Category Archives: Reportage

A Journal of the Plague Year: #24

My classroom now has a blue refrigerator, a recording studio, a vertical turntable, a small personal library of classics and contemporaries, childhood art by the resident teenager, and two dogs.

September 15, 2020

Yesterday was the first official day of school for students in my district, the first time in my 32 year career that the school year would open with distance learning on account of a viral pandemic, and, as it turns out, the first time in my 32 year career that school would be canceled on the first day of classes for inclement weather, in this case, hazardous air, the result of the wildfires in Oregon. It was maybe the first time Oregonians have ever prayed for rain. The weather folks told us we would get some yesterday, but they began hedging, and, again, as it turns out, they were wrong about the rain. The air in Portland and in Milwaukie is still hazardous, but our district is open for business today, encouraged us all to work from home–as most of us would have done anyway.

So, today, we had the first day of school, each teacher meeting with one group of kids as part of a home-room-type situation, showing them the ropes of the google meets, laying down some technology expectations, and showing them some tips around navigating some new features of the google classroom. It’s a google world now, I tell you. I met with my 25 students, talked my way through a presentation, had exchanges with three or four kids who were brave enough to show video and unmute their mics–but for the most part, it was quiet, and I felt a little bit like I was talking to myself. But none of the things that freaked me out last night at one in the morning and kept me awake for three hours–you know, being interrupted, constantly chatted around, distracted by inappropriate things in the video feed or the instant message bar, students refusing to leave the meeting, me having to kick them out–NONE of that stuff happened. On the one hand, I was super pleased, but on the other hand, with so little feedback, the stuff teachers usually get, a sense of their style and personality, an opportunity to hear every kid’s voice at least a little, watching them interact and respond to each other, watching them smile or laugh at our attempts to put them at ease–I had no idea really about how any of it went! I meet with this same group tomorrow for round two of practicing The Google Meet. At least, today, my fears that this would be a train wreck were assuaged and I will go back at it tomorrow with far less trepidation. On Thursday and Friday of this week, academic classes begin in earnest. For me, two groups of 9th grade English and one group of seniors in IB Literature.

The prediction or the assessment or the outlook on the move to distance learning is that we will proceed in this manner at least until November, or for a full quarter of the school year. No one is expressing confidence that at this magical moment everything will have shifted. I think many of us are psyching ourselves up for the long haul. And many of us are pondering and musing about the way this shift away from traditional brick and mortar schools, out of necessity, will change the nature of schooling and education in irrevocable ways, forever, or at least, for the foreseeable future.

Necessity is the mother of invention, says Plato. It feels true that we are reinventing our schools. What’s unclear, unnervingly so, are the ultimate outcomes, either good or ill. I don’t know that anyone will ever be able to argue against the effectiveness of students and teachers physically in a room with each other, but I worry nonetheless about this particular trajectory. In my half glass full sort of orientation, I believe that there might be aspects of the brick and mortar model we could happily lose, and their loss would be, as Elizabeth Bishop writes, no great matter. Others we lose at our own risk and peril. The optimist in me believes we may at some not so distant day strike just the right balance. Meanwhile we soldier on. I’m happily, gratefully, doing the best I can with what I’ve got, chanting my new favorite mantra: better than nothing. It’s better than nothing. WAY better than nothing.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #23

If it ain’t one thing, it’s another thing. Welcome to the shit-show that is 2020. First, we had the coronavirus. Schools close from March all the way to the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Teachers learn on the fly to conduct the business of teaching and learning from a distance. George Floyd is murdered, one more death in a catalogue of violence against black men at the hands of police. Then, civil unrest, of which, Portland seems to be the epicenter. Then, in Kenosha, another black man is shot seven times in the back while he reaches into his car where his children are watching. More civil unrest in which people are shot and killed, in Kenosha, in Portland, the violence exacerbated by members of right-wing extremist groups converging on protests for justice to “keep the peace.” An endless litany of Trump administration scandals, only two of which include the reveal that the president knew how deadly the virus was before making a number of public claims to the contrary, and additionally, that his administration has syphoned millions of dollars away from a fund to help New York City Firefighters suffering from illnesses caused by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center–this story, no-less, published on September 11th. The virus, after killing nearly 200,000 Americans, shows no signs of abatement, and schools across the country decide to continue with distance learning at least until November, but more likely, indefinitely.

Then there was a wind storm.

And then came the fires.

As of today, 860,000 acres have burned. Estacada, 23 miles away from where I live, and Molalla, 22 miles away, have been ordered to evacuate. Oregon City and Canby, respectively, 4.3 miles and 13 miles from where I live, have been ordered to get set for orders to evacuate. And my town, Milwaukie, about 9 miles from downtown Portland, has been told to get ready. We are wringing our hands–should we be packing? Has anything changed? Nothing has changed. What should we take? Where would we go? Why am I coughing? Has anything changed? Nothing has changed. Over three days, essentially, the alert level has remained perfectly consistent. We put some supplies in a bag. We’ve made some lists. We’ve gathered up some key paperwork. I’ve taken pictures of valuable instruments and books. None of our clothing is packed.

Mostly, we’ve closed all the windows in the house and we try to stay inside. We haven’t seen the sun since Wednesday. It’s hard to be outside for any length of time. The Northwest regions of the United States, and in particular Portland and its vicinities, are reported right now to have the most dangerous air pollution in the entire world, the effects of which cannot even be guessed at by health officials. A week ago it was 90 degrees and clear; now, it’s smoky, foggy, and cold. It looks and feels what I imagine it would be like to live in a war zone.

In the beginning stages of the pandemic shut-down, as frightened and sad and weirded out as I was, I was feeling centered and purposeful, maybe even a little bit inspired, as strange as that might seem. I was meditating daily. My Journal of the Plague Year series was reflective, contemplative; I was finding inspirational favorite poems to read and record. I was interested in bringing comfort to others if I could, through poetry, encouraging words, reasons to be hopeful. Even this summer, I found zoom meetings with my writer friends to be sustaining and motivating, and I found literature to read that made me feel human and less afraid. But as I approach a school year, my 32nd, for which I have to reinvent everything I know about how to do my job, as the pandemic rages, and as the state of the union gets more and more depressing, I think a fatigue has set in, finally–one that has proven to be difficult to shake. And this fire on top of everything else is doing its level best to take me to dark places, away from the things, the habits and practices of mind and body, that I find healthful and helpful. Sometimes I feel hope slipping. Sentence by sentence I have slogged through this blog entry over the last four hours or so. And, as I’ve noticed that I haven’t written a single word for the better part of a month, maybe that’s part of how we get through this, sentence by sentence. For me, sentence by sentence means returning to the written word, returning to music as best as I can, and bringing the best of what I can to the new school year. Those of you in my boat, so many of you, all of you, I imagine: how do you move forward, sentence by sentence? How can you help yourself so that you are better able to help others. How can we use our gifts to light ourselves and our communities out of this mess?

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #22

Photo: Los Angeles Times

I live in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. You might say that it is the closest suburb to downtown, just south of the city center by a 15 minute car ride. In my town of Milwaukie, there are often small groups of people on the sidewalks of 99 or at the Farmer’s Market downtown holding up signs that say Black Lives Matter and deriding the current administration. While I was at the market Sunday buying Lavender plants for the yard with my wife, cars coming down the highway would honk their support for the sign wavers. No trouble. No conflict. No police. If there were alt right-white supremacists in the area, they kept quiet.

Downtown Portland has seen large scale protests for sixty days running in response to the murder of George Floyd and a spate of police violence against black Americans across the country. Early on, things were vandalized or destroyed. People looted businesses where storefront windows were shattered. Fires were set. If you were sympathetic to injustices perpetrated against Black Americans in this country and in particular aggrieved by Portland’s abysmal history along these lines, it was easy to understand the rage. But further sleuthing revealed that much of the violence and vandalism could be attributed to people outside the BLM movement, inciting the chaos either because they deliberately wanted bad PR for the movement, or they were just opportunists, looking for an excuse to act out. At any rate, what is absolutely clear is that the vandalism and the violence perpetrated by civilians represented a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of people in peaceful protest. Nevertheless, riot police were often in conflict with crowds. Tear gas and rubber bullets were commonplace. People got severely hurt.

Then in the coming weeks, outside of a wide assortment of graffiti art, the protests continued, but large scale destruction, looting, and violent protests had diminished and peaceful demonstrations seemed to be the order of the day. But in the last week or two, despite this fact, violence against protestors by local police and, horrifyingly, by unidentified federal agents from Homeland Security, has increased. Goons dressed in camo are abducting people into unmarked vehicles without identifying themselves or stating any reason for detention or arrest. An American vet was beaten for simply asking the officers to remember their oaths. A young man was shot in the head with a rubber bullet that shattered his skull. Local mothers in a line of protection in front of protestors were tear gassed. Local dads showed up with leaf blowers to protect the moms and others from the gas. A group of military veterans showed up to protect the dads with leaf blowers who were protecting the moms protecting the protestors. And then there was this woman in the photo above who showed up naked to confront the police and federal agents. Faced with all that feminine power, at least in this event, they backed down. I don’t know her name. I don’t know her story. But she has become iconic, an awesome demonstration of courage, a brilliant metaphor reflecting and/or deflecting the impotence of our nation’s current political leadership.

One thing is perfectly clear. Things got increasingly worse when the federal agents descended on our city. And the protests got substantially larger and more violent, drawing thousands and thousands to the Portland city block surrounding the federal courthouse. Somehow, between a Mayor and a Governor who stood against the presence of federal agents in our city and other factors perhaps obscure to me, the agents have left almost entirely, and last night the protestors emerged again in large numbers and without incident. Here are the opening sentences of a news piece from Dan McCarthy of KATU news:

Portland Police Bureau says protesters, not officers, were doing the enforcing downtown Thursday night. 

Police said demonstrators put out fires and told others to stop climbing the fence in front of the federal courthouse. 

As a result, police said they didn’t have any interactions with demonstrators downtown.

There are people on my facebook newsfeed who are certain that Portland is lost, that the city is burning, that the looters and the vandals and arsonists have won, that Portland will soon become a wasteland, some anarchist hellscape. Totally misinformed, no doubt watching Hannity every night, having never seen the city for themselves, knowing not a single soul participating in this historically monumental moment to save democracy and restore it for ALL of our citizens, these poor folk remain in the dark. I, for one, have never been more proud to be a Portlander, even if my vantage point is 6 or 7 miles away from the action, just down the road a peg in Milwaukie. For a few weeks there it seemed we were at the very center of the universe.    

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Journal of the Plague Year: #21

Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, has made an executive order that as of July 1st, all Oregonians must wear face masks in indoor public places, or outdoors whenever there are concentrations of people and 6 foot distancing cannot be maintained. As if on cue, my DEVO face masks were in the mailbox the day that order was announced. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had face masks for the better part of a month or two now already, and I have been wearing them, long before the governor’s call, religiously in public places. But those were not DEVO masks. I understand that I am now part of the movement, inevitable, towards the protective-mask-against-the-coronavirus as fashion accessory. I have no problem with this. If we have to do this awkward, uncomfortable thing in the name of public health, we might as well have some fun with it. Yes? No? Yes! I’ve seen some pretty stellar designs. And like the concert t-shirt, a mask with a favorite artist, writer, or band might be a cool way to wave your freak flag, to announce your fan loyalty, to promote your favorite thing. I love DEVO, I have loved DEVO for a number of decades now, and even though they are not my favorite band of all time, they were the first cool band, at least on my radar, to merchandise protective masks. So I got them. Meanwhile, it’s safe to conclude that any individual who believes that a face mask is an affront to their civil liberties is just a very stupid person. You’ve seen the videos of these people throwing tantrums in grocery stores. I have never seen such idiocy. One might conclude, as I do, that in strange and trying times, we see the worst in people come crawling to the surface. I think the opposite is true, as well. We are seeing heroism of all stripes on a daily basis as folks decide to do the right thing in the face of the pandemic and in the face of racial injustice.

It’s a strange time. Things start to loosen up and reopen. While you can’t go to a movie or see a concert, and live music seems to have completely died, you can get your haircut. You can eat at a restaurant serving clients at half capacity. You can go to your massage therapist. Most businesses are reopening to a degree. But in the world of the virus, things are not improving; in fact, they are getting terrifyingly worse. There are states in the union that ignored the virus altogether or that opened up early, and those places are paying the piper. There are only 14 states in the union, the last I heard, where the curve is flattening. I understand that Oregon is one of these, but it doesn’t seem to square with our stats that indicate a significant uptick of cases. And, of course, tragically, the country’s death toll has reached about 130,000, more than twice the casualties of the American War in Vietnam. And while all of this is happening, there are young people playing a game whereby huge parties are thrown and the winner is the first to contract COVID-19. There are folks who argue that the mask protocol is a devilish conspiracy and a violation of their civil liberties. There’s a president holding a 4th of July event at Mt. Rushmore and refusing to mandate mask-wearing for attendees. A former candidate for the President of the United States, who has been squarely anti-mask, is in the hospital with the virus. A republican member of the senate actually advocated the dissolution of the team of experts who are charged with informing the public about how to stay safe because their advice runs counter to “what the president wants.” The stupidity is astounding.

There is something uniquely American about this catastrophe. We seem to be, or many of us seem to be, so short-sighted and selfish, so unwilling to be inconvenienced, so entitled, and so resistant to facts that butt up against our personal wishes and desire for liberty, that we would willingly sacrifice our safety and the safety of our most vulnerable citizens in order to have that party on the beach, to go to that club, to go to that church, to attend that rally, or to shop without a mask. And I say it is uniquely American, especially in the Age of The Donald, because the same thing is happening nowhere else in the world, certainly, not in first world economies. It boggles the mind. I just thought of that Guided by Voices tune–“Everybody’s got a hold on hope/It’s the last thing that’s holding me.” Really, it just popped into my head. I think it might be easy and understandable to fall into despair during this time, 2020, the year that has proven to be such a suck festival. But if we look around and pay special attention, we might find lots of reasons to be hopeful. Maybe it might be good to make a list of the things, globally, socially, and personally that don’t suck. That’s your homework assignment. And here’s another lyric from Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy” album, a lyric and a melody that chokes me up every time, one that, invariably reminds me that there are always places to find hope and joy, in a drink, a friend that you love, a Talking Heads tune; even the end of the world is no competition:

And, oh, I read somewhere
That in twenty years
More or less
This human experiment will reach its violent end
But I look at you
As our second drinks arrive
The piano player’s playing “This Must Be the Place”
And it’s a miracle to be alive
One more time
There’s nothing to fear
There’s nothing to fear
There’s nothing to fear

 

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Journal of the Plague Year: #20

As a high school English teacher, I believe that on Friday, June 12, 2020, I experienced the strangest last day of school in the history of last school days. I mean, on the surface, it was somewhat unremarkable. I got out of bed at 8:30 a.m., took a shower, didn’t shave, moseyed on downstairs in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, took my meds with a glass of orange juice, boiled some water for tea, and made myself a cheesey egg sandwich. By about 9:30 I was ready to read a bit of news, mostly bad, check the Facebook, and open up my work email. I checked in with my intern to see when she might be ready to input her grades, and she said 3:00 pm. I had some time to kill, during which I walked the dogs, did some writing, some household chores, listened to some music, and I made a goodbye video for a colleague who is leaving. My intern wasn’t actually ready until about 4:30, and it took us about a half an hour to finish that task. After 5:00 I started but did not finish the check out process in a google form, you know: what’s your summer contact info, are you holding on to your keys and your computer, is anything broken inside your “classroom,” have you turned in all of your shit, grades, fee reports, your professional development log, and a pdf of your semester grade book? And then I filled out Incomplete forms for the five (yes, only five) kids who hadn’t done any work before schools closed or afterwards.

I administered no finals. I looked at no student work. I didn’t even enter the schoolhouse. I saw or spoke to zero students. There were zero cheers of excitement from teenagers as the bell closed out their last final exam. There were no bells. No students were visibly stressing about their grades. I gave no grades. I said zero goodbyes. I gave beloved colleagues zero hugs. I attended zero end of the year staff parties. My final year-end conference with my supervising administrator didn’t happen. I submitted no student growth goal data. I didn’t clean up my classroom. I didn’t pack up my stuff. Almost nothing happened that would normally happen on a typical last day of the school year.

And today, Monday, in turn, was the strangest teacher work day at the end of the year in the history of end of the year teacher work days. We held a virtual staff meeting at 9:00 am, the purpose of which was primarily to say goodbye to four members of the staff who were leaving this year. So folks took turns saying nice things about them and it was lovely and moving, despite the sterility of the Google equivalent of Zoom. We couldn’t hug anyone or shake anybody’s hands, but in every case the sincerity of good feeling was palpable in the words of every individual who spoke about their beloved colleagues. After we said goodbye to our friends, distantly, our principal somewhat unceremoniously concluded the meeting, hanging around for a bit to answer any lingering checkout questions. I had a handful of things to do before I could officially wrap up the school year, you know: submit my summer contact info, let the head secretary know if I am holding on to my keys and my computer, if anything is broken inside my “classroom,” and whether or not I had turned in all of my shit, grades, fee reports, my professional development log, and a pdf of my semester grade book. Check, check, check.

I did not run around the building like a headless chicken. I did not spend most of my last days talking to good people that I wouldn’t see for two and a half months. I didn’t work my way through the last pile of final exams. I wasn’t the last one out of the door. I never even had to go through a door–at least, not that one, that big iron double door at the end of the hall by the parking lot. I didn’t stand there for a few minutes after those doors shut behind me wondering if I had forgotten anything. I did not, once I remembered that I had indeed forgotten something, have to put my stuff in the car and walk all the way around to the front of the building, walking all the way through the school again to pick up what I had forgotten, a thing, it goes without saying, that was likely not very important to begin with. One more time through the school–that’s probably what it was really about (but not this year), because really, as much as I love summer break, I love my schoolhouse, and truly, during the summer months, I miss it. I hope to return in September.

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Journal of the Plague Year: #19

The United States is dealing with two plagues simultaneously: the plague of the coronavirus pandemic and the plague of racism. It’s pretty clear to most white folks how they can protect themselves against COVID-19: social distance, wash your damn hands, don’t touch your face, wear a mask, stay home if you’re feeling sick, get tested if you have symptoms, quarantine. It’s less clear to white folks how best to help solve the plague of racism. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that it is, in fact, in our ballpark; it is our responsibility–our solemn responsibility. We broke it. We must fix it. But how? For so long, even liberal, well intentioned white people have been oblivious to systemic racism, convinced somehow that we lived in a post-racial society, or, so insulated that they never understood the depth of the problem, or, unaware of their own deep-seated racism. Some others are way out front, learning about anti-racism, becoming the best allies they can become; some of these folks have been at this for decades. And then there are those who are blatantly, unapologetically racist, and are that way because . . . Christ, who knows why. It’s difficult not to make broad generalized strokes–they are southerners, they are rednecks, they are right-wingnuts, they are nazis, they are republicans, they are ignorant, they are afraid. That pretty much covers the stereotype spectrum. And the stark political and cultural division in this country makes it very difficult to simply “bring up to speed” our recalcitrant brethren. They vilify those on the left as libtards and communists and heathen. And they hate the people who are characterized this way in the same way progressives hate the injustices and violence perpetrated against black Americans and other Americans of color. People are entrenched. So we seem to be at an impasse. Or are we?

For the first time during the corona virus shelter-in-place order from March 13, I found myself inside of a crowd. On Tuesday night I attended the Black Lives Matter Milwaukie Sit-In for Solidarity on the waterfront. There were hundreds of people there, spacing themselves from each other as well as they could on the grounds of the park, almost all wearing masks. And despite being, perhaps, the most racially diverse group of people to ever congregate in Milwaukie, most of the people there were white folks. But all of the speakers were black. And that is exactly how it should be.

Part of how we get beyond this impasse, first of all, for those of us who are sympathetic to the idea of justice and equality, is to listen. And even for those of us who consider ourselves allies, that listening can be painful, like it was to hear one of the speakers, a 2020 graduate, a former student of mine, talk about the difficulties she faced in the school where I teach. But this listening has to be done. So I’m listening. And it appears many of my Milwaukie neighbors are also listening. And we’re fired up. I don’t think that I have ever seen a gathering like the one I saw Tuesday, for any political issue, on Milwaukie’s waterfront or in its streets. I could be mistaken there, but it seems to me that my little town is waking up from a long slumber and I’m doing my best to wake up with it. It’s a step in the right direction–a step in the left direction.

Continuing with the tradition of ending with a poem, my choice today is “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes. One of the pieces of advice for white people on a flier that was circulating at the rally was to read black authors, black poets, black journalists. I know the power of reading to be the best way to exercise one’s empathy muscles, and personally, I know that until I started reading black authors, late, when I was almost as old as the speaker in this Hughes poem, 22, I was oblivious. With each piece I read by a Hughes, a McKay, a Hurston, a Walker, a Morrison, an Ellison, I became less and less oblivious. As an English teacher, I am biased toward literature, but I do believe with all of my heart that it is a correct bias, that literature is part of the cure, a significant one at that.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #18

It’s been almost two full months since my last entry in A Journal of the Plague Year, although, as part of National Poetry Writing Month I wrote 30 poems, many of which were, by their nature and subject matter, a continuation of the journal in another form. During the month of May I took a little bit of a hiatus, posting to the blog just a couple of times, both times, not about living through a pandemic, but about music, one of the key components of my survival during this, and other, difficult times in life. My last post was on May 11th, and on May 25th George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. Since then, words are difficult things to manage, and rather than writing, I have been reading and listening to the words of others, the words of people who are far better prepared or who can articulate the tragedy of our time more effectively than I ever could.

But today there is much to say, and I resume A Journal of the Plague Year in prose. There are things I would like to share, like the fact that I got a haircut this week, or that I’ve had a meal in a restaurant for the first time in almost three months, or that I’ve mowed the lawn a bunch of times now with my new Electric Mower, but all of this feels absolutely stupid and inconsequential. I mean, even if I had the most adorable puppy or kitten video ever known to humankind, I’d feel stupid about posting it now.

Even my recent facebook series of posting my most influential records from the turn of the 21st century onward, seems insignificant, superfluous, slight, insensitive. Except that: I am discovering that the music of the 21st century that has been most influential to me was often made by artists of color and by women. And that seems significant. As a child, and in my formative years, I listened to and enjoyed black music I heard on the radio, had tremendous respect for the black musicians who backed up Zappa’s band, and as a teenager and in my 20’s there were a handful of women who completely rocked my world, but it probably wasn’t until the 90’s, when I heard Fishbone and Rage Against the Machine for the first time and was exposed to the fierceness of Tori Amos, P.J. Harvey, and Liz Phair, that my record collection and musical proclivities began to diversify. My list of influential 21st century artists includes Brittany Howard, Janelle Monae, Anderson Paak, Childish Gambino, Mitski Miyawaki, Thao Nguyen, Neko Case, and Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. All of these artists are making music, I think, that I find challenging, beautiful, content-rich, music that expands the head and the heart, music that has taught me, I think, a lot about the world from perspectives that are radically different from my own. I am listening.

Watching the news of the protests, this incredible convulsion in our country, my emotions have been all over the map. I am outraged. I am disgusted. I am worried. I am terrified. I am inspired. I am hopeful. Yesterday, I was reading about the action in Washington D.C., that on the 9th day of protests, the largest crowd had assembled and the police had essentially disappeared. Something is shifting and I felt a tremendous surge of hope and tears welled up in my eyes. I believe this nation is at a crossroads and a turning point. Politically speaking, it has been the most devastating three and a half years of my life time, and it culminates with this pandemic, 100,000 American deaths and counting, and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the catalysts perhaps for what looks like might be a long overdue reckoning in this country with systemic racism and the overt oppression of people of color. We cannot go back. There is only forward. I am learning how to be an anti-racist. I am trying to find the best way to be an ally. It is perhaps, one more good reason not to retire from teaching.

In other Plague Year News: we are moving into the last week of the school year, and the 8th or 9th week of distance teaching and learning. It has been the most paradoxical of times. My seniors gone, having been cut loose almost immediately after the closure on March 13, and the gift of having an exceptionally capable and caring student teacher taking over my sophomores, I have had some time on my hands, the understatement of the year. I have counseled my intern to the best of my ability, I have participated in staff meetings and department meetings and professional learning communities, I have recorded a whole slew of poetry for the pandemic, I have immersed myself again in Neruda, I have helped advise the roll-out of a district on-line literary magazine, I have read some, and I have written a lot: 18 Journals of the Plague Year, 30 poems, a couple of music blogs, and I’ve been working somewhat in earnest on the draft of a new book, a memoir in micro chapters about religion and the lack thereof. I realize that I have been exceedingly lucky in all of this. Dickens said it best in the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t even have to quote it.

I wish you all health and safety. As has been customary at the conclusion of each journal in this series, I would like to leave you with a poem, one that seems appropriate for the moment, as much so now as when it was published in 1921. “America,” by Claude McKay.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #17

Most importantly, I will not be able to BE with my seniors in IB English, not even remotely. I won’t see their faces, hear their voices, read their writing, laugh at their good humor, be in awe of their intelligence and kindness. But additionally, I will not be able to formally finish the Hamlet unit with my seniors. I will not be able to read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with them. I will not be able to read Death of a Salesman with my students. I will not be able to read Waiting for Godot with my students. I will not be able to ask them, what is your dream, what are you waiting for? I will not be able to explore with them the six tenants of existentialism: existence precedes essence, time is of the essence, humanism is at the center, freedom and responsibility are key, ethics are paramount, and integrity is all. I will not be able to share with them the names that many of them will have heard for the first time in their lives: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. I will not be able to share with them the poems that would prepare them for Paper I. I will not be able to share with them the random questions about drama that would prepare them for Paper 2. I will not be able to commiserate with them as they prepare for and then spend four hours taking these brutal IB written examinations, which, while brutal, are still so much fun and provide so much rigorous reward. And afterwards, they will not be able to tell me how they felt well-prepared for the task, how they felt confident about their work. Finally, I will not be able to see them make fools of themselves as I ask them for a final exam to write and perform a play of their two-year IB English experience. I will not be able to do these things with my seniors. And all through the staff meeting this morning on Google Hangouts, I was fighting back tears, unsuccessfully.

For today’s poem, (#9), inspired by the NaPoWriMo website, I offer up a concrete poem, which is not really a concrete poem, but a poem about concrete, and improvised into a voice memo, and revised only slightly, because, god damn it.

#353: Concrete Poem

Concrete,
seemingly solid,
cement,
deceptively hard,
rocky,
stupid and orange,
sometimes grey,
sometimes blacktop,
asphalt, potholed
like my driveway.
You play ball
on the concrete,
basketball
in the park
or in the
driveway,
foursquare
on the
playground.
If you fall,
little rocks
embed themselves
inside your knee-
skin.
This is a concrete poem,
but it doesn’t look
anything like what
it’s about.

And finally, yesterday, I wrote a poem that stole a first line from Emily Dickinson, but today, that poem still haunts me, so I read it here–because I believe it helps.

 

 

 

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #16

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We saw it coming. In fact, it’s not at all surprising. Nevertheless, I was surprised (!) to hear our governor’s announcement today that schools would remain closed until the end of the year. Distance Learning would be the modality that would take us through to the end. What I found most distressing in this news–and maybe this is just selfish of me–is that seniors, the class of 2020, so long as they were on track to graduate on March 13, will receive passing grades in their classes for the second semester. If I understand this correctly, it means that I am not expected to offer them any more learning opportunities. I am to teach no new concepts, I am to give and assess no new assignments. Essentially, we are done. Wait a minute, I say. We were not even finished with the unit! Can we not at least finish the flipping unit? I don’t have an answer to that question yet. I will ask it, but I predict that the answer will be no, you can’t even finish the flipping unit.

Meanwhile, it’s still national poetry month. I find myself looking through Emily Dickinson for a good first line to steal, as per the optional prompt today from NaPoWriMo. It wasn’t difficult to find the right one.

#352: A Poem Beginning with a Line from Dickinson

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
when I Learned I might never See
these young People again–
when I counted them in my head
and tried to Remember,
to record their little Lives–
what I knew of them–into
Long Term Memory, and I tried
to hear their Voices, too, as if we
were still in that Room together–
where we might be able to Say,
while looking into each other’s Eyes–
our Sadness, our Goodbyes.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #15

Famous people are sick and dying. Yesterday we learned of the passing of Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne. I love that band. He was 52 years old. That makes me sad and anxious. So, among the new coronavirus developments is this understanding that you don’t have to be old to be especially vulnerable. The CDC is asking us to wear masks in public while there is, as far as I know, still a shortage of these things for medical professionals. We’re seeing some more blatantly reckless behavior from politicians, like the governor from Georgia who apparently just learned yesterday that the virus can be carried and spread by people who are asymptomatic, causing him to shut down his state three or four weeks after almost everyone else did it. There ought to be a law against that. How many people did that stupid man endanger? According to my research, about 10 million people.

As we reach the end of the fourth teacher work day in this new reality, it’s still National Poetry Month. My workday ends by trying to write a poem. It’s interesting to me that the NaPoWriMo website has said in the first three days nothing about the pandemic. Maybe that’s intentional. Writing creatively might be a way for us to take our minds off our troubling current situation. I really did try to write a poem with today’s suggestion of using a rhyme generator for inspiration. I drafted a funny little thing after collecting about 40 different rhymes for the word “butter.” But I found myself returning to A Journal of the Plague Year and writing more poetry for the pandemic. My strategy, perhaps, is to go through rather than around. Here’s my 347th blog poem, my third offering for National Poetry Month, 2020:

#347: Distance Learning

Don’t stand so close to me.
Everything we used to do with
people we should now do with
computers. We’ve had some
practice with this. Soon we’ll
be old pros, but for now,
we’re going the distance.
It’s going to be a long road
and nobody I know has a map.
Distance makes the heart
something-something but
I’m not sure I buy it.
No exertion of the legs,
Thoreau said, could bring
two minds closer together.
He may have been wrong
about that. Maybe not.
How far could you throw
a bouquet so that your lover
could catch it? I know now
one friend who is sick.
It’s not a severe case, but
she has to stay away
from her husband and they
must communicate through
a hole in the wall like
Pyramus and Thisbe
from the play Pyramus
and Thisbe
, or A Midsummer
Night’s Dream
, if you like it.
There’s a forest in that story
so deep, the distance seems
impossible. We’re in that boat.
I know there are new metaphors
right around the corner, hiding,
the little bastards. We’ll dig
them out, learning about distance,
distance learning, and in some
distant day, I am almost certain,
we’ll be able to touch each other again.

id-distance-learning

 

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