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Yes, He Does Digress

Times Staff Writer

By negative definition, a digression is not a digression if all things are connected.

Which is why Barry Smolin, who is supposed to be teaching James Joyce, is kneeling on a desk in the middle of his classroom, giving a dramatic reading of Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”

He is a small man of 45 in black jeans and chalk-dusted black T-shirt. As 31 high school seniors listen, more or less rapt, he intones:

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

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Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

“Dylan Thomas,” Smolin says, “is talking about wise men who tried to shed light on the world and at the end realize they failed. Life, in other words, sucks, but even so, they don’t want to die -- they still rage, rage against the dying of the light. It’s like Woody Allen said in ‘Annie Hall’ -- do you guys know that movie? -- life is full of pain, misery and suffering, but it’s over all too quickly.”

Smolin actually is teaching Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man” to his sweat-shirted charges in the humanities magnet program at Alexander Hamilton High School. The novel’s hero, Stephen Dedalus, has written a villanelle, a rigorously structured 19-line poem, and to illustrate that form, Smolin digresses to the Thomas work because it’s one of the best villanelles in English.

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To Smolin, a penchant for digression is “a sign of an active mind making connections.” Thus he leads the students from the poem to the disquisition about death, and then back to the Joyce text, and Dedalus’ refusal to perform his Easter duty (Catholics’ mandatory taking of communion around Easter time) with the declaration, “I will not serve.”

Another juicy digression having wandered into range, Smolin pounces. “Who recognizes that language?” he asks. “It’s what the angel Lucifer supposedly said to God before he was cast out of heaven to become Satan.” He strides to the blackboard and writes the Latin: “Non serviam -- I will not serve.”

As reflected in his teaching, Smolin’s ultimate subject isn’t James Joyce or arcane poetic forms, but the unity of the life experience, a concept reflected in his own life as educator, father of three, pianist, singer/songwriter, disc jockey, poet and blogger.

“As I see it,” he says, “it’s all teaching.”

Smolin represents a breed of idiosyncratic, intellectual and classroom-loving teachers who seem to have slipped from visibility during their profession’s government-mandated preoccupation with quantifying student achievement via frequent testing.

Smolin leaves no doubt as to where he stands on the matter. “These tests are eating up horrendous numbers of instructional hours,” he says, noting that 10th-graders in the humanities magnet surrender as many as 30 class periods to standardized tests over the academic year. Schools are “trying to educate kids by testing them all the time, and it doesn’t work.”

Not that his students, selected as they are, do poorly on such tests. But their success, he says, is due at least in part to the way he and his colleagues in the humanities magnet approach their work -- alternately stimulating and feeding students’ hunger for cultural literacy, rather than teaching for test scores.

“I am of the school that believes great teaching is an art, not a science, a mixture of equal parts magic and alchemy, reliant on the personality of the teacher, his relationship with his students, and his mastery of the subject matter, a process that cannot be codified into some sort of recipe book or instructional manual,” he says.

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Smolin has been referred to as the “soul” of the magnet program. “He’s in a class by himself, in the sense that I’ve met and had a lot of teachers in my life and he’s different from all of them,” says Dan Victor, a veteran English teacher in the program. “He’s right up there at the top in terms of being inspirational.”

All great literature, Smolin likes to tell his students, is about loneliness and death, and yet the inevitability of the latter is the source of life’s creative urgency and potential for joy. Such opposites might seem irreconcilable, but the buckle of great literature joins them. To grasp this, he tells them, you must read, closely and with passion, and you will see that literature resonates in a fundamental way with your own life.

Selling this concept to adolescents in the age of music-on-demand and Internet blogs is not a simple matter. If doing so requires leaping from atop his desk or reciting 18th century poetry as a rap artist might, Smolin obliges.

Both on his website, www.mrsmolin.com, and in the classroom, Smolin’s vocabulary “is remarkably free and open,” says Victor, “and that’s part of his ability to relate to his students.”

In a recent class, Smolin told his students that he knows when he’s encountered great art “because my nipples get hard -- really. They do.”

Smolin does not shrink from sexual references when appropriate to the subject matter, or from raw language familiar to his students. He says he’s never had complaints from parents or administrators about his expressive language, either in class or in his writings or songs, the latter of which reflect a decidedly left-leaning and iconoclastic mind. “He’s very provocative, very stimulating,” says L.A. Unified administrator Michelle King, until recently the principal at Hamilton High. “Every class of his I visited, the students’ attentions were riveted on him. Parents wanted their kids to be in his classes.”

Smolin’s contributions often become apparent to his students only after they’ve left high school. “The kind of reading Barry does -- the love and also the intensity with which he devours texts -- is rare even among graduate students,” says Karen Spira, 29, a former Smolin student and Brown University graduate now studying for a doctorate at UC Berkeley.

“Barry’s really unlike any other teacher I’ve ever had,” she says. “He teaches [that] we have a tremendous stake in what’s going on in literature, that it helps students come to terms with what it means to be alive in the world.”

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Smolin is known also for the personal interest he takes in individual students. Spira credits him with getting her off the waiting list and into the freshman class at highly competitive Brown by making repeated telephone calls to the university’s admissions office.

In two decades of teaching, first at his alma mater, Fairfax High, and for the last 14 years in the humanities magnet on the Robertson Boulevard campus, Smolin has helped many a bright but recalcitrant student onto a path toward a more satisfying life, says David Peters, a 32-year-old former student.

He is himself an example, Peters says. “In high school I was definitely an underachiever and pretty antisocial.” Entering Smolin’s class at Fairfax High was “like stepping into another world. Barry was always either playing music, jumping onto his desk, sword fighting with his students or having everyone laughing to tears. His goal was to convince us that learning was the most exciting thing going on.”

Smolin “really made me reach out and want to connect to the world. After two years of his classes, I wanted to travel the world and share with people this beautiful experience called life.”

Peters, by way of the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University Law School, now lives in Japan, where he is a lawyer.

Because of Smolin’s many passions, his typical weekday is distinctly manic. He rises before 6 a.m. and is in his classroom from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Because his wife, Jill, who works in movie special effects, is often tied up in meetings, Smolin helps his own children with their homework and makes dinner for the family before turning to laundry and dirty dishes. Afterward, he grades papers and prepares for the next day’s class. Finally, around 10 p.m., he gives himself over to writing songs or composing the opinionated, sometimes experimental prose that appears on his website.

He usually goes to bed around 2 a.m.

“It’s crazy, I know, but there’s this buzzing current always moving through me and I can’t stop doing what I do,” he says.

He’s had to make some concessions, limiting himself, for example, to playing one music gig a month. On a recent Friday night, performing as “Mister Smolin” -- his classroom persona suffices both onstage and on his new CD, “Apogee” -- he appeared at the Taix Lounge in Echo Park.

“Good evening, class,” he said by way of introduction to the late-dinner and bar crowd. Clad in black and wearing a brim-down hat, he performed lead vocals and played electric piano on a four-song set of idiosyncratic original tunes. He was accompanied by old friends, guitarist Harvey Canter and bassist Carl Sealove, and got occasional help on guitar from his 15-year-old daughter Phoebe, who’s also one of his ninth-grade students.

The songs’ lyrics reflected his sometimes impish delight in language -- handsome stallions/And young rapscallions ... I lost my heart to Mata Hari ... She chewed me up like calamari -- and his insistence on freedom of thought -- Bible Torah Koran/Go stick them in the ground/Let’s knock this gulag down, boys/Let’s knock this gulag down.

Two nights later he sat in a dimly lighted studio at KPFK-FM (90.7), and, when 9 p.m. struck, crooned into the microphone, “Greetings, freak peoples and misfit minions, mutant multitudes, far-out fellow fringe folk, crispy critters, disembodied thought-forms grab a fat slice of beautiful truth open wide your calibrated brain, and breathe.”

Smolin’s show, “The Music Never Stops,” runs two hours on Sunday nights and always includes an extended segment by the Grateful Dead.

Smolin was born in Los Angeles, and his boyhood playground was the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, where his podiatrist father had an office. He went to Fairfax High, which in the mid-1970s teemed with bright, imaginative students. “Fairfax High at that time was the center of middle-class Jewish Los Angeles,” he recalls, “and when you put a bunch of smart Jews together, something’s going to happen.”

He ran with a crowd that was artsy and iconoclastic (on his website he recounts how he and his friends once arranged for one of their number to run naked and screaming through a crowd of Hasidic Jews as the latter emerged from temple on the Sabbath).

Teachers at Fairfax fired his passion for literature and art. Although he hoped to be a writer and musician, as he grew older he began to sense that teaching was his real mission in life. Ultimately, he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from Cal State Northridge, and teacher certification from UCLA.

To Smolin’s thinking, a good teacher has mastery over his subject, personal warmth and respect for students as individual human beings, and a keen sense of humor.

“What it takes these days to hold their attention is, you have to be entertaining,” he says. “I’m careful to make sure they’re not just watching me like a television show, though. My teaching can’t be more important than the material.”

Present-day students, he says, are awash in electronic visual and aural stimulation and have to be convinced of the benefits of immersing themselves in Joyce and Homer. “They don’t know how to allow their imaginations to be elevated. What I’m trying to teach is, you read this stuff and it changes your life. It transports one like no other medium.”

Nonetheless, young people have an affinity for great literature, he believes, and it can be coaxed out via references to the familiar in modern adolescent life. To his ninth-graders, who are reading “The Iliad,” for example, he draws parallels between the fatalism and cascading language of ancient Greek epics and the Quentin Tarantino films “Kill Bill” and “Reservoir Dogs.”

Of all his pursuits, classroom teaching is what he does best, he says. So long as what he calls “the trend to turn teachers into clerks who administer tests” remains at bay outside his classroom door, he’ll continue doing it. “I’m still always excited to go teach school in the morning,” he says. “I get to spend all day with these beautiful young people. I still definitely have the fire and the eagerness, and I’m one of the few people who’s actually optimistic about this generation of kids.”

Nonetheless, his teaching, he cautions, is not to be separated from his other pursuits. His insistence on being free to express himself on his website and before a microphone, he says, is a vital lesson for his students because those passions aren’t mere digressions but part of a garment from which the extracting of one thread unravels the whole.

“My work is very public, and any parent can read or listen to what I put out there,” he says. “But I make no apologies for it, and nobody could stop me. If being a teacher meant I couldn’t put that stuff out there, I wouldn’t teach anymore.”


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