Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Measuring Teacher Excellence--AGAIN!

Why do we think we can quantify and measure everything?

I read in the New York Times yesterday that some states--New York among them--are moving toward teacher assessments that involve less paper-and-pencil testing (link:Measuring Teachers).  That's a good thing.  It's obvious that someone can score well on a written teacher-competency test and do poorly in the classroom.  (Someone in the article mentions the difference between the written and practical parts of a driver's test.)

It's equally true--though perhaps not so obvious--that someone could earn a mediocre score on the test and dazzle in the classroom.  Some of my greatest colleagues were not always the former honors students.  The same is true among kids: Some of the best writers I ever taught, for example, sometimes did poorly on standardized writing assessments.  I remember one gifted girl who found something in the prompt that interested her, and off she went into the wild blue yonder having the best old time.  She failed.  "Off topic," said the judges.  I'm guessing the people who scored her paper could not in their daffiest fantasies have written something nearly so fine.

Good writing is something complex, even mysterious.  But when we decide we're going to test it, we must reduce it to things we can measure--easily and quickly.  And so we must remove all the complexity, the mystery.  At one school where I taught we had a writing test for all eleventh graders.  The students wrote all morning; we graded their papers all afternoon (each paper had two readers).  And there we sat--looking for thesis statements and topic sentences and blended quotations and the like (things we could see)--and not really having the time for (or the interest in?) the mystery--the things we could not see.

This new teacher-assessment approach, called "Teacher Performance Assessment," was born at Stanford University and involves, report the Times, "a teacher's daily lesson plans, handouts and assignments ... in addition to their logs about what works, what does not and why."  Teachers will also submit videos and "be judged on their ability to deepen reason and problem-solving skills, to gauge how students are learning and to coax their class to cooperate in tackling learning challenges."  So ... less paper-and-pencil but still many, many things that are difficult if not impossible to reduce to numbers--at least in a sensible way.  We can always put numbers on things--but do those numbers mean anything?

So can we measure teacher excellence in this new system?  No problem.  The Times reports that "trained evaluators" (that's code for poorly paid people employed by a company that will make a fortune) will handle the tricky stuff--the videos, the lesson plans and such.  Trust us.

It must be very frustrating for the we-can-quantify-and-measure-anything folks to encounter something so densely complex and even ethereal as teaching.  Something so ... so ... artistic.  For teaching is very much like an art, and, like an art, it is so hard to quantify and measure.

Imagine requiring, say, Picasso to submit his daily plans for creating The Old Guitarist, videos of his working on the canvas.  Imagine: sending "trained evaluators" to the art museum to assess the effect of his work on the patrons.  Do some sigh deeply? Utter sentences of appreciation?   Reach as if they would touch the texture of the paint?  Do some snort derisively?  Glance quickly, then go look for a nude sculpture somewhere?  Or ask for the directions to the snack bar?  Or men's room?  Or nearest museum exit?

The Trained Evaluators fill out their checklists.  Submit the data to their company.  Where minimum-wage workers scan and/or keyboard the raw data into some sort of database.  The hard drive whirs a bit; the printer hums.  And out come reports with ... numbers!  And graphs and charts and lists of "strengths" and "weaknesses" and "commendations" and "suggestions for improvement."  An administrator sits down with Picasso, goes over the numbers.  Shows him how he can do a better Old Guitarist next time ...

Okay, we're not all Picassos in the classroom.  But I do believe that teaching is principally an art, that teachers are artists.  Much of what they do is simply not the sort of thing we can reduce to a number, despite the demands of politicians that we do so.

Just think: the differences between a great kindergarten teacher and a great AP Calculus teacher ... the wonderful lesson plan that fizzles ... the day there really wasn't much of a plan (things were chaotic at home last night, you know?) yet magic flowered in the room ... the bright kid who came to school angry, who couldn't focus ... the quiet child who rarely speaks but inhales all ... the kid who talks all the time, says little ... the boy who's so in love he hears nothing but the sound of her voice, playing and replaying in his imagination's iPod ... the teacher who's feeling a cold coming on (but is in the room today anyway because, well, it's where he'd rather be) ... the kid who hates to read and never does ... the kid whose parents have no hope for him ... the classroom that's too cold (Can't they turn the heat up?) ... the girl who forgot her lunch money ... the boy who's afraid to go to gym today ...

.. and on and on and on and on ...

I guess what I'd really like to see in all of this is some more humility.  Some folks just seem so certain that tests are the answer to every ill in education.  Test the kids, teachers, administrators--but not, of course, the Board members or the parents, who, obviously, have nothing to do with student success.  Or the politicians, who mandate all of this madness.

As I've grumbled here before ... it seems to me that the current atmosphere in public education--test, test, test--leads us away from the kind of broad, general education I believe in and takes us toward that horrifying place where all kids in the country are doing the same (measurable) thing on the same day in the same way.  (Hey, we homogenize milk--why not kids, too?)  This sort of uniform educational environment does far more than narcotize children; it discourages bright, creative young people (our artists) from entering a profession that more and more resembles assembly-line work.  (Check out Chaplin's Modern Times for some footage on the wonders of that enterprise! MODERN TIMES, 1936, factory scene)

Of course we want knowledgeable people in our classrooms--skilled people with capacious minds and hearts.  People who feel most liberated when they're working hard.  People, in other words, who are artists.  And they are out there, believe me.  I taught with scores of them in my forty-five-year career.

But it will be hard to attract new ones into today's classrooms unless we once again acknowledge (and value) the mystery of good teaching, until we do something to dissipate this thick miasma of standardization that now threatens to pervade all.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Daylilies and Coincidence

I've loved daylilies for a long time.  The old house we bought in Hiram, Ohio, in 1958 had large clusters of them under an apple tree in our front yard, and when they bloomed early in the summer, the whole north side of the house looked ready for a Wordsworth to arrive and do for them what he'd done for the "host of golden daffodils" he'd once seen.

I probably first fell in love with them in boyhood because I associated them with summer--with the time I was not in school.  But, later, I also associated them with that home in Hiram, where I lived through my turbulent high school and college years, a place I loved.  (The current owners love it, too: We sold it to them in 1966; they are still there.)  Our lilies, by the way, were the old-fashioned orange, alongside-the-road variety--the kind that grows everywhere in northeastern Ohio.

The first few houses we lived in after we married had no daylilies.  Still ... I saw them each summer alongside the road, and I guess I always felt they were sort of welcoming me into summer vacation.  I had become a teacher, and although I loved my job, I loved the summers as well--the chance to go back to school myself, to read the stacks of books that had been accumulating, to travel to places I'd been reading about.  So daylilies were sort of Nature's welcome to me: We're back again, they said.  It's summer!

When we bought an old house in Hudson, Ohio, in 1980, there were no daylilies on the property.  A major deficiency.  But ... there are lots of country roads in the area ... lots of wild daylilies.  So one day, we took a drive.  In the trunk: a shovel.

They didn't bloom the first year (were they unsure they trusted us? were they resentful about being yanked from their birthplace?), but after that--they multiplied with leporine eagerness.  By the time we sold that place ten years later, the orange lilies had made it their yard, thank you.

Now ... here's where a chain of coincidences commences.  Attend:

Saegertown bottle, with daylily.
1. In that Hudson house we had a water problem--low pressure.  Some tests revealed a bad, leaking line in from the street.  The excavators arrived.  In the process of digging up the yard, they uncovered this bottle, unbroken, where it had lain for I don't know how long.  The picture does not show it well, but on the bottle is a word: SAEGERTOWN.  We didn't know what that meant (other than its being the name of a town in Pennsylvania), and in the days before Google, there were no easy answers.

2. A long-time resident of Hudson was Dr. Charles F. McKinley (1913-2004), a Hiram College professor, a man whose English courses I'd taken.  I had him for English 101 (freshman English) in the summer of 1962, right after I graduated from high school: My parents thought it would give me a head start on college.  I still have the two books we used--an anthology (Interpreting Literature) and a usage manual (The Concise English Handbook).  (I got a B, if you want to know.)  Dr. McKinley and I had stayed in touch over the years.  He had written letters of recommendation for me.  He had attended public lectures I'd given, had bought books I'd published.  We had dinner now and then.  Gone to a movie.  I loved him. He was born the same year as my father.

Well ... one time I saw Dr. McKinley and mentioned the Saegertown bottle, and he said immediately, "Root beer."  He'd known the brand in his own youth.  And, later, when we showed him the bottle, he confirmed his first guess-that-wasn't-a-guess.  He recognized it.

3. In the late 1990s, this same Dr. McKinley, now in his 80s, was cleaning out some things from his house.  He told me he had a Jack London thing he wanted to give me--a calendar.  (I'd published some books about London and The Call of the Wild.)  I said I'd stop by one of these days.  Eventually, I did.  And he gave me the amazing calendar you see in the not-so-amazing photograph; it's a calendar based on The Call of the Wild.  And it commences in the summer of 1962.  The very summer I was in Dr. McKinley's English 101 class at Hiram College some thirty years earlier.  Joyce and I framed the calendar, hung it on a wall.

4. July 2012.  Forty years after I took Dr. McKinley's class.  Joyce and I are looking for some old-fashioned alongside-the-road orange daylilies for the next old house in Hudson we bought in 1997.  Older now, we are more timorous about raiding a culvert on a country road.  So we try a rural florist, who sniffs and says that orange daylilies are "weeds."  So I go to Facebook, post a note that I will trade some homemade bread for a cluster of orange daylilies.  I get a single response.

5. That response is from David Anderson, a classmate back at Hiram College and, subsequently, a long-time adornment of their English faculty.  He also took classes with Dr. McKinley, was later a colleague of Dr. McKinley, loved Dr. McKinley.  His note says that he has some orange lilies he will let us have.  David acquired them from the Hudson garden of ... Dr. McKinley.

6. Joyce drove to Hiram, traded bread for the lilies, but when she got home, I was off somewhere for a few hours.  She looked for something to put a couple of blossoms in.  Found the bottle.  Transplanted the others alongside the driveway.  When I got home and saw the arrangement inside, I told her what a great thing she'd done--putting Dr. McKinley's lilies in the bottle he'd identified for us twenty years earlier.  And she said she'd completely forgotten that--she'd just picked something that looked "right."

Dr. Charles F. McKinley
Hiram College yearbook, 1966
We're hoping the lilies will bloom next year--we're hoping we're here to see them!  We're hoping they take over the whole west side of the driveway.  The whole yard.  Street.  Town ...  And may I never look at those glorious "weeds" without thinking of Dr. Charles F. McKinley, whose gifts, it seems, are never ending.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

When FB Gets Awkward ... follow-up ...

My blog this morning about Chick-fil-A posts and gay rights had the consequences I expected—and feared.  People liked it; people hated it.  One former student—a wonderful person—was hurt that I’d presumed to infer her beliefs from her posting about her recent presence at one of those restaurants.

She may well be right.

But here’s what we all need to consider: Imagine a belief or social issue that is very dear to you.  Imagine that the owner of some restaurant chain makes an announcement that is totally antithetical to your beliefs.  Then imagine this: Within a day or two of that announcement, I post on FB that I’m there, eating--and that business is great.  What would you infer, fairly or no?

You’re, of course, free to eat wherever you want.  I really don't care about that.  But if you very publicly announce that you’re patronizing a place whose policies deeply offend other people … ?  What do you think will happen?

Remember when Denny’s got into trouble for racial discrimination?  Well, maybe you love Denny’s.  Maybe you’ve never had any unpleasant experiences there.  Maybe there’s not a racist atom in your body.  But if you declare on the Internet that you are going there—in the middle of the racial controversy—then what do you think people are going to infer, fairly or no, about you and your beliefs?

I guess I'm making a plea for more sensitivity--from all of us.  Social media actually make understanding more difficult: We can't see one another; we can't indicate softness and affection with our eyes, our smiles, with our vocal inflections.  We can't touch.  Our tone of voice disappears into the stark black-and-white texture of printed words.  And inferences soar out of those words, drawn out by the passions of the people who read them.

So ... I am sorry if I offended anyone unfairly--especially since virtually all of you are far more than mere FB friends to me.  You compose the emotional fabric of my life.

However, if you do believe that it's acceptable to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, well, then you're talking about my family, my friends, my students, my colleagues, my teachers, my ... species.  And maybe you need to be nudged into a more compassionate consideration for your fellow travelers to the grave.

When Facebook Gets Awkward ...

I've loved being on Facebook this past year.  For the most part.  As I've written before, it's given me another classroom (one without papers and grades and parent conferences and lunch duty).  But it's also given me a chance to connect with former students, many of whom I have not seen or been in touch with for nearly a half-century.  (Others I taught two years ago!)  And I am dazzled by the journeys so many have been on--the places they've been, the careers they've had, the slaps and caresses that life has given them.

I've seen, as well, how all of us are now scattered along the political and religious continuum--from Tea Party to Anarchy Party (I know: it's an oxymoron), from the devoutly religious to the equally firm atheist.  As my FB friends and followers of this blog have surely noticed, I generally stay out of the political and religious debates.  I want to stay in touch with everyone, for it's only by communicating that we have any hope of understanding one another.

So when FB friends go off on Obama or Romney, when they attribute all the happiness in their lives to Jesus, when they post scornful messages about religion, I tend to stay silent--though there have been a few times when I've responded personally and privately to people who post things I find troubling for one reason or another.

For example, the latest flap about Obama's saying "you didn't build that" involves, of course, a quotation taken entirely out of context.  As anyone who's read his entire response knows (link: Obama's complete comments), he was actually making the fairly commonplace point that all of us owe a lot to others--to family, teachers, to a country that encourages innovation and provides a safe and secure infrastructure.  He was saying, generally, what commencement speakers say every single spring: Be grateful.  It's amost a cliche ...

In my own case, sure, I can claim some credit for whatever success I've had.  But I also had caring parents who believed in education and who supported me; I had some wonderful teachers, some talented friends; I grew up in a home where money was tight from time to time (two teachers), but I was never hungry a day in my life, never was homeless, never went without health care, never was psychologically or physically abused, never lived in a neighborhood where I was afraid.  Moreover, I am a white Anglo-Saxon male brought up in the Christian faith--and we have been in charge around here since Jamestown, 1607.  I've never really known--except in the most superficial ways and transient situations--what it is like to be a minority.

Oh, and I also had the good fortune to be born in the United States during one of the most robust economic periods in world history.  The roads are paved; most bridges don't fall; the electricity stays on; the mail comes every day; police and fire departments are two blocks from my house.  As well as EMS.  And on and on.

So--yes--I've worked hard.  But, obviously--obviously--I did not do it all on my own.  That was the simple point the president was making.  It was a call for humility--and gratitude.  Not an insult.

But that flap really pales in significance to the one that's troubling me today--the business about gay marriage/gay rights and Chik-fil-A.  All of us have gay friends and/or family members--all of us.  Among my FB friends (former students and others), a good number are gay--and happily so.  A very close member of my family has been living in a gay partnership for quite a while now.  He is the happiest I have ever seen him.  Ever.

So when in recent days when I've seen from my FB friends a number of posts that proudly announce their presence in a Chick-fil-A--in tacit or explicit support of that company's president, Dan Cathy, who recently announced his opposition to gay marriage--well, it's bothered me.  A lot.  Once again--it's a question of using our capacity to imagine lives that are not, perhaps, like our own.  Understanding one another means having the capacity to imagine--the willingness to imagine--what the lives of other people are like.  An old story: It's easy to judge--to condemn, hard to understand.

(Oddly, one friend--a former student whose talents and heart I deeply respect--posted the other day about her frustations at being denied some opportunities because she was too old; moments later, she posted, proudly, that she was eating at Chick-fil-A and was happy to see all the business there.  The discrimination against her bothered her--against others, at least in this case, not so much.)

Not long after that wonderful film Four Weddings and a Funeral came out in 1994, the poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) enjoyed a kind of resurgence.  In the film, you see one of the actors, John Hannah, reciting all of Auden's moving poem "Funeral Blues" at the funeral for his gay lover.  (Watch the scene on YouTube: "Funeral Blues")

Almost immediately, responding to a swelling public curiosity about the poem, Random House (Auden's publisher) issued a little paperback Tell Me the Truth about Love, whose cover bore a little sticker announcing--"Includes the poem featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral."

I saw the film the weekend it opened, and as soon as we got home, I found the Auden poem in one of our collections and set about memorizing it.

That Monday, in my middle school English classes I recited the poem to my students without telling them anything about Auden or about the poem.  I told them only that someone had recited it at his lover's funeral in that new movie they'd all been hearing about (none had yet seen it).

It was one of the most enlightening moments of my career.  As the poem proceeds, it's very clear that the speaker is talking about a man: "He was my North, my South, my East and West, / My working week and my Sunday rest, / My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; / I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong."

By the time I finished, it had dawned on most of the students what was going on.  He said that to another guy?


But then ... that means ... ?


And we talked for quite a while about the vast capacities of the human heart.  About how you can't "unlove" someone you love (it's not like unFriending!).  Asking gay men and women to reject and replace their loves?  It's as reasonable as asking you--heterosexual you--to stop loving the person you do and, instead, to love someone of the same gender.  Why?  Because we want you to.  Because we know what's right.  (Could you do it?  Of course not.  And why should you have to?)

And to deny gay people basic civil rights?  To celebrate and patronize a company whose leadership wishes to define marriage in such a way as to exclude some of my dear friends, some members of my own family, some beloved former students?  To me, it's the same as grabbing a fire hose in Selma in the sixties--and aiming it at other human beings. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

"I got a funny story for you ...."

Yesterday, at LifeCenter Plus, in the locker room, post-shower, standing at the sinks, staring in the mirror at my face, flushed from my efforts on the stationary bike (but not alarmingly so; just healthily so), hair soaked from the shower, towel wrapped discreetly around my enviable abs, breathing ever so easily, I noticed a man emerging from the sauna.  I heard him say to someone still in steam: "When you come out, I've got a funny story for you."

Often when people tell us thay have a funny story for us, we discover it's not really all that funny, not at all.  So maybe, I think, the Steamer will stay inside a bit longer than he planned, hoping that the Storyteller will dress, tire of waiting, head outside and find someone in the lobby to bore with his story.  Who knows?

I do know that stories have always been our best way to communicate with one another.  I imagine it didn't take the First Users of Words very long to figure out ways to string them together to keep the attention of the First Listeners.  Dude, I saw this, like, awesome buffalo-thingy, and I'm all, Dude! That thingy would taste so good! And so I'm like sprinting back here to get some help, when this tiger-thingy ....

And so we quickly discovered the power of stories to persuade, to frighten, to delight, to instruct, and on and on.  Religions learned, too: the best stuff is in the stories.  (Be honest: Wouldn't you rather read one of the parables than chug through Leviticus?)

My father was a storyteller.  My brothers and I heard his tales about his own boyhood back on the farm in Oregon--the horseplay (literal and figurative) with his brothers and neighbor kids.  We learned about a game they played on the unwary, a game called Snatch-and-Grab-It, a game involving a blindfold and a cow pie and a kid who would grab for something he'd just seen (pre-blindfold) and then would discover to be something profoundly different ...

When we'd gather out in Oregon for family reunions, Dad and his brothers didn't even have to tell the entire story anymore.  Someone would mention just a kid's name, or Snatch-and-Grab-It, and they all would howl like coyotes with cramps.  And my delighted brothers and I would laugh along with them ... as if we'd been there ...

Which, of course, is what good stories do--they take us there, wherever "there" may be.  They yank us out of our world and plop us into another one--sometimes one that's very like our own or somewhat like it or nothing like it at all.

People tend to favor one type of story over another.  I like realistic fiction (stories that take me to places I recognize), but I also like detective fiction.  Other people like stories that are familiar in some ways, very unfamiliar in others (Ffity Shades of Grey?)--or drastically different (Hunger Games, The Hobbit).

We tell stories to one another all the time.  Joyce comes home from Hiram College; I ask her about her day.  She does not just list the things she did.  She crafts a story about her day, a story that includes characters, incidents, a story that rises toward a climax, a story that has a message ...

We insist on an arc in our stories--even the "true" ones.  That's why some memorists have gotten in trouble in recent years.  Maybe the facts of their lives are not so interesting; maybe some lies would enliven things; maybe there is no story in the details; maybe some false conflict would help.  If we like the memoirist, we give him or her a pass; if we don't like the writer (see: James Frey), we bury him alive in a casket with the fabled Fanged Oprah.

In the coffee shops where I hang out (I have no life), I hear all sorts of stories--about work, about spouses, about school, about politics ... these days storytellers tend to join their phrases with like and and I'm like or and I'm all; these locutions began with the young, have migrated to the older, though I (too old?) do not use them, except, of course, when I'm telling a story about someone telling a story.

We start telling our babies stories long before they know what a word is.  When I held my first grandson in my arms, minutes after his birth, I recited Robert Louis Stevenson's poem "My Shadow" to him.  It's a story poem, one that I remember my grandmother had recited to me when I was a wee one.  I wanted those words to be the first sounds my grandson heard from me.  (Link to poem: "My Shadow")

We tell our children stories throughout their childhood--from cautionary tales (Here's what can happen to you if you keep doing that sort of thing!) to inspirational stories to autobiographical tales, modified, of course, for the occasion.

And at the bedsides of our dying loved ones, we ease their going with the balm of story.  One night, in the hospital room of my dying father, I was asleep in the chair beside his bed.  I awoke to his words.  From somewhere a remarkable lucidity had arrived, and he told me a story I'd never heard, about how he'd played the flute in high school, how he'd had to earn the money to buy it.  I could not picture that, my dad with a flute.  He was a large man, a football and track star.  But he did love music and had a glorious tenor voice (at his wedding, our son played a 1940s recording of Dad singing "The Lord's Prayer").  But a flute?  I could picture Dad banging a bass drum.  But a flute?

Learning something new about my father.  On his deathbed.

Our stories do, eventually, end.  Death, who must want to hear them, steals them.  And among the many losses we feel when parents die is this one: The death of the stories--and not just the ones about themselves. The ones about us too.  I loved hearing Dad tell stories about me, about my brothers.  He could tell them so well that during the moments of his telling I felt a kind of elevation.  I was not my lowly self--but a character.  A character who mattered.  A character fashioned from my father's breath.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Mr. Fry's at the Courts!

Singles Winner
My first tennis medal.  Don't be too impressed: It's not quite three inches long.  And I earned it in 1958 (I was not yet fourteen) at the Fourth of July Portage County Tennis Tournament in Hiram, where I had to defeat only two opponents in my age bracket.  I've blogged a bit about this before.  (The caption is what's engraved on the back of the medal.)

I should probably add that it's the only tennis prize I ever won.

By the time I won that medal, I already knew who Lester R. Fry was.  He was the Old Guy who showed up at the Hiram College courts now and then to sell rackets, balls, presses, and other equipment.  He would pull his old car up to the courts, raise the lid of the trunk (oh, was it full of Tennis Treasure!), and unload his heavy iron stringing machine.  And he would spend the day stringing rackets and shooting the breeze with whoever came by.

I liked Mr. Fry right away.  He was friendly.  Gave me things now and then.  Was grateful when I sent others up to see him.  I recently Googled him and found out he was born in January 1892, so the summer I won that mighty medal, he was sixty-six years old.  That Old Guy was a year younger than I am now ...

I didn't know anything about tennis when my family moved to Ohio in the summer of 1956.  I was a few months away from my twelfth birthday.  Back in Oklahoma, tennis was a country club sport.  I knew no one who played it.  But my dad, for some reason, had an old racket, a signature model bearing the name Ellsworth Vines, a name that sounded vaguely tropical (I was into Tarzan at the time), a name Id never heard before.  (Later, I would learn that Vines, who died in 1994 at the age of 82, was a Wimbledon champion--he defeated Bunny Austin in 1932!  He also won a couple of U. S. championships.  Later, he gave up tennis and turned to professional golf, where he played well but never won.)

I don't know why my dad had that Ellsworth Vines racket, but it was always around with our clutter, and when Johnny Kelker, one of my first Hiram friends, wanted to play tennis one day, well, at least I had a racket to use.  Johnny was patient with me--taught me the rules and had little trouble beating me in the early days.  But I eventually improved.  It was Johnny whom I beat in 1958.  (His older brother, Norm, was a different story.  He was an excellent player.)

The racket of the day was the Jack Kramer signature model.  Made of wood, of course.  (Aluminum and composite rackets were in the future.)  And I wanted one in the worst way.  Didn't get one.  Not for a while. 

Although I lacked great tennis skills, I compensated with a fiery temper.  (Thus my later fondness for Connors and McEnroe.)  Tennis released into the air the ugliest of my demons.  I threw rackets, broke them, bashed balls up onto the roof of the college library (right next to the courts).  In college--where I played on the varsity for four years, a varsity that was probably the worst in North America--I learned from a teammate named Phil the fine art of whacking my racket against my leg when I was angry.  Admirers of Phil, a lot of us on the team did that.  You could tell a Hiram tennis player--he was the guy who lost a lot and had bruises up and down the outside of his right calf.

Mr. Fry was perfectly happy with my temper for obvious economic reasons.  Every time I went off, he could ring up another sale.

A couple of times I drove down to his home/shop on East Exchange Street in Akron.  As I remember it, the front of the house--an enclosed porch--was where he did his sales and stringing.  He and his family lived in the rest of his place.

Shirley Fry
I don't know how long I'd known Mr. Fry before I learned he was the father of Shirley Fry.  She was once ranked Number One in the world--and won all four titles we now call the Grand Slam.  In fact, the summer we moved to Hiram, she was the Wimbledon champion.  Mr. Fry never mentioned any of this.  I found it out later, asked him about it.  And even then he didn't say much.

I saw Mr. Fry every summer throughout my years in Hiram--secondary school, college (I graduated in 1966).  And later on I went down to his shop a couple of times for new rackets, a string job.  And then I stopped going.

And then I quit playing and pretty much forgot all about him. 

Until last week when my grandson Logan, 7, began wondering if his Silly Papa (his name for me) would play tennis with him.  He's started playing a little with his dad.  Loves it.  Has heard that Silly Papa was once pretty good ...

I'll probably play with Logan one of these days.  But I don't have a racket any longer (see post tomorrow!).   And although my leg is completely healed, I'll have no Mr. Fry (he died in 1984)  to help me when the Tennis Demons--released at last!--force me to smash my racket against a net post.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Smokin'! (Part II)

A Real Man, I smoked
the UNfiltered variety.
More memories from my life with Cancer Sticks ...
  • Hiram, Ohio, early 1960s.  A college student, still living with my parents, I am lying on the floor one summer night watching a late movie on TV.  I am smoking, the ashtray beside me on the floor.  I fall asleep.  I snap awake when I smell something odd.  I look to the source and see my Pall Mall has rolled out of the ashtray onto the carpet.  Where it has burned a hole in the carpet the width of a cigarette and about two inches long.  Oops.  Thinking fast, I go over to the couch, pull it away from the wall, pick from the carpet near the wall a bunch of fibers, return the couch to its wonted position.  I stuff the fibers into the cigarette burn, smooth it all over.  Perfect.  Next day, my mother vacuums the living room.  Not perfect.
  • Late 1940s, early 1950s.  People smoke cigarettes in the movies, their exhalations weaving in and out of the beam of light from the projector, the atmosphere thick.  Later, theaters build glassed-in smoking areas at the back of the auditoriums.  People watch.  And smoke.
  • 1960s.  I can handle my cigarette like a professional.  I know how to hold it in my right hand, pinching it gently between my thumb and forefinger, then use my ring finger to flick the extra ash into the wind.  There's a kid in our high school we call "Chuckert" (don't remember why).  With a lighted cigarette in his mouth, he can flip it back entirely inside his mouth, lips closed, then flip it back out again, in smoking position.  I am afraid to try it, imagining a hole in my tongue ...
  • I can light a cigarette in a high wind outdoors.
  • I don't like exhaling smoke through my nose.
  • I know how to knock a pack against my hand so that only a single cigarette emerges.  I know how--one-handed--to shake a pack so that only a single cigarette emerges.
  • 1960s.  In the machines, packs of cigarettes cost .25.
  • 1966, Aurora Middle School, Aurora, Ohio: In my first year of teaching, I've learned to love my free periods.  I sit in the faculty room and smoke with my colleagues.  I've learned: Each Pall Mall takes about seven minutes.  Free periods are about forty minutes ... how many cigarettes?  Years later, teaching in Hiram's Weekend College, I tell my students, most of whom are older, most of whom smoke, that they can have a seven-minute break outside.  They look at me in wonder: How does he know that?
  • Summer 1965.  My dad has a new car, a Buick Wildcat.  He loves it; he fears it.  It is our first car with air-conditioning, and Dad does not know about the condensation that will drip to the carport floor while the car cools down.  He thinks something is wrong, is leaking.  He drives the car back to the dealer.  Who assures him all is well.  We are driving the Wildcat to Oregon from Ohio, our last big family trip to see Dad's large family, most of whom still live out in the Walla Walla Valley.  I am about to enter my senior year of college.  I am sophisticated and wise.  Dad lets me smoke in the car--if I roll down the window.  Mom wrinkles her nose, every time, certain she is smelling the sulphur of Hell.
  • I never, ever smoked in bed.
  • I liked to smoke while driving, while drinking beer, while reading, while watching TV, while grading papers, while walking, while eating (well, immediately after eating), while thinking, while breathing ...
  • Late 1940's.  Enid, Oklahoma.  My dad has left me in the car a minute while he runs in the bank to cash a check.  Dad is proud of this car.  A green Chrysler.  The family's first brand-new car.  I am about five.  And I am bored.  I push the cigarette lighter in.  When it pops out--hot and ready--I look at the bright orange glow.  I use the lighter to burn beautiful concentric circles in the dashboard of the car.  Many beautiful black circles ...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


I knew if I smoked I would go to hell.  That was for sure.

This certainty I learned in boyhood (along with the other behavior that would send me there), and so I did not smoke, not for a long time.

My dad smoked cigars (now and then) and a pipe (standard issue for college professors of his era).  But not cigarettes.  I'm not sure why the Lord sanctioned cigars and pipes but declared you could ride Camels straight to hell.  But He did.  No question.

I did not smoke in high school (okay, I tried it once or twice--coughed and made a fool of myself among my fallen friends) and did not touch alcohol, either, which was another substance guaran-damn-teed to send you straight south.

But in college ... well, in the spring of my freshman year, I got dumped, and hard.  So I figured I might as well go to hell.  I could not finish my first beer (yucky taste), but I started smoking fairly regularly then.  Most of my friends did, too.  One summer school creative writing class was so small (there were two students) that we met in the professor's office.  He told us we could smoke.  We did.

Kent cigarettes had a reputation then for being kind of the "Beginner's Smoke."  So I started with them.  But soon advanced to Marlboros (I'd always wanted to be a cowboy), tried Camels and Lucky Strikes (too strong), eventually settled on Pall Malls, which I smoked until the day I quit.

I had no concerns whatsoever about health.  I was young (i.e., immortal).  I could quit anytime I wanted to.  I'd quit when I was old, in my thirties.  I do remember this: We were visiting my grandmother in Columbia, Missouri, and I went outside to smoke (she would not have it in the house).  She came out and spoke to me: "Why would someone with such a strong healthy body want to do this to himself?"

I snorted derisively but didn't say much--you might snort with Grandma, but not say something.  But I remember thinking: She doesn't understand a single damn thing about me.

Nov 11, 1965
I'm the dork at center, with pipe.
By the time I graduated from college in 1966, smoking was a part of me.  I had an engraved Zippo (given to me by the cast of a play I'd directed); I always had a pack with me; I knew how to hold the cigarette (in hand, in mouth); I knew how to flip away the inch or so when I was finished.  I also was trying a pipe--very intellectual.  There's a picture of me with some college friends who surprised me for my birthday in November 1965.  I was on the Student Senate at Hiram and was "on duty" one night in the Senate offices when they showed up with a cake and some mementos.  And there I am, pipe in hand ... the young intellectual.  (The young moron.)

On my first job (Aurora Middle School) many (most?) of my colleagues smoked.  We smoked in the teachers' lounge; we smoked on school field trips; we smoked at lunch.  We did not smoke in class (standards!).  But it was in that teachers' lounge that I perfected the art of bumming a smoke.  Somehow, I could always find money for cigarettes ...  I was a pack-a-day.  ... Or so ...

And inside my car--a reeking mess of ashes and butts--I learned the art of cleaning the inside of the windshield, which, of course, soon became coated with the very gunk that was coating my lungs.  I didn't like to think about that.  Once, riding with a friend, I watched him flip a burning butt out the window, watched in fly right back in and down the back of his shirt, watched him swerve to the side of the road, yelping like a pinched puppy.  While I laughed in Death's face.

I was smoking in the summer of 1969 when I met Joyce Coyne.  On our first date, we played tennis at the public courts down in Firestone Park, then went for pizza nearby.  Had a beer and a smoke.  (I learned, very soon, that Joyce neither smoked nor drank--she was being polite to her addicted date.  She did not do it again.)  Joyce's mom smoked.  Her dad had recently quit--too late.  Lung cancer would kill him twenty years later.

And then ... not long after our marriage in December 1969 ...

The Aurora teachers were involved in some sort of faculty basketball league.  I'd been a decent player in a bad league in high school and had played on the freshman team in college, intramurals thereafter.  Well, the first time I got any extended playing time in the teachers' league, I discovered I could run up and down the court only a time or two before my lungs began informing me that they must (a) rest or (b) explode.  I was startled.  Frightened.

And so I quit.

A couple of times.

The first time, I made a pact with colleague Jim Wright.  We would quit together.  Cold turkey.  Buddies bonding.  Solidarity.  And so we did.  Well ... he did.  I cheated.  I thought it was funny when he found out; he didn't.

But then I quit a second time.  And never really missed it thereafter.  I was lucky.  I've had friends who've had horrible experiences trying to quit--hypnosis, therapy, medications.  Nothing seems to truly help the profoundly addicted.  I claim no moral superiority here: I was flat lucky.

And I've learned something as the decades have roared by and have watched sickness flatten and murder friends and family: Illness is hell, and so is anything that promotes it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Principals and Principles, IV

from the 1984-1985 yearbook
Harmon Middle School
Here's one of my favorite memories of Jerry Brodsky, the fourth--and last--middle school principal I worked for:

Jerry had agreed to appear in one of our Eighth Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Shows; our theme that year was "Great Moments in Harmon History."  (Note: this was in the era before the cell phone.)  Harmon had only recently installed what was called the "student phone"--a telephone just for them, and the kids were ecstatic, almost as much as they were when the vending machines arrived in the school.  No longer would they have to ask to use the Office phone--and, of course, no longer would the Office have to deal with pesky kids asking to use the phone all day.

In our skit--"The Arrival of the Student Phone"--we made a big deal out of it: an unseen narrator announced its arrival as if this were Genesis and a new creation was about to happen; we boomed the music from Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra (hear on YouTube: Strauss), and then Jerry came out, costumed in some sort of royal/academic gown carrying the small table with the student phone; the kids on stage fell to their knees in mock-worship.  And the crowd went nuts.  Jerry pulled it off with perfect aplomb--never a smile, absolutely serious.  Absolutely funny.

And Jerry pulled off most things that way.  He had about him an easy, genial way with kids and colleagues--like Mike Lenzo, though, beneath that manner lay bedrock convictions about education and about schools.  Like Mike, he put kids first, a choice that didn't always sit well with those adults who put themselves first. And like Mike, he knew that the best way to function was to hire good people, find out what they needed, do his best to get it, and then then make sure the trail stayed clear.

Mike Lenzo.  Jerry Brodsky.  The two best administrators I ever worked for.

Below, I've pasted in the remarks I made when Jerry retired as Superintendent of the Aurora City Schools in 2005.  Some of it is snarky and wise-assy (the event was something of a roast as well as a tribute), but I hope, beneath it all, you can feel the profound respect and deep gratitude and affection I felt for him in our years together.  And still feel.

For Jerry Brodksy
Aurora Schools Foundation Banquet
16 April 2005 

            I knew Jerry Brodsky when he was fat.

            In the early 1970s when, pudgy and na├»ve, he arrived in Aurora, I was already a wily, jaded veteran of age twenty-eight or so.  I’d begun teaching at the middle school in 1966, the year the “new” high school opened—you know, that old hot dog of building now surrounded by the bun of a new one?  But in the fall of 1966 the “new” high school wasn’t quite ready for occupancy when classes started, so we were on split sessions for a month or so, middle school and high school sharing the building that now houses the Board of Education … and the office of Jerry Brodsky.  The high school had classes there till noon; the middle school started at 12:30.  I shared my room, #116, with high school English teacher Andrew Hobart, a man I looked up to then, a man whom I still consider one of the great teachers I’ve ever known.

            But one day that fall I came into Room 116 just before our afternoon session began and saw that someone had scrawled on the blackboard something … indecent.  HOBART SUCKS! it declared, leaving little room for misinterpretation.  I smiled.   Oh, these older teachers.  They just don’t relate to the kids the way we younger ones do!  But as I headed over to erase it, I noticed there was some smaller writing just below it.  I stopped.  I read.  DYER TOO, it said.  Now that’s the part I erased first. And thoroughly.

            Aurora was still a very rural community in 1966.  Four Seasons was the new housing development.  Ric Mattmuller ran the drugstore down by the tracks—the town’s only shopping area.  The office of the superintendent of schools, Robert Salisbury, was out at Lake School.  And by the end of the year I knew the name of every street in the township.  There weren’t all that many to remember.  And I knew, as well, that I wanted to stay here.  And the principal reason was the people.  My seventh grade students—some are now friends; I’ve taught some of their children.  The parents—so many were so profoundly supportive of their children, their school … me.  And, of course, my colleagues.  Eileen Kutinsky, Willeta Thomas, Jim Wright—I wanted the kids to feel about me the way they felt about them.

            I’d been teaching about five or six years when Aurora Middle School—as it was called then—got a plump new math teacher.  Jerry Brodsky seemed a friendly enough guy, liked to tell bad jokes and imitate W. C. Fields.  He was already into “creative combing.”  He liked the kids; they liked him.  But perhaps his biggest treat that first year was coaching middle school football, a game about which he knew little, as he was quick to admit in the faculty room—and even quicker to prove out on the gridiron.  From the sideline of that old football field in the early 1970s, Dick Shaw was the first to cry out in public that we ought fire Jerry Brodsky.  But no one listened, and here we are, decades later, honoring the worst football coach in the history of, well, of football coaching.

            Over the years Jerry has shed a few things.  Pounds.  Coaching responsibilities.  Jobs.  He’s held more jobs in Aurora than anyone else in the history of this district, which demonstrates either that he was moving up or that the Board just didn’t know what to do with him (oh, that damned tenure!) and so finally elevated him to the position where he could do the least harm.  You don’t want to screw up a math class—or a guidance office—or a building—and certainly not a football team—but, well, no one really listens to the Superintendent anyhow, so what better spot for Jerry?

            Jerry and I team-taught a class once, back in the halcyon Harmon days when the school offered some elective courses for the kids.  Ours was called “Comedy Club,” and we taught the kids to laugh at what we thought was funny.  Skits by Abbott and Costello.  A film about Laurel and Hardy trying to move a piano.  Charlie Chaplin on roller skates.  I’m not sure what the kids learned, but Jerry and I laughed a lot.  And since there was no State of Ohio Comedy Club Proficiency Test to follow, we just had the best old time …

            Actually, working with Jerry was always “just the best old time.”  He was a wonderful colleague (even though he taught about numbers instead of words), a sensitive and compassionate guidance counselor, a stronger disciplinarian as assistant principal than anyone would ever have predicted, a supportive and creative building principal.  I can’t speak about his time as Superintendent, for when I saw that was about to happen, I retired.

            Since the early 1970s Jerry Brodsky has been one of my finest friends.  We have stood together, arm in arm, at many of life’s mileposts—births; marriages; professional frustrations, successes, failures; grad school and law school; a teachers’ strike; Eighth Grade Farewell-to-Harmon Shows; some anti-Semitic nastiness masquerading as news in a now-defunct paper; family illnesses; family deaths.  And now retirement.  We watched each other’s children grow from infants into the wonderful young people they are today.  I love Jerry’s parents.  I love Cindy.  And Jerry knows that he has been much more than a friend to me.  He has been my brother.

            The years Jerry has given to this district have been gifts.  Othello, we remember, compared Desdemona to a pearl “richer than all his tribe.”  Well, each of Jerry’s years here has been a pearl—and, joined together on the string of time, they now form a necklace whose worth is beyond measure.  And tonight as we hold in our hands this priceless thing, we can respond only with deep humility—and boundless gratitude.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Facebook--The Classroom I No Longer Have

Okay, I miss teaching.

I retired from English teaching in June 2011--for the third and final time (no kidding)--and it probably was a good time to do so.  I felt I'd had a pretty good year in 2010-2011, and I think it's better to leave something when you're doing pretty well instead of when you're not.  I've known colleagues who have lingered a bit too long--have gotten a bit too weird (a little weird is good for a teacher)--have come to school with clothes that didn't match and a diminishing notion of what they were even doing there.

I'd had some "senior moments" my last year, too.  I once began and ended a class with the same anecdote.  When I found out why the students were laughing, I told them: "Next time that happens, take me out in the woods and get me lost."  It was a joke, but I did notice that some of them were watching me with a feral intensity for the next few weeks ... looking for a chance to take me at my word?

I'd always loved teaching, right from the first day back in the fall of 1966 when I faced my first classroom of seventh graders and tried to convince them that I knew what I was doing.  I figured if I could convince them, well, I might begin to convince myself.

Of course, I hated it, too.  There were those days when nothing went right (projector bulbs blew out; fire drills in the middle of a class; I wasn't as prepared as I should have been), days when kids just got to me, did things I just could not handle, so I erupted into some kind of Daffy-Duck-spaz mode while the kids looked at me with a mixture of wonder, fear, and great pleasure.  Perhaps a little pride, too--Look what we did!

And then there were all those grim and cheerless duties--bus duty, lunchroom supervision, getting kids lined up for school pictures, collecting permission slips for field trips, lunch room supervision, lunch room supervision, lunch room ...

I didn't like lunch duty.

And the drudgeries: paper-grading (don't even ask me what my Sundays were like), lesson-planning, filling out report cards, keeping up with paperwork and correspondence with parents ... and on and on and on and ...

But always--always--there were those moments.  That kid who never gave a damn suddenly does.  The kid who never turned in anything starts turning in everything.  The kid who discovers a talent she didn't even know she had.  The kid who shows up at the play tryout.  (My favorite of these: a very quiet girl--hated to talk in class--told me near the end of her eighth grade year as we were holding auditions for the final play: "Mr. Dyer, I want to be in your play, but don't make me say anything."  And so it was.)  The kid I see carrying around a book I just told him about the other day.

When my own public school teachers retired, I pretty much never saw or heard from them again.  Off they went to ... wherever it was they went (that great study hall in the sky?).  They just seemed to vanish.

When I retired the first time (January 1997), I kept in touch with a number of former students via email, that new-fangled thingy.  Same thing the second time I retired (June 2007).

And this time ... Facebook!  I registered for it sort of on a whim--just to see.  Next thing I knew, people were "friending" me--people I'd not seen in decades--people whose names I didn't recognize (especially, of course, the women, many of whom had different surnames from the ones I knew)--people whose pictures didn't look like anyone I'd ever known.  Soon, I was back in touch with students from every era of my career--from first year to last--nearly 500 of them.

Since I didn't know how I was supposed to behave on Facebook, I just did what I'd always done as a teacher.  And so I talked about books I was reading, movies I'd seen, poems I'd memorized.  Soon I was posting news about writers' birthdays, copies of newspaper comics that had a literary connection of some sort, vocabulary words I'd stumbled across--in other words, I was doing what I'd always done in class.  But with no papers to grade.  Lessons to plan.  Lunchroom to supervise.  (No salary either--oh well.)

I decided early on to avoid politics and religion--and have done a pretty good job of sticking to that.  Most of my students have probably figured me out anyway, and I saw no reason to provoke old friends with arguments and memes and rants that won't change anyone's mind anyway.  Every now and then I can't resist ... but I try to.

Next thing you know, I was blogging too ... and posting on Facebook silly poems of the sort I used to write back in the classroom.  And I was having a ball ...

And so Facebook has become the classroom I no longer have.  A chance for me to--as one eighth grader once told me--"flap my jaws" about whatever and have no papers to grade, no lunchroom to ...

And, sure, I realize that lots of my FB "friends" are probably ignoring some (most?) of my posts.  Just like the Good Old Days in class when they could tune me out whenever they damn well felt like it..

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Principals and Principles, III

Mike Lenzo, Principal
from Aurora Middle School yearbook, 1972-73

Mr. Michael P.Lenzo.  Mike.

He was the third middle school principal I worked for--and  he was one of those (imminent cliche warning...) transformative figures whom lucky people occasionally encounter in their lives.

1968-1969.   This was my third year teaching, and already I was meeting my third principal (I'm sure there's no connection?).  I remember going to the middle school in August and stopping up in the principal's office to see if the New Guy was there yet.  (Remember: Earlier in the summer Mr. DeAnna and I had left a folder with the year's schedule in a drawer for him.)

When I entered the room, I saw him standing there looking a little puzzled; he had that what-have-I-gotten-myself-into? look.  I introduced myself, and he replied by shaking my hand and saying, "Mike Lenzo."  He called me "Dan"; my previous two principals had stuck with the "Mr. Dyer."  And so right away I was encountering the informality of Mike Lenzo, a gentle sociable nature that surrounded his fierce determination to do what was best for kids.  Always.

But Mike  was discomfited  that day: He hadn't found the folder we'd left for him.  He thought he was going to have to start from scratch.  But when I showed it to him ... well, let's just say that clouds parted and sunbeams danced and stars partied and ...

I was very uncomfortable at first, calling him "Mike."  But that was what he wanted.  (By the way, he reverted to "Mr. Dyer" in two situations: (1) in front of kids and parents; (2) when I'd screwed up, which I did fairly regularly.)  Soon, it was normal,  calling him  "Mike"--and I soon learned that informality does not really shift anything between a supervisor and employees.  I learned that he was every bit as serious about his job--about his wish for excellence from everyone--as he would have been had he worn three-piece suits and insisted on Victorian formality.

Mike was my principal for the remaining years of my first stint at the middle school (1966-1978).  He was there when I married in 1969; he helped Joyce and me find our first apartment in Kent (323 College Court--right across the street from his house, a house, by the way, where he did not long remain--coincidence?); he was there when our son was born (16 July 1972); he was there when I started graduate school and finished my Ph.D. (1977).  And he was there in every other way that mattered, too.

He continued--and expanded--some of the programs his predecessors had started: the 6th grade camping trip, the 7th grade Ohio trip, the 8th grade Washington trip.  He hired good people--great people in some cases; he asked what we needed; he tried to get it for us; he watched over all like a benevolent parent.  (He did have one trait, though, that some us used to laugh about: Mike was cheap.  If he could find something somewhere in Rugby, North Dakota, that was five cents cheaper, well, we'd have to send off to Rugby to get it instead of going to K-Mart.)

Mike's key strength as an administrator was his ability to communicate his belief in us.  And this, for me, changed my life.  I found myself wanting to work hard, wanting to do what was best for kids, wanting, above all, not to disappoint  Mike.  But, of course, I did disappoint him now and then.  And he let me know it.   But I think he knew that most of us on that faculty were now and then messing up because we were trying things, not because we were lazy or careless.

Every now and then he would hire someone who wasn't so good.  But--bless him--he was always the very last to realize it.  He would continue to believe, even in the face of mounting contrary evidence.

But over his tenure at the middle school--a tenure that saw us, in 1974, move into our new building, Harmon--he assembled what I will go to my grave believing was the strongest middle school faculty in the country.  A great mix of men and women, of veterans and puppies, of conservatives  and liberals.  Because of his belief in us--his public and patent belief in us--we all worked so very hard in those days.  And I discovered something surprising: Hard work can be liberating.

Mike was a smoker when I first met him.  Kents.  (Live in Kent, smoke Kents?)  But he soon gave it up and always left an open pack atop his dresser.  (Later, he laughed and told me that when his kids turned teen, he noticed the pack grew ever more empty.)  He was also nifty at cards.  On those long bus trips around Ohio--or to Washington--I would play (i.e., lose) games of casino with Mike, over and over.  And he would laugh ...

Mike ended the long  middle school tradition of paddling students (I'd done it frequently in previous years, much to my shame).  He saw physical punishment as a failure--our failure.

When we  were on strike in the spring of 1978,  I would sometimes do my picket duty at the bottom of the Harmon driveway where it empties onto Aurora-Hudson Road.  I always hated to see Mike leaving for the day.  He would stop and talk with us, his dark eyes wet with emotion.  He would tell us the kids missed us.  But he never argued with us, never made us feel any worse than we already felt.  He saw the strike as a great fracture forming between the school and the community.  And it troubled him, badly.

I resigned that spring.  I'd finished my Ph.D. and had accepted a job at Lake Forest College.  And Mike, the following year, moved into the central office, leaving Harmon's care to another.  After only months at Lake Forest, I knew I wanted to return to Harmon.  I missed it desperately.  But there were no openings.  Not for four years.

And in the spring of 1982--I'd been teaching at Western Reserve Academy and Kent State--I ran into a former Harmon colleague (Denny Reiser) at the KSU Library.  He told me that Fayth Shirkey, 8th grade English teacher, was retiring.  I zoomed home.  Called Mike.  Wondered why he hadn't let me know.  He said, "Because we need someone who can teach German classes, too."

"I can do that!"  (I'd had two years in high school, two in college.)

"You can?"

And Mike helped me get my temporary certification in German--made sure I enrolled in German at the University of Akron--and convinced the Board of Education (by the overwhelming margin of 3-2) that I should return to Harmon.  Which I did for another wonderful fifteen years.  (Fortunately, the German lasted only one year; I was, in a word, incompetent.)

Mike eventually retired, then took the job as principal at his local Catholic School in Kent, where, once again, he devoted himself to children.  His own children were grown by that time--and he had done a terrific job with them and had also suffered the most grievous loss a parent can endure.  But endure he did, with the support of his wonderful wife, his church, his devoted friends.

Now fully retired, Mike is still Mike.  He calls now and then.  We go to meals  together.  We visit former colleagues--some of whom are in distress.  We sometimes go to funerals.  Mike still cares, you see?  Just as he has always cared.  And he remains an enormous influence in my life.  In the late 1960s, he dragged me out of a lingering adolescence, showed me qualities in myself I didn't even know were there, convinced me that ours was the greatest calling there is.  And illuminated the pathway so that I could see.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

When I Ain't the Audience

We've probably all done it--read a book not written for us, gone to a movie not made for us, entered a room populated with people not like us ...  It can be awkward, frightening, liberating.  Depends.

When I was a middle school teacher, I often read books written for my students, books I probably never would have read otherwise.  And so I read Judy Blume and Paul Zindel and R. L Stine and S. E. Hinton and many of the others.  I read YA fantasy novels by Lloyd Alexander and Ursula K. Le Guin.  (I didn't read the Harry Potter books until later--the first one came out the year I retired from middle school teaching.  Otherwise, no way I would not have read them.)  Sometimes the books were virtually worthless, useful only because they gave me a way to connect with some kids who were reading them.  (Confession: I drew the line at Sweet Valley High books.)  At other times, though, I learned.

Paul Zindel's The Pigman, for example, employs two narrators--a high school boy and girl--who alternate telling the story, chapter by chapter.  This gave me ideas for writing assignments--and for connecting students, later, with Faulkner and others who used multiple voices.

And my connection with Ursula K. Le Guin (The Earthsea Trilogy) led to one of my great experiences in teaching.  One year (2001-02?) the WRA seniors were all reading Le Guin's The Dispossessed for their Senior Seminar class.  (It's a novel about double planets, one used as a place to put, well, the dispossessed.)  I wrote to Le Guin to see if she would come to WRA.  She wrote back, nicely, to say she didn't do much traveling anymore (she was living in Oregon at the time).  I wrote back and asked about a teleconference--a phone hook-up (pre-Skype).  And she readily agreed.

So we got some kids together in a seminar room, called her at the appointed time, and ... one of the most wonderful hours of my career.  She was terrific with the kids, laughing with them, taking their questions seriously (even though she'd surely answered them hundreds of times before), letting them score points ... Later, I asked what would be an appropriate fee, and she refused even to consider charging us.  She said she'd enjoyed herself.

Later, teaching at WRA, I  sort of had to read the first Twilight book--just to see.  I knew that many (most?) of the kids had read them (even those who refused to admit it), so I downloaded one to my Kindle--and, yes, one reason for Kindle-izing was that I was a little concerned about being seen reading it--not because I'm ashamed of what I read but mostly to avoid the looks--those What's-that-old-perv-reading-a-girls'-book-for? looks.

I immediately recognized the appeal of the book (a girl with laid-back parents, not much homework, her own wheels, a BF who doesn't grope and can  kick major butt, a girl whom vampires, werewolves, and humans think is hot--what's not to like?), but I also realized on page one that I was not the audience.

Later, of course, I had to go see the movies (I'm serious--as a teacher, I often went to films mainly because I knew my students would see them, and I wanted that connection).  And at the first Twilight, I was the only male in the entire packed auditorium--until right before the lights went down, at which point a couple of guilty-looking teenage boys shuffled down the aisle next to me with their girlfriends.  I stopped them, thanked them; they laughed.  Only moments later I was in trouble, though: When I saw the vampire family enter the school cafeteria, I thought they looked so ridiculous that I laughed out loud.  Ten thousand offended girls sssshhhh-ed me.  And I stayed sssshhhh-ed.

I kept going to the subsequent Twilight films--I was still teaching.  But since I've retired, I've not gone to see Breaking Dawn--haven't seen it on cable (where it seems to have a permanent home).  Maybe I will.

Recently, I read the first Hunger Games, just to see.  Went to the movie, same reason.  (I've blogged about it earlier.)

And last night ... Magic Mike,  Steven Soederbergh's dark film about male strippers.  (By the way--all of those dancers were ripped--nary an ounce of  visible adipose; so I ask: How do you live a lifestyle of alcohol? drugs? no sleep? bad food? and stay cut?  Hollywood knows!)  I'd been warned by a former student (now a FB friend) that the audience might be, uh, "involved" with the story--and that I'd be the only man in the place.  Well, the film is nearing the end of its run, I think, because there were only about thirty people or so there--and a few men-with-their-wives (like me).  I did hear some cheers and more than a few gasps (some coming from me, others from my wife), but, mostly, it was another Friday night at the movies, another time where I was where I wasn't "supposed to be"--but where I learned.

Watch YouTube: I'll be there soon demonstrating my own eye-popping, gasp-inducing writhing erotic dances.

Or maybe not.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Principals and Principles, II

The second middle school principal I worked for remained at Aurora Middle School only one year, 1967-1968.  Lino DeAnna was a young man from Bay Village on Cleveland's west side, and the Aurora job--if I remember--was his first as a principal.  As I said, he was young--and also very fit.  He had been a wrestler, and his son, Mike, was one of the great wrestlers in Ohio high school history.  The younger DeAnna went off to the University of Iowa, where he wrestled for the legendary Dan Gable--and where he was a four-time All American.

Mike DeAnna
I remember watching Mike wrestle in a high school match that was televised (late one night on the local PBS station).  He was so much better than his opponent that he seemed almost a separate species; he seemed merely to be playing with the guy, then, bored, promptly pinned him.  He lost some matches in college ... unimaginable.  He went on to a great coaching career, too, named coach of the year (regionally, nationally).

I might as well get my own wrestling career out in the open here.  Hiram High School had no wrestling team, but one year the Hiram College coach, Mike Koval, came over to the high school and convinced some of us to wrestle in a little high school tournament that the college was hosting.  He showed us some moves, got us some singlets, and off I went one Saturday morning to learn a lesson in humility.

I spent most of my time on my back--arching, bridging, trying to avoid the inevitable pin.  Coach Koval was barking instructions to me--moves I could make--but that kid had me so snarled up that I couldn't do much but be grateful my girlfriend was not there to witness my public demolition.  He pinned me.  I stood up.  He shook my hand.  Which hurt.

Back to Mr. DeAnna--whom I never called "Lino."  I was just 22 when I met him; my parents had taught me to use "Mr." and "Miss" and "Mrs." with teachers.  And so I called him Mr. DeAnna all year, even though he was not much older than I.  He occupied a tiny office on the school's second floor, and there he tried to keep track of the middle school swirl.  I don't have a lot of memories about him--just that I liked him, he worked hard, he cared--but I do remember that he (or the superintendent?) decided that we needed to teach health classes (had we not done it before?), and so that year I and my colleagues taught health twice a week.

Here's what I knew about health: It's better than sickness.  Oh, was it a scramble that year to figure out what to do during those periods.  I used every trick in that handbook all teachers have, the one titled What to Do When You Don't Know Squat about the Subject You're Teaching.  Lots of group reports and current events and filmstrips ... you know ...

But Mr. DeAnna supported me, let me do things I wanted to do.  Trusted me.  That year I did my second play in Aurora--another one I'd written with the kids during the year, Our War for Independence; or, 101 Ways to Be Revolting.  The highlight of the show came at the end: King George III has arrived in American to settle the Revolution, realizes he can't win, and capitulates.  But the way he capitulates!  At the very end he comes running out on the gym floor (no stage) dressed like a hippie, throwing flowers into the audience, and dancing around to the booming music of "Georgy Girl."  The crowd went nuts.  And our King George III, John Mlinek, began his life-long love affair with theater (he went on to play the title role in Hamlet at Kent State University) and remains a good friend.

But Mr. DeAnna resigned at the end of the year and headed back to Bay Village.  Before he left, he and I worked out the schedule for the next year (yes, I helped!), put it in a drawer for the New Guy, and headed off into our lives.  I never saw him again or talked with him again--not so far.

We had no yearbook that year, so I don't even have a picture of him.  But I just Googled him and discovered that he and some family members are in the realty business now over on the West Side--Ohio Family Realty.  His picture is on the site.  He still looks fit.  Still looks as if he could pin me in seconds.  (DeAnnas in realty)