Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Una selva selvaggia

Una selva selvaggia. 

Translation: a savage forest.  It’s from Danté Aligheri’s Divine Comedy.  My understanding of it is hazy at best having struggled through layer after layer of The Inferno as a freshman studying Italian.  No doubt my professor’s idea of a little joke.  Ha, ha!
What I got out of it besides a shoe box containing 16,737 vocabulary flash cards and a well-worn Italian-English dictionary was that Danté had it all figured out; life is Hell and there’s plenty more where that came from.
Una selva selvaggia.  I love to say it.  Such a beautiful language.
I have been wondering what happens to students if they can’t make it in the alternative program.  Is it like The Inferno?  Different levels of Hell arranged in succession further and further away from the good place, wherever or whatever that is?  If you can’t handle it here, then where do you go?  Misbehave in class and you sit in the hall.  Do it enough and you sit in the office.  If that’s not enough, then the principal explains the meaning of life to you through the sports analogies that you may or may not understand; yellow cards, penalty box, infield fly rule.  Too many men on the ice.  Three-second violation.  Offsides.
But if you threaten a teacher?
Well, we had a student.  A skinny kid who moved like a villainous shadow.  Unsettled.  He liked to hum so he sounded like an electrical transformer.  Lots of current ran through that boy.  Dangerous voltage.  But tell him he couldn’t sit here or not to do that and he exploded in a shower of sparks.
He snapped on me one day.  Said he was going to pummel me.  Huffed around the class.  Left.  Returned.  Left again.
He had to meet with the superintendent but he was back after spending a week downstairs sitting in the corner.  He did his work.  Best work I’ve ever seen out of him.
But he snapped again with an aide.  Then again with another teacher.
Then what happens?  I mean, there’s not much you can do.
I tend to think he should be sent to someplace where he might find out what it is to be tired, very tired.  To know tired intimately.  To explore all the kinds of tired.  A potato farm upstate.   A lumber camp in the Maine woods.  Another level of Hell that will make all the others seem downright comfy.  I forget who it was who said it but she thought it might actually be a waste of time to put middle school-aged boys in a classroom.  I forget but she was a famous educator.  It was someone well-respected.  Someone who wrote books on education.
Send them to a farm, she said. 
We got word that he was out.  That he had officially been labeled ‘unteachable.”  I didn’t know there was such a label.  I didn’t know there was such a thing.
What was going to happen to him?  The 3-5 program was a possibility.  He would sit with a tutor for two hours a day at the town library.  Then again, he might go back to the regular middle school although I found it difficult to believe.
But on Monday, there he was hopping out of his father’s car as though nothing had happened.  Had a long talk leaning through the window of his father’s Kia .  Dad assured me his son was ready to come back.
“He’s going to do good, now,” he said, pausing to take a long pull on a cigarette.  “I explained to him that he needs to just do what he’s supposed to do.  Say he’s sorry and he won’t do it again.”
I said my good-byes, made my way down the hall and poked my head inside a classroom to see how this kid was getting on with turning over that new leaf.
“That is such bullshit,” he was saying.  “I didn’t do hardly nothing and I got four days suspension.”
Some things get lost in translation.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Lifeboat

This was the one where the ship, after striking an iceberg, went down leaving thirty survivors adrift on the arctic sea in a lifeboat designed for a third that number.
In order to weather the oncoming storm, so the story went, the captain ordered most of the survivors overboard.
His reasoning? Better sacrifice some in order that others may survive. The curveball was that the captain kept the strongest while the weak went into the drink.
I don’t know if he had tryouts but there was a long row ahead for the survivors so he chose the ones he thought were up to the task.
It’s a moral dilemma. We presented the choice, one teacher and I, to a class of seventh-graders.
“Have you ever heard of a choice ‘between a rock and a hard place’,” my co-teacher asked. “Or 'the lesser of two evils', 'between the devil and the deep blue sea', 'between Scylla and Charybdis'?” The students’ expressions ranged from blank to confusion.
“Hobson’s choice?” I added unhelpfully.
On Friday, we do this kind of thing, weather permitting. We call it ‘Peer Relations Friday’. Cooperative games, mock trials, anything that might help these kids learn how to work together instead of tear each other down day after day.
“What would you do?” We asked. “Was the captain right?”
Many students refused to accept the choice. One suggested that the extra survivors could be tied together and hung overboard. We had a lengthy discussion about hypothermia and of how long a person could survive in frigid water. Immediately afterward, another student proposed the survivors take turns swimming. Again, an explanation of hypothermia. But the students had made up their minds and that hypothermia stuff is just more mumbo-jumbo from a grownup’s lips.
“But I can swim mad long in cold water,” another student insisted to cheers from the rest.
Much of what adults tell them is viewed with suspicion. It’s all a plot. A diabolical trick to get them to become old and ugly like us. It’s not time that makes you an old fart, it’s information punctuated by regular punishment for no apparent reason that makes your hair grow gray and fall out, makes your breasts, buttocks and jowels succumb to cruel gravity, makes you groan when you get up from a chair.
Their view, not mine.
But they may have a point.
Another student, the small one wearing impossibly tight clothes said, “I’d punch the captain in the mouth!” She knotted her tiny fist and punched an imaginary captain to emphasize her point.
I began to rethink the value of these ‘Peer Relations Fridays’...

“I have the list right here,” my co-teacher said in the teacher meeting the next morning. “But you all know who’s on it.” Yes, we did. We had our own lifeboat dilemma and the list represented the students we were giving up on. There was no hope for them and their presence in the classroom reduced everybody’s chance for survival; students and teachers alike.
So we made a class of the cast-offs.  Castaways.
We consigned them to a fate of being with each other so that the other kids, the ones willing to do a little work, to sit in their seats, to keep to themselves and allow the educational process to have a fighting chance. We ordered them overboard.
In the lifeboat dilemma, the captain was right. At least he was right in that the remaining people, the ones he chose, survived. Unfortunately, the story they told landed the captain in court charged with 20 counts of murder. The real dilemma wasn’t the captain’s. It was the jury’s in the courtroom.
Was he or was he not guilty of murder?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are you really shocked?

First Sandusky at Penn State, then Bernie Fine at Syracuse.  People are shocked.  I just asked the man on the street.  He said, “I’m shocked.”
It feels like deja-vu to me.
Anybody remember Ted Washburn?  I didn’t think so.  He taught seventh- and eighth-grade English at Buckingham, Browne and Nichols.
My school.
Amazing teacher.
He had these assignments called Slide-Tapes.  Students were allowed to pick a slide, choose music to go with it, write a blank verse poem and record the whole thing in his a recording studio to be mixed and then played for the class on Fridays over the awesome stereo.  There were different rules for different Slide-Tapes.  In one, you couldn't use the verb; to be in any form.  It was straight description.  Mr. Washburn wrote his own textbook.  We read Lord of the Flies and Dandelion Wine.
He also molested some of the boys and maybe the girls, I don’t know.  Gave them Penthouse and Hustler to read.  Got them all hot and bothered and suggested ways he could help them feel better.
It went on for years.  Twenty years.
The reason it’s deja-vu is that Ted Washburn also coached the Freshman Crew at Harvard.  Perhaps it’s not Division I football but in Cambridge, Massachusetts, rowing is a big deal and Harvard rowing is bigger by a magnitude of about ten.
What happened?
It was buried.  My school swept it under the rug in the principal’s office.  The Boston Globe ran some articles on it but mostly what they reported was the story of a man who raped little boys and got away with it because his father was famous (Brad Washburn mapped the Grand Canyon, Everest and, more or less, started the Boston Museum of Science).  Mike Barnicle’s column was the exception, sort of.
What I remember of Ted Washburn was that he was a really gifted teacher but I have mentioned that already.
What I also remember was that I was invisible to him.  At the end of the year he gave out awards.  The El Toro Award, given to the boy whose voice had dropped the most (Seth) consisted of a plastic bull standing about eight inches tall with a shriveled balloon dangling between its legs.  The Land O’ Lakes Award was given to the girl whose breasts developed the most.  Did you know that you can cut around the little box held by the Land O’ Lakes Indian girl to make a little flap, then cut out her bare knees and paste them behind the flap so when you look behind the butter it looks like she’s baring her boobs?  Well, that was the trophy.  Valerie won.  She seemed thrilled at the time.  I found out later that she was anything but.
There were lots more awards.  But not one for every kid.  Of course, being the paragon of mediocrity that I was in seventh-grade, I didn’t even get an honorable mention.  Nothing.
So I lied.  I was good at that.  I came home and proudly announced to my parents that I had won the Bullshit Award.  The fact that I did not have the trophy, a spray can with the word Bullshit stenciled on the side, did not keep them from buying the lie hook, line and sinker.  Problem was, they were not impressed.  My father particularly.  I don’t remember how many times that lie came back to bite me as it would take years for me to live down the bullshitter label.
Which is worse: to be a bullshitter or to win the award?  Although Mr. Washburn didn’t know it, I was probably the most deserving student he had.
But here’s the thing.  When the news about Ted Washburn finally dribbled out, I was, unlike the man in the street, not shocked.  Although I had no idea what was going on, there was still something off about Mr. Washburn.  The emotion I felt was very complicated.  You see, Mr. Washburn did horrible things and ruined several boys’ late childhood or early adulthood.  But Mr. Washburn chose the popular boys, the smart boys, the good-looking boys.  In some strange way, hearing the news that Mr. Washburn was a pedophile wasn’t as hurtful as knowing that I was not one of the boys that he wanted.
Saved by mediocrity.  It’s about as mixed a blessing as there ever was.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It’s your move with C0_Dee!

I had no idea who C0-Dee was but he was a hell of a Scrabble player. Our matches were slugfests. Earlier his month he beat me 409 to 405. A real heartbreaker.
It was after that loss that I broke the plane. I brushed my finger over the little icon in the top of my iPhone and sent a message of heartfelt congratulations across the ether to who knows who or where.
“Nice match,” I typed. “See you tomorrow, my friend.”
The next morning, I had a response. At 3:04 AM, C0_Dee said, “Lollllllllllll ok nice com back though lol.”
I was disappointed.
I don’t know but I kind of figured that someone able to deliver body blow after body blow the way C0_Dee had would be more than able to speak in complete sentences.
But it wasn’t enough to make me stop playing him if he was a him. And I began to create excuses for his lack of facility with the English language. Maybe he was autistic. A savant with words who is tragically unable to use them for anything but triple word scores.
More games and I came up with other theories.
He’s was a currency trader in an office building somewhere in Kuala Lampur hovering over multiple computer screens as billions of dollars passed through his hands. That would certainly account for his play at odd hours and his odd use of English.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I asked him.
“Do I know you?” I asked. “Or are you a perfect stranger?”
“Stranger lol.”
“Well, stranger, you have really pushed me to improve my game.”
“Lol yeah u play good ur damn self u can look me up on facebook so we can c who we r lol.”
“Is C0_Dee your Fbook name?”
“No damany Eastman.”
Damany Eastman. I had a name and within seconds I had him on Facebook. The mystery was solved and I was face-to-face with my own prejudices because I could not have been more wrong about my opponent. He wasn’t autistic. Wasn’t Asian. Finacial whiz? Probably not.
Damany Eastman sits with a baby girl on his lap,his black face shaded by the brim on his oversize Yankee cap. Other pictures show him flashing the ‘East Coast’ sign to the camera and another is of his face half-covered in gauze, the fallout from a pickup basketball game that turned rough.
I asked him to friend me. He hasn’t responded…
…but it’s my move with C0_Dee!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stand and deliver what?

Did you ever see Stand and Deliver?  Every teacher has seen it at least once for some course or another.  It is inspirational.  Yeah, Mr. Holland’s Opus was pretty good, too.   And the one with Hillary Swank…what’s it called?  Freedom Writers?  That was good too.  But, for me it’s all about that Jaime Escalante and his East LA burros scoring fours and fives on the AP Calculus exam and then heading off to UCLA and Stanford.

That was cool.  That was the shit!

I wanted to be him.

But I wasn’t.

I did my job.  Nothing too special.  I’ll take credit for a glint of special here and there.  Students from years ago return and ask me to perform my interpretive dance of The Great Leap Forward…but consistent output isn’t really my thing.

And eleven years passed.  No, twelve.  I think.

Anyway…Jaime Escalante.

I got another shot to be Jaime.

I took an opening in my district’s alternative ed. program.  While Jaime had East Side LA toughs, I was going to save a handful of misfit suburban middle-schoolers.

But what are latchkey kids from the sprawling quarter acre lots west of the city good at?  Those kids in East LA were victims of circumstance.  It wasn’t that they hated school.  The schools they went to just weren’t any good  (Obviously, their teachers weren’t being held accountable and needed to be tested more).  Jaime’s kids weren’t sociopaths who actively sought to obstruct learning at every possible turn and juncture.  Jaime drew on those kids’ identity as Mexicans, descendants of ancient civilizations that had been, among other things, really good at math.

"It's in your blood," Jaime crooned to his students.  "Math is in your blood, man."

But, the kids I greeted every day had consistently selected themselves out of the main stream by systematically turning what were perfectly good classrooms in perfectly good schools into Edvard Munch maelstroms of chaos and horror.  Oh, the horror!

That’s what they were good at.  They were really good at it.


After three weeks, I was feeling like the Black Knight in Holy Grail; no arms left, stubs for legs, bleeding and and, still, in a fog of delusion, calling my fight 'a draw'.  

I was losing.

What was I going to do, bleed on them?

But last Friday, I stumbled on something that just might be their thing.

I wasn’t going to do it.  Almost bagged it.  It wasn’t going to work, anyway.  Maybe I would try it the next Friday when my co-teacher for Peer Relations class would be there.

But that’s not my style.

My style is more like this:  When I have something copied, stapled and ready-to-go, damn it, I’m doing it!

I gave them a Mock Trial.

Just a simple one; The Case of the Missing Lunch.  It was all scripted like a play but by the time they had picked their roles from the hat, carefully highlighted their lines in hot pinks, yellows and greens, and arranged the classroom to look like a courtroom, the period had ended.  I had never, until this day, imagined that my students would beg to stay and finish the case.  They didn’t even do that after my performance of The Great Leap!

Back to Señor Escalante.

Arguing.  That's what my burros are good at.  These guys can argue anything.  It’s in their blood, man.

Exhibit A:
Me:  Why did I call you out in the hall?

Student:  I don’t know.

Me:  Yes, you do.

Student:  No, I don’t.

Me:  You were making birdcalls.

Student:  No, I wasn’t.

Me:  Yes, you were.

Student:  It wasn’t me.

Me:  I was looking right at you.  I was three feet away and I watched you whistle.

Student:  It wasn’t a birdcall.

You get the idea?

Court is in session!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

I don’t normally give advice which is a good thing.  But one of my reader’s (not Jane) sent me a letter that I just could not ignore so, for those of you waiting for more of the mad-capped hijinks you have come to expect from the life of a suburban teacher, watch out because I’m goin’ Ann Landers on ya’ll, bitches!


Here is what my friend wrote.

Dear Kimbob,
I am a middle-aged man who is very much in love with his wife and I would have to say our relationship is the strongest it has ever been.  I have never thought of cheating on her but lately I have been feeling kind of guilty because I have been playing online Scrabble with an old flame.  My wife knows that this woman is one of my Scrabble partners but in the last few weeks our word play has become more exclusive to the extent that she is the only person who will still play with me.  My wife and I have played Scrabble in the past but I am such a Scrabble Jackass (see Ze Frank for more on this) that she makes up excuses whenever I suggest we play.  Now when I lie in bed I am waiting for my iPhone to chime signaling that it’s my move.  The games are some of the best I have ever had!  Last night my wife offered to help with find a word but I just rolled over and used the “Y” in achy to spell ONYX on a triple word score for 62 points.

Should I tell my wife?  I can’t stand all the secrecy but the Scrabble is amazing.

Word Playa

Dear Playa,
Get a life and stop being such a Scrabble jerk.  The real concern is that nobody wants to play with you anymore.  Why is that?  I’ll tell you why.  You have a lack of self esteem and you need to win at Scrabble to prove you are still a man.  My advice is to take off your apron and be one for a change.  Oh, sure, you can pretend with someone who doesn’t know you but the fact that you have no Scrabble partners should be telling you something.  So, you have a good game here and there but what does it really matter?  Soon enough you will be right back where you started; a Scrabble Jackass (thanks, Ze, that's exactly it) celebrating another victory alone.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

I'll have a Tang...make it a double

I’m fine.  No, really, I am.

A little embarrassed.  But that’s just empathy.  It can’t be a good morning for Francona, Pedroia and the rest of the gang.  For one thing, some of them will be wondering where the next paycheck will be coming from.  There’s the houses to sell in Newtonville, Marblehead or whatever upscale suburb the Red Sox players and front offices gravitate to.  Weston?  Boxford?  Gotta be one or two in Boxford…

But I’m fine.  No open houses for me and I don’t even have a resumé to dust off.

Am I going native?  It’s true, I don’t even mind the Yankees.  At least, not these Yankees; Jeter, Rivera and Posada.  They’re just not Nettles, Hunter and Munson.

No comparison.

A-rod?  Hate him but so do most Yankee fans.  It doesn’t really count.

I don’t even hate those nutty kids from Tampa Bay.  Can’t really blame them for being hungry.

Enlightenment?  Have I reached a higher plane?


But I have another theory.

I don’t want to sound like I’m crowing but as a Boston native (yes, I call myself that) I have had a really good last decade with the Patriots, Sox, Bruins and Celtics.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that Boston fans will never have it so good again.  It was nice while it lasted and if it lasts a little longer, cool, but I won’t cry if it doesn’t.

Here’s the thing.


It was great but…

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t make it feel as great as I thought it would be.  It exposed the myth, you see.  Like the wizard behind the curtain, your team winning it all is cool but it does not make you any better looking, bring world peace or make you a better lover.

What I learned was that the high you get from winning is not as low as the low you get from losing.  Bucky Dent in ’78 was a much lower low than Damon’s flare and Roberts’ sweeping slide across home on that crisp October evening (full moon, too).  Those Bruins.  When they blew the 3-0 lead to the Flyers?  That was horrible and I could not believe that the sun rose the next morning but when the very (almost) same team did the very same (almost) thing in reverse to the hated Montreal Canadiens…
They just don’t balance.

They don’t balance because…

Well, they just don’t.

Here’s an idea.  When Mr. Dent lofted Mike Torrez’ one-and-one pitch into the screen that used to sit on top of the Green Monster, I cried.  I cried because I knew that I would have to wait at least another year before I could taste that sweet fruit of victory that seemed to hang so low for my Yankee-fan cousins.  They teased me.  But then I drank of the nectar and I discovered…

Dang, it’s Tang!

Ordinary.  Better than a cold bath.

So, as much as I would have liked for the Boston Red Sox to have won just one or two more games out of the 162 they played this spring, summer, and fall, I know that even another blingier-than-bling World Series ring on David Ortiz’ meaty paw would be kind of, well, great but not any better than great.
I was talking to my brother the other night.  My brother the Yankee fan.  It was before the boys of summer played their last regular season game of 2011.  He had a proposition for me.

“Let’s root for the same team,” he said.

Go Manchester United!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Coffee, doughnuts, angry girl

I remember this feeling.  The same one I had every day of my first year of teaching.  What have I done?  Can I do this?  I don’t think I can do this?  When will it get better?  If I’m so smart, how is it that this little posse of 7th-graders can have me so tied in knots, struggling to make it through the day with a thimble-full of sanity left in the tank?

I walk down the hall to my classroom and flip the lights to chase the gloom.  I hang up my coat and unload my backpack into neat piles on my desk; graded papers here, lessons in the manila folders there, laptop.  Another morning and another attempt to impose order on the day.

I visit the main office to check my mail and, there, on the counter is a Dunkin’ Donuts box of coffee and a tray of a dozen doughnuts lying open.  Boston Cremes, jelly, glazed, all my favorites. Teachers love doughnuts.  More than cops, teachers love doughnuts.

I had half a mind to flop down in the chair and spill my guts to anyone who would listen but my principal was already deep in conversation with someone.  Her back was to me but I she was nodding and I could tell they were both smiling.  Old friends? 

I felt better anyway.  Hot black coffee and a Boston Creme are magical together.  Spanish was in full swing by the time I headed back to my room and, not wanting to interrupt, I wandered down to see the English teacher and pick her brain about how we should approach our first Peer Relations class.  I had brought in a cooperative game consisting of two joint compound buckets, about four-dozen tennis balls and sixteen lengths of sash cord.  It’s called Nuclear Waste.

I’m not sure how the conversation shifted to her first year in the alternative program.  Maybe she could read my mind but she said that the kids circulated a petition to get her fired.  It was rough, she said.  There was this one girl she remembered being especially tough.  Perhaps she was the one who started the petition, she didn’t know, didn’t remember.  But this girl had a real temper.  So angry.

There was this one day when the girl just flew off the handle, throwing desks, ripping things off the wall, yelling, screaming, and like a twister, she left and rolled down the hall spinning as she went all nails and hair.  She went into the bathroom and continued to destroy everything in her path.  The mirrors, towel dispensers and, one by one, the stall doors.  She ripped them from their hinges and sent them pin-wheeling into the hallway.  One, door, two doors, three doors…

And then she stopped.  Behind that third door, there was a little kid.  A girl from the day-care program had gotten lost and gone to the wrong bathroom.  And there she was, staring back at this cyclone of anger and destruction, an innocent kid, mouth open, frozen in wide-eyed fear.
“That’s it!”  The angry girl yelled as she rolled back down the hall through her own trail of discussion.  “That’s it!”  Kicking the door open to the classroom she had left and slamming it behind her.  “We need to have a meeting.”  She opened the door again, this time in quiet control and explained to the faculty and onlookers that had gathered there that she knew she was in trouble but asked if she and her classmates could have a few moments for a team meeting.

“It’s over,” she began.  “We can’t do this anymore.  I’m scaring little kids, now, and that’s not cool.”

She and her classmates spent the better part of an hour talking and when they finally opened the door, they had drafted an apology for their behavior and a plan to make it up to the little girl they had frightened.  It was almost Halloween and they suggested a costume parade.  The angry girl and her classmates would be the judges and organize everything including the prizes.

When the day of the parade arrived, everyone got a prize.  “Everybody deserves to be recognized,” they said.

“And the rest of the year was better?”  I asked.  There was a long pause.  It was still a long year.

“But that coffee in your hand?” she said.  “That angry girl brought it in.  It was a ‘Thank you’ from her.”

Thank you.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Catherine started it

Catherine started it when she came back from a weekend in Ithaca.  She had one of those  save-the-date postcards for an AIDS benefit ride around Cayuga Lake.  It was her way of saying that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I lost a few pounds.
But I thought it sounded like fun: one hundred miles around a pretty lake on a crisp fall day.  Nice, right?

So, after letting the card sit on the kitchen counter for the better part of a month, I signed up, raised a few hundred bucks, and trained all summer.  And when September came, I cranked out the hundred miles and all I could think about was riding more.  Since then, I have spun my skinny bicycle tires over thousands and thousands of miles of roads both dirt and paved.

This past weekend, I struggled to 18th place in the Tour of the Adirondacks and, if my thumbs and fingers are correct, that slog marked my 10th race.

Now, there are a lot of bike blogs and, as a cyclist, I find more than a few of them interesting for a variety of reasons that only other cyclists understand.  Cycling, to be sure, is one of the many subsets of subsets of social groups that exist in the world.  And as much as this blog is all about me, I do have some empathy towards my dear reader (hi, Jane).  So, after my 10th race, I would like to share a few observations that I have made about bicycling, bicycles and bicyclists.

The sound.  I had never ridden in a pack or peloton before.  I, like other casual watchers of the Tour de France, had heard it again and again: riding with a group is faster and easier than riding all alone.  Well, what can I say?  It’s true.  What I didn’t understand was that it is more like flying in a swarm of bees than riding a bike.  Not all that many people have heard the sound of ten or fifteen pairs of wheels each with 20 or 24 spokes each ripping through the air and each with a narrow tire inflated to impossible pressures working the grain of a country road.  And this is something I think about when I am riding with the club or some other group:  how lucky I am to hear this sound, to hurtle inches from other bodies all doing the same as me, trusting the others to keep from crashing and bringing the whole thing down like bowling pins.  It’s thrilling.

The pain.  We, as people, can’t remember pain.  We only remember that there was pain but the actual feeling can’t be stored or recalled…or so I believe.  Now, I’m very sure there is some pain in cycling.  I know it.  But as I write, I am hard-pressed to give it the respect it probably deserves.  When I am driving to the race, I completely forget the pain and visualize myself laying big patches of smoking rubber as I attack relentlessly on the hills.  But when the race begins and the peloton flies over the first few little climbs or ‘kickers’ I begin to remember the pain.  It’s really more like a low-level insurrection at that point but half way up the first major climb and the insurrection has become an all-out rebellion.  Those imagined attacks on the climb?  Long gone.

The beauty.  Earlier this spring I was riding with two other guys and a storm was brewing as we headed out over the broad, lush flats that drain the foothills of the Taconics.  When the storm hit, sheets of rain lashed us like movie-set waves washing over the decks of a crippled vessel.  But as quickly as the storm was upon us, we popped out the other side to see a golden sunset set the hills on fire and the hayfields turn to molten gold while the storm, a dark gray ball of cloud, sent streaks of lightning dancing over its surface in the west.

Thanks, Catherine.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Usual suspects

It was funny.  Wasn’t it?  Sure, it was funny.  And, besides, the kids were laughing as the skinny boy with the buzz-cut unzipped his pack to reveal a fat bundle of pens, pencils and other stationary.  OK, he had stolen it all but you had to be impressed by the size of the haul.  Even the kids he had stolen it from nodded their heads in approval.  There had to be sixty or seventy all bound neatly with several rubber bands also stolen.

She can do the angry voice, this teacher.  I’ve only been teaching in the alternative program for a week but I have heard it once or twice already.  I’ve seen her look over her glasses at some girl or boy during DEAR when a giggle or snicker breaks the silence and all their eyes return to reading.  But, now, she smiles sweetly and tells him to spread the loot on another kid’s desk.

“Find what’s yours!” she says.  I watch, expecting a frenzy of payback theft, but there is none.  They take what is theirs and return to their desks.

A period later, she waves me over and points to her laptop.  She has the local paper on her screen.  A mugshot of a man with a familiar-looking buzz cut stares glumly out at us beneath a headline that reads, “Local Jewelers Hit Twice, One Arrested.”

It’s the pencil thief’s father.  The article was posted only an hour ago.  The kid doesn’t even know.

When I left at the end of the day, I checked in at the main office to let the principal know I was leaving but he was on the phone ordering a pizza.   Next to him, elbows on his knees and head in his hands, was the pencil thief.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

My room part II or Do desks deserve tenure?

It was a symbol.  Not a desk.  Not a collection of wood and nails and laminated oak paneling.  A symbol that I had disassembled without the use of tools and slid neatly out the fire window.  And, although my mouth has spewed several apologies since then, my heart was glad.
Had I shown somebody up?  Was it, therefore, a symbol of someone else's ineffectiveness or incompetence?
But I began to think of it as a symbol for something that has been on my mind for a while; tenure.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have tenure and my status as a tenured teacher allowed me to feel secure enough in my job to rid my room of a dangerous eyesore.
But tenure is under attack.  Seen by most as a guarantee of continued employment for bad, lazy and incompetent teachers, it is in the crosshairs of many politicians and a cocktail party punch line.
But this is what I was thinking.  That desk did not have tenure.  No law protected it and still it remained very much like one of those lazy, stupid teachers that nobody can seem to get rid of.  So, perhaps, it is not tenure that protects.  Maybe it’s a system that protects.  A system in which nobody is really responsible or, more accurately, several people are responsible.
Fact; administrators can fire teachers who aren’t doing a good job.  All they have to do is document the teacher’s shortcomings, make recommendations and follow up.  If that teacher still has not managed to fix what was broken, that teacher can be dismissed.  Will the union challenge the dismissal?  Of course!  But if the administrator has her ducks in a row, it’s a bad day for that teacher.
But that would mean administrators would have to observe classes in their schools.  In nine years of being a tenured teacher, I have never been observed in the act of teaching by any administrator.  The fact is that they are too busy dealing with the myriad other tasks a principal has to deal with;  disciplinary stuff, leaky roofs. and, yes, teachers who commit savage acts of demolition in their planning periods.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My room

This year is going to be different. I have been saying this for pretty near two months now but after today, I am sure it’s true.

I am in room 5. It’s the first time since my internship twelve years ago that I have had a room. Back at the high school, they were shared properties; communally decorated and maintained and, sometimes, defiled by upwards of five inhabitants.

But now I have a room. One room. For my students and me.

It’s typical, I suppose, in a kind of public school, ground-level, looks-out-on-the-puddled-parking lot way. Yes, a giant garbage pail collected a tea-colored liquid that dripped steadily from the sodden ceiling tiles above and, yes, there was a sadness to the room that turned the walls a depressingly mediocre hue of yellow, but what really caught my attention was that…THING!

What was it?

“Oh that!” said the veteran of a decade of teaching in the building. “That was for training bank tellers. See the cameras?” She pointed to the corners of the room. Indeed, video cameras of varying antiquity stared at us from every direction. So the town police had constructed a mock-up of a bank and used this room to train bank tellers. And that aforementioned thing? That monstrosity of gold-flecked Formica and oak wood paneling? That, she explained, had been the desk behind which the tellers had stood awaiting the entrance of their assailants. Presumably, a policeman had posed as a bank-robber and, in something that instantly made me think of Monty Python skits, burst into the room yelling, ‘Stick-em up!’ or “Gimme all the dough!’

“Can we get rid of it?” I asked.


She confessed that she had tried but the building maintenance staff had stopped her fearing that she would electrocute herself.

“It’s not wired, though” she said. “There’s no power going to it.” She had, in fact, made a pretty good whack at destroying the beast to the extent that it’s flimsiness was exposed for all the world to see as well as several, snaggled ten-penny nails that protruded nastily from both its ends.

So there it was. And there I was.

I examined the structure and then, carefully, lifted the countertop a cautious inch just to see what would happen. I met no resistance at all and soon I had the thing in pieces and out the fire window and half of it stacked neatly in the parking lot next to the maintenance truck.

And then the trouble began.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Same as it ever was...

I’m firing up the blog again. Kimbob is back. When I started the blog the first time, it was in anticipation of a trip to Mongolia to teach civics. When the trip ended, so did the blog. Simply put, there wasn’t a whole lot I thought anyone wanted to read about so, I reasoned, why write? And, truthfully, I think it scared me to see no definite end-point.

So, you may ask, since I am blogging, does that mean that my life is about to become more exciting again? I may hope so but in reality, no. Yes, another school year awaits and that is on some level exciting to me but I am not planning any trips to far-away lands. OK, we (that means Catherine, Chloe, Marcus, and Jane, my mother-in-law) wedged ourselves onto an Airbus A-who-put-these-seats-so-close-together and went to England to check up on my relatives and see a few castles. That was pretty exciting. Maybe I can put together some words worth reading on that. And, since my return from Mongolia, I have taken up cycling which might be worth a few posts particularly if I crash. And I have also discovered that I love cooking and now you are saying to yourself, “Not another Goddamn food blog with all those artsy, backlit food pictures,” but, yes, that’s exactly what I intend to provide. You can skip those ones. I understand.

My plan is to have some kind of plan to writing. Perhaps readers should expect three posts per week. One on cycling, another on cooking, maybe one on teaching and, wait, that’s four right there.

Organization was never my strong point.