May 2013: The Denouement

Day 160: NOTHING like the feeling of finishing processing a huge stack of paperwork. Essays are one thing–they are actually pretty fun if you don’t do them all at once or put them off. But, say, 55+ reading assessments that measure fluency and comprehension and have to be entered into a district database? It can turn one’s brain into creamed corn. However, thanks to headphones, and Wussy and Thee Oh Sees on my iPod, I knocked out my last-ever stack of those. Verdict: I didn’t seem to have damaged any of my kids–honestly, most held steady–and some (some, I emphasize) may actually have benefited by my proximity and enthusing, if not my expertise, which in this field is non-existent beyond simple modeling. Big effing sigh of relief.

Day 161: One of my third-block Brit Litters brought a friend from Liverpool, England, to class today. I felt very good that, without planning specifically for the occasion, we discussed Oscar Wilde and “heard” P. G. Wodehouse, George MacDonald Fraser, and Joris-Karl Huysmans (not a Brit–a frog for provocation’s sake?). None of those “honky Beatles who ruined rock and roll”*), though. (* John Waters, “Hatchet Piece: 101 Things I Hate,” Crackpot)

Day 162: I am in the legendary HHS Media Center grading mini-essays and blasting this through my Bose, much to my GREAT pleasure–E’s got staying power and so does hyphy. I look around at the kids with phones on and wonder if their ears are being treated this well! This post is dedicated to my former student Shawn Henson–check in if you are out there somewhere.

Day 163 (officially longer than a dang baseball season!): Opened today’s first class by asking how prom was. One of my seniors said, “Good and bad. The music was good, but my date danced with me twice, then left me for another guy.” To reassure him, I informed him that a man’s heart must be stomped flat as three-day-old squirrel carcass on an interstate before he can JUST begin to make progress, then to illustrate my meaning, I told (for the 117th time) the story of how, barely straightened upright from a fetal crying-cramps position on a dirty bachelors’ carpet at age 29, post-heart-assassination, I went to my then-best friend’s house to wear his ears out about my romantic tragedy, only to find a young lady who was renting a room from him who had to hear my story instead, who was there the next two days and had to hear the tale YET again in more tortuous variations, who then invited me to the park to play Frisbee (and, in the ensuing flinging match, wiped out hilariously at the feet of a shocked senior citizen couple–should have noted that omen!), who, after another seven days of accidentally and/or serendipitously hanging out, dared to go to a show with me (Coctails, Murphy’s, Springfield, 5/9/90), at which I asked her, after giving her a Sister Rosetta Tharpe cassette, “Are we dating?”, after which she said, “I guess we are,” and who, as of 10:00 pm this coming Thursday night will have been with me for 23 years now. Patience, children, don’t settle for just anyone–sometimes the best strategy is just to quit looking and swear yourself to monkdom. Worked for me!

Day 164: Brit Lit Film Fest sure shot if there ever was one today—Strangers on a Train. Wicked fun in no need of translation. Also, thanks to Kevin Walsh at KOPN for featuring Dorf on Golf (in a few minutes…89.5 FM), a high school crustabilly duo you’ll be hearing about.

Day 165: If any young teachers are out there tuning in, I couldn’t recommend a project more highly than portfolios. My Brit Lit students must present an electronic portfolio containing their four best pieces, each accompanied by a reflective essay, and a summative essay in which they trace their growth as writers, thinkers, and humans. It’s a royal pain in the ass for students to put together and for me to grade, but most of us find it to be worth it, and, in the digital era, it’s better than keeping your work in a shoebox or three-ring binder. Beginning in late April, they schedule 15 minutes to come walk me through their portfolio and officially submit it for grading; if they score 216 or better out of 250, they get to skate on the final. My favorite part, though, is having one last chance to talk to each student one-on-one for a few minutes after his or her conference, after I’ve really had a chance to get to know them and zero in on their strengths. That, my friends, is the ONE useful thing I picked up from my master’s work. Unfortunately, I probably will not be able to do portfolios next year, as it will require me to be on-site more hours than I am allowed.

Day 166: I will certifiably miss intelligent, probing, daring discussions of what today in fourth block (my star discussion class) we determined to QUIT calling racial issues (genetics don’t back that) and BEGIN calling “instances of pigmentation-based ignorance” (we agreed that phrase underlines the stupidity of the practice better, and is just more truthful). We had just finished watching a great film called Prom Night in Mississippi and, though I suspect they were simply doing it to avoid taking a computerized reading assessment (epic fail there), my eight remaining students, particularly Michael Linzie-Hayes, launched a series of GREAT questions: How integrated is Hickman, really? What would real integration look like? How do you break the chain of family-enforced prejudice? Why do you see so few young white men dating young black women, and so many young black men dating young white women (they were talking about Hickman, I think)? Why are there still black, brown, yellow, and white tables in the cafeteria? And–I saw it coming a mile away–“Mr. Overeem, did you ever go out with a girl of a different pigment?” (Sha’Quan Davis–OF COURSE.) At that point, we HAD to get down to the computer lab to get that test taken….

Day 167: Long day–battling a cold, plagued by what I think is a pinched nerve in my neck, trying to stay focused through 11 portfolio conferences, I can’t WAIT to get home and crash. I’m about to pull out of the east circle drive, when I notice a nice rental…with a familiar face behind the wheel. We both about wreck our (and others’) vehicles trying to get parked, and about crush each other in a bear hug: from 1990-1993, Shawn Henson was one of the most unique kids at Hickman, and, though at 38 he ain’t a kid no more (Lord knows, neither am I), he is still plenty unique–right now, trying to get a horror movie off of the ground. The 40 minutes we talk on the sidewalk are the only minutes of the day my pain is gone. This post is dedicated by Shawn, Nicole, and me to the late Cleveland Adams.

Day 168: A special treat for Core 2, Brit Lit. We had a “dead day” between my last day of instruction and Thursday’s final, so I spun a tale (specially designed for those students whose hearts had been trod upon), a three-pronged one (just like a training-wheels thesis statement), in which the SAME girl, who shall remain nameless, a) read my daily love notes aloud to her friends in her language arts class in 7th grade–for amusement, if that need be said–yet did not break up with me after a massive snot bubble of mine popped on her face while I was trying to deliver one of said romantic epistles; b) broke up with me, again in 7th grade, after a church group trip during which I failed to interpret the sexual symbolism of overalls; and c) made out, blatantly and wickedly, with my supposed friend, right in front of me and everyone else, at a party (on the very couch I had fantasized making out with her on), sending me into such a paroxysm of adolescent agony that, having TWO hayride truck beds to choose from later in the evening, I jumped into THEIRS, rent my shirt (in the cold spring rain, no less), fell to my knees at their feet, and screamed, “Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy??????”–not realizing I had no fallback position other than jumping out of the truck. Absolutely true series of stories, and it explains much about me (namely, why I really loved teaching 6th and 7th graders). That stuff hardwires itself into a 13-year-old, now! Note: The kids also got an eight-minute bonus tale in which I recounted the closest I’ve ever come to being arrested–in the Liberty Palace Disco parking lot in Columbus, Kansas, and there’s a policeman who, if still alive, could tell it even better than I can….

Day 169: Received my first-ever thank-you note from a student for his being able to be involved in our school’s pretty-much simulated radio station. Made my day–seriously. In related news, if you’re a Columbian, tune into KOPN 89.5’s “The So-Called Good Life,” hosted by Kevin Walsh, between 4 and 4:30 pm today to hear some of our Battle of the Bands talent.

Day 170: Last day of Brit Lit, and some kids dropped this off on the way out. One of the coolest gifts I’ve ever received, and I’m wearing it tonight if I have to crank up the AC! Note: You may wonder what Dylan’s doing on the shirt. In a mini-unit, I used “Desolation Row” and some other songs to illustrate some of the ways the British ballad has survived–and to have fun with language and allusion–and it happened to be the favorite of the student whose idea this was.


Present 1Present 2Present 3

Presents from B Day, Block 2, Brit Lit

Day 171:


*So long to one of the most interesting and fun senior classes in awhile–at least the ones I got to spend time with.
*Congrats to Vanessa Nava and Anthony Denny, first annual winners of the Hickman Academy of Rock/Columbia Academy of Music scholarship (see below).
*Big props to Clayton Pickens, a literacy seminar student who scored in the AP reaches on his last STAR test.
*Tip of the hat to guidance counselors Isaiah Cummings and Todd Maher for really caring about students in tough and ultra-busy times.
*My compliments to my favorite rock and roll couple Spenser Rook and Marielle Carlos for spinning some cool vinyl in the radio station today: Hugo Montenegro’s music for Eastwood spaghetti Westerns and Beatles for Sale.
*My fond regards to Melissa Trierweiler for giving me the last senior hug of May 17, 2013. (And I am not a hugger–she’s just a great kid.)

And one kernel of wisdom, for what it’s worth: a senior prank cannot be good if it inflicts more pain and work on custodians, who under no conceivable teenage rubric should ever be the target of a prank. I leave it to others to judge whether today’s pranks violated that.


Scholarship winners Vanessa Nava (right) and Anthony Denney (left)

Day 172:

10 Inducements to Youth Considering a Career in Teaching*

1) It is never boring–or at least it never was at Parkview High and Smithton Middle School, and NEVER has been at David H. Hickman High School.

2) If you enjoy learning on a regular basis, step right up. Students will consistently teach you more than you teach them, and you’ll never know something better than after you have taught it a few times. That’s why the GATSBY movie pained me.
3) Well-kept secret: young humans are EASIER to work with than adult humans.
4) Need a challenge? Even BEFORE you get to the actual teaching, many of the job requirements of a clerk, accountant, sociologist, psychologist, parent, sibling, Dutch uncle, cop, chess master, lifeguard, researcher, stage actor, stand-up comic, “The Beatles at Hamburg,”@ and cage-match opponent often must be satisfied. Doesn’t that sound…worthy? If not fun? If not exhilaratingly crazy?
5) You will have your commitment to humanity (their humanity and your own) tested regularly, which may sound annoying, but it will HONE you if you let it. And that feels good, though along the way you won’t always be happy.
6) You will get to know several aircraft carriers full of people, and, though in our business we don’t get to see the final product, thanks to Facebook you can monitor the product’s progress. Yes, we can and do.
7) You will have two-and-a-half unpaid “free” months in between school years to make up for the countless hours of grading you will do outside of your contract hours during the school year–though you will plan, and quite possibly teach, then, too.

8) Regarding bosses: most of the administrators I have known have been decent people and colleagues, but the bottom line is, there’s more of us than there are of them, and WAYYYYYYYYYYY more kids than there are of them, which keeps their hands about as full as yours, and with much less enjoyable matter/s. So what am I saying? You will not have someone breathing down your neck–unless you can’t cut the mustard. You will have the autonomy that, if you studied hard in college and conceptualize well every night and know and love and feel a calling for your subject matter, YOU DESERVE.
9) Regarding the above, while it is true that, paradoxically, the highest financial awards available to a public school teacher are only within your grasp if you LEAVE teaching and administrate (I think that’s a word), the highest spiritual awards are available daily, and I would argue far more frequently, when you stay in the classroom.
10) The benefits are solid. I bitched and moaned about the chunk taken out of my check for retirement back when I took a PAY CUT FROM WORKING IN A CHEESE FACTORY to start teaching, but, uh…it’s for a good cause, children.

Oh, and you get 25 minutes for lunch!

*I define “Career in Teaching” as 25+ years spent teaching in the classroom first before you do anything else. A quarter-century seems about right.

@The Beatles were to a great extent MADE by often performing up to eight sets a day/night, near-consecutively, during their Hamburg years. Someone will comment that “actually, they never played eight sets….”

Day 173: Reality check. A very dynamic student of whom I’m quite fond approached me this morning to talk about expanding the possibilities of our school radio station, which is basically just a simulated experience right now due to our low-powered signal and restricted operational time. He had excellent ideas about talk shows and more, so I invited him to the station at lunch to talk further. In an intense hour-long discussion, we envisioned experimenting with antenna placement, purchasing a stronger transmitter, designing programming specifically for the school commons and media center, experimenting with streaming live and pre-recorded content…when the subject drifted to supervision. Though I’d already thought about it in flashes, it finally hit home: “You ain’t gonna be ABLE to do this, Overeem.” Brock Boland, Jim Kome, Isaiah Cummings, I hope it sounds good to you guys. (Frequenters of the Hickman halls may have guessed that said student had to be one of two possibilitie entities; if you guessed Ashwath Kumar, you are correct).

In other out-to-pasture news, a student artist included a representation of me in her art showcase in which I appear to be in the midst of a pastoral walkabout, wishing I were Mike Ehrmantraut (that’s a compliment, Paula Herrera-Gudino). I hope that wasn’t meant to be a corpse in the background.

Day 174:

Random Observations

*I will never again have to see myself deliver a ponderous advice message via video to a senior class at a memories assembly. This time I incoherently and (of course) overly soberly advised them to re-invent themselves post-graduation.
*Battle of the Bands: How can I be a puppetmaster in 2014? I will never feel this particular nervousness again.
*Last final exam I will ever write for a literacy seminar class: I read Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” aloud (they had a text and were asked to read along with me and mark it up), then they had to take it apart with strategic thinking.
*Fun to see a mass e-mail to the faculty listing new CD acquisitions such Kool G Rap and DJ Polo and Swamp Dogg. The MC staff forgot to edit some of the song titles….
*I read last names L-Z at Hickman’s graduation ceremony on Thursday. Doug Mirts, I clearly got the most difficult list. Such seniors with names that people always screw up, FIND ME pre-graduation!
*Had a nice Starbucks with Nicole Overeem and Korean lunch with George Frissell. I will not have to “squeeze in” those moments much longer. Though they might….
*I e-mailed the district superintendent about the possibilities of streaming Internet content (talk shows, announcements, interviews, podcasts). I got replies ON THE SAME DAY from him and a great technology leader, Chris Kraft Diggs. That’s cool.
*Monthly Sha’Quan Davis Report: yesterday, a graphic novel of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis kept him awake; today, a People magazine put him right out (he was exempt from the final for good grades, improved standardized test scores, and more).

Also: The winners of the 9th Annual Battle of the Bands, The IRA. Principally, they will be getting studio time from our benefactor, Pete Szkolka and his stellar studio. Thanks to all of the adults who played their hearts out, and thanks for those adults’ mutual support for each other. These were not children last night.


The IRA winning the 2013 Battle of the Bands

Day 175: Tonight, I read off the names of seniors L-Z at Hickman’s graduation at Mizzou Arena. I am running on five hours of sleep. I need to get home for spell, brew two cups of coffee, suck on a Cold-Eez, and start hoping I will be in the mellifluous zone. Paige Reed, I trust the troops are in correct marching order.

Day 176 (the last): When I started this tour in August, I thought my teaching career was actually ending. As it has turned out, I’ll be teaching a Brit Lit class once a day in 2013-2014 and be loosed on an unsuspecting world the rest of the time. I have plenty of ideas how to spend that.

When I started this job in September of 1984 at Parkview High School in Springfield, I was a damn corndog drunk on the Holy Trinity of the Minutemen, Husker Du, and the Replacements, in thrall to Albert Camus and Aldous Huxley and William Faulkner, half-cocked in a million different ways, and just beginning to suspect I did not know some things. I had committed myself to secular monkdom (2nd block knows that story), and only half-kidding quipped quite regularly, “I teach to finance my record collection.”

29 years, two other fine schools, one town, 3,640 students, 7,000 records, 28,000 essays (that’s not a misprint), an amazing wife, and countless influential colleagues later, I’ve found that I am just now becoming human, just now settling into the mighty blissful peace of knowing precious little and simply enjoying every sandwich, just now beginning to think about music only a third of my waking hours, just now figuring out how to get outside of myself and just serve. As my man, the late Bill Hicks, always counseled, “It’s just a ride,” but you have to know how to experience it, and, honestly, teaching young people, more than anything else, has taught me much of the secret.

They come and go in groups of 25 or so as the years spin dizzyingly by (suddenly your first students are 49 years old!), like a good crate of records each class is packed with virtues utterly unique and inspiring, and by being patient enough to work through the whole batch and keeping one’s eyes and ears open in their presence, they can convince you that we are not after all a virus on the planet–though, unlike a record, unfortunately, you do not get to keep them. It has happened to me, and, as the song goes, it could happen to you.

I am unspeakably grateful to the forces and chance occurrences that led me into this profession, to my University of Arkansas friends who gave me real self-confidence, to the peers who showed me how teaching was done and NOT to be done, to principals who trusted me to know what I was doing, to a family that wasn’t sure this was what I should be doing but didn’t kick up a fuss, to a grandmother who motivated me to teach by telling me I would hate it, to a wife who has tolerated the expenditure of emotional and mental energy this biz has required of me and who has supported, advised, encouraged, and continued to love me at every turn, and to Ornette Coleman and Bob Dylan, who have supplied me a raft of key ideas that kept me afloat and my instruction fun for me–and occasionally my kids–across four decades. Most of all, I am grateful to all my students–even the hard cases, who made their presence felt to the last day–who have taught me what it means to be human, and to love humans.

I really have to close, and I leave off with a song for those 16-to-20-year-olds who are thinking maybe they might want to teach and haven’t looked at the statistics yet….


Three who helped me through the last go ’round: left to right, Michele Sun, Maya Ramachandran, and Sean Brennan, currently doing some earth-shaking.

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