Teaching Transcendentalism in Jersey City — Don Delo
Everyone should have a perch, a place where he can talk to himself without seeming deranged. My perch is on the eastern slope of Peter’s Valley in northern New Jersey on a cliff top that overlooks a stream, which meanders to the Delaware River, and empties into the Atlantic Ocean, where it is sucked into clouds that bring it back to the valley as rain. I first went there about fifty years ago, because a Jersey City neighborhood friend invited me to hike near the Delaware Water Gap. I was twenty-three, just out of college, just starting to teach, just starting to consider the A,B,C’s necessary to make time work, and just starting to imagine going deeper into the alphabet of thinking. I was reading Kesey, Hesse, Vonnegut, Emerson, Watts, Huxley and was excited by their explorations of the R,S,T’s. My friend’s promise of beauty, solitude, trails and ponds that could alter consciousness made hike sound like chance, so I went. The more I looked, the more I felt surrounded by degrees of beautiful. When I taught Jersey City teenagers, in order to add a little green to their mostly grey concrete understanding of environment, I started lessons with, “When I was in the woods, I was thinking…”
The perch was a great place to plan lessons. I was an English teacher who was initially unprepared, but gradually became obsessed with teaching confusion to confused teenagers. In the conspiratorial confines of my rarely observed classroom, which we called The Museum, my students and I tried to read, write, think and discuss how to articulate personal answers for the unanswerable questions that haunt human existence.
Jersey City is infamous for political corruption, blue-collar violence and bad schools. When I graduated from college, I swore I’d never teach there. I left urban, tried suburban, experimented with norms, violated rules, was fired for “unorthodox methodologies,” limped back to “where I belonged” and spent the rest of my career in Jersey City.
Although there were dedicated, hard working, talented teachers determined to make a difference, the schools were littered with fat phys. ed. teachers, health teachers who smoked, math teachers with no sense of abstraction, history teachers with no sense of time, guidance counselors who were lost, English teachers who did not read, principals with no principles and a tenured heap of failing role models with little conceptual understanding of what it meant to be a teacher. In 1989, the state accused the Jersey City Board of Education of “administrative bankruptcy.” The then Governor Kean declared that, “Children [in Jersey City] were being subjected to educational child abuse,” so the state took over the school system.
But I got lucky. In 1976 the Federal Government found Jersey City schools to be guilty of de facto segregation and demanded they establish desegregation programs. Annoyed by this forced compliance, the city Board, continuing its tradition of making shallow, cosmetic changes, did their work-around-the-rules dance. They rented a dilapidated, half-equipped space in an abandoned hospital, and opened a prep school with a quota system including Blacks, whites, Hispanics, and others that would exist long enough to fool the Feds, then disappear like a bad dream.
But a funny thing happened on the way to planned failure. A handful of good students who volunteered to be part of this new school thought a small, multi-cultural, poorly equipped prep school might be better than the over-crowded, mostly segregated, violence of the four existing public high schools. And the teachers, who did not know that the school was meant to be a temporary dodge, felt the students’ hope and decided to beg, borrow and steal what was needed to create a tiny oasis of success in a desert of failure. They were a strange group of mismatched ages, races, experiences and work ethics that saw The Board of Ed’s complete lack of interest as relief from their many years of frustrating interference. So a young science teacher, who had been working on an M.B.A. as his planned exit from education, reconsidered, and put the school on his back. When the Board denied his application for an A.P. class, because “his students were not ready,” he taught A.P Physics during his lunch period, and the students proved the Board sadly wrong. He became the vice principal, repaired damage done by a series of hack administrators, and was finally made principal. Another teacher, a legitimate Columbia PhD., created a reading, writing, reciting, singing, performing class that produced readers, writers, reciters, singers and performers that made the Harvards, Yales, and Princetons say “yes”. Another, a gay victim of childhood polio took classes to operas, debating contests, Broadway plays and deep inside Plato’s allegorical cave which permanently broadened minds and expectations. A tiny, soft-voiced, evangelical, math savant went on a mission that ended with every one of her students passing the Calculus A.P. exam for five straight years. By the time “desegregation” was declared the latest reform to fail, McNair Academic High School had amassed such impressive credentials that the powers-that-be were forced to give it a building, a future and an exception to the rule. It now houses close to eight hundred students who speak more than twenty-one languages, come from Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Alabama, Guatemala, England, Brooklyn, Poland and Jersey City, and for all the right reasons McNair is annually rated one of the top five schools in the state. It is a can’t-believe-it-until-you-see-it, remarkably civil community of bright, young faces of every shape and shading. It is where I worked for the last twenty-seven years of my career.
And it was there I learned to love what teaching made me think about, the subject matter, the learning process, and the endless variety of student. The purpose of school is to learn how to make sense. Yet the most common student complaint about school is that, “It makes no sense.” Sense is how we determine what matters, and what matters should be how we determine sense. We should hold on to those things that matter and dismiss those that don’t. Teachers, who do not know or do not teach why their subject should matter to their students, are probably not making sense. My formal education’s attempt to make sense was minimally successful. I went to college to play basketball, became a teacher to avoid the Viet Nam draft, and entered the classroom with an anemic appreciation of the literature I was to teach, so I offered about twenty good minutes of each forty-five minute class and exhausted all I knew in the first five months of the nine month school year. The inadequacy of generating boredom on the faces of potentially productive young adults was unbearable. I was the teacher I had always hated.
I decided to go to work, to read the writers I taught, to see what they had to say about living, loving, dying, laughing, thinking and writing. But too often I had to teach a book that I was still trying to absorb. So I leveled with my students. I told them I was still a student, and I’d like to share the excitement of what I was learning, my honest attempts to translate what I thought an author was saying, and how it influenced my perspective. When questioned, I often said, “I don’t know what that means. What do you think?” At first it sounded like teacher laziness, but quickly became something the students enjoyed. They called up details, character names and experiences in the books, not as a way to pass a test, but as the obvious way to discuss a concept that puzzled us all. Some students proved they were better readers than their teacher, weren’t limited by that teacher’s limitations, and they often taught the class. The best way to learn anything is to try to teach it, so eventually my reading and teaching of what writers said and did, and my born again belief in novels as secular bibles was a comfortable strength. My teacher persona was more authoritative, more knowing, but I never stopped being a student, and never stopped saying to my students, “I don’t know. What do you think?”
Last June I applied and was accepted to study at the Bread Loaf Orion Writers Conference. It was designed to be a community of dissimilar writers with like minds who came to the Green Mountains of Vermont to work with some of the finest environmental writers in the business. The participants who populated the community hoped that their words had the power to save, which gave the proceedings a sense of religious retreat. My class of ten was taught by the Montana-based, self-described “experiential mystic,” David James Duncan, whose novels and nonfiction collections explode from their pages in delicious narrative word-runs that delight and distress the reader with a vitality that engenders deep appreciation and concern for America’s “suicidal society” approach to destroying what is natural. His sense of deep ecology uses the “wisdom books,” the Krishna-Buddha-Moses-Christ-Mohamed-Rumi route to create a fly-fishing-philosophy that defines a modern way to worship an ancient way of living to preserve a sensible way of surviving.
Within our group there were writers who wanted their words to save a species, a swamp, a precious something, someone or somewhere. They were scientists, academics, teachers, environmental administrators, editors, herbalists and yogis. When I introduced myself, I was nervous, and, so, went for the laugh, “I’m not here to save anything,” I said. “I’m from New Jersey and there’s nothing left to save.” The academic in the group said, “That’s not true.” Others laughed at the intended hyperbole, but I immediately regretted what I had said. It caused a group silence. I wanted to take it back, edit, swallow the line before it entered anyone’s ear, because it was a lie. American education was experimenting with a business-like, test-obsessed, algorithm-driven attempt to dehumanize the classroom. I wanted to save the way of seeing, thinking, teaching and learning that was being abandoned. So I filled the silence with a softer version of my truth, “I am not an environmental writer, but everything I write includes a love song to nature’s lessons and anecdotal references to the joy I experience in the presence of mountains, oceans, forests, rivers and sunsets, which informed my efforts to teach transcendentalism to teenagers in Jersey City.” This last part still sounded funny to most, but it had, I understood at that moment, a powerful “save” potential.
When it came time to teach my students the mind-changer, perspective-rearranger books, I decided that whatever philosophy the author was depicting was what I would believe while teaching it. So I was Ibo for Things Fall Apart, a Buddhist for Siddhartha, an Existentialist for The Stranger, and an Absurdist for Player Piano. Some students worried about this potential identity disorder, but most liked the game of asking me what would a Buddhist do if, or how does an Absurdist see this or that. Doing this to myself year after year, asking my mind to see through different lenses, and like a method actor becoming the role I was playing, made each viewpoint understandably valid but difficult to see any one as more valid than another.
Two of my favorite teaching perspectives were Emerson and Thoreau. Allowing myself to think through them was a black-and-white-to-color upgrade. Once when I was talking to them at the perch, I looked up and felt a warm, shapeless immersion into the rock, earth, water, tree inclusivity. I was, for a moment, out of my mind and into the place, and it was beautiful. To risk the mindless leap, to give into a transformative means of experiencing experience was a pleasure to bring back to my Jersey City classroom, so that when I was wearing my transcendentalist persona, I believed what I said.
But teaching transcendentalism in Jersey City does have comic potential. If the classroom camera pulled back for a broader perspective, it would see a poorly educated, draft dodging, basketball playing, book reading, nature loving, autodidact, teaching transcendentalism to a Philippino girl who is a talented artist but must become a nurse for her family’s sake, to a Russian-Jewish boy from a family of ex-patriot scientists, to an evangelical Puerto Rican girl whose single parent mother speaks in tongues, to an African-American girl whose divorced parents demanded contradictory unrealistic goals for their daughter, to a blatantly gay-while-in-school Egyptian boy who admits he loves the girl in him, but when asked, laughs and says, “Oh, my parents don’t know.” Among the students who sat in front of me were Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, atheists, Blacks, whites, Hispanics and others all living in the low- income, racially divided, none-too-tolerant, crowded streets of Jersey City… and I was seriously selling, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” The students were the most wired screenagers in the history of humankind, and their Luddite teacher expected them to fall in love with Wendell Berry’s “peace of wild things,” and to aspire to Thoreau’s “Simplify, simplify.” But the funniest part was when some of them listened above the racket of their circumstances, and took the blind leap necessary to think for themselves.
The Museum was alive with a collection of bright teenagers willing to play the relative perspective game, so for Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a Nigerian girl in the class, now a lawyer, served us cocoa nuts and performed an Ibo tribal dance. For Hesse’s Siddhartha, a Tibetan girl, now a journalist, brought pictures of her grandmother’s stone house high in the Himalayas. For Rumi’s ecstatic poems, a Muslim boy and Hafiz, now a M.F.A. writer, chanted sections of The Koran. The exceptional was the ordinary. Once when I was explaining reincarnation, a bright, inquisitive, Irish Catholic boy asked, “Who could possibly believe that?” and three Hindu students slowly raised their hands. The gearshift clank of change in the Irishman’s brain was near audible.
The McNair secret ingredient was the Be-Who. Because the school was a desegregation magnet, everything had to be divided into equal parts Black, white, Hispanic and other. The abbreviation was B.W.H.O., or Be-Who. This quota system meant that no group was a majority. It wasn’t a white school with some Blacks. It wasn’t a Hispanic school with a few Asians. It was McNair where when you entered as a freshman, no matter what you looked like or what you believed, there was a senior doing well who resembled you, so you could not say, “Sure the ‘blanks’ are succeeding, but what about us ‘blanks’?”
When people asked, “What do you do for a living?” and I said, “I teach high school English in Jersey City,” they would take a half-step back and groan in sympathy for my “admirable” but terrible career choice. When I tried to convince them that I was in a great school and loved my kids, they smiled in disbelief and struggled with “loved my kids.” I knew the risks, knew how my choices could blow up in my face, be misconstrued by parents, administrators and students, and that some teachers thought those choices were unprofessional and made it harder for them to maintain proper decorum. But I was trying to seduce their young minds, to let them see that a unique student-teacher relationship was possible, and, at some point in our time together, if we learned to sing the songs the authors taught, we could find a place that felt like sense, and we might reach a level of caring that walks, talks and feels like love. My career could be summarized in a montage of love affairs. I loved a Vietnamese boy who wrote a graphic essay about escaping his homeland, being attacked by pirates and drinking his own urine to survive. He is now a doctor and a professor. I loved an African-American girl whose brothers and sisters from multiple fathers took turns going to jail, but she had the power to outthink her environment. She is now a college administrator. I loved a Hispanic girl, whose brother was dying from bad-needle AIDS, and her guardian grandmother wanted her to skip college and marry, so grandma could return to Puerto Rico and die in peace. She is now the lawyer her grandmother could never have dreamed possible. I loved a Pakistani boy whose family demanded he marry a twenty-two-year-old Pakistani woman he had never met, just before he entered his senior year in high school. He is now a teacher. I crossed the personal/appropriate line so many times it became the norm. I made many mistakes. I disappointed some, hurt some, lost some when they took advantage, even failed some. I sadly wasted the time of some, and too often made no sense to some. But to go to work looking forward to teaching kids whose private lives seeped into my private life, whose predicaments became our predicaments and whose successes became our joys, filled my life with uncommon sense.
When I’m at the perch, and I slowly turn in a circle, everything around me is beautiful. Poets and authors create verbal 360’s when they craft word pictures that surround and delight their readers. Sometimes when I was standing in The Museum, surrounded by students: Tsering, Hao, Dasha, Kashaf, Sean, Cheyenne, Christian, Madonni, Scholastica, and Angel, in my head I’d hear Rumi saying, “Let the beauty we love be what we do.”
When I asked David James Duncan if he thought environmental writing was too often “preaching to the choir,” he said absolutely, but he believed in preaching to the choir, because it helped to keep the choir alive. Fishermen throw pieces of bait they call chum into the water around their boats to initiate a feeding frenzy that confuses the fish. Teaching transcendentalism in Jersey City sounds like a juxtaposition joke, but I taught Thoreau to a school of minds by throwing chunks of author insight into the inviting waters of The Museum to see who might take the bait. I fished for potential choir members, young voices looking to harmonize. At first, they were uncomfortable accepting confusion as the natural state of the thinking mind, but when some got hooked and started seeing through the multiple lenses of varied perspectives, each with a valid claim to truth, it became clear to them that complacent single-mindedness was a foolish way to navigate time.
Making sense is mind-magic performed with words. The narrative history of man, the sense-making animal, is a story told by soothsayers, mystics, medicine men, god-figures and philosophers. Many of them, it was believed, had special powers, an open line to the divine. Interesting that Krishna, Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Mohamed and Rumi did not write their lessons. Everything we know of what they said was overheard and recorded by their students, or as the poet, Stephen Dunn wrote of the Christian God, “We gave Him every word He ever said.” Since the invention of the word why, sense making has been the most important product of language. History’s storytellers created masterpieces that arranged words into complex thoughts that became “truths.” But after thousands of years, endless readings and discussions, wars, bloodshed, horror and death sense is still a mystery, an enigma, a word we invented but cannot define clearly enough for everyone to agree. Sense-sellers are snake oil salesmen, con artists, priests, parents, teachers and writers.
For more than four decades I was paid to make sense to young minds, get them to translate what they read into their own words, then turn mental rough drafts into what writer, Robert Michael Pyle, calls “a community of words”. After days of paraphrasing Thoreau, getting lost in the various applications of, “Our life is frittered away by detail,” I’d ask them to write. “You are a modern, urban teenager, and your teacher thinks that force-feeding you Emerson and Thoreau was just what you needed. Did it work for you? Did it affect your perspective? Or did you waste your time kindly humoring your out-of-touch teacher?”
Insane right? Amidst a unique, teenage confluence of world cultures, minutes away from the most sophisticated city in the world, separated by a river still suffering from industrial wastes, in air that can be hard to breathe when the sun heats the pollutants, and where all the obstacles of class, race, religion and family displacement are omnipresent, the students put their heads down, engaged mind to question, opened books to get the exact words of a quote they wanted to use, grimaced at the difficulty of articulating what they had thought was clear until they tried to write it, smiled at the Karl Weick’s quote that hung above my desk, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say,” and created answers that ranged from: “Eureka! Thoreau spoke to my soul,” to “Sorry, both Emerson and Thoreau need help.”
My favorite test, an idea born of the perch, was a final exam. It began with the Necker cube, then a set of instructions:
1. Look at the form and blink. 2. Write an essay that explains how reading authors with different perspectives makes an optical illusion of sense.
They had this prompt for a week before the test, and we discussed its difficulties and possibilities, so the test day writing explosion was immediate and filled the ninety-minute time slot. I saved some of their papers, so I could revisit thoughts like: “I want to shove you into the glass slippers of childhood, when your full-time job was the industry of fun.” “Thank you for giving me a place to feel safe in my difference.” “Existentialism paints darkness in a good light.” “She knew everything in life was transient. It is only human to question or rationalize the language of life, or to seek something that enables us to marvel at the spectrum of individual experiences.” New members of the choir raised their voices to sing the fickle beauties of sense, and I felt like something important was being saved.
Barks, Coleman. The Essential Rumi. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995.
Berry, Wendell. Collected Poems. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1964.
Dunn, Stephen. What Goes On. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.
Hanley, Robert. “New Jersey Seizes School District in Jersey City,” New York Times. 5 Oct 1989.
Thoreau, Henry. Walden and Resistance to Civil Government. New York: W.W. Norton, l992.
Pyle, Robert Michael. The Tangled Bank. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2012.
Weick, Karl. Making Sense of the Organization. Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.
Don Delo is an award-winning literature and writing teacher in an inner city, multi-cultural, uniquely successful high school in Jersey City, N.J. He has published essays in Talking Wood, the N.J.E.A. Review, Claudius Speaks, Damfino, and Limehawk. “Teaching Transcendentalism in Jersey City” is from a series of essays based on lessons he’s learned and taught for more than four decades. His writing is informed by a secular spirituality and a fascination with our struggles to make sense of time.