Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Dr Richard Feynman Beauty-Honor-Curiousity Misadventure

 This morning, I watched this series of short films and listened to the words of Dr Richard Feynman. They are magical words, and magical films, and these are my thoughts after watching and listening.

 The Feynman Series - Beauty

"Beauty is truth - truth beauty, that is all 

Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know."
 - John Keats "Ode to a Grecian Urn"              

Lately, I have been meditating on beauty, and truth, as it were. Lately, I have been living in a great, old, American city. This great, old, American city is filled with amazing historical buildings and ideas: the ideas that this country was born of were born here. Here Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin and William Penn and other abolitionists and believers in democracy strolled the streets, dreamed of the way they could be, and built them.

They paved the streets in cobblestones and traintracks. They built City Hall in the image of Parisian buildings. They built the Franklin Institute, the main branch of the Philadelphia Free Library, and Fairmount Park so that Philadelphia would be the most beautiful of American cities. And they succeeded. They built house after house, all stuck together in rows. Some row houses have three floors and others two or four. Some have trees lining their streets, some are bare. All the houses are old, old, old, according to an American timeline. The outsides have changed little, the insides dramatically. Despite time or fire, wind, snow, rain, these houses stand and will stand, I am sure, for a very long time.

So this idea is beautiful, really. Using Hall Quarry granite, carving out a European city, a beacon of America on the edge of the Delaware River. A city born of the ideas of equal representation, democracy, freedom and liberty.

Then they paved over the cobblestones, covered the traintracks. They maintained the city around City Hall and around the park. Center City flourishes, South Philly grows, Queen Village maintains its classic beauty. Around the edges, though, city planning and city resources grew thin. Slowly, they became dismantled, as did every great American city. The industries moved out of the city, but left unemployed workers and empty factory buildings for us to see every day. Giant brick buildings broadcast who once lived and worked there: who made their living there, but no more. 

Those young people who were born around those city edges, the ones who saw their grandparents and parents have solid, stable jobs at factories in Philly all of a sudden saw empty brick buildings. All of a sudden, they questioned whether they had a future here at all. And the answer was, no. The schools deteriorated when the city and government limited their funding. An overwhelming sense of dependence on data as the determining statistic for education overwhelmed schools populated with children who knew there was no future for them: they began to fail.

People grew sad and disenchanted. They saw the people in Center City and wondered why the rest of the city was so different. What had they done? And they had done nothing. The City itself, the powers that be, had sold their future for the present. The idea that all of us had to now pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, when in reality none of the wealthy had done this, at least not in several generations, pervaded the City and if you were not able to do this, you were degenerate, pathological, a culture of poverty.

I take the train to work in the morning and pass an amazingly beautiful, Grecian style building. I wonder what it was, because now the doors and windows are boarded up. There are trees growing through holes in the sides of the building. Across the park near the school is an incredible church. It must be over 150 years old, judging by its spires and stained glass, sculpted windows. The front is boarded up now, the windows are broken out. There is scaffolding in front to keep people out. 

Now Philadelphia is decorated in so many amazing murals, all across the city. The murals celebrate the diversity, beauty and history of this city. Every time I walk past them it makes me happy to see such beauty on the sides of old, giant buildings, apartment buildings, under over-passes. I do wonder, however, what is the future for the children of Philadelphia. Will they be able to appreciate the beauty here? Or will they simply see how the old is paved over? Will they see the empty buildings and see opportunity? Or will they continue along the strange path that our old industrial giants have taken...

The Feynman Series - Honours

This week, I learned that I have the honor of participating in an exciting program: EduPERCS: Partnering Educators and Researchers in Collaborative Science. I will be working with a scientist whose focus is on ocean health and ocean awareness, and who specifically wants to work with middle school students and help them understand what "real" science is and how scientists do their work. We will be collaborating over the next year (and hopefully years after): my classes will speak to her, work with her, and I will share ideas with her so that we are really working on a program together. I am excited to see what happens!

When it comes to other honours in my life, of late I have had a fair few. I have learned that one of my first students, from 6 years ago, has just finished Marine Boot Camp and will return for combat training in two weeks. He is very excited and loves what he has chosen to do, which is to fix and work on computers for the Marines. I am happy that this means he will not be out on the battlefield, and hopefully will be less in harm's way. Another one of my students' parents emailed me because she found the postcard I gave to him 6 years ago on his bedroom floor. She told me that he ended up loving school, attended summer school all through high school, and finished with his freshman year of college already finished. He is now going to the University of Texas at San Antonio, living in an apartment, and apparently is 5'11"!!!! She wrote:

"Thank you for the positive impact you gave... in the short time he was in middle school.  I'm sure as a teacher you always wonder about some of your students and what became of them.  It makes it all worthwhile when you hear great accomplishments from former students so we hope we made your day."

So, for me, honours are what we receive when we are being quiet, diligent, doing our jobs as best we can, and sometimes we are handed surprises that make us intensely happy and fulfilled, and make all the frustration and confusion less important. Honours like this are the most important, the most real. I have to agree with Dr Feynman above that other honours, the honours of trophies and certificates, are ultimately meaningless when you can experience the real honour of helping someone other than yourself. 

The Feynman Series - Beauty

Last weekend it was very chilly and the rain was still misting down, and I went with my friends to Wissahickon Park. We parked and wandered down the trails, talked to the ducks, looked at the old old bridges, spotted a stream, climbed into some tree roots, peed in the woods, ran down the trail, and the littlest ones of us were swung by the arms of the larger ones. 

Later, we fed the ducks with bread that a nice fellow-park-attendee could spare. We spotted beautiful wood ducks with all their colors, mallards, and their duller, female companions. We talked about why the lady ducks are less pretty than the male ducks, and again, the littlest ones of us had more to say because they were curious and mystified as to why the lady ducks were not pretty like lady humans. 

Afterwards, we went to go and drink some wine and have some snacks, and the older ones of us talked and laughed and watched the littlest ones draw mobiles on napkins, draw and write a story on a scrap sheet of paper, and stick straws into a hat. Again, the littlest ones walked around the restaurant, talked to people, came back, ate ice cream and off we went home. 

My friend Karen's children are amazing and are a wonderful age for curiosity, passion, and exploration. They are four and seven years old, have no television at home, have an art teacher for a mom, a house painter for a dad, are Brazilian-American, and live in a giant, old house in Germantown where they can run around, whether inside or outside. They are curious about everything: sharks, turtles, lizards, dinosaurs, cheetahs, knitting, spider webs, ducks, river water and trees. They reminded me to everyday take moments to appreciate the amazing beauty that surrounds everything. To question what makes everything work. To spend time in trees and parks, to play with others and especially animals. To make magical hideouts, to dress in costumes, and to eat cakes and cookies.

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