22 October 2014

I Go From Sounds Like a Plan to Dead Poet's Society With Stuff About Joking Around in Between

Just got off the phone with the doctor's office. Was trying to arrange a time to come in for a flu shot but I ultimately I had to tell the receptionist that I would have to look at my schedule and call back. "Okay," she replied, "sounds like a plan."

You know what? It is a plan. That's the thing about plans, they generally sound like plans. You could argue that it's superfluous to say of a plan that it sounds like a plan. After all, it is a plan. I told someone once that when Eisenhower outlined the D-Day invasion to his generals one of them said, "sounds like a plan" and Ike shot him. The person who I said this to replied "really?" This person was not previously known to me to be an idiot, but there you go.

I have told the following to a lot of people over the past 20 years. "Mohandas Gandhi used to be a boxer who fought under the name of The Fighting Mahatma. He got a title shot against Rocky Galvano in Madison Square Garden but lost in a controversial split decision. It was such a bloody fight that Gandhi quit pugilism and became a pacifist." The vast majority of people I said this to believed me. People aren't dumb, I must seem so trustworthy and serious.

Just yesterday I was telling someone that Vladimir Putin's brother Craig lives in San Francisco and that he's into organic gardening, hiking and restoring old vans with his partner Horace. "He's a real down to Earth unassuming guy," I added. The person believed me.

I give up.

I guess I'm just really good at making up and especially telling utter nonsense. I had someone believing that I was a paratrooper during World War II (I don't look that old, do I?). It's a gift or a curse and I take advantage of it. I suppose its a good way to fill the time and have fun. Usually I reserve it for people who are going to "get it" and maybe even play along.

Of course there is a downside. Sometimes people don't believe you when you tell a true story. The other day I related the absolutely true story that I once worked with someone whose name was Henry Mary and 20 years later I had a student whose name was Mary Henry. The person I told this to was sure I made it up. That's insulting. I can make up much crazier stuff than that. Sometimes people don't believe you when you relate the details of a dream. Come on. You can't make up stuff you dreamed. Well, you could but what would be the point? Dreams are crazy and random enough as it is.

The other problem is that when you spin a yarn a person may accuse you if lying. This is rude and insulting. Lying is a serious offense, it is an intentional effort to deceive someone, to obscure the truth.  Making up a ridiculous story about how you used to date Beyonce is not lying, its telling a silly story. (Actually its not in my case because Beyonce and I used to be an item until I let her go and set her up with what's-his-face.)

My checker at the market the other day was a former student from my time teaching middle school. She remembered my name and the fact that I claimed to go out with Beyonce. I hope she also remembered something about the U.S. Constitution or Lincoln or Native Americans or the importance of history.

Early in the school year -- again in my incarnation as a middle school history teacher -- I used to take my class for a short walk to this huge oak tree. I said it was the tree of liberty and that the trunk of the tree was the constitution that kept it standing and I spoke of its three big branches as the branches of government and so on. It was pretty effective -- if I could keep the little buggers quiet. I've had a couple of former students tell me that whenever they walk by that tree they think of it as the tree of liberty and remember what it represents. Pretty cool.

Speaking of inspiring teachers, last weekend I watched Dead Poet's Society (1989) for the first time in ages. It had been near the top of ye olde Netflix queue when Robin Williams died at which point a put it up top where it lingered as a "very long wait." For months I waited. Anyhoo it came. It's  better than I remember it being and it actually influenced my teaching, coming out as it did near the beginning of my brilliant career, well my career anyway. Most films about inspiring teachers make me ill. They are generally sentimental nonsense like Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939). The worst was Mr. Holland's Opus (1995) which caused me uncontrollable retching and horrible stomach cramps and a desire to do myself bodily harm. On back to school nights around the time it came out, parents would gleefully ask me if I'd seen it. I would put on my best forced smile and whilst suppressing the rising bile say that indeed I had. If pressed I would even pretend I liked it and then change the topic to anything else at all. My favorite film about a teacher is Half Nelson (2006) in which Ryan Gosling starred as a middle school history teacher and sports coach (sounds like me so far) who is not incidentally also a drug addict (hey, at least I'm just a recovering one).

But back to Dead Poet's Society. There is a reality to it in that it depicts the kind of teacher who believes that inspiring students and firing their imaginations is central to the profession, if not the be all of it. Said teacher also comes into conflict with tired old brain dead administrators who view teachers as assembly line workers whose function is to shove facts into students' brains. Williams gave an excellent performance as the English teacher with the unconventional methods. That whole business about students standing on a desk to see things in a different way....I used that too. Unlike other inspiring teacher films, DPS is never maudlin and is even somewhat dark. But most importantly it focuses on the students and how they are effected and shaped by a teacher.

For the most part our society devalues teachers (a look at our paychecks will bear that out) and often scapegoats us and any unions we may have. At the same time we constantly see one dimensional depictions of teachers as clueless morons constantly outwitted by clever students, or as wise, aging, self sacrificing souls who live off their memories. Hogwash.

I suppose I should further explore this topic at some later date. Hey, that sounded like a plan!

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