After I posted my new inBubbleWrap article and giveaway last week, a friend commented with a link to a This American Life story which looked into the validity of Steve Poizner’s written account of his time at Mount Pleasant, the high school where he, a successful Silicon Valley business man, volunteered to teach for a year in the early 2000’s.
The accusation against Poizner is that he greatly exaggerated just how downtrodden the school and its students really were. He describes the neighborhood as having “[y]ellowing, weedy gardens” and “driveways marred by large oil spots or broken down cars,” the school itself as “painted a surly brown” with “a big portal onto the campus…like the entrance to a cave.” The administrator is “dull,” many of the teachers biased against his Republican conservatism, the kids underprivileged and inattentive, if not down-right dangerous, and the classrooms “[b]athed in the harsh light of overhead fluorescent bulbs, the space…as uninviting as an interrogation room.” Poizner uses statistics regarding teen pregnancies, violence and state standards to drive the point home that there was some risk in his decision to teach at Mount Pleasant.
This American Life pokes a number of holes in Poizner’s recollections of Mount Pleasant and the desperate state of the school, but toward the end of the story, several people are interviewed who give Poizner a pass on the alleged hyperbole and support his commitment to teaching, and his representation of the poor academic performance of the school.
Poizner refutes any implication that he “got it wrong” when Ira Glass pushes him on the subject during their interview included in the This American Life piece, and I think this point of view is, in one way, defensible. Last summer, I took a week-long nonfiction memoir writing workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I have always had an interest in memoir and continue to write down my own story periodically. One of the recurring questions for our professor, a published memoirist, was just how accurate our writing, our recollections of the past, had to be. Many memoir and nonfiction writers are gun-shy after the drama of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was outed to be more fiction than nonfiction and other such books were put on trial.
The answer: be as truthful as possible, but know that it is “your” truth and don’t subscribe that truth to another person. Memory is slippery, relative, individual, a changeling. In an article in The Washington Post in 2009, writer Karl Taro Greenfeld reflects on the making of memories.
Memory, neuroscientists now believe, is a pattern or grouping of neighboring neurons firing in the brain in reproduction of the initial pattern that fired when the actual experience happened. Each time that experience is recalled, it triggers a similar pattern of neurons, thus strengthening the memory while at the same time altering it; the grouping may lose a few neurons and gain a few new ones. A memory, in other words, is nothing more than a chemical reaction that is subject to the same variations and inconsistencies as any other human endeavor; we can be no more sure of the accuracy of our recollections than we can be of, say, the accuracy of the next foul shot in basketball. A falsehood can be deposited in the brain and reinforced almost as easily as a true-life experience. Memory is fallible, we all acknowledge that, yet a memoirist is expected to report a version that is true to life.
In other words, if Poizner felt there was a risk in driving his Lexus to Mount Pleasant high school, that emotion could certainly have altered his memory of those first days at the school. For him, the job was high-risk, not only due to his perception of actual danger, but because he was personally taking on a challenge–teaching with no teaching experience outside of his managerial expertise and the odd sales presentation.
So what happens when a nonfiction writer like Poizner writes something that many say is simply an impossibility, or a misrepresentation? Greenfeld explains:
So if a memoirist’s job, on some level, is to sift through and filter those experiences that somehow added up to the person the writer is today, and to present those in some form, chronological or categorical or geographical, that has an internal or narrative logic, then what does one make of a memory — that is, the chemical processes that create a memory — that simply could not have happened? Perhaps that process influenced the memoirist even more than the actual events. Putting aside for a second the need to entertain the reader and the murkier issues of commerce that can also influence a writer’s decision to include or exclude material, and assuming that I am acting in good faith here, then what do I do with the memory that simply could not have happened?
While it is more Poizner’s perspective that is in question more than his facts, this point about “good faith” is worth considering in regards to Poizner’s book. Another criticism of Poizner’s book is that he wrote the book (and perhaps took the teaching job) to further his political career, that he created additional risk in his presentation of the school to make his actions shine brighter. That’s a tough judgment to make since every book has an agenda of some sort, even if it is simply to tell a good story, or as Greenfeld mentions, “murkier issues of commerce, “just as it can be expected that accusations against his work may have an agenda driving them as well.
Clearly Poizner is using his experience teaching at Mount Pleasant as a launching pad for his support and creation of charter school and to shore up his experience base to reference during his run for California governor. Did his alleged misrepresentation of Mount Pleasant harm the school and its students and teachers? Or did it bring singular attention to the school that perhaps improves the school in the future?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, but as I wrote in my inBubbleWrap editorial and as Ira Glass mentions in his This American Life piece about Poizner, public school systems are struggling, many are struggling more desperately than Mount Pleasant, and it is the responsibility of all to find solutions. Regardless of speculation over Poizner’s personal agenda or his perceptions, one hopes his book and his work in that school may cause some to look at how they can serve their community schools personally.
What do you think? Does Poizner get a free pass due to his good intentions and the relativity of memory? Or do his valid deductions lose credence due to his allegedly questionable presentation of the school and its students? Does this controversy make you more or less likely to pick up Mount Pleasant? Might the book still inspire you despite the questions?