29 November 2015

Jake's Death Experienced

Jake was shocked. He couldn’t believe that his life had ended at 27.  Just like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and more recently Amy Winehouse. At least they had been rock stars. Jake hadn’t been a damn thing. A nobody, really. Hadn’t even finished college. Never learned a trade. Sure people liked his writing, but he’d hardly published anything. What a waste.

All Jake saw now in death was a table with an apple on it in a narrow alcove with a little late afternoon sun streaming through a white curtained window. He was seeing it as if he was looking through a cone and it was slanted. There was no movement, like it was a painting.

There was no sound, although the memory of a ticking clock was persistent in Jake’s mind. Jake felt calm but a little bit sad and resigned to this sight and the fact that it seemed to represent his eternity. For a time — there was no telling how long, not in this state of being — Jake just regarded the scene with no thought one way or the other. But finally he broke out of it as if from a spell and tried to make reason out of what he was seeing. Was this symbolic? What did it mean? Why the apple? And had the lacy table cloth been there all along? It seemed this might have been a recent addition but Jake couldn’t be sure. Was it possible to enter the scene, or see anything else, indeed to do anything but regard the table?

Jake struggled for a memory, something before this, anything. There was a vague notion of having been alive but no vital statistics, all he remembered for sure was that he'd died a failure at 27 years with no meaning to his existence nor any accomplishments. His mind seemed to be fading. This seemed at once frightening and quite natural, still Jake fought against it and tried to conjure memories of who he was or had been. There were a few images. A red tricycle, looking down at the ground from a tree, a kickball smacking against his face, chemistry class, Linda Minkovich smiling at him, a line of cocaine, buying a used copy of Moby Dick, looking out an airplane window at clouds. Then in his mind there was blackness. Jake screamed but there was no sound. So he focused again on the apple on the table with the late afternoon sunlight coming in from the curtained window. It gave him comfort. 
How long had he been staring at the table? It could have easily been ten seconds or ten thousand years. It could have been eternal or just this nanosecond. There was no time. Wind blew. Somewhere. It could have been behind Jake or in front of him or inside his brain but it was a strong wind that emanated from nowhere and did nothing. Jake thought he felt a tear going down his cheek. He thought he felt a sense of loss and emptiness a sensation that time had been wasted and there would be no more. Again he soundlessly screamed. Where is my body, he wondered.

The loneliness was oppressive. Jake could no longer visualize what a human being looked like but he craved the presence of one, the touch, the sound, the sight of another life. But he loved the table. The apple. The curtained window. He loved them beyond all measure. Jake had no idea why.

Then a cacophonous whirring, a horrible sound of machinery interrupted everything. It was incredibly loud and real, not like where he was. It came from another place, perhaps another dimension. It was awful. It went on for…there was no telling because there was no time -- but it was too long for Jake’s liking.

The second the horrible noise ended everything changed. Now he was floating. In a hospital room, looking down on — himself, in a bed, surrounded by doctors and nurses. This was strangely serene. Then nothing. Then a park with children playing and his grandmother pushing a swing and then an office building and Linda Minkovich talking to him and she was wearing a bikini and then he was playing football and then he was awake.

“Jake, Jake. Hey buddy, we thought we lost you there for a second.” It was Jake’s father. His face loomed. Jakes’s mother was behind him tears streaming down her face. “Oh Jake, honey, you’re back. Can you hear us? How do you feel?”

Jake could barely muster saying: “What happened? Where am I?”

“You nearly died is what, son,” his father told Jake. “Too many drugs all at once. I warned you Jake, if this doesn’t teach you nothing will.”

“You mean…I almost OD’d?”

Jake’s mother burst into tears.

“Don’t worry about it son, we’re just glad to have you back. Maybe you can spend a little time on the straight and narrow. Work on your writing But of course first you’ve got to get well. Healthy, hale and hearty. They’re taking good care of you here. Hell, they saved your life.”

Jake’s mother pushed her husband away and smothered Jake with kisses.

He’d been clinically dead. But he had a second chance. Jake was not like Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison and Winehouse who’d died at 27. He’d been given a reprieve. Another opportunity at making something of his life.

Two days later Jake was released from the hospital. His parents brought him to their new home. He’d never seen it before. They led Jake up to what would be his room while he stayed with them. Jake opened the door and saw a table with an apple on it and the late afternoon sun streaming in through a curtained window.

"See there's even a writing table for you, Jake," his mother said.

“Now where do you suppose that apple came from?” Jake’s father asked. “Why, I didn’t put it there," said his mother.

Jake smiled. He walked over and took a big bite out of the apple. It was delicious.

27 November 2015

A New Film I Saw Today Inspires a Post About My Father's Immigration Experience and the Power of Choices

“Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, live by love though the stars walk backward.” -- e.e. Cummings.

I never understood it as a child but the United States was paradise to my father and millions of other immigrants. It was long before my dad arrived and remained so long after. Even unto this day. I grew up here and took everything for granted plus I had a strong rebellious streak which, coupled with the time and place I grew up in — Berkeley in the Sixties — made me far less enamored of the US and it all it stood for.

Today the missus and I saw a wonderful new film called Brooklyn which is about a young woman coming to the US from Ireland in 1951. Like all good movies, Brooklyn gave me a lot to think about (it was also visually spectacular and was rich with strong, yet nuanced performances). One thing that quite naturally came to mind was the stunning contrast for immigrants between the US and the “old country.” The main character, Eilis (Saiorse Ronan), while not exactly caught between two worlds, is certainly made aware of the marked contrasts between them. Like many immigrants she comes from a small town and tight community to the ultimate big city, New York. One would think deciding a preference would be a simple matter given the contrasts, but such is not always the case. Life is not always so cut and dried for many people. It was, however, for my dad.

My father was unabashed in his eternal love for Finland, where he grew up and spent his first 24 years, but the United States was everything to him. Supermarkets, oh my god the supermarkets. Aisle after aisle of all manner of foods including fresh produce, meat, fish, packaged cereals, canned soups, bread, coffee, liquor, spices and everything required to bake, broil, steam, boil, roast, fry, barbecue, simmer and freeze to one’s heart content. There was nothing of the sort in the small town where he grew up. And here supermarkets were a short car ride away and he had a car and the roads were paved and there were places to park and he had a job that paid, what must have seemed an enormous amount of money, so that he had plenty of money to buy to his heart’s content.

He lived in a heated home, with electricity and gas and separate bedrooms and for crying out loud indoor toilets and there was running water and a TV set and he even owned the place. Everything was possible. Everything was there. Everything was available. He could go to first run movies, to night clubs, to professional sports events to parks and on boat rides and on ski trips. Neighbors were generally friendly but it wasn’t like everyone knew everyone else’s business. There was privacy. The union took care of his medical needs and those of his family and all he had to do was work hard. There were convenient schools for his children and they would surely go to college and be whatever the hell they wanted. Others from his country followed, including a younger brother, so he was able to maintain his culture and language because many had preceded him. The United States gave my father everything he could ask for. No wonder he loved it.

My dad’s experience was not and is not unusual among those who immigrate to this country. A lot of immigrants come from bad times in bad places. There is poverty, repression, violence, fear, and want. The US can be a safe, comfortable place that affords opportunities. Throughout this country’s history many recent immigrants have very quickly developed into patriotic citizens with an abiding love for their new found home.

(As a life long student of American history and as an observer of current events I hasten to add that immigrants have also been targets of abuse and discrimination and they have been scapegoated and used and abused. The Irish, German, Italian, East Europeans, Jews, Chinese and Mexicans, not to mention more recently our Muslim friends, have faced hardships that in many cases rival or even exceed what they were subjected to at home. Yet the majority have stayed, have assimilated and raised families. Many of them too have — despite their harsh welcomes — become patriotic citizens. Others among them have turned to crime including gang activity and others have participated in subversive political activity, not always without good reason or to bad ends.)

My father left Finland in 1940 to join the merchant marines and see the world. That he did. Of course his departure coincided with World War II so he also saw airplanes attacking him and the periscope of submarine moments before it sunk the ship he was on. He settled first in New York where he met my mother — a woman of Finnish parentage — who hailed from the Bay Area where they moved in time to have two baby boomers, my brother and I. It was 14 years before Dad returned to Finland, to attend his own father’s funeral. I can only imagine what he thought upon returning to his home town. The house he grew up in still did not boast a telephone and the toilet was a few yards away in the form of an outhouse. I wonder what he told everyone about America. Knowing my father I’m sure he emphasized how wonderful everything was and I’m quite certain he encouraged kin and friends to make the move and enjoy the modern splendors of the USA.

It was another 18 years before his next return to Finland. Life was still very very good indeed for him in the States although tragedy had struck his marriage and rocked his world owing to my mother’s mental problems. He eventually re-married and made still more trips back to Finland. Towards the end of his life Dad talked of moving back to Finland. This struck me as both sensible and quite odd. It’s only natural to want to spend your last years “at home” where your roots are. But he’d not spent more than about six weeks at a time in Finland in over 60 years. It was hard to imagine that he could “go home again.”

Where is home, anyway?  For some people it is one structure they've inhabited for the majority of their life or one neighborhood or one city. For others it is more fluid and for others still it is ethereal. Home can be a house or a family or a community. Moving from one to the next can be upsetting regardless of how old you are. It can require great courage and great vision or it can be an impulse. We make such moves seeking something better. Promises. We also make moves for the sake of other people. That person we want to live with or for family. And it always is so central to our identity. “Where are you from?” or “Where do you live?” can be a very personal question for how much it reveals not only about who we are but how we want to be seen.

In Brooklyn, Eilis faces this question twice as she makes decisions that will set the course for the rest of her life. She is young. It strikes me how many decisions we make that will effect us for the rest of our lives when we are still in our late teens and early twenties. As Jean-Paul Satre said, “we are our choices.” My father didn't hesitate to commit to the US. If he ever suffered an iota of homesickness I never heard about it. He was of a generation of Europeans who knew a good thing when they saw it. They were part of the backbone of this country for decades after the war. My dad literally (he was a carpenter) built part of the Bay Area. The flow of Europeans to the US has slowed to barely a trickle these days. In places like Finland life is simply better than it is here in many respects. People come from Finland to study or to visit or work for a few years in a highly trained profession. But Finland is as modern as the US and the living is, if anything better, the schools are judged by many to be the best in the world. The times they have changed.

There was no question about my dad's staying in the US, for Eilis there is a question and it is a profound one. It is at the heart of who we are as people. Creatures who make choices. I'm particularly glad I saw Brooklyn because it has caused me to reflect on my Dad's experience and on the fact that the power to make choices can be at times either a great gift or a serious burden. Or both.

25 November 2015

What I'm Thankful for this Thanksgiving

One of the things I'm thankful for, Marilyn Monroe
I am thankful for the way my wife says "hi, how are you?" when I phone her from work. I'm thankful that my oldest daughter loves working with children and that my youngest daughter has such a strong social conscience.

I'm thankful that because I DVR Fargo I can fast forward through the commercials. I'm thankful that I get a seat on public transit during my commute. I'm thankful for the way Brandon Crawford ranges up the middle for ground balls. I'm thankful for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) the night before Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for the Cal band playing The Big C. I'm thankful for Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah taking over for living legends so seamlessly.

I'm thankful for Bergman films on Criterion. I'm thankful for rain. I'm thankful for Thomas Hardy novels and Dylan Thomas poems. I'm thankful for Paul McCartney and Wings on CD. I'm thankful for Arsenal matches on television. I'm thankful for Instagram photos of Italy. I'm thankful for tweets that make me chortle.

I'm thankful for Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady.

I'm thankful for big white puffy clouds and the blueness of the sky after rain and the contrast of green trees and blue skies and waves hitting the shore and hills and mountains and grass.

I'm thankful for Hendrix doing All Along the Watchtower, Dylan doing The Man in Me and Joplin at Woodstock and Al Green singing Tired of Being Alone and Amy Winehouse singing Back to Black and Bill Evans playing Danny Boy on the piano and The Kinks Ultimate Collection and Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust album.

I'm thankful for being drenched in sweat after a seven mile run.

I'm thankful for Marilyn Monroe and other classic beauties.

I'm thankful for Bernie Sanders running for president.

I'm thankful for Ben and Jerry's ice cream and quality black licorice and tea and coffee and the blender I use to make smoothies and good produce and veggie burgers and salmon and chocolate and fresh fruit and nuts and legumes.

I'm thankful for The Simpsons reruns and the new episodes.

I'm thankful for John Oliver's show on HBO.

I'm thankful for Shakespeare's plays and the better film versions of them and for Penguin Classics and for good bookstores like Moe's in Berkeley and CD/DVD stores like Amoeba.

I'm thankful for my nieces and nephews and grand nieces and grand nephews and for having had such a great father and such a great brother and for my grandparents.

I'm thankful for having a job I love with some great coworkers and fantastic students.

I'm thankful that I grew up in Berkeley in the Sixties and that I was imbued with the spirit of progressive social movement and questioning authority.

I'm thankful I was born of Finnish ancestry.

I'm thankful for kisses, hugs, handshakes, high fives, fist bumps, pats on the back and intimacy.

I'm thankful for You Tube making it possible to watch George Carlin, Groucho Marx, Robin Williams, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, Bob and Ray, Monty Python, Jack Benny, Jonathan Winters and Rodney Dangerfield.

I'm thankful for the way I feel after stretching and after meditating and after a good sleep and a good day's work.

I'm thankful that for all the crap in the world its still possible to have so much to be thankful for.

22 November 2015

Parents: The Hidden Terror of Teaching, Unless, as Usually is the Case they are Really Nice, or More Likely Unseen

Parents. When you're a middle school teacher -- as I was for decades -- they are as unavoidable as colds and sometimes just as welcome although they can be perfectly charming, wonderful and delightful. But truly they are mostly unseen. I offer you know a different sort of reminisce of my teaching days.

There was the woman from New Orleans who was known to hate white people. She came in on parent conference day and asked angry questions and glared at me and when I pointed at a grade print out wouldn’t look at it. She would not listen to explanations but she did sigh loudly at me as if putting up with my nonsense was more than a person could bear. Her child was a decent kid but a lazy student. Frankly I still have no idea why she showed up. To show contempt? She was a rarity, however, I never felt a dose of racism directed towards me by other parents, though it doubtless existed to some degree. On the flip side one parent accused me of being Afrocentric. And I came to understand that there was some grumblings about my alleged over emphasis on the black experience in US History. There ya go.

There was the mother who came into see me to complain that school was not challenging enough for her Becca and could I please double assignments for her. Give her two papers to do instead of one and extra homework and extra test questions. Why not, I said, but I thought that the mother should back off and let Becca be a 13 year old girl. It didn’t surprise me when six weeks later Becca the A student was getting a C and her mother called off the extra work nonsense. Teacher knows best.

Of course there were parents on the other end of the spectrum who complained about too much homework which limited their child’s time for family activities. These were invariably parents of high achieving kids who were doing quite well in school and had many friends. They didn’t need mom and dad playing the role of a buttinski. I was particularly careful never to overdo the homework but at the same time I had to get the wee ones ready for the rigors of high school.

“You will see a change.” I wish I had a greenback for every time I hard this nugget. The comment would come from a parent after a conference about their child's academic failings or their errant behavior or likely both. The “you-will-see-a-change” students almost never changed and if they did it was usually temporary. I remember walking out of such a meeting once with a colleague who said with much sarcasm: "that oughtta do it." We often spoke of students who made 360 degree changes. After a few weeks of real effort they'd revert to their tried and true practice of slacking off.

Some parents wanted to be notified any and every time their child missed a homework assignment or disrupted class. They did not want to hear how unrealistic it was for us to follow through on such a promise if we ever chanced to make it. The more realistic approach was the weekly report. Students who were having trouble would get a form from the office on Friday morning then get each of their teachers to fill it out telling how they were doing and what assignments, if any were missing. It was easy for students and teachers and effective for parents. In theory. I was constantly finding the damn things on the ground at the end of school and many students forgot to get them filled out by all their teachers or in many cases any of their teachers. It always amazed me that so many parents lost interest. Report cards would come or it would be time for parent conferences and they would express their concern and vow to oversee a turnaround. Often we never heard from them again.  I think it many cases these parents were more personally embarrassed by their child's errant ways than they were concerned about seeing the child succeed in school.

We had some parents who came in once for a conference about their struggling youngster. Both parents were on disability and thus always at home should we ever needed to call them. Toward the end of the conference a teacher asked them if they were on the internet because if so it would be particularly easy to update them. “We don’t have time for all that,” one of them replied. Yes, one can see how two people who are at home all the time wouldn’t “have time” for computers and such.

On parent conference days most folks who showed up were the parents of model students. These conferences went something like this: “so how’s she doing?” “Great, she’s getting an A, participates in class and is just a wonderful student.” “Well, she really enjoys your class.” Smiles all around. It was nice for the parents to hear how wonderful their children were (I was a parent in such conferences myself) but other than ego gratification they were a goddamned waste of time.

The vast majority of people whose children were failing and/or had discipline issues never showed for conferences, even if we called them and even if they promised to come. Not everyone is well suited to be parents or they have children too soon or too late in life or they have serious problems of their own like addiction, imprisonment, poverty and not knowing where the hell the child's other parent is. I felt for these families but there was nothing I could do save being the best teacher I could and perhaps lending their progeny an ear. Needless to say many of the children from "broken" homes are the ones giving you the most trouble.

I always said: "I like all my students, even the ones I don't like." Other teachers knew what I meant. In over 20 years of teaching I had about five or six students who I actually didn't like and this was because I hated them. Each one was a sociopath with no conscience, no sense of morality. A couple were decent academically and any one of them could have achieved financial and social success legally but they all seemed as though they would forever be heartless human beings who could and would beguile innocents at any opportunity. None of them had parents who I ever laid eyes on.

I got along famously with many parents. Especially in my role as the school's soccer and girl's softball coach. One who I got to know quite well was an author and historian who wrote the definitive biography of the great American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called All on Fire, the chap's name was Henry Mayer and I had the pleasure of talking to him about the book as well as other matters in the course of car rides to some of our matches. Sadly he died suddenly and much too soon of an undetected heart condition. I also got to know a parent who was a professor of and a leading authority on constitutional law as well as one who was a federal judge, an English professor, and others who may not have boasted impressive CVs but were fine people.

Indeed getting to know some of the parents was one of the privileges of the job. Its easy to recount stories of the wild and wacky -- believe me I've only scratched the surface, I haven't even gotten to the ones who claimed that anytime a child failed it was the fault of the teacher, there were many of them -- but the majority were either anonymous to me or quite pleasant or even practically friends (I would never start a true friendship with a student's parent as a few of my colleagues did on occasion,  that's just me).

Generally speaking parents are decent sorts. Take me for example. I'm sure my children will attest to what a great father I have been. I'm not sure enough to actually ask them, but pretty sure. 

15 November 2015

Tales From Middle School and a Sober Discussion on Education

It was a three day group assignment in which students were to create a country wedged in between two existing countries. They had to imagine and record what such a country’s imports, exports, culture, government, etc. might be given its geography. I provided each group with tons of materials and a detailed explanation of what they were to do.

I gave a verbal explanation while projecting those instruction with the overhead projector. I took questions. Everyone seemed to understand, even though they were all 12 and 13 year olds. They got started. After a few minutes I did my rounds checking in on the groups. At the first group I came upon there was a young man who was sitting at his desk staring off into space. I asked the lad why he wasn’t working. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing,” he claimed. I suggested he ask one of his fellow group members. “They don’t know what to do either,” he replied. “None of you know what to do?” I asked them. They shook their heads. I pointed out that the instructions were in the packets they all had.

The next group I approached was sitting idly not a care in the world. I asked what was going on. “We’re finished,” one student announced. The others happily nodded in agreement. I expressed disbelief that they had finished a three day assignment in 15 minutes. One student proudly showed me their work. It was a crudely drawn map with a few names on it, one for the country and others for cities. I asked where the rest of their work was. They were clearly baffled. “The country’s political system, exports, imports, culture, all the things that comprise a country.” They were still baffled. I sighed, “It’s all their in the instructions." They were genuinely surprised to find that there was more to the assignment.

(As a postscript I should point out that both those groups as well as the others in the class ultimately did a fine job with the assignment and presumably learned something.)

On another occasion I was introducing and explaining a rather complex term paper. Giving such assignments always led to a lot of questions. This was my third class of the day and much of the first two classes had been taken up with questions. But this time there were no questions. None. Zero.
Frankly I was worried. “No one has any questions? You all understand?” I asked them. Finally a hand went up. This student had a question. “Is you wearing a new tie?” And that was it for questions.

Once I assigned a term paper that was supposed to be about a famous American who gained their notoriety during the 19th century. I offered several examples, pointing out that this biography could be about a man, woman, politician, explorer, abolitionist, military man, writer, inventor, entrepreneur, suffragist anyone who gained fame in the 1800s. I got an immediate question: “So we can do it on anything?” I said anything as long as it was a person from the 1800s. Another student exclaimed, “I’m going to do it on Tupac.” I pointed out that Tupac Shukar did not live at any point in the 19th century.

Middle school students have notoriously short attention spans as illustrated by another story. Again this was an instance when I had just assigned a term paper. This one required an annotated bibliography. I painstakingly explained what such a bibliography entailed, I got many questions but as class ended most students seemed to understand. One student approached me after the dismissal bell rang and asked if I could again explain what an annotated bibliography was. I, of course, was glad to do so. I had gotten so far as to say: “In an annotated bibliography — ” when the student saw a friend entering the room and asked him if he’d seen “the game last night” the querying student than turned his attention completely away from me, walked over to his friend and never bothered to follow up on his question. A few weeks later the student turned in a paper sans any sort of bibliography. In grading his paper I pointed out that he should have stuck around to get his question answered. Now some might say that I should have tracked the young man down and finished my explanation but I felt I was teaching him a better lesson by making him "pay the price."

One of the most frequently asked questions by students was: "what are we supposed to be doin'?" It was at times infuriating but it was also sad but it was also to be expected. You can have a lengthy discussion about the wisdom of trying to teach academics to young teens. One of my colleagues, who was one of the most serious and ernest teachers I ever worked with, often opined that students needed to be spending more time outside playing, their bodies and minds were simply not geared to sit in classrooms for long periods of time trying to absorb countless bits of information. There are very few ideal times for students to be sitting in a classroom. In the early morning their brains aren't awake yet. Scientists have determined that the optimal learning time for students doesn't start until after 10:00 yet classes in most schools start as early as 8:00 though typically around 8:45. Just before lunch isn't good because students start getting antsy. Right after lunch is really bad because they've just been socializing and playing and their minds and bodies aren't ready to re-focus. Of course the end of the school day is bad too because students are anxious for the dismissal bell and freedom. There are a few "good times" to teach. One is mid morning and one is mid afternoon. They last about 15 minutes each.

I've long thought that our current education system needs to stop the constant minor reformations it is forever undergoing and have a revolution. Schools and school districts are forever tinkering. Bell schedules change. Classes are made longer or shorter, all manner of different instructional methods are introduced new materials and the latest technology are integrated. At the end of the day the same students are succeeding the same ones are failing and there are but a few in the middle who are even slightly effected by this change or that. Most students' destinies are assured at the beginning of their educational lives because of their home environment. It is the single biggest factor in determining student success. Certainly by the time a student got to us in middle school their future course was pretty much etched in stone. As educators we were ecstatic whenever we helped affect a turn around in a young man or woman. This jubilation stemmed in large part because those instances were -- sadly -- so very rare. I gave a geography quiz very early in the school year and I could pretty much be sure that the students who got As on that test would be A students throughout the years and the students who got Fs would still be flunking at year's end. I hasten here to add that I, like other teachers, made every effort to help those F bound students. It's your job, and is taken seriously.

The current school year and schedule were set up when this was an agrarian society. It was based on when students would be needed to work at home, thus Summers were off. It may not surprise you to know that a very small percentage of today's students live on farms -- virtually none in urban areas. Yet in most school districts the schedule remains and it appears unlikely to change. Indeed I've seen no indication that any radical thinking is going to be introduced into our school system. I'm sure some people have ideas but they are evidently not being heard or even taken seriously.

The flaws in our school system are most evident when we look at the achievement gap between white and African American students. This gap is really between rich and poor.  Where I taught, our most successful black students were those who came from middle class or higher families. The white kids who struggled were usually from poor families. This metric can also be seen in discipline problems. Not surprisingly the vast majority of students who were suspended or regularly received detention were from poor families and thus most were usually African American or Latino.

(One frightening fact is that the achievement and discipline gaps have gotten worse than I was a student 40 years ago. I don't fully understand but it depresses the hell out of me.)

Towards the end of my middle school teaching career I had a troublesome young student named Maurice. He was a crack baby, his mother was addicted to and smoking crack cocaine when Maurice was in utero. He could neither sit still nor control his mouth. Maurice was also given to using crude language, being willfully defiant and being argumentative.  Before and after I would feel sorry for a young man like Maurice, indeed we had many students with similarly tragic backstories, but while he was disrupting efforts to teach a room full of 13 year olds you wanted nothing more than to be rid of him.

One day after school when I was feeling fed up with Maurice, I stopped in the principal’s office. I shared my frustration with the principal and asked what we could do. The principal acknowledged that Maurice was a problem and he suggested the following: just keep on writing him up and we’ll keep suspending him and when he gets to 28 days we can move for expulsion.

In other words the solution to the problem was make him someone else's problem. School districts do this. They’ll expel a student (a long drawn out process which entails a great deal of bureaucracy) and thus be done with the poor sap. Of course this just means he registers in a neighboring district and becomes their problem. We, of course, got a few such students from other districts. Here’s a shocker: students who are expelled do not magically transform by moving to a new locale. They bring the same baggage, the same attitude, the same resistance to learning.

For a long time after I was disappointed with the principal. That was the best he could come up with for Maurice and others like him? Make him someone else's problem? But I eventually realized that it wasn't his fault. What could he suggest? What could he do? School districts don't have the resources to effectively work with the Maurices of the world. Absent parent involvement, most schools are generally impotent in trying to help such students.

Inner city public schools are much like battlefield triage. You help who can be saved and let the rest bleed out. You've only got so much personnel with so much time. Thus, of course, Maurice gets passed right along though school. We ended up promoting Maurice to high school with the rest of his class. Sure students are often threatened with retention, but if anything retaining a student is worse for him or her than just moving the student up. I'm sure Maurice didn't finish high school and today he is society's problem. The money that was not spent on Maurice when he was a child will be spent many times over by society in the years to come. This is happening all over the country where we are penny wise and pound foolish.

Recently a former student named Anthony was arrested for murder. If found guilty (as appears likely) he'll be at least the third of my students convicted of homicide. Others have been convicted of lesser offenses. About a dozen of my former students have died from gunshots. In most every case of a former student who has ended up dead or in prison none of us who "taught" the young man were surprised upon receiving the news.  Their fates are sadly predictable and in most cases their elementary school teachers saw what was coming as well. I think it behooves a society to invest in helping its young and vulnerable so that they may best serve that society and themselves. We are letting young lives go astray early and then are left to pay for the mistakes we make.

A good first step would be to re-think how we educate. Clearly what we are doing now is not working for far too many young people.

14 November 2015

Je t'aime Paris -- My Friday

A photo I took during my most recent visit to Paris.
Yesterday I woke up and the two week long depression was lifted. I felt great. Not sure why it came or how it went but there you go. Things are always happening. Just gotta stick around for it.

Work was good. Had to say fare thee well to a co-worker I was quite fond of. People leave workplaces all the time. Sometimes they’re ones you’re glad to see go and sometimes they’re people you’ll miss and some of those you’ll even stay in contact with, at least for a bit or sporadically. I’m used to it but still hated having to do the hug goodbye and the exchanging of heartfelt thanks and well wishes.

For lunch I ate a sandwich.

Before my afternoon class I checked the news, which is my want to do, and saw the horrible news from Paris, my favorite city. There is for me the twin reactions of shock and so-what-else-is-new. It’s very difficult to go more than a few weeks without some mass slaughter devastating a community or a country or the world. Every time I checked for updates the death toll rose. It started at 10, then 20, then 35 then over 50, then 80 then over 100 then over 125. It was macabre.

We have a lot of French students in the school and in fact my morning class features about six students from France. But my afternoon class has but two and neither live in Paris. Still I had to decide whether to raise the topic with them. This I pondered while they took a vocabulary quiz. I could have consulted with someone else but realized that I have more experience in such matters than any of my colleagues. Ultimately I decided to just let it go, if someone brought it up then I would open the class for discussion. Certainly if I was with the other class I would invited discussion. Also the French dominated group is my upper intermediate class while the one I was with is my upper beginners. A discussion with them would have been far more difficult.

At the break there were somber French students throughout the school many huddled together listening to French newscasts. It was a sobering scene.

The second half of class was typical for a Friday afternoon, which is to say fun and light and breezy and over quickly. My weekend had begun.

The bus I take to the subway station is rare for this area in that it seems there is nearly always one coming, waits are usually no more a few minutes. But on this day the wait was over 12 minutes long. It's entitled to an off day too, I reckoned. The bus had just reached the North Beach area when the driver announced it was the last stop, she could go no further. Buses were not allowed to go past Union Square or near it as the area was closed off due to a shooting. A shooting here too? My first thought was that there were coordinated attacks throughout the Western world. The driver directed us to a stop up the street where an express bus could take us to downtown. When I got to the stop there were people waiting from a previous bus, our bus and another behind us. In other words there were far more people than could fit on the express plus there was no telling how long we’d have to wait. I decided to hoof it.

The walk was not impossibly long but it did take me through Chinatown at around 5:00 on a Friday. Not an ideal time for a stroll. Also, I was not the only one who had set out on foot. At one point the bus I would have gotten on passed me. But within a block or so I passed it. I then proceeded to pass another — and I do not exaggerate here — 30 buses. Some were chock full of passengers and others were empty. The tunnel one passes through en route to downtown was bumper to bumper stalled buses.

A photo I took of the accident scene.
I finally made it near Union Square which was roped off. Police and firemen were everywhere, the vast majority of whom were standing around. I overheard someone say that there’d been an accident. This contradicted the bus driver’s claim so I didn’t know what to believe. I finally got close to the area where I could see the effects of a bus crash including the offending tour bus. A police officer told me that a bus had been going too fast and hit some scaffolding at a construction site. When asked about injuries he said 50 people had been taken to the hospital and that there were deaths.

My reporter’s instincts had gotten the best of me and in addition to surveying the scene as best I could I snapped some photos. After sating my curiosity I made my way to the subway station and the remainder of my trip home.

I continued checking my twitter feed. There were many touching expressions of sympathy for Paris but there were also links to compilations of tweets from American conservatives who displayed incredible callousness in the face of a tragedy. Some blamed France for letting refugees into their country (never mind that the attacks were committed by the very people the refugees were fleeing) others blamed Obama because to the American right winger of today there is nothing he cannot be blamed for, others merely engaged in sabre rattling because the right’s answer to anything is always war. Former speaker of the house, the odious Newt Gingrich even blamed France’s gun control laws. At times it seems that conservatives in this country have no heart, no humanity no compassion no conscience. What a horrible lot they are.

I met the wife in downtown Berkeley, she was holding in her hands a pizza which we went home and laid waste to while enjoying the previous evening’s Late Show With Stephen Colbert. 

It’s now early Saturday afternoon. I’ve got a film and a football game on tap for the rest of the day.  Not bad.

11 November 2015

Various Writings are Meshed Into One Post That I Hope You Find Palatable, Numerous Topics Are Explored

From 'Odd Man Out" directed by Carol Reed
There's nothing to compare with the feeling of coming down the escalator to the subway platform and seeing your train waiting and running to it and then for the door to close in your face before you can board. So for want of a few seconds you get to spend 15 minutes in the station. You feel life draining away from your being and a quarter hour of your life is gone. You further realize that it means 15 minutes less time at home.

This happened to me last week but it wasn't the worst part of my day. That came when three co workers, teachers mind you, discussed in depth their astrological signs and what moon or sun or asteroid was rising when they were born. Presumably the people speaking attended a university, though whether they learned anything is an open question. Maybe they also believe in reading tea leaves, tarot cards crystal balls and Ouija boards. I have a theory that anytime someone seriously discusses astrology a scientist somewhere sheds a tear.

I abet the knowing the lost people of my ever widening death defying land grab those who calculated their sin in dollars and wiped out a generation of innocents. My sins expand in my wake and I look to the circular logic of the irrational liar who stalks your night. Leaving be the moments of clarity to shudder at the driving force behind ending all nasty covert clandestine capers. The lot of your life and the crying careening whispers from an almighty force. That is the heaven you deserve my pickled friend. On to yesterday and all the potential it suggests with hope for a better last month. On to other days and better ways and Shakespeare plays. MacBeth Ado About a Tempest Henry the Richard the Titus and Juliet of Venice the Shrew Lear Dream.

I gamboled around the classroom a bubbling cauldron of energy weaving a lesson and dazzling students. I was a dervish of fun and a font of knowledge and ever understanding and giving. I was amazing. Students were delighted and excited and it was a beautiful demonstration of teaching. I smiled broadly and joked and poked and explained patiently. Wow wow wow. Who would have known that I was depressed? When class ended and the adrenaline had worn off I was back to the blackness and despair. The wrenching mental pain through which I looked at a world without hope. The automatic pilot was off.

Sunday I ran seven miles in 55 minutes and ten seconds. Not my best but not bad. I felt fantastic and could have run another two or three miles but had a basketball game to go to. I sat with a friend at the game and chatted and shared and cheered and marveled at young athletes. Then I went home and the pain washed over me and I slumped — mentally and emotionally and spiritually — so I watched a movie. It was a film I’d never seen before and it was fantastic (Odd Man Out (1947) directed by Carol Reed). I'd like to write about the film, to convey my feelings to share the experience of having watched it. Oh to encourage you dear reader to see it and then find out you enjoyed it. But I seldom write about films anymore. And. I don't. Know. Why. Lost the feel for it, I suppose.


I just read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Probably the third time. It get's better each. I love the film of the same name directed by Stanley Kubrick (1971). There is a sort of celebration of violence we participate in by enjoying the book and the movie but then we feel a shade of guilt for that enjoyment. That's one of the many levels upon which Burgess and Kubrick are so successful in their renderings. What I also love about both book and film is that the stories were clearly articulated by artists who reveled in what they were doing. The spirit and fun in the creativity of weaving this story are apparent. There can be a sort of joylessness in some stories that is strange, yet evident. When art feels like it was a chore to produce rather than an orgasmic expression of vision, well it suffers quite a bit doesn't it? (Note rhetorical question.)

Now I'm reading Notre Dame of Paris by Victor Hugo upon which the Hunchback of Notre Dame iterations are based. I'm given to understand that the book differs significantly in tone and events from the film versions, particularly the animated Disney version. I recently watched the 1939 film starring Maureen O"Hara (as it happened, a couple of days before she died), Edmond O"Brien, Thomas Mitchell and of course Charles Laughton. It inspired me to finally read the book. The film itself is perfectly okay I hope the book is even better.

Today is Veteran's Day, or as it was formally known, Armistice Day. It originally commemorated  the end of World War I (previously known as The Great War) which ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The peace was actually signed well before then but the warring parties agreed to continue fighting until 11:00 local time for symmetry's sake. Thus many thousands died even more needlessly than millions before in what was one of the most ridiculously unnecessary wars  in human history. Indeed many officers, despite knowing that the war was over, ordered and led one last attack in an effort to make a name for themselves and to enjoy one last taste of battle. Many soldiers paid for this lunacy and arrogance with their lives or by leaving various body parts in battlefields.

Anyway, happy(?) Veteran's Day. Thanksgiving is nigh.

04 November 2015

Commuter Hooter Tooter Rooter Scooter

Still don't know what I was waitin' for
And my time was runnin' wild
A million dead end streets and
Every time I thought I'd got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I've never caught a glimpse of
How the others must see the faker
I'm much too fast to take that test"
-- From Changes by David Bowie

Ancient Japanese man talking animatedly to himself to my right. Then two young German couples sit either side of me with the females perched on the males’ laps. They are loud. I am on a San Francisco bus. A giant duck boards the bus and proceeds to lecture us on calendar reform. Jesus Christ appears in the middle of the bus and shouts at a teenager about smacking his gum. The bus hits a pothole and we fly upwards orbiting the Earth and nearly colliding with a space station. I get an angry email complaining about my alleged overuse of adverbs. I smirk — no — I happily smirk and throw the letter in the waste basket. I should have recycled it.

Back on the bus. I recoil at the sight of Theodore Roosevelt vomiting out a window. He is cheered by Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy. The latter boards the bus and claims to be holding a list containing the names of 23 communist bus drivers. He is heckled. The bus stops an extra minute in Chinatown so passengers can observe the 7th inning of 1953 World Series game. The space time continuum needs servicing -- "clearly" needs servicing if you like your adverbs.

I levitate while teaching my ESL class. Students don’t notice. (It seems the bus ride was yesterday and I am currently teaching class. Whatever.) Tempest in the hallway as broiling carousing rapturous minions of beauty twirl towards calypso. A ballet dancer gives me a five dollar bill.

There is a grinding numbing quality to commuting five days a week. It hardens you to life in surprising ways. It is a world of regimentation and unwritten rules and social norms that are rarely violated. Tempers are always one small incident from flaring but it takes an extraordinary event to spark anger. Many people are sullen, it is hard to be cheerful when you are edging your way here, waiting there and standing here and shoving there and smelling this and hearing that and touching those and processing a work day and anticipating home and hearth. And of course maybe the domestic pleasures do not await. There may be more unwanted necessary tasks ahead. Obligations, duties, responsibilities. You shuffle grimly. Your eyes are steely or droopy or closed and your body is tired from all the little steps. You remember to be polite.

Your commute is chock full of people. Tall, fat, skinny, ugly, beautiful, young, old, crazy, boringly normal, nattily attired, in veritable rags. Some are rude and thoughtless others are kind and friendly. Most are just there, just being, just filling up those spaces on buses and subway cars and platforms and escalators and sidewalks. Some walk in front of you too slowly, some brush hurriedly past you. Many get too close, but usually out of necessity. Conversations are generally reserved for acquaintances. Only rarely will strangers chat. Few people have the energy to make small talk. Some people impose conversations on others. They are outliers and usually fail to get satisfactory responses. There are wisecracks when things go amiss; the sarcastic are particularly welcome in such situations. Gallows humor reigns during particularly nasty commutes, as does the potential for commuter rage (a far milder condition than its nasty cousin, road rage).

Those commuting home take solace in the fact that their work day is over. Friday commutes are carnivals compared to Monday’s. People are joyously anticipating their weekend. Even Thursday commutes feel lighter. Monday and Tuesday commutes maintain a stoicism. Of course the morning commute is a different animal entirely. Folks are fresh or sleepy or even a bit of both plus the commute times are spread out a little more. There are generally less hiccups in the various systems in the morning and commuters are not weighed down by just having labored for eight hours.

Some commutes feel like the Bataan Death March. Connections are missed, there are delays, something smells awful, there are obnoxious high schoolers, it is too hot or is raining, police action, mechanical problems, health emergency, war declared.

The smooth and easy and incident-free commutes are quickly forgotten. They are like referees who don’t make any egregious calls. Expected, accepted, unrecognized.

This morning I had a 25 minute wait for a trolley that never came. Obstruction on the track. I had to catch a cab. This evening I breezed home without a care. So it goes.

I love my job. I hate my commute. The latter is not strong enough to ruin my days but it is a powerful force to be reckoned with that exacts its toll on me. I survive it principally because I am an avid reader and the hour and a quarter (two and half hours total, if math is not your thing) affords me ample reading time. Were it not for that, if I was someone who could not read on the bus or subway, I should imagine that I’d have gone starkers by now. But I am quite sane…no, that’s not right. I am less the lunatic than I could be. Still a strange case for psychologists to study but not yet a candidate for a straight jacket. I’m a tough nut.

Speaking of madness…That classroom scene finally resolved itself and I stopped levitating which finally drew comments from students. Not wanting to break the mood I performed gall bladder surgery on myself. The scalpel was handed to me by a Rastafarian Ulysses Grant.

Nude never noxious nouveau normative nomenclature nocturnal nonsensical notary nursing newfound naturalistic nebbish nectarine nacho Nicholas Nickleby napping.

02 November 2015

Remembering A Long Ago False Accusation Inspires a Writing About My Favorite Topic -- Women

This is Gretchen (I'm totally kidding it's Jayne Mansfield).
I did not intentionally touch Gretchen’s breast at that party in 1975. The whole idea is ridiculous. Gretchen was not a girlfriend nor anyone I had a crush on. She was among the circle of friends I hung out with at the time. She was not unattractive but for whatever reason I wasn't "interested" in her. I remember clearly that it was a Saturday night and my roomies and I were having one of our parties complete with a keg of beer (when the keg ran out we would send someone on a beer run for cases of suds). I was standing just outside my front door — probably positioned near the aforesaid keg — among fellow partiers. At this point in the narrative I was telling a story or animatedly expressing an opinion or weaving some implausible yarn, as I was want to do then. Whatever I was saying required some gesticulating, during the course of which my right index finger came in contact with one of  Gretchen’s breasts. It was really just a grazing of the breast, no full contact at all and nothing that either party would find arousing in the best of circumstances. Pure accident.

Well damned if Gretchen didn’t express outrage at this supposed violation of her person. I professed innocence and apologized for the accidental touch. She did not except and insisted that the action was purposeful. Well I never. Why, I argued vehemently, would I publicly touch her breast (fully covered, mind you) and so lightly? Men love touching the female breast, but generally speaking we much prefer touching skin and we get nothing out of a veritable flick. To touch a clothed breast in full view of others would require a person to be good and drunk, a state which I had not yet attained that evening.

Never accepting my innocence, Gretchen went off and mingled with others. I avoided her the rest of the evening — as she did me — and indeed we never much talked thereafter, if at all. Gretchen’s circle spun out of my orbit within a few months anyway and I never saw her again. I wonder if she still thinks I touched her breast intentionally, if so she’s still way off base.

Speaking of breasts…Men are pretty naive in a lot of ways, some men more than others and some men about this thing and other men about that thing and other men about those things. We have some serious gaps in our knowledge about women. I grew up without a sister and with a mother who was mentally ill. I also grew up in an era in which boys and girls did not fraternize socially so much unless it was out and out dating. Sure we were friendly with classmates of the opposite sex, but not friends. I was classmates with Judy (last name redacted in case she wants no part of this discussion) from kindergarten through senior year of high school. She was the only human to hold that distinction (or to suffer that fate). Judy was as nice a person as ever walked the earth and we enjoyed many a chat, but friends? No. (I think it was in the second grade that our teacher had Judy give me lessons on how to properly erase as my erasing was pretty weak at that point of my life. She dutifully did and lightly criticized my efforts. I eventually became obsessive about erasing and refused to continue writing until every less hint of an unwanted pencil mark was gone. Today I am similarly compulsive about erasing white boards in my classroom and if the previous teacher to use that room has left so much as a quarter inch of a mark I am flung into paroxysms and scrub the board like it was a dinner plate. But I digress….)

I had three female cousins who I was close to as a lad, the oldest of whom has always been like the big sister I never had. Her name is Helen and she was my early model for what a woman should be like and to this day I think she is an exemplary example of her gender. Anyway my close relationships with these cousins was great but not close enough for me to fully understand what the deal was with women. Like many young boys I used to believe that girls didn’t use the toilet. Boys are frickin’ idiots.

I’m embarrassed to say how old I was before it was confirmed for me (of course by a woman) that yes, women are well aware of how much cleavage they are displaying. (I told you we were getting back to breasts.) I’ve also been given to understand that a woman does indeed know if the skirt she is wearing is quite short. In other words women are self aware in ways that I didn’t understand as a young (younger) man. They further know the effect their appearance and behavior have on men, well maybe not always, but often enough.

I am unabashed in my love of women which is why I married one and sired two. Many women would be surprised to learn the extent to which a lot of men — and I refer here to straight men many of whom are in relationships including marriage — don’t like women. You can hear it in conversations with them and you learn about it from women. I’m not a student of either psychology or sociology so am unqualified to examine why so many men don't like women, perhaps mommy issues figure in, maybe daddy issues, maybe growing up in a macho environment, maybe its an untamed animal instinct, maybe these men often feel “threatened” by women but there are a lot of men who don’t like and don’t trust women as a whole and have deep seated hatred for even those women they purport to love. And I do not merely refer to those who strike or verbally abuse women. Obviously many of these men can be found in patriarchal religious sects or in politically right wing groups and of course both. Sadly there are even women who denigrate other women. Just check out Fox News some time, if your stomach can stand it.

Women are still in many ways a mystery to me and I actually think that’s how it should be. To any intelligent woman a man is an easy read. We are simple creatures with our brains in our penises. We like food, sex, various forms of entertainment and to occasionally be flattered. I don’t know how women put up with us but thankfully they do.

Anyway this all started because I was remembering the time Gretchen falsely accused me of touching her breast on purpose. Damn it, I’ve written all this and am still ticked off at her. Give me another forty years and maybe I’ll get over it.