Wednesday, February 06, 2013

remarks at don rothman's memorial servive 1/26/13

Remarks for Don Rothman Memorial, UCSC, January 26, 2013

Given Don’s own writings on the subject (see, it’s perhaps best to regard the following remarks as a pre-Valentine’s card from me to him.

Dear Don,

You’ll recall that, just before we lost contact, we were in the midst of a conversation about Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and particularly about that haunting and altogether curious song that Ariel sings to the recently shipwrecked Ferdinand in the first act of the play:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
   Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
   Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:
   [“Ding-dong” heard from afar]
Hark, now I hear them—ding-dong bell.

Haunting because of the strange notion of one’s father, thirty-odd feet down, being transformed into an icon—a literacy artifact, if you will.  Curious because the song is a lie.  Ferdinand’s father Alonzo is still very much alive, about to become the object of Antonio’s insistent mischief on the other side of the island.

But what we were speculating about, you’ll recall, was why this song, this rumination on sons and fathers, had become so powerfully resonant with those of our particular generation, especially men.  Men who had been born under the shadow of the nuclear bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; men who experienced their initial years with their mothers as the predominant presences in their lives, their fathers having returned from war to a domestic world, a world of adult relationships between men and women, that they, the fathers, could not begin to comprehend.

So I’ll use the privilege of my four months’ seniority over you, born as we were in May and September of 1945, to take a few moments to reflect on some of the reasons the lines of Ariel’s song might have stayed with us both with such tenacity over so many years.

Since this is a song, might we perhaps call it the song of our fathers?  And it needs to be disturbing to some degree—those eyes whose attention we craved now turned into sightless pearls—because the death of our fathers is disturbing.  We don’t quite know who we are once there’s no longer a paternal presence to approve our successes, chastise our shortcomings.  What are we meant to be, once we’ve been freed from the often benign but always persistent parental gaze?

Perhaps this gets us closer to the reason these lines are so memorable to us both.  We were meant to become a new sort of father.  We would honor the memory and continuing presence of our own fathers—“Sea-nymphs hourly ring [their] knell/Hark, now I hear them; ding-dong bell”—but we would seek out programs and responsibilities that allowed us a to play a more nurturing role.  A more “loving” role, as you would never tire of reminding me to call it.

I suspect this was what attracted us both to the model of professional development that Jim Gray first introduced to a group of secondary level teachers in 1974, calling it the Bay Area Writing Project.  Three years later you founded your own site here at UCSC, calling it the Central Coast Writing Project.  As you wrote later, you were anxious to emulate the “unwavering commitment to respectful professional development for teachers” you observed and experienced at Berkeley. You were equally committed, however, to fostering “a sense of optimism that, working together,” teachers could serve as an antidote to “the humiliation of silence” in the face of “cruelty and injustice.” The Central Coast Writing Project, you wrote, held the potential of becoming “a think tank for social change, using the teaching of writing as a point of leverage.”

You’ll recall that we first met during those heady years of the late 70’s. I observed you with awe from my vantage point at Teachers College, Columbia University, where I saw intimate connections between the work you were doing with the Central Coast Writing Project and the Oakes College writing program, and the work that Mina Shaughnessy was doing with basic writers on the campuses of The City University of New York.  As I gradually drew within your orbit, first teaching at Berkeley and Davis, then at the University of Nevada Reno, and finally at San Jose State, we shared stories of teachers, of our growing children, and most importantly of our sense of who we were, essentially, and what we had to offer to the personal and professional worlds we’d increasingly grown to love.

You began your remarks at your UCSC retirement party a few years back by recalling a dream you’d had the night before.  I’d appeared to you in this dream, you said to those who’d assembled for this celebratory occasion, but when I approached it was quite clear that in the interim I’d grown significantly taller.  “I wanted to see the world from a new perspective,” you recounted that I told you,  “and I thought increasing my height would be an interesting start.”

Dear Don, you’ve clearly outdone me, outdone your own dream version of me, on the question of enhanced perspective and elevation.  And while I’m not about to imagine pearls replacing your perpetually lively, alert, and inquisitive eyes, I will quite happily imagine your bones become coral, your entire essence gradually sea-changed into “something rich and strange.”

And our role? Why surely it’s to hourly ring your knell.  [“Ding-dong” heard from afar]

Hark, now I hear them, ding-dong bell.


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