144 Most people assume that Japanese people are homogeneous. But the early history of Japan tells us that Nara, then the capital of Japan, was the end point of the Silk Road, and was as diverse as Queens is today.
145 I am deeply grateful for Professor Robert Love Taylor who introduced Flannery O’Connor to me, a student who could barely write English at the time I arrived at Bucknell. Bubble or not, this starting point of my journey into the world of literature and art has let me to a deep well of creativity and expression.
We have been taking my eldest son, Ty (17), on college tours of late, traveling mostly up and down the East Coast. Having been raised in New York City, he’s been curiously interested in only city schools. “An enclave of pseudo-community,” is the expression he’s used to describe some of the schools. Perhaps so, but I’ve been reminding him that some of the best education can be had in such enclaves (like Bucknell University, where my wife and I went). Perhaps being able to focus in a quiet bubble does have some merit? I asked. So far, he is not buying it.
I realized how much the climate of college selection has changed since I went through it in the Seventies. At Cornell University, a tour I also took with my father 25 years ago, I realized how much things have evolved since then. Colleges are big businesses, and self-assured marketing machines. Their successes are made visible in so many new building constructions. NYU and Columbia are buying up New York City, and practically every college we visited is expanding. But, as we journey the Hampton Inns (filled with seniors and their parents, all with the same looks of inevitability) and well marked admission buildings, we also discovered a new art form: student tour guides are now trained to walk backwards, and project their voices at the same time.
Not so, when I toured colleges as a teenager way back when, as we meekly followed the guides around the campus. We walked the grounds, without really looking for any amenities. When did a college education begin to involve new sports complex that combines a Crunch-like gym, with accompanying trainers, with rock climbing walls? Back then, we toured the libraries and soaked it all in very seriously, but somewhat casually. College tours today have evolved now into individual performances worthy of rating and timing, much like a skating competition. I suppose in a competitive business of education, and how much is at stake, it pays to train students to walk backwards to save time. Perhaps it speaks of the confidence that colleges place in their own students, to equip them with such indispensable training for life.
Aside from the technical requirements of such a performance -- such as their projection of voice, not falling into the cracks in the sidewalks, getting you back in time for their “informational meeting” (i.e., to answer how we can possibly afford this education), or not getting run over by a car (although they assured us that cars in the campuses always stop for pedestrians) -- there’s the human, artistic element that needs to be cultivated for an excellent college tour guides. Humor, ability to pull out questions from prospective students, handling of anxious parents to make them feel at ease, all combine to make college tours (if you are privileged to take one from a good guide) rather an intriguing affair. I found, over time, I became an expert with my son at rating the tours. If they give you cookies in the middle of the tour in one of their many neon lit cafeterias, my rating seems to go up. If the student tour guide is too nervous, we try to bear with that, but the worst is usually not the student’s fault, but weather related (a blizzard in Syracuse! Minus ten points) or colleges too calculated with excessive marketing (i.e., a video piece showing many athletes and “diverse” body life of the students all smiling in their successes. A huge deduction in Ty’s mind).
So as we toured campuses, naturally I began to ponder not just what makes a good tour guide, but a good education in general. After having a discussion of this issue with my son at one school’s “Asian” cafeteria in Baltimore (yes, having good sushi in the cafeteria earns a few points), we decided that a good education is learning to walk backwards into the future. Perhaps these college tour guides do have something to teach us, after all.
We raised our three children to, indeed, look back, to respect the tradition and history that they have come from. Rather than promising them an unlimited future, I found myself teaching them to steward carefully the gift mix they have. I wanted them to know the best of our traditions, from Shakespeare and Bach to Hemingway. I want them to also know how much their own time echoes in the various chambers of history, and are relevant in their post-9/11 experience. I want them to understand that in our mixed race-and-culture marriage between Judy (Irish/English/Scottish) and I (Japanese and God knows what else1), they represent in their mixed blood the very promise of reconciliation of nations that once were at war. But we also do not want them to dwell there, but to walk confidently towards a goal of their own path. We have tried to teach them that success is not worldly success of money and fame, but being faithful to the unique journey God has called them to. Education must be past-focused and future-focused at the same time. Our job is to help a child discover the uniqueness of their calling that only they can walk in.
Paul Elie, in a recent book “The Life You Save May Be of Your Own: An American Pilgrimage” poignantly looks back to portray the journey of Flannery O’Connor, Doris Day, Walker Percey and Thomas Merton. As he recounts the life and art of Flannery O’Connor, arguably the most influential writer of the mid-Twentieth Century, he notes that at age five, O’Connor trained one of her chickens to walk backwards. A reporter from New York City somehow found out, and took a newsreel, with the title UNIQUE CHICKEN GOES IN REVERSE:
Elie writes: “The episode lasts less than a minute. Yet Mary Flannery O’Connor had been changed by it. She perceived that she had an unusual gift, even if it was just a gift for getting a certain kind of chicken to walk a certain way; and she saw that her challenge in life would be to make the nature of her gift clear to people who wouldn’t understand it otherwise…The chicken was a freak, a grotesque, and when a cameraman came all the way from New York to Savannah to photograph her just because she had trained it, she was suddenly a kind of freak, too” Pg. 13-14
O’Connor’s early experience shaped the vocabulary of her fiction. It seems that she not only trained her chicken to walk backwards, she trained herself to write and see in a kind of a backward manner. She reverses the conventionalities of a southern world-view, with a wry critical stance, exposing the superficial evils of a “Christ haunted south.” Her characters, like the Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or Hazel Mote in “Wise Blood,” speak out of the violent cores of our existence, so explosive and obsessive, and yet devastatingly precise in their actions. They will not be comfortably shaped into the future, but they resolutely and awkwardly remain in their pasts, walking reverse in a kind of self-tormenting labyrinth.
But in doing so, she gently lights the grace journey that lies deep beneath our feet. She walks backwards into a unique world, projecting her voice in an anguished, compressed scream, but what she actually describes is a transformative, rather hopeful series of epiphanies, intentionally cast into our own evil filled darkness and desires. What she accomplished in her short stories and one novel (she died very young) is noteworthy exactly because these stories arise from an unexpected place of exile, a voice of a Catholic in the Protestant south. They look backwards, having eyes upon Dante and Shakespeare in influence, but they also map a new territory of contemporary fiction. O’Connor’s stories seem fantastic and freakish at first, but we do grow into them, as we are so much in need of their vigor today, her dark vision so filled with faith.2
As I negotiated the I-95 to get us home, and as Ty recited Hamlet in the passenger seat for his senior literature class, I pondered how much of our education is about the past, and how much is about the future. Of course, it is about both. I then realized that he has been walking backwards already without much fanfare. Whenever a student decides to stay true to his faith as a Christian in a public school in New York City as he has, he/she is walking backwards. When a student today is committed to keeping himself sexually pure, as he has endeavored to do with his girlfriend, he is walking backwards into the currents of cultural norms. When a student decides, on his own, to start a conservative club in his liberal Quaker school (with his Jewish buddy), he is definitely walking backwards. His teachers and fellow students may not agree with him, but he, with humor, manages. No matter where he ends up, or what he chooses to do in the future, he knows what it means to negotiate the labyrinth of complex pluralism of our day. The key, I realized for him as for me, is walking backwards and paying attention to what comes ahead, at the same time. That takes a kind of zany, awkward commitment not normally encouraged in schools nor in the world. More importantly, such a stance forces him to lead others, projecting his voice, and assuring them that their decision matters, too.
So, as we anxiously await his decision on his future (he decided to apply early decision to NYU), wondering how we ourselves ever got accepted by any college -- it seems we are to feel rather inferior about not measuring up, so when they do let him in, we can simply be grateful for the opportunity to send him with much enthusiasm -- I have learned much from these tour guides. Art today, too, suffers from certain amnesia (“post-modernism is xenophobic to the past” as Tom Oden states). Perhaps the best of art, too, is made via a backwards glance, and not simply blindly forging ahead, or we may end up, like O’Connor’s characters, trapped in futility? Perhaps by paying careful attention to the historical landmarks around us, and by artfully describing the milieu via naming the new experiences, we will stumble onto a vision that maps a new territory for art? Whether we buy into the hype of college admissions or not, one thing is for sure: The Twenty-First Century will be lead by creative children who boldly dare to lead, backwards. Their voices, like Flannery O’Connor’s, will project into the future corridors of their making, and we shall indeed be glad for that. To have such guides is worth any price, any sacrifice.
P.S. Our Cornell guide did receive the highest points of all the guides so far.