life, teaching, writing

The Literary Scoutmaster

Photo by Bryce Carithers on

When I was the age of my current students, I was busy finishing up the requirements for Eagle Scout. I genuinely enjoyed scouting, mostly because the things I learned there were hands-on, useful, and seemed to have real-life application. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that one of my very first jobs was camp counselor, teaching younger boys how to safely and accurately shoot both rifles and shotguns. Scouting was good to me, and it gave me skills I use and teach even now when I take my sons camping, fishing, skeet shooting, hiking, or kayaking, among other activities.

Admittedly, the Boy Scouts of America is not what it used to be. Over the years, the organization has made a series of egregious missteps that have caused me not to place my sons in a troop, and I’ve largely cut all ties with the BSA. But this isn’t a political post, nor is it one intended to defend or prosecute “Scouting USA” as they now prefer to be called. Instead, I’d like to reflect upon how my present teaching experience embodies what was valuable within a former version of scouting: Practical guidance and retainable learning through meaningful relationships and memorable experiences.

I teach at an all-boys high school. Every day, I get to walk into my classroom and impart subject matter I love to young men who are eager to start the first chapters of their “real lives” beyond secondary education. Like tying a square knot or administering first aid, the skills I provide (reading a text more deeply, writing a clear sentence, etc.) are ones that will follow my pupils the rest of their lives if they’re wise enough to grasp this opportunity.

And I do all I can to ensure that my subject matter is imparted in a tangible, relatable way. We don’t just sit in rows and uniformly parrot back the rules of reading and writing; we investigate texts and tear sentences apart to see what makes them work (or not). I choose material that the boys will find engaging so as not to lose their focus. I show them that poetry, an oft-dreaded element of high school English, can be cool. They earn metaphorical “merit badges” in matters like fiction, nonfiction, composition, rhetoric, and critical analysis. And throughout all this, I lean into their experiences.

They write about their lives, their parents, their worries, and their friends. They give presentations about how they share traits with certain characters we’ve encountered. They read paragraphs with highlighters like navigators would read maps with compasses. And they build essays and compositions as a camper might carefully structure his log-cabin fire lay: each piece discerningly placed atop the other until the warmth and light reach optimal climax.

These boys remind me of a better chapter and give me hope for our cultural future. While all around us, young men give in to so many negative influences, I prefer to think that my small part in shaping my students will in some way brighten tomorrow through integrity and knowledge. I know that some of them will make bad choices just as certain scouts in my troop did. But if a small-town poet can reach into the minds of enough youth with lingering lessons about words and ideas, I will have succeeded. When my students enter the world beyond our campus, I know they will have heeded, even adopted, a certain old motto that remains in my heart: Be Prepared.

poetry, Uncategorized

Politics and Poetry

 Today is Election Day. In a vast departure from my usual blog fare, I am writing today about my political leanings. Prepare to be offended. You may stop reading here if you believe this post will make you angry.

As a group, poets have always been pretty politically active. Usually, that activism has been of the Berkeley-inspired sort, with Allen Ginsberg appearing naked or George Saunders writing tongue-in-cheek about being Ayn Rand’s lover (see the latest New Yorker).

Artists and poets have historically professed to being open-minded and accepting of all. And yet, watch what happens in writing groups or seminars when a conservative voice enters the picture. Suddenly that open-mindedness is nowhere to be found, and ugliness quickly enters the scene. All the anti-bullying rhetoric that these same “compassionate” people spout daily somehow gets forgotten in the barrage of name-calling and slur-shouting. Hypocrisy at its finest. It’s as though people who vote Republican or even conservatively Independent aren’t welcome in the “literary clubhouse.” The children already inside have posted a poorly lettered sign that reads, “No Patriots Allowed.” After all, patriotism is a notion that shows some kind of loyalty or devotion; strictly verboten ideas to the hedonists, nihilists, atheists, and radicals who nailed together the clubhouse in the first place.

This statement takes me back to a few years ago when a friend of mine was banned from a coffeehouse for reading a poem that the business owner considered “too right-wing.” What happened to freedom of speech there? Does it only apply to my liberal friends? Why is burning a flag okay, but expressing legitimate concern over our national debt suddenly taboo? The questions could go on and on.

Certainly conservatives are not exempt from the hand of this accusation, either. “The Ol’ Boy Club” has been around for generations, and there is good reason why the artists and creatives of our society felt the need to become a clique of outsiders in the first place. Now the outsiders, however, are those within the arts who cherish ideas like religious liberty, traditional family values, a strong military, the right to life, the freedom to defend one’s home and family, or giving just and swift punishment to those who commit heinous acts against innocent others. These are the very tenets that our ancestors fought and died for, writer and reader friends.

For a moment, however, let’s leave behind any issue that is not directly related to writing and the arts. Let’s assume that today when you go to the polls, you want to vote for the candidate who has done the most to support these two ideas. One candidate leveraged the arts into prominence, supporting music and creativity-based programs in schools while supporting business and individual liberties. The other candidate slashed 13 percent of funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities AND from the National Endowment for the Arts. You do the math.

The polls will open in about half an hour here. I plan to make my vote count. I hope that you plan to do the same, friend. And I hope that my assertive utilization of the First Amendment has not in any way negatively impacted your view of me as a writer. At the end of the day, what really counts is my performance, not my politics.