Freedtopia

….it just might exist

HOW FREEDMAN READS

I don’t read, I consume.

Every time I sit down with a book or a magazine or newspaper, I read as if words are food and I haven’t eaten in a week. Hold on, there is something disturbing about that.

Sometimes when I want to sit and chill with a book….you know, just sink into a cushy chair and lose myself in the story….I can’t. I’ve tried! And it’s super annoying. I wish I could be in the moment and let the world’s infinite waterfall of words shower over me and hydrate my literary pores…but I can’t! I see people doing it: my wife does it, my children do it…those strangely familiar coffee drinkers at Barnes and Noble do it…and they all look so content, so fulfilled! I don’t smile, I don’t frown, I don’t laugh, I don’t cry….I just…explicate! That gene that allows us to sit and chill with a book, I don’t think I have it. I wish I did. I’ve got the analytical gene, and it demands I comprehend the subtext and figurative language of everything I read. I tend to look for it all – every nook and cranny of meaning and technique – instead of trusting and feeling that it’s all there. Argh! I’m doing it all wrong!

I’m depressed now.

Image result for piles of booksOK…shake it off, Freedman. There has to be some good in how I read. I mean, I still love the act of reading….I must, I do it all the time. If I didn’t like to read the way I read I wouldn’t be teaching English! There’s something so awesome about looking at a piece of literature and seeing the blueprints and the nuts and bolts of another individual’s creation. It’s empowering…like a superpower.

I just realized what it’s like: it’s like that last scene in The Matrix when Neo, the protagonist, finally sees the coded truth of the construct in which he’s been living. In this moment he is liberated….set free by the restrictions of lies….he’s liberated by the truth. All those green vertical lines of code are the truth…like the horizontal lines  of text I so effortlessly deliberate over.

Image result for neoHoly *&#!, I’m Neo! That’s it. I am Neo in a black overcoat fighting assassin computer programs, except I am short and bald…and an English teacher.

That’s how I read.

MATTHEW FREEDMAN, GROUND-BREAKING EDUCATOR, ARTIST AND ACTIVIST, DIES AT 91

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Matthew Freedman, the pre-eminent New York educator, poet, photographer, and activist whose candid accounts of the classroom and harsh criticism of a bureaucratic educational system changed the academic landscape for generations to come, died yesterday at Kuopio University Hospital in Central Finland. He was 92 years old and split his time between upstate New York, and Finland. He is survived by his wife, the poet Alana Reynolds, son Lowell Spencer, daughter Willa Reid-Freedman, and three grandchildren.

His son Lowell said the cause of death was complications of dementia, contradicting the autopsy performed by Finnish authorities claiming that Mr. Freedman had suffered a massive stroke after attempting to break Finland’s long held Under 99 Nordic sauna record.

Born the son of a doctor and teacher, Mr. Freedman grew up in Oakland, California, devoting his time and attention mostly to the sport of rugby instead of the books. His passion for the game was unrivaled by any other activity in his life. He was fond of saying “give blood, play rugby,” to which his mother, an avid critic of rugby, would respond, “You’re a damn idiot for playing that barbaric game!” It was their often rocky relationship that would be the inspiration behind his prize-winning first book of poems, The Neuralgian.

Tragically at the age of sixteen Mr. Freedman would lose his older brother to Leukemia; it was this loss and his sudden rise to fame, he admitted to the NY Times in 2035, that gave him a greater understanding of what he called “life’s temperamental ebb and flow,” a term he made famous in his last book of poems, Predictable Surprises. It was the loss of his brother to which he often attributed his obsession with human behavior: “Man lives in a state of fear if he lives without a sense of urgency.”

Mr. Freedman graduated from Brooklyn College, received his MFA in poetry from the New School for Social Research, and then took the hardest English job he could find in NY City’s public schools. It was at Park West HS in Hell’s Kitchen that Mr. Freedman experienced for the first time how truly segregated and broken the institution of education was in America. It was there that he immediately began accumulating the experiences that would fuel his lifelong advocacy for student’s rights in America.

In 1999 Mr. Freedman quit his job as a teacher, filling instead the job of screenwriter for a friend’s documentary about the religious sect of Indian men known as Sadhus. It was on the banks of the Ganges that Mr. Freedman began reading the works of Rab Tagore, the 20th century Hindu mystic, poet, and thinker that would have an everlasting effect on the way he perceived the pains of the world. However, this job was short-lived, as Mr. Freedman suffered severe injuries from a bus crash in northern India. It was this experience which inspired the poem “Patankot,” the city from which he’d departed:  Chewed over / Like decomposed steel / the value of life wanes in the eyes of your taker.

After a long and grueling rehabilitation, Freedman took up teaching again, this time in Brooklyn. A year later he married Alana Reynolds, his long time partner, editor, and fellow writer. In 2004 Ms. Reynolds gave birth to their first child, Lowell, introducing into his mind for the first time the possibility of moving out of the city. In 2006 Mr. Freedman relocated his family to Beacon, NY, taking a job teaching English at Newburgh Free Academy in Newburgh, NY. The following October their second child, Willa, was born.

In 2018 Mr. Freedman received the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching to Finland. It had been his dream to move his family for a year to a Nordic country, an area so completely removed from what he called his “American habit” that he would be given a unfiltered glimpse into the ever-evolving chaos of education. It was in a Finland where Mr. Freedman performed his ground-breaking research on what he called “3 Space Humanitarianism”, and began to compile a body of work that would eventually take the name of The Paradigm House. It was this collection of essays and photographs that brought Mr. Freedman international acclaim as a writer and educator, and ultimately job offers from numerous institutions around the world. Over the next twenty-five years Mr. Freedman taught at such institutions as UC Berkeley, the University of Helsinki, Howard College, the University of Chicago, and Brooklyn College where he held the prestigious Albert G. Whiteside chair in Social Visual Media.

On top of being a guest professor and lecturer, Mr. Freedman won numerous awards for The Paradigm House, the most prestigious being the MacArthur Human Rights Award. Initially, this attention and financial security brought him much gratification, though it soon became a distraction, and ultimately the reason he stopped teaching altogether. “Success,” he once wrote, “shackles the mind and spoils the soul.” The last teaching position he held was in a small village in upstate NY. He was 67.

Not much is known about Mr. Freedman’s life after teaching, but it’s been well-documented through the poems and photographs he published up until his death that student and teacher rights were two dominant themes in his work. Of his family even less is known. Mr. Freedman was deeply private in his later years, sharing only the smallest of details with his students and co-workers.

His eccentric hard-boiled sense of humor, cutting intellect and devotion to basic kindness will be missed.

                                               

FREEDMAN’S ADVICE: BE CURIOUS, NOT JUDGEMENTAL

First off, I have to admit that this is not my advice in the sense that it originated from me; this is Walt Whitman’s from his book of poems, Leaves of Grass. . .and lately it’s been trending because of the amazing Apple TV show Ted Lasso. Nonetheless, I’m going to cite it as my own because I love it! 

For me, there seems no easier way to avoid conflict in this life than to embrace curiosity as your priority. In my experience, things seem to work out when my purpose is to understand. On the flip side, things usually head south pretty quickly when I judge! Not that judging is something I don’t do — I judge. . .I’m human — but when I slow things down and aim to understand something, I remove all the fears and worries and blind spots in my life, and that usually means I’m heading in the right direction. 

We judge what we fear; and we fear what we don’t understand. 

So, if I was to give one piece of advice it would be this:  Be curious, not judgemental. And I would give it to literally every single registered voter in the United States (and the world, for that matter). I think if we could all do a little less judging of the people we elect to run our country, we might just raise the bar for what qualifies as good leadership. In my experience, the act of judging is not the act of thinking, it is the act of pointing fingers. When I step into the voting booth I want to feel confident that I have thought through the pros and cons of every candidate on the ballot. I want to be informed! I don’t want to simply vote for someone because they’re Republican or Democrat or Independent; I want to feel confident voting for a candidate because I took the time to ask questions about the issues they stand for, the experience they bring to the table, and the plan they offer to do what’s right, not simply what’s easy.

The act of going into a voting booth and casting my ballot just because the candidate is associated with some political party I tend to agree with does not seem like thinking, it seems like the judgment of the other candidate. 

You know what, I’m going to expand my audience scope here! This advice is also aimed at you future voters.  One day you might find yourself walking into your local polling place, and my hope is that you do so with your eyes wide open, not your heart filled with fear. In that moment, in all that excitement, I want you to take that deepest of deep breaths . . . inhale, exhale . . . and remind yourself: Be curious, not judgemental!

I WENT TO THE WOODS…(AKA PRESENTLY)

When I was a kid, I wanted to live my life recklessly, irresponsibly, defiantly…because I thought that was how one eventually lived peerlessly.

When I was 21, I wanted to live my life unconventionally, autonomously, misanthropically…because I thought that was how one eventually lived artistically.

When I fell in love, I wanted to live amorously, fervently, vulnerably…because I thought that was how one eventually lived happily ever after.

When I realized I wanted to be an educator, I wanted to live intellectually, authoritatively, pedagogically…because I thought that was how one eventually taught.

When I began gardening, I wanted to live organically.

When my children were born, I wanted to live paternally.

When I began getting middle age chubby and sedentary, I wanted to live calorie-less-ly and aerobically.

When I…when I…when I.

When the world began to turn on itself, to stop listening, to continue killing, to ignore the promise to pursue truth and instead commit to righteous ignorance, I began to live silently, distrustfully, cynically…because I thought it all too much…

When I knew there could be no more when…I learned to live.

THE BEGINNING OF FREEDMAN’S END

Image result for you're lateIt began when I woke. The thick, oppressive eyelids of a long, summer hibernation. The feeling that a lead apron had been dropped over my face. Then, limited focus. Not a blur, but the unwillingness to wake and be conscious. Then, the heavy head. Then, the inhospitable air. Then, the face, not mine – unsmiling, though not angry – muted with the look that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That face, that look…that was my mother. It was the first day of my senior year, and I was late.

The first day began inauspiciously: late to Mr. Waxdeck’s first period biology class, one black dress sock and one purple rugby sock, summer assignment incomplete, no believable excuse at the ready. I had been warned about this, too: Mr. Austin, guidance counselor, smiling in disbelief as I performed my “no college, only travel” monologue at the end of my junior year. “You know, Matt,” he said with that irritating “I know what’s best” look, “the pursuit of college will keep you in line your senior year. Without that Grail you will be without purpose. I don’t recommend it.” First off, I don’t like Holy Grail metaphors on a Spring day; but here he was comparing my senior year, which had not even begun, to the search for the cup Christ supposedly drank out of, and it really hit home….and not in a good way. “But I’m Jewish,” I blurted, and shrugged my shoulders, and walked out.

Image result for sleeping in class black and white photoSo, sitting in Waxdeck’s class, listening to him drone on about his precious syllabus, the California fog rolling in through the Eucalyptus trees, the first period of the first day of the last year of my high school career, Austin’s words echoing in my head, I began my “pursuit” in a slightly different way than Sir Launcelot: I fell asleep.

I would like to say that after that imprudent and unpromising start that I pulled myself together, screwed my head on straight and banged out the last nine months of high school like an academic rock star, but I can’t. My senior year was hard! Unforgiving! And seemingly never-ending!!  And to this day I still remember the mistakes I made in 1988 as if they were an unappetizing snack from an hour ago; and to this day I still remember the apologies uttered and the looks of disappointment I earned from my teachers and parents and friends who pleaded with me to right the ship and finish. That, I won’t lie to you, was not fun to bear.

And now for the happy part: 

I graduated…(yeeeah)….and with a hideous dent in my overall GPA…(boooo); but….I graduated wiser, more mjfgradconscious of how I dealt with stress, challenges, expectations, closure…the whole bag. I learned way too many things about myself that year to consider it a waste or a failure. And to this day I gladly share this story with my 12th graders because at one time or another over those potentially dangerous last nine months of high school, their senior year will challenge the complete human, not simply the academic, and finding themselves in that middle ground between those two identities is the best graduation present they can give themselves.

FREEDMAN’S EXIT INTERVIEW: MOM (A repost from 2018)

First off, I have to admit that I have been assigning “The Exit Interview” for over 10 years, and for over 10 years I’ve been interviewing someone different each year. It’s been fun…I’ve interviewed fellow teachers, old friends, the woman that sells me coffee, dead literary figures! However, I’ve never interviewed my dear, sweet, darling mother….and that left me with a profound sense of guilt! To give you an idea of who my mother is, I need only utter two words: “loyal” and “loving”. Deana Kalman Freedman is intense, devoted, sincere and intelligent; she is the type of person who will always consider your question like it’s the only thing in the world at that moment. She is also an ex-teacher, so she is religiously prepared and rarely does anything without a goal in mind. When I was a teenager, she was always there to listen, but she was also there to act as well. Deana Freedman has never lived life from the sideline….she is always in the game.

So, a few days ago I texted mother Freedman (“Bubbie” to her grandchildren) and asked her to let me interview her….and, of course, like the doting mother she is, she immediately texted me back with the sweetest of replies:

See the need to be prepared!?

Jump forward to that evening…post dinner, post children’s homework, post soccer practice…the plan was to record the Facetime conversation on my son’s phone. My expectations were low (concerning the technology of this plan)…and I was pleasantly surprised.

Being who I am (verbose <- SAT word), I prefaced my questions with a loooooong reminder of how it went when I graduated and quickly moved out.

Her answer was perfect mom – a sprinkle of nostalgia, a splash of the old testament, a dollop of realism:

My follow up got her thinking about how I understood and applied her message…whether she feels it got through…and how moving out, college (and life in general) was influenced by it.

I concluded with a simple request. I wanted something specific and directly aimed at my seniors…something they could take with them.

Reflection:

I loved this experience (even though my kids bugged me through the whole thing!).

If I’m being truly, truly honest, unlike the other ten times I did this, there was a deeply personal obligation to really hear my subject, not simply nod and listen and “get the gist.” There is no fooling my mother – not that I tried to fool her or my previous subjects – and that informed not only what I asked her but how I asked her. She’s my mom….I suppose there are only so many ways I can speak to her without love influencing me. I loved her advice; it was smart and sensible and definitely true to who she is and how she lives her life.

It is funny: it doesn’t matter how old you get, how many arguments you’ve had, how many birthdays or anniversaries you’ve missed, your mom will always be your mom….and moms always love their kids….and speaking with her for this assignment was truly one of the perks of being her son.