How (Not) to Succeed at High School

It is rather ironic to have a group of college-bound seniors write an essay on how to succeed at high school. True, there are the odd ones who might genuinely think they managed it, but I would say the majority, including myself, have enough regrets that we are far more knowledgeable about failing at high school than succeeding at it. Oh, certainly it is always a good thing to look back, see your problems, and give others the advice they need to avoid them – but it is much more fun to elaborate on the ways you and others can fail in spectacular fashion. So, without further ado:

How to Interact with People

The first piece of advice I would like to give is this: when you’re walking down the hallway, don’t look around. Don’t check to see if someone is stuck behind that wall of you and your friends texting and walking. Don’t go to see who’s behind you when you suddenly stop and turn around on the stairs. And don’t even think about actually, I don’t know, walking quickly. Now, Grade 9’s, I know you have this down. Good job! You’ve taken a step on the road to success. For my somewhat older peers, this is a lesson you may need to relearn. I’m sure you can do it. It’s pretty clear that we humans naturally don’t have too much concern for strangers anyhow, so it can’t be too hard to give in to our baser urges and be again the Neanderthals we once were.

Once you’ve got this down, you should be able to figure out how to deal with people every other time, too.  Cute girl compliments you on your shoes? Revel in how much nicer they are than hers, and then throw in a comment about her weight for good measure. That guy in your Chemistry class being annoying by asking you to explain stuff he doesn’t understand? Slap him across the face. Or better yet, give him detailed and specific notes that will make him get the questions wrong each and every time.  While it is always right to ignore people or punish them for their imprudence, it takes deceit and trickery to really do things well.

How to Learn

Learning. Ohhh, boy. This is a tough one. Even the best of us have problems with this some of the time, and when one isn’t dedicated, it can be really difficult to ace that physics exam or pass that PE test. To get over this, it is essential that one practice good study techniques – repetition, dedication, perseverance, flash cards, a schedule, a few evenings locked away in your room, plugging away at some questions on the French Revolution while listening to soft jazz – ah, screw it. That takes time and effort. What about those things people always talk about? Book smarts, and street smarts? Well, if you can use the second one, why even bother trying to have the first one?

There’s bound to be some poor overachievers in the class willing to (with only the lightest of veiled threats) ‘share’ some of their work with you. And as for tests, well, I hear some people in Japan have invented a pen that can search the internet for the answers to your questions. Failing that, you might need to stay up all night cramming – but you’ll find that Red Bull, Tylenol, and mind-altering drugs do wonders for your ability to withstand sleep deprivation. When you walk into class for the first time all semester to write that final exam, eyes drooping, hair a mess, it will be with the knowledge that you have done everything you possibly could given that you have absolutely no desire to be anything more than a used car salesman. So wear that 54% badge with pride!

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. Not putting in the time and effort required to get good grades doesn’t necessarily condemn you to a dead-end life. It just makes it a lot harder later on, like on the day you wake up in September of Grade 12 and realize, “Holy crap! I need to get my act together!” and then spend the next three months sitting in your room in the fetal position once you figure out how much work you have to do. You’ll eventually emerge, blinking in the bright sunlight, only to realize that December has begun and you have yet to actually start writing any application essays. And so again the rush will begin, and maybe – maybe! – you’ll make it to Capilano University. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if it fits into your life’s plan; you just better not have had any other plans.

How to Balance the Two

Of course, you can’t live your whole life focusing on just other people, or just schoolwork. You need to have a good amount of each, in order to live a healthy, balanced lifestyle. There is an easy way to do this: text! Texting can solve all of one’s social and academic balancing problems. Feeling like a loner because you’re stuck inside doing a project? Texting can make it take longer while also facilitating social interaction through the electronic transmission of short textual messages!

For the technological luddite, there are always study groups. These are those times when you and your friends all bring your textbooks to someone’s house, then proceed to toss them in a pile on the floor while you sit around playing videogames or railing on about how much homework you have while doing everything in your power to avoid said homework. This has the benefit of making your parents think you’re being productive, though you are in fact being everything but.

By now, I hope you understand all the essential steps you need to take to make your early years as successful as possible. I firmly believe that if you follow all my instructions to the letter, you will have the best high school experience life has to offer. And if you don’t, well – better luck next time.

More Than a Ballot

The term democracy, as it is used today, is derived from the root words demos, meaning ‘people’, and kratos, meaning ‘strength.’ Unfortunately, what was intended to be the strength of the people seems at times to be anything but; bitter partisan disputes, lack of engagement among voters and the perceived lack of any real change have hurt our democracy to the point where our governments can barely claim to be legitimate, let alone a true voice of the people.

Our democracy, then, has flaws. No one can deny that there is a lot we need to change, that there is a lot we need to make better. Fortunately, democracies have one significant advantage over other types of government: when the people demand change and take the initiative, they can make a difference.

But today, we lack that force. We lack legions of people out there trying to change things. We lack motivation to give input, to be involved, to care. And why would we have these things? Our politicians and our governments as a whole seem increasingly disinterested in what we have to say, increasingly disinterested in the people they’re supposed to be working for. I understand why so many people don’t bother voting on Election Day – there just doesn’t seem to be a point.

This is very disheartening. People have fought and died for the rights democracy brings. They still do. It is a curse of humanity that the moment we no longer need to struggle for something, we forget what we went through to get it. We forget, as a nation, the gifts democracy brings us. We forget, as a nation, what it means to be free.

That’s what democracy really is, isn’t it? Not the right to drive past a bewildering array of brightly coloured signs during an election. Not the right to listen to a politician try to win your vote. Not even the right to drop a ballot in a box. No. Plain and simple, it is the right to be free.

This freedom lies at the heart of who we are as human beings. It is not in us to be stepped on, pushed away, and ignored; to be forgotten, hated, and condemned; to be grounded and forbidden from soaring higher. Through all the struggles of history, no people have had so much freedom as us, today. We cannot honour this freedom unless we recognize what it really is.

It is the freedom to speak our mind about whatever we want, no matter who disagrees with us. It is the freedom to criticize whoever we want, whether it be the witless left, the clueless right, or the baseless middle. Sitting here with Facebook open in another window, a phone in my lap, I cannot imagine an existence where I am forced to be silent, to keep my thoughts to myself out of fear of reprisal. Can any of you? And to the ones that can – the ones who have fled such a life– do you want to return there?

More than that, democracy is the freedom to be. It is the guarantor of all people – Black, White, Asian, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Atheist, Gay, Straight, and others far too numerous to mention. If any of us have ever been “different” – and we all have – then we know how it feels to be on the outside. Democracy gives us all the right to be whatever we want, however we want. It does not force anyone to accept who others are – I have met too many intolerant people to believe that – but it allows people to look past others’ harsh words and see the light ahead. Democracy is the protector of our differences, and yet, it is the thing that binds us together.

We are millions of people spread across a vast land, with a thousand different races, religions, and creeds. And yet from the most isolated farmer to the most urban bohemian in the downtown core, we are all united in wanting the best for our country. We may have different methods – but the goal is always the same.

That is what democracy means to me. To say whatever I want, to be whatever I want, and in the end, to repay all the gifts I have been given by giving myself back to democracy. To use the rights I am so lucky to have to speak up, to raise my voice and be a part of making this country a better place for everyone. And if I feel that I have no voice, if I have nothing to say, if I think that there is no point and there is nothing I can do, I will look up, I will praise life for the rights I have been given, and I will drop a ballot in the box. So I will give my thanks to democracy.

English 11 Final – On Education

And thus marks the final TALONS assignment that shall grace this blog. It has been a good run, and it will certainly feel strange for me to hand assignments in directly to a teacher, without publishing them for the whole world to see. But anyway, let me talk about my project.

I wanted to do something more unusual. I didn’t want to just write another essay, but instead to try a format I usually tend not to be too involved with. So I decided to make a movie, and instead of just having my ideas, I wanted to get the opinions and thoughts of others and try to coalesce them into a single flowing narrative, then add my own thoughts in to bind it together. I think it turned out quite well, though not necessarily in the way I had intended it. Ah well, is not true education organic and free-flowing? Tell me what you think.

Credit is in the video description as well.

This I Believe

I don’t think I ever posted my fully completed and edited version, and I just found this in my drafts, so I figured I might as well post it. A bit late.

An empty bus is a peaceful place. With little sound but the rumbling of the engine, I enjoy the calm of forced nothingness when there is no one around and nothing to do. All around me is empty space, a single mass eternally moving forward. The invisible barriers between the seats, so adept at separating people, vanish when there is no one to divide. It’s something that doesn’t happen anywhere else.

The bus I was on lurched to a halt to pick up a few more passengers. “Bastards.” I grumbled to myself. “Ruining my peace and quiet.” I glanced up to see what manner of people would be disturbing me, flooding the air with their presence and bringing the conflict of the world into my little sanctuary.

Two eccentric-looking characters stepped onto the bus. Two men, both old and wrinkled, both embodying stereotypes so perfectly that they would not have looked out of place in a Hollywood film. One was white, and the first impression I had was an image of him pointing an antiquated rifle out a second story window while shouting at them crazy kids to get off his lawn. The other was Asian, sparsely haired with tufts of a grey beard, who would have looked more at home teaching martial arts in a secluded temple in China.

I saw the world in those two men. They were different people, different cultures, different races. The bus stop brought them together, but that didn’t mean they had to be together. I expected them to sit at opposite ends of the bus. I expected a stony silence. I expected alienation. But instead, they sat down side by side.

They seemed unlikely friends. But from the moment they sat down together, they talked and laughed like the best of companions, breaking through the differences between them and throwing all my preconceptions into disarray. And as I sat there listening to them talk, a smile grew on my face. It may seem a quite insignificant thing, but the simple friendship of two strangers really touched my heart.

Sometimes I despair that the problems of our world are unsolvable. But I realized something that day. There is hope to be found. The great chasms between us can be leapt over. Friendship and brotherhood can overrule our fear of anything different. We can pull ourselves towards a better tomorrow.

The world can learn a lot from two old men on a bus. I think – no, I believe – that we can get past what marks us as different and focus on what makes us the same. It will take all of us – but we will get there.

Liam – This I believe by Talonsblog

Final In-Depth – Planning a Presentation

Unfortunately, my plan for In-Depth night has taken a rather disapointing turn in recent days. My original plan had been to spar onstage with my friend David Sherwood, but it turns out I will not be able to do that. Last Saturday, I inquired about renting or borrowing items, and was informed that the costs stood at $25 per item per day. As I would need to rent four items(a sword, two masks, and a gorget), paying $100 is too high a cost to pay just to be able to do this presentation.

Instead of having a live onstage battle, Ms.Mulder suggested that I film one of my sparring matches at Academy Duello itself and simply play the video on In-Depth night. This is certainly a possibility, and if possible, I will be doing that.

My station itself will be rather low-key. I will have my equipment laid out on a table, possibly with an excellent book on the history of fencing as well. I would like to offer to teach people how to execute a basic thrust with the rapier, with the proper motions. To do this, I will need a fairly large space somewhere near me – ideally, I would be near the doors that go out into the parking lot, so that I could step outside for the lesson.

I have made a lot of progress these last six months, and I plan to continue developing my skills for many years. I look forward to displaying my skills to all the people around me, and I heartily thank all those who have helped me over the last six months.

On Happiness and Old Leather Boots

Everything is relative. In a wealthy, developed country such as Canada, some may feel happy and content only after a grandiose and hearty meal, with filet mignon steak and garlic mashed potatoes and honey glazed carrots and a tall crystal glass of sparkling water. Some may feel disappointed with a plate of meatloaf. Yet others, people just like us, may be overjoyed just to have a taste of food many of us would consider routine.

After many months at sea, Pi’s lifeboat miraculously collides with another man’s, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

“I have a story,” I said, after a while

“Let’s hear your story,”

“Once upon a time there was a banana and it grew. It grew until it was large, firm, yellow, and fragrant. Then it fell to the ground and someone came upon it and ate it.”

He stopped rowing. “What a beautiful story!”

“I have another element,” I said.

“What is it?”

“The banana fell to the ground and someone came upon it and ate it – and afterwards that person felt better.”

It is amazing how, when one is condemned to fighting for just enough food to survive, one can see something so simple as a banana as the most spectacular thing in the universe. The idea of the banana forms such an ideal someone’s mind that it is really all that person wants. In this conversation, Pi and the man he meets discuss eating cigarettes and an old leather boot, commenting on how tantalizing the sole of the boot seems. I think it is safe to say that back in Pondicherry, India, the idea of eating a boot would never have crossed his mind. Yet when he becomes used to a far lower quality and quantity of food items, his standard lowers.

Is that not what all forms of contentment are about? There are no absolute terms for what should be enough to make you happy or sad. It is only a change in state, a deviation from what we are used to, that truly makes us think and behave differently. A banana and an old boot become items which Pi would kill to have, because compared to his present state, they aren’t so bad as they would have once seemed. When the other man suggests eating the boot, Pi is at first disgusted – but as he has time to digest the idea, he becomes more accepting of it.

Most of us cannot imagine being that desperate. Most of us would be completely repulsed at such an idea. And I am sure that somewhere, in the back of his mind, some small part of Pi is shouting “How can you even consider this!? What have you become?” But to his conscious mind, such thoughts are pushed aside. His journey had turned him into a beast, and it no longer troubled him. Anything was good to him – as a vulture preys on whatever decomposing carrion he can find, so too must he be content with whatever he can scrounge up.

For all our wealth, all our luxuries, we still become sad and discontent when our standard of happiness drops even slightly. We must look at the examples of those in conditions far worse than us and realize that if they can be content with so much less, so can we. If Pi can salivate over a banana and an old boot, why cannot we be content when we have to settle with  only the banana? Happiness is relative – and we must realize that a few less bananas doesn’t mean we should feel sad.

(PS: Pi never did eat that boot. The other man had already eaten it.)

**Evil Comes from Within**

Then we fought and I killed him. He had no expression on his face, neither of despair nor of anger, neither of fear nor of pain. He gave up, he let himself be killed, though it was still a struggle. He knew he had gone too far, even by his bestial standards. He had gone too far and now he didn’t want to go on living any more. But he never said “I’m sorry”. Why do we cling to our evil ways?

In Pi’s adapted version of his trip across the ocean, everything takes a more more realistic and gritty turn, the story turning from an inspiring tale of survival and human spirit to one about human cruelty and barbarism. In just a few pages, the entire meaning of the story is turned on its head. This passage alone reflects how a normal boy – kind, spiritual, pacifistic, vegetarian – could, when faced with the worst of conditions, become a monster.

The man he killed may well have deserved it. He cut off a man’s leg on the pretense of helping him to survive, only to feast on it when nobody was looking. He hoarded the food rations for himself and beheaded a boy’s mother in front of his eyes. As far as evil goes, most would agree such acts fit the definition.

Why, then, did he not kill Pi as well?  How does a man who has already committed such brutal acts have a sudden change of heart? When did the gravity of his acts hit him? When he was busy eating the leg of a man who lay dying next to him? Or perhaps when he sawed through a woman’s neck and tossed away the head. What was it that finally made him realize how far he had gone, what a terrible beast he had become?

I admit to having no answer. I cannot speak for those who find themselves driven to the depths of depravity, I cannot understand why people do the things that they do.  I cannot in good conscience make a guess as to how disturbed minds work. I can only ask questions that have no answers.

I like to think that as he died, his eyes betrayed the deep remorse he felt, but Pi was simply too afraid to look at him and see it. He was a man like any other, driven to do that the things he felt were necessary at the time. I hope that he truly felt ashamed of his actions, but was too proud to admit it, even in the throes of death.

But did not Pi kill a man as well? Did he have a choice? Survival is a powerful motivator, and people will always do what they must to survive. To save his own life, killing another man, especially one who had already shown himself to be dangerous and bestial, may seem justified. Self defense and survival are, if not noble, understandable reasons to visit violence upon someone. Can we fault Pi for resorting to that extreme?

Pi himself, though, knows he was not entirely innocent of evil motivations. “He was such an evil man. Worse still,he met evil in me–selfishness, anger, ruthlessness. I must live with that.” The man he killed, eventually, realized what he had become and accepted his end. Now it was Pi’s turn to accept his own actions, and to deal with what he had done. He had faced evil with evil, and would forever have to live with both in his heart.

Solitude began. I turned to God. I survived.

We Humans are Capable of Greatness

2560 BC – The Great Pyramid of Giza is completed

280 BC – Aristarchus of Samos presents the first known heliocentric model of the universe.

1040 Ad – Movable type system printing press invented by Bi Sheng

1687 AD – Newton discovers the Law of Universal Gravitation

1787 AD – United States Constitution adopted

1902 AD – The Wright Brothers fly one of the first heavier than air successful flights

1915 AD – Albert Einstein publishes the General Theory of Relativity

1957 AD – The first orbital satellite, Sputnik, is successfully launched

1969 AD – Man lands on the Moon

2001 AD – Human genome sequenced

In a mere 6000 years of human history, we have come far. Humanity has achieved many great things: engineering marvels, scientific breakthroughs, incredible feats of intellect, creativity, and simple persistence. What our species can accomplish truly has no bounds except the ones we place ourselves. Since the dawn of time, mankind has reached ever forward, pulling itself through the ages even as the world lay in turmoil. 5000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians pooled the most brilliant minds of the time to build the Pyramids. In ancient Athens, a community of 100000 people produced much of our modern basis for democracy, freedom, science, and philosophy. Coliseums, temples, great histories and works of art and reason – these were the progeny of our earliest days.

But the great achievements of our past were destroyed and, for a time, forgotten. Yet human progress is never truly forgotten. It lies dormant until the world rediscovers it in earnest, once again elevating humanity to new heights and inspiring to ever more spectacular feats of greatness. The words of Socrates and Aristotle still enlighten the world, Roman ruins still dot the landscape, having waited for the generations that will appreciate them once more. The achievements of our ancestors are so great that we sometimes take them for granted, forgetting to awe at the unimaginable wonders they left behind.

Yet no matter the past successes of our species, our greatest days lie ahead of us. Less than a hundred years took us from first flight to stepping foot on the moon  – imagine what we can do in a hundred more? A thousand? Around the world, millions of people are devoted to furthering our understanding of the universe we live in, working to take the next ever-so-small step in the direction of human advancement, working towards the fulfillment of our potential. We have photographed distant stars, built soaring structures, and discovered DNA, the language of life, yet we can do so much more.

All that we have accomplished, we have done in the face of terrible danger. Separated by borders, culture, language, religion, race, hindered by lack of funds and time, threatened by imminent war and destruction, we have still made progress. If we could get to where we are now in spite of all the obstacles, divided by the petty distinctions between us, imagine what we could do now, together? If all our brilliance, all our creativity, all our dedication and our passion and our sheer willpower could work together to a common goal, what could stop us?

Nothing. The relentless march of time moves on, and we will move with it. We will continue to develop, to evolve, to adapt. Even as we fight amongst ourselves, spilling rivers of blood for supremacy over a small patch of land on a small blue dot in the vast expanse of reality, our species will grow. We will become, in a word, better – wise, experienced, and able. What is merely possible now will be done, and what is still impossible will be become possible.  As a species, as a people, we will achieve the unachievable and accomplish things unimagined by those who came before.

Just as we look back now and wonder at how far we have come, so too will future generations do to us. They will marvel at the changes we have endured, the successes we have had, the failures we have overcome. They will honour and revere those who brought us forward. They will ask  ‘How could anyone ever have doubted what we would become?’ And they too, like us, will turn around and look forward, and wonder how they will live up to the examples of their ancestors. And they will remember that we humans can accomplish anything. They will remember, in the words of Carl Sagan, that ‘We humans are capable of greatness’. They will take the next small step forward, for all humans then and now. They will pass forward the torch of all humanity.

****************************************************************************************************** This post inspired by the below video.  Even if you don’t read the post, please take 3 minutes to watch.

In-Depth #7 – Posture and Details

4 minutes and 15 seconds. That’s how long I was able to stand rooted in the low-guard terza position without giving myself a break, keeping proper posture as long as I was able.

After a few minutes rest, I tried again, this time in high-guard, quarte position. Three minutes, seven seconds.

A few minutes more, then into seconde. 2:58.

And finally, prima. A mere 52 seconds.

Quite good, really. Holding a three pound rapier up for a few minutes doesn’t sound like much, but when your leg is burning and your arm is screaming , it really feels like quite an accomplishment

We spent much of last month concentrating on proper posture and maintaining it for as long as we could, keeping it even as fatigue stirred us, so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t letting that slide with my practicing at home. Mostly, I actually did better than I had expected – though I certainly didn’t have much left in me after each go.

I like to think I have fairly good posture. I always try to be aware, as we always must, of letting it slide – a front toe listing to the left when advancing, a knee bent at the wrong angle during a lunge, letting your chest face your opponent straight-on, leaving a spot open to attack.  It doesn’t always work, of course, but generally I catch myself before it becomes a problem.

Swordplay is about that. Swordplay is about noticing the small details. It is the ultimate example of noticing everything, in having plans and contingency plans and supplementary plans and seeing your opponents every move and mistake and acting on it and reacting and oh my god, I just got stabbed because I didn’t notice his hand turn 90 degrees. Professional fencers have an almost second sense, in that they need to be hyperaware at all times simply to survive, and to strike back. It takes years and years of practice for them to gain that ability, that skill. Do I have it? Not even close. But is that what I try to have? Absolutely. And the first step to getting there is to keep practicing the minor details.

Teaching – Donya and I

Teaching is difficult. Teaching is especially difficult when done in block 4 on a Friday afternoon, but regardless, I think some of what Donya and I set out to do was accomplished. I say some because time constraints did not allow us to do everything we had wanted to do. What we did have time to do, however, went quite well.

We went into the class with the plan of beginning with a discussion on what people had found ‘good writing’ to be. I had a a few specific terms I wanted to stress, namely syntax and cadence, or flow.  I managed to talk about the latter, though only as an addition to what Mr.Jackson said about the subject, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to say what I had planned about syntax because we ran out of time. Fortunately, the subject had been touched on during the discussion, though not to the extent that we would have liked. We developed exercises to further focus on these topics, but again, time constraints prevented us from actually doing the exercises.

We had planned to give out poorly written paragraphs and ask people to rewrite them. The mistakes in the paragraphs were largely not grammatical; there were no spelling errors and run-on sentences. It was more a matter of simply sounding wrong. The flow was off, the sentence structure didn’t work, the ideas weren’t unified – all the problems were of the sort that were easy to find but difficult to fix. It is these types of problems that plague most writing in our class(in my opinion), and so it was what I had wanted to try to address the most. You can have the most interesting content in the world, but if you can’t write a paragraph that flows, where all the parts connect and the words just work, then your writing will undoubtedly fail.

But it isn’t necessarily lack of ability that people’s writing doesn’t work. Oftentimes, people simply don’t put the effort in when they write something to be put on their blog. They do a half-hearted job, not doing the work to make their writing a good as it can be. That was the second thing Donya and I wanted to stress – that writing something and posting it to your blog is like presenting your work to your teacher, your peers, your parents, and the whole world at the same time, while still saving it to be looked at for years to come. General opinion towards blogging, I think, lies along the irrelevant line – despite it being essentially published writing, people view it more as something silly and pointless. Donya and I wanted to try to change that, to make people realize that blogging isn’t just an easy way to submit homework assignments, not just something that makes writing for English class seem more informal, but that it is a serious collection of your writing that the whole world can see. We barely had time to touch on the subject at all, but hopefully people will begin to understand this more – and I think all the This I Believe essays were as amazing as they were because people truly were dedicated to their writing – which just goes to show what caring about your work can do.

The actual twenty minutes or so of class time we had for the discussion wasn’t enough to get done all the things we had planned, but what was discussed gave valuable insight on good writing. The people who contributed to the discussion made good points and I think cut to the core of what makes good writing seem good, and I would hope that those who didn’t contribute were at least listening and taking note. Becoming a good writer is not something that can happen in a single class, nor a week nor a year. It takes a long time of trying to be the best writer you can be to become that, and I hope that we made people start trying a little harder to get there.