Thursday, May 31, 2012

Spell Check

The media is agog this morning with video of the national spelling bee.  Most eyes are on a little six year old competitor who is the epitome of the precocious, home-schooled child.  That's right, she is only six.  Unfortunately our heroine left the competition after incorrectly spelling ingluvies a word nobody uses that has something to do with a bird's throat or esophagus.  You see where this is going.  What strikes me most about the little girl's defeat is the crestfallen look on her face.  One wonders if this isn't some form of emotional abuse?  I agree that it is important to spell correctly, but at what cost?
An educator I admire, Hugo Kerr, believes that there is an emotional component to asking kids to spell correctly all the time.  In a recent post on a list-serv we both belong to he wrote:
     "...spelling is not related to writing technically speaking, but it is closely related emotionally! Most less than perfectly literate adults are vary wary of writing because people are so censorious about spelling.  To spell imperfectly attracts more opprobrium than is reasonable.  IMO, and it frightens would be writers into being non writers.  We overcook spelling accuracy and undercook writing flair.  (Shakespeare was, of course, a 'bad' speller, as was his queen Elizabeth the first.) spelling is a trivial thing, elevated, sometimes to the status of literacy, itself.
To me, the spelling bee is a form of madness!  And to concentrate such power in spelling, is, or can be, quite profoundly harmful.  I do applaud...ideas about exploring spelling from the viewpoint of history, roots, relations, etc. if done in a democratic and non threatening way this is helpful to students. Partly because it lets them understand that English spelling is not the deadly and irrational system they may have been led to believe it is, but actually helpful and interesting, and taken with a bit of kindness."
......Hugo then added a piece of the poem that follows: Spelling is spelling, nothing more. It isn't ownership, and nor Does it amount to writing, it Isn't wisdom, truth or wit. Writing that's beautiful, or true, Has its influence on you Not, for heaven's sake because Of how the bloody spelling was! (taken from the poem entitled 'spellism')

Friday, May 25, 2012

Hang Tight

I have a little project in mind. A bit of a random act of kindness, if you will. It's the kind of thing that potentially could offend, but could also benefit all involved. My intention is to replace a worn out and fading set of Tibetan prayer flags with a new set. Seems simple enough but here's the rub. It seems my upstairs window looks out over a small alley way that separates a row of backyards. The house directly in back of me has no fence dividing the yard from the alley. It's a rather unkempt hunk of overgrown grass with a jumble of berry bushes on one side of their neighbor's garage, and a little shared garage on the other side. The inhabitants of the house are either visually impaired or just don't care about their backyard. There is a small cement patio with a small coffee table and a ping pong table partly visible. Seems to me a little girl of about 7 or 8 lives with her parents there. Sometimes I see the girl standing on a swing attached to a tree in the corner of the yard. She rarely swings. Instead, she likes to spin in circles while standing. The "lawn" us usually overgrown and still adorned with the brown, crumbling, Christmas tree they shared 5 months ago. No urgency over there about how the yard looks or what it contains. Now and then I see one of the adults sitting in their little open-air patio smoking a cigarette or working on a laptop. I really don't watch them all that much, but there is one ting that constantly fascinates me about this view. This family, at one time, had a set of Tibetan prayer flags hanging across the length of their patio. At some point about a year (or two) one end of the flags became unattached. They still hang,vertically...somehow. They are discolored, unraveled, threadbare, and filthy. Yet they remain. After every good rainstorm we get, I look to see if they finally fell. Not so far. In the past year I have seen them endure rain and wind, sleet, hail and snow. They dangle there on 90 degree days and on 19 degree days. I suppose they will fall when they are ready. But I think about replacing them now and then. Just how, I haven't decided. I could leave a new set, with a note. I could ask if they's like a new string of flags. Or I could just do the deed. If I knew, for sure, that nobody was home I'd just cut down the old and replace them with the new. My thinking is that with a new set of prayer flags, the backyard might look so good that these folks would want to do more. Maybe even their skeletal Christmas tree would finally disappear. On the other hand, there is meaning in a set of Tibetan flags that won't go away.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A is for...

It's such a simple image. A red apple sitting on the pavement by the side of the road. A freeway off ramp in this case. How did it get there retaining all it's shiny appeal? Store bought for sure, it's little bar code sticker proudly reflecting the morning sun like a sheriff's badge. Placed there for the finding? Perhaps. No sign of any homeless person with sign. No sign of any spilled groceries. No sign of anything human for that matter. I'm exiting the Interstate, slowing to a stop, beginning the crawl to the 3-way intersection that takes me home and I casually look to the right. Red, ripe, ready to be eaten, yet quite unreachable, this little piece of fruit is quite the Zen Koan. OK, I'll start and then maybe in a while, an hour, a day, a month or a year, something more will emerge. Maybe it'll take a decade or a lifetime, or maybe not at all, but that's the challenge. If I notice the apple sitting on the edge of the road, how many others don't? How many who catch a glimpse think not a second more, how many are still wondering? I'm reminded of a wonderful Eudora Welty story called "A Visit of Charity." A little girl, about nine or ten years of age goes with her schoolmates to visit a home for the elderly. She takes with her an apple that is left over from her lunch. Before entering the home, she dallies and hides the apple beneath a big bush in front of the institution. She'll pick it up on her way home. Throughout the story, Welty presents the reader with all the sights and smells of the residential facility. It's depressing. Homes for the elderly like that are usually that way. The little girl is definitely moved by the experience as she reads to people with limited sight, helps others with small tasks they are unable to do for themselves, and inspires and entertains with her smile and pleasant disposition. All the while, this experience is taking a toll on her emotions. When the time comes to leave, the children all file out of the front door and back into their Fourth and Fifth Grade lives. When the time is right, the little girl goes back to the bush, uncovers the apple and begins to walk home. She stops and looks at the sweet, robust, apple. She sees the color, feels the weight, imagines the taste. The story ends as she takes a big, sloppy, satisfying bite. An apple is for more than eating.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Nobody likes to be played. While I have a fairly evolved bullshit detector, mostly honed from 33 years as a public school teacher, every now and then I have my doubts. A bit of cognitive dissonance is good for the body and soul now and then, isn't it? If we look at the recent efforts by groups like the Innocence Project to free wrongly tried and accused prison inmates, it's easy to justify erring on the side of doubt. After all, that's the basis of our entire legal system, reasonable doubt. In public education it isn't always so easy. Case in point. Last week I found myself the moderator of a discussion between a student teacher and the Cooperating Teacher (we used to call them Master Teachers) where it was clear that someone wasn't telling the truth, or at least the whole truth. At stake were simple things like not getting lesson plans on time and becoming a bit more pro-active about asking questions. Still, it seemed that each party was experiencing their interactions differently. I tried to defend my guy while not alienating or disrespecting the C.T. In the end it was a band aid at best. The entire situation burst open when a couple of administrators verbally flogged said student teacher mercilessly. Like some, I have been blessed with the empathy gene. I loudly called time out and suggested that the "educators" present act in a more professional way. Even if everything they did and said were accurate, I still saw no reason for attack and humiliation to trump sensitivity and empathy when dealing with a fellow human being. Perhaps I shot my mouth off. Perhaps I ended up defending a person that created his own problems and then passive-aggressively implied that he was the only victim. Perhaps. Still, educators should educate not humiliate. I don't think mocking someone is inspirational either. And yet the nagging doubt. What if I am being played? What if everything that ticked off the aggressive administrators was true? If so, I have another teaching experience coming up. In the end, I'd rather be more sensitive to trust. But I know what pathology looks like. I know that sociopaths don't look like anything but you and me. I know that denial takes many forms and comes in many packages.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Body Language

I'm sitting there in a hospital gown, waiting for my doctor to complete my yearly physical.  This is when I look at everything on the walls, read the medical posters, the instructions on any equipment in the room, look in every corner and behind every chair.  I study the paper on the examination table, laugh out loud at the picture of a smiling child holding a bouquet of broccoli, and the note the placement of the computer in the room.
Finally, wondering if the gown I'm wearing is on correctly, I focus on myself.  At this point in my life I'm fairly comfortable in a doctor's office.  But it always seems to take so long when waiting for the doc to enter.  So I fidget.  Then I begin a tour of myself.  Scars are tattoos.  I look at the one on my knee and see myself at 12.  Whittling a piece of wood with my Boy Scout jack knife.  The blade slips and I cut a crescent slash through my jeans and into my flesh for life.  50 years later I see the moment.  I'm worried more about the hole in my pants than the one in my leg.  It all heals.  I find the inch long butter-colored line on my right elbow and thing of the beautiful Morgan horse who tried to steal a carrot out of my back pocket.  He'd already got the one intended for him and I was saving this one for a real old timer in the same pasture.  Unthinking, I bonked him on the nose in an effort to dissuade him from taking what was not intended for him, and he bonked back with his head pitching me into a barbed wire fence and then into an emergency room for a bandage and a tetinus shot.  I forfeited my chance to ride the big horse one more time with that bit of stupidity.
On my left forearm are the white dots that take me back to the Houston ghetto in the summer of 1969.  As a young VISTA Volunteer, with no mosquito repellent, I retain these badges of survival proudly.  A real watershed year and one that has shaped and informed much of my thinking throughout this lifetime.  My excursion ends with the rectangular blemish still visible on my bicep.  The scar left by a toothmark when I worked with emotionally disturbed children.  Leonard was a 12 year old Latino/Native American who looked like he could be the son of Geronimo himself.  Clearly one of the most angry human beings I've ever encountered.  In his violent outbreaks, he'd often bite those attempting to help him.  I wear another scar from an encounter with his outrage that is buried deep on the inside of my lower lip.  That one came from the end of his fist.  Some job for a conscientious objector to war.
Still no doctor, so I look at both the English and the Spanish versions of charts displaying the 10 levels of pain.  Going from barely feeling any to being just about immobile, I notice how the Spanish adjectives are fascinating and somewhat more descriptive.  Things seem to sound better in another language on occasion.
"Knock knock...Are you ready," my doc enters, smiles and sits by the computer.  I begin to answer her questions and we agree all my numbers have improved.
What do other people do when waiting?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

One More Time

Kentucky Derby 138 is firmly in the books this morning with all the hoopla, hangovers, and might have beens quietly tucked away.  It was the first time in recent memory that Cinco de Mayo coincided with the Derby.  Here in Portland, they celebrate these two rites of spring in their own weird way.  The 5th of May commemorates the Battle of Puebla, but Portlanders could probably care less.  Hence the name "Drinko de Mayo."  The riverside is transformed into a carnival and this year the rain held back so that the mud wasn't too deep.
Derby parties take place in many local pubs and sometimes the neighborhood establishments even rent a bus and take the party out to Portland Meadows, the local race track, so the patrons can have a moving fashion show and actually bet a few bucks on the race.
My Derby ritual is in transition.  I've done parties at home, intense gatherings at the track with my thoroughbred  cronies, and, when a working turf writer, watched the race in the Press Box.  One time I was actually in Louisville at Churchill Downs.  Back in 1982 I had the good fortune of covering the race for a Northern California publication with full press credentials.  Had the time of my life.  Just the opposite yesterday when I opted for a quiet day at home. I still get all worked up right before the race.  I still have a hard time sleeping the night before and I still get up early on Derby day. In the end, I got my wish.  All 20 horses got home safe and I cashed a little ticket.  All was not lost. Mexico and Kentucky combined in another way when I realized that young Mario Guiterrez, in his first Derby mount is from Mexico by way of Canada.  What a remarkable accomplishment to win a Kentucky Derby in your first mount.  The mile and 1/4 distance is hard enough, but add in 150,000 screaming mostly inebriated fans and you can see why Steinbeck once called the Kentucky Derby the most violent two minutes in sports.     I think a few prize fighters would disagree.
 This morning, the combination of the two special events on May 5th made even more sense when the Derby winner's name told the entire story: I'll Have Another.