Saturday, January 10, 2015

teachers Part I


Because everybody has gone to school, knows a teacher, or has met them at parent teacher conferences, people think that they’re education experts. Many people think that they can play Monday morning quarterback; they can second guess the teaching profession. Wrong. Most discussions about school are based on false assumptions, based on incorrect or outdated ideas, are into teacher bashing, and scapegoating unions or misunderstanding the role of professionals.

One thing we need to do is to get to know teachers as human beings, folks just like us with the same needs, desires, expectations and ambitions. We need to understand that they’re people first; then highly skilled professionals second. We need to remember that we have changed our expectations for doctors and nurses. We have taken doctors off their pedestals and increased our admiration for the nursing profession.  We need to do the same for teachers.

Some of the public’s assumptions are part of the problem. Schools, even the best, are too big. The curriculum is too narrow. In high school, more time and energy, effort and funding is devoted to the 100 (perhaps just 5% of the total school population) athletes than to the rest of the PE program. We spend the most money on the students who come to school the most prepared and the least amount on the students who need it the most and then demand similar results.  We’ve tried to tweak the old factory model. Seating in circles instead of rows of desks, tables for group work, but basically the factory model persist—in a school of  200 or 2,000 we still routinely move everybody eight or nine times a day from one station to another. A teacher and his students can barely settle down and get started and it’s time to move again and then again.

The teaching profession has been so disparaged that nobody takes a teacher’s work seriously including her students. So while school remains the most important part of a teacher’s day it has become the least important part of her students’ day. From elementary school to graduate school the ubiquitous cell phone trumps the teacher. Facebook rules. 

     In the meantime, the bell just rang and the teacher is off. He tries to keep the big picture in mind—what the Finns are doing, what’s happening in Naperville, what’s going on down the hall, what will he make for dinner, and what about one of his favorite students who blew is knee out yesterday in the game; how is he, will he ever play again, will he ever walk normal again, will he dropout (he did.) shouldn’t someone have told him he wasn’t ready to play yet, that he still needed time for his injury to heal?

 There’s the second bell; “So who can tell me where we left off yesterday and in the meantime here’s your graded and recorded homework while I’m passing back yesterday’s homework can you all pass in last night’s work. Thank you very much and again who is Gordon Parks?”

The assumption is that teachers don’t care; don’t give a fuck. Again, wrong. One teacher reads a story in the Sunday paper about the deplorable state of students’ vocabulary. The next day, “Starting today, class, we’re going to do a vocabulary unit every week until the end of the year.”  I thought well plenty of students read the newspaper, after all it’s written at a sixth grade reading level. But they don’t read world news, the real news. Maybe they don’t know the specialized vocabulary. So I designed units with ten words a week. The fist week (the civil war in Lebanon was raging) the list was Beirut, Lebanon, the green line, the PLO, the Maronites, Syria, Israel and the Phalange. (Thirty years later the vocabulary is the same)  It was a hard sell. Later a second teacher would read an article complaining that “Johnny Can’t Spell” Teachers took that to heart as well and they instituted spelling lessons. Then someone read that “Johnny Can’t Read.” So all the teachers not just language arts teachers incorporated reading units in their class work. Most teachers take every criticism seriously and try to respond.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Technology keeps changing & i can't keep up

Let me see, the movies my father took with his 16 mm motion picture camera  we transferred to Beta. At the time, people said, “Oh no, you don’t want to do Beta; do VHS.” Beta and VHS tapes are now, of course, both obsolete. So we then transferred them to DVDs, but within a year or two DVDs will be obsolete,  However, I’ve been told to add them to my computer now and then store them on a cloud. If the cloud doesn’t go away, I’ll still be able to watch them on my computer. But, I’d better hurry, my old computer may be left behind by my friends’ tablets and e-readers and then I won’t be able to access the cloud without a new computer. Something about beware the Tandy syndrome. And whatever happened to BASIC, FORTRAN and COBALT: but I was warned not to confuse COBALT with Open Cobalt. 
We have old DVDs and VCR tapes which we watch while we do the exercise bike. Someone was teasing us. “And how are you going to watch The Thin Man and Casablanca when your machine wears out? You know, Best Buy is not going to carry antiques for old goats forever?” We gave our friend a look. He said close your mouth and listen, “Streaming” He said it very slowly and continued just as slowly. He talked to me as if I were clueless. “Netflix is just one example. Get over it, your VCRs and DVDs are soooo yesterday. If you want media content stream it.”  
Now, I admit, when it comes to still photography, we’re really out to lunch. In the basement we have boxes and boxes filled with Kodak negatives, duplicates and the pics that didn’t make it into the albums. We’ll never throw them away, even though in some dark recess of our mind we know we’re never even going to look at them again and our kids will have to toss them. Upstairs, we have over two dozen albums. But of course we don’t use albums anymore, we’ve gone digital. So we store our pics the modern way on the computer. But who looks at pictures on the computer? Who says, “Let’s curl up on the couch and look at the pics on our laptop from our wedding, the kids weddings, our trips, and the b-day parties?” Nobody. So we started using Shutterfly. Now we make our own albums on the computer, email them to Shutterfly and they send them via snail mail almost instantaneously. 
We sometimes wonder what’s going to happen when Corporate America, in the name of efficiency , shuts down the USPS. How will the Internet deliver its products to customers’ homes? Are we going to have to pay $8 to have UPS deliver a letter size package?
But a friend said we’re just being cantankerous. “For god’s sake just spend a couple of bucks and get with it. Here’s the solution. I went to www.yellowpages .com, but you can go to the obsolete, soon to be history, print edition of the Yellow Pages and find:  Don’t wait any longer to transfer your 8mm, 16mm, and Super 8 Film to DVD. Revive those precious memories to share with your family! We can transfer your VHS, VHS-C, Betamax, Hi-8, MiniDV, Video-8 and Digital 8 tapes to DVD. Preserve your home movies for the future. Don’t let your Slides, Negatives and Printed Photos sit in that box any longer. We can scan them at Digital Camera Quality.
Let me see, we threw away my father’s old 78s. Bing Crosby. Bing who? Then later, we threw away our own, old 78s & 45s, Simon and Garfunkel, “Do you mean Paul Simon?”  Now our son-in-law is looking all over for what he calls vinyl. He claims, “It’s a richer tone.” We finally threw away the last of our eight tracks and reel to reels. We have yet to throw away all of our cassettes even though we don’t have a cassette player except in the old car. When we gave our kids CDs for the holidays they said a little too snarky for our taste: “Please no more CDs they’re so 20th century.”  I asked them about their CDs & DVDs collections. They answered, “We never listen to them anymore, and we really don’t know what to do with them.” At one time, they bought a fancy, modern, sleek, brushed aluminum, floor to ceiling CD case. Now it sits in the back room, filled with beautiful CDs gathering dust. Another friend, just the other day, said pointing to a half dozen plastic milk crates filled with CDs and DVDs, “You want them? Take them, take all of them. I’ll help you load them into your car. Just get them out of my fricking house.” Déjà vu! He has a new device. It looks like a small radio and it has a little card. I was too embarrassed to ask him what it was. Somewhere in the back of one of the dresser drawers we still have an old walkman—it still works, good as new, even though we used it lots.
We were going to buy an mp 3 player, but then we found out that we would have to choose from Sony, Creative, SanDisk, Microsoft, Zune, iRiver, Archos, Samsung, and that we would need to buy speakers, chargers, cases, cables and connectors and get hooked up with Podcasts which is different from an iPad or an iPhone. We know they have classes for old duffers called intro to Facebook and advance Facebook; so they probably have classes on how to choose your mp3player. But it just seemed like TMI all over again.
            We asked a friend if you have the same recording in multiple formats which do you choose and why? Our friend, who still has his vinyl, his cassettes and his CDs, listens to You Tube. He bragged,” I can listen to anything and everything any time of the day or night. I can listen to something I don’t have and I can listen to something I do have without having to get up and hunt it down.” He brags about the quality of his sound system, but he listens to You Tube on his laptop. He says some day, I’ll hook it up.” It was my turn to smirk and roll my eyes.
Speakers?  People see our speakers and they roll their eyes. They get that patient, I’m trying to talk to a child voice and very softly say, “Small and at least three for authentic sound. And wires? Get rid of those wires. Haven’t you heard of wireless?” 
They tell us, “In the old days, I’d get up in the morning and I’d have to wait for the paper or run to the corner (later drive to the highway) and buy it. And, then, it would be full of all the old news that I saw last night on TV. (They must have missed the night that old Walter Cronkite said, “Before I say good night, I want you to know that everything that I have just said, the whole text, of this thirty minute newscast could fit on the front page of your daily newspaper.”)  Now, it is so cool. I get up, I boot up my tablet. I have instant access to every paper in the world. I read the NYT, the WSJ, the J-S, the T-H, and even the ( Chicago Trib)—all in less than half an hour. I could never do that in the old days. And then I’ve got NPR and MSNBC and U-Tube. And it’s all practically free.”
They think it is so cool, the on line paper even tells them what to read. The paper says, “We know what you like to read—sports and entertainment. So we’ve prepare a list of sports and entertainment stories for you. Please, don’t waste your time skimming and scanning the paper and getting sidetracked when something else catches your eye, just go straight to the good stuff. You’ll never have to look at a nasty old science story again.”
Surf the net. One of the great strengths of the internet is one can literally just go browsing and who knows what one might learn. One can type in Gettysburg and before you know it one is reading about the slaves’ role in the battle or about battle field aid stations. But studies show folks no longer surf. They don’t want to be bothered with different opinions and different points of view. They go straight to their favorite sites all bookmarked and conveniently wanting for them. Don’t dive, don’t go down deep into the water, don’t explore the reefs and currents, just  skim the surface and get ready to buy the next gadget, because as sure as GM created planned obsolescence, Apple has perfected it and another new gadget is coming our way as soon as they can get their work force to stop committing suicide. (Our computer’s spell check is so old that it thinks that Facebook is two words.
They tell us this is the information age and they’re right; we see it all around us. In the car, “Honey, I just got off the highway, I’ll be home in five.” At the super market, “I forgot, do you want the big box or the small box of detergent? What brand again?”  In the stadium “I’m at the game.  I just saw it. He hit it over the fence.” The important news is always right there streaming across the bottom of the screen: Packers win! Tigers slump! Bulls out! Sox Lose! Cardinals come from behind! Woods looks stronger! Vanessa’s bound to win!
When the pictures from Afghanistan went viral, we sighed. The story was treated as something new. And right away on TV, the internet and via Facebook and Tweeter the discussion was heated, not very learned, but heated. How can one be very learned in 140 characters?) Was there, will there be a serious discussion about torture? Not likely. SNL has already done a skit, Jay Leno has passed judgment and David Letterman got the best laugh. Someone says reread 1984, someone says read the Shock Doctrine. And someone asked, “Can I read it on my eBook while I’m waiting for the game?” No, tomorrow’s another day, another sound bite and another witty repartee. Someone said that the today’s kids are illiterate; boy he should’ve looked in the mirror.   
They asked us the other day about The Game. We asked, “What game?” Chuck watched his first and last Super Bowl forty years ago. They asked, “What about the commercials?” We explained that we haven’t had a working TV in over fifteen years.
They said, “Well what about Masterpiece Theatre? We said. “We have the book. We hold it in our hand. We sometimes pause and look off into the middle distance creating the scene in our mind’s eye.”
They sigh, they roll their eyes and give us a hopeless look, “But, that’s so yesterday.” We quote Thoreau. They give us the all-knowing smirk. 
Truth be told, maybe we’re just old. We asked a kid, he’s almost forty, did he have an iPhone and an iPod, or a Bluetooth and a Blackberry and did he download apps (and what does that mean?) and did he have an E-reader.  He answered, “For a long time, I had everything and I got it just as soon as it came out. I’d wait in line to buy the newest device. I got rid of my iPhone 4 for the 4s and now I should have the 5 but I don’t yet. I use to be up-to-date, but not anymore, I must be getting old, I can’t keep up. Now my wife she’s still into it. Anything new, she’s got to have it and right away.” If he can’t keep up, how can we be expected?
            Maybe people really do sit down and read 2, 4, 6, even 10 page stories and essays on line and then another and even a third. Maybe they do learn as much on line as anyone ever learned from newsprint and acid free paper and maybe they do go back and read last Sunday’s NY Times because they missed so much of it the first time round, but we doubt it.
Thoreau was better read than most people then and now. Books send by boat from England took two months and it took weeks to get back and forth to England but Emerson was better informed, read more and travelled more than many Twenty-first century Americans who brag about their very own Fantasy Baseball team.
We can’t keep up, but then neither can RMI.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Never Enough Time

If I had a little extra time, I liked to wander around the school and drop in and visit with my friends. School was my small town. I’d wander around. I’d chase a few kids to class; kick the smokers out of the boys’ washroom and double-check that nobody was sneaking in an unattended side door.
One of my buddies, a history teacher, is on hall guard. Like many of my friends, he doesn’t read. He’d say, “I do too. I read National Geographic and the Smithsonian. For a while, I even read American Heritage until it got too expensive.” I’d mess with him, “Too expensive, ten bucks, that’s chump change—you’re just too cheap. But, you’re right not to read that junk. Really, I don’t want you reading that crap. All about how wonderful the good old US of A is and look how many heroes we have and really what a great country we are and all of that.” And then I’d take off, before he had a chance to reply,” Oh, you English teachers, you don’t know shit.”
To be fair, he went to the first Earth Day Celebration in Chicago, in 1970, and tried to go every year and take his kids. And when we argued, I say, " OK, I have to give you points for Earth Day."
Back at the English office, I’d ask one of my friends, “James, what are you reading these days? He mumbles, “Student papers. I keep telling you; I don’t have time to read. I haven’t read anything since college. I read enough then and I don’t intend to read anything else now. Maybe, I’ll read something when I retire, but not now. Right now, tell me, how’s the next contract coming?”
But some of the teachers did read.  For some reason they never talked about it much. You could tell when occasionally a new book would slip into someone's classroom. A friend loved to teach 2001 A Space Odyssey, talk about sci-fi and how Arthur C. Clark was really a great philosopher. Another teacher, just as serious, taught This Little Light of Mine by Kay Mills. White or black, she was one of the few teachers who took black lit seriously. Because of her some of us taught not only A Raisin In the Sun, but Purlie Victorious and Day of Absence. But it seemed we never had time, either informally or at meetings, to talk about books. We talked about keeping track of books, buying books, storing books, getting the books back from the students, ordering replacement books, reviewing books, distributing the books, collecting the books and hoarding the books. Some loved anthologies and had their favorites. They wanted more and more of them. They just wanted to teach a particular book to a particular class the rest of their lives and they didn’t think that that was too much to ask.
I ran the bookroom. It was where the broken dreams went to die. There was a half set of an abridged version of the Count of Monte Christo, a tattered well-worn incomplete set of the Autobiography of Malcolm X and a half set of Houghton Mifflin’s Afro-American Literature: Drama, Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction. Some wanted to build a curriculum based on these fine paperbacks, but the majority wanted their anthologies. The anthologies won. The familiar won over the new. In a way they were right. Who had the time or the inclination to give up their favorites for new preps and the unknown? There was never enough time amidst the confusion and chaos.
There were other reasons why there was no time. Many of the women, and even some men, had to rush home to take care of their own kids, fix supper, and help supervise homework, deliver one kid to violin and drop off another at soccer. Some teachers taught night school or took night classes themselves, taught summer school or took summer school classes. Some had part time businesses—they were house painters or pizza store owners. One worked a second job because he didn’t believe that women should work. If asked, he didn’t hesitate to say he believed for him and his family it was better that he worked two jobs so his wife could be home with the four kids. Others coached or were referees or chaperones. Others stopped at the tavern and not just on Fridays.
Some came early. All they wanted was peace and quiet—no distractions, no interruptions, just time to grade papers, prep, have a cigarette and think and finally to listen to the quiet. Sometimes, they’d hide out in an empty room.
And still others said, “Look, they pay me to come here and teach. They don’t pay me to work nights grading papers or doing mindless lesson plans. I have designed my day so I get it all done between eight and two forty five. If there’s more to do, it just does not get done. Unreasonable??  Not entirely. Another friend said, “You know, when I retired, I got my Sundays back. For thirty-five years, I worked at home every Sunday.” She went on, “I never realized the sacrifice I made. I used to save all my magazines and read them in the summer. It was the only time that I read. Now I can read the New Yorker when it comes and when my friends talk about a story I can say, oh yes I read that story and join the conversation.”
Some did find time to read. For a time Stephen King, John Grisham and Barbara Kingsolver were popular. Some liked Terry McMillan and the Anglophiles were reading John Mortimer for their English fix. Another, the same one who introduced us to Purlie Victorious, wanted us to read, and maybe teach April Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black. Another teacher read and started teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Her students loved it. She’d say, “You have to remember, if the author is black the students will stretch, even if it’s hard they’ll work at it. They want to understand black authors.”
We’re the generation that can do everything and we did it—job, kids, health club, jogging, gardening, gourmet cooking, a night life. We raised our kids, got divorced, cared for aging parents, buried our spouses and some snuck around. We bragged about our own kids without meaning to and sympathized with the parent that couldn’t brag about his teen. But the daily grind got to most of us over time. You could see it in the sag their bodies had by the end of the year. And we were jealous of the ones who looked cool, calm and collected in June. We envied them, but our envy was mixed with bafflement; we asked each other, “How do they do it?” We never learned their secret.  Didn’t they care, didn’t they have a little guilt gnawing away, wasn’t even some of everything just a bit overwhelming?
One friend said, “You know you have to pace yourself, not take everything too seriously. Remember, they’ll be gone and we’ll still be here. We have to take care of ourselves, the school and then the kids. It won’t work without us. We’re important too.” I never did figure out if he was right or not. I guess that was what you call the long view, when you’re in it for the long haul, the duration. The institutional view.
 I still don’t know.


Friday, January 13, 2012

It’s really a little city: The coffee shop

A big urban high school is like a little city.
In the good old days, in the morning, the teachers’ lunchroom was the corner coffee shop. Many of us drove 20 to 40 miles, one way, came from two states, dozens of suburban communities, the exurbs and from fiercely segregated Chicago neighborhoods, to get to school. So much for the neighborhood school concept.  So once we got there, we had to catch our breath and unwind. We loved to listen to the folks who drove in from the western suburbs complain about the Eisenhower Effect. Some of us would teasingly say, “Oh, you mean the Congress Expressway?”
At just the right time of day and the right time of year, the sun rising in the eastern sky could be blinding. One particular bright and sunny morning, a woman came in a little late (for coffee not for school) all out of breath; she had just driven through the Eisenhower Effect. She started to complain and was immediately cut off by one of our Miss-Know-It-All, “That’s what the visor is for my dear!” Just as she was about to launch into a long lecture about the sun and the planets, another teacher came in equally out of breath, interrupted everybody and started in about the sun, the back up and the near fender benders, the mess and the parking lot that the highway had just become. That completely shut up our one friend and redeemed our other friend who was about to wilt and everybody lived happily … until the next crisis.
 Plus, we needed to talk to a few adults before we started our day because once the bell sounded, we would be surrounded with students for the rest of the day. And most importantly, we genuinely liked each other. And we wanted to start our day on a high note: Forget about the traffic, forget about the little jerk in yesterday’s third period and for fifteen minutes or so just bask in the warmth and soft light of our camaraderie.
We liked each other in the same intense way a police officer likes and relies on his partner. It was a strange friendship. Often we only saw each for a few minutes in the morning. We seldom saw each other in the summer and once we retired, with a few exceptions, we never saw each other again. (Some of the retirees in our coffee group do meet once a year in September. They call themselves the Alumni Group).
The teachers would begin arriving about an hour before class. Some grabbed a quick cup and went upstairs to work, but a group of about thirty or so with a core group of about 25 regulars would have coffee and even breakfast every morning. Sometimes, ladies in the serving line would have something special for me. It doesn’t take much to be polite and sometimes the rewards for just being polite are wonderful.
If it was cold, wet, grey, ugly and raw outside, the students who were just like us and who had come to school early for a little food and human comfort, would be crammed together outside by the front door. At first,  they couldn’t get in and then they’d be let in and crowded together in the vestibule. Finally they’d be allowed to go and get breakfast and visit with their friends. Our day, in contrast to that of the students, got off to a much better start. And those of us who thought about the contrast and the unintended consequences quickly pushed those thoughts away.
We had all kinds of rules. Some tables: “Don’t bad mouth the students”, at others it was all sports, “the game” and of course at the adjoining table no sports. At our table, the culture lovers got to report on the Lyric, the CSO, the Goodman and eventually Steppenwolf. We talked politics, but not too much. No gossip—too many ears at the adjoining tables—too undignified, so out in the open so to speak. So the gossip was saved for later, the washrooms and the department offices when just the select were around. And then there was lots of gossip.
Those of us who bought the paper every day (and why wouldn’t you, it was only fifty cents) had to watch for the paper thieves. “Let me just check the scores.” And if you weren’t careful you’d never see your paper again. Some “Just want to borrow the crossword.” Say what? We bragged about our own kids (for a while the trip to visit college campuses was an important topic), talked a bit about our part-time jobs. And of course we were all experts on everything. 
There were no gays. There were, of course, but no one would ever mention them.  At one school, where I had worked there was a lesbian couple but they were so cool and everybody liked them so much that nobody ever said anything, period. It was the most strictly enforced taboo of all. Looking back, it was strange; all the teachers would be drinking coffee, looking at the paper, talking about last night’s performance of the Ring Cycle or “the game”. If it was Monday morning, we might be talking about our kids, our wives, our dates and what we did over the weekend. The gays would always join in and talk about their weekend, but they could never mention their dates, their lovers or their trip to Boystown.  If someone had said Boystown, most teachers would deny its existence (their eyes would tell you, you were breaking the taboo. We won’t be able to keep them in the closet if we admit that there is a closet) and some truthfully could claim that they never even heard of Boystown.
 One time, a male teacher was seen outside of school with a female student; he was transferred and his name disappeared from our collective memory. He was never mentioned again. But we could be nasty, petty and vicious. Two men who worked night school ate dinner together, between night school and day school, and the rumormongers spread dirt all over the school about them.
The white teachers sat at the white tables and the black teachers sat at the black tables. There were two black teachers who would have coffee and later in the day lunch with us. And there were two white teachers who would do the same. There was a wonderful teacher that we all loved, but a little spacey, and he would eat at any table with an empty seat and then he gave his full attention to his food. The table might as well have been empty.
And like a small town, not everyone was as friendly as the next guy. There were little groups throughout the building who hid out in little offices with a Mr. Coffee and a mini-fridge. The English department was so big thahalf the department could be downstairs, another third still on their way and still a small loyal band upstairs complaining that nobody understood the English teachers and their difficult task. Once they got to the English floor (their side of town), they stayed there all day.
In the lunchroom, the clock would be ticking away. It was almost time to go. Some folks would leave before the first bell. Maybe they had one last set of papers to record. Some liked to get to their room early, to set the tone, be a good example and all that.  When they outlawed smoking, some had to run out for one last drag before class. Someone had to go check: “Whose raft was it anyway? Did Huck find the raft or Jim? Where did it come from?” It was a minor point, but it was fun to get the students to double check or to reward a close reader.
The warning bell rang and in four minutes it would be another day.
Going out the door: “See you at lunch?”
If it was Friday, “Are you going to Jimmy’s for a pitcher?”

Friday, December 23, 2011

They come and go

Her name was Karen. She was seven or eight and I was six or seven. It was 1949 or 50. Our mothers still picked out our clothes, told the barber how to cut our hair, put our breakfast on the table without asking what we wanted and put us out early in the morning to play unsupervised. It was before stranger danger, before rebellious kids who would even dream of leaving the block and yes, there were neighbors who kept an eye out the window, but most of them were too busy with the house work and whatnot to pay us any mind.  We hadn’t heard of puberty and no one had heard of playing doctor. We were just a bunch of kids, the little kids, boys and girls, brothers and sisters who played together outside, weather permitting.
We all played Hide-and-Seek and Mother-May-I. The girls jumped rope, but in general we just ran around. Karen wasn’t necessarily a leader, but she was adventurous. She lived in a three-story Chicago-style brick courtyard building, and we lived in the one right next door. She liked to run up and down the back stairs, playing a kind of catch me if you can. She was the one who discovered that if you were careful you could kind of half stretch and half jump from one set of porches to the other and get away scot free. After she did it two or three times, she made us do it. A little encouragement and a little teasing and we did it.
When you’re little, too little to be self conscious, one’s not aware that one’s growing up. People say, “My, look how big you are. You’re so tall.” But day-to-day you don’t notice. It’s the same body, after all, and you don’t pay much attention to your own body. But after we learned to jump from building to building, we realized that we had just passed a milestone. We were almost ready to hang out with the big kids.
And then it happened. Her family moved. She was gone, just like that. I must have known that she was leaving, but I didn’t realize that she was gone until well after she had left. I didn’t really realize until years later that when she left, she left a hole in my life.
Over twenty years later, I gave Karen’s name to my youngest daughter Melissa for her middle name. I did it in Karen’s memory and in memory of that long ago time when little kids were just kids and played happily together in comradeship and good cheer.
            When I was just a kid, I didn’t know about social dynamics, war babies and boomers, class and race, demographics and median family income, or religion and gender. My world was my parents’ friends in the building, later the kids in school and the big kids who played baseball with a tennis ball. It was a small world, and I had no idea about all the convulsions a society goes through to create such places. Our building had never been designed for kids, and for twenty years it had always been older, childless couples, widows or newlyweds saving for a bigger place. Things had been put on hold during the Great Depression, but our street had escaped the changes created by the Depression. Nothing on our block was cut up and divided into smaller and smaller units. The southern white immigrants had gone someplace else. But the war froze everything in place.
No one could move, and the folks who would have moved before starting a family started having kids and not moving. Upstairs, Dale would go off to war and come home and have three kids in four years. My father always joked that he was too young for WWI and too old for WW II, but he got serious about having kids and had me in ’43 and my sister in ’44, just in case they started drafting older men. Soon the building had eleven kids under ten. One couple who lived across the courtyard from my parents just said, “Hi and goodbye” until the woman had a baby. Then they became best friends ( until my parents were killed in an auto accident) and the newborn daughter Kathy and my sister Joanne would become lifelong friends (that is, until my sister died of cancer). Joanne even followed Kathy to Clark College in Dubuque twenty years later.
But soon the building started losing the families with kids. Dale, his wife and his three sons moved to a small suburb along the old Chicago and Northwestern RR line. Arlington Heights had a population of about 5,000 people. They moved to a house that dead-ended five blocks from Highway 12. We were impressed by the size of their house, the fields that they could play in (The site of a future development, but we knew nothing about developments), and even a big backyard. I imagine that now the house is considered a tear-down waiting for the market to improve.
My mother kept in touch, and Eunice would come to my parents’ funeral, but I never saw the boys again. My brother reports that they grew up to be typical white suburbanites of their day, so it’s just as well. We also moved; we made it within four short blocks of the suburbs, but we didn’t quite make it to the burbs.
The white movement to the suburbs has been characterized as a flight. I don’t believe it. The folks in my building moved because they needed a second bedroom, an expandable attic, a garage, and a place for the kids to play. At first, at least, people didn’t move for “better schools;” they moved to schools that weren’t overcrowded and new. Our parents wanted new and they were happy to leave behind the old cities. They used to brag (and it was half true) that Edison Park was really just like a suburb, but in the city.)  But they also left behind their old friends, the old neighborhood and some of its old ways. Sometimes, now when we look back, we wish that somehow we could recreate those old ways.  Some of the grandchildren of those folks who moved to the burbs have moved back; they might not stay, but they are trying to recreate urban life.  I have a young friend who grew up in Niles and now lives in an apartment building six blocks from my old apartment building.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Climate Change has smashed its fist into our face.

Halloween Weekend, 2011

In northwest Illinois, this year’s late summer and early fall is going to go down in the history books as one of our most memorable.  It’s times like this, that I wish I was a poet. It would be so cool to be able to describe the wonders of nature including our miraculous weather. It has been drop dead gorgeous. Day after day, the sky has been pure and clean, and as bright blue as the skies over a Greek isle. The temperatures remind one of heaven. So far, we’ve had just a touch of frost. Every few nights, there has been just a tease; just enough to kill the tomatoes and peppers and coat the car windows, but not quite enough to blacken the still stunning geraniums and mums. The frost whispers that winter is coming, but not yet. The trees have never been more spectacular.
It was a godforsaken July, with days of record heat and torrential rains. The ferocious rains tore up roads, ripped out culverts and destroyed bridges. Saddest of all, a friend was swept to his death in a flash flood which carried him and his car downstream. Cool winds finally brought relief and moderate temperatures.  What at first we welcomed as a short respite before the dog days of August arrived turned out to be over three months of bliss. The dog days never came.
Here at home, every day, the air is clean. The wind is soft and delicate, like a lover’s touch. In July it had been too hot for the tomatoes and peppers to set fruit, in August, the plants finally developed fruit and the late harvest with its bounty almost made amends for the delayed start. And now, in late October, just after the hummingbirds left, the juncos arrived right on schedule. Now the deer are leaving the timber during the day and are more visible. The young turkey poults have matured.  Most of the corn has been combined and we’ve regained the sense of openness and spaciousness associated with hill prairies.
Today, Sunday, October 30, even as the grey clouds move in low and slowly swallow the sky and as the clouds move from west to east and bring rain and a damp nasty feel, I’m reassured. It is a familiar pattern. I like the cliché a, blustery, November day. It reminds us not of winter but of Thanksgiving; reminds us of all the reasons one chooses to live in the country, the things we have to be thankful for.
To me at least, the weather has become more real lately. Today, as I write, I listen to the wind and watch the grey clouds fill the sky. Right now, I’m watching the wind tear the leaves from the trees. Many of the leaves aren’t quite ready to fall, but the wind grabs them, throws them to the ground and then picks them up and hurls them across the yard.  An hour ago, it was quieter, a lovely dance. A few leaves were lightly falling from the trees and pirouetting across the yard before gently landing on the ground only to get up again, waltz, and twirl across the grass.
 I like to think that since we moved to the country, I’ve become more observant.  I’m proud that I’ve learned to watch for the changes in the light, to the feel air on my face, to see the sumac just a second before it burst into flame, and to note the arrival of the first bluebird and the departure of the last swallow. On the other hand, I worry that it is old age.
I worry that watching the changing of the seasons is a sign not of a new vitality, but a step, however small, toward old age. I wonder how many more falls will I have a chance to be a part of, not just to observe, but to actually experience.  I know that I have seen more than I will see in the future. I’m ashamed to say that many of them passed me by and I wasted away those precious days, my thoughts and eyes someplace else. I was oblivious to their comings and goings. I’m convinced, however, that it is not my heightened awareness of the beauty and mystery of nature or looming old age which has made me more cognizant of my natural environment.
 I think that my heightened awareness comes from a growing realization that climate change is already disrupting our world and that over time our world will become unrecognizable.  We may never have such a long and glorious fall—ever again. Right now, I live in the loving embrace of the four seasons honored in song and poem since the very beginning. From teachers, troubadours and friends, I’ve finally learned to see, to listen for and even smell the world just outside my door and now we may lose it all.
 The tiny changes that have already happened are frightening. As I write this, thinking only about today, putting aside for a moment all that has happened this year, I’m frightened. This weekend, while we in the Midwest are enjoying heaven on earth, the south west is still being destroyed by heat and drought. As the tumbleweeds begin to roll across new deserts, desperate cattlemen are shipping the best of their herds north in a last ditch effort to save them, they’ve sold others prematurely and they have had to stand by and watch still others slowly starve to death. There is no hay not even a blade of grass left in Texas. At the same time, the northeast from Pennsylvania to Maine is covered in record drifts of snow while high tides smash again the New Jersey shore. (Later in the week, a hurricane would come ashore in New Jersey tearing, ripping and destroying everything in its path.) Arizona is still suffering from record heat. In Europe, Dublin is still trying to recover from flooding and Tuscany, one of the world’s most idyllic spots is trying to recover from major flooding.  Around the world, more than half of Thailand is still under water and Bangkok, the capitol and a world famous tourist destination, is threatened with inundation. Cambodia, more poor and backward than Thailand is suffering even worse from the same floods.
Our world is being turned upside down. Climate Change is smashing its fist into our face.
 Global warming is annihilating Nature’s clock, the four seasons; destroying cycles of birth and rebirth; and disrupting age old migration patterns. Everything stands on the brink of destruction. This year it was a friend or two here at home, a few more in New England, four hundred in Thailand; next year it will be more. More fires, more dust storms, more floods and tidal waves, more mud slides, more record snowfalls and cold spells, more dead cattle, more land gobbled up by the growing dessert, more crops withering in the summer heat, and more climate refugees. The world, that has nurtured every generation of humans and provided shelter and a home for the animal kingdom since the first cell divided, faces a worldwide calamity.
We have to put every other issue aside and act. We can’t turn the clock back. We can’t stop the future from bringing more chaotic climate disruptions, but we can stop the worse from occurring, but only if we all act right now.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Contrary to urban legends, fights really are rare

Usually, I don’t like to talk about the fights at school. It seems that it is impossible to talk about a fight or two, even a few fights, without leaving the impression that fights were a daily occasion, which they weren’t.  Police officers will tell you the same thing. Most law enforcement is writing tickets, writing a report on a petty shoplifter or writing accident reports—not very exciting, not like TV. There is a lot of potential for violence, but not much ever happens.  One officer told me, “It’s mainly driving around in the car waiting for the shift to end.”
And that was the way it was in school. With two or three thousand kids jammed into one building, sooner or later there was bound to be a fight or two. And that’s all it was: a fight or two.  One day, I was cutting through the lunchroom. It was late, the lunchroom was empty and all cleaned up. There were two kids, freshmen, playing Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker with plastic lunch trays. They were just fooling around, having a great time. I yelled at them to stop. I hurried over to where they were play fighting. Just as I got there, the kid closest to me swung his tray up and around and hit me in the mouth. They were both terrified. All that happened was that I had walked into the top of the tray’s arc; the tray tapped my partial and one of my two front teeth, whole and intact, hit the ground. I quickly grabbed it, told them I never wanted to see them again and “You better get the hell out of here.” They were scared to death. Just as they were leaving, I said, “Stop. Wait, don’t worry, nothing happened. If you don’t say anything, I won’t take you to the office.” They nodded and I said, “OK, now get the hell out of here.”  Of course, when I went to the dentist, he didn’t believe me. He wanted all the juicy details. I had to disappoint him.
Most fights were over in a flash. I sometimes think that the males depended on the teachers to be there to break up the fight before it got too serious. If two males were fighting in the halls, a crowd immediately formed a ring around the combatants. The last thing the spectators wanted was teachers to break up the fight.  A good fight made a good story, gossip for the whole day. It was hard to get to the fight; the other teachers and I had to dash down the hall, break through the wall that the audience had created to keep us out and then without hurting the combatants,  break up the fight. Most of the time, after a little bravado, the males were happy to have us break up the fight. They had made their point (God only knows what it was) and they had maintained their honor.
Fights among young women were rare, very unusual, but if two young women were fighting it was entirely different from the way many males fought. They completely lost their heads. They freaked out. They would grab each other’s hair or try to and hang on. Then it was nearly impossible to separate them. My friend and I once broke up a fight. Our superior size and weight, the fact that we were teachers, didn’t matter. We had a hell of a time. Finally, we got them separated with much loss of hair. We had to figure out a way to hold them, you couldn’t just grab them anywhere the way you could grab a male and drag them down to the office. Even in the office, we had to stay until they calmed down. The disciplinarian could more easily handle two seventeen year old young men twice as big as the girls as he could handle two still half-crazy young women.  On the way back upstairs, I asked my friend what he did to break up the fight. I hurt her and that’s why she stopped. He replied. “As soon as I was able to get one finger free of all that hair, I just kept pulling on it. I would have broken it off, if she hadn’t stopped.”  In thirty years, I don’t think I ever hurt a student, but he was right.
 He was upset because he had missed out on his daily rendezvous with his latest teacher flame. I had to hear about it all the way back upstairs. I had wanted to talk about what could be done to reduce the number of incidents like the last fight. Anger management wasn’t part of our vocabulary yet, but it made me mad that I’d go back upstairs and do vocabulary or we’d talk about a short story or whatever and never talk with our students about the reality all around, this sense that there was always at least a potential for violence.  
A few days later, I was in a good mood—everything was humming along. I was looking forward to my first period, a wonderful freshman class. They were always ready, always prepared, bright, cheerful and most importantly, on time.  There were two young men in the class still waiting for puberty to kick in who were both madly, blindly in love with the same young woman. She didn’t even know they existed. She was more interested in the older males she saw in the halls. Robert started fussing with Michael or maybe it was the other way around. It didn’t matter. “She’s mine, leave her alone.” “Don’t tell me what to do!” and of course the good old F-word started going back and forth. As I moved down the aisles, they started swinging at each other. These were good kids; they didn’t even know how to fight. When I got there, I pulled them apart and then shoved Robert—much too hard. He went flying over a bunch of desks and landed in a heap on the floor—unhurt except for his dignity.
The class turned on me. “That wasn’t right—you could have hurt him—Mr. Wemstrom, you’re bigger than he is—you could’ve hurt him—not fair—you be wrong—not right. So I had to settle the class down; keep Robert and Michael separated even though they weren’t going to do anything; (later in the hall they would apologize to each other) get the desks straightened out, find out where we left off, find out that we hadn’t started and then I decided, to myself,  “Oh the hell with it.” To the class, “The bell is going to ring in a minute or two (thirty to be exact), just sit quietly and finish the story. We’ll talk about it (the story, not the little fight) tomorrow.”
Robert and Michael wanted to know, “Are you going to take us to the office?”
“No, just sit down and be quiet.” They were relieved. Because they were good kids, if they got in trouble at school they’d also get in trouble at home, and they didn’t want that to happen. And I knew that they had learned their lesson and it was all taken care of.  Except for my black mood and the gossip in the hall, it was already history.
Of course, the class was right. I had overreacted. All I had to do was step between them, snarl a couple of threatening words and it would have ended right there. I didn’t have to take out my frustrations on the two of them, who were in some way still kids—cute kids actually. The students were quiet; they didn’t want to risk my wrath. In the meantime, I was still mad at them, but even madder at myself.  They had ruined my day—I had ruined my day.
The good news was that it was a good class and it continued to be a good class, and over the course of the year Robert and Michael each shot up six inches, discovered basketball and other girls who were as interested in them as they were in the girls. And better yet, they remained friends. And best of all, it remained my best class.