Sunday, May 17, 2015

Teacher Aide

Some years ago I taught middle school for one year.  It was after one of the celebrated major cutbacks in California education history and although I'd taught high school for 10 years, I found myself lowest on the pole.
I decided to wait out the year, and hopefully I I got my old job back, It'd be well worth the time in a middle school.
it was culture shock.  I went from writing college application letters for some of the most gifted students anyone could wish for to giving detailed instructions on how to properly open a hall locker.  I'd be lying if I said I didn't like middle school kids and teaching them, but it definitely wasn't for me.  So I suffered through the year. sometimes happens with what befalls us when we resist the most, It was one unforgettable year that truly impacted my practice as a high school year.  The other thing that happened is that I met some of the most unforgettable people throughout that year.  This morning, as I eased into consciousness, one of those faces returned to me.
She was a Latina woman a few years younger than me and was assigned to work as a Title I aide for a couple of 7th grade Reading classes I taught.  Rebecca had a calm quiet intensity that kids responded to instantly.  Unlike an older woman that served in another of my English classes, Rebbecca was always prompt and never fell asleep.
She drew too.  Beautiful drawings of mountains capes or literary characters that the kids recognized.
I quickly looked forward to her assistance.  Anyone who deals with 150 12-14 year olds on a daily basis would eagerly welcome some help.

After a time, Rebbecca turned her quiet intensity on me.  She gave me drawings, wrote me notes about literary things we'd discussed after hours and ultimately gave me some beautiful gifts, like a beautiful turquoise inlaid belt buckle.  Her intensity blossomed in the hand written notes.  I can still see the blue ink in a bold handwriting on white-lined paper.  She demur ed when I tried to talk to her one day about her personal life.  I wanted to tell her that I knew she knew I was recently married.  I even wanted to tell her that I was pretty sure that marriage wouldn't last but a few years.  (In reality 3 years) but I never did.  When the school year ended, we said our good-byes.  As is often my custom at the end of a school year I like to take student-teachers or beginning colleagues out to dinner.  If they have assisted me throughout the year, it's a safe way to say thank you.  She declined, but at my insistence, did agree to meet me for a cup of coffee.  It was a quick meeting; she seemed uncomfortable to be in public with me and because she depended on public transportation didn't stay long.  She declined my offer of a ride home too.  I got that it was nothing personal, just someone with a strong sense of ethics.  I regret I never talked to her again after that.  I was transferred back to my high school and the next 23 years went by before I retired.  I see via the Internet she married and had a career in education too.  She seems happy and still expressing her artistic visions.  Somehow, in a strange way, I feel a chapter has ended.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Two Minutes

Long about the last week of April I become obsessed with the upcoming Kentucky Derby.  It's my  Springtime dalliance, my rite of passage, my love of thoroughbred horses that offers a convenient escape.  I think, too about the week spent in Louisville some 33 years ago now.  I've carefully pressed the sights, sounds, smells, and satisfactions of that experience so that it will last a lifetime.  So far, so good.
Yet this year feels different in so many ways.  Most likely it's the international tragedy complicated by the recent massive earthquake in Nepal and the current domestic hostility and unrest that centers around the constant battle many inner city residents have with their local police departments.
The Baltimore Orioles actually played a game yesterday with an official attendance of Zero.  The media continues to tell only parts of the stories that comprise these complicated and nuanced situations, and lost is the ongoing poverty and deprivation  that refuse to yield year after year, decade after decade.
So the trick this year is to use the "most exciting two minutes in sports" to get away, temporarily from the intensity and depression, the anger and fear, the overwhelming sense of desperation that the political and environmental disasters of the past week have wrought.

I always try to link big ideas and events that I experience.  The possibilities are sometimes challenging, but always possible.  Here we have the promise of a rebirth in this unlikely trifecta.  A renewal for people in Baltimore and Nepal and a national ritual for those of us smitten by the strength and beauty of a 3 year old colt running a mile and a quarter for the first time.  On another level, all these situations involve violence and confusion.  No less than Nobel winner John Steinbeck once called the Kentucky Derby, "the most violent two minutes in sports."   Just to clarify for those who might be less familiar with thoroughbred racing, the violence has nothing to do with whips or injuries sustained, although that is a major concern.  What Steinbeck was referring to was most likely the bumping and jockeying for position that occurs right out of the gate.  Combined with 150,000 screaming people, half of whom are inebriated, and a sound tunnel one jockey once told me was his most unforgettable recollection of riding in the race, you get the picture.
This year I'm supporting American Pharaoh.  He'll most likely be the favorite, but that's no matter.  he just might be something special.  Something to give the Triple Crown a long look.  But no matter how special, in the end, it takes a supreme amount of luck to win the Derby.  The same kind of luck to survive the randomness of a 7.8 earthquake and returning home safely at night from many parts of this nation.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Like Bookends

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to a friend from the middle school days of my life.  He found me through social media and, as it happens, we live in the same state about 3 hours apart.  It has only been about 50 years since we last spoke.
Although we did not go to the same high school, we kept some of the same middle school friends.  He happened to go to a reunion that I did not and learned where I was, hence the contact.  What a conversation we had.  Though he went to Vietnam and I resisted that war, we found we had many similar interests and that our lives had overlapped a few times in the last few decades.  The version of the person I talked to the other day was a mature, thoughtful,  survivor who had overcome many of the challenges and obstacles that accompany PTSD and the resultant consequences.  How wonderful and encouraging this was.  Probably the reason we never talked about our middle school days,the girlfriends, the teachers, the parties, the adolescent drama.

Part of the filling in involved telling each other about our parents passings and then what turns and twists our lives have taken.  There were wives we'll never meet, places we'll never share together, and some children and relatives we'll probably never meet.
A few times, throughout the hour we shared, I wanted to ask about the times we went fishing together and stayed at the cabin his folks owned near a large mountain lake in the Angeles national Forest.  It somehow didn't seem important now.
For our generation, the Vietnam War was a defining juncture.  Many of our contemporaries handled the issue differently, but talking to my old friend reinforced the notion that we all respected our choices, if not appreciated how they were right for who we were then and how much they have shaped who we are now.  Most satisfying.
My friend seems to have some inner peace now.  No doubt for the first time in his life.  He works with wood now, lives in a small semi-rural town, and has a loving wife.  50 years is a good amount of time for things to come around right.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

So Far Away

Seems like every other day last week a new video surfaced of police either shooting or using too much force on a person.  Two cases in particular saw the cell phone video of a bystander and the aerial footage from a helicopter find the news shows and daily broadcasts.  In both cases, law enforcement seems blatantly at fault.  No need for body cameras to record a man flat on his face with his hands behind his back getting kicked and wrestled to the ground by as many as 7 officers.  Same goes for a traffic stop that ends in 8 shots fired in the back.  Disturbing on many levels.  What resonates for me is that we are just now getting footage of things that have, no doubt, been going on for decades...centuries?

People who live near or beyond the other side of the tracks have known the reality of this video brutality all along.  I recall my supervisor, while a Vista Volunteer, assigning me to take a Latino man and his young son to a camping place near a lake for the weekend with no questions asked until the following Monday.  I did.  When all was revealed it turns out that the man had been beaten severely by the Houston police and was soon to testify in an upcoming lawsuit.  His lawyer was afraid he would not live to do so.  That was a reality of that time and place faced my many whose lives were deemed disposable.  Nothing surprises me anymore.  If police can plant evidence in the form of drugs or guns, they can also plant a taser in a convenient spot if need be.

All this makes me wonder about the personalities of some of these officers and what happens under stress.  While most folks would not resist arrest or even an order from a cop, it seems apparent that in many of these recent cases, it is the act of resistance, of non-compliance that triggers the brutal response.  Where is the discussion on that?  While one might argue that the resistance is a product of fear it could be further argued that the non-compliance triggers such an outrage in some officers that they over-react.  Just a theory, yet to be proved, but it certainly bears further study.
The down side of all this video footage is, of course, that we lose a few more slivers of our privacy along the way.  Over time it'll be interesting how this plays out with respect to personality formation.
The easier it becomes to communicate, the farther apart we seem to be moving.

Saturday, March 28, 2015


In the eight years that I haven't been in the classroom, I've watched and listened to all the dialogue about the encroachment of standardized testing.  In particular is something called the "Smarter Balanced" assessment tests that are being given in my community.  While the newspaper editorialists and many local politicos tout them as necessary and a significant, valid measure of what our students can and cannot do, those in the classroom are either silent and compliant, or condoning the virtues of non-compliance with these high stakes tests.  In fact, the head of the Portland Assn. of Teachers recently said: Abuse,  can be "the result of cruel and unconscionable acts that impair a child's psychological, cognitive, emotional and or social well-being" such as from "habitual ridicule" or "scapegoating." She questioned whether low-income or non-English-speaking students would be subjected to harassment if their school fares poorly in test results.
I've even heard some teachers calling themselves "conscientious objectors" when it comes to participating in the administration of these tests.  I see that parallel because, as an educator, everything that these challenging tests purport to be about is antithetical to what I believe and know to be excellent teaching.  Start with the 70% failure rate being predicted.  That tickles the "if it's harder, it must be better" fancy of those who claim to be experts on this issue.  Notice that they aren't in the classroom.  They have , or at least seem to have, no rigorous curriculum in use with which to compare their ideas of what is challenging and most important.  The are in love, in my view, with the idea of collecting data that shows schools are failing.  They are not, I assure you.  How do I know this?  I know this because every year students that leave our institutions of public instruction are doing well in college or their chosen professions.  I know this because I have the luxury of remaining in contact with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of former students, and I can see how they are doing.  But that was then, you might ask.  True, it's different now, it's always different a decade or so later.  With the disparity in wealth that is the new reality we face, there is no longer the certainty that a good education will be rewarded with a job or career that's equally as satisfying.  Maybe those test makers and corporations so giddy over the elevated place they have come to occupy in the school calendar know this.  Maybe, aside from tapping into that billion dollar industry, they are already beginning the training for the only jobs that will be available to most of those kids taking their tests.
That's all conjecture, I know.  But what is not is the fact that rigor and rigormortis aren't all that far apart.  As many students would say, "you're killin' me."

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Picture This

I read with interest this week of Starbuck's corporate attempt to initiate much needed conversations about race by having some of it's baristas write "Race Together" on cups of coffee sold.  While I applaud the intent of the idea, there is so much that is off base about this idea that it's hard to know just where to begin.  let me try by saying that these discussions must be lead and facilitated carefully because while well intended, they can easily do more harm than good.  I realize there are many baristas out there with advanced degrees, is the coffee line the best place to have these conversations?  Are most people "on the run" and ready to begin their day?  Would another time and place be better?  I'm still wondering because at least the intention to have a dialogue is there.  Is there also another intention?  Given the corporate attack on public education these days, I'm a bit skeptical of the motivation...with good reason.  Is the conversation that's needed really about race, or is it about much more?  Race, as a scientific concept is soo last century; actually it's soo 19th century, isn't it?
Even though the concept of race is a bogus idea, a social construct, it continues to inform and impact how we think and what we do.
Some of my friends took me to task a bit because, as employees of large corporations, they can easily point to how those institutions have educated people.  But to have a life changing dialogues about race and ethnicity, it takes knowledge of historical perspective as well as the biology.  Many teachers today are fighting to reinstitute the historical perspective part.  One of the casualties of the current obsession with standardized tests is that the time and resources needed to teach the deep history required gets pushed aside.
In a similar vein, I recently read a piece where a cartoonist was asked to lighten the skin of some of her characters in a soon to be published graphic novel.  Is this racist, she asked?  Maybe the intention is to make the character bi-racial?  Maybe not.  It reminded me of the evolution of an old comic book character called Chop-Chop.  While collecting media images for a teaching unit on racial images and attitudes, I did some research on this character from the Military themed comic series Blackhawk.  Chop-Chop started out as the quintessential stereotype of a "Chinaman." From the huge buck teeth to the long braid to the exaggerated ears, he was a buffoon type sidekick of the first order.  Over time, the series acquired a new publisher and his image changed dramatically.  Note the picture here:
This is what I mean by historical perspective.  The racism in our culture, like every other one, is ingrained in so many ways, it would be crucial to have well-informed people lead discussions.  I guess the alternative is not having any conversation at all.  A real conundrum.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Lark Descending

There is a standard of most classical music stations called "The Lark Ascending."  If you don't immediately recognize the title, you no doubt will recognize the melody.  It's a lovely piece with rising crescendos and falling denouements.
The piece reminds me of a beautiful Irish woman I met many years ago who gave me a tape of her favorite music.  Remember when we all gave people a tape of "our" music?  Over the years I played the tape until the technology I currently access made that difficult and a few moves along the way allowed that tape to disappear by accident or design.

Until recently, I'd hear "The Lark Ascending" either on the radio or while out and about because it is a stand-by of music stations.  It always brought a slight smile to my face remembering Molly and the music that defined her life.  Until recently.  The corporate powers that latched on to Peet's Coffee in my local shop have managed to conspire to play that piece on a more than regular basis.  I her their canned music every day and sometimes twice.  The appeal diminishes daily.
Somewhere in this diatribe is a metaphor.  Because some corporate wonk, who decides what music will be played (and re-played as nauseum)  the entire appeal of an environment changes drastically.  Now I know this is no big deal.  But it is symptomatic of what seems to be going on in this culture more often and with greater consequences.  The corporatizing of our environment, our schools, our food, and now, in some small way, the music we listen to.
Question: Why does a commercial establishment have to re-play the same soundtrack?  What would happen if the workers or the public had a say in the selection?
Oh I know all about the psychology of music when it comes to impacting the consumer.  Some person somewhere must have a logical explanation why I have to hear "The Lark Ascending" so often.  I'd love to hear it.  And if no such explanation exists, then stop it.  Stop it right now because the lark is descending.