Light/Socket

Last weekend, my family went camping. This involved a flashlight hunt; the kids have the usual interest in them and they end up everywhere. We were particularly looking for one from our last camping trip, which prompted digging through the minivan to see if it had gotten stashed somewhere in there.

The flashlight we were looking for never did turn up. Instead we found this:

DSCF3820

It’s a flashlight, obviously, by Eddie Bauer. It is also, though:

DSCF3823

A socket-and-screwdriver set. Flashlights and socket sets, two things that go together like chocolate and tuna fish…

…unless you were my dad. Since my spouse and I beat my younger brother to having kids, we ended up with the minivan when my dad died. My mom had gotten a thorough mechanical review of it, and cleaned out most of the stuff that my dad had left in there. Most.

My dad was always putting things in the van. It was not only his commuting vehicle, it was the catering vehicle and the barbecue puller (we had a trailer-sized gas-and-lava-rock grill). It was where he kept his stuff. I still remember when he got a car phone, how it sat between the seats in its leather box, hardly ever used. He also filled the van up with flashlights, because apparently you could never have enough of them. By the time I got the van, it still had a couple of the big Maglites, the kind that for some reason I will always associate with Richard Grieco breaking cantaloupes on 21 Jump Street (something about proving to gangers that a crowbar, not a cop flashlight, killed their buddy). There were matchbooks. There were a couple of sponges. A first aid kit. A fire extinguisher. A pair of my dad’s sunglasses that I wore until they broke.

And, under the passenger seat, this flashlight-socket set that had remained out of both sight and mind for years. It is such a dad thing. You never know when you might need to shed some light on some…emergency auto repairs? That would have made more sense if my dad had been the sort who did his own automotive work. His level of expertise, like mine, ended mostly at checking fluids.

It’s such a goofy thing. Why would anybody make it? You can still get them, apparently, so you can “never be caught unprepared for household emergencies or repairs.” The reviews mention that keeping charged batteries in it is a challenge, and most of the praise is that it’s a convenient package for the small socket set, or that the flashlight was handy during a power outage, not that there have been times when having a flashlight and socket wrenches saved the day.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Saving the day, I mean. That’s what dads want to do. We get sold, sometimes, on the fantasy of the perfect tool for the job. My dad was hardly immune to this, even in the kitchen, where a good paring knife and a good chef’s knife and your hands can accomplish at least 80% of what you need. Despite this, we had a few kitchen tools that we only used once or twice. I’m sure there were a few that never made it out of the cupboard.

Being a dad is the same way—as much as we might want to have the perfect, day-saving tool, the real work is the stuff you do every day with basic knife skills. In doing the dishes. In paying attention to your ingredients. In knowing the people you’re feeding. I can’t help slipping into kitchen metaphors because that’s where my dad lived. That’s where it was easiest for me to get along with him, to understand him. That’s where he taught me so much of what, like all sons, it took me a long time to understand: we want to save the day. We want gadgets that are perfectly suited to the problems. We want to have a magic wand to fix things for the people we care about…

…but we don’t. We have work to do, everyday work, and every day. If we really want to be good at the fatherhood thing, that’s the work we must do. There are no magic wands, and rarely do we have a perfect tool for the job.

Still, the flashlight/socket set has gone back into the van. Who knows? It might save a day.

Perpendicular to Everything

I had planned to write a Nicking from Novels today about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve just finished rereading the novel. I picked it up at an airport bookstore coming or going from Wales—it seemed like the kind of thing that, as a 17-year-old who desperately wanted to be a writer, was a necessity. I remember being caught up in the madness of it, the descriptions of jazz and the mythology of the American Road. Dean and Sal screwed up too many things to really be role models (and it wasn’t the 1950s anymore), but they were close. I thought there was something to emulate in the life fully lived, the mad saintliness of a Dean Moriarty.

On the Road ought, as a thumbnail sketch, be a buddy comedy: two friends pursuing kicks back and forth across the country. Rereading it over the last week, I’ve thought more about how much the two protagonists screw things up. Dean leaves wreckage in his wake, always, whether it’s his broken marriages, stolen cars, or nicked wallets. Sal, vitally, knows better and goes along with Dean anyway, even encouraging him. They enable each other in all the worst ways. It’s a tragedy.

Those were things that, I think, it would have been impossible for me to understand at 17. I could think, in the abstract, that it was bad for Dean to abandon first one wife, then another, then the mother of yet another of his children. As a parent, an adult with “real world” responsibilities, I get just how awful it really is. I also see the casual, almost helpless misogyny in so many of the protagonists’ interactions with women. The desperate moments—picking up cigarette butts on the street, going without food, having  to beg shelter from resentful near-strangers—stand out more. I got a much better sense of just what beat meant to Kerouac, and it wasn’t good.

None of this keeps On the Road from being a beautiful book. Kerouac does breathtakingly poetic things with language, whether he’s talking about Dean or music or the Road. There are these brilliant moments where a metaphor snaps everything into perfect focus, the kind of clarity that only comes when a thing is likened. It’s magic. I can’t recall any other author (or many other poets) who can do that so consistently, make it seem so natural within the flow of words.

The metaphors make the melancholy all the more sublime. On the Road is simultaneously a deeply Romantic book and a deeply American book. It embraces loneliness and the pursuit of women just as enthusiastically as Keats and Byron and Shelley. It transposes the unknowable wilderness to the road itself, but treats it similarly: a place to be astounded and to know oneself. The characters chase life. They do that, though, in an American context. The American Dream is always in the background, the dream America dreams of itself: the mythic West, the tumult, the go-ness that always wants a home to return to. Sal and Dean never seem quite sure whether they’re running toward something or away from it; they’re fleeing life, too.

For me, today, it has been about away. I’m sitting in a coffee shop and the news has spent the morning rehearsing a gun attack on a congressional baseball practice. The Senate is manufacturing a healthcare bill in secret that seems likely to be catastrophic to people I care about. Last night I dreamed of concrete and plywood and baseball and music and all these things have knotted together in my stomach. I want to go, to go perpendicular to everything, away from everything in a direction that doesn’t exist. I get—I dig—a bit of what push-pulled Sal and Dean to the road over and over and over. They’re chasing something, fleeing something. Their drive—and their driving—is inseparable from the melancholy, from the sense that the world is spinning and spinning and the only things worth knowing are the things that are spinning away.

Tonight, probably, I will sleep better. Tomorrow, probably, the news will be a little less dire. Tomorrow, probably, there will be no knot in my stomach making my feet itch to walk in a direction that doesn’t exist. Today, though, I’m a little beat, a little beaten down, with words the only things that can take me the direction I need to go.

Reflections on a Third Teaching Year

Forty-eight hours ago, I turned in my keys and signed out of my school for the summer. That doesn’t mean there’s no work to do: I have some projects to plan, some bureaucracy to manage, some trainings to attend…but by and large, the next two and a half months are mine for other things. Including (finally!) getting back to Walking Ledges.

My thoughts after my first year of teaching full time were long enough to require three separate posts. Last year, I apparently didn’t feel that anything beyond signing my contract renewal was noteworthy.

This year has been different in that it has been largely the same as the previous one. Signing that second contract was a big deal; working a second year in the same place was less about the moments and more about the way the work shaped other moments.

Teaching advanced placement and intervention simultaneously kept me on my toes. I joked that I had “only the skinny parts of the bell curve.” That’s not entirely true; some students end up in intervention classes who don’t belong there, and the same is true of AP classes. They all require different strategies (differentiation!). They all require attention. They all require—have a right to—the best teaching the school can provide. We  teach the students who walk through our door.

That’s one of the things that hasn’t changed from that first set of reflections: students are the best thing about the job any time they aren’t the worst thing about the job. (Most of the time, the worst part of the job is bureaucracy.) What did change? Well…

Improvisation and Iteration

My class assignments changed back in August, and I had to hit the ground running with my AP Literature course. Mid-August up through November was a bit of a blur. I knew only a few of the texts I taught. One or two were a matter of staying ahead of my students. One of the perks of having done this for a while, though, is that you’re better able to leverage the authority you get just for being the one at the front of the room. I’ve always worked from broad outlines and sketches, filling them in as I go. That’s become my general mode of lesson planning…at least until I’m wrangling challenging material or challenging students. At those times, I damn well better bang out specific, timed lesson plans. Most of the time, though, teaching AP allowed me to improvise and bounce ideas around with my awesome students.

Teaching intervention was, most days, at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’d taught the course a full year. With it being a one-semester course, I’d already taught it twice by the time the 16-17 school year started. That meant that I had plenty of material sitting around waiting to be re-used. Or modified. Or shifted to a different context. Or thrown out all together. The pleasure of teaching a course I’d been through before is much like the pleasure of editing and revising. The iteration helps you smooth things out, improve the good things, eliminate the ones that aren’t working, and try new things in small doses.

Of course, you get new students. Tests change. Administrative requirements change. Lessons that were awesome for one class can fall flat the very next period. So even when you’re fine-tuning, you frequently have to improvise a new melody.

Collegiality

I’ve said it before, and I meant it: I like teachers. Not all teachers are awesome people, but it seems like most of them are. (No self-congratulation intended!) In a year when there was so much craziness going on in the world, I appreciated having colleagues who could help keep me grounded and focused on the things I could control. My fantastic department head won district teacher of the year, and deserved every bit of it. My fellow AP/pre-AP teachers are doing cool stuff with curriculum. My next door neighbor is the loudest guy in the building, a raconteur who holds down the head of the teacher’s lounge lunch table. It’s good to have work friends again.

Plus, my colleagues get (most) of my jokes. Even when they’re not funny jokes.

On Finding my Niche

I started teaching full-time at a charter in East Austin, commuting too many miles and too many minutes. I spent my days with eighth graders who, mostly, were not good at being in school (no matter how smart they were). I’d done most of my substitute teaching in middle schools. It seemed like a good idea. Looking back, it’s hard to sort out which challenges were first-year-teacher things, which were specific to the school, which to the commute, which to the grade level… Being a first year teacher is hard!

This year, teaching AP, things felt…right. Teaching advanced placement seniors is about as close to teaching college as you can get without actually doing it. There are advantages, though: I get to spend so much more time with my students. I see them every day, learn so much more about who they are and what they hope to do. I would have gotten some of that with professor-ing full time, with the mythical tenure-track job. I was absolutely not getting it as an adjunct. The AP kids, usually, remember to call me by the correct title.

I still love teaching writing. I got faster, over the year, at grading the exam-specific stuff. I’m working on more and better ways to build writing into the curriculum. I love showing students how a text can do multiple things at the same time, how no matter what a multiple-choice exam might require you to ‘understand,’ literature and life are messier. When I do my job well, when it is at its most satisfying, its the students who get that, who find the meaning in the glorious mess, who explain it as best they can (which is sometimes brilliantly).

Next year, barring another last minute change, I’ll only be teaching seniors—AP and “on-level.” As excited as I am about spending the summer writing, about my summer to-do list, I’m already excited about what’s coming up when August rolls around.

Reality’s Got Teeth

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
—Shylock, Merchant of Venice (III.i)

Most of what I write is fantastic.

waits the necessary beat

…by which I mean it’s not real, nor is it intended to be. I don’t think there are many places that becomes clearer than in the way so many of the novels I read and games I play deal with violence and its consequences. In most roleplaying games, damage is abstracted to hit points or health levels. It usually doesn’t matter where you get hit or what you get hit with, because damage is just another stat that you track. Healing, likewise, is a matter of popping a healing potion or medkit, sometimes resting a few days. Few games deal with scarring. I’ve yet to see any deal with rehabilitation.

A lot of the novels I enjoy are the same way. Our heroes get the crap beaten out of them. They get stabbed or shot or scorched by magic. Then, a chapter or two later (sometimes just a page or two later), they’re back to running across rooftops or dueling with evil wizards or piloting starfighters. Writers—myself included—build in medical technology or healing magic that’s just as fantastic as the dragons or fireballs or jump gates. I’ve tried, in the novels I’ve written, to keep track of injuries, to let them mean something. But I’m guilty, too, of slapping magical healing or nanosurgery or such on my characters once the crisis has passed.

Partly, it’s a genre expectation. Partly, it’s really hard to effectively write a scene where being able to sit up unassisted for fifteen minutes is a victory. Mostly, I think, we as writers and readers find pain, well, painful. Agonizing months of rehab, scars that don’t fully heal? No thanks. Get me back to the monsters and swordfights and ancient mysteries.

Recently, a family member was in a serious car accident—the “we’re not sure she’s going to live” kind of car accident. She spent a week in the hospital with a laundry list of trauma. Now that she’s out of the hospital…she still has that laundry list of trauma. Her recovery will take months. Realistically, she may never recover 100% of what the accident took. Almost dying will do that to you. Right now, the walk from bed to the bathroom is a hike to Mordor carrying the one ring.

Injuries have consequences. Pain is real. If you prick us, we bleed, whether or not we’re Jewish. This is why current U.S. politics are seeping so deeply into so many lives: policies cause material harm, whether that’s choosing between health insurance and utilities or facing deportation or understanding that your rights aren’t as good as somebody else’s. Life isn’t fair, but that’s no excuse for abandoning the work of trying to make it better.

Watching my sister-in-law in her hospital room, working to breathe, only inconsistently able to track what had happened to her and what was going around her, I couldn’t help thinking “there’s no way to write this pain.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Writing and reading promote empathy. When reality has the kind of bite it does right now, that’s more important than ever.

Forty-Five

On January 20th, we inaugurated Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States.

I remember, back in February of 2016, before Trump was even properly on track for the Republican nomination, writing a post on Facebook about belief in policies not making people good or evil. (There were a lot of moral judgments flying around between Berners and Clinton supporters on top of the tumult in the Republican field.) One of my high school friends pushed me on a particular point of phrasing. At that time, I confessed that Trump had said things that went well beyond the political for me, things that crossed moral lines.

In February.

A year ago.

The outrages and the outrageous have only compounded since then. We now have a sitting president who boasted about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity. We have a president who mixes George W. Bush’s insight and Reagan’s nostalgic machismo with Nixon’s paranoia, disdain for intellectuals, and ethical corner-cutting. His campaign strategy was that of the most effective internet trolls: keep spewing shit, ignore anybody who tries to call you on it, and then yell about the bias of the mods. He approached the campaign with all the savvy of a reality TV star.

With a substantial assist from the electoral college, Americans kicked the only alternative off the island.

I’d watched Brexit unfold in real time through the social media accounts of European friends. There was disbelief. There was grief. There was a sense that an order was ending for all the wrong reasons. People predicted immediate disaster.

November 10th felt the same way. I’m not going to lie: I cried. It wasn’t in disbelief, though—I live in Texas. I grew up in rural Idaho. Hell, I’ve spent time in the deeply-red outer ring suburbs of the Twin Cities. There’s a lot of bigotry in this country, much of it quiet and wearing the clothes of class and the trappings of “responsibility.” Even more, though, there are many people who already see the world ending, for whom progressivism and any hint of relativism are failings of both morality and civilization. There are people who see zero-sum games everywhere they look and understand others’ rise as their loss. There are those who believe fervently in American exceptionalism and national pride. Trump was able to tap into all of that. I cried that day because the world I want for my students, for my own kids, is not the “great again” one that Trump spun for the crowds.

Is the best case scenario for our president “too incompetent to really damage much”? Alas, that’s unlikely. He’s built a cabinet of the rich and richer, of executives and careerists who have in many cases aggressively argued to end the existence of the government offices they’re about to lead. Steve “Breitbart” Bannon is his chief policy advisor. Even if Trump himself is too busy throwing Twitter fits about the meanies who make fun of him, that cabinet is going to make things happen.

The media won’t save us. It can’t. Let me tell you about one of the impossible situations teachers occasionally face. Sometimes, there’s a student who decides to say “no.” No threat of consequences will move her. No appeal to personal responsibility, to judgment, to the needs of fellow-students will dent that “no.” As a teacher, your only recourse is to call in administrator (or, sometimes, an SRO). Trump has said “no” to the media in so many ways. He has said “no” to the American people when they have asked about his tax returns, his potential conflicts of interest, and, in most cases, any description of policy beyond “best,” “outstanding,” and “terrific.” He’s the president now, and he doesn’t care. There’s no administrator to call in. His surrogates are already talking, literally, about alternative facts… We’ve taken internet echo chambers into a real reductio ad absurdum.

There were protests over the weekend. As Congress moves to gut the Affordable Care Act—a law, incidentally, that guarantees my son his health insurance—their phones are busy as hell. There are calls to make sure the cabinet nominees get at least standard ethics office screenings. We can push back. We might lose. We will lose on some things, because it’s not for nothing that Trump was elected. It’s not for nothing that Republicans control government. Democracy means losing sometimes.

What we can’t lose is democracy, as fragile and incomplete as our American one has always been. We will have to build our own bulwarks against the flood of propaganda that is already flowing from the White House with its “alternative facts.” We must keep one another from falling into “some people say…” no matter how much we’d like those things to be true or untrue.

This isn’t reality TV anymore. It’s reality. We have an obligation as citizens to deal with it that way.

Welcome to Wonderland

This is, more or less, the speech I gave to my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition students on the first day of school.

Today I want to tell you a story about moments, moments the world looks wonderful and strange and different.

I was lucky enough to go to school in Wales for two years. Over those two years, I had roommates from England, South Korea, Kenya, Italy, and Germany. I had the chance to travel—choir tour through France and Switzerland, and a five-week epic after I graduated. The trip I want to tell you about, though, was just a day trip, only as far as the Welsh border with England.

There’s a little town there called Hay-on-Wye. It’s a very English town name—Hay, on the Wye River, so Hay-on-Wye to distinguish it from the other towns called ‘Hay.’ It’s a small English town: grey and green except on those rare sunny days, at which time it is a lighter grey and a brighter green. There’s not much to recommend Hay-on-Wye…except for one thing. Hay-on-Wye is a mecca for books.

Aside from the plane ticket, I had two big expenses getting home from school in Wales. One was the bag that I left for five weeks at Heathrow. The other was shipping my used books home. There was one used bookstore in Llantwit (near school), and I haunted several others in Cardiff (which was a bus ride away), but Hay-on-Wye had more. It was probably for the best that I only went there once.

The streets were dotted with shelves for the book fairs. And the bookstores…there were all sorts of used bookstores there: the kind that are only open for a few hours a few days each week, with bars on the windows and rare books inside; the kind that are nearly a garage sale with boxes of unsorted books; and the many in between—more or less organized, more or less ready for exploration. Those were the ones I spent most of my day with—after a walk to see the mansion and the castle.

There was one store in particular that I went into in the afternoon. It was two stories, and narrow—like a hallway. Shelves stretched to the ceiling, some with boxes on top of them. It was cluttered enough that I couldn’t see all the way to the back. I went upstairs and out stepped a man. He was short, with graying, curly hair and a van dyck. He said to me, with absolute seriousness, “Welcome to Wonderland.”

And for a moment, just a sliver of a sliver of a second, I wondered whether there was a back to the bookstore, whether it went on and on to some other place. It was a superbly Neil Gaiman moment, even though I’d never even heard of Neil Gaiman at the time. I was one of those kids who was always trying to figure out which door would open to Narnia, whether there was a secret knock or some other trick that would whisk me away to somewhere more interesting. For that moment, I was there again.

Alas, the bookstore did in fact end. The short man was just a short man, not a leprechaun. I didn’t find any magic there more than the usual magic of books. That’s not the point.

The point is that, in that moment, my world shifted. In the blink of a mind, I saw possibilities that were hidden. Anything could happen. I had to see.

We don’t get those moments often. I can’t promise that you’ll have those moments in my class. Honestly, I don’t think I ever had one in class. What I want to do, though, is to give you the tools to find those moments yourselves. There are times when you’re reading, times when you’re studying a text, when the world opens up like that. You can’t force those moments, but the more you know, the more you can be ready for them when they come…

…And that’s the story of how I took a trip to Hay-on-Wye. That’s the way the story goes and it’s truth if you don’t believe and a lie if it makes you happy and it’s a story if it blew from a far off place and you felt it.

Okay. I stole that last sentence from my poem, The Storyteller, which I still like even after all these years.

Shifting Gears

Last week, I went on vacation. My family put 2000 miles on our new car, learning about the ways road tripping is different when people are sitting close enough that they can all touch each other. (Our mileage was great, though!) Only one of the trip’s six days did not feature at least three hours of driving as we shuffled first north, then south. Along the way, we took in a museum where a T-Rex shares a name with my son, a production of Cirque du Soleil’s new Avatar-inspired show, and an awful lot of corn fields. And family.

Some of the transitions from car to family visit to car were seamless. We arrived. The kids exploded out of the car. They ran amok (sometimes with cousins) while the adult-types prepared food and caught up. We ate hamburgers and, because the sweet corn is coming ripe, plenty of fresh corn. The weather was very not-Texas, which we appreciated.

A few times, the explosion of kids out of the car was too explosive. There was too much energy to sit, even with the relative novelty of eating out. It meant going outside and finding places in or near gas station parking lots where my son could run and jump and otherwise do activities to help him regulate his body.

And of course, many transitions were preceded by “are we there yet?” Variations on this were my daughter’s favorite, sometimes hours before we closed in on our various destinations. By the time “getting there” meant being home, we were 15 minutes into August.

So, end of summer break…are we there yet?

We must be getting close. Monday, my boss called me to discuss my class assignments for the upcoming year. Earlier in the summer, he’d said that, pending enrollment numbers, everybody would be teaching what they taught last year. The purpose of the principal’s phone call was to explain that some things had changed. (It almost always changes.) Last year, I taught English intervention (for students who have either already failed or are at risk of failing the end-of-course exams they must pass to graduate) and on-level English IV (for seniors who often think they’ve already finished high school). Last spring, intervention was full entirely of freshmen. It was…challenging (especially the section at the end of the day, which was almost entirely boys and almost entirely disinterested in anything academic by the time class started at 3:05). I had hoped that we’d hit numbers for the creative writing elective I was listed to teach. I’d also hoped, vaguely, to escape teaching intervention. (It has its benefits; I feel like it helps keep me honest as a teacher and really pushes my pedagogy. It just wears me out.) Neither happened.

This year—which for teachers in my district starts next week—I’ll still be teaching intervention. Instead of on-level seniors, though, I’ll have the Advanced Placement (registered trademark of the College Board) seniors. I’ll be inheriting my colleague’s summer assignment, which means hurriedly reading the assigned novel (thank you, grad school, for preparing me!). I need to pull a syllabus together, one detailed and tidy enough for the College Board to approve it. I need to shove the vague plans I had about rearranging the on-level English stuff to the back burner. I need to think about what worked with the intervention classes last year, particularly in the spring, that I can adapt to the different group of students I’ll have in the fall.

It’s a lot to get ready in the two and a half weeks before students show up. On the plus side, I won’t be waiting on HR to decide whether or not I exist. It’s another opportunity to improve my teaching, which is exciting. None of my classes should be huge. There’s a lot to like.

Earlier, I mentioned that we got a new car. It has a continuously variable transmission; there are no “gears” to shift between. My first car was a manual transmission. I’ve driven automatics since then, but even those train you to a pattern of shifts. You learn when you need to jam on the pedal to make the transmission downshift, when to let up a little to get the upshift. You listen to the patterns of the RPMs. The new car doesn’t do that. It has paddle shifters and a sport mode so you can pretend, if you want, but mostly the transmission just runs. The changes are gradual.

That’s how this summer has felt, and it’s a change I’ve been able to notice mostly because so many other pieces of my life are stable. As an undergrad (and before that), summers were summer. Whether it was a job or just a lot more ultimate, I had a sense that summer was different. Not all of the summers were lazy. Not all of them were good. They were, though, decisively not-school. During my masters, I took a fair number of summer seminars to grease the wheels on my dual degree. It still felt like a distinct season, though, because we had a lot of teachers pursuing masters degrees, because the rhythm of the day was different, because the weather was different.

I didn’t take summer seminars during my doctoral work. They weren’t part of the program. I took care of my kids. I squeezed in research trips. I wrote. The research trips have been replaced by professional development, but those other things have continued. My school year lines up imperfectly with the kids’, so there were some hazy patches at the beginning of the summer, with another coming up when I go back for inservice next week. There have been trips and camps and many visits to the library. Not once did I have a sense that things had slowed down. They must have, though, because I can feel them speeding up again now, even without a noticeable shift in gears.

Continuously variable transmission, indeed.