A Yankee's Musing

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Going Home

On the evening of March 14, 2007, NYPD Auxiliary Police Officer Yevgeniy Marshalik, 19, and Auxiliary Police Officer Nicholas Pekearo, 28, both from the 6th precinct, as well as a bartender, Alfredo Romero, were slain by David R. Garvin. Two full Inspector’s funerals for the Auxiliaries occurred, on the 17th and the 18th of March, and a funeral was arranged to be held in Mexico for Alfredo Romero. The body of Garvin lay unclaimed for over a week before someone anonymously finally did so.

We gather at the station house for the first of two,
It is early, barely dawn now that daylight savings time began in March this year.
It is cold, but not a typical March cold.
Today it is clean-through kind of cold despite what is registering on the thermometer.
We speak in quiet tones, pass out the white gloves, check our brass, dress uniforms of the day, and place the black bands across our shields.
We are ready, but not.
We file past the desk Sergeant who nods.
He is a new transfer from the 6th; he says he will be there in spirit, then hurriedly turns away and wipes his eyes.
We line up outside, then slowly file to the ancient blue bus.
Our driver has a couple more stops: a precinct above us, then down to the one below us. The bus is overflowing; there are as many people standing as sitting.
The tone is muted.
The young man next to me is extra quiet.
I notice his brass says the 28; it is uptown from our unit.
I notice he is crying.
I acknowledge him and he reaches for my eyes with his, so I must listen and maybe even talk, although I don’t know if I can find my voice.
He does, I do.
The rest of his unit missed the bus so they are going by sector car; they catch up to us and beep their siren, but he waves them on and continues talking.
His tears make aimless streaks down his face and he wonders aloud, “Why?”
I am a Lieutenant, an XO of the 24 precinct, a 17 year veteran, a senior training officer, and still I can only say, “I don’t know.”
Then I clear my throat and add, “But personal safety is something we have to remember every second we’re out there. Lapses may be fatal.”
Everyone around us seems to nod in unison as if we were in church waiting for a benediction that doesn’t come.
We arrive in Chelsea, 8th Ave., W.14th St.
There is a sea of uniforms, regular and auxiliary, blending together without seams.
We debark, wait in the church across the street for awhile, then return outside where we are lined up, from 7th to 8th Ave, 8 to 10 deep.
We stand at attention, holding our salute.
The wind snaps at our damp faces as two trumpets play taps, one echoing the other.
We hold our salute; it seems forever.
The trumpets play something else, maybe it was America, I’m not sure because I see the honor guard and the family emerging on the steps, and then the thunderous roar of the helicopters, in formation with one empty spot, rush by barely above our heads.
The hearse begins to move to the slow beat of the drums and the wails of bagpipes.
The limos pass slowly by; in one, the mother and fiancé waves to us and blows us kisses.
It is cold. It is very cold.
I am sweating.


It is the next morning.
Same time, same place, same hush as we duplicate our efforts.
This time the ride is longer.
We go to lower Flatbush in Brooklyn.
We are not contained by two Manhattan Avenues; this time we are stretched out and there are no tall buildings to hinder the frigid 40 mph winds.
There is no surcease as we line up, ready ourselves for what we know is to come.
I watch the helicopters in the distance waiting.
We go to attention; we hold our salute, seemingly forever.
I am between an Auxiliary Lt. and a regular Lt.; behind me are two of the six Auxiliaries from Toronto, Canada.
Our 6 to 8 deep line stretches from the corner where the funeral home is, to the Duncan Donut shop a distance of three blocks away.
There are EMTs and their wagons, Community Police in their light blue jackets, and some civilians lined up directly across from us.
We stand at attention, holding our salute.
The wind drives through our garments clear to our hearts as two trumpets play taps, one echoing the other.
We hold our salute; it seems forever.
The trumpets play something else, maybe God Bless America, but I’m not sure as I sense the honor guard and family as well as the friends are emerging from the building, and then the thunderous roar of the helicopters, in formation with one empty spot, rush by.
The friends pass by on the sidewalks in front of us.
The EMTs, the Community Police, and the civilians step back to allow them space.
The friends make an effort not to look at us or at those who are giving them room to pass.
The hearse begins to move to the slow beat of the drums and wail of the bagpipes.
Now the limos and an endless line of cars pass by; in many are the close relatives who stare straight ahead or turn away, shunning the line of blue.
To them we have no faces.
It is cold. It is very cold.
I want to go home.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

"Teaching" Literature

Recently I did an observation of a professor in his American Lit. class. Shortly afterwards, I fell upon this essay on my hard drive that I prepared as a short speech for an orientation meeting of our department a few years ago. I was on a panel about integrating writing and interaction in our literature classes. I'm glad I found it because it really is my approach to teaching.

I think I'll open with a little story about myself, or perhaps a confession. I was often a child who stole collections of literature and poetry from the schools I attended. Actually, from about 7th grade on. This is not a 12 step confession of a klepto, but an insight into how very much I loved literature and poetry. I wanted to keep many of the textbooks my teachers loaned us, but I couldn't afford them. A loophole presented itself--if a schoolbook was lost or stolen, the person responsible for it only had to pay a used book type of fine so it could be replaced. I acquired quite a library which I still have to this day, and actually, as my teachers caught on, many of them gave me throw away books that were slated to be replaced. I loved literature then, and I still do.

Now, as I teach core literature courses, I discover that apparently very few students have been "stealing" literature books--in fact, it becomes evident that just getting many of the students to buy a book is a major accomplishment. And I really don't have time to wonder why. What I want to do is what obviously someone did for me in the past when they invited me into the world of literature in a way that made me become involved and wanting to read more and becoming a lifelong reader.

It's become clear to me that most students will start the class uncertain about whether or not they will get anything out of it other than to pass a literature requirement. I also believe that many, all too many, students do not have a working knowledge of literary terms, and in fact, have rarely looked at literature through a writer's eye, but rather only through the eyes of whether or not the story is entertaining. Entertainment seems to be a biggie in our fast food, short attention span culture.

With these things in mind, I try to make sure I am clear about what we're reading, why we're reading it (whether it's of historical importance, a literary marker, or whatever), who wrote it, and some literary terms that might be helpful to use in our analytical discussions. I've found that the students don't have to fake knowing these terms if the terms are covered briefly in class, and in fact, a working literary vocabulary often is seem as an invitation to become an insider to the academic world. If we discuss what we're doing and why we're doing it, it makes for a partnership.

I use discussion and I use writing as our tools to enter our literary adventures. Luckily many students have had quite a bit of writing before they come into the core literature classes. They are familiar with analytical essay forms, although they may or may not be adept with them. I want to broaden the writing possibilities--I want them to mirror what we are doing as we look into the crafting of the literature we read. I try to accomplish this reciprocal agreement between reading and writing by having small and large group discussion on a thought provoking question I've given them to respond to either extend their thinking about what they've read, or to examine it in a different way. I give them frequent writing assignments that will take on different forms that mirror the types of genres we have been reading. For example, when reading Aesop's Fables or Sappho's poems, I might have them try their hand at writing a contemporary fable, or their own Sapphoic poem. Or after reading Luis Valdez' one act play, "The Buck Private," and August Wilson's "Fences," have them work in small groups to create their own one act play---the script typed in proper form--to be presented in class. Each person then writes a process response paper about the challenges they encountered and how or if they overcame them. Another example is after reading Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried,' either write an essay about the things they carry, or about the things they see contemporary society carrying.

I think it is important to continually try to extend my thinking about creative ways to engage the students in looking at, thinking about, and appreciating literature through writing. I've found that students' energy levels do grow through these kinds of discussions and writing assignments. I like the discussions to get heated, with students questioning their own interpretations as well as others, and defending them by citing places within the text. These kinds of things also help to keep students away from those easy access essays and summaries on the internet, from plagerizing papers and thought, and thereby cheating themselves. I want them to be excited about literature, have some actual insights into, involvement with, and appreciation for the written word. I challenge them, and they challenge me. I know I've succeeded when I hear some of my students say they are going to keep the books rather than turn them back for cash at the bookstore. I imagine they may be building their own libraries.