“Christmas Carol” adaptations include Rich Little playing Edith Bunker as Cratchit’s Wife

While preparing lessons in recent weeks as I teach Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for the first time, I have absorbed myself with all things Dickens’ re-discovering why this book has remained a classic for 175 years.

I also wanted to have my students examine several filmed adaptations of the story, determining the faithfulness to the text, and comparing interpretations of Ebenezer Scrooge.

The first one we viewed was the MGM version made in 1938 starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge.  If you are unfamiliar with Owen, one of his last film roles was as Admiral Boom in “Mary Poppins” who would fire a cannon on his rooftop.

As a kid, I always liked this version not knowing how much it diverged from the source material.  A key scene in the book is when the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals under his robe a boy and a girl representing ignorance and want.  You won’t see it in this version.

The famous last scene in the story of Scrooge pretending to be angry at his clerk, Bob Cratchit, for arriving 18 and ½ minutes late to work on the day after Christmas has been replaced with

Scrooge going to Cratchit’s home on Christmas armed with food and toys.  He informs everyone present, including his nephew Fred, that he will raise Cratchit’s salary.

June Lockhart, the actress best known for the TV series “Lassie” and “Lost in Space” (and is currently 93), made her screen debut playing a child of the Cratchits, both portrayed by her real-life parents, Gene and Kathleen Lockhart.

The 1951 British version was originally called “Scrooge.”   Clive Donner who edited that film would later direct the 1984 TV version starring George C. Scott.

For me, this is the version that best replicates the spirit (no pun intended) of Dickens’ original.  Scott portrays Scrooge as a troubled man not an irritable ogre.  In a scene not in the book, Scrooge laments out loud and alone, “What have I done to be abandoned like this?”

There is much to admire in the 2009 Jim Carrey film directed by Robert Zemeckis.  However, the motion capture computer technology overwhelms the story, must as it did in Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express.”

One version I did not share with my students must rank as the strangest adaptation.  “Rich Little’s Christmas Carol” from 1978 has the impersonator playing all the roles himself.  Since most of the personalities come from the 1970’s and earlier, anyone under 40 would have to access a who’s who of famous people in the 20th century in order to understand it.

Little is President Nixon as Jacob Marley’s ghost with reel to reel tapes replacing the chains.  Watching this with my sons, I had to frequently stop not only to explain who Nixon was, but the significance of the tapes as well.

Yet where do you begin to explain to a 15-year-old who Paul Lynde was and what made him famous (I struggled with this while he was still alive).  Then the quandary of explaining Rich Little dressed as Jean Stapleton playing Edith Bunker who is playing Mrs. Cratchit.   Pause and insert a whole lesson on Norman Lear sitcoms.  Never mind Truman Capote as Tiny Tim.

Well, no matter which version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” you watch, the notion that an old man full of hatred can transform into a man of goodwill seem improbable, but it is an idea that has kept this book alive for nearly 200 years.

What would the scenes from your past look like, the regrets, the heartaches, the people who touched you and those who you hurt?  If you could become a nicer person, what images would get you to change for the better?

Yes, “A Christmas Carol” is a work of fiction.  In reality, change does not come overnight, if at all.   But what is wrong in believing it is possible, even once a year?

 

 

Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” Not a Children’s Story

This year marks the 175th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” first published on Dec. 19, 1843.

I am teaching the Dickens classic for the first time in my career.  When I planned this out back in the summer, I thought how apropos it would be to finish the fall semester with a holiday story, one most of my 10th grade students knew from films but likely never read.

I usually end the school year with “Oliver Twist” so adding “A Christmas Carol” would serve as bookends to the spring semester.

However, when re-reading the book as preparation for teaching it, and imagining it through their lens, reality hit me.  I am teaching to teenagers who, for the most part, don’t like to read and whose primary language is not English.

Studying “A Christmas Carol” in some ways is more challenging than “Oliver Twist.” While only about 60 pages, the novella is full of antiquated terms related to jobs that no longer exist, sayings that no longer make sense, and a highly descriptive and complex writing style that firmly cements the work to 19th century literature.

Here is Dickens’ Preface:

            “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which

            shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the

            season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay

it.”

The first problem will be explaining the difference between American English spellings and those overseas as in “endeavoured” and “humour.”

The idioms “ghost of an idea” and “out of humor” would have to be clarified.

“Haunt their houses” does not refer to a literal house but the reader’s soul and mind.  And “no one wish to lay it” is a joke by Dickens that a reader would not want to put the book down or away.

Once we get past the comprehension hurdles, we can focus on connecting the story’s themes to their lives and times.

For example, health care and living wage issues remain current.   The main reason Dickens created Tiny Tim was to call attention to the need for better health care for the poor.  Back in the first part of 19th century England, nearly half of all funerals were for children.  Tim represents the child that is doomed to die because his father’s boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, doesn’t pay Bob Cratchit enough money to sustain his family.  Employers were perceived as greedy.

The concept of giving to those less fortunate permeates the novel, and is the ultimate lesson Scrooge learns through the three ghosts.

While the word “scrooge” has come to mean a miserly person, “ebenezer” symbolizes one who helps, a word from Hebrew, according to Merriam-Webster, “used by Samuel to the stone which he set up in commemoration of God’s help to the Israelites in their victory over the Philistines.”

In other words, Scrooge’s name represents the before and after aspects of his character in his transformative journey through the story.

Upon finishing “A Christmas Carol” we will attend a live theatrical performance of it at A Noise Within in Pasadena to further extend the students’ understanding of the story.  Then, as a culminating activity, students will present to the class their own 15-minute versions of it.  By that time, hopefully, students will have gotten something meaningful from the book.

So, if you romanticize reading aloud “A Christmas Carol” to your family on Christmas Eve, you had better preview the actual text first and pass out some handouts.  Or choose Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” instead.

H is for Holocaust

Two-thirds of millennials (born between 1981-1996) can’t identify Auschwitz as a concentration camp.  Worse, nearly one-quarter aren’t sure if they ever heard the word Holocaust.

What does this say about the knowledge of those younger than 22?

These are the results from a study commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Not only do they not know about the largest concentration camp where 1.1 million Jews were exterminated, 20 percent of all Americans do not think that “it is important to keep teaching about the Holocaust.”  This does not bode well for it not happening again.

Amazing that people walk around with a personal computer in their back pocket, with vast knowledge literally at their fingertips, yet so much of its use is wasted on texting, social media and checking the time (younger people can’t read an analog clock).

They may know how to manipulate the devices, but are ignorant on how to sift through the detritus and distractions to find meaningful information.

Owning a smart phone does not make one smart.

In addition to the Holocaust, when six million Jews were killed, not two million according to nearly half of millennials, two other historic tragedies are commemorated this month:  the Armenian genocide and the Columbine high school shooting.  While one could explain away the foggy awareness of World War Two, what accounts for the misconceptions about Columbine which transpired a mere 19 years ago?

Most people think of Columbine as the first mass school shooting in U.S. history when actually it was a failed bombing.  The leader of the two culprits was enamored with outdoing the Oklahoma City bombing death total of 168.  Fortunately, the fuses were faulty—only one of the 40 bombs went off.

The impression of the event is that it lasted hours.  In reality, the whole occurrence lasted 47 minutes before they both killed themselves.  Yet officer training at the time was to create a perimeter around the area, waiting until it was safe for them to move in.  Today, the protocol is for law enforcement to go where the shooting is happening in order to bring down the shooter.

This slower approach accelerated the death of the sole teacher victim, Dave Sanders, who bled out over three hours.  Even though Eagle Scouts were with the fallen coach and did what they could, it is heartbreaking to learn that despite 911 operators’ reassurances that help was on the way, that help was too late in coming.

People think the two perpetrators were outcasts, bullied by their peers.  Not true.  In fact, these two bullied others, and they both had friends.  Yet, because of this inaccuracy, the topic of bullying became imbedded in school curriculums across America as a way to prevent another Columbine from happening.

And both teens lived in middle-class neighborhoods with both parents, not presumed broken homes.

The real story of Columbine conflicts with the perception of it which is why education is so vital.

In today’s times, facts and the truth have been battered beyond recognition by our political leaders.

Parents and teachers must teach their children about the past.   If nothing else, young people need to be taught how to access factual information.

Not even a century has passed since the end of World War Two, yet already younger people have lost track of significant world events of the 20th century.   What does this portend 50 years from now?  What important knowledge will be lost or distorted?

When Hitler prepared to invade Poland in 1939, he said with impunity in justifying the impending deaths of men, women, and children that “who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

 

Arming Politicians with Action

I imagine a moment when an announcement over the P.A. system declares:  “This is a lockdown, not a drill.”   Immediately I close the classroom door, lock it, turn off the lights, hunker down under the tables with my students, and stifle their cries.

Should this scenario be part of teacher training courses?

Apparently so because already teachers in America go through these lockdown or active shooter drills each year.

I have experienced two real lockdowns at Hoover High School though no actual threat materialized.

As if the demands of the job aren’t already stretched to incredible lengths, now teachers have to absorb the remote yet real possibility that one day a nightmare may appear in their classroom.   And those educators need to run through in their minds how they will actually handle a situation they don’t ever want to face.

If the perpetrator shoots into the room, do I barricade the door and, if so, can my students help me move heavy items to do it, do we pray under the tables that he won’t see us, do I physically try to take the shooter down, knowing my life and the lives of my students are at risk, or do I actively ignore the current lockdown procedures and make a run for it?

Wednesday night CNN held a televised town hall meeting at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, a 20-minute drive from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland where the Valentine’s Day massacre of 17 students and teachers occurred.

The arena holds more than 20,000 people; the high school has over 3,000 students.  No one was harmed in the arena due to security measures in place.   Those measures should be replicated at every single school in America.

It would be easier to secure schools than pass stronger gun laws.

President Trump should hold an emergency meeting with his advisers and develop a plan that can implement immediately.  Unfortunately, we have a President who needs to have a cheat sheet—“I hear you”—on how to show empathy for grieving parents, and who believes arming teachers is the way to go.

We are all tired of the cell phone footage of students crouched under desks in terror, the anguish in the parents’ faces upon awaiting the news of their children’s safety, the candlelight vigils, the funerals, the signs, the pleas, the demands to do something, do something, please, please, do something.

Students who study the dangers of driving under the influence are aware that every 15 minutes in the United States a person dies from a car crash.   However, during that same time, a person dies in a gun-related incident.

While cars are regulated for safety—seatbelts and airbags are credited with lowering the auto fatality rate—guns are not.

The number of deaths, 26, and the young age of the children, 6-7 years old, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut along with President Obama’s tearful statement led many to believe that that would be the watershed moment, the turning point when politicians would finally act to stop the rampant gun disease; 200 shootings and 400 deaths later, nothing has happened.

What number of deaths will it take to get everyone’s attention:  50? 100? 500?  Maybe the death of a prominent politician’s child or grandchild?

Yet Congress has no problem passing legislation to expand the rights of gun owners.   Last December the House passed HR 38, Concealed Carry Reciprocity, allowing those with guns to travel from state to state and legally carry their weapons.

I pray that I never hear again “this is a lockdown” and that anyone I love ever hears that.   Children should not attend school even with the remotest possibility that they may not return home.  Yet in today’s climate, the first sound of an administrator speaking on the P.A. makes everyone jittery.

It is not about blue states vs. red states, Democrats vs. Republicans, pro-gun vs. anti-gun.

It is about having a country where the safety of its children is paramount, a priority superseding a citizen’s right to own a gun.

 

A S-Hole in One

Two weeks ago I rolled out my pre-reading lessons for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird which includes sharing motivational stories about unknown heroes such as Edward Thomas, Houston’s pioneering African American police officer.

Thomas, who worked on the force for 63 years, died two weeks following the dedication ceremony renaming the department’s office building after him, a man who while in college was drafted into the Army during World War Two, fighting on D-Day and at the Battle of the Bulge.

His country asked him to sacrifice his life yet did not treat him equally; even in the military he was placed in a segregated unit.

Due to his color, he was not allowed to enter the front of the police department building (he had to use the back door), not allowed to be in the roll call room (he had to stay in the hallway), and was on his own during his patrol (white officers would not back him up).   Still, he persevered.

The final job he held was at the security desk where staff checked in which had now been moved to the rear of the building.    Quite ironic that all officers now enter the only door Thomas was allowed through.

We then analyze a poem, “Incident” by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, describing a heartbreaking moment of racism for a young boy when the only memory that stayed with him during eight months in Baltimore was when another boy called him the n-word.

That leads to a discussion about the n-word and its use in literature.  We went over which words for African Americans would be permissible and which were not.

Hours after having a sensitive talk about racial epithets, President Trump obliterates the point I was trying to make by using ugly language to discuss certain immigrants.

In a meeting on immigration with lawmakers, Trump said, “Why do we want all these people from Africa here? Why do we want all these people from s—hole countries?”

The language was raw, the racism an open sore. Did our Commander-in-Chief actually say those ugly things?

And then the second part of the story unraveled.

The news media decided to spell the whole expletive out.  There it was in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Not only that, when I turned on CNN, in the lower-thirds of the screen, there was Trump’s quote with each letter of the fully spelled out word in all its glory—no asterisk or hyphen substituted.

For further shock value, moderator Anderson Cooper and nearly all of his guests actually said the word on the air repeatedly in their conversations.

What’s baffling is when former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci gave obscenity-laden responses to a reporter last July, the media refrained from spelling out the words or saying them on the air.   So why have the standards and practices of the media changed?  Has the bar lowered even further on what words can be in print and on TV? If so, what about the n-word and other racially charged language?

The next day, news broke about a porn star being paid $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair with Trump years ago when his wife was pregnant with their child.

Coincidentally, I also introduced a semester-long assignment called The Decency Project which asks students to come up with ways that they can help others.   Some will be collecting items for underprivileged people, while others will be working at hospitals, animal shelters, and homeless shelters.

Teenagers working at a higher moral plane than the President.  Who would have ever thought that day would come.

Thank you, President Trump, for continuing to provide teachable moments for educators.

 

How many papers does it take an English teacher to grade before he collapses?

For the first time in several years, I feel exhausted.  Fatigue is normal for the first few weeks of the school year, returning to work after an extended vacation.

It takes a month or so for a teacher to get his “sea legs.”  Then, a certain comfort level sets in, and the teacher locks into a rhythm that can carry one through the rigors of a school year.

Well, after eight weeks, I still haven’t found it, making me think about Father Time.

Similar to an athlete whose body can’t work or heal as well as it ages with a lot of usage over the years, I must be experiencing the cumulative effects of being in the game of education for over 28 years which is why I’m still seeking my footing.

Besides, without disparaging my colleagues in other disciplines, the work of the English teacher is formidable.

I have four classes of 10th grade English: 35, 36, 36, and 32 in numbers.  This means that every time I give a test or assign a paper, I am collecting 139 handwritten papers—all with unique printing; some legible, some not.

Within the past two weeks, I have graded 139 tests and 695 one-page essays.  No wonder I am having stomach problems.

I often ask myself, do I really have to work so hard this late in my career?   Why push myself?  I certainly do not get paid by the pound of papers I take home.

If I were to add up all the days off I have had in close to three decades, easily one-third of the days were mental health ones, where I just needed time to breathe, time not to assign any more work, time to get through the pile of papers that like a landfill can easily rise as tall as a mountain.

GUSD used to support English teachers with two programs to help ease their paper load.  One was the lay reader program and the other was paper grading days.

The lay reader program worked like this.  Teachers would farm out class sets of essays to college students majoring in English.  Instructions would be given to the student evaluators to correct all grammar and spelling errors.   Within days, the essays would be returned, and the teachers would then focus on more specialized areas such as organization and content.   Not having to fix mechanical mistakes saved time on the grading.

Additionally, the District used to allocate a certain number of substitute days, labeled paper grading days, to each secondary school with the idea of relieving the teacher from the classroom in order to grade essays.

Both of these programs were wonderful not just for the assistance given to teachers in getting their work done, but the recognition by GUSD that English teachers do have a higher amount of student work to evaluate than other teachers, an acknowledgment rarely given.

Unfortunately, several years ago funding for both programs stopped.  Yet, English teachers’ assigning writing did not.

The bulging briefcase I bring home every night and every weekend remind me of what I need to do before I read a book, watch a show, write this column.

Overwhelming?   There must be a stronger word for it.

I know colleagues who give multiple-choice tests and envy them a bit.  Within minutes, their grading is done, the numbers of correct answers printed on a silver platter.

Others like me who have students write detailed responses written in multiple sentences with supporting evidence have hours ahead of us to read handwritten work and to evaluate the merits of each response.

Ultimately, teaching requires faith that what one does is going to benefit young people.   I still believe I’m doing the right thing.  Even if it kills me.

 

My son, the high school graduate

The end of high school for seniors is often bittersweet for their teachers who may have known the students for up to four years.

The end of high school for a parent of a senior, however, resonates deeper for it marks a significant rite of passage.

One senior graduating this year in particular means a great deal to me.  He is my son.

People who know Ben frequently comment that “he’s a good kid.”  Any parent would be proud of a child who generates that reaction from others.

Goodness is in short supply in today’s world.  It does not show up on a standardized test.

Ben is very polite, always responding to a meal at home with a “thank you for the tacos” without any prodding; it comes naturally to him.

I overhear him talk to grown-ups on the phone asking “How are you?” interested in having an adult-like conversation.

He makes his own breakfast of eggs and oatmeal each morning, and often assists me with dinner.

He engages in adult-like perceptions on politics and the world.  Our family TV time is watching Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN and “60 Minutes” on Sundays.

He knows cultural history, recognizing an Ella Fitzgerald vocal or an Alfred Hitchcock film.

He has a taste for long-established restaurants such as the Smoke House.

He doesn’t mind getting dressed up to go out for dinner, or picking up after the dog in the backyard.

He rarely wants anything.  His iPhone is not new, his car as old as he is.

He still sleeps in the same bed that he got back in elementary school, though lies diagonally accommodating his nearly six-foot frame.

His only luxury is a flat screen TV that his uses primarily for playing videogames on his PS4.

Something else Ben does:  when he is out, he always calls us (not texts) when he is coming home.   This is not something that we have demanded; it comes from Ben’s own sense of responsibility.

What is the recipe for a good kid?  Along with love and support from family and friends, Ben’s teachers deserve recognition: kindergarten teacher Ms. Solyom, third grade teacher Ms. Rostomyan, fifth grade teacher Ms. Essex, sixth grade social science teacher Ms. Lamb, sixth grade P.E. teacher Ms. Asmussen, seventh grade English teacher Mr. Martin, eighth grade English teacher Mr. Rothacher, biology teacher Mr. Margve, astronomy teacher Mr. Movsessian, AP Psych teacher Mr. Collazos, AP English Lit teacher Mr. McNiff, and AP U.S. History teacher Mr. Thomson.

My wife and I were amazed as his maturity blossomed earlier this year.  Within a matter of weeks, he made the decision to attend CSUN and got his first job.

It was a surreal feeling to have my photo taken with my son in front of CSUN”s Oviatt Library where I graduated 35 years ago.

Back then, the idea that one day I would have a son who would attend the same college as I did was not even a flicker of a thought in my mind.

When we moved into our house 18 years ago, Ben was three months old.  Today, in that same bedroom lives an 18-year-old.   Oh, the baby still lives in the man.  You can it in his eyes, his smile, and the way he speaks.  And you can see his younger brother looking up at him from an early age, absorbing Ben’s life as a textbook on how to grow up.

Ben, you have had a good life so far.  I hope you continue being good and doing good in the years to come.