Category Archives: admiration

Wordy Wednesday: A Shot of Hope

For a long time now, I’ve been worried that I was never going to be back in the classroom.  After all that happened to me at CHS, I was feeling pretty burned; for all that the place was pretty laid-back and permissive, I still managed to get into trouble, so it stands to reason that it’s highly unlikely I’m going to find someplace where my enthusiasm, passion, and ethics won’t be a liability.

I met Jay for coffee this afternoon.  He’s a teacher at a different charter school (and a hell of a photographer; hit that link and go on over and click around.  Leave some feedback; he’s looking for some interaction), and the parent of one of my former students.  We’d been tangentially in touch since before I was dismissed from CHS; he and I clicked when we first met, he was very supportive of my efforts to kick his recalcitrant daughter in the ass, and we share a very similar perspective on politics, spirituality, and the underlying purpose (and ethics) of education.  Anyway, I left a comment on his blog about a particularly stunning portrait he’d posted of Sweet Pea, and a few emails later, we’d set up a coffee date.

I left that hour feeling much better about where I am professionally.  He told me a lot of things I really needed to hear (though, let’s be clear, I don’t think for a second that he said them because they were what I needed to hear; he’s not like that at all).  He confirmed for me a couple of things that I deeply suspected but really didn’t want to admit (I’m over that now, by the way; I’m done telling myself stories to try to make it hurt less).  He told me that not only should I go back to teaching, but that I very likely had to; we share a proclivity of spirit that compels us to work with young people, and he recognizes in me the same drive that moves him to do the work that he does.  He essentially told me that I wasn’t going to be happy doing anything else – that I could do other work, certainly, but that I would never be as fulfilled as I will be teaching.  I don’t think he’s wrong.

Jay also offered me a glimmer of hope that there may well be a place for me in a classroom.  I’m going to chase down a couple of contacts tomorrow (and send out a couple of resumes, as well) and see what becomes of it.  While I’m not going to force myself into a situation where I have to change who I am to fit in with the culture so much that I don’t recognize myself anymore, neither am I going to give up entirely on the idea of being a teacher.  The truth is that I miss the kids too much to abandon the work, and I love who I am while I’m doing it.

Onward.

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Filed under admiration, colleagues, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, debate and persuasion, ethics, I love my job, job hunting, Learning, Mrs. Chili as Student, out in the real world, parental units, self-analysis, winging it

Angry Love Letter

I subscribe to Letters of Note.  You should, too.

This was today’s offering.  It’s a letter from Pat Conroy, the author of, among other things, The Prince of Tides, in response to hearing that a school board in West Virginia had challenged the inclusion of that novel and another of his works, Beach Music.  The letter was published in the local newspaper, and the challenges later failed.

Letters like this make my proud to do what I do.
To the Editor of the Charleston Gazette:

I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.

I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.

In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read The Catcher in the Rye, under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of The Catcher in the Rye was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.

About the novels your county just censored: The Prince of Tides and Beach Music are two of my darlings which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In Beach Music, I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.

People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in The Catcher in the Rye forty-eight years ago.

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book-banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works—but writers and English teachers do.

I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against—you’ve riled a Hatfield.

Sincerely,

Pat Conroy

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Filed under about writing, admiration, book geek, Civics and Citizenship, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, ethics, great writing, I love my job, Literature, out in the real world, parental units, politics, really?!, Teaching, writing

Recharging

I got to have dinner tonight with Terry.

Terry was my sophomore English teacher in high school and, later, when my internship was imploding due to stupidness and politics, she offered to take me in.  I flourished under her mentorship, and we’ve developed a strong friendship as a result.

I really admire this woman.  She is thoughtful and creative, she genuinely cares about her students, she’s in love with the discipline, and she’s one of the most ethical professionals I’ve ever met.  Despite the fact that we were supposed to have a mentor/apprentice relationship, she demanded that I approach her and the work we did together as an equal exchange; she made it patently clear when she accepted me as her intern that we were no longer teacher and student.  It’s taken me a long time to think of her as a colleague, but I think I’m finally there.

One of the things I love about spending time with Terry is that, no matter how uneasy or uncertain I feel about the job I’m doing – no matter how frustrated I am that the kids aren’t doing the work,  or that I’m going to lose each and every one of them to their own stubborn ignorance – I leave our time together feeling like I really AM good at this job.  Terry’s been teaching for a long time (I don’t know how long, exactly, but she was my sophomore teacher, so that’s saying something), and it’s heartening for me to hear her talk about the same fears and frustrations that I feel.  We collaborate beautifully, we always come away from each other with new ideas and different tactics to try, and we encourage and energize each other.

I don’t know how to adequately express how wonderful it feels to be respected – truly respected – by someone I admire as much as I do Terry.  She is who I wanted to be when I grew up – she is one of my big inspirations for choosing the path that I chose – and I think that much of the satisfaction I feel when I spend time with her is rooted in the fact that we really are very much alike.

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The Patron Saint of Charter High School

So, remember a few weeks ago I told you that Glen sent me a time turner?

Well, I made him a facebook friend and we’ve since gotten to know each other pretty well.  We’ve emailed back and forth, we’ve shared recipes, and we’ve become, I think, pretty close (well, close in the way people who’ve only met through the computer can be).  I have always strongly maintained that the very best part of keeping a blog is the community I’ve gathered as a result.  I’ve met some incredible people through my online writing; some of the most important people in my life, in fact.

Well, two weeks or so ago, CHS opened a wishlistr site and uploaded some things we need onto it.  A few days later, 150 rolls of paper towels were delivered, thanks to fermat.  I nearly burst into tears over the delivery, You Guys; it was a simple little bit of nothing that felt so incredibly generous and thoughtful, and it touched me in a way you wouldn’t expect paper towels could.

This would have been more than enough, but something else came today.  As I was in the kitchen getting my lunch, the receptionist was sorting the mail and handed me an envelope with my name on it from a publishing company.  I wasn’t expecting anything, so I opened it expecting to find a solicitation,  Instead, I found a disc.  On that disc is the APA manual with 10 licenses.  This disc was not free; it wasn’t even cheap, and here it was, in my hands.  I brought it out the social studies teacher, who requested the manual; he is beside himself.

Just when I start thinking that the bad well outweighs the good in the world, something like this happens.  Thank you, Glen; I really needed a shot of good today.

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Humbled and Honored

A couple of weeks ago, fermat sent me an email asking if I’d like to be added to his holiday card list.  The idea tickled me, and he offered to take my work address if I wasn’t comfortable giving out my home address, so that’s what I gave him.  I didn’t really think much about it after I sent my delighted reply.

This afternoon, one of my coworkers handed me a box that had arrived in the mail.  I opened it and was astounded to find Hermione’s time turner!

image credit

There was a packing slip in the box, but I didn’t immediately recognize the sender’s name.  It took me about ten minutes, but the email exchange popped into my head, so I went back to look to see if fermat had signed his real name and, in fact, he HAD!

This wonderful, perfect stranger took time (and no small amount of money!) to send me an incredibly thoughtful and wildly generous gift.

I have always maintained that the primary reason I keep blogs is because of the community they bring to me.  I was reminded again, in a very tangible and concrete way, just how giving and supportive and awesome that community is.  I am humbled by all of you, and I’m grateful for your presence in my life.

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Why I Love My Job

Seriously.

Did you ever start thinking about something, and then discover, five minutes later, that that thinking led you to someplace COMPLETELY different but entirely connectible?  The other day, for example, I started thinking about Mr. Chili’s impending month-long trip to New Mexico for another instrument launch.  That started me thinking about what we can and cannot bring on airplanes.  THAT thinking led me to thinking about water bottles, which got me to these (which my sister hooked me on to and which I love, despite their hefty price tag.  Honest to Goddess, People; black flask in a black car in a parking lot in August for two hours while I watched a movie.  I came out and the tea inside was still refrigerator cold).  I went from Mr. Chili’s trip to my favorite beverage in three steps.  Kinda like six degrees of Kevin Bacon

So, here’s the scene, okay?  I’m on a lunch date this afternoon with my boss, whom I call Carrie here.  She’s awesome; smart, funny, and fiercely passionate and committed about what we’re doing.  She’s a truly amazing boss – the best I’ve ever worked with – and she’s also a dear and trusted friend; we know, almost instinctively, how to balance the friend relationship with the work relationship in a way that makes both relationships better.  We have a blast every time we’re together, and I’d been looking forward to this lunch for a couple of weeks.

ANYWAY, we’re having lunch and talking alternately about home things and work things.  At one point, we started talking about the fact that I’ve got Mac now, which means that I can teach electives this year.  We’re trying to decide which elective I should teach when, and we got around to the fact that my colleague is teaching his film appreciation class this term, so I’ll teach my Film and Lit class in second semester.  What, then, to teach starting in September?

Somehow, the conversation came around to the fact that Carrie and her daughter sat down to watch Interview with the Vampire the other day.  It seems that her kid was quite ticked off at Claudia’s fate, and Carrie spent a good bit of time explaining that her daughter felt that Claudia’s death was completely unfair.  That somehow led to a conversation about who the villains really are, which led me to observe that our villains change over time; when we were kids, all the bad guys were Russians.  Now, they’re all Arabs.  We go through phases in our entertainment; we get a bumper crop of football movies, then a run of mobster movies, then we get the alien invasion flicks, then we get the supernatural, ghost-and-vampire films, and so on and so on.  What is it, I asked, that makes a certain genre of film so accessible at a certain period of time?

As I was making my case for the cyclical nature of our entertainment choices, Carrie’s eyes got big.  “I KNOW!” she said, “YOU need to teach a seminar on aliens and vampires!

I swear to God, that’s really what she said.

Do you see now why I love working for/with this woman?

We spent the rest of the meal discussing what that course would look like.  I rattled off a bunch of stories that could be the foundations for the course – Dracula, of course, and War of the Worlds – and things like Contact, Alien, Men in Black, and Star Trek set up alongside Dracula, The Lost Boys, Buffy, Blade, and I am Legend.  The objectives would include an investigation of the stories’ history in popular culture and possibly some investigation of some of the earlier treatments of the genres, some critical analysis of the parallels (if any can be found) between the number of pieces in a genre during a particular time and the sociopolitical climate during that time, and some sort of creative component in which the students fashion a story (or a play or a skit or a mini-series) that uses one of the genres to interpret a current issue, like immigration, civil rights, or international diplomacy.

You should have seen us, geeking out over dessert, imagining how much pure FUN this class will be.  I’m off to write a course description; I’ll post it here when it’s ready.  Any thoughts, suggestions, or advice you can offer are, as always, gratefully accepted.

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Can Lightning Strike Twice?

You remember my telling you about Mike, right?  He’s the teacher I hired to work at CHS this year, who turned out to be perfect in every way except that he wants an advanced degree, so he went out and got himself a killer deal at a school that he’d be an idiot to pass up, which means he’s leaving CHS this summer to go all the way across the country?  Yeah, that guy.

Well, I’ve been stressing about finding someone to step in when Mike leaves.  I don’t want to be the only English teacher in the department because that would mean I’d only teach core classes and would have no time (or budget) to teach any electives.  Plus, you know, I’d go crazy here all by myself; English teachers, if you didn’t already suspect, are a particular breed of nerdy, and we need others of our kind to share that with.  Anyway, one candidate who came to visit the school vibrated an energy that I knew was just wrong (and who, it turned out, wanted WAY more money than we could even THINK about offering him, so at least that worked out), and there hadn’t been any movement on trying to find anyone else.  I was starting to get nervous.

A few weeks ago, my TA invited a couple of his poetry buddies to come and run a workshop in our class, and he mentioned that one of them was looking for a teaching gig.  I didn’t think anything of it at the time, to be honest with you; I arrogantly assumed that the guy would be an irresponsible, barely-twentysomething with an associates degree who lived out of his car and thought that being a slam poet qualifies one to teach English.

I’m delighted to say that I was oh-so-very wrong.

The man who came to our class that day (let’s call him Mac) was poised and confident and managed to convey the ever-difficult balance of being approachable and down-to-earth while at the same time expecting respect and engagement.  He led the class through a number of exercises that were really valuable, not just in terms of getting the product done (in this case, some creative writing as a lead-up to writing poetry, which led me to produce this piece), but also in terms of understanding concepts, as well; he wasn’t just interested in getting the kids to DO something, he wanted them to THINK, too.  In the hour we spent together, I had developed a very strongly positive first impression.

We talked for a little bit after the class and I learned that he not only had a degree in English teaching, but that he was state certified and had some pretty significant experience in the classroom, as well.  He went home and forwarded me his resume and credentials, and I planned to find out more.

Yesterday, we met at one of my favorite pizza places for a conversation about the possibility of Mac’s coming to work with me.  In that time – and entirely without my prompting – he said some things that made me realize that I may have struck the coworker jackpot again; he’s competent, his teaching philosophy is exactly in line with mine (and, not for nothing, the school’s, as well), he’s enthusiastic and creative, and he’s got strengths where I’ve got weaknesses (and vice-versa).  What’s more?  I LIKE him; he’s funny and smart and we get each other’s jokes and movie quotes.  I think that we could not only work well together, but that we could, quite possibly, kick ass.

I’ve asked my director to get funding for a part-time English teacher in this coming year’s budget, and then I’ve asked her to meet with Mac to make sure that she sees the same things in him that I see.  It may well be that I’ve scored two consecutive co-worker wins, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this all plays out.

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