Who’s Counting? One Last One More

Oh my. I found it emptying one of my file cabinets. What IS this thing?

One for the road. Last tango. One tin soldier. Last one out. One trick pony. This final one is especially fun because the word “one” can be an adjective to describe how many tricks the pony can do. This pony can only do one trick. Or, the word “trick” can be an adjective to describe the pony, in which case, the pony is somehow tricked out, or deceptive, or defective. I have always preferred this second interpretation, and when I have heard the lyric, “One trick pony rides away,“ I have always thought, now that is one weird, special pony. Until I realized, of course, that the lyric was actually, “One tin soldier rides away,” and then my whole theory goes a little bit out the window. Today, Wednesday, June 22, I have been both a tin soldier and a tricked out or trick pony, as I returned to the school house one last one more time to pick up all of the stuff that didn’t fit inside the Honda Fit.

It did not take me long. I listened to no music. I packed up my turntable and my audio stuff, I made one more box full of books, I boxed up my records, left some goodies and a note for the new tenant, and I was out the door. I gave a big hug to Dee Ann and another big hug to my vice principal, Ken, and I started up my engine. Then I realized I had forgotten something. So I retrieved the key that I had returned two times already, went back into my room the very last time, and picked up the forgotten item. If I was superstitious, I would have thought there was something in my not being able to leave. Thank goodness, I am not superstitious.

I am making good on my promise to finish listening to the classroom music library, even in abstentia from the classroom. So I’m spinning Elvis Costello and the Imposters, The Boy Named If, Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love, Cheap Trick’s In Another World, Black Country New Road, black midi, and Bowie while I attempt to “bash out” over the next 24 hours one last one, one last entry in this series of blog entries counting down the days until retirement. After leaving Wednesday morning, there are no more days left until retirement. I am retired. To solidify that fact, I got a happy retirement card out of the mailbox today from my last principal, Kathy. If she knows, it must be a real thing. I am retired. There, I said it again.

And the way I think I’d like to close is by following up on an earlier promise, after having completed the list of the 10 things I won’t miss about teaching, to make the list of the 10 things I will absolutely miss about teaching. I arbitrarily choose the number 10–I mean, the choice is not arbitrary, but simply follows a long list-making tradition–and who am I to mess with that? As I begin, though, I have no idea if I can make it to number 10 or if I will need way more than 10. Nevertheless, there must be a list. Let the listing begin. These are the things I will miss about teaching, things I will miss about being a public high school English teacher, in no particular order.

  1. I will miss my school, the actual, physical school, the place I have spent 37 years of my life, first as a student, then as an educator. It’s nothing super fancy. Initially, it wasn’t even designed all that well. It wasn’t particularly beautiful, and even after extensive expansions and remodels, even though parts of it are way more beautiful than they used to be, it’s still, you know, as schools tend to be, rather institutional. But it is a place in which I have always felt AT HOME. I’ve already written a poem about this building and its magical properties. I had the opportunity to read it to the staff during our end-of-the-year luncheon. I don’t think I could possibly say it better or differently a second time around, so I’ll just link to it here: A Love Poem for My School. At least for the next two years, because I have “business” there in the form of a 16 year old drummer boy and student, I predict I will be back there often.
  2. I will miss the young people. I have found teenage human beings to be inexhaustibly interesting: surprising, funny, inspiring, energetic, exasperating, exhilarating, talented, deep thinking, tolerant, compassionate, courageous, super weird sometimes, silly, and, for the most part, good people.
  3. I will miss those a-ha moments. Either one-on-one with a student or with a group of 30 simultaneously, there are these moments when an understanding, a kernel of knowledge, an insight, a communal truth is reached and revealed–and it is as if the earth is shaking under my feet, my hair stands up on its ends, actual chills of excitement bristle through my entire being. It is exhilarating and profound, and in these moments one feels as if teaching is the absolute greatest thing on the planet–and I am not talking about moments when I am brilliant. I am talking about those moments when students rise to occasion in the biggest possible way. The greatest insights always come from that direction. And in these moments of engagement with students, the idea that I am “working” seems preposterous. This is fun. This is play. It may be brainy play, but that’s how it feels to me. Absolutely joyous.
  4. I will miss the planning and creating. It’s the only thing, at least in the last 15 years of my career or so, that I have not begrudged doing outside of work hours. Planning a unit or lesson, creating materials for that unit or lesson, choosing the readings, making decisions about things I want students to do and learn, finding funny or silly things with which to grab the young people, and having the privilege of sharing with my students something I am truly excited about, something I believe will blow up their minds in unique and important ways, even if it is simply introducing them to another famous person they’ve never heard of–this has been my bread and butter and one of the most enjoyable things about the job.
  5. I will miss the commute–not because I luxuriated inside of it, but because it was so short. It took me five minutes to drive to work, about 15 or less to bicycle there, and I have never been able to understand (because I guess I just didn’t need to) why anyone would want to drive an hour or more every day to get to their jobs. What a gift it has been to live in the neighborhood where I teach. But, as short as my commute was, there was still a kind of ritual about it. There was talk about how during quarantine people got kind of bugged by not getting inside their car twice a day for the commute. I understand that a little bit.
  6. I will miss taking on student teachers. In my world, we call them interns. I think over the course of my career I have taken under my proverbial wings about 10 individuals embarking on the journey towards becoming certified classroom teachers. On average then, I’ll host an intern once about every three years. The mentoring of a new teacher is exceedingly rewarding. In part, because teachers for the longest time (and often still) work in isolation, hosting a student teacher upends this isolation; it makes everything I do on a moment to moment basis as part of my gig suddenly explicit and visible. I have to talk about my craft in ways that I don’t talk about it with anyone else–and that’s good for the intern, sure, but for me, too, it’s often revelatory. Why am I doing that? What was the thinking behind this move or this choice? Why did I say that? How is the stuff that I do perceived or understood by the students or another adult in the room? What effect might this have? Pushing that button or moving this lever: what happens? Mentoring can be painful when things go sideways, but the triumph and pure joy over the victories makes it all worth it. And there have been victories in every case. And when Spring rolls around and the intern is ready to fly solo, what a gift there is then of TIME–to breathe, to plan, to create, and, because a student teacher never takes on a completely full load, to teach those classes WELL and EFFECTIVELY that are still in my responsibility. So interns, if you have been mine, from the deepest well of gratitude, I thank you! John, Mary, Maggie, Jessica, Ellery, Ty, Chuck, Max, and Erin–and a few others whose names I can’t recall right now because in just a few cases, I spent less time with them or shared them with another teacher. And thank you, Lewis and Clark College. Every intern I took on–except those ones whose names I can’t remember–came from LC, my alma mater for both my B.A. and my M.A.T.
  7. I will miss the silent classroom before any teaching. That’s a nod to Ralph Waldo Emerson, there. He was talking about silent churches and preaching, but it provides for me an almost perfect parallel. I love being in my room when it’s empty. I also love being in my room with 30 students who are all writing silently. The energy of the thought in the room is almost palpable, and to me, sacred. Also, and rare, those moments when a question or a problem is posed and there can sometimes be a whole minute of silence before someone speaks. There’s no way to monitor what’s actually happening inside each skull without an EEG hooked up to every kid, but there is a feeling in that silence sometimes of 30 brains inextricably thinking in tandem.
  8. And in related news, I will miss the resonance in the hallways and in the new commons, and those times, alone or almost alone in the building, where I would test out that resonance by singing something at the top of my lungs as I walked through the halls.
  9. Paradoxically, I will miss the feeling, the perpetual feeling, of always falling short of where I want to be–in terms of my skills, in terms of my relationships with all the human beings in the mix that is public education, in terms of the unity between what I believe and what I actually do, because of my own shortcomings or the systemic limitations and realities of the institution. The learning is never done. I have never “arrived.” I have never felt finished. And I have never completely and 100% to my satisfaction “figured it all out.” That was once a kind of goal of mine. I have finally and at long last let that baby go.
  10. And I will miss my colleagues. It might be impossible to put into words how I feel about these people. I will try. They have been inspiration and comfort. They have been a constant–a stabilizing and grounding force. They have been the source of endless amusement. They have been my teachers and collaborators, co-commiserators, and co-conspirators. They have been fonts of wisdom. They have been phenomenal role models. They have been friends. They feel like family. Most all the teachers over the years that have retired before me, even the ones I once considered friends, have, for all intents and purposes, kind of just disappeared from my life. I have, though, such strong feelings of connection and love for so many of the people that I worked with in our school house, that I want to endeavor to the very best of my ability to remain connected to this extraordinary community. I know my life would be diminished without these lovely people somehow still involved in it–so it is my deepest hope that these threads will remain strong. Only time will tell for sure, but for now, my parting does not feel like a final goodbye, more like a transition, a changing of the guard. The only final goodbyes come at the end of a life–and I have lost a number of colleagues over the years, but only one that I would have considered a close friend. Our beloved and controversial drama coach, Steve Quinn, died a year before my own father passed what must be at least a decade ago now. Steve did not have a chance to retire before a cancer took him away–but his legacy is strong to this day and I think about him often. One of the last things I pulled from my wall was a picture of him on a flier for a scholarship fundraising event in his honor.
The core subjects: Science (Jack, Richard, Allison), Social Studies (Megan, Josh), English (Cresslyn, Laura, Jill), Math (Tom) and Todd, a department almost unto himself. This photo was a retirement gift from my friend Josh, long-time co-teacher-history-counterpart and friend on the other side of the wall.
The late great Steve Quinn

There are things, I realize, as I wrap up this last entry in the countdown toward retirement, about which I have not yet had the opportunity to speak–at least in this forum. For the stories, the specific memories, a catalogue of shortcomings and blessings, one would have to turn back to the poems, many of which, or almost all of which, can be found in the poetry page or the teaching page on this blog site, and that I hope to collect and publish, someday very soon, into a book or two or three. Until then, I thank you for reading, for sharing this momentous experience with me, and for your support. I might take a little break from the blog at this point–but I have a feeling that break will be a short one. I’ll be back before you know it, likely before you realize I had been away.


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Who’s Counting? Another One

Once more with feeling. Do that to me one more time. Once over. Once bitten. Last time around. Last dance. That Morrissey lyric: “This is the last song I will ever sing. No, I’ve changed my mind again. Goodnight, and thank you.” I’m not changing my mind. It’s too late for that noise. Babe, I’m leaving. I must be on my way. Or, I’m leaving on a jet plane. Don’t know when I’ll be back again. Welcome to the “last” blog entry in my countdown to retirement.

I’m in my classroom this Tuesday morning, perhaps, for the last time ever. If I’m going to make it through all of this music before I leave today, I’m going to have to get this party started. It’s 8:15 in the morning, and the first record on the platter, continuing alphabetically by artist, from Z to A: Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever. I love this record, surprisingly, and I love this human. What a cool kid. It would have been a hoot to have her as a student. Alas–as far as I understand, she was home-schooled. It’s interesting to think about how public education would have changed her. For better, or worse? No matter. It appears that her folks did a first-rate job. Public education should be for everybody, right, that’s the whole damn point. But at the same time, it must be said, public education is not, actually, for everybody. Now there’s a thought with which to begin the day. I think people who bypass public education for religious reasons or because they can afford to send their little people to exclusive private schools are hurting their children and the public good. But I think there are exceptions–students who are truly better served by an alternative. Billie may be one of those. This is a thorny issue into which I am not fully prepared to wade or dive. Not right now.

I’m looking around at my classroom and feeling totally overwhelmed. Where to begin. I need a system. This is insane. I should have hired a crew. The next album on the turntable, Elbow, Flying Dream 1, provides a bit of a balm right now to the craziness ahead. Such a beautiful record.

I’m pulling things of the walls and taking pictures of things I love and trying not to be sentimental. Sometimes it’s really hard–and then attempting to sing along with Elbow in certain moments puts me in dicey territory. Next record: Deep Sea Diver, Impossible Weight. The music today seems chosen for the occasion–but really, I’m just working my way backwards through the alphabet.

I just signed out of Synergy for the very last time. No more attendance. No more record-keeping. No more massive student databases.

Listening to The Dear Hunter, Act IV and Act V, again, appropriate, and Shakespearean. What a brilliant band that no one’s ever heard of. I’ve encountered exactly one person who knew who they were–a pharmacist of all people, working in my local Fred Meyers.

And now is the time to decide what has to come home with me. I’m leaving almost all of the books here. In my own home I know that I will never be at a loss for something to read for the rest of my existence. I’ll cherry pick some really cool things: the poetry mostly. There’s an entire library here about teaching. Do I need these? As much as I have loved Alfie Kohn, and as much as he has completely shaped my teacher brain, I will not likely read him again. Maybe he will be helpful to another teacher? A very tentative maybe. I’m leaving ’em. I’m also looking at shelves of VHS tapes and DVDs. Audio books on CD. All antiquated technology that if not handled properly will end up in a landfill. Do I take these? I can’t bring myself to take them. Again, always the optimist, someone will appreciate them. Someone has a newish DVD player with an HDMI output. My colleague, Sara, won my classroom in a lottery. She’s moving in. She has one of these things, I bet.

The Color Purple quilt
Life of Pi
A gift from a student with a keen sense of humor

There is art on the walls made by students from the last decade, the decade before that, and the one before that. I’m taking pictures of these things. I’m bequeathing this one to my dear friend Jill. She read this out loud to me today and I practically lost it. I’m reading it out loud here, keeping it together.

Art by Andrea Nguyen

I have given up on getting all the way through these record albums today. It’s almost one o’clock now, The Dear Hunter albums are both double records and I am starting to run out of steam. And yet, I might have to be here a while longer. My family brought me a coffee, but are they staying to help? No, they are not. We’ll see if I can get through C in the alphabet: Lucy Dacus, Crowded House, Jonathan Coulton, Elvis Costello, Childish Gambino, and Cheap Trick. Nope. It’s 3:30. I’ve been taking almost everything off the walls. I’m leaving the staples. Sorry, Sara.

I have made my way finally to the file cabinets and I am ruthless. I barely look at the stuff as I chuck it over my shouIder into the recycling bins. The only file folders I keep are for the units I know my friend Cresslyn will teach next year. I put all of these in a special file box labeled “for Cresslyn.” Time passes. I only make it through the Crowded House album, again appropriately, Dreams are Waiting. I should have started this listening project a week earlier. Now I have unfinished business. That’s OK. When I get home: Black Country New Road, black midi, and David Bowie. There have been no artists in my classroom collection whose band name or last name begins with the letter A.

Jill helps me carry boxes out to the car. She is the teacher in the English department who has been with me the longest. She started teaching at Putnam only three or four years after me. For the last several years we have taught right across the hall from each other, keeping each other company, checking in on a daily basis, venting, laughing, helping each other with this or that, problem-solving. I like to borrow things from her, like her broom and dustpan, or her blue painting tape. She has become such an integral part of my day, her presence, her kindness, her cheer, that a day without seeing her or talking to her seems like a total failure of a day. I will need to say more about her. I will need to say more about Cresslyn. I wanted to make a list today of the things I will miss about teaching–and these two incredible people, Jill and Cresslyn, will figure largely into that list. But it’s 4:00 pm. I can’t fit everything into my car. I will have to come back into the building tomorrow–so there will be one last day, a bonus day, a day on which I will pack up the rest of my stuff and make the final list of my teaching career.


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Who’s Counting? One

June 18, 2022

Looking out for number one. It takes one to know one. One loves one’s BBC. A Room of One’s Own. One step at a time. One giant step. One step ahead. All in one breath. If it’s not one thing it’s another one thing. One thing leads to another. It’s all one, baby. It’s a three-day weekend before the last ONE, my last work day of the school year, the last public school day of my career. I’m getting a head start on this one because I know, that between spinning the remaining records in my classroom music library and cleaning and packing and boxing and cleaning and packing and boxing, I will have precious little time to write on Tuesday. And I will likely be somewhat of an emotional wreck.

I found myself awake at 5 in the morning today. Couldn’t get back to sleep. I’m excited for my retirement party this afternoon, maybe that’s what woke me and made it difficult to go back. But there was a change already in the way my body responded to not being able to sleep when I know I should be sleeping. Usually, that feeling is stressful–that constantly looking at the clock to see how much time has passed, the fretting over not being able to get enough rest required to get through the day, bargaining a trade-off between a little more sleep, a few more snoozes, and no shower, no shaving, cereal instead of eggs, anything that might squeeze out a bit more time for z’s. This morning I thought to myself, I can’t get back to sleep–and I smiled.

So what are we writing about today on this third calendar day before the very last day? One of the things I hoped to do before I was done with the countdown to retirement was to make a list (I love making lists) of the things I wouldn’t miss about teaching in a public high school and the things I would miss very much. So as not to end on a downer, I thought it would be appropriate to list those things I would NOT miss first, a kind of ten things I hate about teaching–or rather (because I have never found myself hating the work that I do), a list of my ten very least favorite things about the profession.

I will NOT miss:

  1. Managing student behavior–in all of its ugly variations: listen while others are talking, don’t throw shit, clean up after yourself, keep your hands to yourself, use classroom appropriate language, use respectful language, respect this space and things that don’t belong to you, put garbage in the garbage, put recycling in the recycling, show up on time, use the time you have now to do the thing you’re being asked to do now, no, you can’t fall asleep here, don’t line up at the door, put away your phone, take the earbuds out, put away your phone, take the earbuds out, put away your phone, put away your phone. I have always understood this stuff to come with the territory, to be part of the job–but it’s not why I got into the game and has always been my least favorite part of the gig.
  2. Hall passes, generally, but specifically, Mr. Jarmer, can I use the restroom? Now? Happily, I will never again give anyone permission or deny anyone permission to go to the restroom.
  3. Grading. I hope never to grade anyone ever again for anything. It has forever been for me the most frustrating and unresolved dichotomy of the work—grading and learning have almost nothing to do with one another. And let’s lump into the bargain the age-old phenomena of grade-grubbing. Mr. Jarmer, I need an A in this class. Okay, why are you telling me about this?
  4. Student growth goals. ‘Nuff said.
  5. The dizzying and frenetic pace that must be sustained from one day to the next. My general modus operandi has always been that of a chicken without a head. Too much to do and not enough time to do it–ALL THE TIME.
  6. The pressure, either real or imagined, to be good, a good person, always, in every situation. Teachers, while often trashed publicly, are expected to be almost saintly in their benevolence, their equanimity, their unequivocal acceptance and love for the children in the community. It happens that, because I tend toward altruism and friendliness for other human beings, and I genuinely like young people, I strive to be kind and compassionate with my students. But there are limits to my capacity, for kindness especially, in the face of ugliness, mean spiritedness, apathy, indifference, willful ignorance, and stupidity. I will not miss that necessity, felt on a near daily basis for the last 33 years, to hold my tongue.
  7. Self Censorship. On a similar note, in a professional capacity, there have always been aspects of my identity that I could never share–and for good reason, I think. But the wish to be authentic with students always falls short when you realize there are things that you can’t or shouldn’t talk about. Some people claim that teaching is an apolitical act. That is fundamentally false–but still, to be open with students about one’s politics or religious views is pretty much verboten. I have been for the last thirty years a closeted atheist and super ambiguous perhaps about my bleeding heart liberalism. And yet–I have never encountered (or taught) a piece of literature worth reading and studying that had a conservative or fascist bent, nor have I ever found a work of literary art that was somehow indifferent to ideals of justice or ethics. Literary art is ubiquitously liberalizing. The accusation that I was teaching with a liberal agenda has only been made to me once in an entire career, when in reality (or if I was being truly honest and authentic), that accusation could have been made every day. The misunderstanding and abuse of the word “liberal” in our culture and in our school system has always baffled me. Just look up the damn word, and tell me if it is not something worth aspiring to.
  8. The never-ending trends of educational reform that are, in reality, anything but reform, almost always delivered top-down and rarely by people inside actual classrooms. My dear colleague, Mr. Jeremy Shibley, before he retired half way through this school year, wrote a letter to the staff in which he listed almost every reform initiative he could remember from his 34 years. It was a dizzying list–and perhaps the most significant takeaway might be that none of these efforts really transformed what and how we taught in any substantive way. Teachers always have done and will continue to do the thing they know is best for their students, and through self-reflection and in collaboration with others they will find new and better ways to “reform” their practice, education trends and buzzwords and initiatives be damned.
  9. Lock-down drills. It’s hard to know where to begin on this one. If you would have told me in 1989 that in the not-so-distant future there would be a spate of active shooters invading grade schools, middle schools, and high schools for the purpose of massacring children and teachers, I would have thought you were insane. And now that insanity is a reality–and nothing brings it home faster than a lock-down drill. Nothing is more out of place and wrong in a public school than the necessity of teaching children how to hide in the dark away from doors and windows, be quiet for a very long time, stay off their phones, and, in the event that a shooter enters their classroom, how to throw staplers and chairs and tables at the assailant. And nothing is more stupid and dangerous and deranged than our society’s love of the gun and its inability or unwillingness to keep military style weapons out of the hands of 18 year old civilians who are so lost and nihilistic and amoral as to see this kind of death and destruction as their only way forward. I have never felt unsafe in my school. Never. But I have lost hours upon hours of sleep morbidly imagining the worst case scenario. And at work I have found myself obsessing over locked doors; my classroom has two points of possible entry–and outside one of those doors, a staggering FOUR other doors that potentially lead to my room and my students.
  10. On a much lighter note: The last thing I’m not going to miss? Administrators who run meetings with slideshow projections that are impossible to read.

Well, then, if you’d like to see the 10 things I will indeed miss about teaching at a public high school, I think I’ll have to ask you to come back tomorrow. This first list ran away from me. It would be too much to ask of you to hang in there for another 1500 words. And, because I haven’t written the next 1500 words yet, too much to ask of myself as well. Until tomorrow, or the next day, or Tuesday, the last day, cheers.


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Who’s Counting? Two

Courtesy of The Fact Site, the number 2 is the first prime number, and it’s either the third or fourth number in the Fibonacci sequence–and that’s significant because math is beautiful and everywhere. Courtesy of Three Dog Night, “2 can be as bad as 1; it’s the loneliest number since the number 1,” followed by the glorious and inexplicable non-lyric, “uh.” Seriously. Give it a listen. Courtesy of my own associations, the number 2 is yin and yang, me and you, unity and opposition both, left and right, hands, feet, eyes, nostrils, ears, kidneys, certain male unmentionables, the fallopians and the ovaries, ones and zeros, dark and light, sun and moon, being and unbeing; essentially, the number 2 is everything and everywhere all at once–which is a deliberate allusion to the film everyone is talking about these days about the multiverse. Also, I’ve had too much coffee. Also, today is the penultimate day, the next to last day, the SECOND to last day of my career in public education.

As you know if you have been following this experiment, I am attempting, in between my last meetings with students, while I grade and clean and pack up, to listen to all of the albums in my classroom record collection from Z to A before I leave the room for the very last time, never (never say never) to return. This morning’s first selection on opaque white vinyl: E.P. 001 from Honorary Astronaut.

And look! The arrival of my 7th period English 10 students to deliver their Romeo and Juliet final projects. Cool playlists chosen to match the story and themes of Shakespeare’s tragedy contain some surprises: Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and The Carpenter’s “Close to You” are notable standouts. And a befuddling shout out to an artist named Bon Fovi. Never heard of that guy. There was a diary from Juliet’s point of view, the last entry of which she wrote right before taking the sleeping potion. We saw a presentation of the various weapons used to kill the various dead people from the play and their potential symbolic significance, including a very astute description of a deadly weapon called “Grief.” That’s what killed Lady Montague. There was a clay sculpture of the balcony scene complete with little dialogue signs. It’s kind of adorable. You have to see it:

I said goodbye to my very last group of public high school students.

Seventh period reflections, done. And every once in a great while, a student will sneak in a little extra something twenty blank lines or so after the last sentence of his or her reflection: “I appreciate you! I’m glad you were my teacher and I love your energy. It makes me happy. It’s never too late to follow your dreams, so I wish you the best on your writing career. I’m sure you’ll do beyond great. I see a lot of potential in you, Mr. Jarmer! You got this. Just don’t forget the one and only Yair. If you see a Yair or a Gomez playing soccer on TV, it’s me! But yeah, thank you for everything.” This nearly brought me to tears. This from one of the kindest, most gentle souls–the kind of student from which comments like this carry enormous weight. It makes me happy.

OMG–how’d this get into the classroom record collection? Play: Songs from Shakespeare by Here Comes Everybody. I love this band, and what a great sounding album. These Romeo & Juliet songs are abfabsolutely apropos!

Seventh period final Romeo and Juliet projects, done.

And before I can put on another record, it’s 12:30, time for a staff lunch, food provided by the good folks across the street at the Life Journey Church. The main purpose of this lunch, however, is to celebrate and send off with cheer all the Putnam people who are moving on: student teachers, teachers moving away or changing jobs, and teachers retiring. Hold on tight. This is gonna be a doozy of a staff lunch.

And it was a doozy of a staff lunch. Colleagues took turns saying lovely, thoughtful, kind things about those of us who were leaving. It was impossibly achy-breaky, emotionally exhausting and exhilarating all at once, and sometimes super funny. Lots of laughs and tears and then some more tears and laughter. And I think there is something so very strange about listening to our dear colleagues talking about us in this way. For me, almost an out of body experience, because, you know, I’m there in the room as I would be on any other last day of the school year when people are sharing their love and appreciation for the folks moving on, but this time the subject is me–or somebody very much like me–and I find myself thinking, wow, this guy must be really something; even while the presenter is looking right at me and saying my name, part of me is thinking that they’re talking about some other person. In my case, two colleagues who are two of the most cherished human beings in my life said the most kind and generous things. I am bowled over with gratitude and humility and love.

The English Department gifted me a beautiful certificate for music from Music Millennium! And all of us retirees got these beautiful word clouds printed exquisitely in school colors on canvas. Here’s mine, shaped like a record album!

I must say that the most interesting thing to me here is the descriptor “Kandinsky-esque.” I had to look that up and was quite pleasantly surprised. Also love the “woo-hoo”–a phrase that only the teachers who might be my classroom neighbors would understand. I am fond, apparently, of the woo-hoo and can be heard woo-hooing quite often, maybe even daily. And I appreciate a great deal the word “lover”–although I promise that no one on staff knows me in quite the way that word would suggest, so I am hoping that they meant that I am passionate about a great many things. Sure, that makes me a lover. I approve this message.

After that, a few cherished visits and conversations with a couple of my good teacher friends, it’s almost 2:30 and I am determined to submit my grades by the end of the day. And now I’m spinning As Long As You Are by the band appropriately named (for my moment) Future Islands. It’s 4 o’clock, or close to it, when I submit the last class set of grades, shut everything down, and leave the classroom the penultimate time, second to last, next to last, before I can finally be off to my own future islands.

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Who’s Counting? Three

One is the loneliest number–so say Three Dog Night. However, three (the pop rock trio must have known), is a magical number. It’s lucky. Good things come in threes. Three Dog Night. Rush. The Police. Three times the charm. Three bears. The father, son, and the holy ghost. Mind, body, spirit. Three is time-tied: beginning, middle, and end, or past, future, and present, or birth, life, and death. You’ve got three guesses and three wishes. Three strikes and you’re out. Three sides of a triangle. The perfect number. And I am three work days away from retirement from 33 years in public education, an entire career teaching English Language Arts in the same school, the school that also happens to be my alma mater, the school where my own son currently finishes up his 10th grade year.

So here we are, counting down the days, keeping a little record of those days in the blogosphere, administering finals to my remaining groups of sophomores, recovering from mild but persistent side-effects of my second booster vax, listening to all the records in my classroom collection backwards alphabetically, and trying to finish up all of the things on my to-do list: grading finals, submitting final grades, and packing up for moving out.

We begin the day at the letter M, spinning the most recent offering from one of the most prolific bands in contemporary rock, The Mountain Goats. Three full studio albums in one year, by my count. This one, the appropriately titled “Dark In Here,” is the soundtrack during the 3rd period final, my preparation period, where I am wrapping up the recording of finals from the previous two days and finding an opportunity, hopefully, to start going through and recycling “the files,” three decades worth of paper things across 9 gigantic and seem-bursting file cabinet drawers.

These file cabinets have been mostly stagnant now going on three years. Teachers are generating less paper. Handouts are often digital or reproduced in miniature for minimum paper waste or for pasting handouts and various literary goodies inside of composition notebooks for annotation and response. And last year, during distance learning, in large part continuing through this year, nearly everything has been delivered in a digital format. I predict soon that we will see a paperless classroom, but for now, here’s three decades worth of paper that now needs to be recycled. Except for this one: the one that contains all the journals and notebooks I have kept through almost an entire career.

Yes, it’s true that when I started teaching, teachers did not have a computer in the classroom. All of my lesson plans were handwritten inside of spiral notebooks. For years I did this, often scripting a lesson word-for-word by hand in what used to be a very neat and legible print. I do not think I want to trash these notebooks. I’m not sure why and I will probably regret it as I cart them home and then attempt to find a place to store them until I die. Generally speaking, I have difficulty getting rid of these kinds of artifacts, things that I have created in words or in art. I’ve got a novel I wrote by hand in the 6th grade. I’ve got fake album covers for fantasy rock bands I created around the same era. What is up with that? I rarely look at them–every once in a long while, mostly, by accident when I am rearranging things inside the basement “scary room.” Why keep them? I have kept most things I have ever written, as I see them as a kind of photo album of my brain in its development over time. And I guess that’s interesting to me. Beyond pure photographic or biological evidence, it is proof of my existence.

Next up moving backwards alphabetically, I’m spinning Mitski, Laurel Hell, in the minutes before another group of 10th graders arrive for their Romeo and Juliet semester final.

And here they are! A music video of a rap that covers the entire story of Romeo and Juliet replete with quotes from the play intermingled with the students’ own clever rhymes and hip-hop moves–clocking in at about seven and a half minutes; a one pager that asserts that Shakespeare’s play romanticizes suicide; a symbolic interpretation using a paper mache rose balancing precariously on a triangular base; an essay that applies Freud’s psychoanalytic approach to the tragic heros, a beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully defended recreation of the death scene, and other meticulously arranged articulations of the learning from Shakespeare’s most famous love story. With regards to the art, in any other year I would be saving the best ones for next year’s classroom decor, using them as examples of great work for the incoming students–but this year, in an almost heartbreaking way, I asked them all to take their projects home. Which brings me to another aspect of the end of my term here in the schoolhouse. What do I do with the projects I have hanging currently on my classroom walls from students through three decades? My hope is that one of my colleagues will want to hang on to some of this brilliant stuff, some of which dates back all the way to the 1990’s. I can’t be taking it home with me, although, I must say, in a couple of cases, I’m seriously thinking about it.

And as the half day ends, the rest of the day is now open for knocking off the items on the to-do list. There are no records in my classroom collection by artists that begin with the letter L, so while I get a little bite to eat and rest up a bit from that last energetic group of 10th grade final projects, I’m heading to Kansas for their most recent studio album, an album I find almost as captivating and engaging as ever I found Leftoverture or Point of No Return: The Absence of Presence. Kind of a dorky title, I know, but it’s a super strong record from the classic prog band. Guitar solos! Odd time signatures! Rock and roll fiddle! and Tom Brislin on keyboards and songwriting–go ahead, look him up. You won’t be sorry.

Fourth period reflections, done. Fourth period Romeo and Juliet projects, done.

Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee, is today’s fourth album to spin on this third day away from retirement. As soon as this last song is over I’ve got to visit the library to swap a bar code or two or three in exchange for my ratty, teacher annotated copies of books I’ve been teaching these last couple of decades. Until I return, here’s some eye candy for the ears, today’s playlist:

Mission accomplished. It’s almost 3 o’clock already. I’ve got a drumming gig tonight at the very wine bar at which I will host my retirement shindig this weekend. A bunch of colleagues are getting together after work for drinks. I won’t have time to join them before I have to head out with my drums, and I’m kind of bummed about that. It’s another one of those things that I don’t want to miss. There’s only so much time in which to do all the things. Some things you gotta skip. But even though I’ve had time today to get started putting things in boxes and recycling the prodigious content of those filing cabinets, I have not even started. Something there is that doesn’t want to start packing. I’m not sure what this means.

That’s all for now, until tomorrow!


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Who’s Counting? Four

Four Cardinal directions. Four gospels. Four horsemen. Four Beatles. Four Monkees. Four seasons. Four beats in a bar of 4/4. Four more days in the school year. Three days with students and a single work day for teachers, culminating awkwardly on a Tuesday. Four days until I count myself officially a “retiree.”

First up on the turntable: Telekinesis, Effluxion. A solid and sweet dose of power pop to begin the day, every song of which in strict 4/4, the people’s time signature, the official signature of 90.8769% of all rock and roll and pop music. I just made that up. The actual percentage might be a smidge lower than that. Maybe tomorrow we can talk about famous or not so famous rock tunes in 3.

And, after my 5th period final, in which Friar Laurence and Paris both shared their Instagram accounts, a comic version of R&J was set in the wild west, a student’s cat wrote a poem, a collage featured a rat from the Capulet tomb and a sunflower (the anti-suicide plant), Jarmer shared another heartfelt appreciation of his last group of students followed by nearly complete and awkward silence, and after the first and so far only selfie taken with a couple of students, here’s what remains on the to-do list:

Now this list, as always, will require amending. It appears that I have achieved completion of all the “late stuff.” Undoubtedly, there will be other “late stuff” to attend to. It also appears that the only other thing left to do is to grade four periods worth of final exams–but only two groups of these have been turned in. So that item will linger until Friday. The hope is to get all finals graded in the next three days and submit final grades. What’s on the to-do list, then, for Tuesday? OMG. The suspense is killing me. I’m sure you’re asking, but Michael, however will you fill the time?

Ready Steve? Andy? Mick? All right fellas, let’s go. The turntable is spinning Strung Up, a strange kind of compilation of the best of (what I knew incorrectly a long time ago to be) the first three albums by British glam rockers The Sweet, or simply Sweet in America. I am 12 years old again. “Ballroom Blitz” is playing as I type this sentence. I feel sad for the people in the world who heard this song for the first time in the soundtrack to the Wayne’s World film. As a middle school kid, I bought this 45 and left the record support thingy of the automatic turntable in the hifi console all the way to the right so that the needle would return to replay the song over and over again. I’d never heard anything like it in my life.

First period reflections, done. First period Romeo and Juliet projects, done.

From 1975 to 2021: Snail Mail, Valentine. Another one of my favorite contemporary things in rock. And then the super chill, “how-can-I-sing-like-a-girl” champion, Home by Rhye.

Fifth period reflections, done. Fifth period Romeo and Juliet projects, done. I’m tired now.

At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the music selection turns a bit to the dark as I approach the letter N and pull out the most recent studio album from the 80’s new wave genius that was and still is Gary Numan. The album is Intruder. It’s heavy, dark, moody, and pressed on blood red vinyl–but I find, unlike Numan’s early output circa 1979, that it rocks super hard. It’s as if in the 90’s he got a Trent Reznor infusion and it stuck for the next 30 years.

I stumbled across a news article today, an op-ed about the biggest mistake people make after retirement. I’ll save you the trouble: this writer interviewed a bizillion retired people and came to the conclusion that the people who were most unhappy in retirement were people who felt like they had no purpose. As grumpy and sad as Numan makes me in between the absolute grungy rock-out moments, it appears to me that Gary Numan has held onto a purpose. I plan to follow in his footsteps.

So, it comes nearly time to call it a day–almost. I should probably get home a little early, see if I can snag a couple of z’s, try to recharge myself for this evening: the last ever graduation of my own students. In two years, I’ll attend my son’s graduation ceremony, and maybe four years after that, another one. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Suffice it to say that today’s entry in the countdown toward retirement is, as they say in the music and film studios, “in the can.” Not the garbage can or the toilet–but the can in which analog tape or film is stored. I probably didn’t have to explain that. I am tired. Cheers!

Everybody wants a piece of the action.

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Who’s Counting? Five

The side effects from my second booster lingered all the way through the day yesterday, so that by the time I went to bed, I felt worse than I had all day. After another bout with some chills and uncontrollable shaking, another somewhat feverish night’s sleep, I wake up feeling almost normal on this fifth day from the end of my teaching career and retirement.

Today’s schedule looks pretty cush. First period final exam, where students are sharing their final Romeo and Juliet projects and doing some reflective writing on the semester, then another final exam period for which I will have no students, because, as we found out in our last installment of the countdown, my seniors have already flown the coop. And a half day of school means that the entire second half of the day can be spent grading finals, cleaning up, and packing up.

And there will be lots of music. First up: Steven Wilson, To The Bone, mastered at 45 rpm, which, as I understand it, is better–albeit, a pain in the keister with a belt drive turntable. First world problem. I don’t know why all my Steven Wilson records ended up in the classroom. Maybe I felt they had been previously unappreciated and underplayed while they were at home.

First period: saw some one pagers, some beautiful artwork, a newspaper article about the troubles in Verona, a rap video, and a filmed reenactment of the first meeting between Romeo and Juliet–lines memorized, complete with an acrobatic and athletic climb up to the balcony via a basketball hoop (wrong scene) and a stage kiss. Juliet was played by a boy wearing a wig. On the one hand, a brave move, but on the other–not nearly as brave as it might have been, you know, if R & J were reimagined as a same sex couple. I told the whole class at the end how awesome they were and that I couldn’t imagine a better last group of 10th graders to work with. They were smiling. Romeo said he was tearing up–but I think he was pulling my leg.

Second period: I found myself making a collage photo of all of my previous school I.D. cards and a few old photos taken at work here and there that survived and were languishing inside a drawer in my office. The first card comes from the 2005-2006 school year. Maybe that was the first year we were issued official I.D. cards? I would think, that if they existed, I would have kept them, but who knows. Maybe it takes about 15 years for one to realize that a kind of history is taking shape. It’s equally possible that we just didn’t have cards. Imagine a time when you were not expected to have an I.D. card inside of a public school. And the last card is from 2015. I think that after that point, the school-year specific I.D. card went by the wayside, replaced by a photo I.D. keycard that would just never get swapped out. I’ve had that I.D. card now for years and I really dislike the photo. It’s not present in my collage.

More music: Villagers, Fever Dreams. One of my favorite new discoveries of the year, on which you will find perhaps the most cheerful pop song in recent memory: “So Simpatico.” I bet you can’t listen to this thing without smiling. Vinyl flavor: forest green. Next up, Tune Yards, Sketchy, on translucent blue.

Burned through my 7th period Romeo and Juliet journals–the last pile of response journals I WILL EVER GRADE. Scored a handful of late, late, super late Langston Hughes essays and annotations, and the very late response journal from The Emily Dickinson unit in IB Literature.

Next on the spinning platter of awesomeness: Thundercat, It Is What It Is. And then some more old photographs.

Sara, my English department colleague running the yearbook class, was able to dig out the 1989-90 edition for my perusal, my very first year of teaching. No teacher mugshots. Apparently the tradition of making teachers take a school picture every year alongside students had not yet kicked in. But there is a faculty section with some candids here and there and group shots of entire departments. A couple of observations: One, I was wearing what appears to be a cardigan sweater over my plaid button shirt. Super Mister Rogers of me. And I had just begun working on the mullet that would come into it’s full powers a couple of years later. Two: there are 11 teachers in the English Department and one full time department secretary. Let me say that again: 11. English Department teachers. Full-time secretary. Today, in 2022, in a school that has fluctuated in student growth a bit here and there, but has in large part remained about the same size, we employ 6 English teachers. Let me say that again. 6. And NO secretary. Can you imagine? A secretary for departments? That used to be a thing. Also a thing: a contractual limitation of 125 students for each full-time English teacher. That, in part, explains the large department of English teachers. Now there are no such contractual limitations. If a school in our district were to assign 200 students to a single English teacher, nothing could stop them. And I know that in recent years that has actually happened in my own school house. This, my final year, saw for the first time in a long time, a humane student/teacher ratio. In part, low enrollment, and also the continuing Virtual Online Program for kids who weren’t ready to return to school kept those numbers down. I understand, though, that next year, my full-time position is becoming a half-time position. 6 teachers will become 5 and a half teachers. Numbers will go through the roof. And I won’t be here.

Join me tomorrow for my 4th day away from retirement.


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Who’s Counting? Six

I said I wasn’t counting the days until retirement. In fact, it’s been a point of pride for me. Look, I seem to be saying, I don’t know how many days are left in the school year and isn’t that special? But, as it gets close enough to poke with a stick and impossible to pretend, I thought it would be funny to do a series of countdown blog entries, to begin, as they say, to count the days. Maybe it would be entertaining or edifying, I thought, to make a record, to document the close of my last school year.

Here is a kind of bullet list record of today, 6 days away from the end.

  • My covid 19 booster #2 kicked in at about midnight, and, while my reaction was nowhere near as hideous as it has been for previous shots, it nevertheless disturbed the sleep in a big way. My brain was in a kind of nonsensical feedback loop from which I could not break free until about five in the morning. I rallied. I’m here, standing upright, but clearly not at peak performance.
  • That’s okay. My two groups of sophomores, due to a bizarre scheduling kerfuffle, had one more day than my other groups of sophomores. They had a choice: spend some extra time preparing for their final project on Romeo and Juliet, or enjoy (what they had been clambering for throughout the unit) the cinematic masterpiece that is Gnomeo and Juliet. Guess which one they chose.
  • While there are a few clever parallels and some Shakespeare easter eggs peppered throughout, watching this film had next to no educational value. Maybe that’s harsh. There’s always something to learn from a well-made computer generated animated film. And it had Elton John’s music in it. The students were happy.
  • My second period seniors have flown the coop. They were done last Thursday–so I’ve got extra time today to get through stacks of Romeo and Juliet journals, to peck away at this little entry, and to nurse my vaccination side-effect blues with some premium gummy worms.
  • Goals: get through my grading to-do list so that there’s plenty of time to get through the removal of 33 years of collected crap in the classroom to-do list.
  • Goals: listen to every album in the classroom record collection from start to finish once, moving backwards through the alphabet. First up: Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites.
  • Goals: begin the process of bequeathing things, to sign away “What portion of me be/Assignable–” I don’t want to end up like Steve Martin’s the Jerk on my last day, taking everything I can carry in my arms, unable to leave anything behind. This ashtray. This paddle game. These matches. This lamp. The chair, and the remote control. That’s all I really need.
  • Second up: Steven Wilson’s Insurgentes.
  • I burned through three piles of Romeo and Juliet journals.
  • For the second time, I signed a copy of Oh, The Places You’ll Go for a graduating senior.
  • I picked up a robe for the graduation ceremony.
  • Today is the last full school day of the year and of the career. That one refuses to fully sink in. Tomorrow begins a four day final exam schedule. I need to rest off this vaccination funk. Two different doctor’s appointments in the afternoon. Too toasty to play drums tonight. Rehearsal canceled. I get home and it’s nearly 6:30.

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Notes On Retirement

As I approach the last work week of a 33 year career in public education, I find myself looking for a way to write about that experience and falling short of figuring out what to say and how to say it. I started one blog essay which attempted to explore my rationale for retirement, but it sputtered out. 33 years seemed rationale enough. But I was writing it, I suppose, because I thought maybe my predicament was different, that my reasons might be particular to me and maybe even interesting. The fact that it sputtered out, though, seemed to indicate something else, like I was justifying something that did not need justification, or looking for some way to make peace with the decision for which I was not completely comfortable. I’m pretty convinced that to retire this year was the right decision for me, but it nevertheless comes with some trepidation, as any big life decision does. Can I continue to find rewarding work to do? Will I find fulfillment or success in other endeavors? Was it a sound financial decision? How much will I have to pay for health care? Can I be disciplined (or lucky) enough to maintain or even improve my health? And does not retirement, at its core, represent a progression into a kind of last movement in the symphony of life? I don’t care for that metaphor–but beyond all the excitement about the fun and the freedom and possible new opportunities, there is this grim realization that, you know, retirement marks the fact that we might only have a decade or two or three of living left to us. So–one of the most exciting and rewarding moments in a life also has its morbid and dark shadows. While I find myself in various states of bliss as I look forward to the mysteries of retired life, I also find myself worrying about things I’ve never worried about before, like the above nagging questions.

I sit down on this Sunday evening to come back at and hopefully finish these notes on retirement, and I’m feeling a little weird tonight after receiving my second COVID-19 booster shot this morning, fearing that the side effects might be as extreme as they were for me in all the other cases, but hopeful, too, because so far I’ve just felt a little sleepy, no chills and uncontrollable shaking, no fever, no serious ick. It would suck to have to call in sick on the last Monday of the school year–but I am ready for that outcome if things take a turn this evening. One upshot of the close of the final school year has been this compulsion not to miss anything and to be involved in every last thing I can. Since abandoning the mask a few weeks ago now, I have been, I admit, a tad paranoid about catching the COVID. I don’t want to miss any days. There’s too much to do. I hosted an end of the year social for staff, I attended a send-off party for another colleague who’s leaving the country, I’m going to the graduation ceremony for the first time in seven years, and I’m throwing my own little party next weekend. And I find myself to the very end immersed in planning the very last weeks and days of the school year in the same way I always have, but perhaps with just a bit more vigor. A colleague will often greet me in the hall and ask me if I’m counting the days. Honestly, I have not been counting. If anything–the question of how many more days do I have until I’m done has been more about maximizing the time that I have rather than anticipating a glorious finish–not how many days do I have, but how many days do I get?

But don’t misunderstand me. I guess I have to say it again. I want to retire. I am doing it. I’ve got irons in the fire, and I am youngish enough to have the sufficient vigor, I hope, to somehow finish up that blacksmith metaphor, you know, by doing whatever blacksmith’s do as they pull their irons out of the fire. That act of creation, of making something new from some molten raw material. I’m done with this metaphor now. You’re welcome. Suffice it to say that I am thoroughly excited about the possibilities that lay before me. I hope to be writing like a fiend, and finally have the time needed for getting that writing out into the world. I plan to make tons of music. I’d like to run writer’s workshops or do Courage and Renewal work with adults. I want to go back to my podcast.

I am leaving the profession at the right time–when I am having a good year, when I have spent time with some of the kindest students in recent memory. I have written zero referrals and have sent no students to the principal’s office this year. I still love this job and this work. I am not burned out and I am, I think, about as on top of the game as I will ever be. And therein lies one of the things I was attempting to say in a previous blog draft that will live as an unfinished draft forevermore: There is a kind of plateau one reaches, I think, after doing a thing, badly or well, for three decades and some change. I am pretty certain that I have done well; I have been, what you might call, a “good” teacher. But I don’t think it gets better than this, up here on this plateau. I think that if I were to continue a number of years longer, I might find myself falling down. I like it up here. But I also want to be doing something again at which I might hope to improve. As Rilke said–strive always to be a beginner. In the last decades of my life I want to be climbing upward and onward, and not, instead, in some kind of downward spiral toward disappointment and burnout. I am ready to rock this.

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#438: Human Nature (a cento on April 30, 2022)


As it is the very last day of April, hence, the last day of National Poetry Writing Month, I kind of wanted to go out with a bang–to do something ambitious. That’s the worst way, FYI, to begin a writing thing. “Today I am going to do something great” is a path to abject failure. In reality, I let the morning go by feeling a total lack of ambition toward greatness and a bit of resistance welling up against any kind of writing whatsoever. I looked again at today’s prompt from Napowrimo to write a “cento.” You may well ask, what’s a “cento”? From the Academy of American Poets website: “a cento, from the Latin word for ‘patchwork,’ is a poetic form composed entirely of lines from poems by other poets. Okay. I’m in. I’m stealing from a gaggle of modernist poets found in a collection at the Poetry Foundation website. Turned out to be more “ambitious” than I anticipated. Win!

Human Nature: A Cento

Let us go then, you and I,
as freedom is a breakfastfood,
in long alleys
over a wide solitude.
It is human nature
to stand in the middle of a thing;
the imagination, the one reality
in this imagined world–[where]
the children learn to cipher and to sing.
For we can still love the world, who find
the ocean flowing backward,
heavy with shut-flower’s nightmares
as thought’s intricate polyphonic.
I was of three minds,
a kind in glass and a cousin.
Surely, the Second Coming is at hand.
As freedom is a breakfastfood
beneath the music from a farther room.

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