Monday, December 15, 2014

Blue Mountain

The headline of the article caught my eye.  "It's Best Not to Play Santa to a Teacher."  What is this about, I thought.  Turns out it was a small piece urging parents , their students, and even teachers not to give holiday gifts to their teachers.  I bristled.  Some new kind of teacher bashing?  Now teacher's shouldn't get any gifts from students because it sends the wrong message.  What next?  But a quick read through changed my mind a bit noting that there might be pressure on kids who would love to show their appreciation or fondness for a teacher, but just can't afford to do so.  Point taken.  The author also mentioned that the best "gifts" are a personal note, which everyone can do.  I agree.  But it seems a bit over the top that some school districts actually have policies banning any form of appreciation gift to any employee.  It's codified.  Wonder if it's ever enforced?  If only they could focus their egalitarian efforts on other things besides teacher's being appreciated.  I know, it's complicated.  But it got me thinking of all the things I've received from students, without violating any regulations.
     Holidays usually brought cookies, candy canes, and fudge.  Occasionally something that really stood out like home made biscotti from a big Italian family whose daughters I was fortunate enough to have in my English classes for two generations.  There were oddball gifts too.  A battery operated watch that looked far better than it was.  Lasted two years...all glitter and glue.  There were cards and notes, many of them.  I'd collect them all up and put them in the box with my winter-break paper load.  Now and then there would be a gift card to a bookstore or coffee shop.  My students knew me well. But one little gift that came right out of the blue stands out as most memorable.  Here's the back story.
That semester I'd been teaching a 12th grade elective course called International Problems.  That year  during a unit on World Hunger we were looking at the economies of poor countries that produced big cash crops...crops like coffee.  This was in the days before Free Trade coffee, so the students were seeing how countries with an undernourished majority of people could produce huge cash crops that made a small minority very wealthy.  During one particularly productive discussion, a student asked what the most expensive coffee was?  I took a guess and promised to return the next day with all the information.  My guess was right-Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.  Going back then for about $17-$20 dollars a pound.  The next day, the class was eager to sample some, so we hatched a plan.  I promised on the last day of the class we'd have a small party and offer some JBM coffee.  The class took up a small collection, and I covered the rest.  Coffee for 35 requires a little logistics, but when the day arrived, 3 students brought in portable coffee makers with enough cups and Half/Half  and sugar for those who wanted them.  Only problem was no Jamaican Blue Mountain.  There had been a shortage that year and Japanese buyers had bought up the entire crop.  My good friends at Peet's Coffee suggested an alternative.  "What's the most expensive coffee currently in the store," I asked.  Turns out it was Arabian Mocha Java @ $12.50 a pound.  We enjoyed the coffee but it was with the recognition that there was something more valuable out there.

About five years later, on the Friday before the holiday break, a familiar face appeared in the doorway of my classroom shortly before the end of the day.  Sofia, a former student from that coffee tasting class entered.  Now a college graduate, she returned to campus to see some old friends and teachers.  She handed me a small basket of cookies, chatted for a few minutes, then took off.  She was doing well, and simply wanted to touch base with some of her high school teachers.  I but the little basket in my box and didn't return to it until that evening, when I noticed it felt a little heavy for just cookies.  I lifted the napkin covering the bottom of the basket t reveal a pound of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.  This was a gift I could accept.  So much more than a cup of the world's best coffee.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


This Bill Moyers quote is obviously a promo for Mother Jones magazine.  Yet, Moyers brings up a fascinating point about the role of journalists today.  The irony, of course is that with all our fancy technology, the democratic values the U.S. was founded on seem to be leaking slowly out of the airship of state.  Today, with the release of data outlining the CIA's role in employing torture techniques in the new post 9/11 security paranoia, our democratic values have taken a mighty hit.  I'd venture to say that we are at a critical juncture as a democracy; the road ahead doesn't look promising.
Writer/theorist Henry Geroux has eloquently discussed this trend, this slippage in his book The Violence of Organized Forgetting.  What's so troubling is how the mass of the American people can be transfixed by the distractions of a market economy with it's emphasis on constant consumption.  The stupor is thick...and getting thicker one would think.  They don't hear the air leaking out.
When we see the inequity in our social classes, it's alarming that the only one's filling our burgeoning prison system are on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  White collars stay whiter than white, aided by the indecision of Grand Juries, the lock that the wealthy have on our political process, and the intended continual demise of public education.
Back to Moyers, I don't think he's completely right because we have only to look at the efforts of whistle blowers in government and the massive pseudo-security structure forced in place to see how some journalists are trying to get the word out.  Maybe it will be left for the artists and musicians to take that torch and run with it.  Historically there is precedent, much of it to be sure.  Is it such a surprise that people in this country probably place more faith in their favorite musicians than their elected representatives?
If I were back in the classroom these days, I'd put together a teaching unit based on Moyers' idea here. Find the Muckrakers.   Some kind of most under-reported stories of the year weighed by their importance and the process by which they become under-reported. (Who decides what we hear about and what we don't?) Perhaps a good place to start would be with Mother Jones Magazine and see how what they report compares to everything else.  It's the latter, that all other sources, that might be most revealing.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mortal Night

I just finished Dr. Atul Gawande's bestselling book, Being Mortal.  This important look at the way our health care model deals with end of life issues suggests that we focus on the home part of nursing home and ask different questions to those whose days are limited.  But before I turned the last page I had an unplanned field trip to my nearest hospital, briefly facing my own mortality in the back of an ambulance.
I had now warning or pain.  I read for an hour or so that evening and felt fine.  Early the next morning I felt slightly nauseous and ended up on the floor of my bathroom after vomiting blood.  Definitely surreal because what I puked was nearly black.  When my blood-pressure dropped dramatically, I went over and that prompted the 911 call and the remainder of that day and the next in the hospital.  I'm not only mortal, I'm lucky because a series of tests revealed only a very small ulcer and no other abnormalities.  In a few weeks, they'll send the little camera down my throat and monitor the healing.  I look forward to the return of coffee and beer/wine with my meals.

You live long enough and you know these things are are coming..without warning on occasion.  When they do, it's never as you imagined.  I can't help but think that reading that book prepared me for the emotional shock of being instantly vulnerable and in the hands of health care professionals who took blood and pieces of me to measure and analyze throughout the night.
Did my life flash before me?  Hardly, but I did have time to reflect on what I've accomplished thus far, and what I've still left to do.  The vulnerability has dogged me for the last 10 days or so.  I've noticed small things like not wanting to exert too much energy lest something snap or break, and my voice  has lessened in volume.  Wonder if that is common for those recently going through medical emergencies?    It's as if I need more confidence to resume where I left off.  There is the aura of a trauma here both for me and my family members.  Mortality does that now and again.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Teaching provides many opportunities to collect artifacts.  Here's one I've been meaning to share.  I consider it an art form of popular culture.  Sadly, it's now probably extinct because of the way textbooks are distributed.  But...there was a time, when a teacher was responsible for collecting and distributing books.  Lots of record-keeping here.  Some may still do this, but my experience recently says all students go to the textbook room and check out their own books with computerized ID cards.
Anyhow, one of the rituals back in the day was to determine the condition of the book, record it on the little form stamped inside the front cover, and then add date and teacher's name.
Students, being the clever beings that they are, would often embellish the choice of descriptors.  For years one of the most common forms of written classroom folklore was found inside books that had been checked out.
In deconstructing my classroom of 25 years, one of the last things I did was to go through some old copies of books that I believed might soon be discarded.  I tore out a few of these book condition charts and put them in a folder.  Here's one:

 You can see that in 1971 a student named John Khure was not content with the choice of descriptors and took it upon himself to write a short essay in the space provided for one word.  John wrote: "Examining this book closely, I find very little wrong with it.  But that on no grounds means it is therefore free of blemish."  No good, fair, or unsatisfactory for this guy, he wanted to make a statement and therefore did so.  Reading down the list of subsequent readers of this one book shows that it's condition went from "New" to "Dead."  It appears that for a few years, the book came in at "Fair" and even "Used."  Before it was declared dead in 1989, it languished at "Very Poor" for a decade.
I've always loved the spirit of these little bulletin boards found inside most schoolbooks for many years.  Can't help but think that it might be lost forever.  This one, like the small collection I managed to harvest become like Zen Koans for contemplating the arbitrary spontaneity of young people. Especially when it comes to completing a simple task. In this era of standardized curriculum, here's a flaming torch that shines on individuality.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Elliptical Voyage

If every piece of writing has a thousand faces, then a poem must have a few hundred, at least.  So many incarnations possible.
Here's one:

Elliptical voyage  

Inside my head 
Lends Creedence to the rainfall 

With eyes closed
I'm running
Back in time 
Back to brown leather and red flannel 
Back hair and blues music 
Moving past Neil Young,
Dylan's acoustic set, 
Harmonicas soothe the
Glare of neon idols
Is this nowhere? 
Does anybody know where
The darkest night 
Has a few bright stars...

Let me
Follow you down.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


A friend of mine just won the "Teacher of the Year" award for the state of Oregon.  Most deserving he is too.  I first met Michael about six years ago when a student teacher I was supervising was placed in his classroom.  We bonded instantly.  He now gets to meet the President, the Secretary of Education and banks a $5,000 check as well.  Sometimes they get it right.
Got me thinking, however about the time when I won a similar, local award.  Not quite as prestigious, but certainly very gratifying for someone like me that doesn't handle accolades well.  Nevertheless to be singled out as one of my district's candidates for what was called the annual "Teaching Excellence" award was very humbling.  I'd been nominated by a colleague (and former winner of the award) so it was even more gratifying.  I received a wooden plaque with engraved lettering in gold, and a check for $500.
I wish there hadn't been a competition for the award.  I'm not sure how many candidates were nominated, but I recall going for an interview late one afternoon and being told that I was the next to last interview of a long day.  They then asked me if I was nervous.  My saving grace has always been that these things don't make me nervous at all.   I either don't take them all that seriously or enjoy the attention.
At the award ceremony I had to make a speech.  There were about 5 other winners who also made acceptance speeches so it was a long evening.  I was feeling at one with the profession that night, but even though I acknowledged all teachers everywhere, I knew deep inside that there were severe differences.  In my speech I talked a bit about my students because they are instrumental in any recognition a teacher might get.  I told a story about the wall in the back of my classroom that was collaged with hundreds of pictures of people.  Sort of a pop culture who's who that often came in handy during class discussions.  At the mention of a name like Amelia Erhard, or a writer like Salinger, Steinbeck, Flannery O'connor, Alice Walker or Toni Morrison...there was a picture.  Lots of athletes, pop culture and music icons too.  Occasionally a student would add his or her own portrait to the wall.  How's that for self-esteem?

One day, one of my favorite pictures from the wall went missing.  It was a lovely picture of Buckwheat from the Little Rascals.  Certainly part of my childhood, this picture disappeared right about the time when Eddie Murphy started doing his version of Buckwheat on Saturday Night Live.  Now I know that anything in a classroom is fair game.  Once you put it out there, you have to be ready to say good-bye any time.  But I really loved that picture and I told my classes that I was bummed out because it was gone.  It was a beautiful portrait of Buckwheat; in no way stereotypical.  About a week later the picture was discovered in the Boy's Locker Room, destroyed.  Nobody knew why or how.  But what happened after that is why I referred to it in my little speech.  I started receiving pictures of Buckwheat anonymously.  Lots of them.  In my mailbox at school, under the classroom door they slipped.  Once another Buckwheat was added to the wall.  They were all nice pictures, but not the one I lost, the one I loved.  But my students were trying to take care of me and that's what mattered.  I mentioned that in the speech, but I'm not sure how it went over with the crowd that night.  No matter.
My plaque sits on a bookshelf today.  It's mostly what remains of my 33 years in the classroom.  What physically remains.  My district gave me a certificate of thanks, but I'm not sure where that went.  The $500 I spent on a new clutch for my car at the time.  Today I found the picture of Buckwheat I loved so much online.  I feel better.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mental Construct

I said good-bye to someone I recently met.  I said good-bye because this person no longer exists.  She was completely in my mind.  The image, and all that went along with it, were based on misconceptions.  Here's the context.
A few weeks ago I began to mentor a couple of first year teachers.  Since one of the two was someone I never really met, and didn't know well, I assumed I knew she was.  That assumption came from a memory I had when we were actually in the same room together at the beginning of the previous school year. It was an orientation meeting where all the new student teachers meet their supervisors for the upcoming year.  Somehow, I held on to this image as if it existed. So here we are, a year later and this person is now a first year teacher assigned to me.  We spoke on the phone a few times, and I've gotten to know this young teacher in these early attempts to build trust and learn a little about each other.  That kind of trust and knowledge is essential if my efforts and her interest in them are to continue.

So last weekend, after a handful of failed attempts, we decided to split the difference in miles between us and meet face to face. I drove the 50 miles to a coffee shop in Salem. A different person showed up.  She was not who I thought she was.  She looked completely different from the image in my mind.  Maybe there is another teacher I actually did meet once a year or two ago that fits the image I have.  But I was way off.  Off in age, appearance, and demeanor.  The voice was the same, rather hoarse, but the rest of the person was completely different than I expected.
The immediate response I had was one of overwhelming relief.  I'm not even sure why.  perhaps tis revelation brought with it the chance for a new beginning.  It got me thinking, though.  How many times do we construct images and personalities of people based on seemingly reliable information? If we do this, and we do, what are the consequences?
Maybe this isn't a big deal at all.  Maybe it's just a reminder that people are always much more complicated than we think. That, and we are often misled by our mental constructs.
My mistake was an honest one.  I'd met a roomful of young teachers a year ago, thought the one I'd been in contact with was an image I retained from that meeting, and then found out it wasn't.  Sp why the tremendous relief?
I can venture a few guesses.  I realized the instant the face to face meeting began that everything I previously thought about this persons personality and ideology, her values and level of commitment, was subject to change.
What if she experienced the same thing regarding me?  That's certainly possible because all we really knew about each other in terms of personality or ability to work with others, or even our teaching styles, we got from other people.
I was reminded, from this experience, how it applies to interpersonal relationships like dating.  Ever meet someone through a phone call?  Images in the mind abound.  Then the day of reckoning and the person that shows up to the first face to face meeting either fits the image or doesn't exist.  I think the latter is often the case.