubba.”
Instead of concentrating on the whys and wherefores of our existence on the planet, what if we just kept chipping away at the marble, knowing that we will find the work of art, knowing that in the seeming randomness of our often mundane lives, there is purpose, a deep and profound reason for our having been privileged to occupy some time on this planet, a reason that has eternal consequences.
Hamlet says to his friend Horatio in Shakespeare’s famous play, “There is a purpose for our lives, rough-hew it how we will.” Horatio replies, “’Tis certain.”
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Heart of the Matter

The 15th chapter of Matthew tells the story of Jesus being questioned by the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They had noticed that this popular teacher and his followers didn’t bother to wash their hands in the traditional ceremonial way before eating and they wanted to know why not. As he so often did, Jesus answered their question with another question. Why do you, He asked, make the commandment about honoring your mother and father of none effect? You give the money to the temple that you would have spent caring for your parents and thereby proclaim yourselves relieved of the obligation to take care of your parents. They didn’t have a good answer for that one.
Jesus went on to say that Isaiah was prophesying about them when he said, these people draw near me in word only but their hearts are far from me. In other words, he was telling the Pharisees and teachers of the law something they should have known from scripture: God looks on the heart, not on outward appearance. For example, when Samuel was sent to anoint a new king for Israel, he wanted to anoint David’s regal looking big brothers, not the ruddy lad whose job was to care for sheep. But God told Samuel in no uncertain terms that He looks on the heart, even though men look on the outward appearance.
Sometimes I’m glad God looks on my heart, especially at those times when I’m misjudged or someone ascribes motives to me that were not my intent at all. Like all of us fallible humans, though, I’m sometimes not glad that He knows my heart. A good ambition for all of us would be to live in the full awareness that God sees our hearts. If we are convinced moment by moment that God is present, our lives would be pure.
God can’t be fooled. I have known people who think going to church and warming a pew is serving the Lord. I guess, in a sense, it is, because it acknowledges our need to gather together as believers. But doesn’t true service go beyond mere attendance at a meeting of like-minded believers. Isn’t the purpose of our meeting together fellowship and recharging our batteries so we can go out and do ministry?
I heard a story about a preacher fresh out of seminary who led his congregation in the Apostles Creed every Sunday and didn’t believe a word of it. He had somehow lost his faith at the seminary (the word means seed-bed) where he was supposed to have been equipped for ministry. He would say the Lord’s Prayer faithfully, but, because of his unbelief, the prayer never went anywhere. Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when he is trying to repent of his foul deeds prays and then says as an aside, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to Heaven go.”
So, what we want is a religion of the heart. Men may be fooled, but God is not.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.