December 2012

Day 74: I have been very lucky to work in the same building (actually, two of them) as my wife for over a decade, but outside of extracurricular activities we don’t often get to work together. For the last month, however, we have teamed up to “academically harass” a shared student out of a 44% into a 69%. The student made the last jump by composing a poem about an unnamed teacher who was holding her back (based on Milton’s style and content in Paradise Lost), which gave us mixed feelings, but…but…the things we do to see a senior cross the stage.

Day 75: All in one class, I have two students who cannot leave without an escort (due to their perpetually wandering ways) and one who has been truant for the last two weeks. One of the wanderers also has come off such a string of suspensions I have not seen her for over a week. They all showed up today and, predictably, once I’d “induced” the lesson and got kids rolling, each of the trio had legitimate reasons to need to leave (counselor, re-check a book, get a new book). These reasons are also popular ploys. I gazed deeply into their eyes (like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm)–and validated their departures, despite having not fallen off the peach truck yesterday. They all returned promptly, having actually done what they said they needed to do. Willingness to trust against the odds? Naïveté beyond the call of experience? Avoiding a sure confrontation? Unfortunately, you have to roll some dice.

Day 76: Ran sound for and recorded the umpteenth HHS Poetry slam this afternoon. 30-some poets bared their souls and occasionally their wit. The Slam is one of the best things that happen at Hickman–many kids justifiably have stuff to get off their chests, and this event gives them a safe, artistic opportunity to do that. GREAT DIVERSITY OF PARTICIPATION, too–I’d venture as good as ANY event at Hickman other than a homecoming foo’ball game, and the diversity I’m thinking of is in the stands. Props to Poetry Club sponsors Diana Rahm and Brett Kirkpatrick (and MCs Adriana Cristal and Patricia DeCastro) for facilitating its success. Next one’s coming in the spring.

Day 77: Some days are slow; this was one of them. Though I taught about eliminating deadwood and wordiness in writing, introduced a class to the writing and music of Linton Kwesi Johnson, facilitated a discussion of social media with 12th graders, and advised (with shaky wisdom) a kid being troubled by lack of sports success, nothing sparked. My favorite moments were small: a very passionate student decided to speak truth to power, and a young English teacher whose work I’m very fond of suggested a new name for our school Curriculum Fair. I’ve always found the joining of those two words painful, and was cracking wise about it when Sam Kriegel said out the side of his mouth, “Cirque du Curricula.” That is a lovely vision, Sam.

Day 78: Though I swore to myself as a youth that I would never wind up in sales (no offense intended to anyone, just not my bag), in essence it’s what I do MUCH of the time. Case in point: I have a reluctant reader who, based on the two books she’s read and liked so far, seemed a good target for Felicia Pearson’s great memoir Grace After Midnight. Ms. Pearson played the charming and frightening Snoop in The Wire, and having gotten my student half-hooked today, and observing her nibbling ever so daintily while holding the book, I showed her the famous Wire clip of Snoop buying a new nail gun at a hardware store. Deal sealed. By the end of the hour, 20 pages read. One does what one HAS to do.

Day 79: A moment in our in-class reading and discussion sends me back, back into time. 1984. I arrive at my first teaching interview in Lebanon, Missouri, wearing a grey three-piece suit and maroon tie and driving a beat-up Renault I could probably have lifted off the ground. Viewed from afar, the tableaux already smacks of doom. I am on time–in fact, early–but I wait 45 minutes past my appointment time to be ushered into the AP’s office. In the 90 minutes (!) I sit still for the interview (I was not then nor am I now the sharpest tool in the shed), I am:

1) Encouraged to get married, and informed that some attractive single women teach in the system.

2) Alerted that only a few teachers STILL smoke cigarettes (at the time I learned this, I was dying for a chain of five).

3) Warned that, should I be seen buying alcohol anywhere in the vicinity of Lebanon, I would be terminated. (I am hoping he didn’t see the cooler in the back seat on his way into the office.)

4) Offered four SEPARATE preps (that’s teacher-speak for different courses you teach in a given day–normal’s two). Ninth grade English, 10th grade English, basic speech, and…see next #. Thank you, sir, can I have another?

5) Asked to sponsor the yearbook. Thank you, sir, can I have another?

6) Asked to assistant coach track. Thank you, sir, can I have another?

7) Congratulated on my being just the kind of young teacher Lebanon was looking for, and let know, that upon my acceptance, a contract would be in the mail, and I could be getting ready to teach summer school. Thank you, sir, can I have another?

On the loooooooooooooooooong drive across I-44 back to Springfield, enveloped in gloom, I imagine who–what!–I will become if I don’t get another offer. And 30 years later, re-reading this before clicking “Post,” I thank–with deep reverence–my methods prof and supervising teacher for making sure I did.

Day 80: Know-nothings saw many disparaging things about “today’s students,” mainly because they don’t get to watch them on a daily basis. I know one, for example, for whom “ethics” is not just a term to be written in one’s notes, or a concept upon which to compose an essay answer–for her, ethics are to be put into practice. And that’s where the game of life gets difficult–and where one finds that it’s a worthy one to play. This entry is for her.

Day 81: After many years of teaching Hamlet, I was delighted when a student actually SANG Ophelia’s lines in Act 4, extremely well, with no advance study of the text, and without my requesting it. That one makes the year’s Top Ten. Also, a reading student more than doubled his August STAR test score, but given the waxing and waning motivations of students’ approaches to such computerized assessments, I am not quite prepared to dance a jig. But…I am happy. Oh, speaking of happiness, we also traded “stories of joy” in Brit Lit (it was related to an extra credit question on a grammar quiz): they offered tales of perfect dates, escapes from bad family situations, attending anime and music festivals, and performing on stages, I replied with the stories of the first winning football game I ever experienced (after two years of no victories, against a Fayetteville, AR, team that was clearly Goliath–right, Shawn Baugh?) and the first (and only) winning romantic relationship I have ever known, courtesy of Nicole Overeem’s willingness to take a chance on me.

Day 82: I am almost always in a jovial mood at school, but today, as I entered my first class, my main man (and fellow pain in the butt, right, Andrew McCarthy?) Theo Howard said, noticing my glowering intensity, “Are you OK?” “Yeah, Theo–I just want you to do fantastic on this danged STAR test.” Honestly, I could NOT give less a hoot about electronic standardized tests, and I won’t bore you with the 101 reasons why, but I had offered the kids a less stressful final exam if they improved their scores, I had written some decent practice questions, and, by Jove, I was going to at least…FRIGHTEN some of them into caring. Well, it definitely worked with my second block–the whole class, aggregated, improved by over 10%, my most struggling reader improved by 250 raw points, and a scrawny little JD who just clicked through the test back in August almost doubled his score. I’m not beating my breast over this–all I did was provide an orderly space for reading and glower for four months, and they just came in and read every day. And many have good regular English teachers. Plus, after all–it’s an electronic standardized test, being excited about the results of which is like cheering paint for being able to dry. But, I have to admit, I am going to enjoy watching a few kids JUST READ A BOOK for their final, and have some donuts to boot.

Day 83: Things I got to do today—

1) read a blistering journal entry (that I didn’t even assign) where a student related a father-son struggle worthy of Hamlet and wrestled with race, class, romance, and self-image in a more powerful fashion that in any student writing I’ve read in the recent past;
2) tell my most-disadvantaged reader that, due to improved work on strategies and a jump of 135 points on a diagnostic test, she could just READ for her final exam;
3) hear a student tell me, with a SMILE on her face, that Yale had turned her down (their loss);
4) sell a student who just finished The Hunger Games series on Orson Scott Card (even though I am not a fan);
5) discuss William S. Burroughs and Captain Beefheart with two radio station kids–yep, Ken Shimamoto, 16- and 17-year-olds into Bill and Don!;
6) open a package to discover a vinyl copy of Professor Longhair Live on the Queen Mary, which I had forgotten I bought off some sucker two months ago;
7) eat one of Tranna Keely Foley’s daughter’s should-be-illegal chocolate-covered cherry cake fund-raising confections;
8) be greeted by former student and peach-fuzz-faced Ryan Pruitt as I was walking out of school at the end of the day–BEARDED and grinning, having survived a 20-hour semester (no wonder he hadn’t shaved)!
9) experience, with my students, a productive, safe, and reflective day of public education.

I am grateful for this job.

Day 84: The great thing about being a literature teacher that you don’t think about when you start teaching is having to, then wanting to, look at the same great lit every year, year after year. And often looking at lit you have been ASKED to look at that you don’t initially WANT to look at, that you grow into loving (for me, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lady Mary Montagu come immediately to mind). Today’s case in point: Hamlet. This has to be my 10th go-’round in the classroom with that text. We are steaming toward the final exam, which will require my “Brit Litters” to pose a thesis about the play and support it. We read most of the play together, but I made them read Act V on their own (really, that’s part of the final), and today, our last meeting prior to the test, I showed them the Olivier film version’s Act V for concreteness’ sake, and found my mind wandering to any number of current dilemmas that act ALONE touches upon, and opens windows of understanding to. Then on to what it says about the difficulty of facing evil while remaining free of evil yourself. About the too-frequent impotence of intellect and nobility in this tangle we are caught in. The second half of the period, students tested their theories out in a Socratic discussion, and it just made me hope at least a third of them end up reading the play a few more times, not because their theories were poor (not at all!), but because of how it can help them pull the veil back. Sorry that took a while. The rest (of the evening) is silence….

Day 85: Finals have begun at Hickman. It is definitely a quiet place as I type, with a sprinkling of students here in the media center hunkered down over projects, making final alterations. But I fondly remember my middle school tenure at Smithton, when the last days of the semester meant celebration, fun, and reflection. As my old buddy John Steitz (a fellow teacher whose also stalked the halls and paced the floors of both schools) always says, “I love middle school because their last semester’s memory of you is NOT you hitting them over the head with a 90-minute test.” Actually, I am paraphrasing because I can’t post what John actually said. Which I agree with even more.

Day 86: Ahhh, the snow day. We didn’t get one today(four finals worth of hell on the schedule, would have had to have been made up somehow), but I remember one special day when we did. I am probably the only teacher in Columbia Public Schools history to WALK to school, unaware that school had been cancelled. I lived four blocks away from Hickman at the time, arose at the crack of dawn as usual, noted the lack of snow on the ground, showered, dressed, chowed on brown sugar cinnamon Pop Tarts, slurped down some coffee, grabbed the briefcase, and headed out. 15 minutes later, I arrived at the east guidance doors and found them…CHAINED! Disappointed (!), I rattled them, and a custodian arrived on the other side of the glass and, curiously, drew his finger across his throat (lots of room for interpretation there). Initially, I refused to leave, but when he made shooing gestures, I turned to go. By the time I reached the corner of Wilkes and 8th, the sleet began to slice in waves across my face….

Day 87:

10 Things I Accomplished on 2012’s Last Day of School:

1) Survived both Mayan Apocalypse (I know, I’m arrogant, six more hours to go) AND first-ever Hickman All-Day Lock-In Closed-Lunch Final Exam Party.

2) Ate entirety of Leia Brooks’ bag of chocolate-covered mint Oreos (and I hate mint) in 15 minutes.

3) Thought very intensely about grading on-line HAMLET finals, and didn’t.

4) Gave away a bunch of great old cassettes to a student who still listens to them (Little Walter, John Fahey, MC5, and more).

5) Discovered Hickman student who both likes Lefty Frizzell and played guitar on The Phaggs’ “Pee-Pop” cassette (Spenser Rook).

6) Filled out CPS’ Exit Survey Questionnaire (but ignored the standard form and typed four pages in Word).

7) Avoided eating Tranna Keely Foley’s daughter’s sinful Christmas confections–white chocolate-covered cherry-filled cherry cake balls, if you’re curious–AGAIN, but bought two for radio stations kids. (The young Foley could be raising money for a cult and I still would have bought them.)

8) Thought very intensely about grading literacy seminar finals, and didn’t.

9) Wasn’t apologized to for the sixth consecutive day by the student (not even my own) who hammered me with F-bombs last Friday, unprovoked (I have been known occasionally to provoke, but, as Elvis as my witness, I was a gentleman in this case). Note: This does not count as negative because it’s humorous now; I was asked to tell the story at lunch yesterday, which allowed me to yell F-bombs in the lounge! Don’t blame me–it’s what my audience wanted!

10) Surreptitiously checked out four additional True/False Film Fest documentaries under my account for one of my doc-addicted students (student limit is two).

Hidden track: Conspired with Jim Kome to put Kewpie Internet Streaming Radio in motion before end of next semester.

Part One of Farewell Tour (Liquid Goo Stage) Complete! Happy Hollerdays! And now that the Mayans have eaten my shorts, the NRA can get started on my “fresh” pair.