In Memoriam: Papa Glen

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Just to make sure readers don’t jump to conclusions upon reading two memorial essays side-by-side: no, my parents did not die within a week of each other, but seven years apart. I decided it would be appropriate and right to include this memorial essay for my father as a companion piece to the one I wrote for my mom. I had not published it here before, in large part because I wrote it almost a year before I started blogging, but perhaps also because I knew there would come a day not so far into the future when I would write one for Mother as well, and that there might be an occasion to publish both of them together.

It’s a profound thing to find yourself at some stage in your life without parents. I feel fortunate to have had them in my life for so long, but I think it’s true that losing your parents is difficult at any age. I suspected I would feel suddenly unmoored and alone, sourceless. I worried about losing touch with my brothers and my sister. I don’t feel that way, and I’m no longer worried. Even though it’s not always possible, I know that the declining health of parents has the capacity to bring families together, to act as a spark toward stronger family cohesion. That’s what happened for us and I’m confident that our newly discovered cohesion will continue. And the deaths of our parents can also be an inspiration to reflect more deeply than ever about our source, our origins, our histories. As it turns out, what I ended up saying about both my mother and my father in their respective eulogies is that their deaths on this earth, the ending of their corporeal form does not even begin to finish or complete their work in our lives. They are with us, now and always. And these two essays, one for Mama Shirley and this one for Papa Glen, have helped me to realize that fact and to proclaim it.

So I offer up the following remembrance, written and spoken in October of 2010, as a celebration of my father’s life alongside my mother’s, as a window into the life of my family for whoever might be interested, and as a comfort, perhaps, for people in grief for a lost father.

 

Dad: a eulogy for Louis Glen Jarmer
Delivered Saturday, October 23, 2010 at St. John the Baptist’s Catholic Church

First of all I’d like to say what an honor it is to have been asked by my family to speak at this service. It is truly an honor. As ludicrous as it is to sum up a life, to describe a man in less than ten minutes, here is my best shot, out of my own head, but with a little help from my friends, at a description of Dad, a portrait of Louis Glen Jarmer.

He was a tolerant man.

He put up with 10 plus years of my drumming—it must have been bad drumming at first, and even when it wasn’t bad—it was always loud—one or two rooms away. He never told me to stop playing.

He was supportive.

He came to all of my school plays and concerts once he was retired. He didn’t make it to as many of Rick’s football games while he was working—but Rick remembers one in particular where Dad’s unflinching support for his son was evidenced by a wager with Uncle Jerry for a bottle of Scotch.

More recently, Dad’s support for Rick was demonstrated by an enthusiastic greeting at the airport as Rick and Laurie welcomed two lovely Russian children into the family.

And many, many years ago, he took a week off work to stay with Jan when Tim, her third child, was born.

Dad was generous and thoughtful.

Rick remembers as a kid being able to rummage through Dad’s lunch bag for goodies at the end of his work day.

She was in the 7th grade, and Dad surprised Jan with a beautiful aqua dress, nylons and patent leather shoes for her confirmation ceremony, apparently after Mom had said no.

Dad brought home fancy Valentine’s Day Gifts from See’s Candy downtown. And the Easter baskets, hidden in one of four closets in the house, were legendary—not the hiding, but the baskets.

He let me order records from his record club—the first records in my collection, the ones I hadn’t stolen from my brothers and sister, were gifts from Dad.

He volunteered countless hours at Providence Hospital—was, in fact, for a time, the President of the Ladies Auxiliary! He also spent countless hours volunteering, with Mom, for this church—collecting money, countless hours counting money—I don’t think he took any of it.

He was honest

To a fault, he was honest. Wouldn’t let himself shortchange anybody a nickel—would probably drive back to the store if he realized he had accidentally taken such advantage—he never took advantage.

He was just.

I have not a single memory of being treated unfairly by my father—not even in that mistaken sense that children sometimes have about the discipline or judgment meted out by parents. I never felt slighted by the man in the least bit. Even when things were tough in my life and I was making poor decisions, his reactions were measured and thoughtful. He spanked me once and I think I deserved it.

And my brother Rick recalls being fired for being drunk on the job and Dad having to come pick him up—the consequences spoke for themselves: Dad didn’t say a word. No criticism. No judgment.

He was adventurous

In his 70’s, no less, camping with Dave and Tina, Cecil and Marion and their family, the report is that he went on a kind of unsupervised joyride on Dave’s ATV. He had the time of his life, apparently, but it made Dave and Tina so nervous they had to ban him from the vehicle for the rest of his days unless he had proper supervision.

He was a trickster: the first time he played chess with me—he said he didn’t know how to play—let me teach him the game, and then proceeded to kick my ass.

Glen Jarmer was a sober man—meaning he was very serious. Stoic, we say about this kind of man. Never complained. Was pretty tight-lipped. Not very emotional. Not a sentimental man—although I found once a love poem to mom in a hope chest. Outside of these occasional bursts of feeling, yes, indeed, he was a sober man, except when he wasn’t.

He was a good drinker: To my knowledge he never got sick and he always drank responsibly. And he was funny and lively and silly—and this is not a pro-drinking eulogy—I know there are some young people in the church today—but I have to say that we saw in Dad, on a couple of Martinis, endearing and positive traits that his normal inhibitions prevented us from seeing on a day-to-day basis. So we got to know him a little better: Dad with a drink in his hand was a man that you wanted to be with—just as Dad without a drink in his hand was a man you wanted to be with.

He was a learner. I think he did much more than look at the pictures in National Geographic—and just a few years ago, he tackled five or six hundred pages of a book by Bill Bryson called A Short History of Nearly Everything—a kind of crash course in every field of science known to man. Dad was curious. He wanted to know things.

Louis Glen Jarmer was loyal—to wife, to children, to friends, to right-action, and to church. I think maybe this last year was the first year in his life he missed a mass. He was loyal to the Corp of Engineers—but that must not have been as important to him—to this day, none of us can really say what it was Dad did for a living!

What have I forgotten? It’s so important not to forget anything.

Here are some things that he loved. He loved the night sky. And he loved the moon, in fact he claimed it as his own. Routinely, family members would say either, there’s “Daddy’s moon” or there’s “Glenny’s moon” in reference to it, especially when it was in the full.

He loved candy.

He loved good food. And he loved to cook—I have more memories of my dad in the kitchen than in any other room of the house.

He loved his home. He did not want to leave it.

He loved his country. He served it honorably, twice. He wasn’t out there waving flags—his patriotism was quiet and purposeful; he cared deeply about what happened in the United States of America and he took his responsibilities as a citizen very seriously.

He loved nature. He loved the natural world, mountains, trees, the desert, the ocean. He loved to hunt; thankfully, he only killed a couple of things. He loved animals—the majestic, beautiful, strange, dangerous ones—interestingly enough he was never really fond of household pets—but tolerated them for the sake of his family and maybe showed some affection from time to time, when no one was looking, for a dog or a cat.

He loved to camp and taught all of his children this. I bought an Airstream, because it’s an Airstream, but mostly because I wanted to share with my son what Daddy shared with me: his love of the outdoors and his love of camping.

And he loved us. As far as I can tell, his last words in this life, before going into surgery the last time to repair that havoc in his body, were “I love you guys,” and then later, when it was becoming clear to all of us that he would not be getting better this time, he said “I love you” to Mom. His last words—maybe his last coherent thoughts: an expression of love.

I knew him imperfectly, I know. And I knew him differently than my brothers and my sister and my mother and all of you knew him. I wish I could have known him better and in all of the ways that we know him collectively—and I wish I could have said thank you. Thank you for being such a great father. I love him. And I miss him already. But he is always here. He is not gone, really. Every time I look in the mirror, or in the faces of my family or in the face of my son, I will see him.

Dad chose to die on a beautiful day; it was sunny and warm on that day. Dad chose kind of a yucky day for his funeral. I think there’s something to that.

I want to close with a poem by Mary Oliver that expresses in the finest way that I have ever seen what I hope my father may have felt about dying, and what I would hope all of us feel about it, when our time comes.

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in Autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measel-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–Mary Oliver

Louis Glen Jarmer was no mere visitor to this world. He really lived here. His legacy is lasting and positive. He changed the world in his way. We are forever grateful for the gift of his life.

 

 

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In Memoriam: Mama Shirley

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A Eulogy for Shirley Elaine Jarmer, Delivered Saturday, June 10, 2017 at St. John the Baptist’s Catholic Church:

Friends, Jarmers, and Kidds. On behalf of our family, I thank you all for being here today. But we need to stop meeting like this.

Once again, I have the great honor and responsibility of sharing with you remembrances of a dearly beloved parent, family member, and friend on her passing. What I tried to do seven years ago for my Daddy I will try now to do for Mama, Shirley Elaine Jarmer.

She was a remarkable woman. Although, sadly, I know little about my mother’s childhood, I know she was a dedicated daughter, loved her parents deeply. She was a high school dropout who nevertheless had beautiful penmanship and serious skills in writing and math. She was a loving and super young mother of three. The fourth child came late—that would be me, not a mistake, she said, but a surprise. Pregnant with me, I heard a story recently that Mom just couldn’t believe it—“How did this happen to me?” she said.

She became, perhaps before it was acceptable to do so, a working mother. But that’s a dumb thing to say, after all, because what mother is not hard at work all the time. No, I mean she was employed outside the home in the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s. She worked at Berg’s department store, she took receptionist jobs at an insurance company and for Jarmer Electric, she did a stint in textiles for a division of the White Stag brand, and she was a checker in Fred Meyer apparel. I think Mom worked so she could have an independent income all her own—to raise what she might call FUNNY MONEY. Because Dad was kind of a penny pincher. In her retirement she worked less for herself and more for others: she did volunteer work with the Providence Hospital Lady’s Auxiliary, worked the gift shop, and later she counted money every Sunday for this sacred institution, the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.

Earlier, I called Shirley a loving mother—kind of a cliché suitable for probably any mother who loves her kids, but I remember Mom as going the extra mile in the love department. She was kind, gentle, comforting, welcoming, and caring. I knew my father loved me, but mama’s love was huge and expressed with freedom and tenderness, with kisses, hugs, pets, and food. I think a general and all-capital SWEETNESS was a trait she shared with her sister Beverly and one that I see reflected in Beverly’s daughter Suzanne. Shirley was sweetness embodied and she loved her children, but she loved her grandchildren and her extended family; she loved her friends as well, and she shared her sweetness with all.

And she was an adoring wife to Dad. She took such good, loving care of him. I remember Mom washing his hair in the kitchen sink—which must have been difficult for a woman of her stature—massaging his head and shoulders in the evening as he sat on the floor in front of her in a chair before the fire or listening to music together. She took good care of him in his final difficult year. She treasured him. “My Daddy”—she called him this—she lovingly referred to him chiefly as the father of her children, and even though I know she loved him in lots of other ways, perhaps she cherished him most because of this.

Her last request: I want to be with my Daddy.

Mom demonstrated to me every single day Dad was alive, and even after, what a strong marriage could look like.

Mom was full of personality. Everybody loved Shirley. She lit up a room—or a campground. She was the life of the party. She was super funny, could be very silly and she had a penchant for baby talk, one she kept up until the very end, speaking to her favorite nurses in a childlike, playful way, even in the last days of her life. She had a seriously dominant cuteness gene, a gene she passed on, I must admit, to at least one of her children. You’d never know it looking at me—but I can baby talk with the best of them.

Part of her dynamic personality included her way with words, or at least, with particular words or phrases used often and to great effect. She had, for example, several alternatives for swearing.

“For crying out loud,” she’d say. A more extreme variation and therefore my favorite: “For crying in a bucket!”

And here’s an odd one: When frustrated or angry she’d say: “Manischewitz!” (I only just recently, like within the last few weeks, learned the origin of this word. Did you know this? It’s the last name of a Rabbi who at the end of the 19th century founded a company that would produce kosher food and wine. Who knows why she picked up the habit of using this poor Rabbi’s name in vain; we’ll never know).

When things were wrong or went badly: “This is the pits! This is just the pits!” I heard Aunt Marian say this as she visited mom the night before Shirley died. Marian speculated that maybe she picked up the habit of that phrase from our mom).

Another one of my favorite Mom expressions along these same lines: “This is for the birds!”—This particular idiom is a puzzler—I’m not sure what it means: whatever bad thing that just happened, I guess, is good for birds somehow? It’s certainly not good for us but might be fitting for birds, because, you know, birds are okay with almost everything?

And last but not least: “I can’t believe it.” Like when she was pregnant with me: “How did this happen? I can’t believe it.” This one fascinates me. It’s probably the phrase she used more than any other. And I think it represents this part of her personality—she was just always mystified by the unexpected, both the good and the bad, puzzled when people did great or stupid or terrible things or when things went horribly wrong in her circle or in the world. “I just can’t believe it.” She preferred things in order. And she liked it when one thing followed the next in a logical reasoned sequence. She liked things, people, and events to be neat and tidy. Consequently, because things, people, and events are rarely neat and tidy, she said she couldn’t believe it a lot. “I just can’t believe it.”

Finally, her choice of nicknames for people, most frequent of which was the mutation of the family name: Jama! If you were a Jarmer and you were in some kind of mischief, she’d playfully call you Jama. If you weren’t a Jarmer and you were in some kind of mischief you were still a Jama. Everybody was a Jama. And if you weren’t a Jarmer or a Jama, you were a farmer, and if you weren’t a farmer, you were a Charley. I have no idea where this came from. For a time she was calling everybody Charley.

She had a special nickname for her son-in-law Kevin. He was her “favorite son-in-law.” Quite an honor—a coveted, highly competitive post. (Just in case the joke is lost on you: Kevin was Mom’s only son-in-law).

But, in keeping with her general sweetness, she also called EVERYONE honey, dear, sweetheart, or punkin (my phonetic spelling of mama’s “pumpkin”).  Everybody was a honey or a punkin. And everyone, no matter what size, was little. A little punkin. A little honey. That little doctor. My little daddy. My little David. And not wanting to offend anyone, she would always think of some gentle way to describe what a person might be sensitive about. Her last doctor, a bald guy, she described as being “short of hair.”

She loved playing games with her family, mostly cards, gin rummy, progressive rummy, Uno, or Crazy 8’s. The story goes that she stayed up until 1:00 a.m. playing Crazy 8’s with her niece Kate, yelling “Wild Baby” every time an 8 was played, keeping everybody else in the house awake. She loved a moderate and conservative round of gambling. She loved a good meal and hated a bad one. Like Dad, she loved her martinis. She loved camping. She loved animals, was probably the sole reason why we ever had a pet in the house—and we always did. She loved “swimming” or rather, floating in the pool that mom and dad built. She loved to look good. Loved a good hairdo. She loved beauty—from her fancy jewelry to her funny little dancing solar windowsill toys of which she had acquired quite a collection, and flowers. As far as I can tell, as she looked at the bouquet we had brought from the hospital to her room in hospice, her last coherent words were “they’re so pretty.”

In closing out this remembrance, this portrait of mama Shirley, I’d like to conclude by saying that mom was a woman of values:

One of her chief values I’ve already discussed: Loving kindness. And acceptance, tolerance—she welcomed all into her home—and I think she evolved a great deal as our family diversified; she evolved way beyond the intolerance of the culture in which she grew up.

She valued honesty and responsibility—even if it takes a long, long time, 50 years maybe, one must be truthful and accountable. She was forgiving and forgiven in bountiful measure.

She valued gratitude. She exuded gratitude; she was appreciative, always thankful for what other people gave to her or did for her: She didn’t want to trouble anyone. To a fault, she didn’t want her issues, whether physical, emotional, or moral, to be anybody else’s burden, so she was often tight lipped when it came to describing her own pain or sorrow, but she was always grateful when someone helped her out—and said so. “Thank you,” she’d say.

Last, she valued family.

Even if we have no right to do so, it makes sense that we do it: we try to make meaning—we interpret the behaviors of our loved ones—especially in these crucial last moments, to help us make sense of, to add meaning to the ends of their lives. And this is what I noticed about Mom —Mama waited to die until she could spend a full night with each of her children in succession; Rick, Jan, Dave, and I were all able to be with her for an entire night over the last four nights of her life—and she waited to die until she could spend the last moments with her only surviving immediate family member, her brother Bill.

Among all the tremendous gifts of life and love she gave to us all, what a gift she gave to us here—giving each of us in turn an opportunity to say goodbye in our own way. Thoughtful, considerate, and selfless to the very last. That was our mama, your grandma, your auntie Shirley, your sister, your friend, your parishioner.

From Rumi, the 13th century Persian mystic poet: “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.”

Godspeed, mama Shirley. You will always be with us in every moment of every waking day, in our memory, in our hearts and souls, and even in the sweetest of our dreams.

Postscript: Tremendous gratitude from us, Shirley’s children, to Aunt Marian, Suzanne and Gene, Uncle Bill and Aunt Leslie for being with us and with mom steadfastly through the last few weeks. You have been a tremendous help and comfort.

 

 

 

 

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#283: I Dream of a Song

dreaming

It was crazy.
I dreamed
I had written
a song
fully formed
and recorded
about my mom
and then my dead
friend called me
on the phone
and wondered
about copyright
permissions because
I think she wanted
to use it for some
other purpose.
I wish I could
remember the song,
the lyrics, the tune,
why my dead
friend wanted it.
All I know is that
I felt it was a
very good song,
maybe my best,
and it was about
my mom who is
very ill and it reached
my friend on the other
side and she called me
on the phone.

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As a Result of Maintaining a Regular Blog…

mandala-tree-of-life

I have found a book.  It just appeared there. I wasn’t intentionally writing a book. I was just blogging. One day I decided to look closely at a pattern I saw emerging (among many patterns), and there I found a book! I found a book of poems, needing revision, sure, but almost fully formed, a book of poems about teaching, written in partially shitty rough drafts over a four year stint of keeping up a regular blog and publishing those shitty rough drafts during the course of National Poetry Writing Month and beyond.

It strikes me as a bit unorthodox. Maybe I’ve mentioned this conundrum before, but I’m a fiction writer, a fiction writer who does not write fiction on his blog site, but instead, writes poems and essays. I know most serious poets, or at least, most serious poets that I know, do not write poems on their blog sites, do not publish poems in that realm as they occur to them. That’s just not what serious poets do (whatever that means). I guess it means that serious poets typically draft and revise and revise and revise until they are happy enough to send out a poem. They keep doing this. Eventually, a number of their poems are published in lit mags, and maybe simultaneously or concurrently or subsequently they discover they have enough poetry for a manuscript. They assemble a book and ship that baby off to poetry presses. Or they go through a similar process while knowing ahead of the game that they are working toward some conceptual continuity. I just kept writing and posting poems, and four years later, I look back and find this cache of poems about teaching, most of which I kind of like, and most of which form a nice little arch that will neatly work in collection together as a bonafide book!

One could read all of those poems here. But my feeling about this is that when they are together in sequence, and after they’ve been polished up, they’ll be better. I’m going to immediately go out and try to find homes for some of them, compile my favorites, and make a manuscript. Maybe by the time fall rolls around they will have found their way out into the world. I’ll see what bites. Wish me luck.

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100 Consecutive Days of Meditation Practice; 31 Days Without Sugar, Dairy, Grains, Legumes, Alcohol, and Soy; It’s Spring!

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And no sugar that is not a natural byproduct of any of those items on the left.

Today my Insight Timer, an iphone app that keeps track of how many consecutive days and how many minutes and hours one spends in meditation practice, confirmed for me the 100th consecutive day of sitting for at least 10 minutes, every other Sunday as much as an hour, on a cushion. Today I have set two personal records. 100 days of mindfulness practice is the first. The second record is that I am on day 31 without alcohol, sugar, dairy products, grains, beans, and soy. I have successfully completed the Whole 30 project. So I thought I would check in today to do a little bit of reflection about the results, and about what I think this all means for me.

Result #1: I have lost weight. I’m not a big boy by any means, but things were protruding somewhat conspicuously in the middle. That protrusion has subsided somewhat and I think, depending on the accuracy of the scale or my memory, I’ve lost almost 10 pounds.

Result #2: I sleep better. I find myself going to sleep earlier and waking up earlier. I find myself dreaming more vividly. I have not heard in 30 days any complaints from my sleeping companion about snoring. There are times when I wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty getting back to sleep, kept awake by what I have come to call “hamsters.” But this is an entirely different kind of problem from the fitful sleeping fueled by alcohol that might have been an almost weekly problem for me heretofore. And napping in the afternoon after work has all but disappeared–except on maybe one or two occasions during the month when I was suffering from a minor cold or recovering from a night with the hamsters.

Result #3: I have experienced a boost in energy. It seems I have more fuel and there’s a certainty that this new fuel reserve is a direct byproduct of the foodstuff I am consuming, and more importantly, the foodstuff I am NOT consuming. No sugar, breads, pastas, dairy, or alcohol (I see these intuitively as the main culprits) to put a drag on the day. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Result #4: Concerning alcohol, I know now that if I choose to, I can stop drinking. This was actually a question for me before this whole project got underway. I worried about it. And I meditated on it. And I am happy to report that I am not an alcoholic. As I look ahead, what I hope is that I have given myself permission and an opportunity to rethink my relationship with the stuff. I can’t see myself as a teetotaller, but I can see myself as a person who drinks less habitually and more mindfully, cautiously, moderately. That’s the kind of drinker I’d like to be. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Result #5: I have felt happy more often, sometimes unaccountably so. Maybe only once this entire month have I felt what one might call “blue.” I wept today over the end of Death of a Salesman, but that’s different. That’s an appropriate response to emotional stimuli, rather than a sense of gloom or boredom or discontentedness that would sometimes overwhelm me out of nowhere. So, there’s been less of that. And the happiness I’m describing is not some kind of feeling of fulfillment, ultimate satisfaction, a sense that I’ve arrived, but rather a kind of joyful bug, an invasion of mirth or wonder. Glee for no good reason. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Final Result: I believe somewhat without any evidence whatsoever that my meditation practice made it possible for me to successfully complete my Whole 30 project. I can’t demonstrate a causal relationship, but here are two activities occurring simultaneously in my life. Did the meditation practice influence the success of the Food Project or did the Food Project facilitate the successful conclusion of 100 days of meditation practice or do the two have nothing whatsoever to do with each other? Don’t spoil it for me. I think meditation helped. But perhaps, more so than what it is I was doing, it’s possible that ANY discipline religiously observed might pave the way for another discipline religiously observed. And I don’t mean religious religiously (but I suppose if I was a praying man and I was praying for 100 days straight I would be convinced that these prayers were answered), I mean religiously in the sense of its definition, three definitions down: scrupulously faithful; conscientious I could have been praying, sure, or exercising, or writing a poem, or maintaining a zen rock and sand garden, or drinking a magic potion; the devoted practice done repeatedly might just pave the way for other life goals or projects. You know what they say: success breeds success. So this is all I can claim: I think the meditation helped, primarily in the way that it disciplined me and perhaps made possible the discipline I would need for The Food Project, not to mention the other things I think meditation achieves for me: it centers, it mellows, it cools, it calms, it evens out, it stabilizes, it connects, it reflects, it resonates, it quiets. I have faith in the science that says it’s beneficial in part because I feel its benefits. And it’s spring. There’s that too, after all.

bell2    

 

 

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Educational Fantasy #3: Two Teachers in Every Classroom

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In 1984 and 1992, respectively, Ted Sizer, in his seminal works Horace’s Compromise and Horace’s School, argued that there was such a thing in a teacher’s class load as an optimal number of students for educational gains and teacher effectiveness. That number was 75. That’s right. 75 students per teacher. In those days, early in my career, English teachers in my district were contractually limited to 125. I must say that 125 was almost good enough. I felt I knew my students relatively well and that I had the time, the energy, and the pedagogical freedom to serve each of them well. Fast forward into the 21st century after a series of defeating budget crises and renegotiated contracts. In this year, my most humane year in a decade, perhaps, I have approximately 150 students in my charge. Last year, that number was closer to 200. This year, I know that many of my colleagues are close to (or at) this incomprehensible, impossible number. 200.

I don’t know, honestly, how I made it through the last school year. Oh, that’s right. I almost didn’t. And as I reflect on the relative ease of this year comparatively, I can think of only three significant factors: 1). I have two preparations this year; last year I had three. 2). I have 150 students and not 200. 3). I have an enthusiastic and effective student intern. When a teacher has a intern (formerly known as a student-teacher), and that intern is competent, one of the gifts of providing an opportunity for an up and coming new teacher is that when spring rolls around, and there has been sufficient support and coaching throughout the year, it’s time for the mentor teacher to get out of the way.

As a result, while my intern is teaching, I am writing this.

In most every case in American public schools, teachers fly solo in the classroom. Special education teachers may have instructional assistants. Grade school teachers may have volunteers from the community, but for the most part, middle school and high school teachers are independent contractors. True team-teaching, a buzzword of the last decade or two, is a rare bird. While they may collaborate with colleagues now more often than they did a decade ago, this essential fact has not changed: when the bell rings and class begins, teachers will find themselves alone in a room with 30 to 35 teenagers. The only reason I am not right this minute in the classroom with my intern (besides the fact that I am writing this) is that I think it’s important that he is comfortable with this reality and that he for a while is solely responsible for the climate, the logistics of daily classroom planning and implementation, and assessment. So, even as I am NOT doing it while I could conceivably do it, I am about to make this recommendation in the 3rd installment of my educational fantasy, perfect world, pie in the sky, utopian wish list:

Every high school academic classroom should be planned, taught, facilitated, and assessed by two cooperating teachers.

First of all, I think teachers have been independent contractors for far too long. Closing one’s door and doing your own thing are no longer (have never been) viable strategies. Collaboration and cooperation, sharing with another human being the trials and tribulations, the celebrations and victories, the strategies and complexities of an academic classroom should be the norm. The benefits of collaboration are vast–not the least of which, I believe, given that the two individuals in the room work well together and are both qualified and caring, would be a huge, radical, profound increase in student achievement and success. You want to eliminate or drastically reduce drop-outs? Add more teachers. You want to ensure students get the kind of attention they need to realize their fullest academic potential? Add more teachers. You want students to have more substantive feedback and individualized attention? Add more teachers. You want a stronger and more humanizing social structure that may not be present at home? Add more teachers. On this last bit, let’s face it, as the schools are shouldered with more and more social responsibility, if that’s going to be the reality, let’s face that head on: add more teachers.

But how will it be paid for? You know what? That’s not my problem or area of expertise. As soon as our communities, our civil servants, and our politicians (probably in that order) understand that investment in education is a non-negotiable, there will be money to pay for it. We could likely sacrifice a few bombs and planes and tanks here and there and fund the thing three times over. Not properly funding education has always struck me as a catastrophic failure of imagination–and morally reprehensible. I understand it’s a job that is beyond our current class of clowns, so perhaps the first order of business is to vote out these goofballs so that we can get down to business.

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Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School

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Public schools take all comers, don’t they? And that’s as it should be. Those of us who support and desire a healthy public school system believe that this is a fundamental principle that makes a democracy viable, that all our citizens deserve equal access to an educational experience that will grow them into literate, responsible, thinking, productive, engaged individuals who will realize their fullest potential. We know the reality is far from the ideal, and perhaps the most incessant and visceral dilemma teachers face on a day to day basis is that group of students who, for whatever reason, resist our efforts to provide for them this thing we believe is so essential. Our issues are rarely ever with students who are motivated to do their best, and we have huge love for those students of ours who struggle with skills and yet work hard, sometimes harder than any other kid, and despite great obstacles, succeed. No, our issues are with kids who are openly and explicitly defiant and resistant to schooling, who devalue learning, who champion stupidity or childishness, who disrespect benevolent authority, who disrespect their classmates, who cynically reject any understanding about how education could possibly be in their favor, who create disruption for others and deliberately poison classroom communities with their trolling behaviors. These kids make teaching and learning less joyful, more difficult, and sometimes impossible.

We have a moral obligation to educate them, of course. As we understand that their recalcitrance often comes from some deep suffering, we also have a moral obligation to care for them, and, as difficult as it is sometimes, to feel compassion for them. But here’s a Newsflash: teachers are not saints. It’s impossible to educate someone who doesn’t want to be educated, and it’s really difficult to love someone who is fighting you, preventing you from doing your work, sabotaging your intentions, making your sacred space unsafe.

More and more I have come to believe that the traditional classroom, no matter how progressive and inclusive, is not the correct place for these students. The title of this piece suggests that I will have a handful of suggestions to create effective interventions and alternatives for students who do not function well in school. I’ve got nothing. Nada. I only know that in a perfect world, in my educational utopia, these interventions and alternatives would exist. In this educational fantasy, all of my students, every last one of them, at the very least, would understand the importance of education and would be ready and willing to do intellectual, academic work with energy, integrity and respect. Meanwhile, in this fantasy, there is some program that provides students who are not ready or willing with some other thing that, 1. meets their academic needs, 2. teaches them how to be human and humane, 3. gives them an outlet for the release of energy usually expended in disrupting a traditional classroom, and 4. gives them some occupational/vocational skill, a skill that could be used to make things, build stuff, design, create, or fix. And in this program, whenever they decide that they want to join me in the appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare, they are welcome to come back to my classroom.

Honestly, I lack perspective. I’ve taught English at the same high school my entire career. I know there are likely programs in place around the country that work, that have developed strategies for dealing with at-risk kids, but I also know intuitively and anecdotally that these profound and effective strategies are not widely practiced, do not find their way into every nook and cranny of the vast public school system in this country–for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that strategies to help at-risk kids, if they are in place at all, are likely specific and tailored to the districts and communities that implement them; there seems to be no sure-fire way to make certain effective programs are implemented elsewhere, anywhere else, everywhere.

My district has an alternative school. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I don’t know what they do there. I know that some of the kids I’ve described end up there and some of the ones I currently have in my classes talk about wanting to go there. I don’t know why. Students cannot tell me why outside of saying that they think it will be better for them. They can’t say what they mean by that. I doubt very much that our alternative school has the capacity to welcome all students who need its services. And I am even unsure of the process by which students are selected for such an alternative. I have no reason to doubt the effectiveness of this program, but I also have no reason to celebrate. Is this alternative school successful? And by what standard? Despite the fact that I can’t answer these questions, I am thankful for it, am curious about it, and am hoping that maybe they could take on about a half a dozen of my freshmen boys.

And if the alternative school doesn’t work or can’t expand, what might possibly work as an alternative to the alternative school? Educational Fantasy #3: Two Teachers in Every Classroom.

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