September 2012

Day 13: Theodore Roethke, I bow to you and “My Papa’s Waltz.” I have used that poem what feels like a million ways in my career and it ALWAYS WORKS. ALWAYS. Today, it effectively helped 34 literacy seminar kids understand inference. Plus, I myself love it more every time I behold it.

Day 14: Overheard in the teacher’s lounge…

Stewart Johnson, speaking of a Texas high school’s football stadium: “I read in Sports Illustrated they are building a megatron.”

George Frissell, former Texan, not missing a beat: “But they have no library.”

Fortunately, I had not just taken a drink.

Day 15: Hands-down best moment–reading a personal essay authored by one of my literacy seminar students for another class in which he detailed his triumph over multiple heavy obstacles AND set EIGHT achievable goals for his senior year. Second-best moment–experiencing a creativity surge and designing a collaborative quiz in which groups in my Brit Lit class will have to project literacy criticism approaches upon a chunk of reading in Angela’s Ashes. Students, when the teacher says “This will be fun!”…DUCK.

Day 16: I do not like to linger over nostalgia or obsess over future speculations at a time like this–the moment is the thing–but I had wonderful reminiscences of my middle school sports experiences with Stewart Johnson and Pete Doll at lunch (particularly involving a certain gaseous initiation into the ranks of track coaching that is apparently quite common), and sat back in amazement as Brock Boland lined out my immediate post-ed future for me in specific detail (bringing a garage rock festival to Columbia). In student news, the interactive quiz worked, though it required a crash course in existentialism for two groups.

Day 17: Much for a Monday. You’d think administering diagnostic reading tests would be like having wooden wedges driven under your fingernails (for student and teacher), but they are often inspiring: the first eight kids I tested today showed measurable improvement over their last tests in the spring, and we had great conversations about how and why. Several are poised to be reading on-level, which is exciting (by the way, they haven’t been with me long enough for ME to have anything to do with it). Also, a student DJ with just a tad of training jumped near to the head of the class with a professional performance introing BOC’s “Cities on Flame,” The Clash’s “Stay Free,” and Elizabeth Cook’s “Camino” (only the last song was my suggestion). Also, solid feedback on our school’s rock and roll concert series that’s being facilitated by Michael Wesley Wingate and his co-conspirators at The Bridge. First show last night drew 30+ folks, and Odd One Down gave an inspired and rocking performance (thanks to future sponsors Bill Morgan and Brock Boland and former student teacher Vance Downing for coming out); next up, Volatile and a band to be named later, October 14! Finally, got to hang out with a fellow educator (Nicole Overeem) after school and watch an angering but informative doc about our economy, We’re Not Broke! I am grateful to have such days. (Sorry for the essay answer….)


The author with Adriana Cristal, fellow Natural Child fan and T/F Film Fest Youth Brigade Homecoming Queen Candidate.

Day 18: My former student from eleven years ago, Neil lileazy Hayes, contacted me via Facebook to ask about some books I had asked him to/made him read when he was a sophomore, because he wanted to read them again! At the time, I couldn’t quite tell whether he liked them or not (he was a bit of a pistol), but now I know. Teaching = delayed gratification (if you’re lucky…but it’s so satisfying!) The books: Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books, Nathan McCall’s Make Me Wanna Holler. If he were in class now, I’d be forcing some Chester Himes on him! In the latest installment of “B-Day Lunchroom Follies,” a certain educational philosopher-king was reduced to tears as we speculated about a Sunday Faculty Film Night double-header of Bang the Drum Slowly and Brian’s Song. Also, he could not regain his composure upon remembering this: “The National Lampoon did a brutal comic-book parody of “Brian’s Song” – at Brian’s funeral Gale glances at the now ex-Mrs. Piccolo, thinking “That fine lady’s gonna need some comforting tonight” as she thinks “I’ll ask Gale to comfort me tonight…”

Day 18 Footnote (well, I guess it’s a headnote): True story. I was teaching sixth grade at Smithton Middle School eleven years ago today and the news had broken (see Brittany’s post below for details). During my planning period, I was walking in a fog down the hall when, unsolicited, a fellow teacher barked at me, “We need to just blow their whole country up.” I walked straight out of the building, got in the truck, drove to Streetside, bought the brand new Dylan album “Love and Theft” and immediately stuck it in the truck CD player for my sanity’s sake. Driving around, I heard these lyrics creep out: “Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew/You can’t open up your mind, boys, to every conceivable point of view/They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway 5/Judge says to the high sheriff, I want him dead or alive/Either one, I don’t care/High water everywhere….” Bush would quote eleven of those words exactly not long after. Just chilled me. Still does.

Day 19: Every year, since I teach mostly seniors, I write a passel of letters of reference for kids applying to colleges. Today, I wrote one to Yale. It’s a strange experience: of course, you’re trying to represent the student in the best possible truthful light against serious competition, where, say, a 150 IQ and a 4.17 GPA might be the norm, but you are also very conscious of how YOU are being evaluated as a reference-letter writer. I ultimately said, “Screw it!” and just wrote it (it helped that the student is wonderful in a lot of ways)…but I did hold for tradition in the case of two supposedly defunct concerns: ending a sentence with a preposition and employing the subjunctive mood. *For late-breaking followers of my status: I am not going anywhere, nor am I ill; I am retiring from full-time teaching at the end of the year, and, in the case of the title I chose, I think like a rock fan, of course. But I will not be The Who, I promise.

Day 20: Fed students a dose of Angela’s Ashes, Jonathan Swift, and Richard Thompson. Last time I will ever teach “A Modest Proposal.” Gulp.

Dr. King

Day 21: Busted out one of the hoariest anecdotes in the old repertoire today to make a point to my reading class about thinking about texts–and questioning authority. The scene: social studies time in 6th grade at Columbian Elementary, 1974. The topic: the (few) paragraphs we had read about MLK (the first I’d heard of him–and I was hungry for more). The issue: our teacher passed around a photo of King at “American Communist Headquarters,” and pronounced that King had been an enemy of America. The resolution: I was dropped off at the babysitter (the Carthage library) at the next opportunity, went downstairs to the kids’ section, read everything I could cram in through my eyeballs about King, and, for the first time, realized I couldn’t trust my teachers. I’ve always wondered about the rest of that class….

Day 22: Pressed play on The Third Man (installment one in the course’s “Great Brit Films” series) and mentally ducked, knowing how atmospheric, dialogue-heavy, and relatively action-free its first 70 minutes are. Could it flop? Yes, it could. It definitely could. And it might have, but at least one kid–a kid’s who struggling academically–totally dug it and was all over the brief Q&A we had after Part 1. Another kid looked me in the eyes and quietly nodded, “Yes.” We ended today’s segment with this shining, mischievous moment:

 Day 23: A simple tableau. At the end of my second block literacy class, I got up to do some closing instruction with 10 minutes to go–usually the exact time they’ll start zipping up backpacks and looking at the clock–and, to a one, they were SO buried in their books I crept back behind my desk and let the bell shock them back into reality. A gem of a group.

 Day 24: A bittersweet revelation. I feel like I am teaching better than I have since my middle school days–and it seems solely because I am RELAXED and doing just what I want to do (as usual, the same ol’ lit-writing-music-film combo with a Brit flavor, but I am feeling no guilt about “enrichments” and just executing ideas with no self-fuss). I am enjoying myself so much that 95 minutes a class is not enough. I need more science between my ears to be having a similar experience in reading, but why did I wait until Year 29 to relax? I confess, I have often felt it an impossible state to achieve. But it is good to me. I hope that it continues….

 Day 25: Five minutes left in class. Me: “Let me tell you about the time I was kicked out of an assembly for heckling a magician–” Them: “WE HEARD THAT ONE!” Me: “How about when my best friend and I got kicked out of school for a day for fighting each other and went fishing the next d–” Them: “WE HEARD THAT ONE!” Me: “Uh, the time my kindergarten teacher pressed my face into her ’emergency’ drawer of little girls’ panti–” Them: “THAT ONE, TOO!” Me: “How about when I told on a kid for just scribbling during cursive practice and he proceeded to kick me in the nu–” SAVED BY THE BELL.

Day 26: I will genuinely miss observing moments such as my third block Brit Lit Socratic group provided today as they discussed the implications of a very delicate and complex subject in Angela’s Ashes: Frank’s sexual coming of age. They spoke with dignity, understanding, and intelligence that the non-education world often assumes are NOT the provinces of the young.

Day 27: No kids today. Therefore, I shall list the 10 things I love most about Hickman High School:

1) We are a microcosm of the world, in a lot of ways. And if you get through three years here, you will have learned something AND found kindred souls whether teachers help or not. No one has an excuse for not finding someone cool at this school.

2) We have the sharpest, hardest-working danged staff I have ever worked with. And they’re a nutty lot, to boot.

3) We have a class called “Classical Ideas and World Religions,” taught by the most highly evolved human I have ever met.

4) You can check out a Minutemen CD from our media center.

5) We have housed the most Presidential Scholars in our history of any public school in the country.

6) The principal has arranged for the faculty to make the calls on numerous important occasions. I bet she’s held her breath a few times, but I doubt she’s regretted it. Much.

7) My wife works across the hall from me. Directly.

8) We can beat ANY school in the nation over its head with our multiple clubs, from Gay-Straight Alliance to Philosophy Club to T/F Film Fest Youth Brigade to Zombie Defense League.

9) We have such support, through labs, the Success Center, special ed resource, essential skills, ELL, and a terrific and versatile guidance department, that your problem better be darned tough not to have a chunk taken out of its ass by our support personnel.

10) Nobody messes with our main office secretaries.

Nicole and Phil and David

Front to back: Nicole Overeem, the author, David Truesdell, on the beautiful Eleven Point River

Day 28: A few weeks ago, a kid got added to my second block literacy class (you’ve heard a few stellar reports from there). I was a little sensitive about it, because my lit classes are bigger than they should be, I’d worked to get that one in shape, and I’d already gotten two adds earlier that week. It didn’t take her long to flash (what I thought was) some attitude, and being cranky, I took her outside and growled at her, as is my wont. Well, turns out she just has that look on her face–it ain’t attitude at all, she’s just quiet and has a slow-burn appearance–and she’s outread almost everyone in that class in half the time they’ve had to read. With an extra-credit reading report turned in, she has a 106.5%. I goofed. Fortunately for me, she was graceful in accepting my apology.

Day 29: The plan WAS, go over items coming due, remind them of some neat resources, help a student by promoting the school “Read Banned Books” campaign, introduce the Brit song (“Watching the Detectives”) and poem of the week (Dame Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain,” a dandy), then debrief on our Angela’s Ashes Socratic from last week. In my mind, all but the last item would take 10-15 minutes (typing it out, I see that was ridiculous), then I would spend 30-40 minutes on the debrief. All was going smoothly, until said student asked me about censorship. 30 MINUTES LATER, I finish three real-life stories about problems with To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, and “Giggle”mesh (inside joke). There goes the lesson plan. I am going to miss these kinds of days, though I suspect this one shan’t be the last.

Day 30: How Not to Do Things, Part II. I was really excited about the lesson I was presenting today. We were going to practice inferencing and visualization with the text to the short film I have linked for your enjoyment; the text includes no description of the speakers or the setting, so the reader’s forced to have to visualize imaginatively and infer constantly (then we look at the film to compare). Of course, two 17-year-old boys not too different from the kind I was had to be jackasses from the git-go, and, after taking one of them out in the hall to just get to the bottom of things, he forced me to send him to the office by refusing the openings I gave him. So, I walked back in, started over–more jackassatry. What do I do? This–to the whole class, in (early) Eastwood Style: “OK, let’s just get this over with right now. You have a problem, I want to take care of all of ’em NOW so I can teach. Anyone?” A kid gets up and walks out, muttering, “I don’t need this sh*t!” And, in a way, he was right.

Day 31: A hard day to reflect positively, but…here goes. I have been grading papers digitally for the first time (fun–but the enjoyment is doubling the time), and ran across a very nice one that sent me back, which student essays will often do. The kid wrote about being overconfident and failing his driver’s test–in the parking lot after returning from the drive! I had to mention in the comments that I failed mine, too. Twice. I purt-near had to be talked into even learning, totalled my first car a month after finally passing my test, and hit a pedestrian and sent her to the hospital (and later got sued by her) shortly after that. So it seems I still ended up sounding a negative note–but the point of good writing is connect with the reader and make him reflect. Well-done, student who is brother to former student of mine who used to drive him to school all the time…

Day 32: It’s a weekend, I know, but I’ve not been able to get school off my mind (tough day Friday), so I’m-a do one of these for therapeutic purposes. First, Banned Books Week’s coming up, and I’ve linked the American Library Association’s list of “Banned and Challenged Classics.” If you aren’t reading anything, I challenge you to just grab one off this shelf. Second, here’s a list of books (plus one outlier) I have had censorship “incidents” with since 1984: To Kill a Mockingbird (by Harper Lee), Angela’s Ashes (by Frank McCourt), Disgrace (by J. M. Coetzee), The Catcher in the Rye (by J. D. Salinger), Lolita (by Vladimir Nabokov), and a meticulously hand-selected set of lyrics by Chuck Berry. I am probably forgetting a couple, as well. Keep your mind out of cages, whether they are made by the forces of order or your own “hand.”

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