Monday, August 4, 2014


Yes, I know. It's a little tacky to talk about who one's heroes are. Thing is, today was my first day working at LePort Schools, and at one point we were each asked to name a personal hero, and to explain why said person was a hero. I actually found this a challenging question to respond to, however, because I have a great many heroes. Or perhaps the better word is idols. Or mentors. Or maybe a mix of the two.

You see, I'm not entirely sure what a "hero" is. It's a Greek idea, and like many Greek ideas I think it's gotten both too puffed up and too trivialized in translation over time and space and through the linguistic wringer that is English. The Greek idea of a hero was mythical, magical even, and very strange. Achilleus, Heracles, Antigone... these were heroes. I don't know if they were supposed to inspire us to greatness or to warn us against hubris or what.

So maybe the better words are idols and mentors. I have a mix in my own life. There are artists and thinkers who I idolize, whose work has left enough of a mark that I have had the chance to get to know that work, and be inspired by it. I also have mentors, who are influences of another kind. They have all inspired me on a more personal level, as teachers, friends, employers, or family members.

I could only name one hero today, but there were a lot of names dancing around in my head. So here are my heroes, or rather, my idols and mentors.


Walt Whitman

I selected Walt Whitman as my hero today, because I think no writer has been more influential for me. Whitman's Song of Myself remains my favorite poem, essay, or writing of any kind. No less than three of the most important moments of my life have been punctuated by reading the poem in its entirety (twice aloud). I have read portions of it at weddings and at funerals, and for a time carried one of its more memorable cantos in my wallet.

What is it that I love about Song of Myself - and, really, the whole of Leaves of Grass - in all its incessant and meandering glory? I love its spirit, its body, and its sound. It is a poem not only about poetry, but about why human beings write poetry in the first place, and maybe even why writing poetry isn't particularly necessary. It's a poem about love, and death, and sex, and independence. It's lewd and wildly inappropriate. It's political (abolitionist, in particular), but deeply impolitic about it. It celebrates contradictions and impossibilities. Above all, though, it's a poem that asks the reader to live without it, to compose his own songs and live his own life. I return to Song of Myself, from time to time, to remind myself to celebrate and sing myself. But it would be a deep misapprehension of Whitman to study him overmuch.

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Like Whitman, Beethoven was a rebel. Whitman was at least partially responsible for what we now call "free verse," and Beethoven was at least partially responsible for what we call romanticism. He personalized and emotionalized music to a degree that was essentially unheard of prior to his work. His symphonies radically transformed the very structure of the symphony (there is a vast formal and structural difference between symphonies written before and after Beethoven).

Beethoven inspires me, though, not because he was a passionate musician, but because his passion was so precisely measured and expressed. He was a master of composition, even after he lost his hearing, and however wild his music was - especially for its time* - it never feels out of control to me. Contrary to the popularized Hollywood renditions of Beethoven which paint him as a mad genius, who translates his anger and lust and frustration to the score feverishly and slavishly, I believe Beethoven was more a master of music than a slave to it. Passion is admirable, but excellence requires mastery of that passion. I idolize this, above all, about Beethoven.

* This cannot be overstated. These days Beethoven seems rousing, but expected. In his own day his music was truly shocking. The length of the Third Symphony alone, not to mention its harmonic and formal curiosities, would have struck any contemporary listener as bizarre.

Thelonious Monk

Speaking of rebels, Thelonious Monk was a musical rebel. In many ways, he's a contemporary version of Beethoven: a true master of his craft whose rule-breaking was always more measured than it sounded. My idolization of Monk, however, is much narrower. I appreciate him, primarily, as a pianist. I do not sound like him, when I play piano, but he is nevertheless my greatest inspiration as a pianist, and especially as an accompanist. If you listen to recordings of Monk playing, what you'll find is that he is an exceptionally soloist, yes, but also an exceptionally good listener and accompanist. Not every one who played with him knew how to play with him, but those who did - Charlie Rouse, for example - play off of and with him in a way that most epitomizes, to me, what jazz is all about.

Langston Hughes

I actually knew fairly little about Hughes until fairly recently, when I read his autobiography, The Big Sea. I knew, of course, that he was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and I had read, as a student, A Dream Deferred. Through his autobiography I came to appreciate more about Hughes, the man and poet, and not just the symbol he has come to be in the traditional curriculum.

I'll leave you to read The Big Sea, yourself. What I most appreciated about the book, and about Hughes, was his commitment to the joy of life. Like Whitman and Beethoven, he celebrates and sings his own odes to the joy of simply being. He is as masterful a wordsmith as any poet, and even his most biting and political poetry has a metrical and rhythmic levity. So, Hughes too is political without being politic, as much concerned with the everyday working man or woman as with the seeming greatness of leaders and decision makers. He shows and indeed lives the silently dignified life of a real person with real troubles and real celebrations.


All of the above idols are dead poets and musicians. They give shape to the way I live my life: the humanistic content which on some level defines who I am, how I read, and what I believe. And yet, while I have pretensions to being a musician and a poet, at heart I increasingly feel that I truly am a teacher (even when I was streaming, I was really being a teacher). With that in mind, these mentors are most responsible for teaching me how to learn and how to teach.

Denise Pope

Denise is a researcher and lecturer at Stanford who co-founded Challenge Success, an organization I have been fortunate to work with over the past couple of years. In contrast to many researchers, Denise is primarily focused on using her expertise as a researcher to make a positive impact on education writ large. Challenge Success, in particular, is inspiring because it focuses on a massive systemic issue in our education system which too often gets swept under the rug by more popular celebrated causes. That issue is, in short, how we define success. Too many students (and parents, and educators, and educational institutions) see success narrowly in terms of grades and matriculation records. As a result, students increasingly live unbalanced lives. They spend too much time doing homework, they burn-out and get sick, they don't get enough sleep, they cheat. Denise's book Doing School, chronicles this phenomenon by following a handful of exceptional students, hand-picked by the administration of her partner school. The results are staggering, because these exceptional students are living, by and large, unhealthy and unfulfilled lives.

In my work with Denise, she has shown me what it is to be an ethical and balanced leader who lives what she preaches. Like any Stanford faculty member, she faces a barrage of emails and requests for attention, but she remains ever graceful in the face of such potential stressors. Perhaps most inspiring to me is her position: Senior Lecturer. I suspect she could be a Professor, if she so chose, but it seems to me that the priorities of a full professor are misaligned with her priorities as an educational leader (and as a mother). I suppose it is no accident that she was one of the first people to call me when I went on leave from Stanford to offer me encouragement, and she was one of the first to applaud my decision to find a teaching job when I did so. After all, she taught me the value of using academic knowledge to do good in the world.

Todd Kelly

Todd was my piano teacher growing up, and was of course a huge influence on my musical style. He let me start out learning how to improvise and play jazz, rather than drilling classical theory and technique into me. His own unique style as a composer and musician - I'd say he's a mix between George Winston and Ethan Iverson, an odd couple if there ever was one - certainly rubbed off on me.

But Todd was more than a piano teacher, and was as much an influence on me as an educator as he was on my musical development. I spent more time learning with and from him than any other teacher in my life, and I think a great deal of my own pedagogy derives from the way that he taught me. He treated me like an intellectual and musical equal long before I actually was one, and in so doing pushed me to be a better pianist and better musician. Our frank conversations about what I hoped to get out of music, and how much I was willing to put it taught me how to be self-reflective and metacognitive, and how to set goals for myself. Our co-compositions taught me the value of creative collaboration, a value which I have always sought to impart on my own students.

Sam Reynolds

There are teachers and mentors with whom I've spent much more time than Sam. I've only met Sam in person once, and spoken to him a handful of other times. My chief interaction with him was through a pre-recorded online course of his I took back when I had just graduated from St. John's and still had no idea what I wanted to do (I hadn't even decided on education as a field, yet). Nevertheless, Sam's influence on me is significant.

Sam Reynolds is a professional astrologer who, like me, came from a philosophy background which imparted upon him the value of scientific skepticism. Through practicing and studying astrology, however, he found sufficient evidence to make it his career. This post isn't the place for me to defend my astrological practice (I don't say belief, because I do more than believe in astrology, I practice it), but I would be remiss if I didn't include Sam as a mentor for me precisely because of the way that Sam teaches and practices astrology. Without, to my knowledge, ever studying educational theory, Sam gets pedagogy and curriculum. His course had one of the better curricula I've ever encountered in any class I've taken (and that includes classes at Stanford).

It's also worth noting that Sam is as intellectual a person as I've ever met. He's well-educated and well-read, incredibly wise, with a biting wit befitting a Scorpio. What Sam has taught me, then, besides a thing or two about how to read a chart, is how to stand up for what you believe even when it's unpopular. He brings to bear his education and intellect in defense of what he does and who he is, but he is never malevolent about it. Nor does he brook the malevolence of others. He is, as any good teacher should be, a model professional thinker and communicator.

Sharon Sikora (or "Mom")

My mom is a teacher, and so it should come as no surprise that she's been a tremendous influence on my own growth as an educator. I won't go into mushy details here about the ways in which she inspires me, but suffice to say she is as excellent a teacher as you will ever find. She has modeled, throughout my life, everything that I value in an educator: she believes in and respects her students, knows her content, designs excellent curriculum and assessments, knows how to think about technology (she neither fears nor worships it, but rather uses it as a tool), and communicates well with her colleagues. She, also, has tried to balance her career as a teacher and educator with her life as a mother and wife. Those who know me and my family will know that this has been no small task, and yet it was a task she performed - and continues to perform - with optimism and joy, in spite of all that has happened.

No comments:

Post a Comment