Monday, March 22, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different...

Me, kissing the world from Paris. Nostrildamus!

This is a brief respite from the pre-Spring Break rant I embarked on in the last post. While I plan on getting back to my tirade about the BSISD, today is my birthday, and I am in great spirits, so I have to take a break from my righteous indignation to talk about how happy I really am. Indulge me.
I had a party and people who I loved came and toasted my good health. Today at school a freshman named Ruth wrote me a card that said "Happy Birthday. Now let's take over the world!" The sign language class came and signed Happy Birthday to me. They looked ridiculous, but I loved it. Two of my old babysitters wrote to me; one of them, Shirley, has known me since I was born and still calls me her baby. A friend drew me a card that had a dog on it that had blue lips, and I got b'day love from Jamaica, Minnesota, Nebraska, Austin and New York. Other friends invited me to stay with them all summer. Another friend told me she hopes we never grow apart, she loves me so, and let's spend more time together. I taught a boy how to write an outline and use embedded quotes, and a girl how to examine her breast for cancer. Two colleagues asked me to Happy Hour. Teachers love to drink, I tell you what. I watched season premieres of our favorite shows with my friend who henna'd my hair, which instantly made me young, tall and skinny. My nephew decorated his private fort for me. My niece made me a Shrinky Dink necklace that says "She is Great." My sister made me my favorite dinner and lunch for tomorrow, and my brother made me laugh. My parents said they were proud of me.
I also said goodbye to an old friend; I've known her for about 25 years. Her kidneys and liver have failed, and she says she is ready to be out of pain. She gave me the greatest gift of all. She reminded me that life is grand; really grand, exquisite, something to be celebrated every day. She said she was proud that she had met so many people, and walked beside them, and that she was happy that she had a chance to walk alone, too. She is grateful. To be thankful for your time on this earth means that you have lived life well. My friend, Krissy, has. I won't forget her, and I am so appreciative of the present she has left for me on my birthday...she gave me back the beauty of today.
My uncle tells a story about when I was little, about four years old. He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. He says I wrinkled my little brow and thought for a minute before I answered. "Happy, " I said. "I want to be happy when I grow up."
Wishes do come true after all. Happy Birthday to me!

Friday, March 12, 2010

From the "Truth is Stranger" Department...

One of the problems in fiction writing is that of credibility. Up to a certain point, a reader will willingly suspend reason and cheerfully allow himself to be manipulated by the author (I would actually pay extra for a little manipulation from an author! I like those intellectual types! ) After this point, however, if the story is simply too implausible or outrageous, trust between writer and reader is broken, and the reader resents the writer for wasting his time and being deceptive, or worse still, incompetent.
So, the problem is, how far can one go without losing the audience? How much are people willing to believe? At what point does the reader just throw the book off the bed and hiss, "OK, now you are just pissing me off!"?
For example, I am writing a story about a fictitious urban school district in a modern American town. Like all school district, this one professed to be "all about the kids", and so, in order to better itself and its schools, this district- let's call it BSISD - hired a very expensive consulting firm to measure the morale of the schools it ran, on the grounds that happy workers are productive workers who will churn out a quality product, which in this case is a well-educated, college-ready kid. The consultants generated charts and graphs in four colors and powerpoints with background music and short, humorous film clips that were both entertaining and enlightening. They developed questionnaires and methods for scrutinizing the validity of both the questions and the answers of the surveys, and then created MORE charts, graphs and powerpoints, using more colors, music and film clips to showcase the data that was collected. This took approximately three years, and then the consultants set about analyzing the data using a variety of criteria and comparisons that would determine if the Operational Health of the organization - the school- was healthy or not. This cost billions of dollars, but BSISD had long ago decided that expensive consultants were the best kind, and that the more they charged, the better the results proved to be.
Five years later, the firm had enough data and colored charts to create an Operational Health Index (OHI), in which a deliriously happy school would score 100 points. The BSISD was so concerned with getting data for the OHI to find out if the teachers and students in the schools were content, that the administration of the district had long ago stopped accepting complaints from the teachers and the students who voiced discontent for any reason. The theory was that they would get the chance to express their opinions on the well-researched questionnaires, which would then be dissected and analyzed be well-paid professional consultants. Then and only then could the results be disseminated and understood.
All of that was just background to the story. Exposition, if you will. Are ya still with me? It gets better...
CHAPTER ONE: Once upon a time there was a little elementary school in a large , urban school district called the BSISD. At one time there had been a happy faculty there, who lovingly taught adorable little kids how to color, count with beans, settle down for story time, tie their shoes, play the triangle or cowbells, and take naps. They sang lots of songs and performed plays about Thanksgiving, and they celebrated each others birthdays and Valentines. Some of the classes had a bird or a hamster or a goldfish, and everybody learned about responsibility by taking turns feeding the pets and cleaning their cages. The pets were usually named "Sunny" or "Fuzzy" or "Mr. Wiggles." For the children, it was a great place to start their education, and every day, they skipped eagerly, hand in hand to the classrooms with their tiny chairs and cubby holes. When they graduated from the third grade, they knew how to read, write, add, subtract, multiply and divide, color inside the lines, the Pledge of Allegiance, that the policeman was their friend, and that even though Charlotte died, she had lived a good life and would never be forgotten.
However, times had changed.
OK, so Chapter One seems pretty likely. Nothing impossible here. I like the idea of a fish named Fuzzy.
CHAPTER TWO: The little elementary school was no longer a happy place. Someone had decided that the kids should all be the same, with all the same skills, talents and goals, and so programs had been cut in order to make way for classes that molded and restructured them. No more recess or nap time. No more arts and crafts; only worksheets, and only coloring INSIDE of the lines. Mr. Wiggles died and was never replaced. Students were instructed to walk only on the right side of the halls, no talking, hands to themselves. They wore little uniforms, and had a prescribed amount of homework every night. Some of the reading classes were taught from a script that the BSISD issued to the teachers every month. The script had segments for group snapping and clapping, and students and teachers were judged on their timing and adherence to the instructions on the page. There was no music. Parties were strictly forbidden, due to a lack of educational value, and plays took way too much time.
If a child wouldn't fit into the mold, more rigid molds were created, as experts decided that all kids could be the same, if only they were motivated properly. Blind kids can learn to squint, and a good teacher never gave up on a child's ability to master what had once seemed impossible. It was up to the teachers to motivate the children properly. This was stressful, as some students still insisted on being themselves. Teachers received training, and then more training. The training was always the same. It started off like this: "You are here because you are a bad teacher. Regardless of your years of experience or personal victories, you have always been a bad teacher. You must change. If you don't change, you will be fired. You will become acceptable by copying data from computer screens onto spreadsheets, folders and stickers. Now let's make some foldable graphic organizers to illustrate what we've learned."
The teachers were sad, too. Many were scared, for themselves, yes, but also for their students, who they loved.
Chapter Two is getting a little out there. We live in a free society, and this is downright Orwellian. Nobody would believe that all kids are the same! That's just stupid. That part about the teacher training is preposterous, too. What the hell is foldable?
Should I even go on? I know how this story ends up. Have I lost you already? Too ridiculous? Let me know if you are interested in Chapter Three, though I think I already know what your response will be - nobody really cares about the public schools, especially when the story is long, complex, unbelievable and depressing.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


NOTE: This was actually written on March 5th, 2010, but I just now got around to posting it. Who cares, right? I like accuracy. Is that so wrong? A little background: I am an English teacher. For the past decade or so, I have been teaching Advanced Placement courses in high school English. Last year, my principal told me that I would be teaching a college prep course called AVID. It's a fine course, and it serves a great need, but my heart is not in it. Before I was assigned the position, my principal told me that if I was still not committed by the end of the year, I could go back to teaching English. In the meantime, he has filled positions in the department, and I saw that he was making sure that there would not be a place for me. The writing has been on the wall for a long time, but it is a very hard story to read.
Also, I have a niece who I will call Ali in this blog.

Today I had a rough day at school. I met with my principal, a man without an advanced degree who insists on a title, and he told me, basically, that my department was better off without me in it. He's full of shit; my colleagues ask for my help and students come to me every day for advice and editing. Still, it hurt my feelings, and for a moment I felt ashamed, as if I'd done something wrong and was being punished. After I left the office, I cried in the halls, rushing so as not to be late to my next class. The day finally ended and I got home, where I feel safe and uninhibited. I desperately needed a nap. I was drained. I felt like my face was melting. I lay down on the couch, and within minutes I felt myself losing consciousness. Right before I was O-U-T out, I had the sensation that Ali was twining her little stick arms around my hips, climbing up me like a monkey, pulling me close to her, a soft, warm baby, burrowing into me. I think, in my sleep, I smiled. I woke up late for our weekly Friday night dinner, and when I got to my sister and brother-in-law's house, just like in my dream, Ali ran up and threw her arms around me, her sunflower face shining gold, squeezing out a pure ray of love. It was one of those moments in which the perfection of it all takes your breath away. I picked her up and told her about my reverie.
"Write it down, " she said, "Then you will always remember what it feels like when I love you."
I hope I never forget.
I sure am a lucky lady.