Cloister Commentary, Day 206: The Thrills and Spills of Tutoring

After Nicole and I took a long neighborhood walk through a windy, cool, overcast fall morning and I arrived at work, I was presented with my first major tutoring challenge of the semester. I was due to Zoom-proctor a student’s on-line math test–it’s very doable via screen-sharing and camera sweeps–but I’d just had my computer replaced, and the techs had not reconnected my mic, camera, and speakers. Sounds like something I could have done, but the simple task required administrative log-in credentials and I’m so low on the totem pole I’m under the ground. The biggest problem was, the instructor was starting the test remotely and the test was timed. Fortunately, neither the student nor I panicked (her mic, camera, and speakers were working great), and I managed to use the chat function skillfully enough to get her through. The exciting life of a professional tutor!

When I returned home from work, I was rewarded for my patience and “ingenuity” with a Tampa Bay victory over Houston (sorry, Brian), I listened to some classic highlife music from Bokoor Studios in Ghana, and I read several more chapters from Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s pitch-black The Dead Girls.

After more shepherd’s pie for supper and a cup of hot golden milk, we read and waited for results from a special school board vote regarding a return to in-seat schooling–which, unfortunately, stretched into the night past our endurance. Judging from the national COVID-19 map, now doesn’t seem to be a great time, but, as I pointed out to a colleague yesterday, these are counterintuitive times. We awakened wide-eyed at 3:45 a.m to the news.

Streaming for Strivers:

A continuation from last night’s soundtrack.

Cloister Commentary, Day 188: Semicolonoscopy

Dr. James Terry is one of the best profs at Stephens College–he’s admired by students AND colleagues–and yesterday he staged his students’ annual Punctuation Day competition. He assigns each of the class’ finalists a punctuation mark, then charges them with the task of designing a creative presentation that effectively defines each, illustrates its uses, and offers tips to the confused, and delivering it on stage in the school theater. This year, he invited me to judge, and, in introducing me, asked me how I liked to celebrate National Punctuation Day. Having only learned of its existence the day I received his request, I lied that I like to spend the morning writing, then the afternoon giving my work a semicolonotomy (I am a mite too fond of them). Also, after submitting my ballot, I learned I was the first judge to ever award all three categories (creativity, volume, overall excellence) to the same student, who revealed the mysteries of–wait for it!–the semicolon to her peers. By the way, half of the students were beaming in via Zoom (one presented that way), the other half plus the educators were masked, and tape prevented any of us from being closer than eight feet from each other; props to Jim and Stephens for providing a safe and healthy place to learn. (Note semicolonic restraint exercised above.)

Nicole and I have had a bit of a rough week, if you’ve been following, but I’d like to recommend neighborhood walks and sitting meditation to any of you who are also mourning or otherwise suffering (the national events of the week have been enough to cause an excess of both in almost anyone). Also recommended: taking meals together, talking the grief out, listening to The Beatles, and watching uplifting programming (for us, Woke and Unpregnant).

Streaming for Strivers:

I’d like to thank Spacecase Records for lighting a punk rock fire in me. Found within: early work by Meat Puppets, 100 Flowers, Leaving Trains, and The Gun Club.

Cloister Commentary, Day 173: Extraction

I completed my on-line notary public profile, which can help folks who need me find me. In the process, I studied my seven steps to good notarization and explored Missouri’s new legislation regarding RON: “remote on-line notaries.” I don’t trust much our ledge passes, but this looks decent. Should I or shouldn’t I?

My Stephens College colleague, the legendary art history prof Jim Terry, invited me to judge his annual Punctuation Day Celebration, which of course I accepted. He may feel sorry for me that I don’t have a class, and this in fact will make me smile.

I took a gander at my young friend Benjamin Ruffin’s current rough draft and passed along some feedback. He has sights on being an architect, and he’d be a great one.

A few years back, we paid a guy a very reasonable fee to powerwash the house and stain our deck, and he was fast and skilled. I tried in vain to locate him, so we have need of someone new. Any suggestions?

I have mentioned this in a past entry, but I am reading and loving Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. It’s a less annoying Catcher in the Rye, very much updated to post-Sexual Revolution (is that capitalized?) social living and transplanted to just-post-punk Eighties London. I bring it up again for people who think everything ever filmed is streaming. Sammy & Rosie Get Laid, for which Kureishi wrote what must be a very similar screenplay, is not streaming. It is not available on DVD; it never made it to DVD. Used VHSes run in the $80-100 range; I tried to Christian a guy down to a decent price for his copy on eBay, but got denied. Word to the wise from a dude that still likes physical media.

I resumed my battle against corporate labyrinths in trying to settle minor affairs in the wake of Dad’s death, this time against an old dragon, AT&T. They had promised to send my mom a paper bill–they did not. They sent her instead a form letter seeming to imply that she had to participate in their AutoPay program (she does not). Also, they owe her $14.99 but that can’t be deducted from her phone bill because it’s from her old internet bill, which is under their auspices. Hammering a way for 70 minutes, I actually wore down a chat agent to do the unthinkable and start sending her a paper bill and cut her a check for the amount, even though I was initially unable to breach Fort Knocks with a passcode I couldn’t remember (I knew all 15 of the other secret digital handshakes). My dad also had paid for an accidental death policy with a company that, after six contacts with them, has not moved to act (for example, mailing me paperwork), though they have acknowledged the policy is in effect. I literally did scream when they, again, did not “call in one to two business days.” These a-holes are terrific at extracting; stingy when it comes to being extracted from. The American Way. Nicole brought me a spearmint candy and I quieted down.

The day ended on a great note, with a classic double-overtime clash between two teams I love, the Raptors and the Celtics, leading to a Game 7 that should be equally classic, and an episode of The Indian Doctor in which an amoral kleptocrat gets his (it’s a fantasy series).

Streaming for Strivers:

I need something catchy, funny, smart, weird, and absurd sometimes, don’t you?

Cloister Commentary, Day 79: Mud and Lotuses

Here’s what pisses me off about me.

I was reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s No Mud, No Lotus, which primarily looks at the fact that suffering and happiness are essential to each other’s existence, and reached a passage where he suggests that, in the midst of suffering, as an alternative to despair or anger, breathing in and reminding yourself of the miraculous wells of happiness within you, still at your behest, like sight. Sounds simple–that’s TNH!–but he’s right, and you don’t have to deny your suffering doing so: rather you can sit with it. This really appealed to me, because I have been suffering from loss, but I can also blow up small incidents of aggravation into states of mind and sensation that feel like suffering, and lose my sense of proportion (another thing that pisses me off about me: wait til you see the “suffering” in the next ‘graf!).

Ok, so RIGHT AFTER READING THE ABOVE PASSAGE, with a new tool to use, I went out to meet the mail carrier. Two packages were due to arrive, and a package that we’d missed still hadn’t been redelivered after several days, so I wanted to see if she knew anything about it. I was standing at the end of the driveway waiting for her–and she suddenly put the pedal to the metal and blew right by me, down to the end of the block, and exited the neighborhood! Simmering, I quietly stomped back in the house to help Nicole brush out Louis. He has to wear a harness around the clock because he’s unpredictable, and it had to come off for full grooming. Try as I might, I could not get the harness back on the hound properly, and, whipping it down on the floor at Nicole’s feet, I just LOST IT! “F—k it, I can’t DO THIS!!! Where was the DAMN MAIL CARRIER GOING?!!! ARGHHYEAA$@#%!!” Near-hysteria.

So much for Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom. Turns out the mail carrier had just gotten a call that another carrier had to be immediately relieved due to heat exhaustion. And how ’bout that “suffering,” eh?

After a few Budweisers–where DID I put that copy of No Mud, No Lotus?–and a great dinner of spaghet, I sat with my bride in the front room in the dark for a couple of hours listening to our favorite songs on about 7, most but not all with social justice themes: “Uncloudy Day,” “Bernadette,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “Can’t Truss It,” “Typical American,” “The Great Compromise,” “East Texas Red,” “Making History,” “What a Diff’rence A Day Makes,” “Free Your Mind and Your Ass WILL Follow,” “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” I wish we could be out on the streets, but I suppose they also serve who only stand and wait. Of course, Milton was going blind when he wrote that.

Streaming for Strivers:

Speaking of the protesters? It is no mystery: they’re…

Cloister Commentary, Day 10: “Frontier Bath” (March 30, 2020)

When things break or misfire these days, you can’t just run out heedlessly and replace ’em or get ’em fixed. Well, you COULD…but I prefer to at least hold my horses, which I do not find easy. Thus, yesterday, since our shower hose sprung a leak, I felt like a frontiersman, sitting in the tub rinsing the soap out of my hair with a Sub Shop cup. And, despite all the help YouTube could give, I could not get my garage door opener back in business after Friday’s power outage, so I had to open and shut it manually a few times yesterday to let out our indoor/outdoor feline Tux–that boy needs a cat door. It seemed familiar: I was born just early enough to experience life without remotes.

I’m writing these so later I can remember how we got through it, and also to possibly entertain you, but it frequently occurs to me that our not having children makes the task so much easier. Far from sitting back gloating, having taught children for almost 60 years between us, Nicole and I can understand how difficult it must be (but also, I am sure, a frequent delight) to have to help the youth through this from sun up to sunset. We start remote teaching in earnest today, but this is one spring break that isn’t going to be over for awhile. Keep calm and carry on.

Streaming for Shut-Ins: the great songwriter with a smile in his voice, John Prine, is in critical condition due to COVID-19. If you don’t know him, why not sample his first album and send him vibrations of strength? (Editor’s note: He’s not dead yet as of 2:15 PM CST April 5, 2020–tough as a boot, this guy.)

Cloister Commentary, Day 13: “Shut Down” (April 1, 2020)

The world of Columbia Public Schools’ faculty, staff, and students was shook yesterday when a three-day pause was announced in proceedings, for the purpose of re-evaluating and re-thinking the system’s response to COVID-19. While that pause is likely a good thing–this is unprecedented, and our state government is still dragging its heels in its response–it might have been, for many, the first serious reverberation of the crisis’ impact. Nicole, who has been working very hard from home and keeping in close contact with her students and comrades, definitely is feeling it, I know all parents and kids are, and though I only interact with CPS as a mentor and student teacher supervisor, it shook me, too.

Thanks to a break in the weather, we’ve walked to Parkade Park and back three consecutive days, and every day we’ve at least said hi to a different neighbor. The year’s first “yardening” has begun! The unspoken mantra on our block: “Don’t be the last to mow your lawn!” We’re lucky: Deven and LaVere Lawn and Landscaping have had our backs since they went into business.

Some local happenings worth supporting: our excellent ward councilman Mike Trapp and his brother have created a shelter project for folks who are outside, and Broadway Diner is STILL feeding any hungry kid on a daily basis. We are donating, and if you can, you might think about it. See links in my comments below.

Anyone else having trouble sleeping a decent number of hours? We normally get up early, but either our dog or the buzzing of our inner wiring has been limiting us to less than six hours a night.

I generally dislike fruit, but I need a banana a day. Oddly, that little quirk is really my only obstacle to staying away from the grocery for a couple weeks at a time. I’m learning to live without.

Streaming for shut-ins: The Shangri-Las were more than just “Leader of the Pack.”

Cloister Commentary, Day 15: “Your Trash Ain’t Nuthin’ But Trash” (April 3, 2020)

We have been worried to death about the nation’s health care workers, small business owners, mail carriers and kids–but I’ve heard little talk about sanitation workers. They’ve had some local struggles here in the best of times, but these have to be exceptionally trying. We need to do our best to make their jobs as easy as possible, and not just sling our trash sloppily to the curb.

I’ve written before about how live music on social media is helping everyone stay sane. I watched this and I was motivated the rest of the day.

I had never been to a virtual happy hour until yesterday, when I was a fly on the wall at a gathering of Columbia Area Career Center folks. I apologize for not being more camera conscious and eating chips and dip right in everyone’s face.

My parents’ order of Chinese toilet paper arrived yesterday. It was not quite what they expected; in my mom’s words, “It doesn’t have the hole for the roll. Dad said it is 3-ply.”

Chinese Toilet Paper

Sometimes you just need to blow out the cobwebs. We chose to have a date-night DVD double-header, and watched LOST IN AMERICA and THE ARISTOCRATS. We feel a little more relaxed this morning.

Streaming for Shut-Ins: a great unsung jazz album from the Sixties, featuring alto saxophone Sonny Criss a West Coast take on East Coast “cool” by songwriter and arranger Horace Tapscott.

The Walk-Out

The beginning of my friendship with Shawn was inauspicious. He punched me in the mouth.

Shawn and his older brother Kyle were protecting their turf at the Carthage baseball field. I was about as far from invading it as I could be. Looking back, I imagine my parents had dragged me out there hoping sports would rub off on me by osmosis and distract me from Birds of North America, comic books, and dinosaurs. Perhaps I was a bit too old for those pursuits; one thing’s for certain, though—soft, brown-shoe-clad, uncoordinated, nine, I was no threat to the boys’ diamond kingdom. By the time I’d gotten off my back and the ground, the brothers were gone, their point made all out of proportion to my willingness to understand it.

A couple summers later, I was horrified to learn that, after my dad built us a house out on the rural route, Shawn would be one of my new neighbors. Barely had fear balanced upon my brow when he came in the yard, walked up to me—I was probably looking for interesting insects—and demanded, “Do you want to learn to box?” Based on past experience, that was the last thing I wanted, but I quickly considered my options: being beaten up for sport, or as social punishment? In the ensuing years, I’d learned that Shawn was already involved in Golden Gloves, and the ominous metallic image conjured by the program’s name assured me that escape would not be a choice. I stuttered, “Sure”—and Shawn beamed a grin at me and proceeded to enthusiastically stick-and-move me through some basic steps. I was hesitant to believe it, but it appeared his intentions were…good. I’d thought he wanted to teach me to box so kicking my ass would be more of a challenge, but he seemed sincerely to want me to learn for my own good, and for fun. He was a patient teacher, he was manically hilarious, and he didn’t seem to think I was a pussy. That much of one, anyhow.

The lesson didn’t stick because I didn’t seek out further opportunities to practice them. However, Shawn and I became fast friends anyway. We landed in the same sixth grade homeroom, where we ritually tortured our Baptist minister-cum-teacher Mr. Lawhon. I was not as abashed in the classroom arena as when faced with proving my manly mettle in nature; I enjoyed doing schoolwork so much I did it quickly so I could do what I wanted, and I’d developed a taste for mischief to complement my interest in stegosauruses and Green Lantern / Green Arrow. One day, just before the recess bell was due to ring, Lawhon asked if any of us had questions about the social studies activity we’d just survived. Shawn raised his hand. This act alone stretched my eyebrows to the back of my head: Shawn normally lacked even a molecule of seriousness about his studies. I craned my neck across the room in anticipation of his inquiry.

Lawhon, eyes narrowed, murmured, “Yes, Shawn, what is your question?”

A long squeal of gas, sounding like it was being forcefully expelled from a balloon, followed, then was bisected by the bell—which, among other forces, propelled Shawn out to the playground before the teacher could even sneer one of his frequent idle threats. Nearly in tears and collapsed into laughter at my desk, I was courting disciplinary action myself. That, I thought, was a masterful emission, and over such natural phenomena young friendships are sealed.

Meanwhile, on weekends, as summer cooled into fall, Shawn continued to lure me into neighborhood danger. A few weeks later, he and the even-more-feared-and-a-damn-sight-older Butch Adams showed up at my door to tell me I’d be joining them in a game of sandlot football at Shawn’s house. I didn’t even know how to play football. They simply needed a body, though now I suspect it was yet another stage of Shawn’s altruistic mission to toughen me up—what kid does that for another kid? Five minutes into the game, I blinked my eyes and noticed I’d caught a pass from Shawn. I did not drop it (at this point, I was still literally striking out in kickball at recess). Also, a culvert ran just behind me, and, as I broke the trance brought on by my impossible success, I looked up to see Butch streaking toward me, shoulder aimed at my midsection.

Have you ever gotten the wind knocked out of you? As it turned out, my vain attempts to suck mine back into my lungs and see through the stars spinning in front of my eyes at least took my mind off the pain cycling through my back and neck. I lay sprawled in the ditch, but, again, to my amazement, I hung in there and completed the game. Nobody praised me; nobody even seemed to notice. Somehow that was just right, and, from then on, Shawn never missed a chance to invite me to play. Before long, I was knocking on neighbors’ doors myself, recruiting.

Also, I was growing. Having sprouted to nearly six feet, at 13 I was big enough to do actual damage myself playing football and basketball. I’d taken an odd route to being player, though. As a premature nerd, along with a fascination with zoology, superheroes, and mythology, I’d developed an obsessive interest in sports statistics—that’s just a little hop over from mythology, anyway, isn’t it? Aside from feeling I had no choice but to play (thanks to my father) and barely believing I could survive playing (thanks to Shawn), that I could actually make the statistics I was fixated upon was a temptation I couldn’t resist. I picture this process being reversed for most athletes; they learn to excel at sports, then they get interested in its tantalizing and deceptive numerologies.

Sad to say, the most important statistics during my first two years on the hardwood and gridiron were our won-loss records—put more succinctly, our loss records. We didn’t win a single football game, and in basketball we were little more successful. As players, like any junior high kids, we boasted only the roughest-hewn skills. However, in ninth grade, things changed for us again, and Shawn was right in the middle of those things, as usual. So was I, to my surprise.

We won our first-ever football game, right out of the gate. Our season opened way out of town, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. When we trotted out onto their field, we confronted a marching band and cheerleading squad both of which were bigger than our entire roster. Their football team itself appeared thrice our size—both in number and bulk. They proceeded to run back the opening kickoff and waltzed in for a two-point conversion, and we were down 0-8 with only mere seconds having elapsed. I experienced a bad mythology flashback as I watched their running back spin the pigskin across the end zone: this was a very, very bad omen.

Minutes later, our helmets bowed in prayer after we’d made negative progress on the ensuing kickoff return and quickly dug ourselves into a third-and-27 hole deep in our own territory, I began to contemplate the thin line separating an omen from an actual shootin’-fish-in-a-barrel prediction, and looked across the huddle at Shawn, who happened to be our quarterback. His eyes were mean slits.

“Awright, they’ve been playing us up. We’re going deep to Nathan on a post. That’s not the play call, but that’s what we’re doing. Keep ‘em off my back. ON THREE!”

Shit. He was serious.

Result: 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown. We blew the extra point, but hell—it was now a game. And ol’ Shawn had the stones to just improvise according to what he was seeing.

As we headed back into the locker room at halftime, still down 6-8, the Fayetteville fans—they seriously dwarfed the handful of parents who’d made the trip to see us—rained insults of a nefariously nasty nature down on our heads. “It’s just a ninth-grade football game,” I thought—but I converted the hurt into fuel. Soon after the second-half kickoff, we scored again—Shawn connected with me on a 20-yard pass play to take it down to the one-inch line—made the extra point, went up 13-8, and that, as they say, was all she wrote. I had never before cried from happiness, nor have I since except quite a bit more discreetly at the altar. My tears, though, were for more than just having won a game against pretty imposing odds. They were also from astonishment at our power—a bunch of 14-year-olds determined for themselves that they would win, then won. Or maybe, simply, Shawn did, and sold us on the prospect.

In basketball, a new coach met us for tryouts. In his recent past, he’d been a star guard at Missouri Southern State College, but his court skills weren’t what really made him special. He had charisma, style—a lime-green three-piece “game” suit? Why not?–and great instincts for coaching youngsters. He was the first adult Shawn and I had ever met who talked to us like we were his equals, and entrusted us with serious responsibilities. One might be skeptical of this approach when applied to 14-year-olds, but Shawn had been ready to lead for a while, and spending time in his orbit had caused me to wonder (and fantasize) about my own capabilities. Coach Stevens sensed this, and soon we were both involved in planning strategy with him. He expected me to provide leadership for the starters on defense, on the boards, and in sheer hustle; Shawn was the “captain” of The Blonde Bombers, our mad-dog reserve squad who uncorked lightning nearly every time they touched the court, especially when we were playing at home. Our gym was smaller than regulation; if memory serves, it had to be a good 15 to 20 feet shorter and 10 feet narrower than any other high school’s. After Shawn and the Bombers checked in, spectators might be treated to long-range set shots that, while launched from almost half court, were actually “only” 25 to 30-footers. Shawn would bring the ball across the midcourt line, then, without hesitation, uncork a Steph Curry-like high-archer into the hoop. The Curry comparisons end there, though, as Shawn launched his shots off his shoulder and beside his ear, the action resembling a shot put / slingshot hybrid. We won most of our games, but Stevens surprised us by giving us the reins and encouraging us to have fun, to the extent that we came to expect it.

I didn’t know this then, by a long shot, but I do now: leadership, paired with the belief that one can change one’s circumstances, is pretty dandy in the sports arena, but those qualities are frankly wasted if they’re confined to the circuses which, along with bread (take that how you will), distract us all from the more important crises in our lives. Imagine all those great Greek myths if they had only been sung about athletic competitions. Most high school athletes have to wait for opportunities to test their training in the world outside gyms and off the fields, and often don’t (or won’t) recognize them; Shawn and I were fortunate to be presented one the very next year. Looking back, and considering the nature of our friendship, I am wholly unsurprised we went for it.

 

As sophomores, we both found ourselves splitting time between junior varsity and varsity football duties. As such, Shawn and I were at the bottom of the food chain, though the toughness we’d both developed had spared us some harassment. One thing, though, that made our situation agitating was that the seniors we were encouraged to worship and fear had, as towering freshmen when we were mere scrawny seventh graders, subjected us to routine physical hazing in the hallways, often with teachers (and some of those teachers coaches) laughing if not egging the assaults on. Every morning, when they saw us in the hall, they’d “chip” us: ball their fists, flatten them out, and cudgel our chests with them (stop a second and recall what a seventh grader’s chest tends to look like: it’s already concave). This was different from getting knocked silly into a culvert in a sandlot contest; that had a somewhat larger purpose, at least. This was intimidation based on nothing but being physically bigger and chronologically older—it didn’t necessarily carry with it any talent of which we should have been in awe. Collectively, they also lacked charisma. In our current fraught time, I can imagine some readers saying at this point, “Shoot, schools actually need that kind of ritual today—these kids have no grit!” Well, grit’s a complicated thing in 2019—for example, just going fearlessly to school today is pretty admirable—and I’m simply not one to advocate any kind of abuse, physical or otherwise, having taught young people for 35 years. However, since we’d last had to be in the same space we were all now three years older, the size difference between our two groups had withered, their lack of character (at least among some of them) had become more apparent, and their primacy in all matters including football had become much more difficult to take seriously. But it was reinforced by our coaches, so we had little choice but to swallow our resentment and pretend to look up to them, though we could occasionally work out moments of vengeance in scrimmage. And a scrimmage is what soon presented Shawn and me a worthy door to open.

On a Monday night, we’d traveled a relatively far piece north to play a junior varsity game against a rival. The game was hard-fought, smash-mouth football that required all of our defensive energy, resilience and acumen, and extended into overtime, when we finally prevailed. I can’t recall why, but we stopped at an all-night diner on the way back (why wouldn’t we have eaten before the game?), and didn’t arrive at our houses until well past midnight. Most of us surely weren’t asleep any earlier than two a.m., and school started at 8. None of us were of the inclination (or had the freedom) to skip—after all, the best thing about high school is that’s where everyone is—but at least, surely, we’d not have to scrimmage after school. Surely our coaches understood.

Within seconds of dragging our asses into “the sophomore lounge”—a very dark, squirreled-away, and symbolic section of the school’s bottom floor—we discovered we’d be going full-pads after school against the varsity. Teeth grinding, I turned to Shawn; of course, he was right there. He looked me in the eye and said, “This shit ain’t right.”

It’s not that we couldn’t have taken it. I’m sure we had no doubt we could. But considering what we’d just done on behalf of the team, how we’d done it—old-time football, coach!—and when, as a result of choices that weren’t even ours, we’d finally returned, we didn’t feel respected. You might argue that, as sophomores, it wasn’t our place to be respected. I’d submit that one good thing about leadership, a great internal gumbo of toughness, self- and other-belief, courage, and inspiration, is that it makes it hard to accept one’s place. In this case, we preferred, and chose, not to. We huddled, right there in the bowels of our school, and developed a plan, which Shawn barked out to the passel of JV players who’d gathered by that time in the lounge:

“Alright, we ain’t goin’ to practice tonight. We’ll take whatever punishment they wanna give us, but we’re in the right on this one. We left it on the field last night and they don’t even give a shit. Well, we’ll make ‘em give a shit right here, with this. If any of y’all do go to practice, you’ll have to deal with us, and I think you’d rather deal with the seniors and the coaches than that. Are we together on it?”

Solemnly, determinedly, we were. The rest of the school day was tense, but, together, we kept the plan muted. I remember walking out to my car at 3:00 with my short hairs at attention and chicken-skin rippling up my neck and down my arms: this was real, and I felt more alive than I ever had. My first kiss hadn’t been one-eighth as electric! More important, regardless of what happened next, I already felt vindicated—and respected. At least our coaches had had to acknowledge and answer to our existence.

The turd had hit the proverbial rotary blades when we arrived at school the next morning. A couple coaches were waiting for us in the lounge, and tersely informed us that the seniors would be running practice that afternoon, and that we’d regret it. I recall chuckling (not too loudly); the fear I had of them had diminished, and I even thought to myself, “Oh, so you’re responding to this by taking an afternoon off from your paid coaching job?” Still, the prospect of two hours at the mercy of this particular group of seniors didn’t fill any of us with delight and, in good conscience, we couldn’t ditch again. This was about having made our point and showing up to answer for it. If we couldn’t do that, we wouldn’t have been right in the first place.

Lord, it was quiet in the locker room that afternoon. Somehow, the upperclassmen had already dressed out, and we could see them over the berm looming and glowering on the practice field as we filed in. When we re-emerged and assembled in their wake, the senior defensive captain bellowed, “You could have come to practice yesterday and scrimmaged instead of skipped like a bunch of fags. So today it’s two hours of drills. Just drills. Conditioning drills. If you can’t hack it, you’re done here. Go home and don’t come back.”

Though I recall thinking, “Hell, just conditioning drills? You’re gonna have to kill us, and that’ll be on you,” our punter, Danny, had other ideas. Danny, in many ways, had prepped me for meeting Shawn, when we were both very young and lived on the same block, before my family moved out to the country where Shawn lived. Danny, too, had kicked my ass (a couple of times, actually—you weren’t anyone in Carthage until you’d done that), but I’d gotten his sister Tammy’s birds-and-bees talk out of the bargain. He was tougher than boot leather, much quieter than the two of us, and a bit of a loner, but he was also a warrior. As the captain bloviated, Danny was standing directly in front of him about 15 or 20 feet away, holding a football. As the sound of that final threat was deteriorating in still air, he extended the ball out in front of him, took two steps, punted it just past the captain’s left ear and over the upperclassmen’s heads, and walked over the berm toward the locker room.

“Collins!!! Get back here! You don’t want to mess with us!” Without turning around, Danny lifted a third finger, and was gone.

Have you ever witnessed false authority deflate? It’s an enriching experience.

We survived the two hours of conditioning drills. It helped that Danny’s punctuating of the statement we’d made confirmed for us that we’d won. We didn’t deserve the punishment, but by administering it to us nonetheless, the senior leadership fell further in our esteem. To their credit, afterwards they seemed to respect us more overtly; I’m not sure the coaches recovered, because I detected incrementally dispersed micro-retributions being launched against us for the rest of the season.

We finished up the season strong, but our protest justified the whole season for me. I’m not sure how the rest of the players, especially Shawn, remember it, but the strategy, bravery, and common cause he inspired us to demonstrate have been a part of my fiber ever since. I’ve had several other occasions to employ them, though honestly, and regrettably, I haven’t always taken them. Whenever I have sheepishly and uncourageously avoided an opportunity to exhibit such valor, I always remember our walk-out, and what my 15-year-old self knew to do.

 

I didn’t return to football—I’d seen enough, really—and I wouldn’t spend as much time with Shawn again. Strangely, I now realize, that was partially his fault: the confidence and leadership he’d helped me access within myself pushed me to sample student government, where, with other students, I helped revise the school attendance policy into a fairer and more motivating document, and exert myself more fully as a writer for the school paper. For some issues I wrote nearly 75% of the copy; make no mistake, that was not a good thing, for anyone. Sports receded in my life, and academics advanced. In the future, when Shawn and I did find ourselves in league, it was to cross the state line to drink, dance and get back intact, or pile ourselves and other wild comrades into my college dorm room, celebrate our friendship as wild comrades do, check out a local rock show, and avoid jail (or, more precisely for me, avoid getting kicked out of the dorm, and school). Forty years later, he remains one of my fondest friends, one to whom I owe so much, though as increasingly older men living in different towns we see each other too infrequently.

I’ve been teaching young people across what will soon be five decades, and from bell to bell (as a current mantra goes) I am presented chances to pass along the wisdom Shawn helped me gain, as well as the wisdom we picked up together on the way to becoming men–earlier than most, to my reckoning.  Each class I meet also challenges me to keep practicing those lessons myself, since no matter what age I’ve reached, I will never truly be exempt from the necessity of leading, making difficult decisions, and protecting myself and others against threats to our integrity. I may have been left sprawling in the dirt after my first encounter with Shawn, but without him afterwards, I might not have learned how to truly stand up.

The Bad Ones: Part 1–Elementary Years (1968-1974)

I am sure you’re looking at this title and assuming that, in this context, I am about to profile the Top 10 worst students I ever had to survive. Fortunately, I don’t think I could make a list of 10 of those—maybe five, and three of those would be massively spoiled brats, not your stereotypical underclass refuseniks. As far as the teachers I survived are concerned? Well—a Top 10 is insufficient.

Let me take you, though, through my edumacational stages, but also demonstrate that one can learn almost as much from the worst of my profession as from the best.

My seven elementary teachers broke down this way:

1) Two were mean as snakes. And physically imposing to a little kid. And seemed, through those two characteristics, to be zealously guarding the truth: to wit, that the only thing they hated worse than teaching was children.

2) One looked like she was a sister of the first two—and she was indeed steely—but had a twinkle in her eye that betrayed her affection for us and her love for the gig. She only had to lift me by my earlobe once to attain my acquiescence to her program, and afterwards she simply asked me if I knew why she’d put the clamp on. I knew the answer.

3) One was incapable of controlling a classroom of children but also constitutionally kind. If you said you were sick, she always sent you to the nurse and didn’t check with your parents. And she quite inaccurately referred to each of us as “Sweetie.”

4) One appeared to have been teleported in from the 19th century. She was strange, but…good. Especially when it came to teaching that so-currently-relevant skill, cursive.

4) One was a corrupt, lying, oily bastard who Baptist-ministered on the side, sported a glass eye, and claimed to have invented the washer and dryer (?!)–if only the patents had not been stolen from him.

5) One dared to show us affection outwardly, and used to stick out her tongue and roll her eyes with pleasure at our performance. And she could teach an ostrich to fly. In fact, she was the first great one I knew: Opal Jarman was the name, and doesn’t it bode well?

I suspect that ratio is about right for folks of my vintage; what I have observed from a limited perspective since I’ve been in the profession is that, maybe, millennials have gotten a better shake. But let me elaborate on a few of the more intriguing moments in my enlightenment, as facilitated by the most suspect of my elementary teachers.

One of those first two? My kindergarten teacher. “Welcome to school, you little INGRATES!” was her rallying cry. Let me support her, in a way, and my point:

It is nap time in my kindergarten class. As usual, I am unaccountably unable to fall asleep on my thin rubber mat, which lies atop a cold, concrete floor. My restless eyes wander around the room until they alight on a view—OK, please bear in mind I was six!—of a girl’s exposed panties. This is a view the import of which I had not the training to decode; it seems, shall we say, strange to me, and thus…my eyes linger. Little do I know that other eyes—evil eagle eyes, darting around behind bifocals—are spying my eyes.

A crow-caw splits the silence: “Phillip Overeem, get up to the teacher’s desk right NOW!” (Editor’s note: So why is it now that elementary teachers are supposed to refer to themselves in third person? It only seems to heighten their menace!).

My heart sproings back into my chest, and I advance sheepishly to her desk. ‘What is the better death,” I think, ‘To run and surely get caught, or to come within her reach and have the flesh stripped from my bones by not just her claws but her tone of voice?’

As I come within a yard of her desk-fortress, she reaches from behind it, grabs my shirt, and pulls me behind it to her side. With the other hand, she yanks open her bottom left-hand drawer (the time-honored drawer within which we hide our flasks), and screeches directly into my ear the following query, and command:

“Do you want to see girls’ panties, Phillip? DO YOU? Well—look at these!”

At that, she lifts her hand to my neck and thrusts my face into the silky pile of kiddie-skivvies she has—can it be?—hoarded in the drawer. I am frightened, not a little pained, then vaguely conscious of something undefinably but most definitely wrong. She yanks my face back out of the drawer and thrusts me with shot-putter strength back to my mat.

And I do not speak of it again…until now.

Seriously, though, about 10-15 years ago, I finally recalled this incident to my mom, herself a retired elementary teacher. I had figured that, at that late date, my confession would not end up dispatching Carthage law enforcement to Columbian Elementary to excavate the grounds for bodies.

After I finished the story, my mom laughed aloud. “No kindergarten teacher worth her salt would be caught dead without panties squirreled away somewhere. Kids that age pee their pants far too often!”

I exhaled loudly in relief. So my kindergarten teacher was not a very idiosyncratic sex offender after all!

Lesson: After time passes, many of your worst teachers magically become pretty damned good. Others remain monsters, but round into monsters who are at least prepared.

Fourth Grade

Moving on, let’s examine the question of how bad a teacher a constitutionally nice person can be. As far as my best friend Rob and I were concerned, her inability to construct a strategy to deal with us after we had raced to be the first one done with an assignment (and on which we still regularly excelled) resulted in us having the dreaded “free time,” and on a daily basis. “Oh shit!” is indeed the correct reaction.

I patiently wait for Rob to enter the classroom, as he has promised to bring us ‘materials’ for our new ‘project.’ He slides into the desk next to me, from which our kindly teacher has not wisely moved him, and secrets me his bounty: one of his brother Ted’s Playboy magazines. Belushi-like, I raise an eyebrow, at which signal Rob simply proffers, “Let’s create our own!”

We both loved to draw and crack wise, but we’d grown bored of sketching monsters and choppers and insulting our fellow rugrats. So—division of labor: Rob, being by far the most talented artist of the two of us, would handle the pulchritudinal portraits; I would construct an interview with a celebrity (us) and write the jokes that would immediately follow Rob’s centerfold (hey: there were Shel Silverstein books on the classroom shelves, people!). We would carefully, whenever we arrived at a half-hour with nothing to do, get out our portfolio and create the magazine, a chunk or two at a time, occasionally peering over the tops of our fellow students’ toiling heads to keep tabs on the teacher, but also wonder what exactly she would do if she caught us.

(Editor’s note: Yes, this really happened).

After a solid month of discipline and focus, we walk to the teacher’s desk and ask to borrow her stapler. Without asking us why we need it, she hands it to us with a cooing, “Here you are, sweeties.” Back at our desks, we proudly plant three staples along the fold of our artisanal soft-core example of realistic (and collaborative!) art, look at each other with amazement, hand it back and forth to each other for final approval, and begin to discuss—a bit too loudly, in retrospect—our rules for sharing our magazine with classmates. We find we are motivated by profit, just enough to purchase cinnamon toothpicks on a regular basis.

Suddenly, a shadow falls across the pages as I inspect them; upon a blink, Miss Smith is holding our piece of literature and thumbing through it. Without a word, she walks back to her desk, and dismisses the class to recess. Rob and I look at each other, get up, and shuffle with conspicuous expectation past her domain. She says nothing; she does not even look at us; however, she is not glowering into space, either.

We never see our precious Playboy facsimile again. Its existence is never mentioned again but between the two of us, and even then, out of sadness, even our acknowledgement of the document’s reality gradually dissipates. But today, I still wonder what became of it. Did it land in a dumpster? Or was it kept—is it kept still, by someone—as a bizarre memento of a difficult career?

Lesson: Sometimes bad teachers (and even great ones, like my old mentor Bob Bilyeu) either consciously or unconsciously employ a strategy known as benign negligence, which allows their students to access their own creativity, ideas, and motivations in order to create products which, while unconventional, would easily meet the requirements of any set of state or federal standards–and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Thus, without actually teaching, they lead their troops to excellence. No guru, no method. Right?

To wrap up this survey of teaching malfeasance and its paradoxical benefits, let us move on to the final pedagog of my elementary slog (the aforementioned inventor manqué) and away from puerile and lascivious deeds. In this case, I must shift tone.

I report to my sixth grade classroom having read my social studies assignment: one page of discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. This single page is not an excerpt from our social studies Civil Rights text section; it IS the social studies text Civil Rights section. For one of the few times this school year, I am very interested in the subject matter: for one, our elementary serves not a single student of color, so I am confused about that fact after doing my reading, and for another, I love, and feel certain that I will always love, a rebel. This lesson, I figure, unlike the one our teacher has recently taught on human sexuality (the full lecture text: “Keep your pants zipped up!”), should be enlightening.

The teacher begins by passing around a postcard. On the postcard is this photo, which sears a brand into my brain:

king_jr-communist_school

I look at it, shaking my head in classic cognitive dissonance. The teacher begins (and ends):

“Students, your reading homework is an example of how textbooks lie. Martin Luther King, as you can see from the postcard, was a Communist and an enemy of the American people. You will do well to remember that. He is an enemy of the American people. Now, if you will return the postcard to me and get out your math, we will check that assignment.”

Wait! Not that other things he has done haven’t also smelled to high heaven (keeping me in from recess because I had said, “I screwed this problem up”; belittling fellows students who could not sing to his standards; threatening to call our parents but being too frightened to pull the trigger; taping a list of my regular offenses to my desk and asking me to put a tally mark next to each offense whenever I committed it–????), but this just feels—I am only 12, and an overachieving B+ intelligence at that—extremely wrong. My class numbers 30; I notice no one else looking bamboozled or otherwise uncomfortable. But I hold on to the feeling. I will wonder for years about what they were thinking.

The next weekend, I ask my mom to drop me off at the babysitter’s, aka the public library. I speed down the stairs to the kids’ section, and look up as many books on MLK and the Civil Rights Movement as I can find. I spend the morning and afternoon tearing through the pages. I am already reading relatively adult material, so I make it through multiple texts and notice what I am not yet able to identify as a consensus: Dr. King is not by any stretch of the imagination an enemy of the American people; if anything, he seems to be a fighter against the worst strains of the American “way.” In the midst of a blissful yet disturbing reading hangover—it will become one of my favorite feelings—I sit back, surrounded by three piles of books, and arrive at a different lesson than “Never trust a textbook” (I will get to that eventually, under more intelligent pedagogical auspices): “Never trust a teacher.”

I proceed to wreak havoc upon the teacher with imaginatively incorrigible behavior for the rest of the school year—except on those days when my mom is his substitute.

I am quite serious when I say that this particular experience with a horrible instructor was the first step I took toward the career I’d eventually embrace, however oblivious I was at the time. It was the beginning of a lifelong intellectual focus that shows no signs of ever letting up: social justice and “race” relations in the United States. It was incredibly important for me during my next six years of schooling—when for the first time I would sit side by side in a classroom with people of color, imperfect in my grasp of inequities though I was (and still am, but I’ll never cease working at it). And, all kidding aside, it gave me the opportunity to test myself against authority at a very young age; this man was very bad at his job, and I was given a real-life opportunity to confront badness and act against it, as opposed to just reading about it.

Lesson: Sometimes I think that the worst teacher I ever had just happened to be the most influential one I ever had. It’s the yin and yang, I suppose, and, though of course I’d encourage those of you who have bad teachers now to strive to comprehend their effects reflectively, I can’t help but remind current teachers to think about just what they might be remembered for–if this is what I vividly remember of that man 44 years later. It’s a scary deal, and it’s all too real.

PASSING TIME, PART 5: Extracurricular Fun, Part 1–Sponsoring Clubs and Beating Myself Over the Head with Them

Teaching five or six classes a day is a heavy enough load itself. Add a school club or competitive team to that weight, and the job can truly become one’s life. Young teachers quickly intuit this, and hope to avoid being assigned extracurricular duties. When I began my career, “assigned” was the operative concept; newbies were expected to accept happily such responsibilities as a part of dues-paying—not to mention because their energy level had not quite yet been sapped to brown-out levels. The trouble was, this acceptance usually wasn’t addressed in teacher training, so it had a tendency to take the average greenhorn by surprise.

Such was my introduction to club sponsorship. Before the start of my sophomore campaign, I was called down to my supervising assistant principal’s office. We’d hit it off fairly well during my insane first year, but he had consistently chided me for wearing jeans and staff sweatshirts too frequently, to which I’d responded that it was a strictly a matter of economics, not sartorial aesthetics. I barely made enough money to pay rent, eat, and medicate myself with beer, so assembling a slick wardrobe was out of the question. He wasn’t impressed that I’d countered with an excuse, but, back then, on final evaluations, the teacher was given a space for “rebuttals,” so I repeated the explanation in writing, and I was pretty sure he hadn’t admired that. So I was already wary as I responded to this particular summons to his office.

“Phil, we need you to sponsor a club that’s having a little trouble staying afloat.”

“I’m not interested, really. I’m enjoying the teaching, and I keep myself pretty busy after hours and on weekends.”

“Phil, I don’t think you understand. We need you to do this. Also, the kids have gotten wind that you enjoy what you’re doing here and think you’d be a good sponsor for them. Last year’s sponsor moved on.” Translation: “Phil, you don’t have a choice. You are going to do this. Also, the old sponsor ran away screaming.” Unfortunately, I was a BLL: “Bureaucratic Language Learner,” emerging division.

“No, seriously, I don’t think club sponsorship is my thing. I appreciate you and the kids thinking I would do a good job, though.”

A look someplace between severe constipation and bottled rage tightened and darkened his face. Clearly, he didn’t want to have to tell me I was going to do this; he wanted me to make it easy for him and just accept it. He did not know he was dealing with a guy who had always been a little slow on the uptake. I thought I had a choice—I’d inferred it from the language of his request.

“Look, this will look really good when you’re evaluated at the end of the year.” Now he was communicating in a tongue I understood. I wasn’t happy about the clothing issue from the year before, nor about his giving me an informal “B+” for my year’s performance (in retrospect, that was very charitable), but I also thought that, should I continue to refuse the offer I actually couldn’t refuse, I would end up bumping my hard head on a glass ceiling of sorts.

I folded. “Alright, I’m in. What’s the club?”

“Have you heard of Canterbury Society?”

My eye began to twitch.

“No.”

“Well, that’s the problem. The club is way under the radar and hasn’t done anything of note to be on the radar for a long, long time.”

“So, uh, is this a club of…Chaucer admirers?”

“Actually, Phil, I am not sure what it is at this juncture. But I’ve taken the liberty of setting up a meeting for later on this week for you and the five or six remaining kids from last year, so you can find out then. I think you’re smart to accept this position.”

Walking out of his office, I thought to myself, “Well, the main problem is that the idea of a high school club apparently designed to celebrate Chaucer will never be a hot proposition. At least for long.”

 

When I met the kids, many of whom I wasn’t too surprised to find were or had been my students, I was slightly relieved to learn that Canterbury Society was a club for kids who generally liked literature, but, when I asked what they’d come up with for activities, they responded quizzically. Did they know what a club was? I suggested that we get together maybe once a month to share excerpts from what we’d been reading, but that was met with blank stares. They’d tried that, and it’d had the effect of chasing off members, with which the club wasn’t teeming to begin with. They felt they needed to really do something.

“We could do a fundraiser,” someone chimed in, apropos of nothing.

Curious, I asked, “What would we be raising money for? Usually, the need comes first, doesn’t it?”

Someone else piped up. “The Developmental Center for the Ozarks always needs some funding, according to my parents. They train disabled adults to work and contribute to society. We could raise money for them.”

Always an annoying nit-picker when it came to relevance and practicality, I posed another question: “How would said fundraiser connect with, y’know, reading?”

Silence.

I lurched into the void with an idea that, had it come from an experienced teacher, would have given one cause to question his mental well-being: “We could do a 24-hour read-a-thon, and collect pledges based on each individuals’ pages read. They could just lock us in the library on a Saturday morning and let us out on Sunday.” Someone clearly needed to object to such a proposal. And fast.

A month and a half later, we stood staring as a janitor locked the school library’s doors from the outside, a group now grown beyond 40 and hoping that our coolers of soda and piles of snacks would hold out—and that the Domino’s delivery guy wouldn’t set off the school alarm. What I’d already discovered (and should have remembered from my own high school experiences) was that, outside the classroom, students were even funnier, more interesting, and energetic than they were in it, which had the welcome effect of balancing the frustrations I was experiencing trying to make learning happen as an English teacher. The 24 hours passed surprisingly quickly, as we played cards and games every three hours or so to keep ourselves awake and fresh, traded stories from our respective trenches, shared what we were reading, and shifted over to mathematics to try and project how much money we might raise. Knowing the bare minimum about the ground rules for school activities and letting my enthusiasm drown my already sketchy common sense, I’d not arranged to have other teachers or a few parents help me supervise—I think the principal assumed I’d done so, because I can’t imagine she would have otherwise allowed me to go it alone—so I had to stay awake keeping them awake—and monitoring for clandestine romantic interludes within the stacks. As well as waiting for the pizza.

The night custodian let the Dominos delivery boy in with the pizzas mid-evening, and after chowing down we’d found we’d overordered—grossly. At least it wasn’t coming out of our fundraising; we’d chipped in together and gotten a boost from the office to pay for the pies. Still, it’s depressing to see a tall stack of full pizza boxes you’re too full to eat. Suddenly, one of the kids burst forth out of a burgeoning brainstorm.

“There’s a speech and debate activity in the Commons tomorrow morning. Let’s sell cold slices for breakfast for 50 cents apiece!”

The rest of the group exploded in laughter, and even I thought the idea was even more cuckoo than a 24-hour read-a-thon with no supervisory backup, but, well, I’m often wrong. Happily, I was also wrong about the idea being cuckoo—never underestimate the pull of pizza—as we spent our last hours, with the morning custodian’s assistance, rotating into the Commons to sell all the leftover pieces and adding cash to the charity coffers.

All told, we raised over $2,000 on nickel-a-page pledges and who-knows-how-many total pages read. I wish I still had the paperwork after 30 years. And it felt good to set out to do something and actually end up with cold, hard evidence that it got done, and got done well, all the while with all involved having a blast. That’s not quite so easy to replicate in the classroom. Also, I didn’t have to commandeer the activity with the intensity teaching required; I could relax a little bit, kid around, tell some stretchers, and be myself. We repeated the activity the next year, with almost twice as many students (as well as some backup chaperones), and raised almost $1,000 more than we had before. True: the read-a-thon was our only activity of the year, other than planning meetings for the read-a-thon, but, hey—we did something.

 

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. I was soon very comfortable in my role as the sponsor of Canterbury Society, and, after a rough second and third year, I was getting my pedagogical footing. Those are also the years when young teachers begin to feel deeply the mental, emotional, psychological and even physical cost of the job, and begin wondering how long they can keep it up. For the first of only three times I can remember, I had been considering another profession, but my involvement with kids outside the classroom had helped me come to my senses.

I had also weathered my first career controversy: during a first-hour class, with several female students surrounding me at the front of the classroom, I had taken out my wallet to buy some fundraiser cookies, and a 10-year-old condom, probably turned to powder in its weathered wrapper, flew out of my wallet and onto the middle of my meticulously clean desk. After the deafening laughter died down, I begged the young ladies to please keep a lid on the unfortunate occurrence. That was like asking a pyromaniac not to ignite a river of kerosene, and by lunch, I knew from my second, third, and fourth hours’ razzing that my mishap was already the talk of the halls. Then came the inevitable call to the office–the principal’s office, occupied by an administrator, Dolores Brooks, whom I very much liked, thoroughly respected, and feared not a little.

I shuffled sheepishly into the main office and reported to Mrs. Brooks’ secretary, who was sporting what I quickly interpreted as a Puritanical glower. She waved me in with disgusted officiousness, where Dolores, who’d been a basketball player at Purdue and towered over me, was standing glaring at me, arms crossed and lips pursed.

“Sit down,” she fairly ordered me.

I sit down and stared at my lap, unconscious of the meaning that might have conveyed.

“We have a problem, don’t we?” she asked, funereally.

“Yeah. I screwed up.” You know, I actually hadn’t. In fact, had I not been mortified and 25 years old, I would have alchemized it into a teachable moment. But this was Springfield—my friend Frank called it “Banks & Bibles, Missouri” with good reason—and I feared the very worst.

Mrs. Brooks went on. “I have a very serious question for you.”

“Yeah, I figured.” I knew she was going to ask me if I wanted to keep my job.

“Do you need a fresh supply of condoms?” she asked, poker-faced.

She proceeded to lapse into a convulsion of guffaws, tears glazing her eyes. They don’t make principals like that anymore.

She came out from around her desk, put her arm around me, and said, “C’mon, I’ll buy you lunch. Some of your peers would like to harass you in the teacher’s lounge.” And did they.

 

But it wasn’t this call to the office that is relevant. A few days later, Dolores called me into her office again, where she was visiting with my evaluating principal, who was also the administrator charged with overseeing school activities. He’d formerly been Parkview’s student council advisor, a position that’s frequently a rung on the ladder out of teaching and into administrating (wherein the big money lies). I still had a touch of the fan-tods from the condom incident, and since I hadn’t quite made an effort to dress more fashionably—this was the Miami Vice Eighties, so I had another reason to drag my heels—I was a little leery of Brooks’ underling. They wasted no time getting to the point.

“Judy Brunner will be taking an administrative position at another building next year, and we’ve been talking to our student government about whom they’d like as their sponsor next year.”

Uh-oh.

The AP chimed in. “They didn’t even take time to think about it. They would like you to do it.”

I’d like to interject at this point that these student desires had little to do with any quality teaching I might have been doing. I was young, full of energy, easily manipulated, and liked to have a good time whatever I happened to be doing. By and large, the bulk of the rest of the faculty at Parkview, as much as I had learned from them, was a bit worn out, cynical on a regular basis, and not totally invested; I would understand all of that later. As for the moment in question, as you will see, I had learned very little and understood even less.

I countered, confidently, “Well, I have a club, it’s doing pretty well, my classes are huge, and I am working very hard. Plus I’m a lit guy, not a government guy. I’m going to have to pass.” I looked at them for a response. They appeared lightly dumbstruck. They said nothing.

I continued. “I need to grab lunch because I have to set up an activity before my next class comes in. Good luck with the sponsor search.” I hurried out, with a creeping suspicion that the interaction had been too easy.

Later, on my way out of the building, Dolores saw me and waved me into her office again. I started to sit down, but she told me, “This won’t take long. We appreciate your reasons for not wanting to sponsor student council, but we figured that by now you got the concept that you don’t have a choice. We were a little stunned, or we would have corrected you last time you were in here.”

that council

Parkview High School Student Council, 1988-19898: A great one. Author on far left.

Thus began my tenure as a student council sponsor, an experience that would lead me directly out of Springfield to Columbia, where I now live. My first year was exhilarating and absolutely draining. Parkview’s student government model put the group in charge of assembly scripting and execution, the school blood drive, elections, decorations and events for homecoming, and interviewing and selecting top leadership for the following year. In addition, members were expected to read, obey, and augment file folders documenting past years’ responsibilities for their positions—a nifty idea, especially when you’re a new sponsor working with a 12-member council of strangers. Unlike many student council sponsors today, I was fortunate to have my final class of the day dedicated to meeting the group for planning and working (one less class of essays to grade!), but that was just enough time to get settled, crack wise at each other, and brainstorm—by the time we were ready to work on a script, compose memos to faculty, or paint a sign, the school day was long over.

The kids were bright, hard-working, creative, and witty, and thus a true pleasure to work with, but, after working at the school for 85 hours during my first five-day week of homecoming, then awakening at 4:30 a.m. the following Saturday morning to load the gang onto a bus for an all-day state student council conference, I was able to accurately measure the cost. I have always been a high-energy person who’s never needed much over six hours of sleep a night to run at full capacity, but two moments from that week communicate just how draining my responsibilities were.

I happened to be showing my fifth-hour class the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird on the climactic Friday of homecoming–the fourth consecutive hour I had shown it, and, since my fifth hour took lunch in the middle of the period, I had to dismiss them, since no bell was sounded. At 12:05, five minutes after lunch dismissal, I awakened from a deep sleep, head on my desk in the back of classroom and drooling, to the whole class laughing and pointing at me—I’d passed straight out.

The next evening, after returning from the student council conference, my housemates and I were hosting a Halloween party and, though I had the energy to don a costume (I was a dancer from Madonna’s MTV voting commercial), I made the mistake of kicking back in a recliner to chill a second and have a beer, and within seconds was dozing soundly for the entirety of the crowded soiree. I awakened at 7 the next morning still in the recliner.

However, I was just the overseer. Imagine the drain to the students’ system! They even had to stay after the homecoming dance Friday night—with their parents—and clean up, a long-time student council tradition from which I was mercifully excused. Fortunately, I was still in my 20s; I’d never survived it at 50!

 

The second year was not so nice. For one, Dolores Brooks, who’d visited our class after every major event to express her admiration and written notes to specific commissioners when an assembly or election had gone swimmingly, had retired, and her successor was the AP who’d been my evaluator for my first five years, who’d “asked” me to sponsor Canterbury Society and balked at my daily ensembles. He’d been the student government sponsor before the sponsor I’d replaced, and I’d heard he’d controlled it with a mandarin grip. I soon realized that grip extended to his strong emotions about student council. It’s not that I ran a loose ship; I operated on a principal of trust and made a point to always know what each member was supposed to be working on, plus I had gotten good results from a peer’s advice. Bob Bilyeu, the legendary Parkview speech and debate coach, upon learning I had ascended to a challenging supervisory role, had pulled my coat about his concept of “benign negligence”: you work closely with them early to make sure they have a grip on the basics, then you hang back—at times, disappear—and let them do it and, very important, figure out their own solutions to problems which arise in the process. Again: trust. It’s an element that’s taken a back seat (if it’s even in the car) in many 21st century public schools, between student and teacher and between teacher and admin, but I speak the truth when I say it worked for me. Did I ever get burned? Once. To that in a moment. Suffice it to say that the new principal did not approve of “benign negligence,” but he chose “passive aggression” to communicate his disapproval.

Exhibit A: we’d set a city record by collecting 180 pints of blood the previous year during our spring blood drive. Plus, we’d run the drive efficiently, and even had fun—though I’d fainted while being asked questions about yellow jaundice and never made it to the stretcher. Our president asked, “Hey, why don’t we do one each semester—we have a great organizational scheme, our kids like to give, and we had a record number of faculty show up as well.” I think that’s the first time (of many times to come) as an extracurricular advisor that I’d invoked the Wild Bunch credo: “Let’s go. Why not?” We received a slightly grudging approval from the new boss, spaced the first drive a reasonable set of weeks away from homecoming, and broke our own city record with 189 pints. However, as we began planning for the spring drive, the principal showed up to the classroom to tell us two drives was too many.

“But wait, you already approved us for two, and we’ve set city records two drives in a row,” our president replied, hurt.

“I’ve changed my mind. You guys have been doing too many things.”

I dove in. “What’s too many things? We’ve had exactly zero failures, I can’t staunch these guys’ creativity, and I’ve heard no faculty complaints.”

Irritated, the new boss stiffened and made a pronouncement: “One event per month. That’s the rule.”

The kids looked at me. I looked at him. “Since when? We didn’t observe that last year and nobody said a peep.”

“That was last year. One event per month.”

Not a little outraged, I blurted, “We’ve already made our contacts and set up a date with the Red Cross, and they’re thrilled, and we’ve got no major events anywhere near the drive. We’ll look extremely weird cancelling it.”

“Have the drive at your own risk,” he warned us, and he turned on his heel and was gone.

 

We had the drive at our own risk. 191 pints: another city record. But that marked the end of congratulatory notes from the principal after events, and of his classroom visits to praise us and participate in our regular debriefings and post-event critiques. It was the beginning of a kind of harassment, typified by the loose-leash situation to which I previously alluded. In order to hold on to some energy, I seldom attended athletic events at Parkview, but the student council kids were almost expected to be there, and likely would have gone even had they not been. I had no reason to think that any one of them would have needed to be on any kind of leash in public, nor that it was also my responsibility attend every big game. At a contest shortly after the principal’s huffy visit to the classroom, one of our commissioners unwisely hollered at the opposing team, “You guys are asses.” The principal fell upon on him like a Fury, kicked him out of the gym, and called me at home.

“Get rid of him. He’s not student council material.”

“I agree that his behavior was inappropriate, but I don’t think it’s cause to kick him off. How about we suspend him from events for a month. Even that’s a little harsh.”

“I want him gone.”

“I don’t think I can do that. But you are welcome to kick him off yourself, since you are in charge.”

That did not go over well.

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” he said, his words sounding like air being slowly forced out of a balloon.

The next day he stormed into our classroom again while we were meeting, upbraided the wayward commissioner in front of the class, and announced that the student was being suspended from activities for two months. He reminded us of our hallowed obligation to be perfect due to our position within the school, glared at me, and left. The students and I looked at each other without words, in clear, foreboding telepathic communication: “We still have three and a half months left.”

 

The conflict came to a very intense head during our process of selecting commissioners for the next school year. In Parkview’s model, the president, vice-president, and secretary were to be elected by the student body; those three members and the sponsor were then to interview candidates for the remaining nine positions during the three weeks leading in to spring break, select the best possible candidates for each position and obtain the administration’s approval (usually of rubber stamp variety—remember that), post the results on the bulletin board in the student commons three minutes before the bell rang to excuse the student body to spring break—and disappear. It’s a pretty good model, if you ask me, other than the time expended on interviews, which, in a large high school like ours was a chunk.

The applications had come rolling in, and, the afternoon after the deadline had expired, the three new officers and I sat at a table and gave them a cursory look. One applicant stood out like Custer in a sweat lodge: the principal’s tenth-grade daughter. Since all three of the elected officers had come from that year’s commissioners, they understood exactly what that meant.

“Mr. O, what are we gonna do?”

“Easy. We will interview her, and if she’s tops at either of the two positions she applied for, we put her on. If she’s not, we don’t. Plus, she’s a sophomore, and the unwritten rule that we only put a sophomore on if she’s a genius was one that our lovely current principal invoked back in the day. I’m not saying we won’t get any kickback, but it is that simple.”

They looked at me dubiously.

In what seemed a flashing moment but most certainly was not, we’d interviewed everyone. During a different year, the selections would have been a breeze—a clear frontrunner materialized for each position. The trouble was—though it shouldn’t have been—that the principal’s daughter, though a very sweet kid with solid potential, had submitted a drastically subpar portfolio for each of the positions she was vying for.

Again, the question: “Mr. O, what are we gonna do?”

“Kids, we’ve done it. We are submitting our list as is to the activities AP, she’ll pass it on to the principal, and he’ll have to accept it. Otherwise, he’ll be exposing himself to charges of nepotism, which he does not need, being a rookie boss. He gets his marching orders, too.”

They bought it, and I did, too—pretty much. But doubt lurked as I slipped the list into the AP’s mailbox.

 

She called me at home about an hour after school was out, her voice panicked. Despite our difficulties with the head cheese, this assistant principal had been extremely supportive of us throughout the year, which had to have brought some black rain down on her head.

“Phil! HE. IS. LIVID. He cannot believe his daughter’s not on the list. He was literally screaming at me to do something and stomping around my office. If you’re going to go with this list, you better come in with full ammo.” That metaphor spooked me.

“OK, I’m going to get the kids back together tonight or tomorrow night, since that’s all the time we have left, put the situation to them, and go with whatever they decide—though I am going to advise them that, while sticking to our guns will not necessarily help us sleep better, it will make our faces more attractive the next morning when we look at them in the mirror.” That metaphor didn’t make me feel much better.

The kids and I met for pizza the Thursday before we were due to post the results. We laid out the situation as accurately as we could: if we stuck to our decision, we very likely would be harassed even further than we already had been, and lose approval for new projects, not to mention simple support for our existence—but we’d know we’d acted with pure integrity. On the other hand, if we changed the list and put his daughter on the council, the rest of the selected group was versatile enough to easily compensate for her deficiencies—and help her hone her talents—and this would cheer the boss up, possibly—but only possibly, we recognized—regaining his full support. The cost? We’d always know we’d folded. These were high school kids who just wanted to have fun and not be at war, so I didn’t blink when they unanimously opted to fold. At home, I typed up a new list to post, drank several beers in anger, fear, frustration, anxiety, and anticipation, and slept a few minutes. At 7:30 the next morning, sobered and recharged by two pots of coffee and emboldened by an hour’s meditation with a Johnny Cash best-of, I walked into his office, dressed cornily in black and visibly unshaven.

“Here’s our list.” I remember unwisely tossing it on his desk. I was tenured at this point, though because I didn’t quite understand the timing of the process, I didn’t even know it yet.

He crumpled it up and tossed it back at me. “I want the real list.”

“You saw the real list, and I heard very vividly from Pam what your opinion of it was. Let’s not play games. You have what you said you wanted.”

He slumped, and seemed to deflate. He began to cry. I am not making this up.

“I know she’s not good enough,” he blubbered.

No! She’s is a good kid! She has excellent potential—she just is not ready yet. She has two more years—good grief, man!”

“I haven’t been a good father…I have to get to a meeting at the central office and I’ve got to get myself together. I want the original list, Phil.” I could believe neither my eyes nor my ears.

“Look, this has nothing to do with your abilities as a father. But if you accept the original list, you can’t ride us next year. It’s not fair. We’ve done a very good job this year, but it’s been in spite of your lack of support rather than because of it. They need you behind them, and—”

“Fine, fine, I know what you’re saying. I have to go. Please just put up the real list.”

I rolled my eyes, picked up the wadded-up revised list from the carpet, and got the hell out of there, thinking of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny: “Where’s my strawrberries?” Could I survive another year under this man’s authority? I gathered the three new officers and discreetly told them he’d changed his mind and accepted the original list. They high-fived, and began to prepare for their spring breaks, decompressing mentally and emotionally before my eyes. I posted the original list in the commons at 2:44.45 and hit the fucking road.

Alas, this was not the end of it.

 

The next evening, visiting with my parents on the first day of my low-income vacation, something happened that I would assign to fate if I actually believed in that. My dad’s fishing buddy and best friend had come by. He was the local principal—and also the head of the state principals’ association. I’d known him long enough to trust him, he was one wise and funny son of a gun, so I told the tale of our rocky year, which still had two months left.

He shook his head in amusement and disgust. Then he brightened and asked, “You ever heard of Hickman High School in Columbia?”

“Oh yeah.” Having subbed for Bob Bilyeu as a speech and debate coach, I’d learned of the school’s reputation, which was considerable. At the time, I was impressed that Sam Walton had attended Hickman.

“You think you might want to teach there? Their current principal, who’s retiring, had an English opening which he may have already filled, but if you’re interested, I think I can convince him to interview one more candidate.”

“That sounds like a long shot, but sure! Thanks!”

I didn’t think even a remote possibility existed for my being hired, but I was definitely game to go. 36 hours after witnessing Parkview’s principal’s meltdown, I was having trouble imagining that I wouldn’t pay for having witnessed it. It occurred to me that I’d be abandoning the kids on the council to bear the brunt of his emotional instability, though they’d have a new sponsor to run interference for them whom I could prepare, and in no time they’d be graduated and on to bigger and better things. If I stayed, who knows how long I’d have to stay?

I got an interview.

I was offered the job.

But, in Springfield, on the other end of the phone call from Columbia extending the offer, I was informed that the teacher I was replacing was on sabbatical, and when she returned, she had a right to her original job. I’d still be teaching in Columbia, but they couldn’t guarantee where I’d land. This aggravated me to no end, as they’d known this and could have informed me when I’d come to Columbia to interview. Clearly, their strategy was to get me on a long-distance phone call mulling a sudden job offer and bet I wouldn’t care about being uprooted. They bet wrong. I turned it down, because it felt shady. I accepted my lot and began to prepare mentally for a long year—or possibly a long decade—at Parkview. My anxiety increased when the student body president’s band began opening for mine at a couple of local clubs—perhaps a first in the annals high school president-sponsor relations—for, even though his wealthy, well-connected, supportive, and influential parents were on board, I couldn’t help thinking that if the boss caught wind of the arrangement, I’d be further over a barrel. But you don’t fade on rock and roll because you’re worried about your straight job, man.

Alas, this still was not the end of it.

 

In the middle of the summer, as I was heading down the main hallway of Kickapoo High School, where I was teaching a summer school class of lovable sweathogs, I passed the office of the school’s principal, who’d been an AP at Parkview and the first face I’d seen when I’d reported to the building as a rookie. She was packing up. She’d just accepted a new principal position—at Hickman in Columbia.

I congratulated her, and told her we’d almost ended up working together.

“Yes, they were very disappointed when you turned down the job. They still haven’t filled it, can you believe that?”

I explained my reasoning for walking away, and with her characteristic spunk—she was another of the good ones—she said, “What if I could guarantee you’d stay at Hickman?”

“Hell, you just got hired! Do you have that much clout yet?”

“Let me see what I can do.”

24 hours later, I was offered the job at Hickman a second time—with a specific promise I’d be staying safely put. I took it without hesitation, even though the promise wasn’t in writing. Folks, I usually think in musical references: as Exene Cervenka and John Doe of X once plangently harmonized, “It’s who you know,” and as Steve Earle once wrote, “You know the rest.”

Except you don’t. That still wasn’t the end of it.

Turns out the girl we selected instead of the principal’s daughter for one of the positions she’d applied for was caught making the beast with two backs with a math teacher after hours in a classroom—she was probably supposed to be there working on a student council project. So I am kind of glad I missed that, and chose not to follow the story further. I still don’t know the ending—so, for me, I guess that is the end of it.

 

Except to say, to the untenured teachers who may be reading this, that you should step up and ask for an extracurricular duty, rather than duck it. For me, the excitement, improvisation and creativity involved, and the chance to work with kids in a different context as a different kind of teacher, helped balance the uncertainties and fears and energy drain of those early years. And, needless to say (but I will say it), you will learn much more fully how the worlds of a school building and a school system operate and, while it may feel like, even be, a baptism of fire, you will likely be much better battle-tested for the challenge of a multi-decade career. You might want to watch The Caine Mutiny, though—it has a rather surprising ending, given my own tale.