Category Archives: I love my boss
… but I’m kind of hating the weekends.
I’ve got a couple of (my favorite) kids whom I’m keeping a wary eye on lately. Things aren’t good for either of them; Margot’s just been released from a hospitalization and is dealing with debilitating panic attacks, and Jeff is neck-deep in a really unpleasant home environment. They’ve both come to me for support, and I’ve been more than happy to give it to them.
I’m finding, on this lovely Friday afternoon, that I’m worrying about them more than I did last night, or on Wednesday. I’m sure this is because, on every other night, I know I’ll see them first thing in the morning (and, if I don’t, I know how to find out where they are and whether they’re safe and upright). The idea of going two days without laying eyes on either one of them is proving to be disconcerting.
I’m less worried about Margot. She’s got a strong family support system and is being well cared-for at home; I am confident that she’s safe and loved.
Jeff is another story altogether, though; he sent me a text message on Wednesday asking me to sign onto facebook so we could chat, and he told me that his home life is fast becoming untenable. So much of his situation reminded me of MY life at that age – parents (or, in this case, a mother and a new boyfriend) who give every impression of loathing the mere presence of him and make no effort to disguise that fact but who, inexplicably, won’t let him leave the house. Jeff is angry and frustrated and, I think, scared; he’s recognizing that all of this is wearing away at his already tenuous self-esteem. I spent a good bit of our chat time explaining to him why *I* think he’s an amazing kid who’s growing into a good and decent man, and how I’m deeply proud of him. I know, from my own experience, that while hearing these things from me is probably helpful, it’s not enough to salve the damage being done by the people who are supposed to love him, and that’s the part that’s killing me.
I had a conference with Mitch (the new guidance counselor, whom I really, really like) and our assistant dean (whom I’ve not yet given a pseudonym; let’s call him Brad, okay?) about exactly where my line has to be with Jeff. They both agreed that everything that’s happened thus far has been not only okay, but good; they both recognize that Jeff needs someone he feels he can count on, and he clearly feels safe with me. When I brought up the idea of having a sit-down with Jeff’s dad, my men searched all of Jeff’s files and discovered that we’ve got nothing in the way of custody orders or other official paperwork that would forbid such a meeting, so Dad and I are having coffee tomorrow afternoon.
In the meantime, I’m keeping my cell phone on – and on me – at all times. I need to be available if either of these babies needs me.
Monday can’t come fast enough.
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.
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.
I got an email from the head of the freshman writing program this morning. He wants me to come back to Local U. to teach next fall!
Frankly, I’m more than a little surprised. I mean, I absolutely believed my boss when he assured me, after telling me he couldn’t hire me last year, that he’d keep me on his list; that’s not the surprising part. What’s really got me stumped is that our state is in the process of eviscerating funding for the university system. Really. Every single department in the University is under both hiring and salary freezes. Mr. Chili is concerned that the group for whom he works, which has been operating in cooperation with the University, may now consider breaking off and founding an independent institute. My girlfriend, who works for the business school, is actually doing two jobs because the school hasn’t hired someone to replace her partner, who had to leave due to medical issues two months ago. It’s bad out there, and I strongly suspected that this would mean both a reduction in the number of freshman writing sections being offered and a far lesser likelihood of my being invited back to teach.
Not so, it seems! I’ll be heading up a Monday-Wednesday evening section of freshman composition, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve missed being at LU’s English building, and I’m very much looking forward to being back.
It seems that she’s been getting some heat (the intensity of which I am still unaware) from some students and parents who identify as Christian. The fact that this has been happening completely outside of my perception is part of why my boss is so awesome; she’s been dealing with it without involving me at all.
The little that she told me is that there are a number of people who are expressing concern that CHS may be a hostile environment for people who identify as Christian. They’re upset about some of the issues that our books bring up, they’re wondering about the class discussions we have, they’re concerned that we’re not offering up a Christian perspective on the topics we engage.
You know what? They’re right; we’re not. That doesn’t make our environment hostile to Christians, though, any more than it makes ours a hostile environment for Muslims or Taoists or Jews or Secular Humanists.
I have often been accused of having an agenda in the classroom, and this is an accusation I do not deny. I’ve written about it before, but it bears repeating: my primary purpose in the classroom is to get my kids to think and to question and to argue. My secondary purpose is to get them to consider that there is more than one way of thinking, and while I don’t advocate that all ways are equally valid, I DO require that my students engage in some critical inquiry of the material I give them. I am sure that some of the things I ask my students to think about are things that some people who identify as Christians may find objectionable.
Honestly? I don’t care. In fact, I’m that’s kind of what I’m going for – not to piss off Christians specifically, but to push everyone a little bit outside of their respective comfort zones. That’s where the good stuff happens; we don’t grow if we don’t venture outside our boundaries. If your faith imposes boundaries that you are not able to challenge, even a little bit, then perhaps ours isn’t the right environment for you. There are two Christian religious high schools in our town that I’m sure will accept your application.
I’m not asking anyone to accept what I say as truth. I’m not putting up any of the issues or concepts we discuss in class as truth – I mean, come on; I use a speech from an admitted Nazi in a few of my classes, for crying out loud – and I’m always completely open to (well-articulated and supported) argument about anything that I use in the classroom. I make a point that my students understand that it’s perfectly okay to disagree, as long as one isn’t disagreeable; if a student argues with something that I personally believe, and that student argues it well, that student will never get a bad grade. I was impressed by this when my undergrad Ed. Philosophy professor gave me an A on a paper upon which she’d written “this is an excellent argument. I think you’re completely wrong, but you made your case extremely well.”
I’m not here to support anyone’s spiritual life. I will be respectful of everyone’s right to practice their faith, but I will not tiptoe around their sensibilities, either. My job is to get you to think, and to back up your thinking with evidence: if your belief system can’t withstand a little rigorous thinking, then perhaps you ought to reconsider your belief system.
I’m getting ready to start The Book Thief with my freshmen. Today, a very dear friend of mine came to talk to my babies about his childhood in Nazi Germany.
Martin was born in 1935 to a family of well-to-do Germans. His father was a chemical engineer and was well placed in the German industrial culture. Dad’s job during the war was to see to the acquisition and absorption of foreign companies into the Nazi complex, and he was, by Martin’s assessment, very good at it. He was also involved in the I. G. Farben operation at Auschwitz, though at the time, Martin was unaware of his father’s work there.
Martin grew up perfectly at ease with the kind of rabid antisemitism that the Nazis propagated. He believed all of the lies that were told about “undesirable” people because everyone he knew, loved, and respected – his parents, his teachers, his clergy – never challenged those lies; in fact, they worked diligently to cement them in Martin’s mind. It wasn’t until he moved to Canada in 1952 that Martin began to question the assumptions with which he’d grown up. Once he started questioning, though, he never stopped.
The kindhearted, soft-spoken gentleman has made it his mission to go out into the world to talk about his experience of wrestling with the legacy that his father, his family, and his people have given him. He speaks with a sometimes shocking mixture of quiet eloquence and bitter ferocity about the atrocities, the hatred, and the lingering effects of that period in our history continues to wreak. Martin believes that talking about these things, especially to a generation who has never known the kind of pernicious malignancy that characterized his own childhood, is his duty; he could no sooner remain quiet than he could stop breathing.
I have a profound and complex affection and admiration for this man. He represents for me an example of what a fully engaged, compassionate, and thinking human being should be. Martin’s willingness to look the ugliness of his own past full in the face is something that takes a staggering amount of courage in private; that he does it in public – and often behind microphones and in front of audiences packed with survivors and the children and grandchildren of survivors – defies my ability to name it.
My usually boisterous and difficult to focus freshman class was held in absolute thrall for an hour and 15 minutes first thing this morning (those of you unfamiliar with freshman during first period should know that this is no small thing). Martin has kindly agreed to come back on Wednesday so the kids have a chance to process some of the things that he said enough to formulate some questions; my goal is for them to have some idea of what it was like to be a young person in Nazi Germany before we begin reading Zuzak’s gorgeous novel about a family’s efforts to survive during that time.
I am quite certain that my students are only marginally aware of the incredible gift that Martin offers them, and that they are even less cognizant of the enormous fortitude and commitment that he demonstrates every time he stands up to tell his story. I am aware, however, and I am moved beyond my ability to express every time he agrees to share his time, his compassion, and his friendship with me.
I made a proclamation on my personal blog that I was going to try to focus on being more mindful and aware in my day-to-day life. Part of the commitment to that includes setting a “theme” for myself, and this week has been about love. I’m writing today’s post here, though, because so much of the love that I live is generated in the work that I do
It’s weird to think about it now because it’s become so much a part of my identity, but I was incredibly nervous about taking a job in a high school. Beyond my internship, I never worked with young people. What’s more, I didn’t really want to. I was certain that I was going to work my entire career in colleges and universities because the kind of work I wanted to do in my discipline is usually only done in those places. I wasn’t (and am still not) terribly interested in, or particularly good at, teaching fundamentals; I want to dig into the critical and the analytical and to make complex and difficult connections in a cooperative, dynamic, discussion-based classroom, not to spend my days lecturing or grading worksheets and bubble tests or teaching kids what a noun is.
I took the job at Charter High for a couple of reasons; I really loved what CHS was doing in terms of teaching and learning, I connected almost instantly with the woman who would be my director, the community college where I’d been working had closed, and I wasn’t getting much of a foothold at Local U; I only taught a freshman English course or two in the fall (and let’s not forget that I had no intention of getting a PhD, and one rarely gets a good job in the English department of a university without one). I was intrigued, as well, by the idea of working every day with teenagers.
My only real concern in taking the job was the kids. I had no idea if I COULD work every day with teenagers; please remember that I’ve got one in my house – and one coming up fast behind her – so I had an up-close-and-personal understanding of the… shall we call them frequencies?… of teenagers. Needless to say, the thought of being soaked every working day in the drama and hormones and attitudes of dozens of young people who were not my own presented a formidable challenge to my courage.
Two years in, though? I wouldn’t change a thing.
The truth of the matter is that I adore my job – I can’t wait to get up and go to work in the morning, and I think a huge part of that is the kids. I was, frankly, shocked by the rapidity and intensity with which I fell literally in love with the students. They are each wonderful and amazing and infuriating and endearing in their own ways, and I find myself caring about them far more than I ever imagined I would.
Because I care so much about them – as people and as students – I am inspired to continue my own growth and development – as a person and a teacher – so that I can provide them with the very best I can possibly offer. I am mindful of my roles as mentor, teacher, and example of responsible adulthood. I let my students see who I really am; I talk passionately and honestly about the things I care about, I argue with them when I think they’re wrong about something, and I listen to them when they’re willing to talk to me (which is a lot more often than I would have expected, given how demanding I can be with them). I make sure they know that I love them; I call them by affectionate nicknames (they are collectively my “babies” and I have been known to refer to some as “Sweet” or “Honey”) and I make myself available to them as much as I can. I look at them when they talk to me, I don’t bullshit them, and I treat them as if they’re important to me (because they are). Sometimes, I come right out and tell them that I love them (though that’s often followed up by an admonishment of some sort, as in “You know I love you, right? Good, now shut up and start writing“).
Of course, that kind of affection brings with it its own set of complications. My husband worries that I give too much to my students – not that I reveal too much of my personal life to them (though they do know some of our family stories, those stories are always relevant to whatever point I’m trying to make at the time), but rather that I’m opening myself up to pain and disappointment by caring for them as much as I do. Mr. Chili tends to be more emotionally cautious than I, and I understand what he’s saying, but I simply can’t be any other way. I can’t think of my students as just a part of my job; that’s just not how I operate.
A few months ago, after a school assembly where the student body was essentially told to straighten up and start working, I brought my class together to talk about what was going on with them; I wanted to know what was holding them back and why they weren’t working at even a fraction of their glorious potential. One boy, who is a particular favorite of mine (see? I love them!) looked me in the eye and said “Mrs. Chili, you really have to learn to let us fail.” That prompted me to go home that night and dream that this student and several others called a meeting to order in which they informed me that I needed to stop loving them because they simply couldn’t handle the pressure. I went to school the next day and told each of my classes about that dream. I also told them that I had no intention of ever not loving them, and that they were just going to have to learn to accept that. They are my babies, and I love each and every one of them, even when they send me to the very brink.
Actually, it’s “Interview with the Writer of Interview with the Vampire!”
You want to know how much I love technology? Let me tell you how much I love technology, People! A girlfriend clued me in a little while ago that Anne Rice had announced that she is willing to come to classrooms via Skype to talk about her books and the craft of writing.
She didn’t have to tell me twice!
I got right on the computer and emailed Ms. Rice to tell her that, yes, please, my seniors and I would like very much to have her “visit” our class and talk about writing. Her assistant and I have been emailing for a while now, and we’re circling in on a date in March.
I assigned Interview With the Vampire today – the kids have to have their books by this time next week and we’ll start reading then. I’m up against a couple of students who have pre-conceived notions of Rice and the novel, so I’m having to get them to start thinking like scholars about this novel instead of looking at it as consumers of entertainment. I’m probably not going to hook a few of them, but I know for sure that I’ve piqued a LOT of interest in this class; my boss is tickled that this could actually happen (she wants to call the local paper), and a number of my former students are begging to come back to school so they can partake in this class, too.