October 2012

Day 33: My first two literacy classes chose A Rip in Heaven for their read-aloud, followed closely by The Color Purple. Also, I will miss supervising our school radio station, which is hidden in the bowels of Hickman, with the infamous “tunnel to Jeff Junior.” Today, Brock Boland and Isaiah Cummings, two peers of mine, and I debated the promise of a David Bowie memoir vs. a Neil Young memoir (Brock held for The Thin White Duke), and a young DJ who is taking guitar lessons got to hear this cranked up really high (for full appreciation) after our shifts were over: Memphis Minnie’s “Me And My Chauffeur Blues.”

Day 34: Some fantastic spontaneous moments–in the morning, two seniors whom I didn’t even know wandered into the radio station (where I was hunkered down grading during my planning time, and where they’d never been before–they were lured in by my “Pop Hitz” Spotify playlist), and we proceeded to discuss Hickman and the complicated wonder that it is, touching on class, race, history, “the tunnel,” and the Grupe-Frissell experience; in the afternoon, a great student who’d just finished Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers and was a bit gobsmacked came to me for some assistance, and I think I actually helped (I have not read it, so it was a challenge). Another spontaneous moment that was not so fantastic: only seven people showed up for my fourth block lit seminar class.

Day 35: You have not lived until you have seen Science Olympiad contestants lay their eyes on a new manual. That yelling people heard coming out of 135 was Ryan Wood gleefully reading the specs for the new builder’s event. In other news, Hickman flautist Michele Sun was introduced to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Marielle Carlos laid her ears on Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber’s “Euphoria,” and the literacy kidz started A Rip In Heaven.

Day 36: Items crammed into 95 minutes of Brit Lit today…

*Plug for The Graphic Canon; also, discussion of the idea of “canon” with accidental cuss word escaping….
*Explanation of “Whirlwind Tour of Early British Lit” assessment (kids have to creatively emulate their favorite piece or author from the unit)
*Quickest political/cultural/spiritual overview of first British millennium in public school history
*Reading and discussion of “Caedmon’s Hymn” (oldest English poem) in three versions (Old E, Latin, Mod E)
*Enjoying of Richard Thompson’s stellar version of “Sumer is A-Cumen IN” from his “1000 Years of Popular Music” show
*Group work and discussion of Brit-Culture changes to be inferred by the space between “Caedmon’s Hymn” (7th century) and Carol Duffy’s “Prayer” (1990s)
*Speculation on possible U. S. epic (Huck? Wizard of Oz? Star Wars?) as lead in to…
*Intro to Beowulf and first few lines from Grendel’s appearance (2nd block only for the latter)
*Scattered jokes
*Enjoying of Richard Thompson’s stellar version of “Oops…I Did It Again” (see link) from his “1000 Years of Popular Music” show.

THAT’s what I want to do EVERY day. Right there. Why did I get it right out of the blue?

Day 37: It’s Friday. I’ve had 3-4 hours of sleep. It’s overcast and chilly. It’s an “A” day, first-block, nap-time situation. But no! They explode UNCHARACTERISTICALLY, OUT OF NOWHERE, with DEATH PENALTY QUESTIONS, and we haven’t even started reading A Rip in Heaven yet! An ultra-quiet young lady who hasn’t said ANYTHING all year rolls her eyes and hollers, “How could a country that’s anti-death penalty sell chemicals (thiopental) used for execution to a country that’s pro-death penalty?” I don’t want to stop the discussion (and, by the way, they voice both sides), but we have to read. I stop 20 minutes later, and a kid right in front of me says, “Just a few more paragraphs?” These are the surprises you never count on, and they will be deeply missed. (Note: the next class had no questions and no answers.)

Day 38: After 28 years of use with 6th, 7th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders, I am retiring the following sentence, written by an actual student of mine who doesn’t know she’s legendary, which I have used to illustrate misplaced modifiers and the importance of precise comma use: “She is now living in Florida, pregnant with her aunt and uncle.” (I have never used the student’s name in conjunction with the lesson, by the way.) Soon to follow: “When my dog Baby died, the neighborhood kids balled in remembrance.” (What a wake!)

Day 39: I reflexively waved at a student I kicked out of class a little over a week ago, and she waved back and smiled. I say reflexively, because I did not intend to wave, which would have been a sign of weakness, which would have lent her the upper-hand in our psychological battle to the death in the classroom, which we cannot have on our Farewell Tour. Why am I so WEAK, so FRIENDLY? To quote Drake in Strangers with Candy, I wish I was smarter. Seriously, it was the highlight of my day. Leia Brooks, you know which student I am speaking of.

Day 40: Another weird Lit Seminar explosion, this time from the normally somewhat torpid B Day Core 4. I entered grimly, expecting our read-aloud of A Lesson Before Dying to be a blood-from-a-stone exercise in futility, and 45 minutes of conferences a series of grueling conversations. We started with a journal entry on the death penalty (same topic, different book from morning groups), and I asked a few folks to share. And did they! Then they took a right turn into incarceration inequities. Then a left into classroom inequities. Then another right into middle-school bullying. Then they drove across the median and suggested that, as the final seconds of class expired, we have a similar discussion at least once a month. They didn’t read, I didn’t read aloud, we didn’t conference, but they left happy–especially a kid who hadn’t shared all year and asked all the best questions. I received a $650 grant and taught a lesson in Brit ballads today, and those were second and third on the list. Sometimes you have to just…let go.

Day 41: If you will permit me a more abstract venture today, here are ten fears in no particular order of intensity that are associated with teaching on a daily basis that I will not miss.

1) Fear that nothing you did all day made any difference.

2) Fear that someone will actually act on something you mused about out loud and destroy his life.

3) Fear that you’re not as good as the other guy.

4) Fear that you’re not simply any good, period.

5) Fear that someone will expose you as a charlatan.

6) Fear that THEY have seen right through you into something hideous you either haven’t realized about yourself or about which you are in denial.

7) Fear that on this day, at this moment, you will lose whatever it is you had or thought you had.

8) Fear that the one thing THEY will remember about you in 10 years was the worst thing you ever did in their presence.

9) Fear that you’re not getting it all done, and getting it all done well.

10) Fear that you COULD have reached someone, but just didn’t take the time because it wasn’t convenient.

Of course, the joke’s on me, because they aren’t that specific to teaching. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!

Day 42: In ’84 or ’85, a mere rookie, I won the faculty “Turkey Legs” contest at Parkview High in Springfield–I believe it was a fundraiser for Thanksgiving dinners for struggling families–and I was photographed wearing slacks, button-down shirt, and (horrors!) a tie. Today, I was pleasantly surprised to have been awarded the “Mr. Kewpie” spirit award at Hickman; truly, my spirit is dwarfed by not a few of my male peers. My garb today conveyed what prospects I thought I had: jeans, Chucks, a red and black flannel shirt (open) over a “Kurt Cobain” t-shirt–but no purple and gold. The ever-present shutter bug (and true Mrs. Kewpie) Terese Dishaw was there to snap a photo, so I guess I have my career bookends. But is what we find…devolution? Props to son-of-a-former-student Matt Matney for the photo!

Mr Kewpie

Mr. Kewpie, 2012-2013 Homecoming

Day 43: Some days, when the kids are lethargic (“lethargy” was a read-aloud vocab word in one of my classes today), your peers pull you through. I had a fantastic lunch with True/False Film Fest educational outreach heroine Polina Malikin, fellow English perpetuator Brett Kirkpatrick, and Nicole Overeem, the teacher from across the hall (among other things), and we plotted out the second installment of the True/False Hi-Def Academy, a program that involves students deeply in the art of filmmaking and the wonder that is the festival. I can’t wait to see which kids’ applications knock our socks off.

Day 44 (they are adding up quickly): I woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning, but was tickled by two incidents at school today. First, an office runner entered my room while my Brit Litters and I were listening to “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan, and upon aural contact, she grimaced like she’d just smelled a fart. Second, immediately after school, I was witness to humor-ninja George Frissell North Dallas 40-ing (how ya like THAT verb?) our colleague Sam Kriegel. I don’t know if the humor of those two moments will translate, but I left smiling.

Day 45: After virtually assuring me they were going to hate A Rip in Heaven after its pokey expository opening, several students in my lit seminar class howled in pain when I stopped our read-aloud at the absolute peak of suspense….uh, just so we’d REMEMBER where we left off. If you are a former student and recall me having done this to you (my third favorite trick behind asking students, “I don’t know–CAN you go to the bathroom?” and constructing diabolical seating charts), LIKE THIS POST!

 Day 46: Hey, guess what? Chaucer is still relevant! Exploring the glorious Wife of Bath’s tale, Brit Lit had an uproarious time (both hours) discussing her warning never to point out a woman’s flaws–turns out a few of my students have learned it the hard way! Also, I was reminded of the first question a student ever asked me (Jessica Mee Kirchhofer will verify this) as I taught this tale in my very first student teaching lesson 30 years ago: “Mr. Overeem, what’s a maidenhead?” Apparently, some current students are still in the dark, though I am not sure the original interrogator was….

Day 47: It is helpful to remember, as I drag my fatigued carcass to the end of a work week, that, while today I am eagerly awaiting a music-filled road trip south to see my parents right after school, 29 years ago I would have been eagerly awaiting deep slumber by 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night. That’s far from a casual confession, as those of you who knew me at 21, who tried to pry me out of my apartment for hijinks, can attest.

Day 48: Another thing I will miss about Hickman is its distinguished tradition of excellent heavy metal musicians who are also scholars. This year, the honor goes to Sean McCumber and Daniel Johnston of Volatile, who not only shred, but give a damn about their work and studies. Sorry to embarrass ye, brothers, but ye deserve it. Step up on the pantheon next to Isaac Stickann!

Day 49: All teachers have a secret weapon or two in their arsenal for days when, for example, a school-wide test decimates a class to a quarter (or a fifth) of its usual size. For the last decade, one of mine has been a box set of Errol Morris’ intriguing First Person episodes, which force students to keep their eyes and minds alert and do some heavy inferential thinking. Today–maybe for the last time–I showed my two tiny classes what I believe is the best episode, “Leaving the Earth,” in which pilot and hero Denny Fitch recalls his experience being coincidentally thrust into the position of helping land a commercial airliner that’s lost its hydraulics at top elevation. The dang thing can be a life-changer.

Day 50: Sometimes, kids, you gotta get the heck out of Dodge. 29 years ago, The Replacements; tonight, Rosie Ledet, the Zydeco Sweetheart. Will return refreshed.

Days 51-52: Yesterday, as followers of this status may well have deduced, Nicole Overeem and I took a personal day and visited two sites in St. Louis associated with our educational experiences: The Pruitt-Igoe site (see The Pruitt-Igoe Myth by Columbian Chad Friedrichs if you haven’t already) and the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge (the site of tragedy in A Rip In Heaven, which my lit kidz are currently reading). We also visited Left Bank Books, where I successfully avoided buying new material for my stack. Today was a “slow news day” (other than a tale about our visit to Edgar Allan Poe’s home in Baltimore) but after school, we had a fun-filled dinner with my first excellent student teacher, Tasha Terrell, and her adventure-geared hubby Ryan Terrell. Mrs. Terrell made me realize I’d actually like hosting student teachers, and I’ve had four since her…though no way will I have one this year. But fellow teachers, you need to try it sometime.

Rip in Heaven Plaque St. Louis Bridge

Day 53: It was a between-the-lines day. The teachin’ and learnin’ were fine, but what was best were the conversations–with Isaiah Cummings and Patrick D King, about whether music is really losing its urgency; with Laurie Hoff, about the world’s largest pecan, Todd Akin signs, and medical insurance; with Arnel Monroe, about a mysterious football poem called “He” that we cannot locate n(help if you can!); with Sean McCumber, about the absurdity of the importance given standardized tests; with Michele Sun, about “twinkies” (not the kind The Candy Factory dips in chocolate, either); and with Nicole Overeem, about the worst scene ever in the series Treme that would have been a fantastic scene in Top Secret (clue: it involved the metal band Eyehategod). Now I am getting ready to get back to a book by Padgett Powell (You and Me) that’s one long conversation.

Day 54: You want theater? OK, I am reading aloud a passage from Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying (set in 1948 Louisiana) in which a dying teacher tells the protagonist, his former student and also a teacher, that if he stays and teaches the local kids (who are destined for either SLOW death in the fields if THEY stay or QUICK death or incarceration if they flee to the cities), the controlling white culture will turn him (the young teacher) into “the n***** they want [him] to be.” The dying teacher is embittered from years of helplessly watching and enabling the vicious cycle; the young teacher is beginning to recognize that he is, indeed, enabling the cycle himself. I am reading the passage aloud to a group of students whose OWN futures are too uncertain, and who have their OWN cycles to cope with that I am none too sure I am effectively battling, and most of whom (I said MOST) are only dimly aware of the passage’s import. While I am reading the passage aloud, before I arrive at the word I censored above (but did not censor in my reading–I don’t do that) but after I have engaged the kids in some contextual discussion, the district suits roll in for a “walk-through observation” of about five minutes. The resulting situation was so meta- my brain almost imploded. Am I writing clearly? It’s hard to capture it sparely.

Day 55: Came to school dressed as Walter White, and was immediately identified by a honey bee and a French maid. Walter has come a long way. (Note: Hickman does an annual Halloween scavenger hunt where teachers dress up, and students have to get signatures from them on their master list of characters.)

Halloween Fire


Halloween 2012: left, waiting for trick-or-treaters; below, aping Walter White.

Walter White