Monday, August 25, 2008

((Insert appropriate noun here))head that I am...

It was supposed to be a walk in the park for a Monday morning lesson.

Famous last words.

I gave them Old English riddles out of the Exeter Book. It's the ultimate sleight-of-hand; getting through British literature and history is an uphill slog for a lot of these guys. Oh, I put on my dog and pony show to be sure, finding connections with their own mundane lives and the like, but in the beginning, it's all guts, glory and gold (Beowulf, Deor and other titles that, in my infinite stubbornness, I do not take off the syllabus). Today, it was just a riddle. A stinking riddle. That's it.
I saw a tree towering in the forest,
Bright with branches, a blooming wood,
Basking in joy. It was nurtured by water,
Nursed by soil, till strong in years,
Its fate snapped, turned savage--
It suffered slash, rip, wound
Was stripped in misery, chained dumb,
Its body bound, its head wrapped
In iron trim. Now it muscles a road
With head-might for another grim warrior--
Together they plunder the hoard in a storm
Of battle. The first warrior swings
Through dense threat, head-strong,
While the second follows, fierce and swift.

In case you're a complete, you know, idiot, the answer is a "battering ram."

"A what?" rumbled a history buff in the front row.

I made idiotic pantomimes with my arms. "A battering ram. For god's sake, you know, one of those large rams made from a tree you used to bust through a castle door!" Turning impatiently, I went to the board to do another one of my Award Winning Illustrations:

"See? They tied the ram to a fulcrum, and then swung it against the door."

"Yeah, but the riddle says its head was wrapped in iron. What the hell kind of tree is that?"

"No, see, Johnny, you've got it wrong. Because you're, you know, an idiot. They used metal to gild the head, so the ram would have more weight."

Johnny starts to get it. So do the wits in the back row. Everyone is getting it except for your Friendly Neighborhood English teacher, who decides they're just too groggy from the weekend to grok the idea of ironwork in the fifth century. So he adds the coup de grace:

That little mark on the tip was as far as I got. Then I stopped. Realized what I had drawn. Didn't realize earlier because I'm, you know, an idiot.

Cursed, erased hurriedly.

Too late. Bedlam.

Later, a colleague stopped me in the hall. "They really sounded involved last hour," she said, in a tone one part sarcastic, two parts disbelief. "How did you get them so engaged?"

Look at me, honey. What do you think?

"Oh. Another mistaken phallic entendre?"

Damn right.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The First Days of School

First full week and change

IN THE NINTH CIRCLE--I don't know. I just don't know. The mornings are getting tougher. The hours seem to have more minutes in them, and I'm encountering people in the halls who know me, but whom I don't know. Not just new teachers, either. Old students. Parents. Current students whom I mark absent, and then forget entirely that they exist later on. I stared blankly at a stack of papers for ten minutes today while eating my lunch, and then realized I hadn't touched them. I asked around and found that a lot of people were going through similar growing pains. But they're able to shrug them off, roll up their sleeves, and get back to work. Like Hamlet, I brood over them, and double their impact.

Last year's kids are swarming over me in the halls. "Oh teacher teacher, we miss you!" "Oh sir, our new English teacher is so mean!" "Oh man, could we please do some Confirmation Essays! Just one? I'm hurtin' for a fixin'!" At this, I can't help but jeer. "You were the biggest whiners in the world last year, and now you want to go back? Oh yes, I read your Facebook page! I saw the photoshop job you did on my butt. And now your dues have come! Moo ha ha ha!" At this point, they file out, sullen, abashed.

And then the new students file in. Sullen. Unabashed.

"I heard we're having a quiz today," one of them intoned irritably.

"You heard it from me,"I said. "It's on your schedule. And I wrote a reminder on the board. And I said the words as I wrote them."

"So it's true?" Sigh. "That sucks."

Two hours later, I'm in a Current Events class. The headline from Ted Koeppel's old show, circa 1979, reads, "Iranian Hostage Crisis: Day 101."

Hand raised. "I don't get it."

So I went into an old song and dance about the Iranian hostage crisis and how it hurt Carter's presidency but how Reagan capitalized on it in the first days of his presidency.

"But I don't get it."

"Well, Iran is a nation of meanies. Right now, we're trying to keep them from building a bomb."

"No, I don't get it!"

Well, what's not to get?

"What's a hostage?"

And other such events unfold. It could be worse. It has been worse, in fact. But it could be better, too. I could be just as clueless as some of them, for example. "This note says I'm an ass-face. Well, thanks! Thanks very much! I do have a sweet butt, now that you mention it."

See? Orwell was close: Knowledge is pain. Ignorance is relief.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The First Days of School

First Day

S'BERG--Still on this weird cold remedy buzz. A wall has been established between me and the outside world, particularly the world of the high school. Behind this wall, I am strangely omnipotent. Like Brahman, I have established an all-knowing wisdom, while, retaining enough of myself, sneering at the goings-on in front of me. Were I without this wall, the things I hear in the hallways (on. the. first. day!) would send me howling at the moon:
"Man, my ass is toasted!"
"Dude, do you have Mr. (my name here)? Let's rush him."
"Tonight, I told him I wanted the whole fist."
"Who does he think he is, telling us not to sniff the glue? It's art class. I can express myself however I want!"
"Dude, did you see Mr. (my name here)'s car? Let's tip it."
"Man, your ass is toasted!"
"Who does he think he is, telling us transcendentalism was an offshoot of Romanticism? It's all about the sublime, rather than a historical period! Asshole."
"Pi squared, bullshit. Didn't Einstein prove Euclidian geometry is fallible? Give me another hit of that, will you?"
"It stopped bleeding. Now it just itches all the time."
"Dude, do you have Mr. (my name here)? Man, he is toasted!"
I feel strong. I feel pedagogical. I feel like taking a nap.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The First Days of School


Ten kids to orient. Nine showed up. I croaked my way through a rambling explanation of why journalism is important, why we should pay attention, why it'll help them in the long run, even if they don't want to be journalists. The entire time, Achin', who has a room across the hall, is flashing pictures of the Materials Director's face superimposed on pictures of Olympic wrestlers caught in unfortunate starting positions. The DayQuill isn't kicking in. Maybe because I forgot to take it. I think I need to go home.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The First Days of School

Institute Day

S'BERG--Now both our computers are on the fritz, so I'm scribing this in a notebook, for later transcription. Not that this matters a whit.

Having lulled my persistent cough and postnasal drip into a grudging slumber with a generous helping of DayQuil, I entered the building today in a middling haze, insulated against the shake-downs, schedule-shifts and other brands of fuckup-ery awaiting me. I tossed half my mail away, ignored several memos, nodded hi to a few coworkers, and settled into a corner of the auditorium for the First Meeting Back. In previous years, our administration had taken the time to point out several things to us: Why our school rocks, Why our school rocks but Could Rock Better, Why You Guys Rock but Need to Rock Harder, Why our government hates us but we need to Rock All Year, and my all-time favorite, Why You Need to Care About Who Thinks You Rock and Who Doesn't. Subtitle: Students (and soon parents) vote with their feet.

(Turns out I vote with my Foot. When it's Up Your Ass. You dig?)

Of course, this year we had so many new higher-ups, it would be difficult to get an immediate read on how the year would progress in that front. I'd spent much of the evening before drafting a few ideas of my own, but, surprise surprise, I was not called upon to give a speech. Others were. Here, in complete honesty, candor and forthcomingness, are my notes from the meeting:
8:05 a.m. First speaker reminds us we need to start on time (now)
8:11 a.m. Speaker starts
8:12 a.m. Speaker tells a joke
8:14 a.m. Speaker quits waiting for someone to laugh at joke
8:15 a.m. First speaker asks for a moment of silence for us all to remember friends, family, and especially coworkers who have passed on over the summer. "They are precious to us," he intones. "They cannot be replaced."
8:16 a.m. "Now let's meet who's replacing them."
8:22 a.m. Another shot of NCLB in the arm: our state test average has gone up .6 points from what it was in 2000, after a plummet in the years between.
8:23 a.m. We finish celebrating the .6 points. Speaker announces that, to celebrate and to show the school's appreciation of our hard work and dedication, Fridays will consist of community-fostering activities. This Friday will be Build-your-own-ice cream cone Day.
8:24 a.m. I pinched myself. That really is our reward.
8:26 a.m. Speaker announces our two percent goal. "If we can improve everything, tests, graduation rates, attendance, effort, everything by 2 percent, we'll accomplish the limits." Good. I can crack that out by the middle of September, and then I'm outta here.
8:27 a.m. Second speaker takes over. Quotes extensively from a letter from Lincoln to his son's teacher: "He will have to learn, I know, that all men are not just and are not true. But teach him if you can, the wonder of books.. but also give him quiet time to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun and flowers on a green hillside."
8:31 a.m. In my planbook, I scribble, "Friday--outside, contemplate birds in sky." Done. Take that, AYP!
8:33 a.m. Next speaker urges us to attack biased language. "When you hear a student complain about something being 'gay,' I think you should stand up and say, 'You know what, that offends me. I'm gay! I'm gay, straight, bi and asexual. I'm black, white, red, yellow, brown and orange. I'm man, woman, able- and disabled. I am Everyone."
8:34 a.m. Anson, a co-worker, sits next to me. "I came late," he whispers. "What did I miss?" I point casually. "That guy just came out of the closet."
8:38 a.m. New staff intros at this point: Two black men (unheard of in this district), phys ed aides. Two platinum blondes (Roma was all over both of them in no time). Two rehires (nodded wearily at being introduced all over again). Two who haven't graduated yet ("in October, I promise! Really! Teacher gives me lots of gold stars and happy face stickers!")
8:45 a.m. Awards go out for 10, 20, 30 and 40 years of service. Predictably, the non-teachers get the most applause. Especially Joy, the cafeteria worker.
8:50 a.m. Our motivational speaker, an old college drinking buddy of the boss, gets up to speak. He immediately calls for another round of applause for Joy. The crowd obliges more than willingly.
8:51 a.m. "Every time I've interacted with this school, I've been impressed." Naturally. We haven't crossed paths yet.
8:52 a.m. "Every time I think of school, of the years I've put in, I get a little lump in my throat." Wonderful. Now the profession is cancerous. "You guys work hard. I can see it. It has nothing to do with money. This place reminds me of a small school in Santa Fe, which has a large number of illegal immigrants. They risked their lives to get a good education, their teachers know it, they're proud of it, and that's who you remind me of." The Republicans in the crowd are daring to frown disapproval over this comment, but that's all they're daring at the moment. "I'd like to amend the first guy's Appreciation Friday idea: Wine Tasting Friday." The Republicans continue to frown. "Or how about Beer and Burgers?" Now they're smiling. All is suddenly well with the world.
8:59 a.m. "Once you get teaching in your blood, you never get rid of it. I don't care who you are, what you do. It never leaves you." Great. Another disease metaphor. "And if you can't find it, it's time to go do something else." Are you telling me to take a walk, buddy? How about I get a job giving first-day-of-school speeches? Take that Mr. Motivational Speaker.
9:12 a.m. Talks at length about passion: "Passion for what you do transfers into the classroom." I make a note: Passion has been nixed in this building in favor of the MEL-Con.
9:14 a.m. Closes with a set of scriptural quotes. Gets a lengthy round of applause. Joy is beaming, though: She's still got him beat for popularity.
As far as motivational speakers go, I've heard much worse. I'm still struggling, though. I've spent the last year taking classes, attending seminars and listening to worldly experts discourse on the role of the educator, and how we're not here to teach content, but skills. So I contemplate my position, in light of my new motivation:
I can motivate my students by motivating myself. I motivate myself by embracing my curriculum and wallowing in the power of words. My passion, according to mandated NCLB changes, sucks. Therefore, I suck when I teach fromthe heart, and as a result, my students stink up the classroom and I lose my job, thereby providing me the exit he subliminally urged me to take at 8:59 a.m. In short, motivation equals unemployment.
Hmm. Quite the Catch-22.

The rest of the meeting, representatives walked us through a new evaluation model. First, we have an observation. Then we observe them doing an observation. Then the observation gets observed again, and we write up a memo on it. If these are all negative observations and a follow-up is required, it's To the Arena:

At this point, the speaker reminds us that there will be a Teacher Training Day Training Day, where we get to Train for Training and Train the Trainers. All higher-ups will be out of the building. Joy is put in charge, to thunderous applause.

And that's about it. So I. Am. Out of here. For the evening. To return tomorrow triumphantly. Rested. Refreshed. High on DayQuill. And fully cognizant of where my room is and which key goes in which door. Like a poet once said, you gotta reach for the stars.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

My Dumb Vacation

Click here if you missed Part One | Click here if you missed Part Two

Part Three: The heady froth of Midwestern Culture. Plus, infant expectorations.

There are fewer things more depressing than approaching the darker side of your mid-thirties wearing a Cult Rocks! t-shirt, cutoff jeans and sporting three days' worth of stubble, only to throw up on yourself.

Trust me on this one.

We'd made the Black Keys concert by 10:30 p.m. Had a few beers. Had dinner. Had a few more beers. Had a breath mint. Had another beer. And at this point, I was steady as Senator Kennedy during a floor vote. I could have piloted a B-52 stealth bomber while playing chess with a chimpanzee.

But then Dewey (without whom there can be no late-night trip to a Black Keys concert, I might add) suggests we should eat something.

"Why the hell should I," I slur confidently. "What I really need is another drink."

Dewey tries to explain the concept of solid food absorbing alcohol, thus acting as a catalyst for its entrance to the bloodstream and further enhancing the pleasures it has to provide. I wave away his suggestions as if they're a swarm of gnats, but finally give in when he offers to pay for my 35-cent cheeseburger if I pick up the next round of Jim Beam on the rocks. I eagerly agree. Sucker, I think to myself smugly.

An hour or two later, we're taking what I like to call the Drunken Royal Express: the Blue Line to Cumberland, where my car sits, waiting like the world's most patient wife after Last Call. The landscape outside the windows is suddenly swerving and dipping alarmingly. It's not the beer. It's not the lateness of the hour. It's not the Jonas Brothers currently playing on the speakers (probably). It's Mickey D's, angrily battling with my gut for domination. I forgot how lousy their food is once you're not an undergraduate any more.

I get up, grasp onto a nearby pole, and try to fix my eyes on a stationary point: the floor. Which also, as it turns out, dips and sways alarmingly. When the train stops at Montrose, several stops away from our final destination, I turn a pleading gaze on Dewey. He sighs, gets up, and we exit. I just barely manage to make it to the platform edge, my 35-cent cheeseburger charging like the Germans at the Battle of Stalingrad. I pause, fighting for control. I concentrate. I summon every ounce of willpower and self-control.

Brap. My Cult t-shirt has definitely looked better.

Dewey stands ready behind me with an ace up his sleeve: a Black Keys Rock! t-shirt, newly purchased at the Metro a scant few hours beforehand.

"You're true blue, pal," I say, drawing a hand across my mouth.

Dewey shrugs modestly. "The day I don't help a pal," he says, "is the day I can't remember where he parked. And you're not sleeping on my couch tonight, so don't even ask."

Is there any substitute in this world for a good friend? You tell me.


The last I left you, Dear Reader, I was standing in my aunt and uncle's front driveway, teetering from exhaustion, ready to embark on a two-day binge of theater and Michigan culture. Which I did. I saw Julius Caesar with my family, fighting the urge to drop off for the first two acts, then watching wide-eyed as the remaining players in the tragedy ran themselves on their swords. My favorite scene: Brutus tells Lucius to hold his weapon, leaps upon it, and yells, "Sweet, merciful crap! I said the sword with the black handle, dumbass!" The blood spouting from his gut looked like Buckingham Fountain during the Taste of Chicago--how in hell they get such great special effects is beyond me. I also liked how Lucius managed to turn pale--how did they do that? with trick lighting or something?--and retch visibly as he was hauled away. I don't remember that line, though. Probably they cribbed it from a Baz Luhmann unused script or something.

That night, while my aunt and uncle stayed home and went through my bags for their New York gifts, I went back for All's Well that Ends Well. I got to see them rehearse a bit beforehand due to a special Discount Rate that I purchased without even knowing it. When Helena comes out to do her repartee with the Count, it got pretty entertaining:
HELEN: You have some stain of soldier in you: let me
ask you a question. Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?

PAROLLES: Keep him...uh, wait a minute, I know this line. Keep him...out! That's it!

HELEN: But he assails; and our virginity, though valiant, in the defence yet is weak: unfold to us some warlike resistance.

PAROLLES: There is, uh, none: man, sitting down before you, will...uh, do something nasty.

HELENA: Bless our poor virginity from underminers and blowers up! Is there no military policy, how virgins might blow up men?

PAROLLES: Uh, forsooth...thou...Hah! I get it now! "Blow up men," that's good!

HELENA: Jesus Christ, Franklin, learn your lines already, will you?
Ah, Franklin. You put Sir John Gielgud to shame.

The next day's visit to some high school to watch Fame! The Musical is a bit muddled in my memory. I don't remember any soliloquoys. Or dramatic monologues, or iambic pentameters. I do remember my uncle grumbling, "Somebody better run themself on a sword, or I'm outta here." And oh yeah, there was something about a Performing Arts high school. I gots to get me one o' them j-o-b's. Looks like all you have to do is periodically break into song. "These are my children...please take them away." I can see the rave reviews as I close my eyes.

And then it was time to take a train ride home. For four hours. Only to sleep for four more hours, and hit the Black Keys concert. And then sleep for four more hours. And then a drive to a wedding. A six-hour drive. To Saint Louis. Through...the Midwest.

Oh dear God. Not this again.

I hadn't been to a wedding in years where I had absolutely nothing to do but show up well-dressed (check), bring a gift (...hocked it) and dance with Kim and/or assorted female relatives (hey, it's not my fault every time a good song came up I had to go to the bathroom).

But the real scene-stealer, of course, was my nephew James.

James is the first newborn into my family since my brother was born three-plus decades ago, so of course he commands a lot of attention. He's already outperformed both my brother and myself at his age: he can say "da," he can clap, he can roll his finger across his lips and make a burbling sound, he can balance a checkbook, and he can even sort of dance, provided someone else does the motions and movement for him. At his age, my brother could roll onto his back. At my age now, I can barely avoid discharging fast food onto cheap concert t-shirts.

So it was no surprise when he managed to upstage practically every setting he appeared in. But the little guy got sick, probably due to the overpowering 100-degree heat (why the hell aren't August weddings outlawed already, anyway?) and so he wasn't too happy to put in an appearance at the church.

When the sitter and Kim arrived from the hotel with him in tow, I volunteered to get him from the car. My brother, who was standing at the wedding and was currently ushering, looked grateful. His wife didn't object. The sitter, whose last nerve was quickly unraveling, readily acquiesced. The only one who wasn't apparently grateful was James, who was howling lustily from the confines of his car seat.

Poor kid. He looked like an angel. A sweaty, full-throated, red-faced, two billion-decibel-loud seraphim.

I felt my heart fill to the brim with love for my nephew as I beheld him at his neediest. No fear, dear one. Your uncle is here.

I managed to unbuckle him, draw him out, hold him close. "I know, little guy," I crooned. "You just need a little understanding and love, and that's exactly why I'm..."

Brap. The little jerk threw up all over me.

"Well of all the..." Splutter splutter. "Somebody get this kid off me before I..." Splutter splutter. "Nobody ever told me babies vomit..." Splutter splutter.

My dignity thus discarded for the time being, I tucked him under my arm, sprinted to the church and lateraled him to my brother. As I grabbed the nearest box of wipes to rescue my good suit from baking in baby vomit, James shot a smug look in my direction. And as the bridal party descended on him to ooh and aah, clucking sympathetically over his soiled clothes, James leered appreciatively at his ready good luck, and my crappy situation.

Nephew: one. Uncle: zero.

I returned to my church pew sweaty, smelling a trifle vomitus and looking like I'd just ran a 10-K. My beloved, the Woman who Holds the Bottle Opener to the Beer that Is My Heart, cast a critical eye at the puke on my lapel. "Wow, twice in twenty-four hours?" she asked sardonically. "What are you, going for a record?"

Damn it. Got to stop telling her the stuff that embarasses me.

The ceremony ran longer than expected, so once we got assorted family and friends back to the hotel, it was time for a little drinky-poo. One turned into several, which turned into dinner, which then turned into a full-blown dance floor at the reception cum open bar. Charlie and the Nostalgia Number did live music, and it was right in the middle of a passable rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" that James made his triumphant return: cleaned up, bathed and in a new set of clothes. I, on the other hand, was wearing the same befouled suit, rumpled hair and harried manner I'd had before, relying, in the absence of soap and water, solely on vodka and tonic to disinfect myself.

"He is so cute, gushed a nearby bridesmaid.

I stood up straight, puffing out my chest in pride. "I'm his uncle, you know."

"You've got vomit on your lapel," she said without even looking in my direction. James, apparently overhearing, sneered at me.

A half hour later, I borrowed my nephew and stuck a finger in his direction. "Kid, you're lucky you're so damn cute," I growled. "Or you'd be swimming with the fishes right now."

He acknowledged my riposte by grabbing my outstretched finger and dribbling on my shoulder. Nephew, two; Uncle, zilch. My heart melted.

"All right, you get away with it this time. But when you grow up, you're taking me to a Black Keys concert. I'll explain why later."


Setting: New Year's Eve, 2069. Kim and I are sitting in the living room, poring over old photo albums. We've just celebrated our first twenty-four hours of wedded bliss. Yes, late bloomers are we, but you can't put a label on love, and now, as the fire on the TV screen crackles cheerily while the pollution and depleted ozone layer decimates the landscape outside, we exchange memories of Days Gone By, occasionally clasping hands and downing shots of Jack Daniels.

Me:"Look at this one. This was what's-his-name's and whosit's wedding that one summer in that city with the arch-thing, remember that place? You were so lovely."

Kim: "And you were a hunk stud. Oh, and look at James. Who'd have thought the future President of the United States would do so much upchucking on someone not working for the UN?

Superficial, worldly-wise laughter ensues here. Maybe some geriatric groping on the side.

Kim:"And here you are, warning him not to throw up on you again. Just so cute!"

Me:"And here he is, dancing with a bridesmaid."

Kim:"Is that the bridesmaid you were flirting with?"

Me:"Flirting? Me? Hell no. I bragged about being his uncle."

Kim:"Sure, to a hot bridesmaid. What about all the old ladies hovering around him?"

Me: "Listen, woman, know your place! The Marriage Santification Act, passed by President George W. Bush hours before he left office (HR 2172-2 Section Seven Paragraph 2), makes it a crime for me to be spoken to like that in my own home!"

Kim: "Your home? You damn mooch! When are you going to start pulling your weight, get a job and pay me some rent?"

Me: "I told you, I'm in a transition period!"

Kim: "And I told you, I was only allowing five decades for you to find a job singing in a musical. I don't care how senile you are now!"

Me: "Why" Brap.

I forgot. Nonagenarians shouldn't drink after only poached eggs and Soylent Green for dinner.

Geriatric bickering ensues. By New Year's Day, 2070, we're filing for divorce, and I'm sleeping on Dewey's couch. Guess we should have seen that one coming.