Barack and A Hard Place

On – And Off – The Road With An Unlikely Candidate

by Brian Seth Drier

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all the difference

(Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”)


I was not, I think, the likeliest candidate for the position that I now hold—an assistant professor of English at a Japanese university.  Indeed, I was not—nor am I now—the likeliest candidate or the best fit for a career in academia.  I was never a planner and rarely on time: I chucked to the beat of a different drummer.  No, I am an unlikely candidate, and I am on a journey.  It is of my journey that I wish to write herein…


Unlikely Candidate/What’s (In) My Bag?

I recall thinking, from an early age, that I could never become a teacher because a teacher had to know so much about something (or so much about so little, a cynic might say).  I was thus discouraged by my own inability to focus my undivided attention on any topic long enough and diligently enough to learn enough to be the “expert” that I thought that a teacher needed to be.  Through childhood and into young adulthood, I remained capable of great energy and enthusiasm, and I somehow managed to get good grades with minimal effort.  Thus did I ease my way through high school—where one of my more understanding teachers supplied me with the New York Times crossword to do in class each day—and into university.

There, I created my own major, “Human Liberation: Theory & Praxis”, cobbled together with courses in Women’s Studies; African and African-American Studies; and various and sundry courses in philosophy and sociology.  The major I assembled was concerned—or so I told myself, and an extremely accommodating adviser—with the freedom, equality, and fair treatment of people and their paths to that end.  I enjoyed writing papers, then: typically epic endeavors incorporating, for example, the lyrics to rap or rock music, wedding them to the content of a course. As the time wound down and I had to consider where to go and what to do after graduation, I found inspiration in both fact and fiction: the fact that my oldest brother was a lawyer, and the fiction of Atticus Finch, one of my favorite literary characters in one of my favorite books, “To Kill A Mockingbird”.  This inspiration, and my belief that lawyers could be agents of change for the better, directed me to law school, where I adhered to a strict policy of not spending time with other law students, preferring instead the company of undergraduates outside playing hacky sack when they (and I) should have been in class.

Thanks, once again, to the understanding and accommodation of others—my professors, in particular—I graduated from law school and took a job as a Legal Aid attorney, crafting criminal appeals for indigent clients.  Given the political climate in which I worked, it seems fair to say that I was, during these years, something of an “outsider”, belonging to an organization that was politically unpopular if constitutionally necessary.  It was during this time that I learned about the Japan Teaching & Exchange Programme.  The program, I thought, offered an opportunity to teach where one would not otherwise exist.  After all, I reasoned, English was one thing about which I knew a great deal.  Here was the chance for adventure, and for growth.  After seven years on the job, I took a “leave of absence” which would expire before I finished out my first year on the program, and headed East.  In Japan, I served for what was at the time the maximum term (three years) and returned to my hometown of New York to get a Masters degree in TESOL, with the express intention of then returning to Japan to try to make a life in teaching.  In the course of my studies at Teachers College, Columbia University, I received the Fanselow Award, the touchstones of which were creativity, originality, and—if I recall correctly—a questioning attitude toward pedagogy and its methods.  Among the materials that I submitted in my application were audiotapes of some of my live musical performances—I have been singing since my earliest childhood, and now perform primarily jazz—and written reflections laid out in a set of drawers.

The arc described above was not the clearest path to a teaching position, much less the teaching profession, and yet, somehow, this path brought me to where I am today, teaching in the foreign language department of a Japanese university.  Standing slightly apart and to the side in terms of both my national origin and what I take to be my particular skill set, I have found myself from the outset rummaging through the bag that I showed up with to see what I have to offer, thinking about the ways that I can—to quote from “Cider House Rules”—make myself of use.  A chance encounter with a newspaper article—and subsequent efforts to fashion a course out of it—seemed to provide an opportunity for me to do just that.

The article appeared in one of Japan’s English-language newspapers in February, 2009.  Entitled “Power of words eludes politicians”, it addressed differences in the public speaking style of Japanese politicians and American politicians, most notably newly elected President Barack Obama.  It suggested a place for me in the classroom, as a “tour guide”, a native (not merely a native speaker) who could assist students in understanding a foreign country and culture by providing useful background: background which would be crucial to an appreciation of what it was that made the speeches addressed in my class effective, the words in those speeches powerful.

Indeed, “the power of words” was to become an overarching theme, a loom of sorts on which to weave additional supporting threads as I picked up on various connections: linguistic; historical; and social.  Over time, I would find that the threads thickened, the woods into which I made my way grew denser, and, with each new and unexpected discovery, each bend in the road, the trees closed in.  A number of connections would reveal themselves to me, and coincidence and synchronicity would lead me even further down the path on my journey.  Along the way, I would discover a few things about my “bag”, confirming what was in it—and ultimately ruing what was not…


Into The Woods/Connections and Coincidence on the Campaign Trail

I have been offering the “Power of Words” course since 2009, and the materials that have formed the core of the class—primarily speeches by Barack Obama; Abraham Lincoln; John F. Kennedy; and Martin Luther King, Jr.—contain a great many connections intended by the writers and makers of the key speeches.  While some are so obvious as to have been noticed from the beginning, others have evaded detection for a while only to startle me in subsequent terms.  I have also found myself making connections or meaning that may or may not have been intended by the original authors.  Coincidences, too, strengthen still further the thread of “magic” that has run through the course.  For me, it has been these rich and sometimes surprising connections and coincidences that have provided the deepest and most meaningful personal satisfaction, and their effective conveyance to students that has posed perhaps the greatest challenge.

The speeches of Barack Obama, for example, are rife with references—sometimes direct and sometimes not—to historical documents, figures, and dates.  Such connections derive their strength from the listener’s knowledge of their existence and the relevant background, and the satisfying click when the penny drops, that “aha!” moment of discovery or understanding, can be a very powerful experience.   

The same might be said for strong similarities—too strong to be pure coincidence, it seems to me—between expressions in President Obama’s speeches and those of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy.  Choosing to weave several clearly defined themes—“journey”; “this defining moment”; “that American promise”—through a series of important speeches also deepens the power of his words by connecting several speeches to each other.

It is connections like these that deliver a kind of “high” for me, and there has been no shortage of them in my experiences with “the Obama class”.  So, too, have I been beguiled by coincidences encountered while making my way through the course.

In some cases, it has simply been the way that particular places have figured prominently and repeatedly in the materials.  New Orleans, for example, is the backdrop for a major U.S. Supreme Court case affirming the constitutionality of so-called “separate but equal laws” as well as the locale for Ruby Bridges’ historic entry into a previously all-white elementary school.  It is referred to in the film, “To Kill A Mockingbird”.  It is, as well, where Hurricane Katrina and a subsequent political storm came down, an incident itself referenced in one of the major speeches of Barack Obama. 

It is also intriguing that several different key characters in the class real and fictional were exposed to the ugliness of prejudice at the age of 6: Scout Finch, in “To Kill A Mockingbird”; Ruby Bridges, when she integrated William Frantz Elementary School; and me, when I took a trip south with my family in 1969.  (My account of this trip is one of two original essays, along with one detailing my feelings about the expression “half” as applied to my daughter, that I use regularly in the class.)

It was only after having taught about Ruby Bridges for several semesters that I noticed that the date on which she entered William Frantz Elementary School was the same as my daughter’s birthday. More recently, I also noticed that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a cornerstone in many of the legal challenges to segregation and related conditions, was ratified on my father’s birthday.

One semester, I decided that I would show students the film, “Do The Right Thing” for its portrayal of race relations and the negative power of words.  I subsequently discovered that it had been Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date movie—and that I had made the choice on the 20th anniversary of the film’s release.

The connections and coincidences that I made or uncovered were fascinating to me, seeming at times even mystical. They were not necessarily so fascinating, however, to my students.  The possibility of such a gap made itself known somewhat dramatically, rearing its ugly head one fall afternoon and revealing—to me as well as my students—some of my own particular tendencies, my character, for better or for worse.


A Hard Place/One Of Those Defining Moments

The flashpoint of classroom crisis emerged, as is often the case these days, from a student’s preoccupation with his cell phone.  I had noticed that one or several students sometimes fell asleep during classes in which I devoted most of the class period to “teacher talk”, explicating a speech and giving what I felt was useful or important background that I deemed necessary for students to better understand or appreciate its power and effectiveness.  I knew that sleeping in the classroom was by no means a new or rare phenomenon, and I was generally lenient in such instances, either inquiring as to possible factors contributing to the behavior or assuming that such factors existed and letting it go at that.   Cell phone distractions, too, were nothing new.  However, on the day in question, the cumulative weight of those phenomena and the resulting frustration would prove to be too much to bear.  With about fifteen minutes of class time remaining, I noticed a student completely engrossed in his cell phone and oblivious to my explication of Barack Obama’s 2008 convention speech.  There were, as well, a number of students who had fallen asleep.

I flew into a rage, proceeding to dress down the class and deliver an angry rant about manners, responsibilities, and the like. Subsequently, I incorporated the incident into the class by writing an essay about the matter and giving the students a reading comprehension quiz based on that essay.  In so doing, I reasoned, I could “keep it real” and relevant.

Where did I go wrong? What forces conspired to drive me “off-road”? This “defining moment”—and my experiences with “the Obama class” more generally—led me to consider again what was and was not in my “bag”, while possibly suggesting a way out of the woods and back on the road…


Unpacking My Bag/The Becoming Stops Here

We each of us possess a pair of I’s

Which share the same body, and the same hue

The two, connected, dictate what we see

Or do not see, the blind spots in our view

Reflection on “the Obama class” has driven home the notion that who I am and how I see as a teacher (my professional “I”) and who I am and how I see as a human being (my personal “I”) are inextricably linked.  While the idea is hardly groundbreaking, it seems potentially useful as a lens through which to view my ways of being and seeing, and as a tool with which to improve them. Perhaps a better understanding of my nature—my “I’s”—would cast some light on my particular “blind spots” and help me to move forward.  With this in mind, I recently underwent several counseling sessions.

One of the most valuable lessons from those sessions—for my personal and professional life alike—stemmed from the results of what is known as the Keirsey Temperament Sorter.  Based on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, this self-assessment tool is a questionnaire designed to indicate personality type.    

In short, my results suggested that I have what is known as an “Idealist”, or “NF” (intuitive, feeling) temperament.  Two prominent character traits associated with this type are an inclination to find or seek deep significance in experiences and relationships, and a preoccupation with seeking out and becoming one’s authentic Self.

The tendency or ability to discern connections—for what are connections but threads of meaning?—can surely be useful in a classroom, and my course is no exception.  However, it has also kept me driving forward, forever in motion, leaping at each new connection that I see.  In a sense, this trait has created a moving target that can prevent me from “nailing down” concrete elements of the course and individual lessons.  To get caught up in the process, the journey, is to risk losing sight of the “product” or destination: there may literally be no end in sight.

The obstacles created by an obsession with the journey can also be found in the “I gotta be me”/”to thine own Self be true” obsession of an “NF” temperament. Attempts to “keep it real” and personal in the classroom require by their nature constant updating or revision: again, there can be no final destination.  (This paper itself, for that matter, has been constantly evolving over time, challenging me to keep up and put a “period” on what has been, in effect, one long “run-on sentence”.  What started out as a reflection has, with each reincarnation, become a reflection on a reflection on a reflection… and so on: a veritable “house of mirrors” in which, ultimately, no sense can be made for no clear view can be obtained.)  As a result, one is forever “on the road”, like the characters who populate many of the Beat works of literature that I enjoy, concerned as they often are with “trips” of one kind or another.  One creed that an individual of my temperament might do well to embrace is “the becoming stops here”.

A syllabus is a (campaign) promise, and a (road) map; and any mismatch between syllabus and content is, in effect, an unfulfilled campaign promise.  Wandering off in pursuit of each new and unexpected discovery may be exciting, but with each departure from the plan or promise or map—each bend in the road, as it were—I’ve gone off-trail to pursue whatever new idea came my way, whatever new lead or connection came along.  The problem is that students like to see where they are going.  They want a map, a marker.  They do not, in all likelihood, want to be left in those dark and unfamiliar woods, abandoned by their trail guide.

Part of “the Obama magic”—and the power of his words—consisted in how he planted and then revealed connections, triggering “Aha!” moments while allowing listeners to experience them as their own.  In a sense, he made or manufactured magic moments—and meaning.  Textual references fall neatly into place, like the pieces of a puzzle, not entirely unlike the way that crossword answers reveal themselves.  It is such moments, among other things, that I wished to share with or communicate to students, but it is that conscious crafting of such moments that has been lacking.  There is a difference between constructing or setting up those moments and stumbling across them or waiting for them to pop up in chance encounters with serendipity and synchronicity: however enjoyable the latter may be, you cannot count on it, and a syllabus is something that teacher and students both need to be able to count on.  “Magic” moments—and what is magic if not one more way of making meaning or sense, order or connection, of sometimes seemingly disparate events or things—occur when least expected: their power derives from this very quality.  Students, however, need to see the road stretched out before them, need to know where they are going, above all else.  Teachers, too, need to see where the path of their class is taking their students—and they need to understand that students are also traveling their own paths.

In the film, “To Kill A Mockingbird”, Atticus Finch remarks that one never understands people until one climbs inside their skin and walks around in it, sees the world from their point of view. There is magic in that advice—for what is empathy if not that most magical human faculty of all, imagination?—and there is also sense.  In the context of the classroom, I am reminded of the admittedly self-evident truth that each student has her own Self and journey and (point of) view to be considered: a multiplicity of I’s, a multiplicity of paths.  If I attend only to my own, I will be neglecting theirs.  If I get too wrapped up in my own little discoveries, it will likely keep me from creating an environment in which students make their own.  That was one of the tasks that I had in mind as I first envisioned “the Obama class”, a promise that I have to concede I have not made good on.  I have come to see more clearly the need to understand the best path for each individual student, or at least to try to figure out what those paths might look like.  They may be different from my own—and that is part of what has to happen in a classroom, we have to adjust to our learners.  Thinking back on my path thus far, was it not, after all, the understanding of my teachers that allowed me to follow my own path?  Did they not make strong—and largely successful—attempts at seeing through their students’ eyes, imagining, understanding, and respecting their paths?

In my personal life, I have been blessed—and cursed—with a “significant other” whose temperament is virtually the exact opposite of my own: the “yin” to my “yang”.  Part of the lesson learned from my recent counseling experience is that I need to better understand her character and situation as well as my own in order to improve our relationship, better understand her needs in order to meet them.  I can also gain some of what I lack—what is not in the “bag” that I carry—by paying closer attention to her character, her way of seeing/being.

While I may have no “significant other” in my professional life, I do have colleagues whose ways of seeing and being seem to differ from my own.  I also have significant others in each and every class, every hallway, every path around the university: those pairs of eyes/I’s that look back at me (when they aren’t sleeping).  Perhaps a way forward can be gleaned from attentiveness to these “Others”, then: the business of being responsive to them as well as learning from them, looking at them and seeing what is mirrored back, what is in their bags, and what is not in mine.

Taken together, it seems to me, “the Obama class” and my brief encounter with counseling both served as potentially “I-opening” experiences that may just help me to move forward and stay/get back on the road…


Four More Years?/Miles To Go? 

The “defining moment” described above occurred in the fall of 2012.  A couple of weeks later, Barack Obama would be re-elected to serve for four more years.  What about “the Obama class”?

Change is good, the election-year ads (or about half of them, at any rate) tell us. In film, the “road movie”, too, is predicated upon change.  That resource of, by, and for the people, Wikipedia, defines a road movie as “a film genre in which the main characters leave home to travel from place to place, typically altering the perspective from their everyday lives.”  (Road movie. (2014, January 21). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 17, 2014, from wiki/Road_movie.)  The entry adds: “The road film… is a type of bildungsroman, a story in which the hero changes, grows or improves over the course of the story.” (Id.)

A similar description is offered at the web site

          The road movie typically involve one or

more people in motion who face one or more

challenges, and emerge either with newfound

knowledge, a personal awakening, or…death. 

These films often conclude with the protagonist

reaching a destination, whether it’s home or

away from home…

(Johnson, H. (n.d.). Retrieved from static/primers/road.jsp.)  (Both sources also refer to “Easy Rider” as a quintessential example of the genre, and I recall now that that was once one of my online screen names.)

I have thumbed my way from that young man unable to concentrate on his American history class to this old(er) “Japan hand” trying to find his place in the English department of his university.  Following an unfamiliar path, a “road not taken”, I have experienced the twists and turns and unexpected pleasures of the journey.  But have I really gone anywhere?  I have enjoyed the view, but have I changed mine?

In the 1970 film, “The Candidate”, a young political challenger, played by Robert Redford, campaigns against an old and jaded political insider.  Against the odds, he wins.  In the final scene, we see him besieged by reporters as his campaign manager, played by Peter Boyle, looks on.  We see Redford look at Boyle and mouth the words, “What do we do now?”  In a sense, my classroom endeavors—what Daniel Lindley has referred to as performances of “this rough magic”—have gotten me to that scene; they are, in themselves, perhaps the equivalent of “making speeches”.  In the end, however, campaign promises are nothing unless one delivers on them, backs them up with concrete and effective action. Barack Obama makes connections in his speeches and I in my lectures, but he and I both face the challenge of “what do we do now?”: he to deliver on the content of his message, I to deliver class content more effectively.  

My path, to this point, has been little more than a campaign trail.  The campaign trail leads to election—this job; this class; this marriage—but the journey doesn’t end with getting elected.  The ultimate goals lie ahead personally and professionally, and it may well be that what is required in order to reach those goals is trading “the long and winding road” for a straighter line.

I have, I think, taken a bit of perverse pride in the particular path, the peculiar path that I have taken, what I consider to be a “road less traveled by”.  This may be an intrinsic part of my character, of wanting to be unique and seeking out my unique and true Self, and taking pride in that. However, it seems that I may have been guilty, to this point, of doing so at the expense of—in neglect of—a more orthodox path: a straighter path, and one that will get me where I want to go—in the classroom and in life—more surely, more quickly.

In the end, the “road less traveled by” that I have chosen may indeed make all the difference, just not the difference I had in mind.  No, it may make the difference between failure and success—yes, in the classroom and in life.  The path that has served me well enough to get “elected” may not be much help in accomplishing what I’ve set out to do.  For that, I may well have to turn onto what has been, to this point, my road less traveled by.

That great philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “when you see a fork in the road, take it.”  It seems that I have reached a fork in the road, and that, if I’m to get where I’m going (rather than simply spinning my wheels and moving in place), the time has come for me to acknowledge the merits of a well-trod path, a well-traveled road, to concede that there is likely a reason why people have chosen it so often, a wisdom in so choosing.   

No, I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m determined to trudge on.  As Robert Frost wrote in another “road poem”:

                   The woods are lovely, dark and deep

                   But I have promises to keep

                   And miles to go before I sleep…

These woods have been an enchanted—if somewhat perilous and untamed—forest for me, but I, too, have promises to keep—or, perhaps more accurately, promise to fulfill—and miles to go before I sleep.  Reflection on my experiences with “the Obama class” and “that defining moment”—with “Barack and a hard place”—have provided a quite necessary “pit stop”, a chance to fill up and wander off in search of a map (and some useful tools) to chuck into my bag before I set off once more, forsaking the rough, off-road trails of magic and happenstance for the highways and byways of orthodoxy, the twists and turns for the straighter line..

Before I release the brake and put this old jalopy in motion, I take one long, hard look in the (rearview) mirror, not just at myself but into the eyes/I’s of those most significant others, staring at what is reflected there.  Then, I venture off, again, on the road…