Zero Dark Thirty : Hamlet :: Revenge : __?__

Zero Dark Thirty has garnered nearly everyone’s attention this winter. Kathryn Bigelow directed the film, her second outstanding film that takes a look at war (or situations related to war). Her first, The Hurt Locker, ranks on my list of best films ever. The Oscar committee stunned everyone by giving her Best Director, snubbing Avatar (directed by her ex-husband James Cameron).

But having a woman director isn’t the controversial point of the film. ZDT tells the story of the hunt and eventual killing of Osama bin Ladin. Everything about this film hit the stride: pacing, scene-writing, overall story arc, sound design, visual storytelling, emotional hooks, rising action and climax and resolution. I highly recommend seeing the film, and not just because “it’s a famous story” or “you should really go see it to know what happened.”  It’s a great film, and a strong contender for Best Picture.

The debate has raged over whether the film portrays the facts accurately, or whether millions of people will see the film and walk away thinking torture is a great tactic because it gets results.

The Economist magazine presented my favorite counterpoint to that pragmatic line of thinking: There are two problems (at least with torture) in the name of good: 1) there’s no way to know if the suspect is giving accurate information; and 2) as the leader of world democracy, we lose too much credibility when we bloody our hands. It’s a great article and I recommend taking a few minutes to read it.


Anyway —

As I sat in the theater and watched a fictional woman (the combined force of all the actual CIA agents who did the footwork to find bin Ladin) devote every inch of her being to having bin Ladin killed, as I saw through the green-tinged night vision goggles of Seal Team Six the moment when the men put a bullet in one of the wives and then tried to shush the screaming children … I found my meta-brain churning away about the idea of revenge.

The Seal officer was trying to soothe the screaming kid. “It’s ok! It’s ok!” He pulls a lightstick out of his pocket, snaps it to bring up an orange glow, and waves it in front of her. “See? Cool, huh? It’s ok. We aren’t going to hurt you. ….Who’s this man over here? what’s his name?” (They were trying to get a positive ID on the body of the man shot on the 3rd floor, which turned out to be bin Ladin.)

But it wasn’t ok.  Flip the tables, walk in their shoes, and those kids had just watched armed intruders shoot down their father (or uncle or whatever) in cold blood.  Were the men in the house guilty? Absolutely.

Then why does revenge feel so empty?

My mind traveled over to Hamlet. (Any discussion that ends up in Hamlet is an extra-good discussion to me.)  Among the many themes woven into that incredible work is an intense study of the fine shades of difference between lawful passion and consuming revenge; between justice and vengeance.  At the end of Hamlet for the audience, despite knowing that Claudius has finally got what was coming to him, the pile of dead bodies on the floor robs the audience of a true satisfaction.

I fount Zero Dark Thirty stirred the same emotions for me.  I thought back to the day bin Ladin was killed, and a roomful of curious but troubled seventh graders asking me whether we should be happy that the arch-terrorist had been killed.  Yes, I believe that justice is a godly virtue. The psalmist prays for God to shatter the teeth of the wicked and break the arms of people who abuse the poor.

Over 3,000 coalition military personnel have died in Operation Enduring Freedom, the optimistic moniker given by the US/UN to the mission to break the Taliban, kill bin Ladin, decapitate al-Qaida, and restore America’s security in the world. That’s a lot of dead bodies piled around on the stage as we get ready to let the curtain drop. And we’re still coming to grips with our own civil rights abuses that can’t be swept easily under a cry of “Tu quoque!”

Perhaps if humans could be truly righteous, someone would figure out how to engage in military combat without the mess. I don’t know.

But ten years after we invaded Afghanistan, the victory seems hollow. “We’ll show them!” served as enough of a rallying cry in the wake of 2011 (by the way, Bigelow does an amazing job of evoking all those 9/11 emotions for her film with just audio recordings of that harrowing day). Tobe Keith reminded us all that if you mess with America, “we’ll put a boot in your ass — it’s the American way.”


Is the only biblical avenue given to fallen humans in a wrecked world the hollow tang of revenge-justice?

Mind, Body, and the Humble Chair

[Cross-posted from Teaching Redemptively, a blog managed by my colleagues and I who worked for several years in a grand experiment we liked to call “grace-based education.”]


I’ve run across two articles recently that connect good design (building, object) with good education.

Five Things Educators Could Learn From Designers

The first, written by John Spencer of the blog edrethink, suggests that educators can learn from good building design.

For example, relationships matter. Designers think of people as being in relationship with one another. Teachers know this is absolutely true in the classroom, yet often our lesson plans and educational spaces attempt to separate kids into individual, non-social units who must operate alone or in conflict/competition with one another to achieve a goal.

It’s a short post but thought-provoking.

Ergonomic Seats? Most Pupils Squirm in a Classroom Classic

The NYT ran a neat piece this weekend about the hurdles racing even the simplest change for classroom reform: better chairs.

The basic, indestructible classroom chair was built in the last century and never really changed. Though doctors fret that our backs weren’t designed for long periods of sitting, our classroom culture still values the quality of “sitting still” as equivalent to “paying attention” though plenty of neurological research (and anecdotal experience) shows otherwise.

Companies are coming up with better, ergonomic designs for classroom chairs that will let students wiggle and squirm all they want while channeling their attention to the task at hand. But those chairs are expensive. And nobody has the money to address such a straightforward issue.


Rethinking the environment of the classroom

Kids shuffle to stay seated in a comfortable position; they end up with way too little leg room or elbow room at crowded tables or in tiny desks. Classrooms are often uncomfortably hot or cold, though school dress codes might hinder them from wearing hoodies or jackets or thin fabrics to adjust to that.

And the chairs. If I had a dollar every time I told a boy (usually) not to lean back in his chair, I’d have a retirement fund. (That, and “tuck in your shirt.”)  But have you tried sitting in some of these chairs?  I usually stood for a large portion of the day. I didn’t have to suffer the forced imprisonment of an uncomfortable chair.

I often let students stand in the back of the room to alleviate the physical boredom of the school day (if they wanted it). If I had the time to plan a better lesson, I could incorporate movement. On writing workshop days, I let them sit where and how they wanted, including reclining on the floor against a backpack. As long as the writing was happening and everyone was productive, I didn’t care what their bodies were doing.

Unfortunately, I can pull from my memory a number of times when adults pooh-poohed a student’s complaint about classroom discomfort.

Yes, sometimes kids gripe and they need to just “suck it up.”

But sometimes they’re right to complain that a good education isn’t supposed to include physical frigidity. It’s hard to concentrate when your muscles are cramping, or when you can’t breathe because your personal space bubble has been reduced to a sliver, or when your day consists of 7 hours of repetitive physical boredom.


Maybe we should listen…

I think it’s time to change.  Biblically normative education should recognize that humans are physical beings with definite spatial needs, and suffering in this realm leads to poor attention, not godliness.

We should acknowledge that student opinions about the spaces where they learn have real value, and give those opinions merit when planning, designing, and funding learning spaces.

We should also spend time and money to ensure that kinesthetic learners are not pushed out of our wordy, overly-intellectual classrooms, and incorporate movement as a way of knowing. It’s not ok to say “we adjust to multiple learning styles” and then put everybody in a chair for the day to write essays or fill out worksheets.

One example I borrowed from a Folger Shakespeare Library lesson, I think: students new to Shakespeare’s iambic line will pick up the rhythm of the words much faster if they can march it out — around the classroom, or outside, or in a gym. Start reading a sonnet or soliloquy, and stomping on the accented syllables. The regularly-metered lines produce a roomful of students all stomping on the same beat, and the poetry inside the very syllable-patterns begins to emerge in a tangible way.

But what worries me is this: “good education” and “the way my parents did it” somehow get equated in people’s minds. A busy, active classroom will look pretty messy — you might walk in to find a kid lying on the floor, another engaged in conversation on the windowsill with a classmate, a couple boys bouncing around in a corner.  And that looks like chaos to many people whose image of education doesn’t include anything beyond rows of students sitting neatly in desks.


So I’d like to suggest this:

Teaching redemptively may mean giving up a desire to control students physically, and instead demands that we do the hard work of engaging their bodies as well as their minds.  

And if that means hiring more teachers and buying more portables to avoid major classroom crowding, or throwing out the chairs, that’s the better choice.

App Review: OmmWriter (for Mac)

Trying out a new writing app/tool called OmmWriter.

Basically, imagine combining a Tibetan temple with the experience of writing, and you get the drift.

The app opens to a full-screen, curiously calm and interesting faded background, with a text box in the middle. Controls appear to the right if you float your mouse over there, offering options for font type, size, and ambient noise.

The app dings and bonks and plinks along –randomly, perhaps? — as you type. I can’t find any evidence that my typing faster, slower, or not-at-all has any effect on the sounds. Tibetan calm it is.

OmmWriter's website offers plenty of information about the app and how it works.
OmmWriter’s website offers plenty of information about the app and how it works.

Weird? Yes.

Cool? Definitely?

If you are looking for a way to calm your brain from the random distractions (or yakking people one room over) to concentrate while writing, give OmmWriter a shot. App is available through the Mac App store.

Oh, and I should mention — I didn’t find any way to format text other than changing the size and font type (serif, sans serif, script, etc)….but the app offers a word count at the bottom of the text frame, and files can be saved as text, rich text, or PDF.