Monthly Archives: December 2017

Mindfulness in 2017: A Reflection

Here’s the new year’s resolution I made two years ago for 2016:

I resolve in 2016 to be more mindful, to find opportunities daily for meditation practice, and to seek out a community, some companionship on the journey.

This resolution was a resounding success. I found myself a community that still meets two years later (we met this morning, in fact), I established a regular practice of daily meditation, and I felt at the end of the year better than I had in a very long while about my secularly spiritual self. So here’s how I repurposed the same resolution for 2017:

. . . my 2017 resolution is mostly a continuation of the one I wrote in 2016, because primarily, unlike most resolutions, it was successful, and, so they say, success breeds success. What I would add, perhaps, is that with the continuation of this work, I might find more specific transformations are possible, personally, creatively, professionally, and politically.

So let’s see how we did! Call up the meditation stats, Bob! So funny, this idea of a kind of meditation score! Three sentences in a row ending in exclamation points.

I spent 83 hours and 11 minutes this year in meditation.

My daily average is 18 minutes, but some of my sessions, especially the ones I spend with my group, clock in at about 2 hours–and that happens on an almost bi-weekly occasion.

My best run of consecutive days with a single session: 121, up from 83 the previous year.

And check out this lovely and enormous graph of my overall improvement in a meditative practice since 2014:

Cool, huh? Nearly epic.

So, I don’t have a graphic for this, or statistics of any kind, but I want to reflect a little bit about the 2017 addendum to the 2016 new year’s resolution. Was I able this last year to find more specific transformations, personally, creatively, professionally, and politically? Let’s be honest, shall we?

Personally: For all intents and purposes, I am the same dude in essentials I was at the beginning of the year. I’ve got some demons that I’ve been unable to shake. Some bad habit energy. Some anger issues. I allow things under my skin. I find myself especially frustrated by shit I can’t control. As both of my parents are gone now, I find I have become them in some of these ways. I have failed this year repeatedly as a teacher, a parent, and a husband. These failures are punctuation marks, mind you, and not the entire sentence–so I’m thankful for that. But the ways I have of failing tend to be habitual, patterns of which I am fully aware but seem sometimes powerless to change. So, I guess I would say that personally, whatever that means, I have not transformed in any specific way.

However, just today, at our lovely group meditation session, our guy Scott Duvall led us through a cleansing of the year. We smudged up 2017 good and proper with some sage burning. We walked backwards through the year collecting all of our regrets, mistakes, hurts, transgressions, obstacles, and we put all that stuff imaginatively into buckets. We forgave all that bullshit perpetrated by others towards us and by us towards others. In my head I could envision how, at work with my students and with colleagues, at home with the fam, I could create new and better ways of being. I could see it. If you can see it, I understand, the possibility of a like manifestation in the world increases a thousandfold. It could be argued, then, my personal transformation started peaking its way through in the last hours of this crazy year. A big thank you to Scott Duvall and this incredible community he has nurtured.

Creatively: I wrote a book of poems! I continue to blog! I feel that each time I write something new, something new happens within–tiny little transformations in the intellect and in the heart. I’m still sitting on and procrastinating a revision on a short novel–but I have a good feeling I’ll be able to wrap that up in the new year.

Professionally: Serendipitously, but also intentionally, my professional life and spiritual life have come together at the beginning of a new journey. After October’s Gateway Retreat from The Center for Courage and Renewal, I applied and then was accepted into a facilitator training program for Courage Work–a description of which can be found in earlier blog entries. If I retire in 2019, this could be my new vocation. If I don’t retire in 2019, somehow this will become part of my work with my school and my district. This is about as specific as a transformation can be. Transformation into Formation. That’s a private little in-joke that I think I’ll just go ahead and leave there.

Politically: I cannot and will not hide my antipathy toward the new administration. It’s abominable, embarrassing, dangerous, potentially disastrous. I have never been a political activist. My activism tends to be quiet, subtle, but infused in everything I do. My poetry, my teaching–in the way I work and the material I choose, my musical endeavors, my meditative practice, and this blog–even when those things are not overtly political–are all in direct opposition to our current political climate and leadership. I like to think that in some ways the small work that I do in these arenas is sending out little sneaker waves that will in turn combine forces with all the other sneaker waves and will eventually make 2018 the year we all figure out our collective political shit. I have faith, and faith is not a word I use very often, that somehow the universe will course correct.

So the resolution for 2018 is just more of the above, only better. Do more of that, but better. Even if it’s failure. Fail again. Fail better.

Tonight, for the first time in a long, dark time it seems, I will ring in the new year with my very best, most beloved friends. Do likewise. Happy New Year. With gratitude and love, cheers.

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XV–Here Comes Everybody Survives the 20th Century

hce2

The cover of our very first CD release in 1997: The chicken head man and the naked dog foot lady, of course.

Back again so soon? I’ve got about a day and a half to fulfill my Pre-New Year’s Eve New Year’s Eve resolution of writing about the entire Here Comes Everybody catalogue before 2018. In case you’re just stepping into the fray, in short, it has been my project over the last three years or so to listen to my neglected CD collection, one artist at a time from A to Z, and write about the experience. A year ago I found myself mired in the letter H. The letter H happens to include my own band, Here Comes Everybody, which at first I thought I would just sort of skip over, but have since, for autobiographical reasons, changed my mind.

In my last entry I worked through the first six years, from 1986 to 1992 and I shared a stupid but by now kind of famous youtube video of my crazy bad self lip syncing to my own music in 1987. I was listening to and writing about the last CD we released, a 30th anniversary compendium of the first six years of songwriting and recording we ever did as a band. It’s important to note, especially perhaps for younger readers, that, in the 80s and early 90s, independent bands released their original material almost exclusively on cassette tape. Vinyl was way expensive and on its way out. CDs had just arrived, but were also cost prohibitive to produce. Everybody and their dog had a hi-fi cassette deck in their home stereo and in their cars. Cassette tape ruled the day–and for good reason. It was compact, convenient, reliable, and sonically pretty damn good.

All of the material discussed in the last installment of this series was initially released on cassette tape and had to wait 30 years until 2016 for a digital release into the world. After the cassette releases featured on Everything Is Here: 1986-1992, we continued to release albums and e.p.s on cassette tape for another five years, during which there were essentially only two releases, a cassette full-length album called Squish in 1993 and another cassette e.p. entitled Hump Day from 1995 or so. By the time these cassette records came out, the band was full-on grunge/funk/hard rock, a far cry from the synth pop of the 80s and early 90s.

How did we make this radical stylistic turn? Well, we were smitten, as was everyone else in the Pacific Northwest, by the hard rock grunge movement. It’s what we were listening to. It was raw and rowdy and full of energy and political power, and while it really wasn’t stylistically or radically different from the hard rock of the 70’s, it felt totally new and fresh and served as a rebellion against what felt like the antiseptic and artificial pop of the late 80s. And in this moment just before the Life, Friends, is Boring era discussed in the last entry, we had found a new guitar player, Jeff Bryner, a guy who was firstly incredibly inventive and secondly super prolific as a writer. So, combined with our current musical interests in guitar rock and this new dynamic member of the band, the music started to come from the guitar and NOT the keyboard. Eventually, so much so, that René tossed the keyboards altogether and got behind the drum kit. At that moment, by 1995, we were a full-on guitar band. We had left every vestige of keyboard, nu-wave power pop behind us.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. It was new and exciting and I think it was good. But the Here Comes Everybodyness of the music that René and I had been writing during the previous seven or eight years seemed to have been drained out and replaced by something else. I am proud of that work, but it sounds like a totally different band. At one point we toyed with changing our name–and I think we even did a gig or two with some new stupid identity, but it didn’t take, and, eventually, creative differences momentarily disbanded that mid-90s roster.

Some really great songs came from this era, though. Again, approaching the novelty song, our most successful tunes were often our funniest ones. From the Squish era came “I Like My Neighbors,” “My Dentist Is A Good Man,” and a song about forgetting your own lyrics during performance, entitled appropriately, “I Forgot The Words.” Here’s my favorite, the “Neighbors” tune in its original lo-fi glory:

And then something pretty remarkable happened: the advent of the professional quality HOME STUDIO. We recorded Squish (which opened with the “Neighbors” tune) on a cassette 4 track recorder. It was decidedly and unabashedly lo-fi. So grungy. I remember recording the keyboard live during the mix down! That’s just crazy. But suddenly, in 1996 or so, professional quality home recording equipment became, for the first time in human history, somewhat affordable. That was a game changer for us–and the rest of our musical history from that moment on was totally influenced by this phenomenon.  

Some of the best of this early to mid 90s material ended up on a 13 year anniversary CD released in 1999, appropriately called Thirteen. One of the first of the stupidest ideas I ever had was to release a kind of greatest hits record that would collect on CD the best of what we had released on cassette over the first thirteen years. Stupid? We had no hits. We made 1000 copies, because, you know, 1000 copies is cheaper than 500–really, seriously. It cost, in 1999 about $1,000 to replicate a thousand compact discs, whereas 500 copies would cost only a hundred bucks shy of that–so why the fuck not produce 1000 of those babies?! Well, because there’s not a market for it, that’s why. However, it was fun. It felt good to give the music a digital run, but we couldn’t afford to master it, it includes crappy four track recordings, and it was, as most albums produced on CD in the mid to late 90s were, too flipping long. Who has the patience to sit through a 73 minute compact disc? Outside of the appearance of a few select tracks from this mid-90s hard rock era on the Thirteen cd, this material, so unlike us, feeling to me today not totally authentically us, will likely never see the digital light of day. Although, by special request from a single individual who was a fan of that particular era, I recently burned a copy of Hump Day and sent a single solitary CDR off into the mails. Yeah, I could do that again.

Okay, it’s 1996 and 97.

Once More With Feeling. Kids in a candy store, having put together our first home basement studio with bonafide real professional recording equipment, we wrote and recorded our first album to be released on a compact disc. On this record, we primarily started the practice of promoting ourselves as a duo. The band, then, consisted of past band mates, HCE alum, who were willing to lend a hand. And we got almost every one of them involved somehow, going all the way back a decade to our very first full line-up.

Its weaknesses are that, again, it’s too long. It’s super self indulgent. We included everything, even the most silliest of things like jazz improvisations over spoken refrigerator magnet poems, nutty manic tunes that are nearly unlistenable, the absolutely absurdist spoken word poem that inspired the artwork, a crazy thing about a naked woman with dog slippers sitting at a bar with a massive, human sized chicken talking about those orange spider mites. Okay.

Its strengths: some of the best songs we had written to date:  The manic opener of “Holier Than Thou,” a satirical piece about any kind of hypocritical moral authority in which I get to do my best impression of an evangelical preacher; “Ba Ba,” a song that takes its title from the monosyllabic background vocal but delves more clearly than “Blue Refrigerator” could about the importance of self discovery and authenticity; “The Love Thing,” you know, about the love thing; other more serious and issue driven pieces; and a lot of really fine performances by so many good friends of ours. Overall, its variety, its manic qualities and its more reflective quiet moments, the instrumental experimentation (horns! acoustic guitars! improvisations! fake jazz!) the whole thing feels like a big ass party.

My goodness. There are four albums that I have yet to mention over the next two decades–the material that I am most proud of, actually. And I’m finding myself, on the eve of New Year’s Eve, at the end of potentially the most exhausting year in memory, unable to go further tonight. So I’ll leave you with this, a kind of sleeper from Once More With Feeling, but, as I’m re-listening now, nevertheless a tune that stands out as a favorite, and features a reunion of the 1987 band, Allen Hunter on bass and Greg Kirkelie on guitar. “Everybody’s made of something. What are you made of?” That’s a pretty good line.

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XIV–31 Years of Here Comes Everybody

Oh my. It’s been almost an entire year since the last time I added an installment to this series. Maybe I will make a New Year’s Resolution not to wait another year before the next one!

I did not intend to write about my own music in this series, only tangentially as it related to something I was listening to, or, if something I was listening to was an influence on my own songwriting. Why the hesitation? Oh, I don’t know; I didn’t want to seem self-indulgent. I know, that makes terrible sense; I am blogging, after all, primarily using my own bad self as subject matter! What could be more self-indulgent?  And if this is an autobiographical sketch through the lens of the music I have listened to over the years, what could be more autobiographical? And here we are, the founding members of the rocking teen combo Here Comes Everybody, myself (Michael Jarmer) and my wife and musical partner in crime, René Ormae-Jarmer, in the midst of our 31st year of marriage and 31st year of playing music together in this band. It seems fitting now, both because of the momentousness of the occasion, but also because here I am, after 13 blog entries and thousands of words covering the musical compact disc collection alphabetically from A to Z, in the middle of the letter H. All right. Let’s do this.

Because of it’s longevity, Here Comes Everybody has become an integral part of my identity. The thought of doing a solo album is distasteful to me. The thought of being the principle singer and lyricist for somebody else’s band, while not out of the question, is likewise to me unfavorable.  I like to play the drums. I like drumming so much that in the last couple of years I have taken to the throne to drum for other peoples’ projects. But no one else has ever asked me to write lyrics for them, and I’ve only had very brief flirtations over this last 31 years singing in somebody else’s thing. Whether it’s because I’m being selfish and holding on to my talents for this one singular project, or because my talents are not conducive to any other thing, remains to be determined. Whatever it is, I feel HcE is a piece of me just as much as is my inclination to write, or my love of reading, or my dedication to teaching, or any other proclivity or tendency that one would lump under the category of Things That Make Michael Jarmer Michael Jarmer.

So what’s the approach here? Should I follow the rules and write about only one or at least one record–or should I, like I only have, I think, for Elbow thus far, write about every single record? And since this is about my neglected CD collection, should I limit myself to material released on that format, or should I also give air time to the “records” we made that were released only on cassette?!

I think, if it’s true that Here Comes Everybody has indeed become part of who I am, it seems that I owe them at least the same kind of attention I gave to Elbow, a band I only discovered in 2002, a full 16 years after the first recording my wife and I made together. So let’s do the whole damn CD catalogue. And I might mention, but not go deeply into, those cassette-only releases–just because they form an important part of the picture, even though it seems that there’s a pretty good reason those pieces never escaped their magnetic tape origins.

Everything Is Here: 1986-1992. For the 30th anniversary of the band, we went back to the very beginning, remastering and releasing on CD for the very first time our complete early recordings, 4 short albums over two compact discs.  Our debut e.p., “Holy Smokes,” is kind of what you might expect from 22 year old kids in an 8 track (!) professional studio for the very first time, recording their very first batch of original tunes: pure unbridled enthusiasm, blinding self-confidence, awkward amateur performances, and some really strange, albeit 80s appropriate choices–like a band with two drummers relying on a drum machine for all the set work! My voice is quite a few notches higher here than it is now, in fact, sometimes embarrassingly so. I sound like someone’s pinching me really hard. I think I remember the phrase “manic yelp” as being the way our earliest critics described my voice. Yep. Totally accurate. I was indeed manic, and I was indeed yelping. We started as a trio (vocals, keys, and bass)–a configuration we would return to in the late 90s–but clearly we understood that we could not carry the tunes completely without guitar, so we found a hired gun in a guy named Kieth Charley who came in and performed these screaming lead guitar solos on a few of these tunes. They are awesome, sometimes the best part of the tune, even though they are somewhat anachronistic.

By the time our second e.p. came around, we had had the realization that real drums were the way to go and that the guitar should be an integral part of the band, so “Brand New Species” found us in a 24 track studio and with a year of lots of gigging and more writing under our belt, sounding like a real band. Oddly, still a band with two drummers already, we found a different drummer (high school buddy Sean Moultrie)  to play the kit–mostly because Rene had her keyboard duties to perform and I wanted to jump around on stage like a maniac. It wouldn’t be until 1997 when finally I would decide to sit down and play some drums in my own band.

Autobiographical note concerning the roster: René and I were high school sweethearts. Our first bass player, Terry Gassaway, was a high school chum. Our first guitar player, Greg Kirkelie, was not only a high school chum, but a guitar player with whom we played in our very first band ever. Our first drummer, Sean, was a high school chum. Our second bass player, Allen Hunter, was a chum from our teen years with whom we played in our very first band ever. Stephen Westerhout and David Gilde are the only musicians on these early recordings that I did not know as a teen, but I met Steve in college and Dave a little later–we must have only been 27 or 28 when we met. It strikes me as important and kind of profound that I would be willing and happy to play music with any of these individuals again and still to this day continue to think of each of them as friends. Insert something wise here about musical soul mates and the long lasting friendship power of our earliest creative acquaintances. 

The Everything Is Here compendium closes out with our first kind-of-full-length album clocking in with 8 songs, “Wake,” and then another e.p. called “Life, Friends, is Boring,” after John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14.” While “Wake” was most powerfully influenced by the likes of Tears for Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love,”  “Life, Friends” was our earliest foray into the heaviness that would become grunge. By 1992 we had all had our fill of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Cross all of that with our early new wave and prog rock influences and you’d have a pretty good idea about what we sounded like.

Out of these first four records came at least three tunes that would become emblematic of our quirky irreverence (is that a redundancy?) and, for better or worse, would become our most popular tunes early on: “I Am Not A Social Cracker,” “I’m Gonna Send You A Mail Bomb,” and most famously, now clocking in at over 3500 views on youtube, “Blue Refrigerator.” In 1987 we made a video for that tune, shelved it, showed it to no one, and then, on a whim, after digitizing our old tapes, decided to post it to youtube. The rest, as they say, is history.

During this whole era, from 86 to 92, we gigged like crazy. We gigged ourselves silly. We played everywhere for anyone. We opened up on many occasions for local heroes The Dan Reed Network. We exhausted the local scene. We were under the mistaken impression that the more we played the more likely we would be to “make it big.” What we probably should have done, but never quite had the courage to do, was tour. Finishing college, establishing careers, finding our way in a new marriage, the life of the road was just not in the cards and nobody was throwing money at us. We didn’t get famous, but we got pretty fucking good.

What’s most interesting to me, personally, about this collection is that it shows how fast and how wide our growth was in these first six years. I find it kind of impressive, enough so that 30 years after that first song was recorded, I felt the work deserved the attention and care of a remaster and a cd release.

I didn’t realize I’d get 1500 words out of that first CD. We may have to do this episodically, one record at a time. We may have to spend a lot of time on the letter H. I wasn’t finished with the other H-artist albums in the collection a year ago–I’ve still got Jerry Harrison, Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Holiday, and the Housemartins to explore!  Pre-new years New Year’s resolution: finish the Here Comes Everybody entries before the clock strikes 12 on December 31. Please don’t hold your breath.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 9, 2017

I realize now that it might be possible to misunderstand the title of this blog series. I just want to make clear right out of the gate that our narrator is not talking about his penultimate year on the planet. Nope. He’s pretty healthy, save for some high blood pressure (which he is working to alleviate), so he certainly has more than another year to live! Phew! Glad we got that out of the way. No, with “penultimate,” he’s referring (why am I writing about myself in the third person?) to the possible or potential year before his last year as a teacher in a public high school classroom. In other words, he may retire soon. And he’s being deliberately wishy-washy and vague. Is he sure? Mostly. Can he envision putting it off? Yes. If the circumstances are right, he could see very well putting it off. Maybe the title of the series should be Diary of an English Teacher in His Possible Penultimate Year. Peter Percival’s Pet Pig Named Porky Loved Pie. Anyone?

All right then. This is what I really want to talk about today.  I had a conversation yesterday with a student that blew my mind, and not in a good way. Here it is, quite simply. In my English 10 class, we’re reading Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey. A student, at the end of the class, turned the book over and looked at the back cover. He saw something there that surprised him; no, he was shocked. He came up to me and he said, “Mr. Jarmer, is this book really worth $16?” I answered in the affirmative without a lot of thought. He couldn’t really be surprised by this, could he? Then he said, “Do you mean, Mr. Jarmer, that if I lose this book, I will have to pay $16 to replace it?” Again, I answer in the affirmative. He’s incredulous. “No way. There’s no way this book is worth $16.” Afterwards, I tell him some secrets, such as, if he were to buy a brand new hard cover first edition from the bookstore, he’d pay upwards of $30 or $40. His jaw drops. “Who would pay $40 for a book?” Well, I say, I have. Many, many times. Sometimes a lot more. I tell him how much I spent on my Folio editions of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. He appears to be absolutely blown away by my stupidity. And I am absolutely blown away by his . . . underestimation of what a book might be worth.

I realized some things. There are billions of young people out there who have never ever in their life purchased a book. So of course, how would they know the value of a book, monetarily speaking? Not only are there billions of young people out there who have never bought a book, there are other multitudes of young people who have never checked a book out of the library, have never attempted to read a book that was not assigned to them. And there are scads of young people, I know, who manage through years of schooling somehow to avoid reading ANY of the books that have been assigned to them, who might be even proud of the fact. So there is an epidemic, I think, among young people, of book ignorance and book devaluation. Not only have they avoided reading anything of substance, they have no idea and no interest in finding out what a book is worth. And I’m not really talking about kids whose level of literacy precludes them from reading. I’m talking about the literate illiterate. Kids who can but don’t.

It’s painful to think about what they are missing. They’re not all lost causes, though. I read as a young person what was assigned to me, but I was not a reader. After my homework was done, I spent all my free time listening to music, playing music, and if I read I was reading about music, and I spent a lot of time with the high school theater department. I did not read books. I did not really become a reader until I was about 19. But then I became a fiend for reading. Not a voracious reader (I was slow), but an enthusiastic, close reader. And that’s when I began also to take myself seriously as a writer. But as an adult, I had friends who were perfectly literate who only started reading seriously in their 30s. So again, this boy who couldn’t believe that a book was worth $16 may one day start reading.

I feel kind of shitty. I see it, as part of my gig, that I must try to inspire students to read, to instill a desire to read. How do you DO that? Well, in part, you do it by modeling (you can’t help it) your own enthusiasm about the words on the page. That works to a degree, maybe even to a large degree. But I know that one of the other ways, maybe a more effective way, to inspire readers is by giving them choices about WHAT they read. This is a no brainer. They will want to read more when given opportunities to find the kinds of books that speak to them. Why do I feel shitty? It’s been a long, long time since I found myself in a situation where I felt free to give students choices. The curriculum has become less flexible. The scope and sequence of most of the classes I teach require certain books to be taught. When the district spends thousands of dollars to adopt a new text, there’s an obligation to teach that text. When the district emphasizes and/or mandates the sound idea that teachers not work in isolation, that they plan together and create common assessments, to look at data that will inform their teaching, there’s just simply less room for student choice. Or at least that’s how it feels. I don’t think that it’s true. If more of my colleagues were committed to student choice, it’d be an easy fix. I feel a little bit alone. I feel a little bit sad that my teaching is maybe not as progressive as it once was. When I was a new teacher they basically just gave me a room and said GO! A part of me pines for that kind of freedom again.

Meanwhile, the question is: $16 for a bloody book? And my response, falling on deaf ears: the worth of a book is immeasurable, invaluable, priceless. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

In closing, and in a completely different vein, because teaching kids to love reading is not the only thing I’m thinking about today, the furnace is down. It’s cold in the house. We got the obligatory Yuletide tree, and today would have been my mother’s 88th birthday. First birthday without Mom. First Christmas and New Year without Mom. My mother, who read very little until her later years, and who preferred raunchy romances, even in her 80s, over anything literary, nevertheless, encouraged me as a reader and writer. Cheers to the memory of Mom and to the promises and riches of reading.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 5, 2017

Photo on 12-5-17 at 4.01 PM

And now for something completely different.

I’ve been doing this “Penultimate Year” series now since August, and typically post about once a month, but today the urge to scribble arrived for the second consecutive day.

Today, the day after my birthday, felt more like a birthday. I mean, I celebrated a little bit last night after that last blog entry with a martini (I know, on a Monday!) and then I put together some new vinyl storage boxes for my ever expanding record collection and by the time I went to bed after spinning the new Rostam album and reading a chapter in Virginia Woolf, I felt pretty groovy. Writing works that way for me. It’s therapeutic. If something is weighing me down, I turn to words and sentences and paragraphs. Had I not written about yesterday’s woes, there would have been no martini, no record boxes, no music, no reading. But I like to write as well when there’s something to celebrate. As I was saying, today felt more like a birthday.

I’ll work backwards. My fourth period sophomores today were really sweet human beings. They can be silly, but they are respectful and kind to me and to others, often are appreciative of my efforts, seem genuinely more engaged in the process, happier and less cynical, and today they sat quietly and read for about 40 straight minutes. Somehow the cat got out of the bag, and they sang me a rousing round of happy birthday. A few of them are struggling academically, but none of them are using that as an excuse to derail the rest of us and they know, I hope, that if they need help, they can get it.

My third period prep was spent mostly prepping, but I had the opportunity to sit down with a union representative as part of a “listening tour” in preparation for upcoming contract negotiations, and I got to talk with a colleague from the district about the good, the bad, and the ugly. That felt validating. It felt good to tell her how really consistently awesome it feels to work in this building and with this staff, but it was also helpful, having scribbled my fury the night before, to clearly articulate the challenges: not enough time, never enough time, the battle between preparation and grading, and finally, how difficult it is to work when students are actively trying to prevent you from working, or how difficult it is to feel responsible for young people who refuse to take any responsibility for themselves.

My second period and first period I will talk about together. In these two classes of IB Senior English, I feel that if this were my job, my only job, working with kids like these on material like this, I could work until I died. There’s so much joy, so much good humor, so much interest, so much intellectual fire, so much willingness to grapple with big, difficult ideas, that it almost always feels like play to me. We read a selection from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons for starters. What could be more fun than that? And then we dove into the genius of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where we talked in one period about this exquisite and close reading our narrator does of a novel by one of her contemporaries, only to realize at the end (spoiler alert) that she was just making it up the entire time! There’s no such contemporary! There’s no such novel! Why did she do that?!! And of course we discover that it’s absolutely intentional and absolutely a perfect choice for her purposes. In the other period the reveal was made right out of the gate, but it didn’t make the conversation any less lively or engaged. And in both periods, reading out loud the opening passage of the last chapter, I felt the goose bumps rise (and like to think that this was a collective experience) when Woolf speculates most presciently and profoundly about the unity of mind that occurs when the female part of the male brain, and the male part of the female brain are in harmony and peace with one another. The androgynous mind, the incandescent mind: necessary for a work of genius–along with the money and a room of one’s own.

It’s pure joy to work with this group. It’s not that none of them have issues. It’s not that none of them are struggling. A few of them are frustrating because of poor attendance or a sloppy work ethic, but they walk around with a more mature version, a less disruptive version of what their younger counterparts exhibit. And I can handle these kids with more equanimity, even though I still lose sleep about them sometimes. Generally speaking, I feel so much gratitude to be able teach this course and feel a little bit guilty that all my colleagues don’t have this privilege, and sad when sometimes a colleague of mine, for a variety of reasons, loses a likewise beloved class. I know I would be at a loss if I couldn’t teach my Seamus Heaney, my Virginia Woolf, my Toni Morrison, my Hamlet, my Beckett, and with such a receptive, respectful, lovely group of kids. One of them walked into class today, having last seen me on Friday during our last meeting, and he said, Jarmer, man, I missed you. I think he was being sincere. My heart was full.

And Beth Russell, the greatest substitute teacher that ever was, gave me a birthday jar of pepper jelly, and Bev Whiting, the nicest human being to ever inhabit a library, wished me a happy birthday a day late. And when I got home, there was a new pair of Slackies in the mailbox–you know, slacks that feel like jammies. After yesterday’s shitty day, today was nearly perfect. I am well. Everything is good.

 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: December 4, 2017

Photo on 12-4-17 at 7.26 PM

It’s a Monday and it’s my birthday. None of my students knew and I didn’t bother to tell them. It was a rough day. Last night, I stayed up too late. This morning, and all day really, I was suffering as a result. My cold’s getting better, I think, or, at least, no worse. But what made the day especially challenging, on top of the fatigue, was the growing realization that my students are not ready for prime time, cannot or will not do certain things that seem to me kind of no brainers, hence: they were really difficult to teach today.

I’d like my sophomores to take more responsibility for their own learning. I’d like my sophomores to be able to have conversations with each other about important things. I’d like them to be interested in what they’re doing. I’d like them to be present, to engage fully, to work hard, to monitor their own behavior. They want none of the above. Let me restate: most of them want none of the above. Most of them are either unwilling or unable to do any of these things. As long as I’ve been doing this gig, I feel like I’ve never really mastered how to teach them to do this stuff. It’s like this: they need to be taught how to be: how to be civil, how to be interested in other human beings, when to speak and when to shut their mouths and listen carefully; they even need to be taught (apparently) when it’s the appropriate time to go to the bathroom. And again, I’m not speaking about all of them, but I am speaking about a large enough number of them so as to make three periods in a row with sophomores today feel almost like a wasted day. Is it just that they’re 15 or 16 years old? I know that, partly, yes, that’s the culprit. In large part it’s also a “boy” thing. If I think about every single kid that was making my life difficult today, with a few exceptions, I’m thinking about a boy. They can’t sit still. They can’t take direction. They don’t read. They don’t do homework. They don’t take responsibility. They’re totally self-absorbed. You call them on a disruptive behavior and they look at you like you’re crazy. What!? they say. Or, that wasn’t me. Or, you’re treating me unfairly. It is infuriating. I have to remind myself again and again, (almost impossible to do in the moment), that they will grow out of it and most of them will be okay, will grow into those characteristics I listed above, and that I should just lighten the hell up. They’ll make it.

But many will not.

Over the last few weeks, my department mates and I have been agonizing over what to do about our seniors who enter their last year of high school short the English credits they need for graduation. If they haven’t taken a credit recovery class, summer school or some such band-aid approach, kids who have failed one or more English classes over the course of their high school years find themselves taking LOTS of English as seniors–sometimes two classes at once. And because we are loath to put seniors in classes with freshmen and sophomores, and because we have a limited list of things to take for seniors, they end up inappropriately placed, for example, in College Writing (WR 121). Sure, let’s take kids with a history of failing English classes and put them in a college level English course! It’s ridiculous, especially if the teacher of this class is concerned about maintaining his level of expectation for all the kids in the room, not diluting in any way. The kids placed in this class to make up for lost credits will most likely fail and it will bring them no closer to graduating. The English department dilemma, we thought, was about WHAT courses we’re offering, but I think we should have been talking about WHY so many kids are failing.

I have sophomore boys who come to class habitually late. They come without having done any homework. They come without pencils. They come without pens. Even if they have a pencil or a pen, they come without any paper to write on and they don’t have their composition notebooks. They don’t have the book we’re reading. They have no sense of agency or purpose. They see no value in the process. They see no potential in themselves to change direction. And these are the habits they bring with them through their schooling and these are the kids who will be short of earning enough credits to graduate.

I asked one such student today, in exasperation, trying not to be didactic or sarcastic, if he knew why we were here. He said what he thought I wanted him to say, and just maybe, he believed it: we’re here to get an education. Okay, there’s a start. I asked him if he felt like he was getting an education. He said, not here. Not in English. Okay, fair enough. And I’m thinking, I wonder, you without pen or pencil, you without notebook or paper, you without book, you who are mostly absent and when you’re not absent you’re late, I wonder why you don’t feel like you’re getting an education here. At some point, he or his buddy said something like this: we don’t learn anything in English! We just read and write and talk! Never mind that the teacher has given you a list of thought provoking essential questions. Never mind that the teacher has tried to be super explicit about why we do what we do, about the value of story, about the necessity of hearing from other perspectives, about empathy, about the urgency of being able to articulate critical thought in speech and in writing, about the dangers to us in the absence of these things. This boy was absent that day, I guess. I delivered the little mini-lecture, and he was somewhat receptive. But it’s hard to imagine him turning things around, even though I know that that’s part of my job.

At the lunchroom table today, my friends Richard and Jack and Brad and I were talking about these things and wondering if we sounded like a bunch of grumpy old men. Yeah, we probably sounded like that. We asked the question, are we in a groove or in a rut? Are kids any different today than they have ever been, or is it JUST US? How good do you have to be to love every kid and to communicate to every kid that you are on their side and believe they can be successful? How do we balance, or should we balance, kids feeling good about themselves with the fact that hard work and persistence and failure are the very stuff of learning and of life. Our superintendent and our vice principal are very keen to talk about drop outs as “push outs” instead, shouldering all the responsibility for failing students squarely on the backs of teachers and the institutions for which they work. For many of us, this does not sit well. It’s too much to bear. It’s true that there are many students who are not served well by our schools. They need something else. They need something we are not prepared or equipped to give them. But there is no other alternative and here we are, between a rock and a hard place, all things to all people, trying to do what’s right, trying to keep it together, wondering why Johnny can’t or won’t read, wearing our hearts on our sleeves, rejecting and resisting burnout with every fiber of our being.

All right. That’s out. Time to celebrate my birthday.

 

 

 

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