David Lee Finkle
Writer, Cartoonist, Teacher
729 W. Pennsylvania Ave.
DeLand, Florida 32720
Mr. Fitz (Comic Strip – 2000 to present – over 4,000 comic strips)
Piece written for Orlando Sentinel that led to book deal:
How my student writers break out of the FCAT cage
David Lee Finkle ORLANDO SENTINEL
February 11, 2007
Last May, when my school’s FCAT Writing scores arrived, my principal hand-delivered them to my room. I accepted them with a shaky hand. As the language arts chairman at my middle school, I wanted us to do well. We did. A huge percentage of our students passed the test. Even better, many received the highest scores of 5 and 6, which are very difficult to get.
My excitement over our scores dipped, however, when I discovered that high scores don’t really matter to the state — or our school grade. All that matters is the percentage of students meeting the minimum standard.
The minimum standard of 3.5 out of 6 is, quite frankly, not a stellar example of writing. Paragraphs often begin with gripping phrases such as, “My second reason is . . . ” and sometimes end with a thought-provoking, Forrest Gump-esque, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
The 3.5 minimum score is all that matters, though, and that fact directly affects instruction. If high scores don’t matter, why shoot for them? Just get everyone to a 3.5 and you’re done. You can achieve this goal by teaching a formulaic, five-paragraph essay: a main idea and three supporting details (in no particular order). Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; tell ’em; and then tell ’em what you told ’em.
This “formula” essay may be a fine survival tool for some students, but for many bright, enthusiastic student writers, it’s a cage.
Taking students to a score of 5 or 6 is riskier. You chuck the “formula.” You read published essays together to drink in the sound of good writing. You delve into organizational patterns and logical arguments. Content dictates form, so essays may be any number of paragraphs, depending on what the writer has to say. You teach about the “showing” detail and the catchy turn of phrase. You teach them that writing is about having enthusiasm, about being engaged in the world and interested in what’s going on around you.
In fact, you teach them about real writing, not about the FCAT.
Such an approach isn’t “safe.” Some teachers still preach that you can’t even “pass” the FCAT writing unless you write precisely five paragraphs. My scores belie that idea. A vast majority of my own eighth-grade language arts students got 5.5’s or 6’s last year — without the formula.
As my students recently faced the FCAT writing, I could still tell them that although the state doesn’t seem to value excellence, their personal excellence has value where it really matters: the real world.
I don’t want to see them someday writing five-paragraph “My Word” essays that conclude, “And that’s all I have to say about that.”
Introduction to my Scholastic Professional Book, Writing Extraordinary Essays:
Introduction to my Scholastic book, Teaching Students to Make Writing Visual and Vivid:
Essay contribution to the Scholastic anthology Open A World of Possible Real Stores About the Joy and Power of Reading:
Blog post from my education blog The Real Mr. Fitz
Lenses for Looking At Teaching
The phrase “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” has been attributed the Abraham Maslow. As far as schools are concerned, I would change the analogy a bit. If all you have is one lens to see through, everything is distorted by that lens.
The Common Core State Standards for literacy promote a one-lens system: Formalism, otherwise known as New Criticism. This critical approach to reading takes the stance that all that matters is the text itself and what it does. All that matters is figuring out how a writer’s use of writing tools effects a reader. Never mind that you have to have been affected by the text in the first place to understand that effect.
The Common Core approach completely ignores the other lenses a reader might use. It pretends that critical lenses like reader response criticism, gender criticism, social class criticism, historical criticism, psychological criticism, and biographical criticism don’t even exist.
Likewise, for twenty years, public schools and public school teachers have been asked to see their job through one lens only: improving student test scores. Nearly every other reform teachers put up with comes from seeing the world through that one lens of testing: curriculum maps, scripted curricula, expensive computer-based programs – you name it, and you can bet it was sold as a way to raise students achievement. “Student achievement,” in case you hadn’t picked up on it, is always code for “test scores.”
School systems have a myopic focus on seeing everything through the lens of test scores, but every time I plan, every time I teach, every time I think about my students, I remember that there are many other lenses with which to view my students, my lessons, and teaching itself. Here are a few of the alternate lenses I use to view teaching.
The Investment in Students Lens – It seems that all we talk about is assessment of students. I prefer to think about the things we do in class as investments in students instead. I don’t spend all my time measuring them. I spend my time giving them experiences. Instead of having students read survival stories and answer multiple choice questions about them, you have them read about survival and simulate a survival experienceand have them write about it any way the want. That’s an investment.
Social-Emotional Development Lens – For a variety of reasons, many of our students are stressed and depressed, and it can take a toll on their learning. We should be teaching them about emotional intelligence – constructive ways to deal with your emotions. Emotional and social intelligence are at least as important as IQ when it comes to success. Instead of making Romeo and Juliet a dry analysis of Shakespeare’s use of metaphors (as good as they are), make it an examination of the emotional intelligence of the characters. The reading experience takes on whole new dimensions.
Autonomy Lens – We give lip service to innovation, to getting away from a factory model for learning, but then base our entire system on a factory system of ranking our students. Our students will be working in increasingly flexible workplaces with lots of room for autonomy. We need to be teaching them how to be autonomous. Instead of making every assignment about compliance to our instructions, we should be giving students freedom when it comes to their assignments. If you give them a list of possible projects, include a “student choice with teacher approval” option.
Creativity Lens – One the main skills that can’t be automated is creativity, yet we seem to be systematically killing off creativity in schools. We ignore it completely or rubric it to death. We should be giving students more time and space to think creatively about the things they learn and also link them together. I learned about Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe in 11th grade Earth-Space Science and was so intrigued by their story, I am still working on retelling it decades later. I just finished my first full-length play – about the two astronomers I learned about in 1983.
Inventio Lens – This lens relates to the creativity lens. In Scott Newstok’s speech “How to Think Like Shakespeare” (which I have mentioned in this space before) he talks about Inventio – a latin phrase that is the root of both inventory and invention. What if students saw everything they were learning as gathering an inventory toward inventing something? What if they didn’t see things as disconnected random skills they don’t need, but as stepping stones toward creating something – a play, a piece of music, a novel, a poem… a design for a building or theme park? It changes the whole dynamic.
Exploration Lens – In the book Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: the Myth of the Objective the authors argue that objectives are useful for small-scale goals, but not useful for larger, more ambitious ones. For more ambitious goals, one needs to set out not necessarily with a specific, efficient objective in mind; instead one should explore, looking for stepping stones to the next interesting thing, and see where they lead. They make a convincing case, and even have a whole chapter on the flaws of objectives in education. Every time we write a “learning target” on the board, we are losing the chance to explore and find something great that is not on the map. This book deserves to be widely read.
Learning How to Learn Lens – Another skill for the future is the ability to learn anything. It’s the old cliche that we are preparing them for jobs that don’t exist yet – and it’s true. What that means is that knowing how to learn anything is the only job skill guaranteed to not go out of style. Suddenly no subject becomes impractical or useless. In fact, the more complex a subject is, the more you can learn about learning from it.
The Microcosm Lens- I just shared the poem “Did I Miss Anything?” by Tom Wayman with my freshman today for the first day of school. Near the end of the poem are these lines about a classroom: “…Contained in this classroom/is a microcosm of human experience/assembled for you to query and examine and ponder…” What if we viewed our classes as microcosms through which to view all of life. Each of our subjects becomes a lens of its own: the historical lens, the scientific lens, the mathematical lens. Our subjects are then not merely collections random facts and ideas, but ways of seeing the world around us.
Literacy and Life Lens – When I view my subject as a microcosm, it takes on new depths and richness. When I teach you about point of view in fiction, I am really teaching you about empathy. When I teach you how to organize your writing in a non-formulaic way, I am teaching you how to organize your thinking – in fact, to think for yourself. When I teach you about themes and specific details, I am really teaching you about the need to take our deepest-held values and turn them into concrete actions. I could get a whole book out of this idea – and just might at some point. Literacy is not a dry test-taking skill. Reading and writing hold within their depths the secrets of the universe and of being human.
Meta-Teaching – I read an article once that said half your curriculum walks through your door. I agree. Instead of necessarily viewing cellphones, distracted students, bad behavior, and plagiarism as mere distractions from learning, I often drag them center stage and make them the main event. Why not take a hard look at how cellphones are designed to be addictive and what are the issues and ambiguities surrounding their use and overuse? Why not take the idea of attention and discuss how are our educations, our writing, or very way of perceiving our lives, are all controlled by how we pay attention? It’s a kind of classroom jujitsu: use the force that is getting in your way to your own advantage.
Moral development – Plagiarism, which I mentioned above, is both a practical issue and a moral one. To control plagiarism with threats of punishment is only treating the symptom. I’ve discussed Kohlbergs’s Levels of Moral Development here before, but it bears repeating: we tend to hold students to the lowest level of moral development: “I don’t want to get in trouble.” To take them higher, we must get them thinking about the things they do instead of merely getting punished for them.
Empathy/Negative Capability – When I teach fiction, reading it or writing it, a great deal of what I am teaching is actually empathy – the ability, as Atticus Finch tells Scout, to stand in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. This is related to the idea of Keat’s concept of negative capability, the ability to see things from different perspectives and to live within doubts and uncertainties instead of always needing certainty about everything. The ability to deal with uncertainty is related directly to the ability to be able to think (see below).
Context – Anything we study in school in any subject is somehow related to the way we live today. If we viewed school through the lens of giving students context for the things going on around them, it might make the work more meaningful. History is all about context. So is Science: the very specific circumstances we live in today exist because scientific discoveries have changed our view of the universe, or the way we exist within it day to day. Take away our ability to understand, generate and harness electricity and civilization as we know it collapses. But taking away the philosophical underpinnings of a civilization, underpinnings constructed out of words, and civilization is in a different kind of peril. Everything we learn gives us context.
Literacy Health and Intellectual Health Lenses – What do healthy readers, writers and thinkers do? How are we promoting healthy literacy and healthy intellects? I’ve written about these ideas in two other posts. Check them out.
Questioning – What if we viewed education through the lens of getting students to ask good questions instead of answer them? Some smart people asked that question and started the Right Question Institute,which my wife introduced me to. I have been using their Question Formulation Technique with my classes for a few years now – and it always helps my students start to ask good questions of their own. Questioning is just as important, if not more important, than answering questions.
Thinking – There is a tendency toward compliance in schools. The model is this: I will teach you how to follow directions to solve this problem-write this essay-answer this question-fill out this lab report. The problem with following directions is this: it’s useful in some situations, but seldom requires thinking. I have seen students so addicted to compliance that they hate being asked to actually think about something. One of the little mottos I repeat to myself, at least in my head, is “Always err on the side of THINKING.” What if we saw everything we did through the lens of getting students to think rather than comply?
Self-Actualization – Abraham Maslow, the man I quoted at the start of this post, is most famous for his Hierarchy of Needs, and especially for the highest level of that Hierarchy: self actualization. A person who is self actualized is a person who is fulfilling her or his potential and is operating at a high level of personal, interpersonal, and social health. What if we looked at education as a chance to help our students reach self-actualization? It might be difficult, of course, since we would need to acknowledge and try to address the various deficits at lower levels of the hierarchy: the fact that some of our students lack self esteem, love, safety, and even basic physiological needs. But it is still worth thinking about.
In the movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel, humankind has been trying, and failing, to decipher a message transmitted from an alien intelligence. Mr. Hadden (John Hurt), a billionaire inventor, cracks the code by realizing that an alien intelligence will think differently. When he reveals it to Ellie (Jodie Foster), he says that an alien intelligence will think “on multiple levels and in multiple dimensions.” Cracking the alien message means looking at how it works on multiple levels instead of just on one. To make teaching work, we must think like the aliens.
Take anyone of the
lenses I listed above, and you could write whole books about them. Some of them
already have whole books about them. Thinking about these other ways of
viewing our students, and our teaching, reveals the testing and assessment lens
for the one-dimensional warped perspective on education that it is. As
educators, we need 3-D glasses. No – we need multi-dimensional glasses.
Excerpt from published Young Adult novel, Making My Escape:
CHAPTER ONE – TWO PLANETS
Two planets hung in space, gray and white, staring jealously at each other across a black sheet of stars.
Zack gazed out the window at them, waiting for the sudden lurch he knew was about to come. His tower window looked out over the space ship stretching nearly a mile ahead of him into the stars, a city of lights in a sea of lights. The planets grew rapidly as they approached them. A star flashed into view behind them. Zack gripped the windowsill and braced himself.
A loud grinding, metallic sound vibrated through the walls, the floor, right up into his bones, making his teeth chatter. He closed his eyes tightly and clutched the sill even more tightly. He felt himself being pulled back toward the wall. Then the vibration stopped, and there was an immense silence. For the first time in two years, the distant, dim humming of the hyperspace engines was gone. It had been so constant, so pervasive, that it seemed wrong somehow for it to be gone.
He opened his eyes. The view seemed wrong now—too still, almost stagnant. The hypnotic, streaming comet-like stars had suddenly been frozen in space, and the two planets had stopped growing before his eyes. Now they hung in space almost close enough to touch. They had reached their destination.
Or a few of them had.
A voice in the room made him jump, but then he realized it was the captain’s voice echoing over the loud speaker, a deep resonant voice.
“This is the captain. The Mayflower II has left hyperspace and entered the Binary System. We will be making our approach over the next few hours, and then entering orbit. I will keep you posted on our progress. Captain out.”
There was a pause, and then the voice continued to pour through the loud speaker. “Captains log, 3,280,” it said. “We have reached our destination. We have escaped the Earth and all its torments, and will complete our plan to start a colony here on one of these twin planets. Our journey here, however, has not been an easy one.”
Zack wondered why the Captain hadn’t turned off the public address system; he never broadcast his log to the whole ship. But now, of course, there was almost no one left alive to hear it.
The voice continued. “We encountered a meteor shower on the way here which nearly destroyed our ship and wiped out nearly all our crew. Now the only ones left to tend the ship are the robots, three children, and myself.” Zack looked out over the ship below his window. The hull was riddled with craters and patches and dents of all sizes and shapes. Zack winced, remembering the event that had caused the damage. He didn’t want to think about it.
In the bridge tower high above the rest of the ship the captain lowered his microphone. His voice stopped echoing throughout the ship. The captain’s tall form was covered in gray armor with black trim that gave him the appearance of a robot. Yet when he walked it was with a slight limp, and when he turned his head, one eye reflected its surroundings in a mirror-like metal surface. The other eye was human. Both eyes looked out at the two planets before them. One planet was white and inviting; the other was gray and grim, foreboding.
“Set your course for the gray planet,” said the captain. The robot pilots acknowledged. “The time has come to tell our little friends of the change in plan.”
Before Zack had a chance to ponder what the change in plan might be, his door whooshed open and a small, round-headed robot, Chinese make, scurried in.
“Zack, come with me!”
Zack turned around fast. “CHANG! What are you doing here? It’s the middle of the night!”
“We’re in space. No day or night– just space.” He moved closer, holding out Zack’s clothes. “No time to waste. Come on, you’re going on a trip.”
The next thing Zack knew, he was being led down long, winding corridors, with CHANG keeping them in the shadows all the time.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
CHANG’s only answer was an electronic shush. They reached the shuttle bay, and CHANG pointed to the nearest shuttle, a box-shaped spaceship with tubular rockets attached on either side.
“Get on that shuttle,” urged the robot. “Your uncle, the captain, has gone mad, and tonight may be your only chance to escape.”
“Captain Ron, gone crazy?” asked Zack.
“Hurry, the others are already on board!”
At that moment they were interrupted by a battalion of guard robots streaming in the doors. They wore metalic ponchos over their metal skins. They raised their laser rifles, and the lead robot yelled, “Halt!”
“Let’s get out of here!” yelled Zack.
But as they turned they saw that it was too late. The shuttle was already blasting off without them. Without hesitating, Zack grabbed CHANG’s little metal hand and led him to a smaller fighter craft nearby. He threw the robot in, hopped into the pilot’s seat, and closed the top over his head.
“Have you ever flown one of these?” yelled CHANG.
“Only on flight simulators!” yelled Zack, and he pulled the launch button. They blasted into space and flew low over the hull of the Mayflower II. The shuttle was already on its way to the white planet, but as Zack moved to follow it, hundreds of space fighters piloted by robots flew toward him. He swerved to avoid them. But still they came on. He swerved up and down, left and right, losing all sense of direction in the vastness of space. Suddenly, there it was—a ship flying straight at him…
* * *
I swerved my bike out of the way, and Mrs. Delbrook skidded to a halt in the middle of the road. She rolled down her window and glowered at me.
“Daydreaming again, Daniel Finn?” she yelled. “It’ll be the death of you! Mind what you’re doing!” She rolled up the window on her little matchbox of a car and drove off like a mad-woman.
I sat by the side of the road, a little embarrassed since some other drivers had been around to see my stupidity. As they drove on, I readjusted my newspaper bag and continued on my way. I pedaled over toward Bill’s Grocery, where my bundle of papers was waiting, feeling angry with myself for my own stupidity, and angry at Mrs. Delbrook for accusing me of daydreaming.
I never daydreamed. I worked. My friends and I were making a science fiction movie, and what other people thought was daydreaming was really working on the movie in my mind.
I was still fuming as I passed our church and pulled up to Bill’s to pick up my papers and my usual burst of afternoon energy: soda, chips and a candy bar. I liked Bill’s—it wasn’t sort of generic like the convenient food marts that were popping up everywhere. It was a real hometown grocery store, not some new store pretending to be one. It had worn out wood floors, a butcher’s shop in the back, and a great selection of junk food by the register. I counted out my papers and my junk food fix, and headed out on my route.
I like my paper route mostly, except for collection days. You come out in rain and sleet and sweltering heat three hundred and sixty five days a year to bring people their papers, and half of them treat you like you’re wearing a WILL WORK FOR FOOD sign around your neck
Actually most of the people are nice, but I still hate collecting. A lot of the time having a paper route is just like taking a really long bike ride, though, which is great, because it gives me time to work on the movie. I wasn’t sure what the title was yet, maybe Mayflower II.
I was in a great mood that day, because it was the last day of school for the year. Sixth grade was over. I had survived my last year of elementary school. Now the whole summer stretched before me like the final frontier, just waiting to be explored. There was the beach, the movie to make… and nothing to mess it all up except the intimidating thought of heading off to middle school next year.
I made my way down through town toward the actual lake that Bay Lake was named for, tossing papers onto porches and stuffing them in boxes. Paper boys are almost extinct in most parts of the country from what I hear—they’re all being replaced by grown-ups who drive around in cars and deliver a million papers a day and never meet their customers—but they’ll always be needed in Bay Lake. You can barely fit a car down most of the streets in town, and there aren’t enough people in town to make trying to worth your while.
As I made my way down the narrow streets as fast as I could, propelled by summer vacation elation, sugar, and left-over anger at Mrs. Delbrook, I shot the rolled up newspapers off the side of my bike like torpedoes, one after the other.
* * *
Zack swooped his ship under the fighter, but found himself in a very deep trench that stretched all the way to the opposite end of the Mayflower. Suddenly, lasers were flying at them from the trench.
“They forced us down in here!” yelled CHANG. “It’s a trap!”
“What do I do? I can’t go back up—there are too many ships out there!” Zack yelled back.
“I drive the ship,” replied CHANG. “You fire at the guns in the side of the trench!” Zack switched pilot control to the back seat and then found the handles for weapons control. He began lobbing laser cannons out both sides of the ship as fast as he could.
* * *
“Watch what you’re doing, Finn! You clobbered me in the face!”
I looked back at Mr. Trent’s porch to see him shaking his newspaper at me, his glasses knocked halfway off his nose, and sporting a red mark on his cheek.
“Sorry! I’m sorry!” I yelled back.
I emerged from the narrow little canyon-of-a-street and turned right onto a narrow road that ran along the top of a hill. The hill was a grassy slope down to Route 9, the four-lane road that ran along side town. On the other side of Route 9 was the lake. And just up Route 9, on the lake side of the road, was the Red Mill, the most popular of the town’s three bars. I peered down at the distant building, looking for something. I found it. The blue truck was there.
I stopped short, skidding out. So he was back in town. He wasn’t supposed to be for another week or so.
I saw him come out of the bar and get in the truck. The truck started moving.
So did I. I took off, pedaling furiously and almost missing a few deliveries. There was a good chance he’d head this way if he was going home—or even if he was changing bars so no one could keep track of how much he’d drunk. There was another bar on the hill above town. I didn’t like to change my route—there were papers to deliver. I looked back down at the highway. He was turning onto the main road, which meant he would probably pass right next to me, and he’d see me. I really didn’t want him to see me, because I really didn’t want to see him. I dove down a side street, deciding it was time to hide out somewhere for a while. Sometimes he would zigzag through town, talking to friends and downing a beer or two in the cab as his truck idled. There was no telling where I might run in to him.
Hiding places, or hanging out places, were hard to come by in Bay Lake if you couldn’t or wouldn’t go into a bar. No restaurants, not even a McDonald’s. No arcades. No department stores or malls or teen centers. Just little houses. Bay Lake is over a hundred years old, just like some of my paper route customers. Mom has pictures of me as a baby at the Centennial Celebration. They had me dressed up as a cowboy, although I’m not sure why—Bay Lake wasn’t settled by cowboys. It was settled by Victorian Methodists who built it as a summer resort for tent revivals. The houses in the middle of the town were originally summer cottages. They look like little gingerbread dollhouses. The front porches are full of ornate Victorian curly-cue patterns carved in wood. Some of the people in town are trying to have us put on the National Register of Historic Places. The only problem is that, outside of the quaint little town center, there isn’t another purely “historic” acre in town. Victorian cottages mix with modular homes and trailers in a kind mishmash.
At any rate, there were only three places to “go” in town: Bill’s, the post office, or the library. Since he might stop to pick up mail or beer at the first two places, the obvious choice was the library. I turned a sharp corner to change course and found myself looking straight down the street at the rumbling hulk of blue truck I’d been avoiding. It was moving toward me. Fast.
* * *
Zack’s fighter had plowed its way through the barrage of weapons and plunged ahead of the Mayflower’s ferocious pursuit.
“Where are you going?” CHANG asked, his electronic voice tensing.
“Into that small ring circling the planet,” Zack replied.
“Bad move. Rings are made of asteroids. Asteroids are unpredictable. Unpredictability will get a ship blown up unless a pilot is very careful.”
“I’ll be very careful.”
“Why not fly down to planet?”
“Because they’re tracking our course. They could just follow us and blow us up as we land. We need to lose them—confuse their sensors—before we can land. This should do it!” Zack dove the fighter nose-first straight down into the tumbling, crashing onslaught of floating rocks. He concentrated fully on what he was doing, thinking in three dimensions to dodge obstacles ahead, to the sides, above, and below. He could see the Mayflower at a slight distance behind, gliding above the rock storm—searching, searching. Suddenly, it seemed to vanish.
“They gave up,” said CHANG hopefully.
“I don’t want to take any chances. I only saw three asteroids around here big enough to land on, and only one has enough shadows to really hide in. I’m going back to it.”
He turned the spaceship around, making his way back to where he’d seen the sanctuary rock. He turned corners, twisting down short streets of drifting stone. He turned into a long, narrow corridor devoid of rocks, only to come face to face with the Mayflower coming straight at them.
Zack yelled and threw the ship sharply to the right, almost colliding with a smaller asteroid, and banked into the denser packed sections of the field.
“There it is!” called Zack and he brought the fighter down to rest in the black shadows of the asteroid as the Mayflower passed by a hundred meters away.
* * *
I swooped off onto another street, almost running into a parked car, twisted my way down a couple more streets, and glided into the little grass alley along side the library, where my bike wouldn’t be spotted from the street. I heaved a sigh of relief, and staggered up the front steps. I stopped in at the library to see Mrs. Renshaw, the town librarian, almost every day of my route, but usually not so early.
I always liked to stop in at the library; in the winter to warm up, in the summer to cool off, and all year long to look over the new books that had come in and talk Mrs. Renshaw’s ear off. The Bay Lake Public Library wasn’t always a library; it was once a Victorian two story house. It wasn’t designed to hold as many books as it does, and in fact, the entire upper floor is straining against the weight of all the bookshelves. The floor literally curves down toward the middle of the room like a bowl. When they have story hour up there, the little kids start out spread across the floor at two foot intervals, sitting on little pieces of carpet called “situpons.” By the time Mrs. Renshaw has finished reading Curious George, their little behinds have slid to the bottom of the bowl, and they become one big clump of kids and carpet remnants at the center of the floor.
The first floor is a little sturdier, but more crowded. You sort of have to turn sideways to fit between some of the shelves, especially if another person is looking on that aisle, too. You also feel a little crowded from above, since the ceiling is sloping down toward you. I avoid going to the library during story hour. I’m afraid I’m going to be killed by a preschooler plummeting through the ceiling. But I really enjoy the place. It’s got character; it smells of antique paper and aging ink.
Mrs. Renshaw’s a skinny, friendly, soft-spoken lady who wears her hair in a bun. She likes a lot of the books I do, and listens to tales of my latest projects like they were stories out of The Enquirer.
“Happy vacation is finally here?” she asked.
“Very,” I said, flopping down in a seat between her desk and the “Recent Releases” shelf. I’m sometimes amazed they allow for recent releases. I’m waiting for the push for only historical Victorian books to be stocked.
“Are you finally going to start filming that movie of yours?” she asked. “What’s it called?”
“Mayflower II is the working title. I don’t like it, though. If I can find a camera that works we’ll be in great shape.”
“What happened to the one you had?”
“We found it in Grandma Finn’s attic. It was an old 8mm, and when we finally tried it out, it didn’t work any more.”
“Did I hear someone say they needed a camera?” a voice asked from the back room. A tall, heavy-set man I had never seen before emerged from between two shelves like a bear from a cave. I turned, startled, but now that I saw him, he had a friendly enough air about him.
“Well, yeah. I did,” I stammered.
“I might have one in my home somewhere– in a box. And a projector as well. We just moved in and I have no idea where anything is. What’s your name?”
“Daniel Finn,” I said.
“Ah, the Finns who live up on the hill,” he said.
This startled me even more than his voice had. “How did you know…?” My voice trailed off.
“Been studying my map,” he said simply. “Maybe I’ll drop it by your house if I run across it.”
“That– that’d be great,” I stammered. The old grandfather clock struck five, and since I suddenly felt awkward around this stranger, I was glad to find I had hung out in the library too long and was running late. “I’ve gotta go,” I said. “Thanks!”
“Don’t forget the movie tonight,” called Mrs. Renshaw behind me as I sent the screen door slamming behind me. The library always shows old 16mm movies on Friday nights all summer. I glanced back at the sign on the front porch. Tonight was The Time Machine. I’d be there. I retrieved my bike, finished my route, and started home. I wasn’t looking out for the blue truck anymore. It was parked at another bar by now. Or at home.
* * *
A flicker of a message had arrived via hyper-com, possibly from Earth, as they sat hiding out on the asteroid. A garbled voice said something about equipment, and then it was gone. Zack decided enough time had passed, especially if someone from Earth was trying to contact them. They would never get the message in the asteroid field. He let the ship drift off the rock and drift below the ring, closer to the white planet.
He gazed out the window. The Mayflower was no where to be seen. The white planet filled up their view, almost—but behind it, in the distance, they could see its gray twin hovering ominously nearby.
They were about to turn toward the planet when another fighter came roaring out of the asteroid belt, flying right at them.
“Not again,” yelled Zack.
“Careful!” yelled CHANG.
* * *
I was very careful not to get almost killed again as I crossed the main road and headed home.
My house is at the top of a hill, half way up a steep dead-end road over looking the town, and the last leg of the route each night is a real chore. I peddled and gasped my way up the hill to our house. To the right of the road, a hill dropped away in a steep, tree covered slope leading down toward town. We only have a good hilltop view of the village in winter, when the small forest covering the hillside is bare. In the summer the trees grow full again, and form a wall that makes the town below invisible by day, and a collection of tiny lights glimmering in the leaves by night. Our house is on a plateau, and the hillside slopes upward again behind our back yard. At the top of the hill, the interstate spans the horizon, its little toy cars silhouetted against the sky. I never notice its sounds by day, but at night it always howls and thumps off in the distance as tourists and truck drivers make their way in the dark.
We have a lot of land, I guess because my father had delusions of being a farmer. Actually he’s a mechanic, or engineer or something. They say he actually worked on building the interstate up on the hill, but that was a long time ago, before I was born. That summer he was working a long way away, living in a trailer at the work site most of the time. His first stop was usually the Red Mill, not home. His truck wasn’t at home now, so we weren’t even his second stop tonight. He’d gone to another bar.
As you approached our house, the first thing you noticed was that there were two garages. The first one, down very close to the road, was my father’s work garage. It was an old stone building, really dark and slummy looking. The inside loomed dark and damp and smelled like oil and stale beer. Its large gray stones sat at awkward angles, as if they might slip off of each other and collapse any minute.
The other garage was closer to the house and set back from the road, at the end of the driveway. It was newer—we’d actually gotten it from my friends the Valentines a few years ago when they’d built a new house on the site of their old one and didn’t need it any more. It was a white, friendly looking wooden garage with a basketball hoop on the front. It sat just a few feet away from our back door—the only door we ever used—and when you were inside it, you could look down the driveway and out over the village down below.
Our house is a big white two-story cube with closed porches on the front and back and very un-Victorian aluminum siding wrapped around it. My sister, Laura, and I have the two bedrooms upstairs. I had to share mine with my older brother until he moved out. I’ve been really enjoying having my own space since then. But although I like having my own room, it’s the white garage that has really become my territory.
My mother had let me turn it into a movie studio of sorts. It was my workshop, my magic factory. I had started to prepare for our movie, and all of my work took place there. Space ships and far off planets and robots and creatures were starting to form behind those walls. The only spark needed to make it all really come to life was a movie camera…
But I wasn’t thinking about that now. Right now I was too busy concocting a plan. I rode my bike into the studio, jumped off and dashed into the house. Throwing my paper bag on the back porch table, I went to my mother and blurted out: “Mom they’re showing The Time Machine tonight at the library and it’s the last day of school and we’re going to the beach tomorrow anyway so could the Valentines come up after the movie and stay overnight?”
“Not tonight, Daniel. I’ve got a big dinner already started. Maybe next week some time.” She turned back to the counter top and the lettuce she was shredding. In five seconds all my plans for the first night of summer vacation had crashed and burned.
* * *
“We’re going to crash and
burn!” yelled Zack as he flew
toward a head-on collision with the fighter.
He gripped the controls as he
heard CHANG yelling, “Pull up! Pull up!”
Excerpt from play: The Music of the Spheres
THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES
A play in two acts
By David Lee Finkle
Setting: Time – 1625 in Sagan, Poland, framing events between 1600 and 1620 in various locations around the Holy Roman Empire.
Downstage left is always the office of Herr Richter. Downstage right is a flexible playing area. Simply by changing a few props, this space will become the offices of the Archduke, Tycho Brahe, the Duke, as well as a jail cell. The larger, center stage area is the area of where most of the story of Johannes Kepler plays out as he narrates it.
(A voice sounds in the darkness, the voice of Richter.)
This is your story.
(As Richter’s voice speaks, a shadow play appears behind a scrim, a visual representation of the fantastic scene he is describing.)
A boy grows up gazing at the stars. He is raised by his mother… an unusual woman. She gathers herbs in the mountains and prepares them using, so the neighbors say, magical rites. They whisper that she is a witch. The boy tries to ignore the whispers. But he grows curious about the herbs and opens one of the sacks. Curiosity seems to be his downfall. His mother catches him in the act of tampering with her stock and trade. In a rage, she sends the boy away on a ship, property of the captain, as a replacement for the precious herbs she was to have sold him. The ship heads to Denmark, where the captain is to deliver messages to an astronomer of great renown named Tycho Brahe on the island of Hveen. The captain delivers the message, and the boy himself, to Tycho. The boy stays on the island and begins to study alongside Brahe, observing the moon and planets and stars, using the marvelous machines of observation Brahe himself has designed. The boy studies there for years, before finally deciding it is time to return home. He finds his mother a changed woman – old and frail. She has forgiven him, and upon hearing of all he had learned under Tycho Brahe’s tutelage, she now wants to pass to him secret knowledge only she possesses. Just before a lunar eclipse, she summons a Daemon of the air to her, using secret incantations. The Daemon takes the boy and lifts into the air, flying him away at astonishing speeds. They fly to the moon. There he explores the lunar landscape, with its towering mountains, its cities surrounded by great circular walls, its inhabitants who are, in form, like great serpents – great serpents who observe the Earth and its phases as we observe the moon. And… I cannot read this next part. Your handwriting becomes too cramped.
(The shadow play instantly fades out. The lights fade up on a well-appointed room down stage left, occupied by a large wooden desk, a chair and some bookshelves behind it, another chair to stage left of it. In the corner, on a small table, sits a chess set, already in play. On the desk sits a stack of books. Behind the desk sits Herr Richter. In front of the desk, his hands clasped behind his back, stands Johannes Kepler. Richter carelessly tosses the manuscript he has been reading on his desk and looks at Kepler. Kepler begins to draw something out of his jacket – a pair of spectacles.)
(Slowly, with emphasis.)
What. A pile. Of dung. (Slams book to desk.)
(Shrugs, offers him the spectacles.) I was going to offer you these, Herr Richter, but if that’s your view, I suspect you won’t want to read any more.
Spectacles? I’ve tried them. They didn’t help.
These might. They have lenses of my own invention – designed to enhance near-seeing.
No, thank you. I have read enough of The Somnium for now. Your other volumes were typeset, mercifully for my eyes. I have been perusing them, Herr Kepler. They are… dense with ideas, I must say. I almost wonder if they are as dangerous as my superiors say they are, so few would be able to interpret them.
Well if that’s the case, I hardly see a need to continue this interview. (He gestures off stage left.) I could leave and take them off your hands.
Please, stay a while. I insist. I understood your words. Most of them at any rate.
And what did you make of them?
I believe they should be kept out of the public eye, where they could influence weaker minds than my own. I would put them under seal in the Giftschrank.
The poison room?
All books that would be poison to the public are placed behind locked doors.
for the first time showing signs of distress.)
But these books are my life’s work!
Then you should count yourself fortunate that your books won’t be burned instead of merely locked away.
I suppose I should consider myself fortunate I won’t be burned.
Thinking of your illustrious fellow-stargazer, Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake for his heretical ideas?
Perhaps. Though our work is very different.
You are very different men. But you share one trait: hubris.
It is hubris to question the Holy Church.
I am not a part of your Holy Church.
Yes. I know. Hubris – again. You do realize the Catholics are in charge here in Sagan again? You would do well to convert.
Others have tried to convert me… and failed. (Sits)
Yes… I know. You are a faithful Lutheran. Why, I can’t imagine. They have all but excommunicated you. You have consorted with some of our Jesuits, but won’t become a Catholic. You’ve also been friendly toward some of the Calvinists? (Kepler nods.) You are friendly toward all of them, yet accepted by none of them. Why don’t you choose the faith that will put you ahead most in the world the way so many men do?
My faith is not about… getting ahead in this world. I do not play that game.
I, on the other hand am fond of games. (Gestures to the chess set) Have you ever played chess?
I have no time for games.
Always hard at work, apparently, and yet you had time fraternize with nearly every religious sect on the continent. Why do you bother to be friendly with everyone? What does it get you?
I keep hoping for some kind of… harmony.
(Derisive) You seek harmony. So I’ve read. You seem to think the planets… sing?
You’ve read my latest.
Yes. The Harmony of Worlds. I’ve read them all, Herr Kepler. But I keep returning to this book. The Somnium. Your story of a journey to the moon. Is it real?
Of course not. There are real elements. All of the details about how the moon is lighted… how the Earth would look from the Moon. That’s all true.
How do you know these elements are true if you have never been to the Moon yourself?
There is a process I use to discern the truth.
Really? What is this mysterious process?
It isn’t mysterious. You know it as Natural Philosophy. I start with a question. I then invent a premise – a possible answer. I test that premise against the data, and interpret what I find.
(Mocking) Have you tested your premise that there are serpent people on the Moon?
I lack the data to prove that premise. But I used mathematics to prove my other premises. That story is a mixture of truth and imagination.
Tell me… Is the bit about the mother being a witch true?
She wasn’t a witch.
I’ve heard rumors that you are a witch as well. Your mother died recently, didn’t she? (KEPLER nods.) And what of Tycho Brahe? There are rumors about his death. Rumors that you might have had something to do with it.
(Sitting up straight. Defensive.) Where did you hear this lie?
Does it matter? I hear things from many sources.
Not all of them reliable or educated.
I suppose not. Not everyone travels in the learned circles you orbit in.
(Glances at his books) Nothing orbits in circles.
Right you are. I read about that too, in Astronomia Nova. Why have you waged war on God’s truth all these years – through all these books?
(Quietly firm) I’m not waging war on God’s truth – I’m honoring his truth by observing His creation.
I have always found the study of scripture sufficient. You apparently do not. In your hubris, you seem to think you can surpass scripture. I believe you have said that mathematics is God. Isn’t that idolatry?
I said geometry is… co-eternal in the mind of God before the birth of the universe.
Yes. I believe that amounts to the same thing. Getting back to where we started, though: The Somnium… You wrote it many years ago, but unlike these other volumes, it remains a handwritten manuscript. You have never published it. Why?
I have… reasons.
I’d like to know them. Why publish all these other blasphemous works, but keep this one a relative secret? Why conceal this one book? Tell me the real story of The Somnium. Explain to me the truth of your mother, the witch. Explain to me the truth of your time with Tycho Brahe.
Is this one of your games? You’ve probably already made up your mind. You’ve sealed away other books without even talking to the authors. Why are you questioning me? To torture me?
Because yours is not garden variety heresy. Most are just a few pages of rantings. (He rests his hand on the stack of books.) Your hubris has made you unusually prolific.
It is not hubris that makes me prolific.
What does, then?
(Rising, suddenly very agitated) Lock them up if you intend to.
A few moments ago you said this was your life’s work – and now you are willing to let it go so easily?
I’m not willing to play a game I can’t win.
What if I told you this was not a game – that my mind is not made up? That you could still save your life’s work? What then?
Why do you want to hear my story? My books are either heretical or they are not. What bearing does my story have on your decision?
You interest me. Here is my premise: You set out to deliberately undermine the teachings of the church. I need as many data as you can give me to prove or disprove this premise. Or perhaps I am merely curious. Surely you understand that. (He lays his hand on the stack of books.)
(Pauses.) I don’t know where to begin.
When did you first become so curious about the stars? Start there.
I don’t remember the first time I saw the stars – I must have been very young. (He moves to center, which is now lighted to create the effect of a field at night. The backdrop becomes a dazzling sea of stars.) But I remember sneaking out at night to stargaze. My mother would have to drag me in. I attended a Lutheran school, and the more I heard about God as the creator, the more I thought that we should study the heavens more closely to understand and appreciate God’s handiwork. I went to seminary to become a Lutheran minister, but I was offered a position teaching Mathematics in Graz, Austria. Before I knew it, I had started a new life there. I had married. I was settled, but my mind was restless. And that’s when it happened.
When what happened?
You’ve read my books?
Yes. I told you.
Then if you’ve read Mysterium Cosmographicum, you know. I had a vision.