Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: When is a Frog Just a Frog?

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So the school year, thus far, is cooking right along. I like my 9th graders. And that’s no little thing to say. For the most part, they are positive, respectful, willing, and mostly ready for prime time. There are some exceptions, of course, as always, and, of the three groups of 9th graders in my charge, one of those groups is proving to be more of a challenge. Let’s just say, there’s lots of energy in the room, and a lot of that energy isn’t moving in the direction I’d like it to go. But there doesn’t seem to be a single mean soul in the lot. That’s huge. In other good news, I’m hosting an intern from Lewis and Clark College this year. He seems like a great guy and he’s turning me on to a bunch of new music. We’re playing records together during our prep period and as kids come into class. Today’s selection: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard with the Mile High Club.

But the beginning of the school year has not been without it’s drama and difficulty. First, some teachers are dealing with some extreme class sizes. I have social studies colleagues, in particular, who are dealing with upwards of 40 kids in a classroom, one class in a physical space that was designed to house 25 students safely. A math teacher colleague had to teach one of her groups in the lecture hall. She since has experienced some relief. I don’t know if my social studies colleagues are being similarly relieved. Additionally, there were some safety issues: on the very first day of the school year, there was a fight between two brothers that broke out in the cafeteria (I think). In the second week of school there was a lockout. No drill. A lockout. This means that there was the potential of a threat outside of the school building. Business as usual, except for that all the exterior doors are locked and the teachers lock the classroom doors. That lasted ten or fifteen minutes before the all-clear. But again, during a lockout everything just keeps percolating as usual except for the locked doors. And then, a bit of controversy: Pepe the Frog made an appearance at the first assembly in a slideshow promoting a Monday Meme dress-up day for Homecoming.

I’m not a huge purveyor of the meme cultural phenomena. Vaguely, I remember in weeks or months past, hearing or reading on my periphery about the use of this particular image of Pepe the Frog in association with hate speech practitioners and alt-right conspiracy theorists. But it was not, as you might say, on my front burner. I saw the frog (just the frog) on the slide promoting Monday Meme Day and it struck not a single alarming chord. And yet, on Monday of this week, our Leadership Teacher came on the intercom to offer to the entire staff and student body a sincere apology for using the image in the assembly as she reiterated our school policy against hate speech or hate symbolism of any kind and toward tolerance and acceptance for all. Along with this was an admonition to students NOT to sport the infamous frog in any way, shape, or form.

Okay. The announcement came while I had my seniors in the classroom. Most of them seemed incensed, totally taken aback with what seemed to them to be the wild notion that a simple cartoon frog could be a symbol of racism and hatred. They all seemed to understand that that was not its original purpose. It was as if none of them had been aware of the appropriation. Any graphic, any cartoon, any meme can be, and probably has been misappropriated by someone, they said. Consider the recent Thomas the Tank Engine picture where the trains are all wearing KKK hoods. They seemed not to have any inkling that this frog image, somehow, inexplicably, had been used in this way to the extent that it had, any more so than Thomas the Tank Engine. Out of curiosity, today, I asked my 9th graders if any of them had awareness that Pepe had recently become a staple image of various hate groups. A handful of kids were aware–surprisingly, a greater number of 9th graders than in that particular 12th grade group. The upperclassmen in charge of the slide show to begin with also claimed to have NO awareness of how the frog had turned somewhat evil in recent years. Fine. To the kids in my 12th grade and 9th grade classes who were dismissive of the significance and the seriousness of the announcement, I would like to have said: just because you’re not aware of its use as a hate symbol does not mean that it has not been used that way. And it’s possible that you simply do not understand how often and to what extent it has been appropriated. And once a symbol has been appropriated towards evil uses, if that use is pervasive enough, the original intent be damned (right?), it’s now a hate symbol and cannot be tolerated. After all, it made the list of hate symbols curated by the Anti-Defamation League.

This was my first thinking on the subject. But then, I’ve been thinking about it some more. Would we ban an image, any image, of Charlie Brown, say, if enough white supremacists and nazi sympathizers had mutated it or co-opted it for their evil purposes? Would it then be that ANY image of Charlie Brown, whether it contained a racist, sexist, homophobic message or not, should be banned from public spaces and especially in schools? That sounds ridiculous to me. In part, because it’s Charlie f-ing Brown. How is Pepe, who was originally drawn as a kind of chill-dude-feel-good frog, any different? Has his image moved beyond the point where we are able to even ask: what’s the intent? what’s the message? Is Pepe on the same level now as the swastika? It seems preposterous to think that somehow Pepe is now on that same level. One of my colleagues was talking about the insidious way the frog, just the frog, can be a kind of code between evil like-minds. I don’t know, man. I am decidedly undecided. All I can do right now is ask the questions. My understanding (and it might be an incomplete understanding) is that teachers, not offended students, brought to our Leadership Teacher’s attention the association of the frog with hate speech. To my knowledge, no student at that assembly was shocked by the frog. Does that even matter? Our job, precarious as it may seem, may be to protect even the one kid in a thousand who was offended or threatened but too frightened to speak up. Meanwhile, it seems clear to me: Pepe as a nazi is bad; Pepe as original green frog? The very picture of innocuous. Whereas: swastika? Always bad. At this time, this is the best I can do.

 

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Michael Reads Rumi

Here we go. Another shot at the video blog. This little thing has little to offer in the way of “diary” and nothing to do with an English teacher’s penultimate year, but I found this Rumi poem that I just had to read. Took a few takes at this, the first time through, wrestling with glasses and a book I ended up making some terrible microphone noises that I just could not live with, even though that first take was probably better than what I ended up with. Flying by the seat of my pants does indeed seem to be the way to get the best performance. I’m kind of that way in the music studio as well: the more times I play it, the worse it gets. This turned out nicely, I think, but it’s in two chunks because I made a mistake reading the poem but liked the intro thing and didn’t want to do the whole deal again. Enjoy. Rumi, by way of Coleman Barks.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: It’s Raining and I’m Flying By the Seat of My Pants!

Yesterday I made a video blog so I could test my new microphone, and during part of my little talk there I kind of bemoaned the fact that it had been so long since my last entry, months, in fact. Afterwards, I was struck by this single observation: It took me three and a half minutes to make that video. I tried afterwards to see if I could do a better job, but the two takes I took after the initial one were disappointing. The one in which I flew by the seat of my pants was leagues better. I thought to myself, what if I flew by the seat of my pants more often? First take. No edits. No do-overs. So I tried it again today. This could become a thing.

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Michael Tests the Mic

So, I got a new USB microphone. It’s the Yeti Pro from Blue Designs, and it’s pretty much the inspiration for this, the first blog entry I’ve made since July. Sorry that I’ve been so long away. I hope you missed me just a little. I decided to shoot a video and I talk here extemporaneously about microphones, about the new school year, the meaning of the word penultimate, drumming in a 80’s cover band called The Nu Wavers, and bizarrely, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas in September. If you’re wondering about the location, I’m in the trailer, but I’m not camping. It’s a weekday night, the kitchen’s torn apart, my study is a mess, and I’m retreating to the T@B 400 to test the mic. Enjoy.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Dance Like No One Is Watching

I’m a musician, a drummer primarily, but when I was younger I was a lead singer fronting the band, and when I sang, I would bust a bunch of moves. Outside of this, I never danced publicly, thought it was dorky, beneath me somehow, until, at 33 years old, I had my first residency at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. In a ten day residency, the first one with not a single soul that I knew, there were two dances, one half way through, and another on the last evening. In the excitement, intensity, stress and awkwardness of starting this graduate program, somehow, I began to dance. I danced with abandon. I danced myself silly. I danced as if my life depended on it. Everyone did. And to this day, at the residencies while I was still in the program some 20 years ago, and during every alumni conference I’ve ever been to since, these are almost the only venues, the only places where I have allowed myself to dance.

I think this is significant. I am about to go to the last dinner, the last reading, and the last (in this case the only) dance of the conference. In this place, I lose inhibitions. I lose all pretension. I lose any concern that I may have in other venues about looking silly. This place, these people, this creative work, honors us, allows us to truly BE, welcomes and invites the dancer within. Not everyone will boogey tonight, but I bet, even in their abstinence, the inner dancer of each will be having the greatest party ever. Because, you know, as the t-shirt says, it is a required part of the process:

Write. Revise. DANCE. Repeat.

It is written.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: More Songs about Buildings, Food, Flora, Courses, Lectures, Panels, Endings

 

This is the campus bookstore here at Dominican University. Just kidding. It is the building in which the bookstore is housed. It is an incredible building, don’t you think?

Look at this beautiful thing.

I don’t know what happens in this building, but I took a picture of it. And then I went up on the porch, took a picture of the front door, and took another picture looking the other direction.

There’s a building named after Shakespeare’s wife. It’s the Hathaway House. I’ve heard Shakespeare is big here on campus.

I haven’t taken any pictures of the food. It happens not to be very photogenic. But this is interesting: we can have tater tots at every breakfast. That’s not a joke. Other observations: I spilled coffee yesterday all over my arm and I did not get burned. Katherine has had nothing but chicken, eggs, and salad. The children on campus are quite messy. Precocious as they might be, they can’t seem to get the food scraps into the compost bins. This afternoon I stepped on a French fry. This evening the curly kind of fry was all over the cafeteria floor, and someone had left a banana on a chair. I did not take a picture of that either.

These plants here are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I don’t know what they are; my botanical knowledge is somewhat embarrassing. But there’s a jade plant in this garden about the size of my Honda Fit. I’ve already mentioned the evergreen with the dangerous pinecones. I still can’t get over these gigantic palm trees. They look to me like giant pineapples.

I haven’t taken very many pictures of people. More precisely, I have only taken two. I took a picture of myself a couple of days ago. And then today I took this selfie right here of myself with Joan Frank, an amazing individual and a phenomenal writer. She taught a class yesterday about the dangers of political fiction–or rather, its potential pitfalls, described brilliantly by Emily as “liberal porn.” Joan told us that “story” must have dominion over message. Message, with a capital M, when characters become mouthpieces for the writer’s causes, no matter how noble and good, can make a novel or a story suck. Joan’s class did the best possible thing–it got people thinking and talking. We’re still talking about it a day later and we’ll still be talking about it after all of us go home, I’m sure.

I meditated so hard yesterday morning, first with my own little gathering before breakfast, and then in a class that Leslie Blanco taught about meditation, spontaneity, and creativity. I almost arrived on another plane. I was also sleep deprived. And I’ve never introduced or followed up a meditation session with a freewrite (a la Natalie Goldberg). That was revelatory.

Allison Moore talked in the afternoon about memoir writing, which I hear generated incredibly deep, profoundly personal stories from many. I would love to have been there. I find at these incredibly content rich retreats, that I cannot and probably should not go to everything. There’s got to be a place to recharge, or rest. And many of us choose to spend a lot of time just writing. The beauty of this work is that everyone is invited to get what they need. For example, some of us need to kill the tendency to read in “the poetry voice,” that tendency that poets have, even some of the best poets, of habitually falling into a particular tonal patten that is rather tortuous to listen to and has the potential of destroying otherwise perfectly good poetry. So, many of us went to Sara’s class: “Death to the Poetry Voice.” I wasn’t sure that I needed that, but I hear people had a wonderful time, so I have to forgive myself for missing that one as well.

I was on a panel yesterday afternoon about writer’s block. Interestingly enough, I was blocked; it took me almost forty minutes before I said a word–only because there was tons of energy in the room, lots of people sharing their stories, their woes, their strategies for that most terrifying of predicaments for writers: not writing. Finally, I shared my silver bullets, primarily forced creativity experiences (napowrimo, nanowrimo, powersongwriting, those kinds of things), but most importantly, at least for me, community. My writer soul would die without my Warren Wilson friends, without this conference, and without the empowerment and discernment and clarity that comes to me in Courage and Renewal work. Without these two communities, I would wither.

Can I just say one more thing? Peg, Nan, and Marian did a rocking panel discussion about the pleasures and pains of small press publishing. It was both pleasurable and painful but totally informative, completely honest, and super-uber relevant. Three cheers to these three wonderful women who opened their hearts and their experiences up to their fellow Wallies.

One more day and then we head home. Six days is just the right number of days. Five would be not enough. Seven would be too many. Leaving the conference Wednesday morning, I will be at once happy to return home and sad to leave.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Last Night’s Reading, Short Stay Alumni Converge, More Talk About Secret Agents, and Voices Inside Our Heads

Notes from one of today’s brilliant offerings. My penmanship has become stupid. Translation: Therapy is not art–art is not therapy–but there are important parallels. Anxiety moves us into creativity instead of driving us away–Susan Kolodny, paraphrased.

This title pretty much says it all. I think my work is done here.

Perhaps I can begin with the stuff left unfinished or uncovered by my title’s verbosity. We had a lovely little meditation experience this morning sandwiched between two readings of Stafford’s “Ask Me.” Some time when the river is ice ask me/mistakes I’ve made. Ask me whether/what I have done is my life. This has to be one of my favorite poems on the planet and it served this morning as the perfect bookend for 20 minutes of silence. But then, things turned ugly. Even though our masters of ceremony reminded us and warned us (no breakfast on the weekend until the 10:30 brunch), we were woefully unprepared. It was a rude awakening. It necessitated another foray to Whole Foods where I bought Burt’s Bees lip balm, a couple of bananas, a box of granola bars, and a latte. I refrained from eating a banana or a bar for some masochistic reason–I think I planned to save these items as a contingency for tomorrow morning’s unfortunate fast. Today, I thought, I’ll be brave. I will hold out. I was successful. I survived. And boy, that brunch was delicious. And I had Faith Holsaert all to myself–which brought me no end of happiness. Do you know Faith? You should know her. I cannot believe my good fortune to have her as a fellow Wally and a friend.

That’s it, everything that is not already alluded to in the title. I suppose it could use a little flesh on its bones. So, let me try that.

Last night’s readings were mind blowingly good. Yes, I know “blowingly” is not a word, but that’s how good they were: word-makeruppery. I was so honored to share that evening and that podium with these fine folks–but there’s the wonder of it–there will be (my prediction) no group of readers on any evening before or to come that I would feel less honored to share a stage with. I wish you could have been there. This guy, fellow Wally, Rolf, he’s making these lovely recordings, so the best I can do is to share my part of the evening with y’all. You can skip ahead and continue reading if you like, or, you can rest your eyes for 9 minutes and 50 seconds to listen to these five prose poems from my manuscript in progress, Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List. 

Today, our ranks started to grow. There is always a group of people who, for what ever completely explicable reasons, are not able to come for the full six day retreat. So about three days into each of our conferences, new writers arrive and it’s like Christmas, but only if Christmas was a good experience for you. If it was not, insert a favorite holiday. Levity increases. Joyfulness exudes. The writing contests begin. Just in time for another round of discussions about agents, which is both terrible and good: terrible because we’re talking about agents, good because the more we talk about it, the less scary, the less secret they become. That’s a win. And finally, we heard an expert and insightful lecture about psychoanalytic insights into the obstacles many writers face in the creative process. Hint: writers often face obstacles in the creative process. There are reasons for these, some of which are unconscious. Psychoanalytical insights may be, often are, helpful. Here’s a takeaway that came from a new Wally friend, Peter, which I thought summed up Susan’s big concluding idea very nicely: Don’t try to get rid of your problems. Make friends with them. If you get rid of them, others will just show up in their place!

Yes. Amen. Take me to the bridge.

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