The Snow Day and the Thugs
Now that the days are getting long and hot, and I search for anything to get me through to October when the days might cool off a bit if we’re lucky, I dream of snow. White, cold, fluffy snow.
And snow always makes me think of one of my students.
We have a rule in our school district that if the weather turns bad after a certain time in the morning, the buses will run and the schools will open. No matter how bad the weather gets, once the decision is made schools stay open for the entire day.
We rarely get snow in Dallas, but on this one day it started to snow after the cutoff time. By the time school opened at 8:00, the ground was covered in white and the snow was still falling.
As you can imagine, trying to get a bunch of fifth graders to settle down when all they want to be doing is playing in the snow, is tough. School is the last place they want to be.
On days like this you usually have two kinds of kids who show up: the straight A students who never miss, and the ones you pray will stay home just this one day, please dear God.
Ramon (name changed to protect the innocent) was in that first group. He was a smart kid. He never got in trouble, always did his work, and was very well-liked by his classmates. He even had a few girls think he was cute. But there are times when even the good kids go bad.
Like on a snow day.
After picking up the students, walking them up the stairs and past the windows where they could all moan and groan about the fact that they were here and not there, and telling them for the fifteenth time that no, we can’t go outside and play in the snow, the students settled down and got to work on journal writing. The usual suspects stared off into space, not a clue as to what they should write about, and the others wrote furiously about the unfairness of being stuck at school while so-and-so got to stay home and play in the snow. Pencil leads were snapping, sighs and moans were expelled, and even I felt gipped that school wasn’t closed.
A few minutes into journal writing, Ramon walked up to me with a worried look on his face and asked if he could go to the restroom, it was an emergency. I gave him the Disbelieving Teacher Look, saw the desperate look in his eyes, and decided he was legit. He grabbed the hall pass and escaped.
Class continued. I decided to read a chapter aloud from the book I had been reading to the students, knowing they would lord it over the kids who hadn’t come to school that day. It was a particularly good part of the book, and I was enjoying making the story as dramatic as possible. The class listened intently as I read.
After fifteen minutes or so, I looked up to see the assistant principal standing in my doorway. Mildly annoyed that she was interrupting our right at the good part, I also noticed she had someone with her. Someone who was hiding behind her.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Is this your student?”
Uh oh. I had forgotten about Ramon.
“Yes. He went to the restroom,” I meekly replied.
“Uh huh!” she said. “Do you have any idea where I found him?”
I looked at Ramon. He was looking at the floor. Ramon was in trouble and somehow it was my fault.
The AP called me into the hallway. The class was loving every minute of this. I walked out into the hallway, sweeping the room with my Evil Eye Teacher Look that said don’t even think about it.
Apparently the AP had been making the rounds downstairs after the bell rang, making sure everyone was in class and accounted for, when she heard someone yelling and knocking outside the door to the playground. The door was set to lock when it closed. When she opened the door who did she discover? Ramon.
For some completely innocent reason, Ramon had decided to go to the downstairs restroom. He couldn’t explain why. As he passed the door leading to the playground, he heard someone knocking to be let in. Being the good Samaritan that he is, of course, he opened the door–and was promptly thrown into the snow by some THUGS! They had really done a number on him, too, because his hair, shirt, and jeans were sopping wet.
“Who were these thugs?” I asked. “Just some guys who wanted to be mean” he sheepishly answered.
I said, “Wow, those were some really mean guys to throw you down in the snow like that! That’s awful, Ramon. It’s too bad you opened the door for them.”
He swore it was all true. He even cried.
We sent him into class, closed the door, and burst out laughing in the hallway.
We teased him all year about the thugs. We warned him to watch out for the thugs at dismissal at the end of the day. We asked him if the thugs ate his homework when he didn’t have it in class. We made sure he had a buddy on field trips so the thugs wouldn’t force him to do fun things again.
We were so worried about him, we even had him explain it to his mom on Parent Conference night. After a long look at him, she rolled her eyes and shook her head.
He knew he had been caught red handed, and he laughed along with us. I told him he would never, ever forget the day he went bad. He said he would never, ever do something that stupid again.
So on these horribly hot days of summer, when I’m running in temperatures that are meant for an oven, I’ll think of Ramon and how much fun he must have had rolling in the snow. He said it was worth it, and I believe him.
Knowledge is Golden
I’m one of those people who would probably be happiest being a full-time student. I wouldn’t want to write the papers and take the exams, but I would be happy sitting in class, taking notes, reading the material, and taking part in classroom discussions.
I think it all started with The Golden Treasury of Knowledge.
I probably learned more from The Golden Treasury of Knowledge than anything I learned in school. The Golden Treasury of Knowledge was something akin to The Encyclopedia Britannica, only on a much smaller scale. I think my mom and dad bought them on sale at the grocery store. To a shy, nerdy, bookish grade school kid, they were knowledge nirvana.
I had the first six volumes. Each volume spent three or four pages on different subjects. I particularly liked the pages on gems because I loved collecting rocks. I was also kind of fascinated with the medieval ages.
I spent many summer afternoons reading through the books. I went back to them all the way through junior high and high school. They taught me a lot.
I always loved school, especially grade school. I loved learning. High school was different. My senior year I felt like all I was doing was biding my time until graduation. I was ready to be done, and didn’t put much effort into my classes. The sad thing was, no one really seemed to notice.
Maybe it’s blasphemous coming from a teacher, but I don’t think formal education is necessarily the only–or best–way to learn something.
As a former grade school teacher, I have to acknowledge that at least a quarter of the school day was spent transitioning from one class or activity to another. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve never understood the unrelenting push for “time on task.” Try sitting all day in a seminar or conference with no breaks and you’ll get what I mean. No one is meant to spend eight full hours engaged in learning, least of all small children. And the push to get rid of gym, music, art, library, etc. in order to spend more time on “academic” endeavors (i.e. test taking prep) = complete insanity.
I think anyone can teach themselves anything on their own. In my world, the answer to almost anything can usually be found in a book–or the internet. If I have a problem with anything in life, I usually head for my computer first, a book next, and then all my friends.
Michael and I are teaching ourselves how to garden. We’re building a fence. Neither of us expects perfection, which is key to teaching yourself anything.
When I started running six years ago, before I joined a running group and learned from the experiences of others, I read every book about running I could get my hands on. I still go back periodically and consult the books, especially when I decide to start training for a new race and make a new a training plan.
For me, the best teacher is experience. I’ve learned more about running by just running than anything I ever read in a book.
Michael taught himself everything he knows about computers. Despite a degree in something completely unrelated to computers, he now makes his living from data and computers. He’s also recently taught himself photography and videography.
Hel’s also directly responsible for my own exit out of the technological stone age. A few years ago he showed me how to set up Power Point presentations for my fifth grade social studies lessons. Then he talked me into giving up my Blackberry for a smart phone, and I spent a very stressful weekend reading the online manual trying to understand the mini-computer in my hand.
By the time my son gave me an iPad for Christmas, it took me no time at all to learn the ropes. Learning to blog and upload photos has been huge for me this past year. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
I still love to read and learn new things, especially science. I wish I’d had better science teachers when I was younger.
I recently read a book by Carl Sagan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, which Wikipedia called “a Roots for the human species.” Sagan is one of my idols, and I wish he was still alive. I have to admit, the book was a little dry, but I learned a lot.
I have no idea what happened to my Golden Treasury of Knowledge, volumes 1-6. Like other things from childhood, I suspect it either found a new home or met its end in a trashcan. I can’t imagine not having computers and the internet, but I think we did okay without them when I was growing up.
I don’t know if there’s some type of internet equivalent of The Golden Treasury of Knowledge, but I hope there is. It taught me a lot about the world.
Family: The Gift that Keeps On Giving
This past weekend we drove to Oklahoma for a cousin’s youngest daughter’s wedding. Though I have only one sister, I have a large extended family, including a gazillion cousins. This weekend was a touching reminder of how special it is to spend time with family.
Out of all my cousins, the ones I feel closest to are Mike and Mark. Only one or two years apart in age, we literally grew up together. They’ve been with me since almost the beginning of life as I know it.
They were the brothers I never had. When my parents moved from their small town in Oklahoma, we lived in the garage apartment behind their house. We lived a block away from where Lee Harvey Oswald lived, though we didn’t move there until a year after President Kennedy’s assassination.
We were always outside, running around, climbing trees, playing games. One of our favorite things to do was play Tarzan. Poor Mark always had to be either Boy or Cheetah, and sometimes he played both rolls. Their mom, Aunt Faye, was like a second mom to me and my sister. Despite the chaos and aggravation of raising three boys, she and my Uncle John usually managed to see the humor in the boys’ crazy antics.
Eventually we moved out of the garage apartment and got our own house, but it was still only a few miles from theirs and we saw each other often.
When we got to high school, my aunt and uncle decided to move back to the small Oklahoma town they grew up in. Since just about my entire mom and dad’s family still lived there as well, we visited often.
We’ve stayed close through the years, even as adults. One of the best times of my life was one fall through summer when Mark and I were both divorced and heady with freedom. I would drive up for the weekend and we would spend our time on his friends’ pontoon boat at the lake, followed by country and western dancing at the local honkytonk. There were family reunions and camping trips, and lots and lots of laughter.
There’s something about being with family that’s unlike any other time you spend. Family who’ve known you since you were born, who’ve seen you grow and change and mature, who’ve seen you become a parent and even a grandparent. It’s like a deep exhale. It’s like being yourself again, after years of pretending to be someone you’re not.
We’re kind of old now. I see my cousins and they look so different, but I know their younger selves are still there, just hiding beneath the surface. Mark smiles, and I see his evil grin and flashing eyes signalling some trick he’s just played on one of us when we were kids playing in front of my grandma’s house. Mike looks down shyly, and I’m reminded of how quiet and introspective he always was, even when other boys his age were full of bravado and showing off.
I love them both so much.
I know that no matter what I do, where I go, how different I can be, or how many times I stumble in life, they will always be there for me.
I can’t say that about many other people, even other family members.
I was so touched watching Mark walk his last child down the aisle, her veil covering her face. I cried when he tenderly pulled back the veil and kissed her on the cheek, before returning to his seat. My first child is getting married this summer, and I thought about what it will be like for me when that day comes.
After the wedding, Michael and I, and Mark and his wife Terri, all went back to Mike and Kym’s house at the lake, and sat on the patio around a fire. Surrounded by pine trees and a full moon, we drank beer and reminisced. I got to know Kym and Terri a little better, and they got to know Michael. We talked about life in a small town, our lives as adults, and our children. We talked about growing old.
Mostly, we laughed. We laughed a lot. We had the best time. It felt like being home.
It felt like family.
I’m Going to Live Forever
I’m feeling the passage of time. My first childhood crush, Davy Jones, died last week, and I feel old. I thought he looked great when he died at 66, but he still looked a lot older than the image I had of him in my head. It’s funny how the mental picture and reality don’t always line up.
I watched a bio of The Monkees on the Biography channel. There was Mike with his cute little knitted skullcap and Texas accent, goofy Mickey behind the drums, and witty Peter, who I also thought was cute. Now they’re older, just like me, but I still feel like I’m ten, watching them on TV after school each day, sandwiched between Bewitched and The Brady Bunch. How the heck did time go by so quickly?
This summer I’m going to our family reunion. I have a ton of cousins. We used to have massive Easter egg hunts when we were all kids. I told my aunt I’m not one of the kids anymore, now I’m one of the Old Folks. She said that made her one of the Ancient Ones.
I never really thought much about getting older until a few years ago. There were signs in the mirror, but they weren’t extreme. I brushed thoughts of getting old out of my mind.
Then I started becoming aware of how much older everyone else is getting, and realized it was happening to me as well. It might sound strange, but it surprised me. I mean, I walk around the house barefooted, wear cutoffs, live in t-shirts, jeans, and Converse sneakers, and am musically sophisticated. Is there a point in time when I’ll officially be “too old” to wear cutoffs and listen to loud music in the car?
I watched the Oscars, and some of the actors who are twenty years older than me now look twenty years younger, thanks to plastic surgery. I think they look strange and robotic. It seems to be mostly the women who think they need to tighten themselves up, but I suspect many men are getting work done as well.
The other day I was flipping through daytime TV. If you want to see bizarre looking actors who’ve had way too much plastic surgery, check out The Bold and the Beautiful. I’m being tacky, but honestly, some of the people I see on TV these days don’t look human anymore, and they certainly don’t look like anyone I know.
It makes me sad that so many people are willing to pay thousands of dollars to try to erase time. I don’t like aging any more than the next person, but I wish we didn’t idolize youth as much as we do in this country. Europeans have a different take on aging and beauty, one that is much more realistic and compassionate. When I lived in Europe, our local retirement center had a playground in the park. I used to take my children there to play, and the old people loved watching and playing with them. What a great way to bring young and old together.
The other day a former student of mine sent me a friend request on Facebook. I thought she was someone new to our running group. It took me a few days to realize she was one of my fifth graders all grown up.
The most shocking thing I’ve had to face this week is that my daughter will soon turn twenty-nine. 29!!! I have a daughter who is almost thirty! 30! (Of course, I gave birth at a shockingly young age.)
It seems like only yesterday when I was twenty-nine myself and decided I had to cut my long hair when I turned thirty because, well, I was turning thirty. It was so old to me back then. I’ve cut my hair and grown it out so many times since then I’m surprised anyone recognizes me anymore, and I have quite a few friends even older than myself with much longer hair.
Even Rodney Yee, my favorite yoga master from the Gaiam DVD’s, is starting to show a little gray and has just the slightest hint of a paunch when he does Side Angle Forward Bend. Time spares no one, not even the very physically fit amongst us.
Oh well, I don’t know why I’m complaining, because I’M GOING TO LIVE FOREVER!
Living in the City: the Great Divide
As I walked the dog through my neighborhood the other morning, I was reminded of a thought provoking article about the cultural divide in America I read a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal. The basic idea of the article is that the upper and lower middle classes in America have become severely divided since 1960, not merely economically but also culturally. He outlines the changes, then tells how he thinks we can come together again as a country.
As is sometimes the case, the comments are almost more interesting than the article itself.
The article made me think about where I’ve lived through the years. Right now we live in East Dallas, on a street I would call “transitional.” Our house was built in 1926, and while the neighborhood a few streets to the north is more established, with expensive Tudor style homes and predominantly white upper middle class homeowners, most of the houses on our street are owned by a mix of Hispanic families who have been in the neighborhood for decades, childless young white couples, families who send their children either to private schools or the neighborhood Blue Ribbon PK-3 school, and senior citizens who struggle with living alone and maintaining their homes. We are surrounded by a trendy restaurant revitalization zone, live less than three miles from White Rock Lake and two small neighborhood parks, and have two natural grocers (soon three) within a half mile radius of our home.
A few blocks to the south and west of our street, in the neighborhood where I taught for 20 years, the population is mostly poor, either new to the country or first generation American, with a smattering of black and white families. Half a mile to the south is Swiss Avenue, a long boulevard of beautiful turn of the century mansions, which is surrounded by dilapidated mid-century apartments sheltering mostly poor immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Just down the street is Lakewood, an exclusive mixture of historic million dollar homes and smaller ranch style abodes, and a mile or so in the other direction is our city within a city, Highland Park, home of billionaires, CEO’s, football stars, politicians, the 1%, and gargantuan homes (the new TV show GCB is based on this über-rich enclave).
It’s a very diverse area, and that’s why we love living here.
So why do we separate ourselves into cities and suburbs?
Many of my friends probably think our neighborhood is unsafe, but to me there’s a difference between poverty and danger. There are invisible lines I don’t cross when I run in the neighborhood. Certain streets and certain times of day are off limits, and I run by feel, always aware of what’s going on around me. I usually run with one of the dogs. I would probably do the same if I lived in the suburbs.
Even though I live only a few blocks from the school where I taught, a lot of my students came from an entirely different world, one inhabited by poverty, abuse, incarceration, drugs, and abandonment. Some were neighbors, but most lived a few blocks west where the neighborhood gets a lot rougher, on the other side of those invisible lines I never crossed on my runs. I’m always amazed at how much difference a few city blocks can make in the lives of people. Teaching those kids taught me so much about another side of life that most people never see–and never want to see. It was depressing and overwhelming at times to see up close the daily struggles some families go through to survive.
I’ve seen many young couples come and go from our area through the years, and it’s almost always the same story: live in the city while you’re single, get married and buy a starter home in a trendy area, then sell and move out to the suburbs when the first child comes along. I moved out to the suburbs for a few years when my kids were young, too, but I didn’t like it. I thought the schools would be better (they weren’t), and the long commute took away both time and sanity. This particular suburb wasn’t for me and the daily drive to and from work was the most stressful time in my life. Ever.
Even though I live close to the heart of the city, I’m more isolated than my friends who live in the suburbs. They live in two worlds, driving in for work, entertainment, and sports, then driving back out to their homes, schools, and communities. I’m in awe of the dedication of my friends who get up an hour earlier than I do each Saturday morning to drive into town for our group runs, as if it’s no big deal to drive so far so early to meet friends for a run. I have to be dragged onto the freeway kicking and screaming, and if I leave the the city limits it’s usually on an airplane or an empty 4:00 a.m. highway headed west on a long road trip.
Many of my friends have said they moved to the suburbs because they think it’s the safest place for their children. I don’t know what the statistics are, but I can say I’ve had more friends whose children have struggled with drugs in the suburbs and small towns than in the city. Serious drugs, too, like heroin and meth. I don’t know why that is, and I know it could happen in the city just as well as the suburbs.
I sometimes wonder if we’re looking for a small town feel when we move to the suburbs. My neighborhood feels like a small community, and I could easily get by without a car during the day, but I also have to admit there are days when I want to escape all the concrete. That’s mostly a yearning for solitude and the outdoors, and not for a smaller town–though I do have days when I want to chuck it all and go homestead in Montana.
We moved back to the city when the kids were in elementary school. I taught in the district and wanted to support public education. We were one of the cool, progressive families who chose to live in the city and attend our neighborhood school. The principal was wonderful, the teachers were great, and the only difference I noticed between the suburban school and the city school was the faces of my children’s friends. The school was diverse, but not so much so that my kids stood out.
Maybe we choose to live where things feel most safe and familiar. I grew up in a working middle class, racially diverse part of town, and that’s where I fit in best.
My mom and dad moved to Dallas from a small town in Oklahoma because they wanted a better life. They settled in Oak Cliff, an area on the other side of the Trinity River that used to be its own small town. Originally founded in the mid 1800’s as a utopian colony called La Reunion by a group of Swiss French immigrants, I can only imagine what a shock Texas must have been for them.
Oliver Stone shot much of Born on the Fourth of July in my childhood neighborhood and school because of its 1960’s small town look. We had everything we needed in Oak Cliff and only crossed the river to buy beer or go for a Sunday drive around town. If you couldn’t find what you needed at Wynnewood Village, the large shopping center behind our house, you could certainly find it at Sears on Jefferson Blvd, which was our main street. There were parades and fireworks and picnics, and we were proud to say we lived in Oak Cliff. Dallas was across the river.
In sixth grade, my friends inexplicably started moving away, one by one, out to the southern suburbs in their “white flight” exodus. We stuck it out. We had, after all, the best views of downtown Dallas.
Junior high was much more diverse than my mostly white elementary school, and there were occasional conflicts, but we all got along for the most part. For high school, I drove across town to a new magnet school and my world expanded. Busing was in full force, and for the first time in my life I had black, Asian, and Jewish classmates. Some of my friends came from much nicer neighborhoods than my own, and some lived in parts of town I would never be allowed to visit. I learned to drive, and suddenly the city became exciting. I discovered parts of town I had never known. Just as I was starting to discover the rest of the city and my own freedom, I left home, taking a little piece of La Reunion/Oak Cliff across the ocean back to Switzerland.
Back in the States, on our long summer road trips out west to escape city life and immerse ourselves in national parks, it’s somewhat depressing to view the cities and towns we pass on the freeway. Each one has the same bland look of limestone apartments and fast food joints. So many of the suburbs look identically generic and have exactly the same assortment of restaurants, stores, and billboards. The only differences between the towns are the older town squares, which have sometimes been preserved to reflect a lost time of community. Texas, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana are very different places, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at some of the towns and cities. If you take away the natural scenery, the sprawl looks the same wherever you are.
That’s why I love older cities like Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and New York. You can feel the history and the lives of those who lived there long ago. Those are real cities to me. You can feel the soul of the city.
I’ve never had that same feeling in a suburb. Maybe Oak Cliff was a little like a suburb, because we always felt apart from Dallas, but it really always felt more like a small town. East Dallas, where I live now, feels a lot like the Oak Cliff of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It feels familiar.
I suppose that’s why I prefer living in a city. I like the tumult. I like a little chaos and imperfection. I like differences. I like the history and the stories the buildings and houses tell us. I know living in a suburb has its advantages and can be a wonderful place to live, but my heart truly belongs in the city.
My Writing Life: From Big Chief to Computer
I’m old enough to remember the days before computers. Anything I wrote was by hand. Nowadays the only time I ever pick up a pen is to add something to the grocery list. I’m guess I’m old school that way.
My writing life started with a little five year diary with a lock and two keys I got for Christmas one year. Each January 1st, while watching the Macy’s Day Parade on TV, I’d record the time and temperature and a New Year’s Resolution. The rest of the pages may have been sparsely written on, but January 1st had an entry for all five years in a row. The little five year diary had entries such as “Played Monopoly with Cindy and WON!!!!!” (I always had to win), or “Sick. Stayed home from school. YEAH!!!!!” Life was pretty simple back then.
When I got a little older I upgraded to a Big Chief tablet. On trips to visit my grandparents in Oklahoma, my Big Chief was always waiting for me. I know you could buy them anywhere, but Oklahomans are especially proud of their Indian heritage. I never took it home with me back to Texas–it would have seemed out of place. My grandmother always kept it on the top of the shelf in her kitchen. I loved spending hours rereading plays, poems, and silly things I’d written from past trips. I would sit on the front porch in the big wooden rocking chair, look up at the huge tree that dropped leaves shaped like helicopter wings, and write informational plays about saving the environment.Yes, I was granola even then.
I ran across the Walton’s Thanksgiving special on TV over the holidays, and of course John Boy, ever the diarist, was writing it all down in a Big Chief tablet. No wonder I always had the biggest crush on him . . .
And I always wondered what happened to my Big Chief tablet.
When I got to be a teenager I kept writing, but I moved on to spiral notebooks. They were certainly cooler than the five year diary. I had volumes and volumes of spirals. Each page was covered in frantic writing, front and back. When it was full, nothing was better than picking out a new spiral at Skillerns. The color had to be just right, and the paper and lines had to be worthy of being written on. Yes, I was a big dork. Life was tough for a skinny, uncool, late blooming, Save the Whales and Earth Shoes kind of girl, even in the late 70’s.
After I graduated from high school I spent one lonely Saturday night rereading them all. I was disgusted and aghast at the realization that I had wasted that much energy anguishing over boys and the unfairness of life. I promptly drove to a dumpster at the apartment complex nearest to my house and threw them all in. Every single one. I’ve never regretted it. It was like hitting the reset button.
Somehow I made it through college as an English major with only an IBM Selectric typewriter. Every revised paper I wrote had to be retyped, page after page–and I revise a lot when I write. Typos meant sticking a little tab of white correction paper over the mistake, hoping it would cover it up, and hoping your fingers wouldn’t slip off the keys. I thought I had died and gone to heaven when they invented a self-correcting typing ribbon, but you could still see the mistake.
After a year of college, I worked as a secretary in Switzerland for a company that made turbine generators for nuclear power plants. After all those years of being a closet hippie, and after Three Mile Island, I had an unsettling feeling I was working for the enemy. They needed my English and my typing skills, though, and it had great benefits. Also, I got to work on both a telex machine and a real computer, an IBM Office System 6.
The telex was terrifying. The keys had huge spaces between them and my fingers were always slipping off the keys. Every letter you typed made little holes on a long piece of tape, so if you made a mistake you had to start all over again. Horrors. After you finished you took the tape to a room filled with women who fed the tape into machines that sent the encoded message somewhere else. The machines were loud and obnoxious.
The IBM OS-6 was a behemoth. It had its very own room. Everything was saved on huge floppy disks that were labeled and cataloged. We even had some type of ancient transfer system between my computer and the one in the New Jersey office. I would pull up the written proposal on my computer, call the States late in the afternoon, hit a button, and three times out of 10 it would be received on the New Jersey OS-6. At least parts of it would be received. Sometimes.
We’ve come a long way. I can’t imagine going back to the days of writing twenty page English papers without a memory mechanism. Writing is so much easier with memory. And I’ve always had the worst handwriting.
As much as I loved my Big Chief, I love my computer way more.
Brooklyn’s Finest and the Defeat of Teaching
About a week ago I watched the movie Brooklyn’s Finest and it touched a nerve. At first glance it’s not my usual type of movie, but I liked Training Day and thought another movie by the same director might be just as good. For some reason I really connected with one of the characters in the film, and in a strange way his job made me think of my own teaching job.
The movie is really a character study of three NYC cops and follows them for a few ultra violent days in their lives. All three are good at their jobs (one supposedly less so than the others), but they are also all depressed, stressed, and cynical. There’s no separation from the cop and the man, or their jobs and their “real” lives. Their job is their life, and the people they work with–even the ones they are paid to infiltrate and betray–are their family. They have learned to do what it takes to survive in their jobs, and to accept that after years of sacrificing their lives and ideals, no one really cares. The people in charge make ridiculous demands and tell them they’re not working hard enough, even when they’ve sold their souls from giving so much.
These men are unappreciated, underpaid, and despised, and spend most of their days dealing with drugs, danger, and chaos. In the end, only one man is left standing. He survives by keeping his head low, not trying to be a hero, and is reminded several times that he’s really nothing special on the police force. He’s one week away from retirement and he just wants to make it through.
Another cop is working undercover, trained on the streets where he grew up, snitching on men he’s perhaps known since childhood, and asked to turn traitor so he can get off the street and behind a desk. He’s so entrenched in his undercover life that there’s no separation between his job and his “real” life. The last cop is a narc with seven kids who steals drug money so he can buy a new house to replace the too small, moldy-walled one that sends his asthmatic, pregnant-with-twins wife to the hospital. He needs money–fast.
Suffice it to say that these burned out, hardened men have seen the absolute worst side of humanity and still manage to get through the day. These cops are hated and reviled by some, but they carry on and do their jobs. It’s what they do.
But this post isn’t actually meant to be a movie review. Rather, I recognized something in the face of the veteran cop a week from retirement that I see all around me. I used to see it in my own face when I looked in the mirror.
It’s the face of defeat.
It’s the face of someone who knows they work within a system ruled by idiots, one that’s so broken it might not be fixable, a system that takes over every minute of your life, that takes advantage of your idealism and optimism and in the end turns it into cynicism and disbelief. It’s when the bad guys turn the good guys into something worse than themselves, turn them into people who do things they know are wrong but are not strong enough to resist. The system may be broken, they tell you, but it’s all your fault.
I’m talking about teaching.
I might not have taught in NYC, or dealt with drug dealers, guns, and prostitutes in the classroom, but the jobs are nevertheless very similar. The effects of the two jobs can be the same, and I’ve taught in some rough neighborhoods. I’ve seen those faces on many of the veteran teachers I’ve taught with through the years.
Yes, you know them, the veteran teachers: those women and men who are apparently failing our children, not teaching them as well as other countries around the world, the ones who supposedly have tenure and are living the good life off their generous retirement packages. The ones with the short working hours and all the time off. The ones who shouldn’t expect to keep their jobs just because they’ve given 10, 15, 20, or 50 years to it.
Those evil public school teachers. I was one of those people for 19 years.
The veteran cop is given an assignment that is senseless and dangerous: he’s asked to take brand new recruits with him into the worst precinct in the city and act as a mentor. He’s portrayed as being uncooperative, burned out, biding his time, ineffective, a has been, and his methods are looked down upon and second guessed by the new cops–with unfortunate results for them. This man knows what he’s doing, and has learned to pick and choose his battles. He’s not flashy, doesn’t pump himself up in front of others, and doesn’t ask for anything other than to be left alone to do his job.
Most importantly, even though everyone has written him off, you come to know he still cares deeply. You also realize it’s part of the reason he is such a broken man.
He is the true hero of the film, as are the teachers, police officers, fire fighters, social workers, and anyone else who chooses to work in a job that takes more than it gives. These jobs have never been about the money–no one gets rich being a teacher.
This summer I found a Facebook group of people who went to my elementary school. Someone is always posting old photos of the school and their classes and classmates from the 1960’s and 70’s. Almost to a person, everyone loved school and their teachers back then. No one comments on what they learned, or testing, or even the innovative curriculum that was used in the classroom. Back then, the teacher sat at a desk at the front of the room and everyone sat in rows. We did a lot of seatwork and the only time we got up from our desks was when we left the room. There were no collaborative groups, no differentiated learning, no multiple intelligences. We did a lot of rote memorization and a lot of answering questions from the textbook–what we would call “busywork” now. We read a lot of books, and we were always copying things from the chalkboard. The teachers were strict and didn’t put up with excuses, we had art, music, and recess, and it was a shorter day. We all look back fondly on those years.
These days, if I had taught the way my teachers taught me, I would have been fired. I’m not saying things were better back then. I had some pretty bad teachers, especially when I got to junior high and high school. But my point is this: everything we hear these days about public education seems to say over and over that teachers are the problem, that they’re somehow failing our children, that they’re not doing their jobs, that you can’t get rid of the bad ones, that all they care about is preserving their retirement benefits and tenure, and that they’re unwilling to change. Are teachers really that much worse than the ones we had when we were in school? If so, why is that?
Teachers’ hands are tied by administrators and policy makers who don’t know the first thing about teaching. Every year there’s a new magic bullet, something that’s going to raise test scores and fix everything that’s wrong with education. Every new change means more paperwork, more restructuring, more accountability. By the time teachers start to get a handle on the changes, everything changes again. A new principal is placed in the school, teachers are indiscriminately switched to different grade levels or different subject matters, and a new cycle begins, over and over and over, until the next great thing appears.
There are a lot of good ideas out there, but the majority are never given a chance to work before they’re abandoned for the next big fix. Most of these fixes come from universities that are paid millions of dollars for something that’s nothing more than common sense repackaged with a new name and new jargon. Even when you do what’s mandated, and the students don’t do well, it’s still your fault, never the program or curriculum you’re forced to implement. Everything is data driven, and children become nothing more than a test score–and “proof ” that a teacher is doing their job–or not.
Everyone from Washington politicians to Steve Jobs seems to believe that teachers’ unions are the Death Star, that education is going downhill because principals can’t get rid of bad teachers (and I’m not talking about Cameron Diaz), and if we just treat education like a business it will solve all our problems.
My point in all of this: it wears you down. You give all of yourself only to turn around and see that you have become the enemy. You must be, because there’s no one else to blame. You do what you know how to do, which is teach. You close your eyes and ears to those who’ve never spent a minute in the classroom, those who suddenly have all the answers, those who never take the time to visit schools and see firsthand what the problems really are, who can’t be bothered to ask teachers what should be done to save public education. Perhaps we should all be asking ourselves this: is all this blaming and fuming really about education and how to save it, or is it more about the money–lots and lots of money that other interests would be only too happy to spend?
The system is broken, but the ones taking the fall are the only good, sane things left.
Like the cop who prevails in the end, the one who carries on despite the odds, you learn to do your job and not listen to the wolves howling outside your door. It doesn’t matter if no one else cares. You care, you give, you make a difference, until all you’re left with one day is the face of defeat looking back at you in the mirror.
Channeling My Grandmother’s Chicken and Dumplings
The other day I happened to notice on my calendar that this Sunday is Grandparents’ Day. This made me think of my grandmother, Moss, who always makes me think of chicken and dumplings. In my humble opinion, there’s no greater comfort food than chicken and dumplings, and no one made it like Moss. Anytime we visited her in Idabel, Oklahoma, I would always ask her to make it for me, despite my mom’s protests. I can’t remember a time that Moss refused.
Moss got her name from my little cousin Stevie, and I think it came from saying Grand-MA’S, which eventually turned into Ma’s, then Moss. You know how these nicknames come about. Moss used to tell me that one day I would be a teacher, and she was right. She always had my Big Chief writing tablet waiting for me when we came to visit, and I would find a spot to sit and write plays, stories, poems, or whatever else came to mind. While I wrote, she was in the kitchen with my mom, making chicken and dumplings. I was a skinny kid, and she was always trying to fatten me up.
Both my mom and dad are from Broken Bow, and my sister and I were born in the nearest town that had a hospital, Idabel. Broken Bow was tiny, and they left there for Dallas shortly after my sister was born. They went back often, and we had lots of aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins in Broken Bow. I hated those three and a half hour drives, but my little sister and I always had tons of fun playing with our cousins once we got there. I learned to ride a bike in Broken Bow (thanks Becky), tried to learn to water ski (never successful), and huddled in a root cellar to dodge a tornado once (it was scary). We spent every major holiday in Broken Bow, had the best Easter egg hunts ever, and I now realize those were golden years.
One Friday we left Dallas to spend the weekend in Oklahoma. I was 13. Idabel, where Moss lived, is about a 20 minute drive down the road from Broken Bow, and was always our first stop. We stayed for awhile to visit, and I decided to spend the night with Moss while the rest of the family drove over to Broken Bow. Moss and her friend were going to go see a movie and I wanted to go with them. At the very last second, just as my family was backing up the car, I changed my mind. I wanted to go stay with cousins Keith and Becky instead.
The next morning, we were playing in one of the back bedrooms and the phone rang. I don’t remember the particulars of what was said, but I knew something was wrong because my mom started crying. I just sat there, listening, knowing something was wrong, and I think my dad came in to tell us what had happened. Moss and her friend had been killed in a car accident on the way home from the movie. Someone had rear-ended their car on the highway and they lost control. The police thought it was probably a drunk driver.
I remember Keith telling me it was okay to cry. I didn’t. I pretended nothing was wrong. But inside, I was thinking, what if I had spent the night? Would it have made a difference?
The rest of the weekend was a blur and I don’t remember much. I chose not to go to her funeral because I wanted to remember her alive. I think I wasn’t ready to let go. I don’t remember when I finally cried, but a few years ago, when I drove through Idabel to visit family in Broken Bow, the memories of Moss and that weekend came flooding back and I cried like my heart was breaking. Maybe that was the first time I truly cried from losing her.
She was gone way too early. Moss always loved and accepted me, and she didn’t care if I was skinny, or quiet, or mean, or bossy. She bought me finger paints, and she made me chicken and dumplings. I don’t remember her ever raising her voice, or getting angry, or being impatient. All I remember is love.
So yesterday I found a recipe and started cooking. I had only attempted chicken and dumplings once before, when I lived in Switzerland in the 80’s and craved something from my past. None of the Europeans were very impressed with my Southern comfort food.
This time I was older, a more experienced cook, and there was purpose behind the intent. I wanted to honor Moss and all the times she had made me such a time consuming dish for no other reason than she knew it would make me happy.
After the shock of eviscerating a chicken (I knew I should’ve gotten the cut up fryer), and frying it up for a nice brown crust (making me realize there’s a reason fried chicken has always been so popular), things got easier. The entire dish wasn’t difficult at all, but it was time consuming. It took me about 3 hours from start to finish, but it was worth it. Even Michael liked it, Ohio Yankee that he is (he still doesn’t like okra, though).
Was it as good as Moss’s chicken and dumplings? No, nothing will ever compare to that. Hers was infused with love for her children and grandchildren, the special ingredient that only grandmothers own. One day I hope to carry on the tradition and make chicken and dumplings for my grandchildren, without even thinking twice about it, and I’ll tell them all about their great-grandmother Moss, and how much she loved me.
I can’t wait!