A Supreme Love? (That Might Be Sacrilege)

220px-John_Coltrane_-_A_Love_Supreme

My current excellent crop of freshman writers at Stephens College have a new task: make a case for a musician, act, album, song, video, or music film or documentary. It’s essentially a persuasive paper, but I like to avoid the traditional labels, and we’ve been arguing pop merits in class lately, so it fits. Also, our recent Socratic seminar–focusing on Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell–indicated that many of them are too comfortable with “like / dislike” to think deeply about whether a work works. Thursday, I arrived to work an hour early having made myself a challenge: write a rough draft yourself, to the exact specs you’ve given them, quickly enough to print them copies to critique. I’m a big fan of modeling skills you want your students to master; I’m not a professional, but after 35 years of teaching, you’d think I could, um, as they say we can’t, do. When I arrived on campus, I still didn’t know what I would write about, but as I took the sidewalk into Dudley Hall, it occurred to me that Nicole and I have a framed copy of Trane’s A Love Supreme in our living room. Out of tens of thousands of records in the house, why that one? So after getting coffee and brown sugar cinnamon PopTarts, I was off to the races. Here’s what I produced, in 45 minutes (still in its rough form, though I did have time to re-read it before class started):

Phil Overeem

English 107

September 19, 2019

“Making a Case” Rough Draft

The Album on the Wall

Should one enter our house through the front door and turn immediately to her right, she would see, hanging from the front wall of our living room, a framed album cover. In fact, inside that cover is the advertised LP, titled A Love Supreme after its lone 33-minute song, a four-part suite composed by jazz tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and performed by Coltrane’s legendary quartet. The black and white album photo that comprises the album cover is of the saxophonist in profile—significantly, looking very serious. In fact, A Love Supreme is very serious music. Elsewhere in my house are approximately 1,726 other albums; that does not count CDs, 45s, 1.5 TB of digital content, and music performance and documentary DVDs. How is it that, of all that musical tonnage, A Love Supreme is the lone piece honored by a place on one of our house’s walls? If one chanced to listen to it, she would very likely understand.

Jazz, though it is one of the few artistic inventions unique to the United States and known by practitioners and admirers as “black classical music,” does not command the attention of many young listeners. However, A Love Supreme is a great starting point for any curious Gen X or millennial listener. Simply put, the musicians—Coltrane, Elvin Jones (drums), McCoy Tyner (piano), and Jimmy Garrison (bass)—would make any list of the greatest performers on each of their instruments since the end of World War II, and likely before. In particular, Coltrane’s driving, searching, intense playing can yank listeners by the lapels into full concentration, and Jones’ stormy playing around (and suggesting of) the beat is one of the most easily identifiable percussion styles in jazz history. A Love Supreme is certainly a peak in each musician’s storied career. In addition, though curious neophytes, after their first sampling of jazz, often wonder whether they have the musical background to “understand” what the musicians are doing, particularly when they are improvising, and particularly in non-vocal jazz, this album only requires the listener to have ears, and to have lived. From the opening meditative sounds—a gong, a questing saxophone phrase, a brief chant of the album title—it is clear that the musicians (and listener) are going on a journey.

What kind of journey? Aside from being an outstanding “first jazz album” for the inquisitive, A Love Supreme stands tall in the annals of general music history as one of the greatest spiritual albums ever made. In his original liner notes for the album, Coltrane explains that the suite is a seeking after, and a paean (or a song of praise) to, God. He does not specify a religious denomination, which is a good thing: the surging emotions (carried by the players’ imaginative exploratory phrases and solos), the extended focus, rising tension, and serene relief represented by the suite’s sections, and the resulting aura of mystery and majesty, should be familiar to anyone who has ever been filled by religious passion and devotion—be she Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or First Nations, to name but a few possibilities. The effectiveness with which the composition and the performance mirrors the path of the seeker can arguably overcome the musical persnicketiness of even the most skeptical of audiences, and, even so, can appeal just as strongly to atheists and agnostics, most of whom are no strangers to the search for enlightenment themselves.

A Love Supreme is an aural experience for jazz initiates and spiritual veterans that carries considerable potential for landing in their personal pantheons, but one more aspect strongly commends it to adventurous ears: among the hundreds of thousands of records released since the dawn of the turntable, when it is absorbed by two or more present in the same space, it can be a profound communal moment—and not just a moment, but conceivably the birth of a ritual. Many fans of A Love Supreme whom I happen to know excitedly tell stories of having listened to it with other people, a situation that has heightened significance in the age of headphones and heatedness. Sitting side by side with friends and family, in a candle-lit room emptied of smartphones and other modern distractions, one can be transported from the grinding monotony of this world—wake, eat, work, eat, sleep, rinse, wash, repeat—into a more complex, absorbing, mysterious, and—paradoxically–real one, one that can bind the group together and promote true inquiry and produce epiphanies.

That kind of transport, that kind of bonding, readers, is why A Love Supreme hangs on our living room wall. Thirty years ago, crushed flat by serial romantic disappointments, I’d vowed to become monk-like, and disavow romantic love. I drove to my friend’s house to inform him of my decision; he wasn’t home, but a young lady who was renting a room in his house was. I introduced myself, and as we were chatting, I looked over her shoulder to my friend’s stereo and stack of records. In the stack, I saw a certain LP. I asked her if she’d mind me putting it on—she hadn’t heard it. We still have that actual copy. We have it on CD and mp3, too.

Besides providing my students a copy, after I’d read the best final drafts from their last assignment, I read it aloud. Instantly, I noted the same ol’ bugaboos: convoluted sentences, unnecessary italics, inconsistent voice–they noted them, too (which was the point: if I struggle and it’s OK, then why not them?). I also tried to be Mr. Clever and, as I repeat too often, “stick the landing” on the final sentence; maybe it worked, but most of my students wanted to know more. However, I used the reading as a lesson on “Killing Your Darlings.” I love writing personal narratives, but I forced myself to abjure the story and just make the goddam case.

One student commented: “I want more of your story, and I don’t like the title! What about A Supreme Love?

Me: “Um, well, er…I’ve been married almost 30 years and my wife inspired the essay–but maybe let’s not go that far!”

Anyway, submitted, still rough, for your approval, too.

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 Two–Junior High (1974-1977)

It’s not like I’m picking on anyone here, or maligning public schools, which I will philosophically support until the day I die, which produced me (a decent if not perfect citizen), and which provided me a space to do what I was born to do, a fact for which I’m deeply grateful. It’s just that, again, when it comes to teaching, sometimes it’s the learning what not to do that really counts. I think of a line Bob Dylan sang, “…I’m loving you / Not for what you are / But for what you’re not”; I think of the unfortunate truth that you can’t know if and why a book’s great unless you’ve read a horrible one. So that’s how I’m going to frame this–by what I learned what a teacher shouldn’t do as a student of those who did those things.

Don’t physically abuse students.

I realize that this is fairly easy to avoid today as–in most schools–corporal punishment is forbidden. I caught the tail end of the corporal punishment era, and I can verify that the practice does not achieve its intended effects, and that its unintended effects are the opposite of what the punisher desires.

I was whipped–yes, whipped–with paddles carved for that express purpose, that an alarming number of teachers had handy–37 times when I was in 7th grade. I know this because I was a statistics and mathematics freak, and I counted everything that mattered (my fascination with Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, a little over a week after I was born, was likely the stimulus). Administering these mild beatings were usually study hall-“teaching” coaches, but my shop and art teachers also got into the act, and my phys ed teacher, a coach whom I respected, whipped me on the last day of school because (he told me) he was the only coach who hadn’t yet.

What’d I do to deserve this treatment?

Early on, I was simply testing limits. The art teacher just called my classmate David a “Polack”? What would he do if I not only pointed out his bigotry but also asked him how he’d feel if someone called his wife a slut? OK, so I was not very good at equivalency statements, but I was 12! His also being my church’s minister did not keep him from whipping me and sitting me out in the hall for a week.

So my study hall teacher / football coach has a funny voice and covertly dips snuff in the classroom? Why not, when he steps out to talk to another coach, duck down in my seat, hide behind the head of the kid sitting in front of me, stuff my tongue in my lip, and precisely imitate his trademark idle threat: “Y’all best keep your mouths shuuuut or I’m gonna take ya out in the halllllllllll!” I didn’t know who Levon Helm was at the time, but he’s exactly who this guy sounded like. My impression was so close to the real thing I could make the entire study hall sit up straight. One day, he didn’t quite step outside; he was tucked just inside the door frame, beyond my line of sight. I let it rip, picking on one of my best friends: “Hey, Mike Craig? You best git yer mouth shut or I’m-uh take you out in the hallllllllllll!” Mike, sitting a few seats in front of me, had seen the coach get up and move, but still he stiffened like he’d taken an electric shock. Unfortunately, the coach heard–and saw–me, too: “Overeem, grab the board off my desk and git out in the hallllllllll. Nowwwww!” He actually asked me what “cheek” I wanted it on, then blasted me thrice as the two other coaches he was talking to burst into laughter.

 

After those initial encounters, I’d come to a few important conclusions:

1) It’s more than possible to get punished by a teacher for something the teacher himself did wrong that you just happened to point out.

2) Some teachers are sadistic bastards that enjoy inflicting pain.

3) Some teachers are sadistic bastards who have no sense of humor about themselves.

4) Some teachers are sadistic bastards who, out of laziness and lack of imagination, are short on strategies.

5) “Getting busted” (what the coaches called it) only hurts for about 30 seconds.

6) “Getting busted” is also a guaranteed attention-getter–and a laff-riot.

The practice’s impotence as a deterrent transferred the power to me. The practice’s extremity transferred attention to me. The practice’s barbarism transferred civility to me. As a true-blue seventh grader, little was more important to me than me, so I tried to get busted as often as possible.

Having finally caught on, teachers only whipped me 18 times my eighth grade year, and I didn’t get whipped once as a freshman (more than a little credit should be given to my having incrementally matured). But the lessons those 37 beltings delivered stick with me still: admit your mistakes, work at reducing student pain, learn to laugh at yourself, develop a tool-kit of strategies for non-violent direct action against student “high-spiritedness,” control the show by making your lesson attention-worthy and witty, and strive for justness, not power.

“I was only the photographer!”

Exhibit A: Math, 8th grade

Another Last Day of School Picture

Don’t just stand or sit there. Don’t just flip transparencies, hand out worksheets, or click through slides. Don’t drone like a muezzin. (Actually, I would now find that interesting.) Look the hell alive! Life is short, education is forever!

Many of my junior high teachers acted as if they’d rather be anywhere else. I had a math teacher that you’d have thought must have had an invisible gun to his head. He taught grudgingly–think about that! One of my science teachers relied on overheads to let him think about his football playbook for the bulk of the hour. One of my history teachers blatantly twisted his eyebrow hairs and read wrestling magazines behind his desk while we worked on endless worksheets. Another history teacher we called “The Tree,” due to his tendency to break down our past into dualities: “Over herrrre [left arm extended, left palm turned down and cupped], we have the Axis, and over herrrre [right arm extended, right palm turned down and cupped], we have the Allies [hold pose, pause, let learning sink in].” It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that history did not necessarily tranquilize those who taught it.

When a teacher did show enthusiasm–I’m serious about this, and you have to remember, I was a junior high boy–it was almost sexually arousing! In the case of one of my math teachers, there was no “almost” to it; you’ve seen it in the movies, but I was once forced by an unexpected anatomical event to decline her invitation to work a problem on the board. Sexual attraction and engaging educational content: a devastating combo!

To be clear, though, the lesson I took with me in this case was to try to teach each lesson as if it were my last, as if each second mattered, as if, should I bomb, students’ lives would be scarred forever and they’d remember me as a failure. Easier said than done, perhaps, but I have always refrained from micromanaging my lesson plan so I’d have to spend some of my class time operating without a net. It works. And, at least for me, it’s exciting, and fun. For all involved, I hope.

“I repeat, I was only the photographer!”

Exhibit A: Shop, 8th grade

Last Day of School 7th or 8th Grade

If you don’t know your stuff–if you don’t love your stuff–do us all a favor: Do something else for a living. Having your summers off (news flash: it’s actually more like two months, we don’t get paid for it, and the time we spend working at home adds up to at least a summer’s equivalent) is not worth ruining 179 days of 120 students’ lives.

An art teacher who didn’t do art. A science teacher who excelled only in handling transparencies. A social studies teacher who clearly was connected to the study of society only as far as the textbook explored it, and who could communicate about history only in the textbook’s words (“Don’t read it to us again! You assigned it for us to read last night!”). An English teacher (oh so many of those) who didn’t seem to think that, for example, the ideas of Mark Twain applied to her own life–wasn’t that the whole point? A physics teacher who asked me not only to write and/or proofread but also grade his tests. I was in eighth grade. And not a fantastic science student.

I’ve been lucky in this regard because I loved to read and write before I knew I wanted to be a teacher. But once I made the decision and began contemplating the difficult practical realities ahead of me, I flashed back to those moments when I’d made an ass out of myself and disrupted my and a whole classroom’s education. The common reason why? Not because I wasn’t being challenged; that’s my problem to solve, not the teacher’s. Most of us recognize and respond to teachers who are not only lively, and just, and kind, but who also know and especially love their material. The energy generated by deep and broad knowledge, natural enthusiasm, and a desire to share what the material’s done for you is the best classroom control tactic of them all. Why did Miss-uh Phipps-uh never have to lift a finger to redirect me? She knew Dickens, Steinbeck, Homer, and sentence diagramming like her own name, understood it so well she could simplify it for us or show us multiple ways into it, and actually enjoyed it to the extent that her fun was contagious. Why could I not wait to go to Mr. England’s physical science class, even though I was a notorious science bungler? He could not wait to put us in the driver’s seat and help us do science, with majestic but affectionate sarcasm and fool-proof advice. He could always convey what science was worth, and when you finally earned his praise, which was never withheld without logical reasoning, you got repaid with warm humor and a grin that crept ever so slightly out of his stoic visage.

I got into this business largely because, whether this is the experience of the average American or not, I frequently saw a fun job being botched, and realized it wouldn’t be so hard to do correctly, and really enjoy. For once, I was right. I thank my “Bad Teachers of Junior High, and quite sincerely, for making the mistakes that sent a beam of light down my pathway to success. Without them, I’m not sure I could have honed my understanding of a very complex task, and reached the point where I could freely make mistakes of my own.

 

 

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.

Farewell Tour: An Appendix of Reflections

20 HIGHLIGHTS OF THE “THE RIDE”

(feel free, Overeem survivors, to add your own in the comments–I may have forgotten a few!)

1) First question asked by a student ever: “Mr. Overeem, what is a maidenhead?”

2) First check received: stolen out of my mailbox by one of my students and fortunately left intact when the student tried to cash it at a convenience store.
3) Screening of film of To Kill a Mockingbird to third class in a row, last day of Homecoming Week, 1988, while sponsoring student council: fell asleep in class and forgot to excuse kids to go to lunch. (85 hours at school in five days that week.)
4) Homecoming debrief, 1989: leaning back on my chair against my classroom chalkboard as we evaluated our performance, I flipped backwards and knocked myself unconscious. Woke up in nurse’s office. Thank you, whichever students carried me down there.
5) First live concert staged in one of my classrooms: F-Bombs, 2006, was it?
6) Most unexpected unexpected guest to my classroom: TechBackwardNine’s tour manager.
7) Tightest spot: showing High Plains Drifter to a class to illustrate the weirder influences of Shane, which we had just finished reading, I was surprised to note the entrance of the North Central Evaluation committee–right at the outset of the rape scene I had forgotten was in the movie. (I began yammering about Shane connections, backed myself to the VCR, and behind my back felt around successfully for the FF button….)
8) Wardrobe malfunction: John Steitz invaded my classroom, chased me around it, and I ducked under a table, where an exposed screw ripped my (Paisley????) shirt straight down the back. Message from the fashion gods.
9) Most pain caused me by a student: demonstrating a technique I had taught him, the son of CPS’ current chief academic officer broke my rib blocking me out in a game of recess roundball.
10) Most unique vomiting: Sarah Bacon, from laughing at me.
11) Most extreme pedagogical change of direction: deciding twenty pages and two days into The Red Badge of Courage that it would not work–and discarding it.
12) Another tight spot: being threatened with a knife by a ninth grader. All I could think to say? “Make your move.” He walked out and never returned to school.
13) First decent disciplinary idea as a rookie: allowing a volcanically-tempered but extremely gifted 9th grader to simply get up, leave the classroom, and walk around and breathe whenever she felt like erupting. Worked! Valerie Wood Baker (not the student in question) can confirm.
14) Second decent disciplinary idea as a rookie: tired of an annoying senior interrupting me during instruction, I told him, “Here–you teach.” I then moved back to his seat and yammered while he tried to figure what to do. Worked! Steve Patterson (THE student in question), if you’re out there, please confirm!
15) Favorite unit ever taught: mini-unit during an interdisciplinary “Culture” unit at Smithton on “Chuck Berry and America.” Kids had to write songs either in emulation of Chuck’s style or using Chuck’s subject matter. We sent the best songs directly to Chuck!
16) Least favorite parental interaction: A student was pulled as a result of #15 due to my description of Chuck’s verbal style on “Too Much Monkey Business” as “machine-gun delivery.” Pulled. From my class. For good. Because I “did not have the moral fiber to teach her child.” Thanks, Wanda Brown, for having my back totally during that conference.
17) Favorite thing I was ever turned on to by students: The Watchmen, when it was coming out in serial form (Kevin McCoy, I am eternally grateful for that and other stuff).
18) Chicken-skin moment: Watching Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers dedicate “Buttholeville” to our club the Academy of Rock while playing at the Blue Note on March 30, 2005 (I know that song title makes it sound like an insult, but it wasn’t by a long shot). Tony Reda, standing next to me at the bar: “You’ve got to be pinching yourself right now.”
19) Stupidest coaching decision: violating every track record in the book by trying to pace Tim Cornell into a Smithton 1600 record by running alongside him (not on the track, at least!) during the final 110. Wearing an Elvis shirt. I think someone tackled me before I disqualified him.
20) Favorite coaching loss: Getting our butts kicked in a JV boys-vs.-varsity girls benefit game at Smithton (before a over-capacity crowd) after my guys had baited the girls continuously during school for the previous two weeks. Their coach, Shannon Gilleland, and I colluded on the notion, which raised money for Second Chance Animal Shelter, I think. Thanks, Reggie Hatton, for a) almost getting in a fight before the game; and b) losing the string that held your shorts up! We still would have gotten killed, but still! (Can someone find the Tribune article on that game? The accompanying photo, if I remember it corrrectly, reveals perfectly the mild panic I was feeling at the time…though I KNEW we would get our butts handed to us. The girls team went undefeated and destroyed EVERYONE they faced.)

May 2013: The Denouement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Present 1Present 2Present 3

Presents from B Day, Block 2, Brit Lit

Day 171:

Just the HIGHLIGHTS….

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

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

Winners

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

Day 172:

10 Inducements to Youth Considering a Career in Teaching*

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

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

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

Oh, and you get 25 minutes for lunch!

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

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

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

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

Day 174:

Random Observations

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

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

IRA

The IRA winning the 2013 Battle of the Bands

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really have to close, and I leave off with a song for those 16-to-20-year-olds who are thinking maybe they might want to teach and haven’t looked at the statistics yet…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaUctZ9jdb0

Kids

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

PASSING TIME, PART 8: Playing the Hand You’re Dealt

One of the best and worst things about being a public school teacher is that, under ideal circumstances (funny phrase, that, as we shall see), your classrooms are random assortments of the American public. At this moment in time, the mere evocation of that latter entity is enough to put a shiver up even an American’s spine. I, however, enjoy—and enjoy being part of—the American public; the tendency of technology to thrust our worst moments into our collective faces 24 hours a day can sometimes make us seem monstrous to ourselves, but a pernicious selectivity is at work there. I have always loved the challenge of teaching a cross-section of 25 to 30 students at a time. How do you teach Macbeth to a group of kids ranging from the scion of one of your city’s most powerful and educationally-enriched families to a young scuffler in his third foster home whose learning experiences has been so frequently disrupted that he can barely read and write, despite considerable intelligence? I have no desire to mountain-climb, but I’ve always been attracted to finding the answer to a question like that. Why? Because it makes me feel like a committed, involved citizen who believes in the ideal of equality. I crave that feeling, and I hate processes (like tracking and segregation—the latter is still with us) that separate us from each other when we take our seats in the Church of Reason. But, sweet Jesus is it difficult to stay happy and be successful while pursuing that feeling!

I am often asked, “What’s the hardest class you’ve ever had to teach?” I’ve had some boogers, like an experimental history-language arts block class that started with 53 students and ended with 23, and featured classroom dust-ups and firearms arrests—as well as a fantastic feast of Greek cuisine after we’d survived a unit on The Odyssey and antiquity—in between. Or a 10th grade class where tracking had resulted in a population of 50% hostile white rural kids and 50% hostile black urban kids, none of whom had had much success with English. In that class was a student who’d set his sister on fire and was so dosed with anti-psychotic meds that he was barely conscious, as well as a student who, one day while we were discussing our class novel Shane (that’s right—Shane), stood up, yelled “FUCK THIS BOOK!” and threw it in my face. In that class, too, was a student who, twenty years later, is in my mental Student Hall of Fame for being a great critical thinker, a speaker of fiery honesty, and a friend who taught me twice as much as I ever did him (though I did turn him on to Cypress Hill’s debut album!).

Class from Hell honors, however, go to a class I taught in the mid-‘Oughts that, on the day I walked in to meet them for the first time, seemed quite normal. Most teachers will tell you that even the most incorrigible collections of ne’er-do-wells will lie low for the first week or so—then spring, and you best be steeled. By the time I encountered what I have since always known as “Sixth Hour”—I have taught at 25 sixth-hour classes, so that gives you an idea of the impression this one made—I had twenty years of experience and a reputation for stellar classroom control sans Stalinist tactics. In fact, I’d reached the point where I’d quit even worrying about or planning for classroom management; I’d walk in every day and do what most non-teachers think we do every day: just teach. And that was my plan as I first engaged “Sixth Hour.”

Now, this wasn’t a huge class; in fact, the classes I’ve always had the most difficulty with have been small ones. They numbered about twenty, a little over, I think. It’s fun now—and only now—to recall what I didn’t know about the students among them on Day One. There was a taciturn, ‘6 “3 white supremacist daily wrapped in a black trench coat who’d been in two “boys’ facilities” already. There were a set of terrible twins, one extremely smart, loud, and ready, willing, and able to hate my guts—but an excellent student!—the other extremely smart, loud, and ready, willing, and able to hate my guts—and an awful student! Their relationship? Close—and subversive. Joining them was their childhood best friend, who, unlike the twins, had endured a difficult raising, sported what I can only call a very raw attitude and an imaginatively filthy mouth—and would become the best pure writer of the whole bunch. There was an equally raw young lady whose uncle had committed a most heinous triple-homicide that was fresh not only in the town’s memory, but the young lady’s as well. There was a young man who would set the record for the lowest academic percentage of any student I have ever taught (11%, if you’re curious), who would happily and matter-of-factly not “do” assignments or “miss” classes, who loved to chat and didn’t mind being reprimanded, at all—and who would end up being my next-door-neighbor and landscaper. There was a young man from one of the rural communities outlying Columbia who loved George Jones, Gary Stewart (look him up), Merle Haggard, whiskey, beer, a student in one of my other classes (whom he would marry) and trucks—but wasn’t too sure about black people, and found a seat right next to my desk after sizing me up as an ally. There was a hip, artistically talented, and funny gal who would really, really enjoy drugs that year—as well as happily and matter-of-factly not doing assignments. There was one academic leader, one young woman who would make an A from start to finish, who would contribute intelligently and civilly to discussions, who would smile—believe me, that was a rare physical feat in this class if you don’t count psychopathic grins—who would do her homework, who would play well with others—and who would get pregnant second semester and go on homebound right as the dog days hit. That’s 45% of the class right there, folks. The other 55%? I would classify them as “innocent bystanders.”

After a quietly tense first three days, the twins launched their opening assault. I had put a group activity in motion, and was circulating to check their progress and, covertly, sharpen up on kids’ names. I paused to look at the “good” twin’s notes, and she jerked her head at me and snarled, “What do you want?” I remember laughing quietly and saying, in good humor, “Not much at this point.” From across the room, the bad twin hollered, “You don’t have to get smart-ass with my sister!” Her street-hewn pal, sitting next to her, stood up and added, “I don’t like you. I am going to my counselor.” A tension swept across the room, then a silence covered us liked a steamed towel, then I scanned the room and bawled, “What are you lookin’ at?” Not really (I wish!). Instead, I sternly counseled everyone to get to work, called guidance to be on the lookout for my escapee, and affected a dark grimace that, for the time being, kept most the class on task for the rest of the hour. In the back corner of the room, the white supremacist glowered.

A few weeks later, we were in the midst of a study of one of my favorite books (it’s been mentioned a few times already), Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. A moving examination of the Jim Crow South, personal responsibility, and the death penalty (it’s actually a little bit existentialist, too), I had purposely chosen to introduce it early in the year, as I had by then discerned that many in the class had what I call “melanin content issues.” Little did I know that this innocent masterpiece would contribute to three of the most disturbing incidents I have ever witnessed in public education, though with strain you might call them teachable moments. You be the judge.

 

Moment 1. On-line education had just begun to take hold at our school, and, after training the kids to use our Internet discussion platform, I set up a forum for them practice in. Students had already encountered aspects of Jim Crow in the novel, and I’d shared with them an article that listed and described the “devices” used to maintain separate inequality, linking it, too, on the forum. Not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, I asked them to isolate the techniques that they found most despicable. That’s a horrible prompt; I had called for little critical thinking, and (disorienting as this may sound) the request gave them no choice in how to think about Jim Crow taken whole. I know you know what I was thinking: Who’d actually write, “Well, I kind of like that separate swimming pools idea”? The hulking white supremacist, that’s who! In response to the prompt, he had actually written, “I think these laws are all pretty appropriate, except the ones that discriminate against the blind.” (Yes—Jim Crow had “solutions” for the sightless, too.) He didn’t give a damn about my prompt; he said it like it was. The big problem was, I didn’t get a chance to look at student posts until the next afternoon, 15 minutes before their class was to begin, after which time several students had already gotten a load of what the kid had written, and responded—including the girl with the murderous relative whose nerves and heart were still afflicted, who was needless to say, black. And she had unloaded on the guy.

Obviously, I couldn’t blame her at all—had I gotten on the forum quickly enough, I’d have deleted it, then set up a conference with the guy—but it had been rendered in all caps, written with such fury as to be nearly unintelligible, featured glorious obscenities, and closed with the information that she was going to kick the guy’s ass in front of class the next day. Nice! On one level, I was thinking, “Fuck yeah. It’s on! I think she can take him.” On the level of sanity, I was thinking, “I have to nip this in the bud, post-haste, and I have, oh, ten minutes to get to the classroom before they do!”

I managed to beat most of the kids to the room, and when our potential ass-kicker came in, she made a bee-line for my desk and told it to me straight: “I will kill him if he comes in here.” She was angry and crying, and somehow I was able to walk her outside and convince her to report the incident to her principal, and I’d back her up—though I quickly realized that, in my panic, lest more students see the dude’s post, I’d deleted it. There went the evidence—and I guess his right to free speech, though I am not sure even now how I would handled it had I left the post up and addressed it. I hustled back to the room, entering just as the potential ass-kickee was entering. I stopped him—not the easiest thing to do, as he had four inches and about forty solid pounds on me—and asked him why he’d chosen to post what he did.

“It’s what I think, man. I don’t like those people, honestly, and I don’t care whether they know it.”

Well, OK then. I kept level. “Uh, the problem is, this room’s and that Internet forum’s a place where learning can only happen when we address each other civilly, with some historical awareness of what certain groups have been through, and, honestly, it’d be easy for someone to call what you posted a threat against other kids in here. And that trumps free speech. You’re gonna get called to the office, so I’d get my ducks in a row.” I stopped and thought. “You know, I completely disagree with what you posted and I’m disappointed in you, but I think you’re smart enough to learn from this, and I still want to be your teacher.” He looked at me, slightly confused, nodded, and took his seat in the back of the classroom, awaiting the office pass. This was just September.

 

Moment 2, anyone? As I’ve mentioned, A Lesson before Dying deals with the death penalty. A young black man, falsely convicted of the murder of a white shopkeeper, is sentenced to death. The year is 1948. There will be no cavalry coming to save him. In order to engage the class’ minds more completely, I scheduled two guest speakers, one a vociferous and indefatigable death penalty opponent, the other a local prosecutor who had asked for death penalty sentences on numerous occasions. The activist gave an impassioned presentation, but did not employ much rhetoric—I think, from his point of view, he saw it as a trick—and was (this only makes sense as a weakness with this particular class) nice. The last kid out of the class muttered the verdict: “That guy was a damn hippie. He was kinda lame.” The prosecutor whipped out every rhetorical weapon snapped into his attaché case, made edgy jokes, made Eastwood eyes, and applied a dollop of meanness—all of which this class loved, even though his case for the death penalty was pretty weak. He was winning the class over to the necessity of the death penalty—until he revealed that he’d been the prosecutor who’d secured the death penalty for…the triple-murderer who was also Miss Ass-Kicker’s uncle! Who tended to be absent every other day but was very present on this one! And who launched a verbal assault on the area’s most well-known prosecuting attorney (and soon-to-be-judge) the likes of which he might not have had to weather before! Could I have known at that time that her uncle might have come up in conversation? Honestly, no—their shared last name was quite common, and I’d heard nothing about it from guidance counselors or juvenile officers or anyone at that point.

She soon exploded into an even more volatile level of turbo-rant, one of intermittent coherence that didn’t really challenge the idea of the death penalty but very effectively communicated that she was upset that the attorney had had anything to do with a trial in which a relative of hers was found guilty. The class was stunned, then, as was their wont, they began to turn—on him, rather than me (for a change).

The attorney tried to sneak me a “How many more minutes before class is over?” look, but the class knew that one all too well, and turned up the steam—not so much because they disagreed with his perspective, but because they could plainly see that he was a little shaken. “Bloody meat in shark-infested waters” is a metaphor that’s easy to apply in this biz, and just enough time remained in class (about five minutes) for the attorney to feel why.

 

Moment 3—and please remember: this is the same got-dang unit. First quarter was not even over yet! One of the assessments I’d devised for the Lesson Before Dying study was an essay in which students defined their idea of heroism by writing about a historical hero who represented it. As I have done often through force of habit and love for writing, I wrote a model paper for them (which I still have) about D. Boon, the ill-fated guitarist and singer of San Pedro’s ground-breaking punk band, The Minutemen. Also, as usual, I had an ulterior motive: to trick some of them into listening to The Minutemen! After I explained the assignment, everyone seemed clear on the expectations—even mildly enthused about doing the writing. By the next class period, they needed to have three “heroic” choices subject to my approval, and a little prewriting completed. Not an hour-and-half later, I was mysteriously summoned to one of the principals’ offices.

As I entered, I saw our young white supremacist slouching in one of the chairs, and the principal asked me to have a seat.

“This young man has me to understand you have assigned a paper on heroes in your English class.”

“Yup. Pretty standard, I think.”

“Mr. Overeem, he also has me to understand that you have approved his choice of subject matter, which is Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. I take it you know who they are?”

“Say WHAT??? No, I just made the assignment today! I’m supposed to approve choices tomorrow.”

“Well, our young man was caught looking at black market gun sites as well as images from the Columbine massacre, and he told his teacher you said he would have to do that for research purposes. Is that true?”

“You have got to be kidding me. Man, you know me. Why would I have said that?”

“Well, you do operate outside the box frequently, and our policy isn’t that the student is always wrong.”

I turned to White Supremacist Man-Child. “Dude, first, tell him the truth!”

He stared flatly into the principal’s eyes and said, “Naw, he didn’t approve it, but I knew he would because he treats me fair.”

Oh, thanks! “Man, why, oh WHY do you think I would have approved Harris and Klebold? How are they heroic? Seriously?”

“That’s easy. They quit putting up with being bullied and they made the bullies pay. To me, from what I’ve seen in school, that’s something I can look up to.”

I looked at my feet. I looked at the principal. I looked at White Supremacist Man-Child. “Um, that’s a very, very simplistic account of what happened. OK, I can understand your thinking, but I wouldn’t have approved it for several reasons. One is that material is too volatile right now—even though there are a lot of ways to think about it. Another is—well, if they were the only choice available, maybe. But can’t you think of someone else where there’s more historical perspective?”

“Charles Manson?”

I rolled my eyes, ignored him, and continued. “Also, as a result of the Columbine event, any student that accesses the kind of material you accessed today is gonna land in an office. So I guess it’s your heroes’ fault we’re sitting here, and that’s another reason I wouldn’t approve it. I am all for you choosing an unorthodox or rebellious figure to write about—I guess I question your sincerity in choosing these guys. I’m starting to think you’re digging the kind of attention you’re getting.”

“You may be right,” he answered, looking straight at me.

“How do you want me to handle this,” the principal asked.

“Well, he’s gotta pick a different hero—or, better yet, since he didn’t tell the truth about my involvement, I’ll pick his hero, and as long as he completes the paper and steers clear of questionable Internet research, we’re even.”

“No referral,” the kid asked, surprised.

“No,” I said, the principal nodding as I answered. Privately, I was starting to wonder if being reasonable and understanding might end up leading to something far worse. Still, I felt I’d handled it fairly.

I assigned him an essay justifying Malcolm X as a heroic character. I couldn’t resist. Sucker made a B, too, though I can’t quite confirm that he “learned something.” I’d also like to be able to say that was the beginning of my success with him, but he was expelled shortly after turning in the paper for being found with a machete in his gym bag during a pot bust across from school. He later got his GED, had success on the college level in psych classes, and ended up a marksman in the U. S. military. Comforting, eh? I really should print out these pages and send them to Mr. Gaines, for his amusement and, perhaps, edification.

 

You’d be excused for wondering how I survived the class after such a start, and I did leave many days feeling a complete failure—something I frankly was not used to. As nuts as the beginning was, I think you can see that I did my level best to engage them, force them to think, and refuse to run away screaming. I tried everything, from seating charts to redesigning the classroom to calling parents to differentiating instruction and materials to getting tough and mean to playing soft and gentle—I tried so much that didn’t work that, before I knew it, the year was over. Even on homebound and pregnant, my lone academic leader did incredible work. Even despising me for no reason—and she did warm up to me, almost against her will—the “good” twin ended up with an A- second semester, while the “bad” twin passed the class with a C and their good buddy began to take her writing (though nothing else) seriously. I didn’t work any magic, but I did not give up on them, and I refused to pull the “counselor card” and try to get one or more of them shifted into someone else’s deck. I admit: I did leave a note on the desk of the head of guidance that read, “These three girls should never be scheduled into the same class.”

April 2013

Day 139: Coming out of spring break, a teacher often expects torpor. Not so with 1st AND 2nd block today, many of whose minions jumped right into our poetry unit with BOTH feet and produced excellent drafts that sounded even better read aloud. Topics: being stuck inside the bottle, the resilience of trees, and the importance of simply enjoying life. Also, a fond farewell to Mr. Joe Lindsay, one of the coolest students I’ve ever taught, whose surgery will take him out of the rest of the school year, but who can get his hooks into an “A” by reading and reporting on three books by May 21. Joe, you will be missed, buddy!

Day 140: A sad salute to a former student, loyal friend, terrific cook, total crack-up, indefatigable poet, and hardcore ’80s R&B nut who just shuffled off this mortal coil. He was a one of a kind Kewpie (from a one of a kind 1990 “Exploring English” class of 32 that damn near killed me with its personality) the likes of whom we shall not see again. RIP, Cleveland Adams.

Me and Cleve

The author and Cleveland Adams, a poet and gentleman.

Day 141: Thank you, Justin Parker, for letting me use your gloriously goofy school picture to illustrate the poem I wrote today for my lit sem classes, whom I am forcing to write poetry this unit. Title: “School Pictures,” about how much a school picture can reveal.

Day 142: Here’s to some of my favorite Kewpies who are the often-invisible reason why things usually go so swimmingly at Hickman: Vicki Palmer, Alexander Dante Epperson, Sam Kriegel, Jim Kome (OK, he’s very visible, but his stealth moves are often the most crucial), and Paige Reed (I said “invisible,” not necessarily “quiet”).

Day 143:

Scene–Science Olympiad mini-meeting to calibrate prior to state competition.

Issue—when to arrive for registration.

Argument–6:45 a.m., “early bird gets the worm,” instead of 7:00 a.m. as proposed.

Ryan Eiffert ‘s rebuttal: “Actually, it is the later birds that get the most worms, stay the warmest at night, and…survive.”

The mind of a scientist…always awake.

Ryan Wood

Ryan Wood, scientist, is not mentally awake.

Day 144: Two chapters into The Picture of Dorian Gray, I gave students a quiz that required them to intellectually engage with two of 18 selected quotes from that section. Those who’ve read it know that the book’s plot can seem simply an excuse for Wilde to float out aesthetic aphorisms. Reading some of their responses as I fetched their quizzes, I was delighted by the wit and good sense (the latter of which Wilde might not have admired, but would have had to respect) in their responses. In an unrelated note, I began to fully realize how hard Michele Sun will be to replace as the ACTUAL coach of our Science Olympiad team (so much done selflessly behind the scenes), and was overjoyed to hear about Emily Thornton’s bounteous NYC college visit.

Day 145: So many of my excellent colleagues have been asking me, “Are you counting them down?” I am happy that this daily Facebook experiment has provided me an automatic retort: “Nope, I am counting them UP.” It suits my disposition better, anyhow. Also, I received notice from the district today that I have to fill out a form for my successor that explains my monthly duties over a 12-month span–I treated the form like a 1040EZ, ’cause no way can I (or, frankly, WILL I) be able to get all that down on a district form–but Tranna Keely Foley suggested I just tell the corresponding district officials to “friend” me….

Day 146: I was out of school today to take care of some family business, but, like any other teacher who misses school for whatever reason–even high fever–I found time to grade some stuff and finish a book about education. We have a tendency to redefine “sick.”

Day 147: Just have to holler a big shout out to my student Tia Vega, who a) was so inspired by the slam poet Nova Venerable (from the Louder Than a Bomb documentary) that she wrote a killer poem emulating her; and b) provided killer responses during our discussion of Wislawa Szymborska  ‘s “Photograph from September 11 (see below). This week, we’re writing poems about “Moments,” and Tia was brave enough to be enthusiastic, which is not common or easy at the ol’ high school (“high cool”) level.

Day 148: I am going to miss the lively debates that spring up at school like mushrooms on a lawn. Today, Jim Kome, Tranna Keely Foley, and Jane Jouret and I considered the state of public schools; I started it by continuing my passionate attempt to sell everyone within educational earshot on Sarah Carr’s HOPE AGAINST HOPE. I will spare you the details, but teaching at Hickman for 17 of the last 24 years has definitely made me a better person (as opposed to “crushed my soul”), and it’s conversations like these that reaffirm your commitment to certain instruments of democracy.

Day 149: Here’s to the simple pleasures–like hanging out during supervision time and talking to Brock Boland about late-period Prince, and to Sean McCumber about the upcoming NBA Playoffs. Sorry, it’s not always about lit and literacy…thank the stars!

Days 150-151: Advice from an old hand–when balancing school and family, always lean toward your family (it’s not as simple as it sounds, and it’s why I skipped a night). And if you’re craving something more entertaining, today I licked 115 invitation envelopes shut, handed them to our powerful administrative assistant for mailing, and heard her say this: “We have a machine that does the licking.”

Day, 152: Definitely wayyyyy up there on “Coolest Student of the Year” ballot is the kid who a) got awesome results from an important nursing test today (he passed); b) continues to revise and re-revise an essay he’s calling a poem (and I understand why); and c) gave Nicole Overeem a rosary to give to her ailing mother and, looking into her eyes, said, “Never give up hope.” Not quite so high, but pretty damned high, was the former student who, before I recognized him, walked up to me as I was leaving my mother-in-law’s hospital-breakout dinner at The Ouchback– glowering, imposing, seeming about to kick my ass–then hugged me and said, “Hey Mr. Overeem, come meet my wife!” Marquis Lewis, since you were in sixth grade, you have always kept me on my toes.

Day 153: America’s worst nightmare–80+ public school high school kids mingling together in a dark room on a Friday…and hailing from the notorious David H. Hickman High School – Home of the Kewpies, no less! Make sure you bolt those doors! Just jokin’, y’all. THESE kids were primed and focused and perceptive, the dark room was Ragtag Cinema, the subject matter was the documentary Bully, I saw nary a cellphone out during my last-ever field trip (sniffle?), and the discussion afterward should have been filmed it was so spot-on (way to go, Dorothy Owens!). Thanks to HHS Success Center and Lit Seminar kids for making Nicole Overeem, Hannah Wren, Jerome Sally, and I proud to take you out, and making my field-trip swan song awesome.

Day 154: Educational bucket list item checked off–taught a decent mini-unit on The Clash. First class, I was a little too excited to be fully coherent; second class, I got it down. Both groups of kids seemed interested and had insightful things to say (especially Brandon Kellogg, Marielle Carlos, Mary Clare Agnew, and Sean Brennan), and I actually felt chicken skin rise on my arms while playing, then discussing, “Clampdown” and “Death or Glory” (what lyrics–perfect four outgoing high school seniors!). Also, I was proud to tell ’em that I might be the only Kewpie teacher to have seen them (twice), and certainly the only one to meet Joe Strummer (while he was in The Clash)–and could report that they were decent to fans while also expecting what they demanded of one in their best songs.

Day 155: Socratic seminars today on Ch.8-14 of The Picture of Dorian Gray. One ultra-sharp from a group perspective (2nd block), one messy but full of neat theories (3rd block). Big ups to Caitlin Tuttle for connecting Dorian to Jay Gatsby; it’s not a perfect parallel, but it’s a fascinating study in contrast for two self-invented invented humans–and it says a bit about England vs. America turn-o’-the century. Also, thanks to Sean Brennan for suggesting a T/F Film Fest Youth Brigade/Bio Club team-up on The Island President after school today, and Hickman High School for supporting the Super Kewp Ceremony. All former Super Kewps in the FB house say, “Owwwwwwwwwwwww!”

Day 156: When I hear someone refer to a modern workplace as a “family,” I tend to theoretically reach for my revolver (the requisite warmth and interconnectedness for such a state is difficult for most actual families to achieve). However, I have been forced to eat theoretical crow by the amazing support the staff and students at Hickman have offered my mother-in-law Lynda Jo Evers and her daughter Nicole Overeem. I would like to extend special gratitude to Dr. Pam Close and her science-niks for making it way easier to graze on the go. As purt-near always, I am proud to be a Kewpie.

Day 157: If you’ve never endured me as a teacher, today’s performance is about as “normal” as I can think of:

1) Explained my James Booker shirt by playing the Bayou Marajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker trailer.
2) Tried to sell George MacDonald Fraser’s FLASHMAN series to summer readers by using a persuasive e-mail I had just feverishly sent to my colleagues Dixie Grupe and Greg Butz.
3) Apologized for doing the latter two things.
4) Screened last half of A&E Oscar Wilde doc and discussed what the script writer meant by saying Wilde was “crucified.”
5) Entertained a battery of great questions by one student.
6) Forced students to listen to the late, great George Jones while they were completing a debriefing on yesterday’s Socratic, and imploring them to pay attention to his treatment of vowels and his swoops into baritone. (Song: “Things Have Gone to Pieces”).
7) Pointed into the air at certain Jones vocal moments even though no one was paying attention to me.
8) Asked students to hold their assignments aloft when they were finished so I could come fetch them.
9) Begged them again to check out Fraser and Jones.

This would never pass muster with Michelle Rhee….or Madeline Hunter, for that matter.

Phil George

The author and the Possum (sorry, Nancy)

Day 158: Poetry slam day in Lit Seminar. I did not vote with the masses in giving top honors to Justin McCollum, who wrote about how three maligned creatures have things to teach us: the snake (always moving forward…even being limbless), the shark (never stopping), and the vulture (always exercising patience). Bravo, dude.

Day 159: Today, once again, I am sitting on the “Faculty Selected Scholarships” selection committee, one of my favorite Hickman experiences, mainly because I get to see the range and depth of excellence of “The Cream of the Kewps,” represented not just by data, but also the impassioned testimony of my peers. Tranna Keely Foley, you don’t mind me Tweeting the results, do you? (Psych!)

PASSING TIME, PART 7: Extracurricular Fun, Part 3–Folk-Funk Visits the Hickman High School Little Theater

 

bobby-rush-and-us 

Sometimes great things fall into your lap, and you have to be ready for them.

In 2009, my wife and I had just returned from a trip to Memphis, and on the way down and back, we’d listened to a heap of Bobby Rush tracks. Bobby, a native of Homer, Louisiana, is the inventor of what he calls “folk funk”: music too funky for blues, too bluesy for funk, and designed for very down-to-earth people. He has also been incredibly durable. One could argue that not only his recordings but also his performances are more vital now than they were thirty years ago; currently in his eighties as of this writing, he shows no signs of slowing down. We’d barely unpacked when my phone rang. The caller was an associate of the Missouri Arts Council, and she’d gotten my name from an acquaintance who’d mentioned that I’d arranged rock and roll concerts at my high school.

“Would Hickman be interested in hosting a blues artist for a concert next month?”

That would seem to be a no-brainer, but as fans of the graphic novel and film Ghost World know, the wrong band or artist can give an audience the blues rather than relieve it of them. I wasn’t going to be held accountable for a Blueshammer-styled band, nor, I must be honest, a painfully sincere “bloozeman” of any stripe. Thus, I had to put on the brakes.

“Well, it depends upon whom. When we do these things, we like to do ‘em up all the way, and I’d hate to, you know, do up something anti-climactic.”

“Have you heard of Bobby Rush?”

I didn’t know whether to shit twice or die.

“Can you hear me ok?”

“Yeah, sorry, I was just a little overcome there. Hell, yes, we’ll do it! Give me the details!” Usually, I asked for the details before agreeing, but, in this case, I would have been a fool.

“Well,” she said, “It’s free of charge to you and the audience; a grant’s paid for it. Bobby’s got his own band and gear—you’d just need to provide a basic PA and monitors. And we’d like to schedule it for the evening so kids could bring their families if they wanted to. I tried to pitch this to Jefferson City Public Schools, but they wanted nothing to do with it.”

“You snooze, you lose. And this will be a huge loss for them. We’re A-OK on the equipment. And evening is great. But, regarding the kids and their families—is Bobby bringing the girls?”

I am sure this is a question anyone trying to book Rush is going to get asked. Bobby frequently performs with three triple-mega-bootylicious dancers to whom he often makes leering but strangely warm and charming reference throughout his shows, and a) I seriously hoped he was travelling with them, but b) I wasn’t sure the snug stage had room for them, and c) I was not sure a transition from high school performance stage to chitlin’ circuit showcase would be altogether without bumps (take that as you will).

She chuckled. “Oh no, he doesn’t have the girls on this leg.” I breathed a sigh of disappointed relief, as well as applied a mental Bobby Rush-like chuckle of lechery to her phrasing.

 

The next day, the kids of the Academy of Rock, our music appreciation club, and I revved into PR gear. We made and posted flyers, we networked the hallways and school nooks and crannies, and we set up visits to the American history classes, where we planned to show a brief “teaser” segment on Rush from Richard Pearce’s “The Road to Memphis,” an installment of Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series. Because I have been a serious nut about music since I heard “Then Came You” float out of a swimming pool jukebox, I have always been careful to find a solid justification for connecting any school use of it to curriculum—probably too careful, but I am like a Pentecostal preacher when I get going, and may the Devil take the curriculum. In this case, the justification too had fallen into my lap: it happened to be Black History Month, and, as dubious as I consider the concept (I prefer Black History Year), I was happy to exploit it. I was also happy that, in my long experience at Hickman, I’d seldom seen a major event staged that directly and intentionally appealed to our 25% black population. Not that I could take credit for anything but saying “yes” to the proposal; in fact, that could accurately serve as my epitaph: “He said ‘Yes’ to life.”

We also got word out to the local press—who were underwhelmed as usual, for the most part—and the Columbia music community, which resulted in my fellow music maniac Kevin Walsh and his young pal Chase Thompson showing up to make a film—as yet unreleased, but I have a dub—of Rush’s appearance.

The day of the show seemed to arrive in an instant. We promptly set up the stage and PA—but, for some reason, the monitors, not exactly top of the gear list in complexity of use, were malfunctioning. We tried everything we knew (admittedly, not much), to no avail. At least we had a computer properly jacked into the PA to record the show, which Bobby’d happily agreed to let us do. Still—one of the few things we’d been asked for we couldn’t deliver. I was also nervous about the turnout, as we had no way of knowing how many folks would arrive, since admission was free.

Bobby and his band (also known as the crew—they hauled and set up their own equipment, which is no unremarkable habit, especially for road vets) arrived right on schedule, and, after finding him and introducing myself and my wife Nicole, I cut right to the chase: “Bobby, our monitors are screwed. That’s about all you wanted, and we messed it up.”

“Phil, Bobby Rush got this! You OK! Been on the road for sixty years and ain’t nothin’ like that ever stopped us! You all just sit back and relax and let Bobby Rush take care of business.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Would you have?

We did as we were told and took a seat. The space was an old-style “Little Theater,” capacity 150, with nice track lighting, comfortable seating, and just enough stage for a five-piece band (Bobby had seven). I am assuming it was originally built for student theatrical performances, but, in the ‘Oughts, it was just as frequently a concert venue. As I write, I feel a pang of sadness in not being there to continue using it.

Bobby and his band genially integrated our small crew of students into their own set-up and soundcheck—they’d also quickly jerry-rigged the monitors and had them working—and were thrilled to find that we planned to have one of the kids run sound for the show. This had been our philosophy since the club was formed in 2004: move over and let some students do the popcorn! An element of risk always threatened proceedings as a result, but that’s life, learning happened, and it’s more fun riding on The Wall of Death, anyway.

I had been in a bit of a nervous trance when I suddenly broke it, looked around, and noticed that the house was almost packed. Not only that, but the concertgoers were predominantly black—with a considerable number of parents and grandparents among them. As is my wont, I quickly twisted my joy into worry as I began to recall certain bawdy Rush routines that might be revisited that very eve.

bobby 2

Photo by the great Notley Hawkins!

I needn’t have worried. Bobby Rush had this. 75 at the time, he must have set the record for pelvic thrusts in one show. The crowd went wild. He told raunchy stories, including one featuring his minister father. The crowd hollered. He plum-picked his sly repertoire: “Uncle Esau,” “I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya,” “I Got Three Problems,” “Henpecked” (“I ain’t henpecked!/I just been pecked by the right hen!”), “Night Fishin’,” “Evil,” “What’s Good for the Goose.” The crowd exploded. He produced a pair of size-75 women’s undies to demonstrate his taste in derrieres. The crowd went bonkers, and the grandmas stood up and shouted amen. He accused our sound man of being a virgin. The crowd—and our soundman—went nuts. He talked about visiting Iraq, about his prison ministry, about struggling up out of the Great Migration to Chicago, about being on damn near every black music scene for fifty years—and about coming through it all to vote for a black president who actually got elected. And the crowd hung, hushed, on his every word, as he delivered a brilliant, deeply personal history lesson we hadn’t even asked for. Even the jerry-rigged sound in that little room was hot as fire and deep as a well, with Rush playing harp like he was possessed by the ghost of Sonny Boy Williamson and snatching a guitar away from a band member to play some razor-sharp solo slide. As I continued to nervously scan what had become a congregation, I was thrilled to notice that the older the person was whom I spied, the wider his (or most definitely her) grin was. The students? They had clearly never seen anything like Bobby Rush before. Our soundman was so mesmerized he forgot to check the recording levels, so our aural document of the show is way into the red.

bobby-autographs

Photo by the great Notley Hawkins!

I know it’s a cliché, but it was, for damn sure, a religious experience. The audience, I think, was more drained than Bobby at show’s end, but not too drained to be shaking their heads in wonderment and giggling with glee. Several of those older folks swung by to tell me, “More of this, please!” The principal who’d drawn event supervision—lucky man!—asked me, “How in hell did this happen, and when’s the next one, ‘cause I’m calling dibs?” Of course, I’d liked to have met those demands with serious supply—but witnessing a bona fide, down and dirty, authentic-but-for-the-booze-smoke-and-BBQ chitlin’ circuit show at a Bible Belt high school, I’m afraid, is a once in a lifetime experience. God, I do love grants and art councils.

Nicole and I walked Bobby out into the February night, his arms around both of our shoulders. His eyes and jeri curls were shining, but he hadn’t seemed to have broken a sweat. “I want to thank you all for having us,” he offered, humbly. “I don’t know who had more fun, us or them!”

I quickly replied, “No, man, thank you! That show was so good you’d think you were playing for the president! And we’re just a high school in Missouri!”

He shook his head, smiling.

“I told you, Phil…Bobby Rush got this!”

March 2013

Youth Brigade

The True/False Academy and Boot Camp on the streets during T/F 2013

Day 124: Brit Lit–students applied some of Alexander Pope’s precepts from Essay on Criticism to Evita!, basketball coaching, and some Assassin video game; Lit Seminar–read aloud the very lyrical ending to A Lesson Before Dying and discussed its implications and subtleties (then closed shop 15 minutes early to dissect The Walking Dead).

Day 125: I have been fortunate during my second tenure at Hickman to have had several schemes funded by the Assistance League of Mid-Missouri (my heroes), Columbia Mo National Education Association (not too shabby, either) and the school PTSA (always at the ready). We have been able to build a library of former True/False Film Fest films, create a StoryCorps DIY media kit, and compile a collection of CDs 500+ strong, featuring music ranging all the way back to 1895. Occasionally, young Kewpies come through that are so passionate about music, I can’t help but include them in choosing new items, and today’s highlight was realizing that, beyond probably having the best music library of any school media center in America already, a couple of kids and I will be “inducting” some names several of my fellow Facebook fanatics will happily recognize: The Mummies, Hasil Adkins, Swamp Dogg, The Memphis Jug Band, The Sonics, and many more.

Day 126: My fourth block literacy class and I were watching the film version of A Lesson Before Dying, which we just finished reading aloud together, when Alvin Youngblood Hart’s version of The Mississippi Sheiks’ “Livin’ in a Strain” (see Record Rec of the Day, below) rolled out from the soundtrack across a great scene. I was completely unprepared for it–I hadn’t seen the film before (have read the book at least ten times)–so I was flat-out floored, since, well, he’s PLAYING AT The Blue Note tonight. I think I even talked a kid into going! I know, coincidence, but I just started a Christopher Hitchens book yesterday that opened with a quote from Middlemarch, which I just finished. Stay rational, dude.

Day 127: Welcomed Mr. Josh Chittum and the forces of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series to the commons of Hickman High School once again to give away free tickets to next Thursday’s Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts performance by the Locke-Keezer group. Thanks to Patrick, Spenser, and Marielle for assisting to Mr. Chittum. Any Hickman student who wants a ticket but didn’t get one, come see me tomorrow in the media center Periods 1-3. As I have said before, the beneficence of the arts community in Columbia toward its youth is unparalleled in my experience, but I must say that the youth need to RECOGNIZE this kind of them doesn’t happen everywhere–even in some big cities. The event is FREE to all public school students in town, folks–and even those OUT of town. Beat that.

Day 128: In fourth block, where many unexpected cool things happen, we met today for the first time after having finished A Lesson Before Dying. One of my students walked in, quietly said, “I got this for you. You can put it on,” and handed this to me. We have had balanced discussions of this issue, I assure you, but, sorry, I put it on. If you’ve read the book, you know why.

Day 129: Had the privilege of listening to the “final draft” of a rap song w/excellent Star Wars references which I’d heard grow through several versions. Ziggy Vann Lyfe, Collin Deters, Ross Menefee, and Israel Santana–I’m danged proud of you. You built that!

Day 130: Presentations–time for Ol’ Teach to kick back and watch other folks’ dog & pony shows for awhile. Today’s featured poets: The Brontes, Dylan Thomas, Percy Shelley, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, and Robert Graves. Unfortunately, the presentations finished early each hour, so it was time for the Great Spinning Wheel of Overeem Anecdotes (students “spin” for the topic, I match a story to the topic). Block Two got “Did you ever have senioritis,” which produced the tale of the only “F” I ever made on a test (pretty deliberately, as cruising the strip in Carthage seemed more fun at the time than reading three chapters), as well as the query of whether a “C” in Ethnic History in 1980 made me a racist. Block Three got “inappropriate occurrences I have had to deal with,” which produced the story of how I ended up at Hickman in 1990 (the inappropriate occurrence, alas, was not produced by my actions, but a principal’s, which helped convinced me to get the eff out of Dodge).

Day 131: Today, I administered the DRESS test to several of my reading kids. On the first part of the test, they have to read aloud a passage from a text at the level they appear ready for, while I mark up my copy of the text with observations about their tendencies. Two students, moving up a text level for this one, had clean reads–no errors–and moved at over 110 words a minute. That is cool…the payoff for taking reading seriously.

Day 132: I am very much in love with Ali Smith’s new book of literary criticism couched in fiction, Artful, which I just started reading. When I read this passage this morning, beginning as it does with a gloss on Heraclitus, I knew I had to share it with students (actually, this is the end of a longer sublime passage): “You can’t step into the same story twice—-or maybe it’s the stories, books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, and maybe it’s this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to transient art, which is real, too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and goings. Because come then go we will, and in that order.”

Day 133: In the biz since ’84, I have never loaned a student my belt (though I have threatened a few with lashes from it). Check that one off of the “have never” list. D’Angelo, I hope it had enough holes to cinch up tight around your scrawny waist! Proud to be of service–now if I can just keep my own drawers from sagging, because I am wearing Christmas candy cane boxers!

Day 134: The True/False Film Fest has done a great amount of good for Hickman High School students. I recently sent out a mailer to the most recent students for whom that good has been done, urging a show of gratitude. My deep admiration to the student (who would be embarrassed to be tagged here) who suggested she MAKE something rather than us BUY something for our benefactors. That made made day, and it was pretty danged good one to begin with.

Filmmaking

Filmmaking begins in the basement at CAT TV

Day 135: Reading 16 pages of dense text out loud–with full interpretive effort and interspersed discussion and “strategic reading urgings”–is not just mentally exhausting. It is physically exhausting. I LOVE to read aloud, but I have carried a headache all day from two 16-page reps. Plus, this book (A Rip in Heaven–still!!!) seems to grow 10 pages longer for every 10 pages I read, and by the end of Thursday I will have read all 301 pages to two classes. No, I don’t want a medal. I guess I am going to really miss reading aloud to a class, but it ain’t no picnic.

Death Penalty

Day 136: Remember me complaining about A Rip in Heaven yesterday? Well, today I was teaching away in Brit Lit when one of my Lit Seminar kids appeared in my door, vociferously motioning me to step out in the hall. I put my class on hold, stepped out, and was met with, “No offense, but A CURSE ON YOU AND A CURSE ON YOUR BOOK!” I’m like “Wha?” and he’s all “I can’t stop researching the death penalty!!!!” I said, “So is this for a class?” He says, “No, I am making a powerpoint for MYSELF! Like I said, A CURSE YOU AND A CURSE YOUR BOOK!” He whirled–grinning–and went on his way. Never sell a book short. Note: Sometimes I worry that these reports from the front sound self-congratulatory, but, believe me, stuff like this happens to ALL OF US–every single day. If it sounds like fun, TRY IT!

Day 137: A reporter from VOX conducted a near-two-hour interview with the radio station kidz today. If it comes out in print as intelligent, interesting, and funny as it did in person, you will want to read it. However, I feel kind of hurt that Patrick D King has never used social networking to tell me how to live! Also, Happy 21st Anniversary, Nicole.

Just Kids

Sometime before the FIRST anniversary….

Day 138: Ahhhhh, spring break. Under the circumstances, the students were excellent today–a great poetry presentation on Gerard Manley Hopkins (thanks, Steve Gieseke), a fun discussion/story of one’s life-progress through religion, a final DRESS test administered, and that many-times-aforementioned fourth block Lit Seminar class reading quietly and with intent focus while hallway chaos was being sowed all around them. And, hey: my bracket’s in first place after 1/2 a round, and there’s room tomorrow at the Hotel Frederick! A restful, fun, enriching spring break to all you teachers and students out there. Also, thank you, HHS PTSA and CMNEA, for funding our ongoing project to make the historical bounty of American (and influential NON-American) music accessible to students and staff. Pictured are SOME of the CDs we were able to purchase this month with grant money from the aforementioned entities (couldn’t fit some into the picture; others are still on their way). View the existing collection at the following link (I haven’t written blurbs for the newbies); thanks also to Spenser Rook and Marielle Carlos for helping this old fart make fully relevant choices outside his taste-range, which isn’t exactly narrow, and agreeing to help with the blurbs. We are considering setting a rule where we have to write blurbs for CDs we DIDN’T choose, which is my idea of fun.