Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Little Big Planet in the Classroom

Today we played Little Big Planet.

No, seriously.  We pulled the couches out from the walls, sat down, and engaged in epic 3-player platforming action.*  The students, needless to say, were thrilled, even if none of them had played Little Big Planet previously.**  They scuffled along through the first few levels, each group of three getting just enough play time to whet their appetites and to become comfortable with the basic controls.  Meanwhile their classmates played games of their own: Apples to Apples, Chess, and "Trumps," a card game similar to Whist or Spades. 

* It would have been four, but the fourth controlled wouldn't recognize the PlayStation, and I didn't have the USB cable to plug it in with.

** Isn't this generation supposed to be all game all the time?  How have they not played LBP?  I was even more shocked to discover this than I was when I heard they had not seen The Princess Bride.

Now hold on, you're thinking, how could you possibly get away with doing that in a high school creative writing class?  Games are for wasting time, for eating away at kids' brains and turning them into useless zombie-people, right?

To which I can only respond: yes, and soon my zombie army will be complete.

Actually, my reasons for playing Little Big Planet stem from the core values of the class: collaboration, dialogue, and metacognition.  The playing itself doesn't really hit those - there's a degree of collaboration, but the other two are limited - but it's not what you do that counts, it's how you do it.  On the front end of our LBP adventure we used LBP's character creator to imagine a story snippet involving a zombie-pirate, and then worked on a (seemingly unrelated) mini Design project.  On the back end, we designed games of our own using the materials available in the classroom (from Apples to Apples to dice, cards, chess pieces, and so on).  Tomorrow, the students will be writing essays about the design of LBP, their learning while playing it, and their own experience designing a game.  And then we'll be talking about how all of that connects to creative writing.

How does it connect to creative writing?  Easy, it's creative, and it's writing.  Playing a game is constructing a narrative.  Designing a game is even more so, because you have to build into your design the learning and narrative-building of your potential player.  Is that any different from writing, where you have to build a narrative, ensure that your audience can read (and sometimes learn to read) your work, and be engaged?  Perhaps the outcome is different - indeed, there's no question that the outcomes of game design and creative writing differ - but the processes might have a lot in common, after all.

That's certainly my bias, and that's a big part of why I've made design a pivotal part of my curriculum.  But it's no good doing design and restricting it to writing in the narrowest sense of poems, short stories, and essays.  The real value of design, to a writer, is taking it to other areas: games, architecture, movies, and even other-class-interrupting-presentations (about which I will remain mysterious).  Thinking outside the box - letting "writing" become bigger than just words on a page and letting "design" replace "creativity" - is a great way to become a better writer (and maybe even a better, or at least more interesting, person?).  And, what's more, a great way to learn how to become a better writer, which is the real thing.

It's no accident then, that as we wrap up our mini design projects - including game design - tomorrow with finished products, an essay, and a discussion (see, playing PlayStation can lead to actual work) we'll start looking at Invisible Cities,* start trying to repaint the campus and the city and the world in which we live in terms of both design and literature.  Having digested, or at least partially chewed, all of that, the students will be drafting a proposal for a final project.  My hope?  Collaboration, and a shortage of traditional short stories and poems.  If the lot of them want to, say, write an interactive fiction computer game as a team and publish it on the Kongregate Arcade...  Frankly, I'd be thrilled. 

* For the longest time I couldn't decide whether I should do this work in the prose week or the poetry week.  And then I realized that, duh, it belongs in the design week.  It is, really, a quintessential "design literature" book.  Heck, they even read it in architecture programs, or so I've heard.

So why Little Big Planet?  Well, it fits into what I'm doing.  But I used it not just because it fits, but because I want to model imagination, stepping beyond the bounds of what's expected, breaking "the rules."  We played Little Big Planet today because it was fun, but also because it was a small, trivial, and totally essential step towards a set of entirely original, creative, and against "the rules" final projects.* 

* Or at least I hope so...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Observational Haikus

A couple days back I took my creative writing class outside to write haiku.  The following are mine (the ones I don't hate, anyway).  Also, I should mention that I'm a long-time reader of Jack Kerouac, and thus don't believe that the 5-7-5 syllable rule need apply to English haiku.  He called them "pops."

It's a banana,
   but what
Does it mean?

Interrogating fruit
   is a sticky

Sitting near food
   makes me

Summer in Honolulu
Winter in Honolulu

Too many poems
   walking around
To write them all

   box is

Lunch ladies talking
   as if they wish
We didn't exist

What's the difference
Cook and Cooke?

Pimples abound
   on the kid
Wearing socks

"Chicken of the Sea
   the best tuna
Just got better!"

(that's an actual slogan, prefaced by "ask any mermaid")

Sometimes it's unwise
   to ask a mermaid
About her tuna

A poem is a sale
   dolla fitty
A word

The older you get
   the harder it is
To be profound

Monday, June 20, 2011

Leaving the Classroom

The title doesn't refer to myself, but rather to my novel-in-progress.  I've decided that sticking the whole thing in a college - and focusing it on the seminar - is too esoteric, for one thing, and too hard to write, for another.  Part of the goal of this novel is to talk about - or, rather, to show - how important dialogue is, but if I only demonstrate that to be the case in the ivory tower of a St. John's-like college, what point have I made, really?

So the so-called "real world" it is.  I'm sure the story will still be philosophical, and I'm sure it'll be esoteric even without the Phaedrus or the Symposium to geek it up.  But this way I hope the characters become more relevant, the conversation more germane, and, above all, the argument for the value of dialogue the more persuasive.

Overall, this is kind of a major shakeup, but I take that to be a good sign.  I knew when I embarked on this endeavor that there would be surprises along the way, that my initial concept would undoubtedly shift.  I just didn't know how.  Looking back, this change was inevitable, but I never would have predicted it, and that convinces me that it's the right one.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Designing Learning

It's easy to think that learning is what happens at school.  It's not particularly difficult to imagine other places of learning to go alongside the classroom: museums, for example, or (many years ago) libraries.  It's a little more challenging to imagine learning taking place while watching TV or playing a video game, sending a text message or reading an email.  But as long as the mind is remotely active, I would argue that learning, in some form, happens.

Now, it's not particularly interesting that learning happens all the time.  In some ways, it's so obvious that it's hardly worth mentioning, and so much of our learning is so mundane that we'd rather not hear or think about it for fear of choking on our boredom.  Learning, for example, that it's slightly faster - or at least more pleasant - to walk to the left of the science building on the way to class in the morning, is not particularly groundbreaking for anyone, including the learner (unless he were to fall through an unnoticed but open manhole, but that's not the point).

No, what's particularly interesting about this learning that happens all the time is how much of it is designed, despite how incidental it seems.  That is, even the route from car to classroom is designed in some sense, if not with learning in mind, with learning as a kind of ancillary and unanticipated outcome.  Of course, a science building on the whole very much is designed with learning in mind in a much more direct way.  And that's only the beginning.

Rather than list all of the myriad areas where learning design is potentially relevant, I want to talk about a couple in particular, an obvious one and a not-so-obvious one.  The first is the school, the classroom, the curriculum.  The second, video games, and not those horrid "educational games," so many of which pollute the game-o-sphere with their terrible controls, their convoluted plots, and their utter disdain for fun.  No, I mean real games, games like Portal or Final Fantasy, Civilization or Little Big Planet.

What do I want to say about each of the very different worlds of game design, on the one hand, and traditional education, on the other?  Well, I want to say that, at their hearts, they share a fundamental commonality: they are both designed, and they are both deeply concerned with learning.  Now, education might shun the "design" label and games might shun the "learning," but words are just words, and the actual actions behind these particular words bridge the vocabulary gap with or without my help.

That game design and curriculum construction have much in common is hardly a unique idea.  James Gee's career, for example, is largely built on recognizing the parallels between gaming and more traditional teaching and learning.  It is my opinion, however, that there's more that could be done here, not just in recognizing and defining those parallels, but in uncovering how the two might inform each other better, seeing what game design has to teach educators, and what educators have to teach game design.  I would not be surprised, moreover, if the expected conversation - that is, with game design bringing an understanding of design, and education bringing an understanding of learning - is totally reversed.  Game designers may know a lot more about learning than we'd like to give them credit for,* and educators more about design, even if they're using different language.

* Consider the challenge they face daily: make a game that is just hard enough to keep the player's interest, and make sure that difficulty scales well as the player gets more advanced.  In doing so, however, the designer must take into account the learning of the player - that is, the rate at which he or she improves - as well as the wide variety of potential play styles, learning styles, and personalities that might come in contact with the game.  In many ways, that's very much what a teacher does, with the added difficulty that the game designer has to code his game ahead of time.  He has to anticipate, because he won't be there to fix it on the fly, except in the abstract way of writing patches.

These suspicions of mine, however, about the potential exchange of information, ideas, and learning design between two very different industries are not sufficient or advanced enough to be beliefs or even arguments.  Rather, they are questions.  What explicit and hidden learning design processes does the gaming industry use?  What about education, both formal and informal?  What are their vocabularies?  What are their objectives, and how do those objectives aid or detract from improving learning (for example, does making learning itself your core objective make it harder to produce good learning)?

Within the gaming industry - as within the world of education - there are, I'm sure, an infinite variety of approaches.  There are certainly a variety of types of studios, from the major AAA production companies like Electronic Arts or Sega to the smaller, lesser-known mid-market studios like Paradox or Stardock, all the way to the miniature independent producers like 2D Boy (makers of the wildly popular World of Goo).  In addition to wondering about the game industry as a whole, I think it's fair to ask about the differences within the game industry.

I suppose what I'm suggesting is a kind of ethnography of learning design in the video game industry, and in traditional education.  The value of such an effort seems to me to hinge on the observation that learning - if only learning how to play the game - is built into each and every game that gets put on the market.  Failure to do so means failure to sell and, thus, failure to survive.  Despite the (mostly) non-profit incentives in education, failure to adequately design for learning has much more dire and far-reaching consequences, and yet the conceit of the educator (or education policy maker, or education researcher) is too often to assume that no one else has faced the question of how to design for learning.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The First Day of the Rest of the Class

Today was the first day of the creative writing course I have mentioned intermittently in this space over the past few months.  I'm not going to detail what happened in the class, but I will wax philosophical about creative writing, curriculum, teaching, and my plans for where the course is going.

The course is organized around a single goal - per backwards design - of working together to learn how to be better writers.  That is to say, I my goal is not for the students (and myself) to be better writers, but rather to learn to be better writers.  That's a fine distinction, perhaps - especially because becoming better writers is a natural outgrowth of learning how to do so - but it's an important one.  It is, as I told the students, much like the famous saying about catching fish: if you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day... If you teach a man to write, he'll be a better writer, but if you teach him to learn to write, he'll be an ever-improving writer.

In order to accomplish this goal, I've posed two questions (of a highly philosophical and basic nature) in the class: what is writing? and what is creativity?  Now that's perhaps a little glib, and I'll acknowledge that those are actually impossible-to-answer questions.  But the point is that a part of learning how to write is asking yourself what the limits of writing even are.  If I think of myself as a writer only when I sit down to compose a blog post, I'm missing out on countless opportunities to learn to write in other ways.  A conversation, a video game, a trip to the beach... in some sense, can't all of those things be writing, or at least a precursor to it?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  Regardless, creativity might find its way into each and every of those things, and so it's worth, to my mind, keeping those two impossibly broad questions in your mind.

I've also organized the activities of the class around three values: metacognition, dialogue, and collaboration.  Metacognition is, simply, thinking about thinking.  So I mean it broadly, in terms of self-awareness, self-critique, learning about learning, and generally taking ones understanding of a situation, text, or whatever to another level of complexity.

Dialogue is, of course, essential to writing, and a wonderful analogue as well.  Good conversations are, to my mind, a kind of writing.  Moreover, dialogue lets writers communicate with each other about their writing, which thus enables them to learn more about both their own writing process, and that of others.  In a class where learning how to learn to write is paramount, dialogue is a natural complement.

Collaboration is a value I had tapped that, I later discovered, is also prominent in the Punahou mission statement.  In a writing class, however, collaboration can be difficult to achieve.  With that in mind, I've tried to put together a number of activities that encourage - if not force - students to work together.  Workshopping is a kind of collaboration, of course, but I believe critiquing the work of others and communicating about it is too limited.  Rather, I will make the students write in teams, both because collaboration is valuable in itself, and because most creative writing in the modern world (at least the type that people get paid to do) happens in teams.

Having gone through the process of deciding on and shaping these high-level goals, the nitty-gritty details of what we do, why, and how came together in a matter of hours.  The result is a curriculum with five content themes (as opposed to the process or philosophical themes above), one for each week.  This first week we're looking at, talking about, and working on prose.  The second week will center on verse.  The third will cover design and its role in writing.  The fourth will be a broader look at art and creativity, and the fourth will be about refining and polishing writing.

It's not a lot of time, and we've got a lot to do:
- A trip to the art museum
- Comparing scenes from The Princess Bride movie to the book
- Writing observational haikus
- Going to a poetry reading
- Playing Apples to Apples and Balderdash
- Playing and writing about the Oregon Trail
- Watching the special features and commentary of the Lord of the Rings to unearth design decisions
- Critiquing the venerable Elements of Style
- Watching The King's Speech and listening to other wartime speeches to investigate propaganda and persuasion in writing
- For the students: writing two mini-projects (one prose, one verse), giving two presentations, proposing, drafting, and completing a final project, and keeping an exhaustive journal.

And there's more.  Frankly, some may have to be cut as we go, just to make sure there's time to do enough writing in class.  But I'd rather err on the side of too many good learning experiences in my curriculum than too few, and culling is easier than adding in.

Finally, a word on assessment.  I'm going to grade the students on three things: participation, a journal, and a final project.  Each is vital to measuring some part of my goal and values of the course.

Participation will be a measure of dialogue, of course, but also a way of keeping track of how students are feeling about writing, reading, and language in general.  Participation in conversations is important, then, because it's a big part of how I know what a student is thinking.  A major barrier to conversation with high schoolers is, of course, that they're used to being graded based on what they say and how much they understand, whereas I'm only interested in whether they're engaged.  Indeed, I'd rather have them all clamoring to ask for clarification, to say "I don't get it" than I would have them clamoring to give answers to questions.  That's a process, of course, and a challenge to me as a teacher to make our discussion environment support that kind of a dialogue.

The journal is a measure of, well, just about everything.  And that's because it's exhaustive.  As I told the students, everything and anything goes in their journals.  They should put in text messages, tweets, facebook status updates, grocery lists, and anything else they write in the next five weeks.  Part of the point, then, is to demonstrate that they already write a lot.  Wait, that's not the real point...  No, the point is for them to be conscious of the fact that they are writing - to be metacognitive - when they do things they normally don't think of as writing.  Of course, the journal will also contain drafts and ideas and outlines and poem fragments and so on.  And, really, those things should be the bulk of it, at the end of the day.  But I think it's valuable to turn that writer's eye on everything one does for a while, just to see what you see.

Finally, the final project will be a single work (or small portfolio) of the highest quality.  By virtue of amassing a large, unwieldy, messy, nonsensical journal, my hope is that the students will not be able to help coming up with good ideas for a final project.  The challenge I levied at them was this: publishable.  Will they reach that level?  Maybe, maybe not, but we can try, and I can do my best to support the effort.  Regardless, they're not going to get there - or anywhere close to it - without writing a lot in the next five weeks, and writing a lot that's not the final project.  Why?  Because learning about the process, about how to learn to write, about how to collaborate and how to dialogue and how to think about thinking...  All of those things that the course is designed around are, to my mind, the real key to good writing.  And you can't get to writing well without doing a lot of writing poorly along the way.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Conversation Sketch: Xavier and Jonnathan after the Symposium

Now that I've shared sketches of pieces of two of my characters, I thought I'd put up a draft of a conversation between the two.  This exchange takes place after a seminar on Plato's Symposium.

After seminar that evening, Quinn and Xavier made their way back to the latter's dorm room, talking solemnly about problems other than those of the class, and yet somehow the same. As they entered the cramped room, the Xavier took a dignified seat on his chair, while Quinn leaned idly against a wall.

“I guess I don't get it. Why all this talk about love in a book about philosophy? It just seems... weird.”

Xavier shifted uneasily, unsure whether he wanted to talk about the subject, “What do you mean by that, Quinn?”

“I mean I wouldn't expect Plato to talk about love.” After a pause, he went on, “It's not that it's that surprising, I guess, since he talks about just about anything else. It's just, the Symposium is whole book that he's dedicated to the subject, and I don't see what's so profound about it.”

“Perhaps that's the point, Quinn.”

“Oh, I understand, I can see how that might be the point. I don't think it's Plato's point, but I can see how it might be yours anyway.” He shot a sly grin at Xavier, but received only a typical dignified, cold stare in return. “Anyway, I certainly don't buy Ms. Forsyth's argument that love is essential to thinking philosophically.”

Xavier declined to respond to this observation, instead seizing on one of Quinn's earlier thoughts. How easily do people jump around in their ideas, Xavier thought. “Well what isn't profound about love? Love has, without a question, been one of the most important words in the history of mankind, the subject of more arguments and duels, poems and songs, and even philosophies than just about anything else I can think of. Why shouldn't Plato dedicate a whole book... Two whole books, if you count the Phaedrus, to the subject.”

“Oh,” Jonnathan replied, “the Phaedrus is about writing. I thought our seminar was pretty well-decided on that.” Xavier waited for him to continue, not wanting to pursue this new strain. “Anyway, I see what you're saying, and that's why I said it makes sense to me that Plato goes there. But he does it in such a weird way. I mean, the conversation is so implausible.”

Xavier couldn't help but laugh, “You've been to seminar. What's so implausible about a conversation like the one in the Symposium?”

“Good point,” Quinn offered a bemused smile. “Oh well, I guess I just don't understand.”

“Ah,” said Xavier, “Now you're getting there. That's the key to surviving Plato: a healthy dose of confused resignation. Trying to 'get it' is futile, because, I think, there's really not that much to get. Like so much philosophy, it's just trying to confuse you more than anything.”

“I'm not sure I agree with that, but then again you may be right.” Quinn stepped away from the wall, taking a seat on the edge of Xavier's bed and puzzling over whether philosophy had any meaning or purpose at all, other than to confuse people. If Xavier felt that way, he thought, why did he stay here at Barr? If there's really no way to read and think about important questions and, maybe, get to some answers, what's the point of thinking at all? Quinn struggled, to his frustration, to even pose these questions, instead asking Xavier a pale shadow of his deeper concerns: “Xavier, what's the point of seminar?”

“You might as well ask what's the purpose of life,” responded Xavier, sensing the deeper intent of his companion's question.

“Ah, well, I would like to know that too. But I'm content to start small.”

“I'm afraid,” said Xavier, “That there is no 'small' when it comes to questions like that. In fact, they're probably not even good questions for that reason. If you ask me about the purpose of seminar, there's not really anything I can say. The point is to have a conversation, to try to understand, to think, to read a book with other people instead of alone. And the point, I suspect, is much deeper than all of those things. Or, maybe, there's not a point at all. I feel that way sometimes. But does there have to be one?”

Quinn mistook this last question as rhetorical, instead responding with what he thought was a clever insight: “Xavier, are you talking about seminar or life?”

“Seminar,” Xavier responded without hesitation. “Life is much more complicated than seminar, anyway, and I don't think the point of life is to have a conversation.” Just as Jonnathan was about to respond, Xavier jumped in again, “Nor do I feel as though there's not a point to life. I may not know what it is, but I've never felt it was meaningless.”

“Never?” Quinn was surprised. He had become friends with Xavier, true, but he did not yet understand the young man. He had assumed, like so many others, that his arcane and, frankly, bleak dress implied a certain depressed, gothic outlook on life. He was puzzled to discover that, at least in word, Xavier was not actually as lugubrious as he seemed, even if he was very much still intense and more than a little strange.

“No, never,” said Xavier, perceiving the same confusion that marked his more intimate interactions with, well, just about everyone. He did not, however, try to clarify his position, choosing to remain an enigma. Instead he simply sat quietly, peering out the window through squinting eyes, trying to make out the shapes of the other students passing through the courtyard below.

Quinn sat quietly as well, unsure as to whether he had offended Xavier, and unwilling to push the issue further. He was confused, by the just-concluded seminar, by the intense, visceral reaction to it that had lead him to speak with Xavier, and by the conversation that ensued. He needed to walk, to think, to clear his head. He looked at – and noticed for the first time – Xavier's mini-grandfather clock, wondering where he had gotten it, but wondering more how he was going to finish his reading for tomorrow's classes in time to go to bed at a reasonable hour. “Well, Xavier,” he said, “It's been good talking to you, but I need to get to work and to bed. See you next seminar.”

“Indeed,” was all that Xavier said in response, shaking Quinn's hand firmly once it was awkwardly offered. Quinn then shuffled to the door, leaving without another glance at his former interlocutor.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Character Sketch Fragment: Jonnathan Quinn

Jonnathan Quinn is, at this moment, slated to be the main character of my novel-in-progress.  This is a short, two-paragraph sliver about his background.

Even before enrolling at Barr, Jonnathan Quinn's friends called him “Quinn.” Even as early as middle school, his family name had been his primary appellate, and indeed he had become so accustomed to hearing it that his first name sometimes failed to elicit a reaction from him. There wasn't anything wrong with “Jon,” mind you, it's just that there were so many other Jons and Johns and even a couple Jhons (presumably with either foreign or troublesomely negligent parents) running around with less interesting – or at least less easily pronounceable – last names than Jonnathan Quinn.

Like so many things in his life, Jon had not been consulted on this particular indicator of his identity. Without objection he had allowed the world around him to alchemize his name, and by the time he was a student at Barr he couldn't even remember whether it bothered him or not. He simply was “Quinn,” for better or worse, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Character Sketch: Xavier Moon

 An early character sketch from my novel-in-progress.  Xavier Moon is not the main character, but at this early juncture I imagine him playing an important role in the story.

Xavier was a kind of superhero – at least a superhero as far as Barr College was concerned. He was frighteningly intelligent, with just the right amount of discretion to keep him from dominating a conversation. He was soft spoken, but unafraid to use his vocabulary to its fullest. He clearly did every reading thoroughly, and took the time, moreover, to think carefully about the meaning and implications of the text, but was nevertheless frequently seen wandering the campus engaging with his classmates in his reserved, elitist way. That he seemed to rub no one the wrong way despite his air of superiority was perhaps his greatest gift: rare is the person who is manifestly great without inspiring the hatred – or at least the jealousy – of the masses.

That's not to say Xavier was entirely beloved. Having Mr. Moon in your class was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there's no question it would be excellent. On the other, that very excellence sometimes crushed the free-spirited atmosphere that the best conversations need in order to truly blossom. It's not that Xavier actively forced caution on his classmates, but rather than they took it up as a matter of course, as if they were more concerned with his judgment than with the actual evaluation of the grade-book-holding Tutors.

Xavier's fashion sense was keen, if a bit anachronistic. Indeed, it was sometimes said about him that he would be less surprising among 19th century noblemen than among his actual peers. Even so, there was no question that Xavier “pulled it off,” that his appearance, if anything, made everyone else look anachronistic. He was dressed for the occasion, while they had mistaken Barr as a college, and not the meeting of the aristocracy it was.

One was hard pressed to pin down Xavier Moon's beliefs, despite his striking and self-assured demeanor. He was a professed atheist, but nevertheless was deeply interested in religious texts of all kinds. He clearly had an empirical bent, favoring modern science over the “nonsense of the ancients,” as he called it, and yet he himself would admit that Laboratory was his worst class. When asked about his political views, Xavier was – like so many Barr students – noncommittal. In short, despite being very much in the public eye, very much a topic of discussion when not present, and very much an object of admiration among both the young men and young women of the campus, Xavier remained very much an enigma.

What the other students failed to realize, and this was because Xavier kept it to himself, was that Xavier was as much an enigma to himself as to his classmates. His archaic dress was something he had begun and cultivated as teenage rebellion, which now he thought, if not silly, at least unnecessary. But it had become so much a part of the way other people understood him that he dared not change it. His intellect, as he was the first to acknowledge, was indeed formidable, but his knowledge of things useful was sparse, and he felt this lack keenly when he would try to, for example, troubleshoot a computer problem or mend a broken dresser handle.

Above all, Xavier was mystified by his interactions with other people. His cynicism and sarcasm – which often accompany young intelligence – did not seem to deter almost universal admiration. Xavier, however, did not know how to cope with being beloved at Barr. Throughout his life in middle and high school he had been reviled and teased. His attire was, amongst the brutes of his previous schools, mocked. His intelligence and, more to the point, his propensity for earning high marks without appearing to try aggravated his classmates and even frustrated his teachers.

Having a kind of natural emotional reservedness, Xavier's experiences heretofore in school had helped him to develop a calm introversion, an attachment to older and more sophisticated friends, and an ironical and wry sense of humor regarding the immaturity – in both action and thought – of others his age. The underpinnings of that attitude were shaken at Barr – at least by some of the students – but the expression of it remained very much intact, as Xavier honestly did not know how to change it, or even if it was worth changing. His fame, then, was a kind of strange accident, his excellence not quite a full-blown ruse, but rather an accidental illusion of fortuitous brilliance. Like light passing through a prism to reveal its component colors, Xavier's latent virtues were brought out by the particular circumstances of his place and time.

So Xavier Moon rode the wave of his fame at Barr not without a sense of irony, for he knew himself well enough to see that, while he perhaps was excellent in certain ways, it was precisely his greatest weakness – his inability to blend in and be “just another student” – that was most responsible for his gleaming reputation.