Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Don't fuck with a right wing dental assistant

It had only been about four months since my last visit, but my resident gum-scraper wanted me in to take a look at a few things. So while he's out taking care of whatever, I'm strapped in the chair like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, having my teeth worked over by Wendy the Republican Dental Hygenist.

Like all hygenists, Wendy wants to talk to you about all kinds of pathetic things while you've got nothing less than Fort Knox in your mouth. First she tells me about her new neighbors: "I'm not racist or anything, but I can't stand that spic music." Then she moves on to raising children: "My new neighbors let their kids run around all over the place, so I called the cops on them. They had the nerve to tell me to mind their own business!"

And finally, the election:
Wendy: So who you voting for?
Me: Awww...ak gah baghd.
Wendy: I know, I don't know what people believe they're going to get if that East coast phony takes the White House. We need a president who's going to stand behind his people. Spit, please.
Me: (spitting) Well, a lot of people say a change is--
Wendy: Back in the chair. (scraping furiously) Ooh, those damn Democrats make me so angry! All their talk about peace and multilateralism...where would we be if Bush hadn't stuck his big boot up Hussein's ass? I'll tell you where--the smallest fucking province of the Iraqi Empire! That's where. You know?
Me: Gah bagh awd...gah bagh.
Wendy: You're damned right. When I hear that kind of whining, I could kill someone, or at the very least cause them some serious pain. Spit.
Me: You know, you have beautiful eyes. I bet you can sight like a marksman with your nine millimeter.
Wendy: Oh, you. Look, I'm blushing.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

So You Wanna Fix a Dangling Modifier and Save the World...

I started this post in an effort to write a serious reflection. Look what happens when I try to get serious. Learned my lesson.
It was one thirty in the afternoon, and my fifth hour composition class was belligerent. In fact, they were downright bewildered, looking at each other in irritation, as if wondering what they were thinking when they signed up for the course last spring.

Yours truly was up at the front (as usual), tie pulled down (not as usual--I don't normally wear ties) and with an irritated look of his own (very much as usual). "I don't see what the problem is with this. It's a dangling modifier. It dangles. It doesn't properly modify. What's the freaking deal?"

In the back of the room, one Edna P. (name changed), from UIC, is observing me. Edna decided a while ago she wanted to be an English teacher, and was urged by her sister to choose me to shadow for a day, as per the university's certification process. Every five minutes, she scribbled like mad in a little steno notebook she brought along. Every time I saw her scribbling, I started to get even more irritated. I didn't know what she was writing, but in my heightened paranoia, I was making some interesting guesses:
Students belligerent...don't comprehend significance of dangling modifier...teacher belligerent...doesn't comprehend students' inability to grasp said modifier...teacher smells like beer...

Teacher needs to slow down...students need to wise up...why the hell am I wanting to do this anyway?
Earlier that day, she'd told me about her own history in education. "I went to school in several cities, and they were terrible. I went to a couple of suburban schools, and decided I really wanted to do that. I've spent the past several years relearning everything I was supposed to know already from high school: Hemingway, Salinger, Shakespeare. I decided it would really be something to make a difference in these kids' lives. If I could reach even one student, I'd be making a difference."

Where did she learn to talk like that? Boston Public?

"Well, you're welcome to join in in any way you see fit," I said, smiling broadly and trying to remind myself that, while I'd never been that idealistic myself, I'd certainly been naive, and had had the good fortune to be ushered towards a more realistic perception of the job. What had I told Rich once upon a time? "I'm going to teach literature. If they don't like it, that's their problem. If they do, then they can take the test, graduate, and leave me alone."

Anyway, despite my welcome, and despite my invitation to take part in the lesson, Edna remained in the back of the room, scribbling like mad and drawing crude caricatures of me with a badly-knotted tie. (Probably.)

"Okay, let's take it from the top," I said to the class, deciding the ABC approach might work better. "What is a modifier?"

"It modifies," one of my better students spoke up. (That's right--I said "better.")

"Okay. And when you modify, it helps to know what you're modifying, right?"

Sullen, reluctant agreement ensued. "Like, 'This class is a total waste of time?" spoke up my right-row wit.

I bit down a sharp retort. "Absolutely. 'Total' goes next to the noun phrase, 'waste of time.' But if you put the modifier too far from what it augments, you've lost your audience like Sam gets lost in the McDonald's Playland when his mommy goes out to smoke a cigarette and use the cell phone."

Damn. Blew that one.

"So what's dangling about that sentence?" ejaculated my front row cheerleader. There were a few other cheerleaders in the back row, nodding their solidarity. "It looks, like, fine to me."

The sentence, on which we all fixed our undying attention, glared at us on the overhead like a rebuke. As if to say, If you haven't figured this out already, you never will. Maybe it was even right. It read: Travelling acrost the U.S., it's vastness effected her.

To their credit, the class had already deciphered the spelling errors (although I started to sweat a little when I realized I'd misspelled "traveling" completely by accident), abbreviation problem and wrong word choice. But they were struggling with the idea that, all mechanics aside, the sentence didn't make a lot of sense.

"I mean, it's not like we expect the U.S. to travel anywhere," the cheerleader continued, working on her eyeliner with a compact mirror. "It's, like, a place, you know?"

I assurred her that I did indeed know. "You see, Shannon, if you have to waste time figuring out what is doing the traveling, you've lost your reader. Remember what we said about readers?"

Like the chorus in a Greek play, the class started their solemn intonation: "The Reader keeps us employed. The Reader is dumb. The Reader has absolutely no attention span and would rather be watching Fox News. As a result, we must cater to the lowest denomination of our Reader without compromising our constant struggle for Truth, Objectivity and Value in our Journalistic Correspondence."

"Yeah, but." My front row cheerleader was nonplused. "Like, I don't understand the newspaper half the time. They're not catering to me."

"That's because you're a dimbulb, sweetheart."

(I had to check carefully to make sure I didn't actually say that.)

(OK--I was clear. But she must have read it on my face.)

"You'll get there, Shannon." I smiled reassuringly. "You can start right now. Isn't there any way to rephrase that sentence so it's a little less confusing?"

Edna, scribbling: Teacher suggests direct student involvement. About fucking time.

My right row super-Sophomore roused his head from his notebook (where he'd left a cast good enough for genealogical work, complete with drool for DNA) and squinted at the overhead as if it were the Rosetta Stone. "Let's just say he's traveling," he suggested. "In the U.S."


"Anywhere. Does it matter? If you cross our town, you're traveling across the country, technically. Aren't you? Didn't you say that?"

The Greek chorus spoke up again: "Semantic ambiguity depends on a willfull obstruction of shared knowledge between speaker and listener, but does not necessarily negate any of the main truths. There are two levels of truth--"

"Oh shut up. Why is it you brats only pay attention when you can prove something I said is wrong?"

(Did I say "brats"? Oh God, please tell me I didn't. Well, please tell me I did. They deserve it. No they don't. Oh shit, someone's talking. I guess I better pay attention.)

Edna: Teacher lapses for a moment. There's no glue left in his bottle on the desk, and he's breathing heavily. Coincidence?

"What?" I rasped.

"I said why don't we just switch the subject and the verb."

Third row, fourth seat. My Aspiring Future Journalist. One of about four or five in the class of twenty-one. My shining young angel. I beamed at her while trying to remain outwardly neutral and scrawled "Traveling across the United States, she was affected by its vastness" in a nearly illegible hand. "See the problem? See the solution? Now we know who was traveling, and now we know the given context of the situation. The reader is no longer confused."

"The Reader keeps us employed. The Reader is dumb. The Reader has absolutely no attention..."

"Yeah, yeah. Now, that's how you fix a dangling modifier."

I waited. The class looked at me expectantly, as if to suggest, That's it? You think that changes my life? I'm still a pimple-encrusted, suburban youth trapped in a smothering environment and you don't even have a window for me to look out of. Who the hell you think you are, anyway?

I breathed deeply, for the kill: "And now, your homework. Fix all the dangling modifiers in the article on page 35 of your packet. Go do it now. Work quietly. Don't bother me."

I slouched over to my desk and busied myself with some paperwork. Most of the class went to the assignment willfully enough, but Super Sophomore made himself comfortable on his notebook again, the cheerleader finished with her eyes and went to work on her nose, and my right-row wit started rewriting sentences to include both my name and speculations about my ancestry. I sighed and looked at the clock on the wall. Ten minutes to the bell.

Edna came over. "I got a lot out of that," she said in a chipper tone of voice.

"Yeah? Good. Hopefully you won't split the modifier "billious blowhard" with my name."

She laughed politely, and for a minute I wondered why. Then I realized I hadn't said that at all. More something like, "They're good kids. They just need work on the basics."

"My professor says it's always important to connect with your class interpersonally. Get comfortable with them one-on-one."

"Do tell. What else does she tell you?"

"That it's wrong to belittle students, or tax them for not knowing something when it's your job to teach them."

(Oh crap. I was talking out loud all that time.)

"Yeah, well, you tell your professor that in the Ivory Towers she undoubtedly lives in, that's all fine and dandy. But out here, we have to hold them accountable for what they already know. If we don't, they can ride No Child Left Behind all the way to the unemployment office in their mid-forties."

Now that time I actually spoke. She frowned at me, not sure if I was kidding or not.

"I don't want to tell you 'This is the way it is,' because it's different for different people, places, classes. Who you are is half your day right there. Just be aware that it's a continuous process. You know when they learn what a dangling modifier is? Eighth grade. Maybe earlier. Just like they learn what nouns and verbs are. Half of them mix all that up."

I was rambling. I was tired. Edna wasn't writing in her book.

"What I'm saying: Each kid is a situation. So are you. Connections are fine and dandy, but sooner or later, you have to realize you've got to do it the way you think works, and stand by it until it doesn't work for you any more. That's how you stay sane, pumpkin."

Later on in the day, Edna would tell me she still wanted to be a teacher (interesting comment), and that I "made it look a whole lot easier than it actually was." I suppose I do, actually. Lots of people do, at lots of jobs. The decisions you make are not going to be agreable, or even acceptable, to about half the free world, but, like our sterling president, you stand by them because you believe in them. (If you're proved wrong, that would be a good time to stop thinking like our president and start thinking like someone with functional neurons, but that's another story.)

I have no way to conclude this little vignette, except to point out that Edna is writing a paper about me as we speak. Were her account compared with mine, I don't doubt for a second they would be widely disparate.

Were her professor to compare this account with the textbooks, she'd probably have a few things to say. Ditto my professors' take on it and hers. Ditto my co-workers. Ditto my boss.

There's a lesson in there somewhere. Too bad I didn't think of it in time to teach it to her. But it's nice knowing it myself.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Lessons learned after a crappy Monday:

1) I'm not in grad school any more. As a result, there's only so much time I can devote to higher education, especially considering the fact that this is a 3-hour class for recertification, and I'm not going to see another dime in pay increase unless I do this four more times over the course of a year or two. That means the two or three hours I spent on this Black Plague paper is time well spent...but also robs me of time spent elsewhere.

2) Assigning work for the kiddies is a piece of cake, and fun. "What's that, Joey? You planned on going to the Homecoming Dance? Ha ha, not any more! Get that project together or I'm calling Mommy again!" Then flash forward two weeks, or four, or six, or whatever, and see your Friendly Neighborhood English Teacher sitting at a desk, a stack of essays in front of him, his hair falling out in sheepdog-like clumps, while the students prance along on their merry way, laughing at his shortsightedness...

3) Senioritis is a bullshit term. These kids are just lazy.

4) Skipping coffee in the morning and having a few granola bars on hand saves you five or ten minutes. But if all you're going to do with that time is huddle in the bed, wondering if the alarm going off is just a dream, you wasted that time anyway.

5) Einstein wore the same clothes all the time, this is true. But if you don't know how to shop for clothes, and as a result, have a more or less consistent pattern of colors, the rest of the world picks up on it toot sweet. And nobody's mistaking yours truly for Einstein. More like a cheap bastard who spends most of his money on restaurants and movies.

6) Everyone else is calling in sick because of husbands in town for the weekend, or children who need to be hospitalized. Wussies. And just because I don't have a kid in Little League doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to take time out for him anyway.

7) How dare I waste time pleasure reading? I need to finish the Pitti diaries for class (which I didn't finish for sake of a cold bottle of Bud).

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Who says Batman only hangs out in Gotham City?

via Cnn: Dad-Man scales Buckingham, stays on wall for five hours.

I'm putting this picture on my weekly news quiz. I'm only afraid most of the students will think it's Adam West.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Damn it, it's August.

Time to start gearing up. Time to start dusting off lesson plans (ha ha), polishing up on essay assignments (ho ho) and ironing out the wrinkles in the shirt and tie in the back of my closet (ah ha ha ha!).

Still, the summer isn't over yet. My aunt and uncle were in town the weekend before last--see there? They made the "name list." Kudos. Even though I was coming off of a hellacious cold/flu, I made it out to my dad's two or three times, and we all went to dinner at the Millrose once. So you could say it was a weekend of sickness well spent.

After that, things died down considerably, though--I went into overdrive trying to find an apartment, found one, decided to take it, then decided to wait a while. I talked to my landlord about this damned neighbor of mine, and we agreed I could go on a month-to-month lease this year. That way, if I can't stand it anymore, and if all attempts to contact him amicably have failed, I can hit the high road. I was looking at a place in Schaumburg, a high rise of sorts, and it sounded good, but something in me, my Spider-Sense perhaps, warned me against making a move right out of the blue like that.

Perhaps it was the fact that I've got Kim's parents' dog. Perhaps it was the fact that I don't want to spend my last free week of summer packing and moving. Perhaps it was just laziness. I don't know. But it's good to have options. Always.

Tonight: Styx, the concert. Need I say more?

Thursday, July 08, 2004

From the New York Times: Fewer Americans Reading. Big shocker, right? But the article points out that, in an era where the population has risen to 40 million, a seven to ten percentage difference in the reading public from 1992 is more than a little eyebrow-raising. I don't know why this riles me so much, but apparently religious book sales are up, while classic and contemporary literature are in the toilet. More of the "I'm right and those unlike me are wrong" philosophy, I suspect. If Michael Moore preaches to the choir, the likes of the "Left Behind" series fucking shout to it.

Monday, June 28, 2004

My Two Cents

A book review that really isn't a book review but is a long, jangling piece of writing I cooked up in order to get all twelve of my steady readers reading again and don't you just hate long subtitles like this? well tough, it's my forum

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is one of those novels I've been meaning to read for years (ever since the book came out, in fact) but was always reluctant to set aside the time for. You've got a 568-page novel sitting on your shelf, perhaps a novel you spent $26.50 for, and it quickly beomes a venial sin not to pick it up and get to work. However, given the day-to-day of an English teacher, if you want to keep up with your paperload, the best you can hope for is a couple hours at a stretch, two or three times a week. It takes me about a month to finish a novel at that pace, and from what I'd heard about Franzen's other two books, it would be a tough month at that. As one of Franzen's characters says, regarding a nursing home he's been put into, "Better not to leave at all than to have to come back."

That kind of mindset is appalling yet agreeable logic for an invalid, but it sucks ass for someone independent, financially stable, and with free time that, even though he can't always enjoy it, still has it, dammit. And yet I waited.

Then last week, while waiting for new glasses at the local mall, Kim shows me the discount shelves at Waldenbooks (you remember them, don't you? they used to be the conglomerate Satan of booksellers before Barnes and Noble and Borders took over that title), where The Corrections was going for a mere $7.50 (including tax). Seven dollars and fifty fucking cents! That's the price of my movie ticket to go see The Chronicles of Riddick, a true piece of shit, or a pint and a half of Guiness (always worth it, but still, you know?). You can't argue with such logic. I bought it immediately.

Of course, it was a couple of days before I got to it--I was finishing Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur, enjoying the story yet getting incredibly tired of Wallace's fondness for descriptive detail (I'm betraying my professors here, I'm sure, but "The grass was fresh and clean...The trees did not crowd each other; and they were of every kind native to the East, blended well with strangers adopted from far quarters; here grouped in exclusive companionship palm trees plumed like queens; there sycamores, overtopping blah blah blah" when you could just write "There was a grove of trees" occurred to me more than once) and religious idolatry. It probably took me, all told, ten or fifteen hours of my life to read that book, and while it was time well spent, I decided to be more picky about the next amount of time I would dedicate. On my shelf, as yet unread, are several books I know would be well worth it: Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (which I always start, always love, and always have to put away), Lewis' The Middle East, and Friedman's Free to Choose (the New Yorker commented that even Governor Schwarzenegger knew of Friedman's book, though he'd taken the time to watch the television series). And yet, Franzen was sitting right there. And so I picked it up last Wednesday night, and just put it down after an afternoon of doing laundry at the laundromat, R. Kelley blaring through the loudspeakers and little kids playing tag/bumper cars with the laundry baskets.

The first thought out of my head at that point was: "I wonder if there's a story in this laundromat."

That's the kind of effect Franzen had on me. He wants me to go out and do it.

"Okay, fine. What's the damned book about, anyway?
The Corrections is almost a "sprawling" novel but not quite. It covers the travails of the Lambert family, based in the midwest: There's Alfred and Enid, Al a retired railroad worker in the throes of Parkinsons and dementia, Enid a homemaker, and their three children: Gary (in Pittsburgh with a wife and three kids), Chip (a recently fired professor) and Denise (a famous chef). The book skips around chronologically, but in a completely coherent fashion, and Franzen's social critiques are in plain sight for even the most casual of readers to ferret out, even as he couches them in a deeper philosophical meaning.

Whatever that means.

Basically, Enid is trying to put together "one last Christmas" at the old homestead where everyone grew up, in St. Jude, Ohio (St. Jude, by the way, is the patron saint of hopeless causes. I learned that in The Atlantic Monthly writeup on the book). Before embarking on a "pleasure cruise" which Enid is determined to enjoy, come hell or high water, she and Alfred stop to visit Chip in New York, where he's been writing a screenplay. Chip, unfortunately, has to run out the door to rescue his screenplay from the agency because of flaws he's aware of only too late. Denise shows up and winds up cooking lunch for everyone, but unbeknownst to her family, she's preoccupied with a sexual/romantic trist of a complexity even the Victorians couldn't have cooked up. Enid suspects she's involved with a married man. Gary, meanwhile, is back in Pittsburgh, fighting a losing battle with depression and another losing battle with his family over a) whether or not they can return to St. Jude (a place his wife Caroline and 2/3 kids rank slightly below the Seventh Circle of Hell) and b) whether or not he (Gary) is chronically depressed.

"Okay, fine. Why the hell should I read this damned book?"
I'm not exactly a professional book reviewer, and even if I were, this is hardly the place to write up what I got out of the text in the way of symbolism, thematism and historicisim (there's a ton there, though--the book would have been composed during the dot-com explosion of 2000, despite the eight year interval between its publication and Franzen's last novel). I will say, though, that while it definitely qualifies as a "deep read," it's still a relaxed read. They're characters you can know and understand. They're settings you know, even if you've never set foot in New York, Lithuania, or the Midwest in your life. They're issues that, while you may not have gone through them yourself literally, you still know. And the novel has a conclusion that is not without ambiguity, which is something I absolutely love about fiction. It causes you to think. It may cause you to debate. And you can form your own opinion (something Michael Moore critics, for example, seem to think the American public has forgotten how to do--hint hint? I'm talking to you, Tso) about the merits of that ending.

In short, it qualifies as literary fiction with a broad market appeal. Probably just what Franzen had in mind (see his essay "Mr. Difficult" in How to be alone for clarification).

Go read the book. You won't be disappointed. And your TV and stereo will never be quieter while you do.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

From today's Tribune:

Ulysses is... and Bloomsday festival in Dublin. James Joyce's Ulysses is that book that probably every English teacher should read. I taught Portrait of the Artist last semester, and it was brutal, but the story of Bloom, Molly and an older Stephen Daedelus is something I just never found time for. Maybe this summer. That novel and probably Moby Dick are the guilty confessionals of my profession. I have read Moby, and I stand by its literary merit, even though I had some snot nosed classmates who voiced off about it: "I wanted to read it, but life's too short." "Oh, it's overrated...I guess. I haven't read it either."

You gonna talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk. Get your culture, dammit.

Now please excuse me. Real Sex IV is on.

Sunday, February 29, 2004

The Passion of the Christ. There's been a lot of hoop-de-doo about it: Is it too violent? Is the violence justified? Is it an accurate portrayal of Christ's crucifixion?

Or is it overkill, just more fuel for anti-Semitism and good old Christian guilt?

To me, it's really neither. Mel Gibson earned accolades for Braveheart in 1995, and rightfully so. But anyone using that film to rest their knowledge of Scottish history and independence would do well to look to Norman Davies' The Isles and any other halfway decent scholarly text on William Wallace's history, rise and fall, and not to a Hollywoodized version of the facts. Moreover, the book upon which the film is based (Braveheart, by Randall Wallace, who has since made a career for hismelf whoring out scripting talents on such classics as Pearl Harbor and "Dark Angel") touts itself as a dramatization, nothing more.

Ditto for The Passion. Gibson based the film off the Apostles' in the Bible, and even a cursory flipping through the pages (which I did last night, not having the benefit of Sunday school) finds all the film's key lines. But if you want to split hairs about historical accuracy--and I sure can't blame anyone, being somewhat anal in this department myself--don't look to the Bible in the first place. Nothing in there about how the Romans crucified people. Nothing in there about where they used nails on Christ's hands. Nothing in there about how much of the cross Christ hauled through the streets towards Golgotha. If you want details like that, look to the basics (A History of the Roman Empire) or even J.M. Roberts.

The Passion is all about artistic depiction, couched in religious meaning. Whatever the hell that means.

Is the film violent? Absolutely. The scourging is probably the worst of the lot (arguably)--once Jesus is nailed to the cross and hoisted into the air with a bad joke above his head, I was sufficiently desensitized to the entire ordeal. I mean, I've seen the statues in churches and museums. I never saw chunks of flesh being ripped out of anyone's side before, in real life or in a movie. In case the trailers don't drop the hint, here it is: This is not a popcorn and soda movie.

Is the film too violent? Depends. I hear plenty of devout Christians are up on their soapboxes, both in church and on the net, arguing that that violence is essential for understanding the depth of their devotion and the extent of Christ's sacrifice. Makes sense to me, although still, it is movie violence. There's lots of blood flying all over the place, but my knowledge that it was makeup and special effects (despite the extraordinary efforts of James Cavaziel during filming, being struck by lightning, whipped and all) protected me from any such instruction.

Is the film anti-Semitic? Only to the typical horse's ass that labels the actions of the whole by those of the few. The Jewish priests are suitably slimy and despicable, but then, so are the Romans, and so are the apostles who betray their Messiah. And the fact that Satan lurks in the midst of a crowd of Jews during several key scenes doesn't say much to me, except that maybe he would have been more noticeable behind Pontius Pilate. Duh.

Is the film a masterpiece? Unquestionably. I have to separate my agnosticism from appreciating Cavaziel's performance, in addition to Monica Belluci's as Mary Magdalene, Maia Morgenstern's as Mother Mary, and Hristo Shopov's as Pontius Pilate. There are special effects, true, but they take an almost unprecedented back seat to human pathos and deliverance. Besides that, there are some genuinely creepy segments (one involving a tormented Judas Iscariot--Luca Lionello--being chased by demon children; another towards the end, with Satan--Rosalinda Salentano--raging in Hell because Christ didn't deny his God) that play out well, computer effects or not.

On a personal note, having little to no formal religious schooling, the whole ordeal got cinematically (cinematically, mind you) exhausting. Christ hauls the cross; he falls down; he gets whipped; he gets back up. Down he goes; he gets whipped; he picks himself back up, his allies crying, the Romans and Jews throwing stones and curses all the while. That had to be a good forty minutes of the end sequence, and it does get repetitive (okay, so I'm going to Hell now if I wasn't before). Still, to give credit where credit is due, Gibson handles these scenes masterfully. They're anything but boring.

That's my one-and-a-half cents on the film, for what it's worth, Which is about half a cent less than I shot for. Any religious film that makes such waves has got to be good, but again, if it's used as gospel, that's when I start to get a little miffed. Why not check out Kundun then? Go read the Torah. Go read about Muhammad.

"Truth" is a slippery word. All bullshit aside, this film is art, not history. Watch it accordingly.
Journal of the Week in the Life of a Teacher in the South Bronx. I should get down on my knees and thank Whoever that I'm teaching where I don't have to worry about fights and threats. I really should.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

My Triumphant PT Conference

Another round of parent teacher conferences tonight. Those are always a hoot. This year, the powers that be gave us a half day, and absolutely nothing to do until the 4:30 meetings began. I took distinct advantage of my time by slinking off to my apartment, downing two pints of Guiness and a ham and cheese sandwich and sacking out on the couch for fifty minutes or so, after which I got up, scrubbed the alcohol off, put on a badly-knotted tie, and slunk back to the office, a big shiteating grin for the parents bared in almost desperate fanaticism.

Usually, the high-achievers are the ones to show up, and all I can really say is, "Yeah, your kid is great, just great, tell them to keep staying awake and using Sparknotes." This time, a few deadbeat kids' parents showed up, and I got to set the record straight: "Yeah, your kid isn't doing so well, tell them to open the fucking book now and again and start using Sparknotes. It's all Sparknotes, you know."

By seven p.m. I was starving, not having had any dinner, and I'd already rescued a colleague from a bulling parent who wanted to know why kids had to take a class in government instead of just taking the stupid Constitution test. I kid you not. Her exact words.

But one of my high-achievers' parents showed up, and I found myself in a position to actually do some good for once in my sterling six-year career.

The parent is Russian, sixty years old, heavy accent, nice as can be. I've met her once before, but I never did learn how to pronounce her name correctly. Since you only meet with these people for ten minutes tops, it never becomes much of an issue, but with a woman as nice as her, it pays to be considerate.

Her kid is doing well in my, and all classes, except he gets himself tied in knots fairly easily. I showed Mom the grade and she asked me if I saw any weaknesses. "Well, actually," I said, phrasing my words as carefully as I could, "he seems to take himself to task way too much. If we could find a way for him to push himself without giving himself stomach ulcers along the way, that would be very much to his benefit."

(I can sound so damned classy when I want, yeah? It would have helped if I could have punctuated this with her name, though.)

She was nodding in agreement. "He wants to be a doctor," she said (although, to capture the spirit, with her accent, it sounded like, "He vant too be a dochtur"). "I'm sure he will be. He can be whatever he wants to be. I'm just worried I won't be able to see it." ("Vunt be apple too see." Oh my bleeding piles.)

"Now what do you think you're saying?" I asked in mock belligerence. "You'll see it. Don't give me that."

She chuckled. "It's fifteen years later he'll be a doctor. I am not a young woman any more, Mr. L."

"You'll see it. You have to." I paused, feeling myself on very thin ice. I mean, it's not often I discuss women's ages, least of all the mother of a student. But what the hell. Maybe this will get me into heaven some day. "You know the story of Schezerdade?"

She shook her head, and I could see (at least, I think I saw) the wheels turn: This man is a teacher and he's going to teach me something and I respect teachers but I'm not that interested but I should be because he's a teacher and...

"A woman is captured by a king, or an emperor. Or something--I forget which. Anyway, she's sentenced to death if she can't tell a good story. So she spins out a yarn, but leaves it at a cliffhanger right before her time is up. The king or emperor is beside himself--he wants to hear more. So he keeps her alive another day to hear the story. The next day she tells more of the story, but leaves it at another cliffhanger, and saves her life for another day. And so on. And so on. The king is so interested, he can't bear to not have the story completed.

She immediately started cracking up, probably sensing the next part of the "lesson."

"That's what your son is doing. He's your Schezerdade."

It was a full minute before she stopped laughing. Other teachers were looking over in my direction, probably wondering what the hell I was doing, chatting her up or something? "I love a good sense of humor," she told me.

I only smiled and shrugged, not sure whether I'd been telling a joke or not.

She thanked me for my time, got up to go, and then embraced me in the first, last and only bear hug a parent has ever given me in my life. Then she released me, stepped back and bowed. "Thank you."

I only smiled and nodded idiotically. It's a mark of my times that I immediately wondered if I had a potential sexual harassment suit on my hands, but after a while the caution wore off and I thought the whole thing was incredibly cool. I'll probably never see the old woman again--her son is acing my class and he'll graduate in June--and that's a shame.

I really would have liked to learn how to pronounce her name.