Power Up

No phone, no lights, no motor cars,
Not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Crusoe,
As primitive as can be.” ~ ~from Gilligan’s Island theme song

There is nothing like twelve days without electricity to remind you of your place in this world.

And if you are still not convinced,the power comes back on and you see the photos and footage of  devastation and human suffering.

At the height of Hurricane Sandy, just after the lights went out, the night sky glowed with green and blue and red auras, creepy remnants of transformers and live wires. The wind ruled the trees, snapping trunks. Surging tides devoured the shore.

And then there was only darkness and quiet. We live above a busy and noisy railroad crossing, but train service had been suspended. The parkway beyond the tracks was closed due to downed trees and flooding. Everything had come to a screeching halt.

For people used to instant results commanded by flipping a switch or tapping a screen, standing still is torture, being quiet a crime.  We have come to measure existence through perpetual stimuli: electronic beeps validate relationships and colorful icons convey emotions.  Our HD televisions keep us company even when nothing of interest airs.  Texts and emails keep us connected.

We want our MTV!

This is the only world our students know.  Their fingertips caress touchscreens out of habit. If they can’t contact any of their six hundred thirty-two Facebook friends, they are restless.  When cell service is disrupted, they are lonely.

Technology has given our students access to the world.  The miracles of microchips and fiber optics make it possible to introduce our students to places they would never visit, people they would never meet. In one class, they eavesdrop on surgeons making delicate incisions and take a walk through Anne Frank’s secret annex in the next. They can plug into a presidential town hall meeting and send the commander-in-chief a message about the state of foreign affairs.   Digital technology has shrunk the globe.

     Technology, though, has made the personal worlds our students inhabit smaller, too.  They spend as much time with their screens as they do in conversation and paradoxically, the same click of a mouse that opens the window to so much has closed our kids into isolated chambers where communication consists of abbreviations and emoticons..  Kids used to instant responses lose interest in tasks that require sustained concentration or effort.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my modern conveniences: my  cell phone, lights, motor car and most of all these days, I love my generator.

And clearly education has to adapt or die.  But finding the balance between instruction and entertainment has become a challenge.  Districts investing millions in technology demand to see their dollars at work  and too often what ends up in the classroom are bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors.  The kids are having fun, but are they learning? It is sometimes hard to tell the difference; far too often, it doesn’t even seem to matter anymore.

There are so many things technology can give and there is no doubt that our students must be skilled in using these digital gifts.  But there are so many times when learning isn’t about a link to somewhere or someone else.  If you don’t believe this, then you haven’t examined the Common Core Standards which are all about reading and writing the old-fashioned way: closely, slowly, for detail.

Twelve days in the dark have restored appreciation for what electricity has given us.  At the same time, twelve days in the dark remind me of the value of communication skills: reading, writing and, my favorite, plain old conversation.

In the Dark With Hope for The Future

Sandy has come and gone, but the devastation described in such agonizing detail by AM radio reporters will not soon be forgotten.

With the storm surge came mass  property destruction and loss of life.  Mementoes and memories were swept away with the tide.   An entire neighborhood in Queens was leveled by fire aided and abetted by the hurricane’s winds. Even the brash and  boisterous Jersey Shore-esque Governor Chris Christie– for whom I have no love–teared up and was moved to embrace–ahem– President Obama.

For  native New Yorkers like me, Sandy has been a grim and very personal reminder again that when we see images from “somewhere else” like Joplin, Missouri and Haiti, like New Orleans and Indonesia, that those are real people among those ruins, not just shock-fodder for the evening and morning news shows.

It has also been a reality check for those of us who might find the demands of daily life a little  irritating.

People all along the east coast want some sense of normal life restored. Passengers, who just last week, hated the MTA, cheered this morning when subway and commuter rail service was partially restored.

No one in my neighborhood is complaining about the price of a gallon of gas anymore; we just want to find a station that has both power and gas.

   Even the kids on my block are pining for school.  No fooling.  With no power, no one is gaming, no one is on FB. Their parents are limiting their texting to preserve cell phone battery life.

     Which brings me to my latest post.  I am at a work table in my local public library, sharing space with seven strangers. There is running water here. It is warm here.  There is power here for electronic devices: cell phones, laptops, e-readers.  And to score this coveted spot,  I had to be in line as library staff opened the doors. It seems that  one bright spot in the ruins caused by Sandy has been this unintended public service ad for libraries and for librarians, who seemed thrilled to have so much business.

I use this library all the time.   I know where the Vince Flynn books are and where to find the Miles Davis discs. A few of the librarians even recognize me by sight if not by name.  There is a part of me wishes that as a “regular,” I might be a member of a library priority club, that I should get first shot the seat at the table that I always have had.

But the other part of me, the English teacher, speaks much louder and is delighted that so many have found their way back to the local library.  We may be accessing e-mail or using the library to “work from home,”  but we are surrounded by books.  Among these shelves are classic works of authors I love: Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Hughes, Shakespeare and Steinbeck, T. S. Eliot, Jack London. Alright, I’ll stop now.

There are also the guides to do-it-yourself re-roofing and self-help for whatever ails ya.  From my seat, I see the reference section, marked by the 22 print volumes of The World Book Encyclopedia.   Behind me, I can hear the librarian issuing new library cards to new patrons, an abuela and her young grandson.

So while I mourn for the those lost in this tragic moment and I so desperately hope that humans will acknowledge both their limitations and their responsibilities, the future looks bright.