Une Génération Perdue: A Review of One Day by David Nicholls

Cover of "One Day"
Cover of One Day

It was Ernest Hemingway who popularized the term, but it was Gertrude Stein who gave him the idea. One day, while conversing about an auto repair gone wrong and how awful young people are these days, Gertrude proclaimed to Ernest that they were all “une génération perdue” – a lost generation. The Great War had ruined them, turned them into a bunch of drunk ne’er do wells, etc. Ernest said in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, that his generation was not the only one “lost.” All generations go through a lost period, he said. I believe David Nicholls, the author of One Day, would agree with Hemingway.

One Day is the story of one relationship told one day a year over 20 years, on July 15. It starts in 1988, and the day after a graduation party during which Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley officially meet. Their relationship is rocky at best over the years and each chapter highlights what happens to them as they live separate, yet connected, lives. Emma flounders in her work, despite an excellent degree. Dexter flourishes as a TV personality, but drowns himself in booze and drugs. Just as Emma is finally settling down into a teaching career, Dexter treats her so badly that she may permanently end their friendship. Fear not, fellow readers, that watershed moment only signifies the climax of the book. It is, as they say, all downhill from there.

Emma and Dexter are part of a lost generation, just as Hemingway and his friends were. I remember the 80s well. These characters are only slightly older than I am, but I can still relate to the story quite well. It is set in the UK, but that does not seem to matter at all. The problems are the same. The longings are the same. The questions are the same.

There was a time when decisions seemed to rest more on what others wanted and less on what the individual wanted. My great-grandfather, for instance, became on apprentice baker because that was what he was told to do. Nowadays, we are asking five year olds (seriously, mind you) what they want to do when they grow up. Last year, my son Lucas answered this question for the fourth time in as many years with a unique response: I want to be a cop. Really? Never once in our conversations at home had he said being a police officer seemed interesting to him. He wrote it just to fill in the space.

Emma did not know either and was not lucky enough to fall into work as Dexter was. She was not lucky in lust, either, as Dexter was. To her and everyone else, Dexter was a star, but his reputation went into the toilet with all the money he spent on drugs and alcohol. With every passing day, Dexter is edging closer to the sewer with his behavior that displayed his self-loathing and self-consciousness. Even after Emma settled into her teaching job, her behavior displayed her fragile maturity. Emma has an affair with the Headmaster of her school – how cliché. Dexter ends a bad marriage when he finds out his wife cheated on him with his college roommate.

Finally, we see some signs of maturity and hope! After Emma ends the affair, she misses an important meeting at school for a more important meeting with a publisher.  The Headmaster threatens to discipline her for missing the meeting. Instead of resigning herself to a life of constant haranguing from the former lover, Emma does the right thing and resigns from the school. Dexter shuffles off to a small flat to regroup after the divorce. Emma finally gets an offer to complete a novel she started. After it starts selling well, her publishing house offers her a contract to write two more using the same main character, Julie Criscoll. She moves to Paris for research purposes. Dexter joins her there for a weekend that turns into a months-long stay. They decide they cannot be apart any longer and want to spend the rest of their lives together. At this point, I imagine every reader thinking, “It’s about time!”

Ah, Paris. On the streets that Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hughes, Orwell, Joyce, Stein, Picasso, Dali, and others roamed looking for themselves, Emma and Dexter find each other. As readers, we are happy for them, even if we had to wait over 300 pages for them to realize they might do better together than apart. So many “if onlies” later, they are finally going to do something good for themselves and each other. Damn, that was a long 15 years.

The book does not end there but I will not spoil it for you. What I will do is wrap up this post by urging everyone to read this book. I believe that everyone will see something of themselves in the characters. Hemingway was right to tell us that every generation is a lost generation. We all have to find our way. Even parents can try to help, but it is almost inevitable that each of us has to go through the pain of growing up at our own speed, in our own time, and with our own heartaches. Even the characters in the book that seem successful are struggling somehow. Some are not aware of it, others are. We are all looking for our way. Never stop looking. Go to Paris. Alternatively, you could bring Paris to you. After all, Hemingway insisted Paris is A Moveable Feast.

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Which is more important to education: success or failure?

In an interview, I was asked this question, “Is success the most important thing?” I turned to the woman who was interviewing me and smiled

“Of course it is important,” I told her, “But it is also important to realize that mistakes are good things. They are learning opportunities.” Without dark, there can be no light. Without hell, there is no heaven. Without failure, one cannot feel the bliss that comes with success. Failure stings. It may even burn at times. However, burns of this nature will heal; the stinging will subside. If teachers do their job right, no scar will remain. The student will not shudder at the thought of another attempt again. The student will be ready to face her fear and, through successive approximations, finally master whatever seemed so challenging before. Together, teacher and student can celebrate those successes that seem like failures on the surface, but actually represent steps toward the mastery goal.

If every student “got” everything on the first try, our job would be so easy, correct? I invite you to read an article about a junior high school that knows better (Wilson, Corbett, & Williams, 2000). This school focuses on mastery in a way that allows for failure and then forces students to not give up. Students have to keep trying until they get at least a B on their work. A grade remains “in progress” until the student achieves that goal. They are not expected to do this alone, however. Teachers and peers work with them as they dust themselves off and try again. I told the interviewer, as I finished my thoughts, that this cliché is still around because it is so important to remember: The journey is just as important as the destination.

Reference

Wilson, B., Corbett, D., & Williams, B. (2000). A discussion on school reform–Case 1: All students learning at Granite Junior High. The Teachers College Record.

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The Importance of Research and Practice

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14:  A man read...
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Charles Bazerman (2011) wrote an essay for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) about the study of writing from a disciplinary perspective (i.e. how historians write to communicate their theories and research findings). One of the lines from the article stuck with me more than others did. He said that, as he learned how to research the practice of writing among the disciplines, “I saw things differently and saw different things” (Bazerman, 2011, p. 17). Research taught him how to modify and loosen his perspective and assumptions. As MAT@USC students are gearing up or winding down from a semester, I am sure that more than one of you are staring at the pile of research you have to read or have read. You’re wondering what to do with it, I suspect. My advice is to learn from it. Modify and loosen your perspective and assumptions. Challenge yourself to question what you have held dear all these years. I can’t tell you how many comments I jotted on articles I read that challenged my assumptions and that of the authors. The research articles our professors have chosen represent a wide array of opinions, investigations, theoretical stances, and experiences. They provide a balanced view of the topics important to the education community.

There is another side to research to consider, however. What about research you can do instead of just read? For those of us itching to put theory into practice, action research is a great start toward using what you have learned about teaching and yourself from reading all those articles. What is action research? Here is the basic definition: action research is what a practitioner does to observe, evaluate, and improve his or her practice. It starts with one or more research questions or assumptions, which develop into “experiments” the practitioner evaluates. From there, an action plan emerges to improve one’s practice. It requires the researcher to strive toward objectivity, which is not easy to do when evaluating one’s own practice.

Does this sound familiar, student teachers? Sure – You do the same thing when you work on a teaching event! You start with certain assumptions that take the form of a lesson plan and balance your lesson plan with your guiding teacher’s advice during the pre-lesson conference. Then, you teach while the video camera records the lesson. Afterward, you and your guiding teacher discuss the lesson. You try to be as objective as possible and accept constructive feedback from your guiding teacher. You review the lesson video and gain more insight. You upload the videos and your professor gives you more insight. Sometimes classmates review the video, too. The most important part of this process is the last part in which you use the feedback to improve your practice. In-Service Teachers can follow the same steps, basically, especially if they are lucky enough to be in a supportive community of practice. There is always room for improvement, right? We are lifelong learners supporting a new generation of lifelong learners, modeling for them the behaviors we hope they will exhibit in their academic careers.

In Bazerman’s (2011) essay, he laid his academic soul bare in many respects by admitting that his path in writing studies was fraught with potholes and false starts. Over the years, however, those learning opportunities afforded him the chance to grow as a researcher and a thinker, to hone his approach to inquiry. Mistakes are the beautiful refractions of the light generated by human activity. When we learn from published research or action research, we acknowledge the human condition and accept our place in an interdependent human community. So, come on, pick up that pile of journal articles and start reading or pick up that pen and start writing! Fight on!

Reference

Bazerman, C. (2011). The disciplined interdisciplinarity of writing studies. Research in the Teaching of English, 46(1), 8-21.

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Why do certain characters fascinate us?

Stephen Moyer - Anna Paquin
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When I read fiction or history, I focus on the characters. The characters’ nature and experiences drive the plot and make it believable. The characters’ interactions create the conflict and lead it to its natural conclusion. If the author does not stay true to the characters, the rest of the elements of a story or novel will seem less than satisfactory. How I naturally read fiction and history influences how I write both as well.

When I write, I also focus on the characters. The characters tell me what will happen in the story. Until they seem real to me, no longer based on my own ideas but with lives of their own, I cannot write the story. Perhaps my time as a history major, examining the lives of those who came before us, has influenced me to feel this way about fictional characters as well. I strove during that time in my life to tell a story objectively and accurately. I came to appreciate the characters in history and felt they deserved as much from a historian. Perhaps being an only child with imaginary friends has influenced me also; after all, putting words in my friends’ mouths all the time would have been boring and I needed them to surprise me once in a while. I hope other only children out there will understand that last sentence. Otherwise, I sound rather strange, don’t I?

No matter.

I know that friends become obsessed with characters too, sometimes. Fellow teachers may try to diagnose Holden Caulfield, Hamlet, or King Lear. They may adore the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff or, like me, think they are the biggest brats ever fashioned by the English alphabet. Wilson in 1984 may arouse deep feelings of sympathy. They may openly admire Jonas from The Giver. My friends and I have debated Edward versus Jacob as a love interest for Bella and I even had a debate about the characters with eighth graders while I was a student teacher. (That was fun and I figure that any time you can get students to discuss fiction you have succeeded in jump-starting their intellectual processes.) We have also discussed the value of characters like Gatsby and Caulfield. Fan fiction writers might be able to relate to my sentences about character obsession. It is based on their own obsessions with characters that new plot lines emerge and compel them to create a story based on their understanding of the characters and the likelihood those characters would find themselves in such situations. I must admit that some fan fiction is just downright horrible, but there are some, like Ithaca is Gorges, that is worth a read.

Recently, I have become obsessed with a TV show on HBO called True Blood. There is no way I could become obsessed with the plot since it is rather predictable. However, the characters make the show and I am now tossing around ideas about the vampires in the show, specifically Eric Northman and Bill Compton. I recently had a little conversation on Facebook about the moral character of Eric Northman. I had to clarify why I felt that Eric was a good choice for Sookie over Bill. My position is simple…and not. I believe that all people are governed by their history and their future choices are influenced by their previous experience. That is the essence of learning. It is very possible that Eric could be written as a character that has seen such horrible things in his 1,000 years that what he does is not nearly as bad as what he has seen others do. Perhaps his moral compass is skewed and his true north is not ours, but does that mean that he is condemned to a lifetime of loveless interludes with people he thinks are disposable? Should he not – does he not – deserve love? In the meantime, I described Bill as a good ol’ boy who comes home to beat his wife, then leaves again to get flowers and promises upon his return with the “Winn Dixie roses” that he will never beat her again. He lied many times to Sookie and promised to protect her. He never did a very good job. I’m not sure I am being fair to Bill, but acknowledge that my history influences my impression about these two men. I’m interested in them because of the way they are written and the way they are portrayed by Alexander Skarsgard and Stephen Moyer. I am impressed by the way that the True Blood crew has taken characters that are less-than-interesting in the Sookie Stackhouse novels and reformed them into believable and fascinating people.

I am also envious. I wish I could create characters like that, characters that seem more three-dimensional than flat. I try, but they always seem to fall short of my expectations. Why is that? How can we teach ourselves and our students to write characters that are believable, real, interesting, and stimulating? Are the characters the most important part of a story? What do you think?

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An Ideal Learning Environment

I was asked recently, “If you had your druthers, what would your ideal learning environment be like?”  My response was as you might expect.  I would like to create an environment within my classroom that has the following characteristics:

  • It is intellectually stimulating.
  • It is safe.
  • It has positive energy.
  • It reflects the interests and cultures of all the students.
  • It is a place students wouldn’t mind visiting even if they weren’t in class.
  • It reflects the challenges students have faced and conquered within its walls.
  • It is a place in which studying the English language is interesting, fun, challenging, and seems worth every minute.
  • It is a place of change and growth brought about by learning.
  • It is situated within a larger learning community in which Matt Damon’s mother would have been able to convince the world that standardized tests are not accurate measures of intellectual growth and only make students anxious about going to school.*

In this microcosm of a larger learning community, it would be possible to challenge the students to take part in various projects.  They would feel up to the challenge and see how intellectual stimulation can be just as good for them as physical stimulation.  Host a poetry slam?  Sure, why not!  Create a literary magazine?  No problem.  Put on a play?  Sure!  A Shakespearean play?  Bring it!  Write a script?  Done.

With National Novel Writing Month coming up in November, however, I thought I would share that one of my dreams would be to engage the students in a novel writing project.  I can see the students leaning back in their chairs now, giving me a wary look.  I can hear their thoughts as they wonder what Mrs. Edick has in store for them now.  In this learning community, however, we overcome challenges.  I have the following ideas that result in a vision of students gathered in groups debating one another while they create something new they will own forever.

  • We would not have to worry about test preparation taking over instructional time.
  • Students would learn by doing, not by completing worksheets.
  • The work would be relevant, stimulating, and memorable.
  • Students would learn about English grammar, acquire new vocabulary, and hone their skills as fluent speakers of English.
  • Classroom visits from novel writers would inspire them to move forward with their project.
  • Students would collaborate on the novel creation process, mapping out the plots and the conflicts, creating characters, envisioning the settings, and so forth.
  • Students would learn how to critique and edit writing without endangering the self-esteem of a fellow student.
  • Collaborative conversations via Twitter in the evenings would help students to record and debate their thoughts for the next day while keeping the posts short and concise.
  • The students would own the finished product and be proud of their accomplishment while acknowledging they had moved that much closer to being a well-educated and productive member of society.
  • Students would feel empowered to direct their learning, set goals for themselves, and achieve their personal objectives.

In my opinion, the vision I have establishes the ideal learning community.  If I had my druthers, then, my students and I would construct that environment and thrive within it.  I would love to know what you think.

Fight on!

*For an explanation of this point, see the text of Matt Damon’s speech to teachers during the recent Save Our Schools rally at this URL: http://tinyurl.com/3ghj923.

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