Monthly Archives: August 2013

#54: The School Year Begins with a Crash of the Hard Drive

hard-drive-fire

The School Year Begins with a Crash of the Hard Drive

on which my entire life’s work
as a teacher was “saved.”
My technology guy, bless him,
was able to retrieve nearly
every last god-forsaken item–
except any kind of organizational
feature previously attached.
So all perhaps one thousand
assorted folders, documents, presentations,
audio files, images, film clips,
spreadsheets, and graphics
are identified now only by random
numbers in no particular order
and that makes me feel suddenly
like my teaching life is now
identified only by random
numbers in no particular order
and I don’t like it.
I could be planning, inventing,
decorating, creating new stuff
in this first week of work
before the kids arrive, but
instead, my technology guy
and I will be sifting through
all these thousands of files and naming them
and putting them back into folders
where once again they might be
useful, and where once again,
my life’s work as a teacher,
in ones and zeros, might be
protected and saved
at least until I can retire, please.
Then perhaps, the hard drive
can burn, burn, baby, burn,
because my legacy will be
carried by those who walk out my door
and not what sits, in ones and zeros,
in a box on my desk.

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#53: On the Last Day of Summer Break

On the Last Day of Summer Break

I’m home alone,
cleaning house,
sweeping, dusting,
mopping, emptying
the trash, doing small
errands that have been
waiting a long time,
like those framed drawings
of France that needed
hanging, and that boat painting;
now they’re up.
I put away
all the piles of rags and
brushes and paint cans
and ladders from the recent
bathroom project,
and now it’s raining.
I empty the dog’s outside
waste bucket and
almost throw up.
You’ve got to hold
your breath for
a long time for
that job and that’s
why it doesn’t get
done as often as
it should.
I’ve been listening
to loud music and
when enough time
goes by after taking
care of the dog stuff,
I eat a sandwich.
Maybe I’ll turn off
the music and read
for awhile.
I like being alone
but I’ll be glad to see
my wife and boy
when they return
from the beach.
We’ll have dinner
together and I’m sure
we’ll have a laugh
or two around some
beach story they’ll tell me
about the campfire or
about how many showers
the boy had to take
to wash off the sand
or about the horseback
adventure they were planning.
Things are just this way
and I’m not even
thinking about teaching.
There’ll be time for that
tomorrow morning,
the morning teachers
go back to school,
the morning after the
last day of summer break.

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The Going-Back-To-Work Blues Is A Real Thing

back-to-school

20 blog entries later, and the summer break comes to a close. Teachers report back to their schools in my district on Monday. Time to take stock. Time to look ahead. It’s been a strong summer. I blogged, I wrote fiction, became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church, agreed to marry a couple of former students, taught my son to ride a bike independently, took a trip to the beach, a couple of weekend camping trips, writers camp in Moraga, California, attended my 30th high school class reunion, watched two seasons of The Walking Dead, one season of Orange Is The New Black, recorded vocals for the new Here Comes Everybody album, helped my wife paint the bathroom, and did some reading. No, I did not finish Moby Flipping Dick. But I did finish a novel by my friend Rob Yardumian, The Sounds of Songs Across the Water, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and a book by another friend, perhaps the best book on the writing life since the famous one by Annie Dillard, Joan Frank’s Because You Have To: A Writer’s Life, oh, and I drank some good bourbon.

It’s been, I suppose, a relatively busy, productive, satisfying summer.  Partly because of this, perhaps, because I’d love it to continue on forever, I am now coming to terms with a serious case of the going-back-to-work blues. I suspect even if my summer was not nearly so stellar I’d feel it nonetheless. The beginning of the new school year has always been bittersweet.  On the sweet side, the rhythm of the school year gives a structure to life once again, because, as I wrote about earlier regarding the summertime blues, unstructured time can be the surest way into the pit. I’m anxious to see my colleagues again, lucky and blessed as I am to work in a school where I am hard pressed to think of anything negative to say about a single soul who works there.  I mean, to be honest, I could do it, but it would be a stretch, and it would be minor stuff, never anything that makes being there anything but pleasant and happy.  And, with new systems and revised curricula and strategies, each year brings with it a healthy dose of adventure, novelty, and thrill. Finally, I’ll end the list of sweet stuff and begin the list of bitter stuff with the same item: it’s always a wild ride to meet so many brand new human beings who will now become a huge part of my life for the next 9 months.  You never know what you’re going to get.

Because for the past two years or so I have taught 11th graders and only 11th graders, when I go into the classroom on the first days of the new school year, I will be faced with nearly 200 individual students that I have never met before in my life.  So I would say that the thing that creates the going-back-to-work blues for me more than any other thing is this sense, a very real sense, of the monumental task I am about to undertake.  The amount of energy or gumption or confidence (and maybe skill) it takes to acquaint yourself with and direct the intellectual habits of 200 brand new human beings–and sustain that over a nine month period–is daunting, to say the very least.  That kind of power, if harnessed, could perhaps solve the energy crisis. Just wire up a bunch of teachers to the grid, man.  Problem solved.

I’ve got to learn all my students’ names.  I should like to know something about them.  I need to find out what makes them tick.  I need to figure out which ones of this group of 200 are on top of their skills and which ones will need extra help.  I need to assess which ones will be allies and which ones of them will be, not enemies, never enemies, but something like, uh, I don’t know, let me start over.  Which of them will be allies and which of them will provide particular challenges? I need to build a “community of learners,” supportive, respectful, safe, comfortable, and committed to the task at hand.  But then there’s this pesky thing called a curriculum.  I wouldn’t turn up my nose at any teacher who spends a full two weeks (which in our district is five 87 minute periods) doing nothing but community building activities.  But we can’t afford that kind of time!  With furlough days continuing to shorten our school year and absolutely no lightening of the load (in fact the load has become heavier than it has ever been and the stakes higher than ever), we’ve got to hit the ground running.

So, perhaps by October I will know all of their names.  I will never be able to pronounce some of their last names.  When we have our first parent teacher conferences toward the end of Autumn, I will be terrified of not being able to place students in my mind’s eye when the parent tells me their names.  In March, I guarantee you that I will mortify some student by calling him or her by the wrong name. And then next fall, when I see some of these kids for the first time after another lovely summer break, their names will have escaped me.  This is the reality.  I wish it were otherwise–because I believe in the core of my teacher heart that the surest way to help a student academically is to KNOW a student personally and meaningfully, and this is especially true of the students who need extra help.  The kids who are good at being students would be successful in spite of or despite almost anything I do. But the kids who struggle need me–but they don’t know it–and they will hide from me, try to disappear, and some of them will be successful at this–because in that single class of 35 kids amongst a teacher/student ratio of one to nearly 200, it’s easy to do.

So my going-back-to-work blues has to do with a certain amount of anxiety about how difficult the job is and how mentally and emotionally exhausting it can sometimes be, and also with not just a tiny bit of stage-fright.  A reality of the teaching profession, I think, even for veteran teachers, especially for those who care about doing a credible job, is that those first days are kind of scary.  And I think the thing that gets me through that fear every time is the knowledge and deep belief that what I am doing is the best thing I can do.  I am one of the lucky few that has found a profession that is rewarding, invigorating, challenging, and profoundly important.  So, despite the blues, which, as I’ve said, are hardly completely blue, I say to the new school year and to my colleagues and to my 200 brand new charges: bring it on, baby.

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#52: Stupid Human Facebook Tricks

Facebook_logo_(square)

(with apologies to all my friends guilty of the following)

I think one has to earn the right
to post pictures of one’s food.
First, it must be good food,
carefully prepared, photogenic food,
artfully arranged, economically described.
Otherwise, I don’t want to see anybody’s food.

And I refuse to respond to posts that test
whether friends are actually reading,
asking them to repost the post,
asking others to do the same.  What
possible difference could it make
whether people are “scrolling” or reading
every little thing, especially when it’s
a little thing the person who is posting didn’t even write?
Man, life is too short not to scroll,
and if one finds this offensive,
one should get off social media right this minute and
never return, or, if one believes
people are scrolling past his or her posts
in particular, one either has a personal
problem or is just not very interesting
to begin with.  Copy and post the last stanza.

Or, similarly, I’m bugged by the form letter,
anonymously penned, that dresses
itself up in earnestness and sincerity
and talks about how important are the really
meaningful relationships in life and of course
the only way to prove yourself worthy
of such a relationship
is to copy and paste the post after you’ve
replied with one word (one word) about
how you met this lovely individual.
Or this: Describe how you met me but lie about it.
What possible purpose does this serve?

And I know people love their animals;
I, too, love mine, but I’m not posting pictures
of my dog in a half a dozen different poses,
nor will I find pictures of other cute dogs
on the interwebs and post these cute dogs
doing cute things like tricks and shit,
wearing hats.

And for totally different reasons
for which I am only partly ashamed, I hate it
when women post pictures of their feet.

In conclusion, like Lyle Lovett says,
I love everybody, and I would never
infringe on your right to post whatever
silly stuff you like, as long as you do me
the reciprocal favor of forgiving me
when I scroll past posts of your food,
your insecurities, your pets, your feet.

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#28: Did You See The Moon?

In light of tonight’s glorious full moon, must repost.

michael jarmer

full-moon-briars

Did You See The Moon?

More luminous than your computer screen,
shining in through the window of your study,
full, full of fury, brightening the night sky
like nobody’s business.

Landing on the moon
was not nearly as special
as it was to look at the Earth
from that vantage point.

Just as, perhaps, the moon
is more interesting to us
as seen appearing to glow in a clear night sky
from the big blue marble we call home.

A nice place to visit, you wouldn’t want
to live there, but you need to have this glimpse
from time to time of this beautiful space rock
orbiting the Earth, illuminated fully.

Did you see it?
Did you see the moon?

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A Talk at the 30 Year High School Reunion

Note: I include this as a post on my blogsite mostly for those classmates of mine who would like to see it. Don’t know if it will make sense for other readers–parts of it will, perhaps, others not so much. For example, to get the opening gag, you’d have to know that I now teach high school English at my Alma Mater. And the names of all of these teachers who have passed will be meaningless to those outside our class–except for the fact that, if you graduated from high school 30 years ago or more, and your school had a teaching staff as seasoned as the one we had, your list would likely be just as long. At any rate, to my classmates and to anyone else interested in what one might say after 30 years, here goes:

A Talk at the 30 Year High School Reunion
August 9, 2013

So they tell me 30 years have passed since we all graduated from high school. Can that be right? Is it possible? Personally, I don’t think it’s possible. After all, I’m still in that building every day. I’m still there. Where have you all been? They won’t let me graduate. But there has been a strange transition, though, since all of you left me there. They’re now paying me to hang around. For 24 years now, they’ve paid me to keep hanging around! I don’t know what that means. They must like me.

I told y’all in a facebook post that I was a little sad that after 30 years I have all but completely lost touch with most of you. I have close relationships now with as many classmates as I could count on one hand. I’m still married to one of them: 27 years people! And I work with one of them. The other 3 have become distant to me—either by geography or some other kind of distance, mysterious, inexplicable. A few of you are friends of mine on facebook, and of those, a small handful of you are in regular communication with me, but most of that communication is indirect, not personally directed at me, you know, the way facebook posts usually are. Here’s a picture of my food. My kid learned to ride a bike today. I’m traveling in France. Here’s a picture of me camping. This is my cat, dog, chicken. Here’s a link to an article, or a video, or a piece of music that I dig. It’s mostly on the surface, kind of superficial; fun, but not a lot of substance. So, in this facebook post to the Reunion List, I requested that people send me some short message about their journey over the last 30 years—so that rather than some kind of nostalgia trip—I could instead talk about where we’ve traveled AFTER 1983—it just seemed more interesting to me. 6 of you responded—and from those six responses I picked up some info about the last 30 years, and a few pieces of wisdom about life after high school. I think, despite the small sample, in one way or another my findings are applicable to all of us.

First, in these few responses, there’s a wide variety of descriptors about the last 30 years: challenging, rewarding, surprising, heartbreaking, and wonderful, all those from the same individual; I read about a religious faith without which one of our classmates said that “the hardships would have been too hard and the joys not nearly so sweet.” And another individual described the driving forces in her life: God, family, health and competition, an extra dose of fun and adventure, and the discovery of a kind of selflessness that would lead her to be an adoptive parent and an activist in the plight of the orphan. One of our classmates says he’s got the “best job in the world, his wife is awesome, and he has fun every day.”

And then there were a couple of words of wisdom.

The first one is a kind of rebuttle to the old truism, or to the wisdom that most of us can identify with and agree with on many levels—that sometimes we get stuck always wondering what it would be like if we had made a different choice than the one we made, not this job, but that one, not this town, but that one, not this house, but that one, not this partner, but that one, or no partner. We are told that this is a fool’s game, a trap, a diversion from true happiness. But here’s the thing: sometimes the grass IS greener, and this particular classmate of ours, as I’m sure many others of us have, had the courage to make a difficult decision toward change —and is now happier, more content, more fulfilled than she has been perhaps in 30 years.

The second piece of wisdom is related to this, I think, because it is about change, but mostly surprise about how things CAN work out. I’m going to quote this directly, because it’s really good: “Plans were made well, laid well, and paid (for) well, but led nowhere save straight into a brick wall . . . and yet, when the dust cleared, I somehow found myself on a path far better than anything I’d imagined.” There you have it. Many of us have learned that the only way out of the difficult stuff life throws us—is straight through. With patience, grace, hope, love, good things happen.

The only constant in the universe—so they tell us—is change. And by now, we have had our fill of it, I’m sure. We got educated or trained; we got schooled. We adapted to technology—email and the internet would not become ubiquitous until after our 10 year reunion! We got married. We became parents, some of us early, some of us very late. My son is 7, while many of us are sending children off to college. And while parenting is joyful; it’s also likely the most difficult job on the planet. They didn’t tell us about that, did they? We changed jobs. We changed our socio-economic status—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse–either by choices we’ve made, luck we’ve had or not, or the vicissitudes of a faltering economy. Some of us have been divorced, some remarried. By now, we’ve all lost people. Eleven of our classmates have passed—and I don’t know their individual stories, but I look at their pictures, and even if I didn’t know them at all, I feel the loss and know our world is diminished without them in it. We’ve lost teachers—many of those dear people who ushered us into adulthood are gone. Mae Krause, Kelly Hood, Deanna Hutton, Fritz Fivian, Sally Collins, Joan Strandholm, Bill Olund, Sister Helena Brand, Ken Evans, John Pike, Ann Peery, Joella Checketts, Mike Haller, Wayne Johnston, Sharon Heinz Borhman, Randy Bethke, Don McClusky, Jack McGoldrick, Bill Foelker, Roger Thompson, Wally Rogelstad, Alec Herauf, Gene O’Brien, Galen Spillum. And a man who was not with us as students, but nevertheless touched many of our lives deeply: Steve Quinn. What gifts they gave to us. Those gifts we carry to the end of our own days. And finally, perhaps the most difficult—many of us, if we are not now parenting our parents, have lost them, one or both. I don’t know this, but it is possible that some of us have lost siblings, and some of us have lost spouses, or children—and if that is true for you or for someone you know from our group, our deepest and most sincere condolences go to you. These losses in families are truly the most difficult losses.

From what I have seen of it, getting old kind of sucks. It is not for the faint of heart. But we are not old! Look around! As we head forward into the rest of our lives, holy crap, into, perhaps, the last third of our lives, let us be thankful for this evening and for this gathering; let us continue to move courageously through this life’s journey; let us not fall into complacency or apathy; let us keep learning; let us be engaged in our families and in our communities—and in our society. We will need advocates—but as long as we are able we must advocate for ourselves—and that becomes more evident every day. Another wish I have for you, for all of us: Maybe some of you saw this recently, but there’s a new study in which two Michigan State University biologists found that evolutionary biology does not reward selfish people and that over time, cooperative “nice guys and gals” finish first. Kindness is all. Love is all. And a last minute piece of wisdom from our classmate Rhonda, forgiveness is all. So let us be kind, loving, and forgiving, and we will finish first, we will come out ahead.

My last wish for all of us comes from a 19th century French Romantic poet, Charles Baudelaire. Let me read you this poem.

Be Drunk
by Charles Baudelaire
You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

We have a lot more living to do. So let’s rock this mother. Thank you.

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Why I’m Thinking All The Time About Tiny Houses

The Gifford from Four Lights Houses

The Gifford from Four Lights Houses

Every few years or so I adopt a new obsession, embarrassingly, around some kind of thing I’ve come to believe will change my life in all kinds of positive ways.  I say embarrassingly, because usually the obsession revolves around some material thing.  Let me give you a quick run down of the last decade, for example: musical equipment (recording gear, drums–can’t make or teach music without this stuff), a high end stereo system (because life is too short for shitty-sounding playback), the smart car, an Airstream travel trailer, folding bicycles (Dahon or Brompton), cargo bicycles (box or longtail), and finally, my most recent obsession–the tiny house.

Time and money being limited the way they are, only a few of these obsessions have resulted in some kind of acquisition in the material world.  A modest home recording studio is up and running; the stereo is sweet; the Airstream was indeed purchased (and then sold two years later); and the Dahon, the less expensive of the two folding bike options, is in the garage and ready for riding.  The smart car was a bad idea.  The jury is out on the cargo bike.  But the tiny house beckons.  What’s up with that? Why am I thinking all the time about tiny houses? Oh, let me count the ways.

Tiny houses appeal to my sense of aesthetics.  They are marvels of design and almost without exception extraordinarily beautiful.  Typically, they use the finest materials and/or workmanship to create a living or working space that is perhaps more expensive per square foot to build, but because of their tininess, sometimes as tiny as 100 square feet, they are relatively cheap.  An exquisite attention is often spent on every detail, whereas, in a large modern home, a house is framed and slapped over with sheet rock and cheap-ass vinyl windows and fake wood floors and there’s tons of wasted space. Go to Portland Alternative Dwellings, Four Lights Houses, Tumbleweed House Company, or Zyl Vardos, and see, if you couldn’t see yourself living in such a space, that you don’t at the very least go crazzy gaga over the design aesthetics.

Tiny houses appeal to my desire to simplify my life. The lessons taught by Henry David Thoreau in Walden are fundamentally applicable in the here and now.  I am decidedly not a hoarder, but for me, I find myself surrounded by shit I don’t need.  Where did this stuff come from?  Why is it here? How much money did I spend acquiring it?  How much space is needed to store it? How much time does it take to maintain all of this space, to keep it clean, to keep it in working order?  Economically speaking, how much does it cost to heat and send water and electricity through all these thousands of square feet? And could a person not be “happy” with less?

Tiny houses are green and sustainable, which appeals to that part of me that would like a planet for my child’s children to live on.

But I will never live in a tiny house.  They are completely impractical.  Where would I put my wife and my child?  Where does the dog go?  What about my books, records, and cds and the rest of the stuff I don’t need but can’t live without?  What about the baby grand piano and the drum set and the recording gear? I can’t put a recording studio in 120 square feet and still have a place to hang my hat.  And the tiny house, and all or most of the above reasons for acquiring one, represents for me this nagging contradiction that often exists in work, in parenting, in relationship, in the way we live, between what we believe is right and what we continue to do.  It’s terribly disconcerting.  So, why don’t I just dismiss outright all thoughts of a tiny house?

For all of the reasons listed above, perhaps, and for the persistence of other thoughts about how acquiring a tiny house might be a good deal even if I didn’t live in it.  Writing retreat?  Vacation home on a little piece of property in the woods?  A guest house in the back 40?  I could be the suburban proprietor of a tiny house hotel like the one in North Portland!  The possibilities are endless–and so are the depths and lengths of my obsessive brain.

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