The purposeful path is nice, but the fringes will delight

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the Times

POSTED:   12/26/2013 12:00:00 AM MST


When a page turns, there is a new story, or a new chapter to an old story. The charm and challenge in life is to make the story, be it old or new, count for something.

My father used to tell me that before a man walks a mile he should ask himself what he expects to find on the road. This is important, for a journey of purpose will take that man five miles, not one. Purpose brings on discovery, which in turn makes the man “strong in will to strive, to seek, to find.” Thus is life lengthened and enriched.

As a page in the calendar gets ready to turn to bring us to a new year, I remember my father’s wisdom, for it has served me well on many occasions, and I resolve, where new journeys begin, to embrace it to the fullest.

The shortest distance between points A and B is a straight line as long as destination is our focus. What if we shift that focus to embrace the journey itself? Then does the curve and all the tributaries of pathways that define it take on significance and cast the straight path into penury.

When I was teaching, I started each morning by asking myself this question: “Where am I going today, and what do I expect to find on the road?” Odd as it may seem, I would get to school well ahead of the starting bell, close the classroom door behind me, and meditate on this question.

Can an encounter with Leonardo da Vinci in a poem lead us, courtesy of a detour, to a discussion of art, architecture and mathematics? The answer is “yes,” of course, because the Renaissance man could design a canal and delve into a mathematical problem just as easily as he could paint a fresco.

A poem itself is petaled in many directions, but with foresight and vision, we can turn it into a cathedral of magnificence or a machine of elegant complexity.

Can a day’s path be changed because a turtle appears on our doorstep with rain on its back, or an injured dove looks for succor from inside a tuft of tall grass in the yard? Most certainly, and just as surely as a child’s question can change the planned trajectory of a lesson towards new turf.

Peter Matthiessen went in search of the snow leopard in the Dolpo region of the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas. He did not find the snow leopard but he discovered diverse treasures along the way.

A man who travels with a purpose has a place to go to, but he is also willing to set his compass towards destinations that are not marked on the map.

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” asked Andrea del Sarto in Browning’s poem by that name.

One can proceed cautiously between the here and now, where “all is silver-gray, placid and perfect,” to catch the light just so, at just such and such an angle, or run around the corner to a single delight perched in the mouth of serendipity, to change the climate of the place and the heart.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote that “there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, no matter where it is going.” In other words, the very idea of travel is imbued with romance when we allow discovery to set new destinations.

As so often happens, a walk to the lotus pond becomes distracted by a girl wearing jasmine in her hair.

The great art of living is in knowing the many paths that intersect with the main road, and being prepared for all the ones that might connect by happenstance and surprise.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. Email address:

The stranger, the mistletoe girl, and a surprise envelope

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

POSTED:   12/19/2013 12:00:00 AM MST


The young girl set up her table in the park. She then reached into a large bag and took out several Christmas ornaments that she had crafted from mistletoe cut from her uncle’s farm.

The day held promise, and she sported a smile full of white teeth as she attached a homemade sign advertising her wares to the front of the table.

“Whatever money I make will help me get a set of braces,” she told herself.

Every so often she looked inside the can that sat at the edge of the table and inspected its contents.

“The lunch hour will bring more customers,” she told herself.

That was the case, but the afternoon also brought a surprise in the form of a security guard.

“Young lady,” said the guard, in a gruff and authoritarian voice, “do you have a permit to be selling things in the park?”

The girl was taken aback. “No, sir,” she replied.

“I must ask you to move on, then. City ordinance says you can’t be here.”

Just at this juncture, a robust voice introduced a new man to the scene.

The man’s size, clothing, and white beard gave him an avuncular look. In a booming voice, the man spoke as though he was speaking for himself and the guard. “What lovely ornaments. Officer, can’t you let her stay? No, I suppose not. You must do your job, and I must do mine.”

The man then turned to the girl and said, “Let me take a picture of you. A big smile, if you will … The Mistletoe Girl. And I know your story already. And here’s an envelope for you. A small present. Open it on Christmas Eve.”

The guard had surprised the girl when he burst upon the scene, and now the sudden appearance of the jolly old man, his one-sided conversation, and equally sudden exit convinced her that the day had gone awry.

“What an odd fellow,” she said to herself. “I wonder why he took a picture. And what’s in the envelope?”

The girl’s reverie was broken by the guard’s voice. “C’mon, c’mon. Got to get moving. I haven’t got all day.”

The Christmas tree in the girl’s house was a real one; it had been cut from her uncle’s farm. At its base lay a small arrangement of presents, most of them recognizable by their shapes. One was a mystery: the envelope.

On Christmas Eve when it was time to open presents, the girl could barely contain her excitement. She also braced herself for potential disappointment. After all, the man was a stranger, and most definitely on the eccentric side.

“Why, it’s a newsletter,” said the mother, as the girl pulled out a sheet of paper from the envelope and unfolded it. “And look, your picture is on the front.”

“That’s the picture the man took of me in the park,” the girl said.

The father read the story. It was all about his daughter: a short, biographical sketch that toward the end introduced the mistletoe ornaments and the need for the girl to raise money to buy braces.

Attached to the newsletter was a handwritten note. It read: “I have received advance orders from my readers for your mistletoe ornaments. I will let you know how many in a future newsletter. My reindeers and I will take care of next year’s delivery. Payments have been deposited in a bank account established in your name. Merry Christmas, Santa.”

The girl flung her arms first around her mother, then her father, and then her uncle, and gave each a hearty hug. “It’s going to be an awesome Christmas,” she said, showing a flash of teeth that soon would have braces on them. After a pause she mused: “I wonder how the newsletter got inside the envelope.”

Ramnath Subramanian is a retired public-school teacher. E-mail address:

Education has many doors of entry, but passion is key

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 12/12/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

Once I entered college, I never took any classes in English literature. In the Indian system of education, one chose one’s major at the start, and mine was physics. Consequently, my collegiate years were devoted entirely to physics, mathematics, and statistics.

Some people are surprised to discover this piece of information about me. “Your columns are so full of literary allusions that I assumed your schooling was in literature,” a friend said to me once. “Besides, you’ve had several books of poetry published. That does not fit in with the trajectory of a physicist.”

“I am self-taught in English literature,” I said. “However, I cannot discount the delectable immersion in fiction and poetry that I received during my high-school years. I could quote Emerson’s ‘Brahma’ just as readily as Browning’s ‘Andrea del Sarto.'”

The seeds of English literature were so deeply planted in me at an early age that even as I tackled the Carnot Cycle and Coulomb’s Law in college, I felt the compulsion, in whatever time there was left, to read books that led me dancingly from Apollinaire to Zola.

It was while I was sojourning in Germany and teaching astronomy for the international division of the University of Chicago that a registrar, who was well versed in liberal arts, half-jokingly suggested that I should take the GRE literature In English test.

This appealed to me for a good score on the test would point to mastery of the subject matter emphasized in the undergraduate curricula of English literature.

“It would earn you college-level credits, as well,” the registrar added, sweetening the idea.

I bring up these matters merely to point out that while a lecture on “Lycidas” delivered by a professor at Yale can be illuminating, it is not necessary for the understanding and appreciation of this pastoral elegy by Milton.

I have read this poem several dozen times, in diverse moods and milieu, and each time I have gathered new insights and new appreciation. Were I but a formal, degree-seeking student, it is possible I would have set “Lycidas” aside soon after the professor had rendered a grade.

Ironically, that which we are passionate about in non-materialistic terms, yields material benefits, if material be counted by the ambit of the mind.

For the record, I must state that I passed the GRE test with flying colors.

We may enter education through many doors, and more importantly, we may spin that education into the finest yarn and most regal of clothing, as long as what we take fancy to and our passion are walking side by side.

I have long held the belief that a primary and important goal of education is to get students enthused about what they are learning. There can be no doubt that a student who discovers magic in the subject he is attending to, will build a school for himself and become its most distinguished teacher.

A good education can land one in a great job and lead to a sanguine lifestyle, but it has another function and usefulness that is rarely talked about: to quote Thomas Fuller, “Learning makes a man fit company for himself.”

A student of mine who became an accomplished cellist once told me that she was most grateful for music for it was like a friend to her. “Whenever I feel sad or things are not going my way, I go to my room and play the cello. It smooths out the rough edges and brings harmony.”

I, too, found harmony in literary peregrinations. Many were the times when turning the pages of a trusted book or revisiting a poem of rare elegance and beauty took me to a place that was brisk with joy and rejuvenating powers.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. E-mail address:

The word of the year proves we can’t help ourselfies

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 12/05/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

The word of the year, according to researchers at the Oxford English Dictionary, is “selfie.” Prodigious use of the new word gave it the crown. The announcement says two things about our contemporary culture: it is narcissistic; and, it is superficial.

For those who are living in the shadows of social media — I happily count myself in that population — a “selfie” is a picture one takes of oneself, usually with a cell phone, and then posts on Internet sites for sharing.

So popular is this sport that even the pope has succumbed to its allure.

A “selfie” can create a buzz around what one is wearing — a smile or a new hat — or what one is not wearing. New technology has made it possible for people to share their puerile and reckless ways. Demure demurs and takes to a path of fashionable defiance.

A quick lean away from the lens, a click, and something pedestrian or tawdry gains currency.

In fact, the more that something leans toward the outrageous or the sensational, the greater the odds that the posting will go viral, and perhaps even land on the evening news.

All of this could be dismissed as being quite silly were it not for the fact that the cultural trend steeped in the empty self has implications for society.

Add to the idea of “selfie” miles and miles of inane text, and a condition is created wherein people no longer hear words that curve upward.

Then does the rose lose all its beauty to common color and picayune phrase.

In class, as in other places, teens wait tensely for the small tinkling sound announcing the arrival of some new posting on the tiny screen of their cell phones.

This triviality is so burdened with expectation that a youngster would forget his food, ignore his girlfriend, and even walk directly into traffic to receive it.

Adults are not immune to this tech disease.

While driving an automobile, a driver may keep one eye on the phone in his lap to see if something new got added to a string of conversation. The more daring will compose a short text message on the go.

Clearly, “selfie” stands for something that powers the modern mind to seek a new landscape for human relations, and to adopt new risks for the journey. It is more than a word.

Like the sirens, it is an enchantress that will draw social-media sailors to shipwreck on fuliginous shores.

“Selfie” is a symbol for a world in which no one notices the length of a politician’s nose or the dexterity of the devil’s hand. Where a small rectangular screen becomes raison d’etre, the earth loses its curvature. In the clutter and cacophony of text, Homer is lost. Swift is swiftly denied, because no one cares for or understands satire. And the Brooklyn Bridge — “O harp and altar, of the fury fused” — loses mettle and might to downcast eyes.

From inside a million-dollar home in America’s suburbia, a young and beautiful woman puts out daily vlogs about nothings: the clothes she is wearing, the haul from a supermarket, details about dinner at a fancy restaurant. Her channel has more than a million subscribers.

On the other hand, a talented teacher who is creating science and math videos struggles to get a few dozen subscribers.

At a university, organizers found it difficult to fill the seats for a lecture on physics delivered by a Nobel-prize winner. Had a Kardashian been brought on, the riot police would have been called to keep the crowds at bay.

“The age demanded an image for its accelerated grimace.” We got it in the form of a word: Selfie.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. E-mail address:

A Breakdown of TPACK: My Understanding of the Theory and What It Means for Education

Just because a teacher uses technology, doesn't mean they know how to teach with technology.  Good teaching practices are embedded in an established pedagogy with an aim to transfer the skills and knowledge laid out in curriculum documents.  * PowToons is an easy-to-use software to create animations. I use this tool with my Grade 8 students quite frequently.

The world is a magical place

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 11/28/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

A robin that was hop-hop-hopping along on a cold November morning espied me looking at a pink rose that had opened in full defiance of the weather, and said, “A lovely day to be singing and dancing, is it not?”

“I am thankful for the day, and your ebullience; and for all the stories you carry on your little wings,” I answered.

“It is the little things in life that matter, after all,” the robin continued. “Look at this Mexican elderberry. Its roots are old and weak, but still it rejoices in every butterfly that flits by, and every cloud that passes overhead. Even in infirmity, it gathers all its strength to put forth clusters of white blossoms for our enjoyment.”

“I, too, am thankful for all the little things. Why, just moments ago, I saw you with your partner performing a ballet in the air. Your flight was perfectly harmonized, as if you knew exactly what was in your partner’s thoughts. That’s a little miracle, is it not?”

“Everything is a miracle,” the robin answered.

“How true,” I said. “A peacock’s feather, a mynah’s song, and a rainbow in the sky — they all stirred strong emotions in my heart when I was only so tall. I knew then that the world had height, and I wanted to touch every aspect of it that was covered in new light.”

I remembered Cato’s soliloquy on the immortality of the soul: “If there is a Power above us, — and that there is, all Nature cries aloud through all her works — He must delight in virtue; and that which He delights in must be happy.”

Across the street, two children came out of their home with springs in their steps, and started playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. The squares on the ground were drawn with flamboyant chalk, and the diagram was a winged bird as tall as the sky.

“I am thankful for children, too,” I said, “for they have pure eyes and pure minds.”

“The tragedy of growing up,” the robin posited, “is that we lose the child in us. Real maturity happens when we rediscover that lost child. It is only for the second child that the sky opens out its charms.”

“Yes indeed,” I said. “Through recovered innocence alone we see the world anew in all its rightful glory.”

An army of white, billowy clouds marched across the sky, waving the flag of man’s accomplishments, from the fire in the cave to the fire across the universe.

“I go from here to there chasing seasons, and I do not know quite how it happens. Much has been accomplished, and much yet needs to be done,” said the robin.

I thought about the perfect ellipse of the earth’s orbit that makes all life possible. I thought about the peculiar dance of water’s density near freezing that keeps the lower strata of ponds and lakes safe for marine life. I thought about the magnet in the hummingbird’s brain that brings it to my yard every spring. I thought about the wonders that remain wonders long after science has connected the spheres and made a bridge of understanding.

“I am thankful for the mind,” I said to the robin, “for it gives us this moment, and all other moments. We may arrive at each day adding and subtracting, carrying joy in one hand and some grief in the other for things that have passed us by, but the world is a magical place, and life is precious.”

“I have my colors and my songs, and I hope I have given pleasure with both, perhaps to touch the speech of angels,” the robin said. With that, he sang a cheery Thanksgiving song, and bid me adieu.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. E-mail address:

When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do

What do good readers do? 
This is a difficult question for any person to answer, as reading comprehension is an invisible process for the most part. A struggling reader cannot see the reading comprehension strategies a strong reader uses when reading. Struggling readers can’t see their classmates re-read, make personal connections, visualize, or make inferences. As a teacher, it is important to make such processes visible in the classroom. Educators must model reading strategies, allow collaborative discussions about reading, and provide opportunities for repeated practice of making meaning of texts.
Recently I read Kylene Beers’ text “When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do - A Guide for Teachers 6-12” in an attempt to better my teaching practices surrounding reading.
Beers lists practical, easy to integrate pre-reading, during reading, and after-reading strategies that educators can implement in their own classroom. She draws on over 20 years of personal experience as both a teacher and reading specialist to share what she has learned and shows teachers how to help struggling readers with:
  • comprehension
  • vocabulary
  • fluency
  • word recognition
  • student motivation
See the following Google Doc for my detailed notes on this textbook.

We need good teachers, not puppets, in our schools

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 11/21/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

A bat costs $1 more than a ball.

Together they cost $1.10.

What is the price of the ball?

This should be a simple math problem to most high-school students, and I would expect them, without use of paper and pencil, to render a correct response inside of 30 seconds using simple algebra.

Yet, more than 50 percent of students at Princeton, M.I.T. and Yale fell into the intuitive trap that might excusably ensnare a sixth grader.

At lesser-known universities, students missing the answer rocketed to as high as 80 percent.

Clearly, we have a serious problem in education.

Public education is supposed to prepare students for college, but the trouble is that it is suffocatingly structured to fit accountability standards, and too much inside the rails of get-them-to-pass-the-test thinking.

I remember a time when I was having a discussion with my students about simple harmonic motion when a visitor — a putative expert in the field of teaching science — walked into my classroom to observe my lesson.

When there was a pause, she sidled up to me, and said, “This is not in your lesson plan.”

“I am ashamed to say,” I admitted, with a touch of humor that might have been lost on her, “that many of the things I teach are not in my lesson plans.”

“It is also not in the sixth-grade curriculum,” she pressed forth, unfurling a sheet of objectives and student expectations.

“Somehow we got involved with the time period of pendulums. It is a fascinating topic, because it can be counter-intuitive. Last week, I was talking to my class about Bernoulli’s Principle. It, too, is not in the curriculum. It, too, can be counter-intuitive.”

The visitor’s countenance betrayed the fact that she did not like my answers.

On another occasion, I was reading aloud from an essay a student had written, when another so-called expert dropped in unannounced.

After she had taken a seat in the back of the room, I continued with my lesson.

“Sarah, you have a fondness for similes,” I said. “More to the truth, you have a great fondness for similes. Your style is euphuistic.”

“What’s that?” asked a boy, less from curiosity, and more from an appetite for conversation.

“It is a style of writing that was popular in the Elizabethan era, and it employed a lot of similes like Sarah does. I will bring some samples to share with you the next time.”

“Sarah uses too many similes,” the boy declared, in a peremptory tone of voice.

“You don’t know anything,” Sarah countered.

“Your writing would be better if you don’t use too many yoo-fyoo things,” the boy insisted, with a flash of invention.

The visitor, I noticed, was taking notes, and I had little doubt that her comments visited dark clouds rather than sunshine.

Today’s classrooms have become dull industries of mediocrity.

They run on predictable schedules.

The topic and pace of lessons are predetermined by bureaucrats masquerading as educators.

The smart teachers with a penchant and talent for teaching tend to succumb to the pressure to conform, or gravitate toward other career choices.

The situation is not helped by a new generation of teachers who themselves are the product of a fractured educational system.

If education is to regain its mettle and luster, if students are to become architects of our future, then good teachers must be restored to their rightful throne, and the kingdom of learning made sanguine again.

Ramnath Subramanian is a retired public-school teacher. E-mail address:

Thinking minds are key to the health of our republic

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the Times

Posted: 11/14/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

If I were called upon to give this age a moniker, I would go with “The Age of Borrowing.” Most people, it seems to me, are willing to live by other peoples’ ideas and calculations. So widespread is the proclivity to lean on others’ thinking that “true” opinion has become as rare a commodity as an honest politician.

People hold positions on a wide variety of subjects, of course, but most often these coincide with those of the political parties they support, or the long-held belief systems of their parents. Any new information that runs counter to these positions is immediately trivialized or deemed to be false. Truth, in other words, sits inside a suffocatingly small box.

“Too often,” wrote John F. Kennedy, “we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

It is so much easier to slip into a uniform than to dress to individual taste and occasion. Thought takes work. Why not just go along with what has been handed down, or what one read in the paper, or heard on the news?

Inside the framework of the universe, a man and his ideas are minuscule in scope. So, there is nothing wrong with borrowing, as long as one inspects each idea for virtue and veracity.

One must take one’s most cherished idea and construct a defense for its antithesis. This exercise is essential, for it alone can accentuate the idea and give it anchor; without it, the idea may just be a chimera masquerading for attention and solicitude.

A man must always have his guard up against verisimilitude.

Personal opinions should be fully and critically examined; otherwise, we allow the shadows of falsehood and deception to distemper discourse.

A high-ranking official at an institution decided to put out false information. At another institution, an official withheld bad news. Both claim they misled the people for their own good. Why bring negativity into communication? After all, it is best to have on rose-colored glasses.

Truth is illusory, for it rides on wings that often are burdened by exaggeration, inexactitude, and mendacity. However, we can get close to the truth by stripping away the burden on the wings. That requires study and work.

For the “Age of Borrowing” to move toward salubrious ground, pubic education has to put on a “real” mantle of strength.

If I have said it once, I have said it a hundred times: everything rides on a quality education.

It is not enough that students know how to calculate the mechanical advantage of a pulley system, or that they can recognize the author of a literary passage based on content and style. What good is an equation or a well-read book, if a student has not learned to think for himself.

The labor of thought is not always a pleasant activity, especially where it relies on the self for direction and distillation, but it alone can produce success where success truly counts. One cannot get to new places by using other peoples’ maps.

The trouble with public education today is that many high-school graduates are deficient in knowledge required to enter college. We know this because they are rightfully thrust into remedial classes — a second go at a high-school education, as it were — to ready them for higher learning.

More egregiously, the engine of testing and accountability that powers public education does a shoddy job of cultivating critical thinking skills in students.

A fractured educational system is a great threat to society and our republic, for an education constructed of inert ideas that lead young minds to borrow than to think, can open the door, little by little, to all forms of bad government.

Ramnath Subramanian is  a retired public-school teacher. E-mail address:

Study of the Constitution should play a large role in education

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 11/07/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

Students like passing notes in class, especially after instruction is over and work has been completed, and the prospect of silently reading a book does not hold vast appeal.When I was teaching, I used to find notes on the floor that had missed their intended targets. A few even landed on my desk. These paper projectiles were folded neatly and assiduously to aeronautical perfection, and carried inside them, I presumed, information of great import.”A missive that missed,” I said once, picking up one wayward object. “I wonder who wrote this, and to whom it was written.”

A hush fell over the classroom. It was the beginning of the school year, and students were still trying to get a full measure of their teachers.

“Aha!” I said, looking at the face of the projectile, “both the sender’s and addressee’s names are here.” After a pause, I added, “Now, what shall I do with this?”

“When I was in first grade, my teacher taped a note to Javier’s forehead, and made him stand in the corner,” said one boy, in animated tones.

“Read it to the class, Mr. Sub,” said a girl, who had a penchant for the dramatic. “Then post it to the bulletin board.”

I pretended to muse over these options, and then said, “You will agree that the note is a form of communication, and that it has not impeded my instruction or your learning. Further, let me assume that the note does not contain anything that is ugly or unkind. Proceeding from that premise, the right thing to do would be to give the note to the intended recipient.”

Some faces registered disappointment, others surprise.

As I handed the note to its owner, I said, “I hope the writer has used good language and proper grammar.”

In a small way, this lesson in respecting privacy was a precursor to the lessons I delivered in the study of our Constitution.

At my school, during Constitution Week, all teachers were required to spend a day talking to students about America’s venerable document. I spent an entire week on it. I placed special emphasis on the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution, for these covered areas that I felt children could relate to well.

When school administrators searched lockers for one reason or another, some students expressed constitutional concerns, and I sat down with them and had a discussion.

As I reminisced about these experiences, I wondered what my students would think about the NSA spying scandal that was sweeping over the nation, and even gaining international attention and reproach.

Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed profound concern over U.S. intelligence allegedly targeting her mobile phone, and said that such an activity would be “a serious breach of trust.” The chancellor’s words carry special weight, for she grew up in East Germany when it was a surveillance state.As the director of the Birla Planetarium in Calcutta, my father traveled to many parts of the world to attend conferences and to record astronomical events. He once was in Jena, East Germany, visiting the firm Carl Zeiss, makers of optical instruments. One of the heads of the organization, a friend of my father, invited him to his home for dinner. During the repast, he informed my father in writing that he could not talk freely because his house may be bugged.For our children, the world will be far more complicated than it ever was for us. We need to prepare them for this world with an education that is firmly sanguine in all aspects of history and the American Constitution.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. E-mail address:

Light paths that lead children to wholesome living

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the Times

Posted: 10/31/2013 12:00:00 AM MDT

A most troubling trend in societal violence is that more and more young people are involved in it.

Last week, a young and personable math teacher at Danvers High in Massachusetts was killed by a 14-year-old student using a box cutter. Her body was stashed in a recycling bin, rolled outside, and then dumped in the woods skirting the school.

After committing this heinous act, the alleged killer changed clothes, ate at a fast-food restaurant, and took in a movie.

It was only a short while ago that an Australian student on a sports scholarship was gunned down and killed in Duncan, Okla. One of the teens who took part in the killing is reported to have told police that they were “bored” and decided to kill someone “for the fun of it.”

Hillary Clinton, aspiring to the presidency and wishing to position herself more to the political right, had called video games “a silent epidemic of desensitization” that is “stealing the innocence of our children.”

About the same time, Sen. Charles Shumer had taken aim at the gaming industry and said that “little Johnny should be learning how to read, not how to kill cops.”

These were powerful messages coming from powerful people, but, unfortunately, once the political season was past its prime, the attention on youth and violence became subsumed under “non-pressing matters.”

Do violent video games cause real harm? Do they desensitize youngsters, and thereby increase their proclivity to engage in violent behavior?

One may argue that an overwhelming majority of children are smart enough and have the acumen and sagacity to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Social scientists and psychologists go even further to posit that such games may have cathartic value, and they offer children a safe way to act out their aggression.

Such an argument, however, serves no useful purpose, for it ignores children who suffer from exposure to real-life violence inflicted on them by abusive parents, bullies at school, and gang members, and are adrift in a sea without a moral compass to guide them.

The entertainment industry, on the other hand, is powered by avarice and shows no regard for the mental health of our youngsters. One does not need a college education or research data to conclude that the violence and licentiousness that commonly pass for entertainment can have only a deleterious effect on children’s psyches, even those that are well-nurtured and well-balanced.

Setting all that aside, the way we raise children should be based on moral, ethical, and religious maxims, not on psychobabble and academicians’ pronouncements.

Besides, why allow children’s minds to become sullied by ungodly things when the world is replete with delectations and splendors.

“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are stah-ving to death,” shrieks the inimitable Rossalind Russell in the movie “Auntie Mame.”

It takes better parenting and better teaching to steer children to the banquet halls where speech and manners are measured by their style and eloquence, where wit is abundant, and nature abounds.

I encourage parents not to gift-wrap a video game for this Christmas, for the simple reason that the banquet halls of life’s true pleasures lie in a different direction.

The poet A.E. Houseman said that 50 years of living were not enough to capture the grandeur of things in bloom. The astronomer Johannes Kepler was so taken with the sexangular scintillations of snowflakes that he wrote an entire book on the subject.

Children do not always know what is best for them. It is the job of adults — especially parents and teachers — to shine the light on paths that lead to wholesome and salubrious living.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. E-mail address:

Day in life of retired teacher; no mundane routines

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 10/24/2013 12:00:00 AM MDT

During the course of a conversation with an erstwhile student whom I encountered at a mall, I was asked an interesting question.

“Now that you are retired from teaching,” said the young woman, “how are you spending your time?”

I sidestepped the question by saying that I found retirement most agreeable, but later felt the need and desire to catalog a typical day.

I wake up early each morning and go for my constitutional with my wife, Maria. There is nothing like a brisk hour-long walk in the park to start the day on a regal footing. Besides, the stirring of birds among the leaves and their morning songs create an impetus for causerie.

By 7:30, I am in front of the computer and watching the financial channels on television to see if the movement in the markets offers buying or selling opportunities for some of the stocks we follow. Each day after market close, Maria and I spend about an hour studying the financial metrics of these stocks.

When I was teaching, I had my students participate on a voluntary basis in the Stock Market Game each year. Surprisingly, this project faced concerted and stiff opposition from my grade-level peers who felt that I was diluting education with “fun and games.”

Far from being “fun and games,” the equities market is a serious enterprise that demands study, analysis, and timely decision-making for success.

Whenever the market is in a soft spot and moving sideways, I turn my attention to writing. For as long as I can remember, I have set aside at least two hours each day for uninterrupted writing.

Around this time, I can sometimes faintly hear Maria as she conducts “story time” with Toy-Toy, the feline member of our family who is almost 18 years old. These stories where Toy-Toy plays the roles of sage, savior, and hero, are short and sweet, and Maria hopes one day to collect them into book form.

It is also during this space of time that Maria starts working in her laboratory, also known as the kitchen, and mixing spoonfuls of this and spoonfuls of that concocts her culinary delectations.

Lunch is always greatly anticipated, and following the repast, we hold a tete-a-tete to discuss our future trip. There is always a future trip to plan. As the trip we are currently contemplating takes us to different cities in Europe, Maria spends a few minutes reading from books that provide a narrative of places we want to visit.

On the kitchen table is a stack of travel books, magazines, and museum catalogs waiting to be studied. “Planning is almost half the fun of traveling,” Maria tells me.

At least once a week, I create a short video lesson and post it to my mathematics channel on YouTube. On any given month, I get a few calls from my erstwhile students seeking help with homework. I had set up the channel so the help I provide would have a useful, visual component to it.

If my day seems short, it is because I have left out mundane routines that make their claim on the quotidian aspects of life. Also, there are all those occurrences — from a flat tire to a leaking roof — that will not arrange themselves into any tidy pattern.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s prescription for a healthy lifestyle was that one should “hear at least one little song every day.”

Maria and I hold firmly to the belief that since all of our days are a gift from God, we must bring them into harmony by spending a little time every day doing the things we enjoy, and enjoying the things that are gifted to us.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. E-mail address: