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Yes, He Does Digress

Teacher Barry Smolin, the `soul' of Hamilton High's humanities magnet, favors robust inquiry over rote testing. His subject? Life itself.

June 09, 2006|James Ricci | 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,

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.

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.

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,, 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."

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