Dawn Reader

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

Friday, May 31, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 9

Odysseus Trent

—Free Writing
I’ve never met a single other kid—anywhere—who has my name.  Odysseus.  I hate it.  I mean, how would you like to have a name that’s so weird that no one else in the whole school has it?  Probably no one else in the whole country!  Once, just to see, I took the entire Cleveland phone book, the big fat one, and started going through the names, starting with the A’s, just to see if I could find some other person with the name Odysseus.  If I find one, I told myself, I’ll call him up and let him know that he’s not the only loser in the world.  There’s another one, right here in Spoon River.
I got into the G’s before I got bored.  And guess what?  No other Odysseus turned up.  I wasn’t surprised, not at all.  In fact, I was kind of relieved that no other person—at least A through G in Cleveland, Ohio—has had to go through what I’ve gone through in my thirteen years.
Most people can’t even pronounce it.  oh-DISS-oose is the way it’s supposed to be, according to my dad, who insisted on giving me that dumb name.  The last syllable rhymes with noose, which is what I feel like putting around my neck.  Or goose, which is what some of the big kids call me: oh-DISS-goose, then say, point at me, not DAT goose!  They’re funny, aren’t they?  Big guys?  Well, big guys don’t have to be funny, do they?  They just have to be big.  Because when you’re big, you can make everyone else laugh at whatever you think is funny.     
Lots of kids around here have good names—even weird kids.  Look at Billy Kidd.  What a cool name.  You’ve gotta admit it, Billy himself is a little strange—with all that cowboy stuff he’s into—but he can’t complain about his name.  He’s got a great one.  So does Candace Geist.  Shorten Candace and you get Candy.  Pretty good name for a girl that’s into all that supernatural stuff that she’s into.  (Geist, you know, is German for ghost.)  I mean, you couldn’t tell from her name that there was anything wrong with her.  She and Billy at least have a chance, with their names, once they get out in the real world and get normal, if they ever do.  But me?  Odysseus will be bad, now and always.
Odysseus, of course, is the name of that Greek guy who took twenty years getting home from the Trojan War.  Homer wrote a whole book about him, The Odyssey, which is the story of Odysseus.  The Roman name is better: Ulysses.  I wouldn’t mind being called Ulysses, but my dad, who likes Homer and all that ancient junk, liked Odysseus.  And so I’m Odysseus and, as you’ll find out in a couple of years, my younger sister is Penelope.  That was Odysseus’ wife.  How would you like having a sister whose name is the name of the wife of the guy who had your name?  It’s sick.  But, you know my dad.
You do know him, don’t you, Mr. Stratford?  I know you’ve been here just a year, but I know that you know him.  You teach 8th grade English.  He teaches 6th grade English.  So I know that you have meetings and stuff together.  He always says he’s not smart enough to teach older kids, but that’s a bunch of garbage.  I know the real reason: He’s even smaller than I am (in case you haven’t noticed), and he doesn’t want to have to tell these big guys to sit down and shut up and do their homework.  Because they might just turn around and say Make me, little man, and then what would he do?  Well, he’d do the same thing I do when big guys tell me to do something: Do it.  Or run like hell.  But Dad’s not much of a runner.  So he teaches kids that are usually smaller.
Having your dad in the school as a teacher is not that good an idea.  Down in sixth grade, when I had him as my teacher, it was even worse than it is now.  Kids would ask me what was going to be on the test.  And when I said I didn’t know—which I didn’t—they would call me a liar.  And when I got a good grade on something, they said my dad helped me.  And when I got a bad grade on something, they would laugh and say he was such a bad teacher he couldn’t even teach his own kid. 
And the bigger guys?  When Dad yelled at one of them, or punished one of them, they would get me later, out in the hall, down in the locker room.  They’d punch me in the arms so hard I sometimes couldn’t even take my shirt off at night because I couldn’t raise my arms above my shoulders.  Or they’d shove me in the shower with my clothes on.  Or while I was in the shower, they’d take my clothes and throw them out in the hall, and I’d have to run out there with a towel around my waist and hope I didn’t see any girls.
Of course there’s no good way to make a short name out of mine.  No Rich for Richard or Eddie for Edward.  What do you make out of OdysseusOddy?  That’s not very good.  But my dad never thought of that thirteen years ago.  Mom, either, I guess, because she went along with it.  When I’m a parent—if that ever happens—I’m going to do two things: One, make sure I don’t teach in a school where my kid goes.  Two, give the kid a name he can live with.  Something simple that other kids can’t turn into a weapon to use against him.
You don’t ever see real weapons here in this school (you can relax about that, Mr. Stratford).  No, kids in this school have something worse.  Words.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

"This body that does me grievous wrong ..."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In 1828, Coleridge published the first version of his poem "Youth and Age" (in 1834 he added some more lines to complete the poem we have today), a work in which the speaker talks with some nostalgia, some bitterness, about the ways that age has transformed his youth.  A few years ago, I memorized a section of the full poem--and here's the part I've learned:

When I was young? – Ah, woeful When!
Ah! for the change ’twixt Now and Then!
This breathing house not built with hands,
This body that does me grievous wrong,
O’er aery cliffs and glittering sands
How lightly then it flashed along,
Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore,
On winding lakes and rivers wide,
That ask no aid of sail or oar,
That fear no spite of wind or tide!
Nought cared this body for wind or weather
When Youth and I lived in’t together.

By the way--two signs of my own aging emerged while I was finding this poem on the Internet (so I could cut-and-paste here):
  • I typed "when I was you-" into Google's search window, and that's as far as I got before Google (oh, speedy, youthful Google) started making suggestions that I visit sites (YouTube among them) where I could hear/see/read about Bruno Mars and his "When I Was Your Age."  Here's a link to that, if you're interested!
  • I realized, reading over the text of the passage, that I'd "mis-memorized" some of it--well, a single word, actually.  A little over halfway down ... see the line that says Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore? ... well, for some reason, I'd memorized that as trip skiffs.  (I checked a number of other sources: It is, indeed, trim, not trip.) I always thought trip was kind of weird there, but, you know, Coleridge knew what he was doing ...  I've done that before, mis-memorize. Probably the earliest time was in elementary school when many of us chanted every morning in our classrooms: I pledge of allegiance to the flag .... Hell, none of us knew what allegiance was, though I'm sure our teachers explained. Just didn't stick.
Anyway, Coleridge ...  He had been a vigorous, energetic young man, walking many miles many times. But he couldn't walk fast enough. Illness and age caught him. He slowed, put on weight, and his opium addiction made him suffer from severe constipation (I know: TMI). Later on, pretty much all he could do was sit. That sad future awaits many of us as we proceed through life's cycles. We begin our lives lying down; we sit; we crawl; we stand; we walk; we run; we slow; we try a cane; we use a walker; we sit; we lie again. (Shakespeare is smiling: He knew.  Remember his "seven ages of man" speech in As You Like It? Here's a YouTube link to Morgan Freeman delivering the speech.)  Coleridge was only 56 when he wrote those lines--not old in our time, not for most of us. But in his? He was already well past the average life expectancy (about 40 for men).

In most of my own life, I was fortunate. I never had a serious injury. I never had a serious illness. I always had enormous energy.  And then--about the time I turned 50--things started to happen. Bell's palsy (mostly recovered). Skin cancer. Prostate cancer. Still--even with those problems, I recovered quickly.

But my overall strength and energy began a slow decline. Weight came on more easily, departed more reluctantly. I was ready for bed early in the evening. It was harder to get up in the morning. 

And exercise? Most of my adulthood I've exercised regularly. I used to run 4-6 miles a day--rain or shine, hot or cold, day or night. (I did a few ten-milers, too.) I ran in 10K races, broke 40 minutes a couple of times. For some years I played tennis before school every morning at 5:30 at the Western Reserve Raquet Club.  Then ... ankles, knees, shoulders, elbows declared they'd had enough. No more running.  No more tennis.

I took up cycling. I rode (and still ride) a bike around town for short trips. In good weather, I rode back and forth to my classes at Western Reserve Academy (only about three blocks away--but still). I also ride an exercise bike (a Schwinn Airdyne--with handles that move in synch with the pedals--so I get a little upper-body work, too) out at the local health club for a hard thirty minutes every day, trying to burn at least 500 calories in that time, cover 10-11 miles.

But here's the problem--here's what occasioned this post today. On that Airdyne I used to ride thirty minutes, hard, no stopping to rest (except on very rare days when I didn't feel 100%).  And now?  Most days I go twenty minutes; rest three minutes; finish the final ten.  Some days I have to stop twice. Some days I have to ride two or three extra minutes to reach the 500-calorie mark. I haven't been able to do the full non-stop thirty in months. And I cursed my body for doing me grievous wrong ...

But the other day, I realized: This is not going to get better. For the first time in your life, things are not going to improve.  It's probable--likely--that I am not suddenly going to pedal hard for thirty consecutive minutes. Ever again. I will be 69 this fall. And cancer is in me.

Those are dark thoughts, I know. But realistic ones, too. We will not forever be able to do the things we love--or be with the people we love. As Coleridge knew, it's always chilling--whenever it comes--to feel mortality's breath.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 8

Brian Novell

Enrollment Essay
Spoon River Middle School

—copied from office file

I guess I understand why I’m doing this, sitting here writing this.  It’s your way of giving me something to do, helping me “adjust,” as you adults like to say.  To adjust to a new school, new kids.  Whatever.  And so I’m sitting here right now in a little room—part of your clinic.
Here’s what I see from my desk:
· Behind me is a concrete-block wall.
· Across from me is another concrete-block wall.
· To my left are three little rooms: two sickrooms with a bathroom between them.
· To my right, down at the far end of the room, is a nurse sitting at a desk. 
· Right in front of her is the doorway to the main office.  The door is open, so I can see little flashes of kids coming and going, teachers and secretaries doing whatever they do all boring day long.
· Just outside that door is some kid in a wheelchair.  He hardly has a face at all—he must have been in a bad fire or something.  I don’t know what he’s waiting for, a FedEx guy bringing him a new face?
Here’s what I hear:
· Some kid is barfing in the bathroom—did you know that?  It’s not far from me, so I can hear pretty well.  A lot better than I want to.
· In one of the sickrooms I can hear some kid snoring.  That kid’s just tired, not sick.  Does anybody care?
· The nurse is writing in some big black notebook, and she takes a deep breath every time she turns the page.  Now that’s weird.  What’s that all about?
I can’t believe she can’t hear that kid heaving his guts out in the bathroom—I’m about to get sick myself.
Not really.  Hearing someone puke doesn’t really bother me.  I don’t like watching it, though.  Who would?  Vomitus is not attractive.  Do you like that word, vomitus?  I looked up vomit words once, just to see.  I used one of those big fat dictionaries, though, because the little ones they give you in school don’t have anything interesting in them.  Just simple words and stupid pictures.
Anyway, vomitus is the actual stuff, you know—the junk that comes up when you’re puking.  Vomitve, now that’s a good one, too.  That’s something that causes you to puke—like most people would say that hearing another guy puke is vomitive.  Not me, though.  It’s just funny.  What’s vomitive for me?  School.
One of the best vomit-words is vomiturition—that’s the dry-heaves.  You puke but nothing comes out.  I hate that.   I guess everybody does.  I mean, I can’t imagine people who like sticking their heads in a toilet for no good reason.  Not there ever is a good reason.
There are some other good vomit words, but you can go look them up yourself, if you’re interested, which you’re probably not.
Now, let’s see.  What was I supposed to write about here?  The paper you gave me says this:
Tell us a little about yourself.  Write about where you came from, what your previous school was like, what your favorite subjects were, what you like to do when you’re not in school.  Use your best English when you write.
I’m not sure why I even have to write some of this.  I mean, you know where I came from.  My mom wrote it all down on the forms we filled out a half hour ago.  So if you really want to know where I used to live, where I went to school, well, just look on your own stupid paper.
What was my previous school like?  It sucked.  Like all schools.  Like this one probably does.
Favorite subjects?  Look at my grades.  You have those, too.  High grades mean I liked it; low grades mean I didn’t.  So what do you see on the paper?  High grades in English and history.  Low grades in math and science.  Which do you think I liked best, huh? 
Actually, I didn’t really like any of my classes or any of my teachers.  It’s just that writing is easy for me, reading is easy, and I have a good memory.  What else do you need to get by?  Math?  Well, I don’t see any point in it.  So why bother?  I like science—I mean, all that stuff about evolution, stars, insects, cloning, dinosaurs, computers . . . who wouldn’t be interested in that?  But I hate science class.  Answer me this: If scientists are so smart, how come science teachers are so dumb?
The kid just quit puking and came out of the bathroom.  His face was totally white, drained of all color.  He looked at me funny, so I flipped him off.  The nurse didn’t even look up.  But the kid sort of smiled at me, and then just staggered back into the little sickroom and flopped on the cot.
Let’s see . . . you had one more question: What do you like to do when you’re not in school?  Hey, do you think I’d tell you that?  Perfect strangers?  And why do you care, anyway?  What’s it to you?  Do you think any new kid tells you the truth?  Let’s see: I like reading big fat books with small print, watching educational programs on television, volunteering in hospitals, and working at homeless shelters on weekends.  How’s that?
The kid is heading for the bathroom to puke again.  This time he flipped me off.  That’s pretty funny.  Later, I guarantee you, he’ll wish he hadn’t done that.
And the kid with no face in the wheelchair is staring at me.  He’d better watch it, too.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Time I Sang at Sing Sing

Sunday, 27 June 2010.  I was finishing a visit in Massachusetts, visiting my mom and brothers. Driving down the Taconic Parkway early that morning, I was debating about going straight home the usual way (I-84 to I-81 to I-80) or to go farther south and see some literary and historical sites. I'd been reading the complete works of John Cheever--my latest obsession--and his final home was in Ossining, NY, just up the Hudson River from NYC. I wanted to see the town--and see the house, if I could find it. From there, I could cross the river and see some sites related to Major
Andre Monument
Tappan, NY
John Andre, a spy during the Revolutionary War, a man whose name pops up a couple of times in Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," which I taught for many years.  I knew there were some things to see--including a memorial at the spot where he was hanged in Tappan, NY.

I called Joyce near the Bull's Head Road exit--the place where we used to get off the Taconic to visit her aunt and uncle, both now deceased, who'd lived in Stanfordville, where he was a country lawyer; she taught at Bennett College, now defunct, in Millbrook.  I always call Joyce there when I'm traveling down the Taconic toward home ... I'm a romantic cuss, you know?  I told her that day that I was thinking of coming straight home; she told me I'd regret missing the sites I'd been talking about.  She was right--as usual.  So on I drove ... toward Ossining ... and Cheever ... and (although I did not know it at the time) prison.

I wrote the story of my adventure in prison as part of a speech I delivered on 28 May 2011 at Western Reserve Academy for their Senior Celebration program the weekend of commencement. I've pasted that story below ...


            Late last June, I was in New York, in Sing Sing Prison.  It was an accident.  I was innocent, mostly.

            It certainly began innocently enough:  I’d been in Lenox, Massachusetts, visiting my mom, who was about to turn 91 years of age.  After a couple of days helping her with a few things, I drove home via New York to see some literary and historical sites on the outskirts of the city.  Some were related to the infamous Maj. John Andre, a British officer who had helped American officer Benedict Arnold betray the Revolution. 

            But some local New York militiamen nabbed Andre, turned him over to Gen. George Washington, camped nearby, who subsequently ordered his hanging.  And there—in Tappan, New York, site of the execution—stands a memorial I wanted to see because in his celebrated story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”  Washington Irving mentions Maj. Andre several times.  I wanted some photographs to show my students.

Cheever & friend
Ossining, NY
            The other stop was Ossining, New York, the home of novelist and short-story writer John Cheever. (And, yes, also the home of Sing Sing Prison.)   Cheever, who died in 1982 (his ninety-ninth birthday was yesterday!), won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and lived the last twenty of his seventy years in a comfortable house in Ossining.  I’d recently finished reading all of Cheever’s work, and now I wanted to see that house.  I had the name of his street; I had GPS; I had my camera; I was pumped!

            In Ossining, a town of about 24,000 on the Hudson River, I stopped for coffee downtown, then headed out to find Cheever’s house.  But I got twisted around a little—some one-way streets sending me in directions I’d not anticipated, my slacker GPS failing to find me.  And the next thing I knew, I was on some kind of service road—and, looming right ahead: Sing Sing Prison.  In a moment I realized I’d blundered into an employee parking lot.

            Sing Sing.  A maximum-security prison.  Opened in 1826.  Thirty-one miles up the Hudson River from New York City—the source, by the way, of our expression sent up the river.  There, in 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted of turning over atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets, died in the electric chair.  Sing Sing.  Now the long-term home for murderers, rapists, druggies, and other desperadoes and dangerous dudes.  A sort of highly selective boarding school, with no mixers or senior privileges or parietals or pranks or proms.

            Well, John Cheever, later in his life, taught some writing classes to inmates at Sing Sing—and used those experiences to inform his bestselling prison novel Falconer.  So I thought, chirpily: Hey, as long as I’m here, I’ll snap a few pictures of the prison, then go find Cheever’s house.  So I hopped out of the car, moved a little closer, took a few photos, turned, and then …

            Hey, YOU!

            I looked around.

            You—there by the gate!  Stop right there!  Just FREEZE  And, yes, the word freeze was followed by a very disrespectful compound noun of address.

            Armed guards.  Running toward me, one barking into a two-way radio.  I froze.  Then, shuffling, inched toward them.  What the hell are you DOING? one demanded, and the others opened the gate and ushered me onto the actual prison grounds.  In a moment I’d been frisked, relieved of my camera and ID, taken to … well … the admissions office.  Where no one smiled—or offered me coffee and cookies and a brochure about the challenging college-prep curriculum.

            I’m a high school English teacher? I offered pathetically.  Like a frightened fourth grader caught with a classmate’s missing juice-box, I was putting a question mark at the end of every sentence.  The writer John Cheever?  He used to teach classes here?  To the inmates?  I just wanted some pictures? To show my students ...?

            A stern and stocky guard interrupted me: That won’t cut it! he barked.

            I’m sorry? I whimpered.

            That won’t cut it, either, growled a woman built like a Super Bowl linebacker.

            Uncertain of just what would “cut it,” I fell silent.

            Well, eventually, after some phone calls and some huffing and puffing and some snorts of disbelief at every single word I said, they concluded I was not masterminding a prison break—though they did make me delete my prison pictures (later, I found some much better ones on Google), told me never to come back unless I wanted to move in, escorted me to my car, then followed me in a dark, disturbing van for a mile or so as I, trembling, drove off in search of Cheever’s house …

            … which I never found.

            It was probably up one of the numerous long winding private drives I saw on his road—but I’d lost all interest in exploring them.  I was picturing myself back in Sing Sing, this time not as a day student but a boarder.  And did I just see that dark, disturbing van in my rear-view mirror?  So I pointed my Toyota west—headed for Ohio and Hudson and home and humility.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 7

Daria d’Splay

The store was not too busy,
so I did it.
A dare,
from Jenn,
so it really wasn’t
all my fault.
(You can’t refuse a dare,
can you?)
I went into the changing room,
stripped down to
bra and pants,
slipped out into the store,
crept over to a little platform,
and stepped up on it,
just like a mannequin.

And as I said,
the store was not too busy then,
but some old guy came by
and stopped,
and stared,
for quite a while.
(I thought I’d lose it,
right there,
but didn’t.)
And finally
he shook his head,
a little bit,
then shuffled off,
while mumbling
“Thank you, thank you,
thank you” down the aisle
till I could not hear
except the wildest laugh
from Jenn,
who’d hidden there behind
a rack of skirts.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunday Mornings with the Dyers

Joyce and I got married so quickly that we really didn't know each other very well.  It was so fast, in fact, that when my mother asked me for her name and address so that she could write to Joyce's mom, I wasn't sure if Joyce's last name--Coyne--had an -e at the end or not.  (In case you have a dirty mind--we met in mid-July 1969, were married on December 20, 1969, and our son was not born until July 16, 1972.  Count the months--lots more than nine.)

But swiftness was all in my favor: The less she knew about me, the better--that was my thinking.

It wasn't long, of course, before she began ... discovering ... things ... about her new husband that were a little ... awry?  Most of them are none of your business--but one continues to endure: my absolute adherence to routines.  There are times when I might as well be a rat in a maze, electricity in a wire, water in a pipe: I have about as much flexibility. As I've written here before, I tend to do the same things every day at the same time and in the same way. (No hit man would have any trouble whatsoever figuring out my routines.)

Joyce is ... different.  Take her college graduation (Wittenberg, 1969): She was barefoot (I think) and wore flowers in her hair.  A Love Child of the Sixties.  I, on the other hand (Hiram, 1966), looked like someone from the Middle Ages--from 1266.  She was alarmed to discover after our marriage that I do not ask What do you want to do today? but What do you want to do for the rest of the decade?

My students are aware of this trait in me.  At the start of each year, I would hand out a yearly outline; at the beginning of each marking period, a calendar with day-by-day activities listed.  I deviated only for Snow Days and other dilemmas (all of which upset me considerably).  Something about predictability--routine--comforts me. If I can just stick to my patterns, you see, I will not die.

I've not changed much.  Take our Sunday mornings--which, for me, begin on Saturday night, just before bed, when I feed our sourdough starter.  Sleep.  Then ... Sunday commences ...

  • up around 7; downstairs to unload the dishwasher and mix the bread dough and set it aside to rise for a couple of hours; shower, shave, and head out
  • stop #1 (BP--we usually fill up the car on Sunday morning)
  • stop #2 (the recycle bins in the Acme parking lot: I take our paper and cardboard there every Sunday morning; I have already dropped Joyce at nearby Panera)
  • stop #3 (Panera--where we read the New York Times and eat a bagel and chat)
  • stop #4 (Acme--grocery stop #1)
  • stop #5 (Heinen's--grocery stop #2)
(PAUSE: I buy the same things every week, too, but that's another post.)
  • stop #6 (home--unload groceries--write in journal (I've kept one every day since 1997--I'll post about that one of these days, too); update Quicken accounts; work on blog; write snail-mail to Mom--always on Sunday and Wednesday)
  • 11-ish (shape bread and set it aside for 2nd rise)
  • noon (lunch with Joyce)
  • 1-ish (bake bread--work on writing, etc. while it is baking; oh--almost forgot: I sharpen the kitchen knives while the oven is heating)
  • 2-ish (bike or drive to Starbucks to do my Kirkus reading quota--I read 100 pp/day for them, seven days a week, write a couple of reviews a week for them)
  • 4-ish (home: fuss around with writing projects, Facebooking, etc.; supper preparation--I do 95% of our meals)
  • 5 (sharp!--eat supper, watching DVR of some of last night's SNL)
  • 5:30 (go with Joyce to get a decaf Americano at Starbucks)
  • 6:30 (home: work on tomorrow's Daily Doggerel + other writing)
  • 7-ish (upstairs to read in the six or seven books I have going--10 pp or so in each one)
  • 8:30-ish (stream some British mystery on Netflix)
  • 9:30 (lights out)
Weekdays are somewhat different--I get up earlier, spend more time reading and writing.

Joyce goes along with most of this--realizing, probably, that it's generally better policy to humor rather than commit a harmless Old Mad Man.  Perhaps, however, a time will come when Bedlam is the only answer for the likes of me.  (Can you bake in Bedlam?)

Gotta run--time to shape the bread ...

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Like Riding a Bike

A poem yesterday on Writer's Almanac got me to thinking and remembering. It's a poem about a parent watching a daughter ride away for the first time on a bike.  Here it is, if you missed it (and even if you didn't!):

To a Daughter Leaving Home

by Linda Pastan
When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving

"To a Daughter Leaving Home" by Linda Pastan, from Carnival Evening. © Norton, 1998

I remember learning to ride a two-wheeler.  Amarillo, Texas.  4242 West 13th Street, a little brick ranch house in a leafy neighborhood.  Early 1950s.  I was able to mount the bike only from the front porch (the bike was so tall, not a little kid's version ... was it my older brother's?), push off, then crash a few feet later. Over and over. Mount, push off, brief glide, crash.

Then--one magical day--the crash did not ensue, and I realized I was staying up! On down the sidewalk I flowed, exhilarated as I've been on only a few other occasions in my life.  I'm riding a bicycle!

A cross street approached.  I didn't yet know how to use the brakes--the old-style that required the rider to push backward on one of the pedals.  Oops.  So I did the only thing I could do: I crashed on purpose--and this time it hurt a little more: I'd been going quite a bit faster.  But I didn't care.  I can ride a bicycle!  Back to the porch I pushed the bike, mounted, coasted, crashed.  Over and over.

A few days later I figured out the brake thing.

Our son, Steve, was about the same age (7-ish) when he managed for the first time without training wheels.  We were living in Lake Forest, Illinois (1978-1979 school year), where both Joyce and I were teaching at Lake Forest College.  An old friend from Aurora days was living in Chicago then, and we got together quite a few times.  His wife's family had a place on Lake Michigan, and we visited there one weekend, taking Steve's bike along with us.

He was ready ... he'd been ready, or so his words had told us.  There was a big circular drive in front of our friends' place, a drive connecting the other houses along the shore.  No traffic.  Safe.  We had removed the training wheels back at home, and now we were going to try.  Steve mounted.   (The bike was one of those smaller ones--no porch-mounting for this spoiled generation!)  We gave him a little push ... off he went ... we waited for the crash ... it didn't come.

Then I was jogging after him, then alongside him.  Ready to catch him.  I didn't need to.  On his face was the most delighted look I think I'd ever seen--or equal, maybe, to the look that came with that first word, that first sentence, that first page he actually read.  It was the look of love.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 6

Andee St. Cloud

Essay: I Love ________ (You said we could write whatever we wanted so I did.)
Mrs. Smart

NOTE TO MRS. SMART: You can pretend none of this is true, if you want to.
“I Love Smoke”

      I don’t smoke just because my parents do.  I mean, you hear all kinds of stuff about how kids who grow up in smokers’ homes end up being smokers, too.  You hear the same thing about drinkers and abusers.  If you grow up in a home where people drink, they say, or where people hit each other, well, that’s the way your home will be, too, when you grow up.  I’m not so sure about that.  It seems to me that most kids I know want to do the opposite of what their parents did.  But I could be wrong.
      Anyway, yes, the air in our house is always smoky.  My mom smokes a lot, my dad smokes even more, and older sister (do you remember her?  Vanessa?  she’s three years older than me and she really liked you, she told me) and her boyfriend (him you don’t know), they both smoke, too—a whole lot.  So I guess you could say I came by my love of smoke naturally.  I was smoking the air in our house even before I knew what a cigarette was.
      Other houses smell funny to me now—I’m talking about the houses of people who don’t smoke.  When I walk in one of them, the air smells so weird—sharp, or something.  It smells bad to me, like this school does.  After about two minutes in a house like that, I can tell you what got cooked that day—and the day before.  I can tell you if somebody just took a shower, or went to the bathroom for another reason.  (I know you told us to be “G” rated in this, but I’m just trying to be honest.)  I can tell you if they’ve got pets—and what kind, too.  Birds smell different from dogs, dogs from cats—you can even smell a fish tank, did you know that?  You can smell that—and a whole bunch of other stuff I’m not going to get into—in a house where no one smokes.
      Let me tell you some things I really like about smoking—besides the smell, which, as I already told you, I love.  I like the smell of a fresh pack when you first open it.  I like how hard it is to get the first cigarette out of a tight pack.  I like the feel of a cigarette in my hand. I like lighting it, with a lighter or a match.  I think I like a match best because of that sulfur smell when you strike one.  Hell is supposed to smell like that, so I guess I won’t mind that part of it.  And Vanessa’s boyfriend (I mentioned him already, but you don’t know him, he moved in here in high school), he showed me a way to strike a match, slip it between my fingers, cup the rest of my hand around it, and that way I can light a smoke, even outside on a windy day.  It’s so cool, doing that.
      What else do I like?  Flicking ashes gently into the ashtray—I hold the cigarette between my thumb and forefinger, then with my ring finger, I flick the ashes.  It takes some practice to do it right, because if you do it too hard, you can knock off the glowing tip, and then you’ve got a problem, like if it lands on the rug or someone’s clothes or something.  I’ll tell you a rug story later.
      One of the funniest things I ever saw was when my dad flicked a cigarette out the window.  We were out on I-80, doing about 95 mph, and he didn’t flick it hard enough (the faster you’re going, the harder you have to flip it because the wind is going so fast).  So anyway, he didn’t flick it hard enough, and it blew right back in the window and down the back of his T-shirt.  He started yelling and stuff, trying to reach down his back, but he couldn’t reach far enough, and we were swerving all over the road—good thing no one else was around us.  I was laughing so hard I almost puked, so was Mom, and Dad finally drove off into the center strip, a real grassy place, lucky for us, where he stopped, jumped out of the car and ripped his T-shirt off, right over his head in one quick movement.  His shirt had a big ragged burn-hole in it (have you ever seen those? I’ll show you a couple of my tops), and he had this nasty-looking little wound in his back, too, like someone had held a cigarette-lighter from a car against his back for a while.  He was yelling and cussing and telling Mom and me we shouldn’t be laughing at him.  But we couldn’t help it.  We were on the ground we were laughing so hard.  I laughed so hard I farted—and then we laughed even harder.  And other cars were pulling up to see if we were all right, and my dad told a couple of guys to go you-know-what, which I guess they thought was a good idea, because they drove away.  Finally, Dad got back in the car, and we drove off to one of those little emergency medical places.  He had to lean forward the entire way, so he wouldn’t touch his back against the seat, and he was swearing the whole time while Mom and I laughed like crazy.
      They gave him some junk to put on the burn, and they put a bandage on it, but he still had to lean forward for a week or so whenever he drove, and every time he did that, Mom and I just cracked up.  The whole thing was really pretty funny.
      You want to know what tastes really bad?  Lighting up a cigarette that you already put out once.  Sometimes when you’re out of smokes, and you want one so bad, you go all around the house looking in ashtrays and even in the trash to see if you can find a butt that’s long enough to light up again.  Sometimes you have to straighten them out a little, because, you know, you crushed them pretty good when you put them out the first time.  So you find one, you sort of make it straight again (you have to be careful, though, because if you break it, then when you inhale, you don’t get anything but a bunch of fresh air) Anyway, now you’ve got something to smoke, but you don’t ever want to inhale the first drag on it, because, as I said already, nothing tastes worse in this whole world than the first drag on a cigarette that you’re smoking for the second time.
      And here’s what really smells bad: Sometimes you forget to put out a cigarette.  Like you leave it in the ashtray while you go out to the kitchen to get something to eat, and then the phone rings or something and you talk for a couple of minutes and when you get back out to where you left your cigarette, you can smell it before you ever see it, if it’s lying there smoldering in the ashtray, only partway burning because of the other ashes and butts blocking the air (cigarettes need air to live, you know, just like us), and man does that ever smell bad, a smoldering cigarette.  Yuk.
      Sometimes you can scare yourself with a cigarette.  (This is the rug story I promised.)  Once I was on the floor watching TV late at night, with an ashtray right beside me, and I fell asleep during some dumb program, and when I woke up I smelled something burning.  I looked over and saw that my cigarette had rolled out of the ashtray and had burned a little ugly hole right in the carpet.  Man, I knew I was dead if anyone saw that hole, so I went over to the wall behind the couch, where the carpet still looked kind of new, and I found all these carpet fibers bunched up there.  So I pinched some of them up and then stuffed them into the cigarette hole.  By the time I was done, you couldn’t tell that anything had happened—I mean, it looked perfect.
      Of course, about a month later when my mom vacuumed the floor, those fibers came right up, and she started yelling.  So I went in to look, figuring I’d have to confess.  But guess what?  There were about a half-dozen places where someone had burned holes in the floor and stuffed the holes with fibers.  So I told Mom the truth: “I didn’t do all that,” I said.  She said, “Wait till your father comes home!”  And when he did, he admitted he’d made the holes with his cigarettes—he didn’t even notice that there was an extra one that I’d made.  It kind of made me laugh, how my dad and I think alike.
      Now, I know it’s dangerous to smoke in bed.  I don’t ever do that.  Well, not any more, not since last year when Craig’s whole house got burned up.  And his face and all.  Well, I guess I shouldn’t say I don’t ever do it.  Sometimes, you know, you just can’t help falling asleep.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Back to School

Yesterday, I was in a second grade classroom for the first time in a long, long, long time.  Our son was in second grade in 1979-1980, the year we returned to Ohio after a year's sojourn in Lake Forest, Illinois.  I was in second grade in 1951-1952, Avondale School, Amarillo, Texas, where my father, a World War II vet, was stationed at Amarillo Air Force Base during the Korean War.  (Fortunately, he did not go overseas.)

We were visiting the classroom of our older grandson, Logan, whose class was doing a poetry recital at 2:15 p.m.  We were the first parents or grandparents to arrive at the school--hey, you never know how long a trip is going to take.  Don't want to be late--or to miss it altogether, right?  We waited in the main office, reminding me of other waits in the main office when I was a student (Joyce has very different school memories in this regard).  I was not in trouble much--but some.  And I did make visits to the office every now and then.  Once--honest to God--it was for going down the up stairs (Adams Elementary; Enid, Oklahoma).

Slowly, the other parents and grandparents arrived, and we eventually found Logan's classroom after negotiating a labyrinth of hallways that would have sent Theseus home in tears as the laughter of the Minotaur echoed behind him.  We sat in little second-graders' chairs (Will I be able to get back up? I wondered) until the room was jammed.  Then we watched a twenty-minute PowerPoint presentation about the kids' year--seeing them in all sorts of activities, from reading on the floor to playing outside to entertaining visitors to ... you know.  The kids all gathered up by the screen and whooped with laughter whenever they saw something amusing--especially the day their teacher took pictures of each of them, individually, making funny faces.

As I looked around the room, I realized that what I was seeing was totally different from what I had experienced in Amarillo in the early 1950s.  Sure, some things were the same--inspirational messages on the walls, posters here and there.  A chalkboard.  A flag.  But the rest was different.  The room was air-conditioned, for one thing.  Think you've suffered?  Sit in a brick building with small windows in the Texas Panhandle in June.  (Oh, we were tough!)  Logan's room had a digital projector affixed to the ceiling, and little tables were distributed around the room in clusters.  Little quiet areas with soft things for them to flop on while they read or worked together.


When I was in second grade, no one cared how comfortable we were.  Silent, we sat in rows of wooden lift-top desks that were bolted to the floor.  Facing the front and the teacher.  We sat at our desks and did work--rarely, if ever, did we work together, which, of course, was cheating.  Occasionally, another teacher would come in--the music or art teacher; mid-morning we would go outside for recess, my favorite time--by far.  We had no physical education teachers or classes.  Oh, the other activity we had?  Practicing for atomic bomb attacks.  Getting under our desks, holding our arms over our heads.  I think even the dimmest of us knew that was pointless.

Whenever we went anywhere (to the bathroom--always in groups, to lunch), we lined up--Single file, Indian-style, said the teachers--and off we marched, making certain we stayed in our row of floor tiles as we moved down the tiled hallway.  As silent as a funeral procession.

Soon, the PowerPoint was over, and we moved outside to the school courtyard, where the kids lined up like a choral group and chanted in groups the little poems they'd memorized during the year (I didn't recognize any of them).  Cookies and punch and proud parents (and grandparents) ensued.  And I thought about how alien all this would have seemed in Amarillo, 1952.

Yes, second grade seemed like a much more warm and welcoming place than it was in my day.  Soon, of course, the youngsters will be entering a different world--a colder world of lock-step curricula and high-stakes testing.  And there will be no more poetry borne on the bright May air.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 5

Jennifer Queen

— Free Writing


Isn’t she beautiful?
These were the first words
I ever heard,
the first I ever learned—
or, at least, the first I can remember.
I still hear these words
all the time,
from family, friends,
strangers, too.
But … think about it … just a minute …
Isn’t she beautiful?
That’s a question,
isn’t it?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Baz Luhrmann Directs HAMLET!

Transcript of a story meeting: Baz Luhrmann (director), William Shakespeare (author)

BL: You've got a great story here, Willie.
WS: Will.
BL: Whatever. A great story.  I'll confess--I'm not sure what it's all about, but between you and I--
WS: "between you and me"
BL: Whatever.  Between the two of us, I think we can, you know, clear up some of the confusion, inject a little ... animation!
WS: Animation?
BL: People like to be animated at the movies.  Excited.  You know?
WS: I know.  There's more than one kind of excitement, though.
BL: Whatever.  Now, first thing ... we need a frame story ...
WS: A frame story?
BL: Yeah, that's where--
WS: I know what a frame story is: I used one in The Taming of the Shrew.  But in Hamlet--
BL: Every now and then we'll have Hamlet's brother come out and explain things ...
WS: Hamlet doesn't have a brother.  He's alone.  That's the point ...
BL: Let's see [thinks] ... we'll call him ... Omelet.  That'll keep the breakfast thing going with the names.
WS: The breakfast thing ...
BL: Next ... you've got just too many words here, Willie.  I mean, really, "To be or not to be, that is the question"?  I've cut that whole thing.
WS: Why?
BL: It doesn't, you know, move the thing forward; it just sort of ... sits there.
WS: Kind of the point, Baz.
BL [ignoring]: And we definitely gotta have more sex in this thing.  Here ... look at this scene where  Hamlet goes to talk to his mother after that play-within-a-play thingy--which, Willie, I kind of liked, though we're going to add some cgi there--make it look more real.  Anyway, I was thinking that when Hamlet goes in to see his mother, he catches her doing it with Claudius.  That would explain his rage.
WS: That doesn't make any sense ...
BL: Who cares? No one will notice if it's really good sex ...  Oh, and we definitely gotta have Ophelia doing it with Hamlet--and maybe with her brother, too, though not at the same time, of course.  Even my audiences aren't ready for that.
WS: Why?
BL: It'll explain why she goes crazy and stabs her father.
WS: He's dead already.
BL: I changed that.  Oh, and I gave her a mother, too.  She's doing it with Laertes, too.  Another reason Ophelia's crazy--she's jealous of her own mother.  [Pause.]  This is getting good!  What if Ophelia's mother is doing it with Gertrude, too!
WS: I'm not feeling well.
BL: I love the pirate thingy, by the way--where the pirates grab Hamlet.  I've got Johnny Depp on board for that sequence. ... Get it ... "on board"?
WS: I get it.  But we don't actually see that happen ... the pirates ...
BL: You crazy, Will?  Not see the pirates!  I've got a whole sea battle planned ... a kraken ... everything.
WS: I'm really not feeling well.
BL: Then, at the end, we're gonna bring the ghost back.  Since almost everyone's dead at the end, we're going to end with a big ghost dance.  I've got Kanye booked ... Timberlake and Samberg will bring in a little comic relief--which, Willie, this thing really needs; they'll do a version of their "Dick in a Box" song--"Ham. in a Box."  Get it--the coffin?  Everyone will go home happy.
WS: O, that this too too solid flesh would melt--
BL: I cut that thingy too.
WS: Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd

Monday, May 20, 2013

Spoon River Middle School: 4

Claire Bell

Punishment Essay
Mr. O’Dull

Found in folder

 In my experience, Claire, you said, class clowns are not girls.  And then you looked at me over the tops of your glasses.
I guess that was supposed to make me shut up—most of the things you say to me are supposed to make me shut up, did you know that, Mr. O’Dull?  And you look over the tops of your glasses when you want to look right through people.  Especially me.
But it didn’t make me want to shut up, not the words, not the glasses.  It made me mad.  First of all, yeah, I’m a girl, and if I like to laugh, I don’t see how that makes me a Class Clown.  And if you think I’m a clown, well, what’s wrong with wanting to be funny?  Comedians make lots of money.  And besides, everybody wants to be funny—even you do, making those stupid jokes all the time.  Which kids laugh at just because you’re the teacher.  If anyone else said them, no one in the whole world would laugh at them.  Except you maybe.
And second of all (okay, maybe it’s third or fourth by now), I don’t really like it—in fact, I hate it—when anybody tells me I shouldn’t be something, or I should do something.
I mean, let’s just go over what it was that made you so mad you assigned me this stupid thousand-word essay.  And why I’m so mad that I’m writing it like this?
Almost every day you’re late to this class . . . do you know that?  Of course you do.  I mean, you can hear the tardy bell as well as anyone else.  And so every day we sit here a couple of minutes and wait for you, and because there’s no one here—no teacher here—well, things can get a little bit out of hand.  Now and then.
And that’s where I come in.  I perform a public service.  I keep the kids entertained and laughing.  Otherwise, you know, they could be throwing stuff and putting out each other’s eyes.  And then you’d get sued when all the parents came in here upset because all their kids are blind.  So I’m saving you money, too, by clowning around, as you put it.
Now, normally, our lookout is Craig Burns, whose wheelchair is back by the door so he can get in and out of here with as little hassle as possible.  I bet you didn’t know that Craig Burns, who never says anything in class, actually says one sentence just about every single day: Here he comes!  His voice doesn’t sound like it used to, before the fire.  He croaks a little, like Andee St. Cloud’s dad, who’s a big smoker.  Did you ever hear him?
So most of the time when you finally get here—and we can smell the cigarette smoke on you, Mr. O’Dull, so we know where you’ve been, smoking down in the boiler room with the custodians when you know it’s against school rules for anyone, including teachers, to smoke anywhere in the whole entire building—well, things are at least a little bit settled down.  So if you think it’s bad when you finally come in here, you have no idea what it would’ve been like without me.  ’Cause what I usually do, you see, as I said, is entertain everyone.
Every school night I write out what I’m going to do—like a little script.  Most nights it takes me about an hour.  And I always do it first, before any homework, because I want my mind to be fresh, you know?  I don’t want to be all tired and bored, because when I’m like that, I write some of my worst, unfunny stuff that probably even you wouldn’t laugh at.  Now, sometimes I write out parts for other kids to play, but usually it’s just me.  When you’re hurrying down the hall, late to class again, haven’t you ever heard clapping from the room?  Well, what do you think they’re clapping for?  For you?!?
Now, today, with Craig Burns absent, I forgot—just plain forgot—to ask someone else to look out.  I was so excited about what I’d written—and it was a little longer than usual—that I wanted to get started right away so I could get the whole thing done before you showed up.  I should’ve been more careful, I know.
So when you walked in, I didn’t even see you at first.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gone on writing on the board my “vocabulary list” for the week, just the way you write yours every Monday.  I’d planned to have it all erased when you got here—I knew I could do it in the time between when Craig said Here he comes and when you actually walked in the room.  But I didn’t.
Now, you insisted that I write those words again, right here in this essay, so you could show them to . . . well, to whoever you’re going to show. So just remember, you made me do this.  So here are my five vocab words for the week—all of them, as I’m sure you can tell, are fake words, words I just made up, trying to be funny.  So, here goes . . .
1. skullcracker : a teacher so boring that kids fall asleep so fast their heads crack into their desktops
2. deathbreath: a teacher whose personal air can kill
3. deskflipper: a teacher so big that when he sits on the edge of your desk, it’s in danger of flying clear across the room
4. chartfart: a teacher who spends half the period checking attendance with a seating chart
5. whitebite: that smear of chalk dust on a teacher’s butt                 
I know . . . not all of these are funny, but you try coming up with stuff 185 days a year.  And speaking of 185 days.  Do you know that if you’re two minutes late every day—which you are (sometimes more)— that’s 370 minutes a school year.  That’s six hours and ten minutes of class we’re not having because you need one more suck on your cigarette.
I bet you something: I bet you won’t show this to anyone.
In my experience, Mr. O’Dull, people don’t show other people things that really embarrass them.  Like this essay.  (By the way, I just counted: Before this sentence I had 1066 words, not counting the title, my name, or any other junk.  So I wrote even more than you assigned.  Do I get extra credit?)
Do you know what happened in 1066?  William the Conqueror.  Battle of Hastings.  All that history junk.  You can look it up.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

What if ... ?

I had a grim thought this morning.  (Grim thoughts arrive all too often these days.)  But this particular Grim Thought needs a little explanation ...

Most of Joyce's Akron family worked for the rubber companies--her father was with Firestone, some uncles with Goodrich and Goodyear.  Joyce grew up in Firestone Park in Akron, attended Akron Garfield High School, won a Firestone scholarship for college ...  Her father--her uncles--all were members of the URW (United Rubber Workers), the union.  As a result, all earned a living wage, had medical and retirement benefits, were able not just to have dreams for their children but were able to do something about them.  Joyce's mother was a salaried employee with the Akron Board of Education (working in the main office dealing with food service); she had benefits and a pension, as well.

One of Joyce's cousins went to med school and still lives in Akron.  Another had a long career as a police dispatcher in Akron.  Joyce graduated from Wittenberg, went on to earn her Ph.D. at KSU and to have a stellar career in teaching and writing.

But what if ... ?

What if Joyce had been born in 2013?  During the era of outsourcing and anti-unionism?  More than likely, her parents--both with high school educations--would have been forced into minimum-wage jobs.  No benefits.  Nothing but Medicaid to help them when they were sick--and, later, they would have had to retire with only Social Security and Medicare to ease their lives.

And Joyce?  Sure, she would have been just as bright, perhaps just as ambitious.  But her chances for having the life she's had would have been greatly diminished.  Not impossible--just unlikely.  They could not have afforded to live in Firestone Park (which was a modest middle-class neighborhood); Joyce would have attended, in all likelihood, a rougher school.  Perhaps she would have won a scholarship to college?  But maybe she would have gone to work immediately after high school to help her parents.

And this, of course, is the dark side of the fracturing of the middle class: the fracturing, as well, of hope--for millions and millions of people.  Joyce's family had no desire to gain fabulous wealth, to buy a yacht and a Gatsby mansion.  They displayed no envy for those who had "more."  All they wanted was to live reasonably (they never borrowed money; her father used no credit cards), to provide possibilities and choices for their daughter.  They lived to see her graduate from college, to receive her Ph.D., to publish some of her books, to deliver their grandson (whom they adored), to adorn the faculty of Hiram College.  They were profoundly proud of her, of course--but, I hope, of themselves, as well.  Their dreams--their modest, hopeful, human dreams--had come true.

And now?  Even modest dreams require enormous sacrifices--and debts.  Today, even modest dreams--for myriads of people--are no longer even dreams at all.  They are pure fantasy.  And who can calculate the social cost?  What price tags dangle from shattered hopes?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Who Needs Mr. Chips When You've Got a Microchip?

Online courses are not going away.  They're cheap (no health insurance and other benefits to pay a professor who, you know, is probably obnoxious anyway; no annoying dorms to supervise, classrooms to equip and maintain; etc.); they're convenient (waiting for your date to show up at Applebee's? fire up the iPhone and finish that segment on the Transcendentalists); they work (well, probably not--but who cares?).

I should confess at the top here that as a teacher who's taught forty-five years in a variety of venues (public middle school, private college, public university, private high school) I am--what?--bothered? angry? hurt?--that an iPad can replace me.  (Think of those nineteenth-century artisans who watched in alarm while management wheeled in the machines to replace them.)  But I like to think that even if I were not so emotionally invested in these digital changes that are sweeping through all levels of schooling, I would find the prospect alarming.  No ... horrifying.  To me, it's just another sad example of how we often do things not because we should--but because we can.

Some thoughts:

  • Online advocates assume (believe?) that learning can be reduced to a series of steps--incremental, measurable steps. All the course designer has to do is line those steps up in a sensible sequence, show the pathway to students, collect a fee, and let them start walking--or running--along them. Simple?  No, simple-minded.  Sure, such a process probably works if you want to learn how to, oh, fillet a fish, but if you want to read Moby-Dick, it's ludicrous.
  • Some of education is, of course, what we used to call "content"--information, facts, dates, places.  You can hardly call yourself an educated person if you don't know when the Civil War was, where Iraq is, who wrote Hamlet, and so on. Sure, schools could "deliver" some of this kind of thing--and I emphasize some--digitally. But not as much as you might think. A lot of "content" that I learned--and still know--has stuck in my memory for a variety of reasons--e.g., I like it (it's cool to know that Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet); I use it frequently (hard to get through a day without knowing what the White House is); I'm proud of it (I've memorized over 130 poems; I review them continually so that they stay in my head so I can recite some lines when a fitting moment arrives); I admired and/or loved the person who first told me about it (my parents, some teachers, my friends, my wife).  When love's involved, knowledge becomes ever more adhesive.
  • We test what's easy to measure. These days, the vast (and enormously profitable) testing industry is, as everyone knows, driving the curriculum ... right over a cliff.  Scores are all that matter.  Little else.  The test results are the products; the teachers, the sales clerks; the students, the consumers.  We so revere numbers and statistics that we do not pause often enough to ask: Where do these numbers come from? Do they really measure what they purport to measure? What do they actually measure?  Is what they're measuring worth the effort--and cost? What are the effects of all this testing on kids?  On teachers?  On the culture and morale of the school?  Etc.?  I've written here before about the wonderful writers I've taught who did not initially pass the 8th Grade Writing Proficiency Test in Ohio.  Their problem?  They wrote too well.  They got "off topic."  They veered off on an interesting detour, arrived by a different route, found Failure awaiting them.
  • It seems to me that online education is even more susceptible to dishonesty and chicanery than traditional methods.  How on earth do educators really know who's sitting at that screen?  Doing that work?
But I guess what bothers me most is that online learning assumes that education is just the transmission of information--like a package from UPS.  You see something online; you want it; you order it; it arrives; you open it; you have it. 

But I know that education is not like that, not at all.  In her 1984 novel The Finishing School, Gail Godwin has one character say to another: "The whole secret of teaching is to capture the student's imagination" (248).  That is much closer to the truth, isn't it?  Sure, teachers "teach" things--facts, ideas, concepts, connections--but most of that does not really linger long--not unless it fits the traits I mentioned above (you like it, you use it, etc.).  What does linger?  The image of those great teachers you've had--what they loved, how they dealt with you, how they ate knowledge like snack food--or a fine meal.

In my own case, the great teachers I had are with me every day--in my memory, in my imagination.  They smile when I have an interesting thought, when I use something they taught me, when I display a skill they helped me learn, when I read a book they once talked about, when I just go off on something and want to learn all there is about it.  Oh, and they frown when I do or say something stupid, when I'm careless, when I waste a moment of this most precious life.

I remember the looks on their faces, the gleam in their eyes, the touch of their hands on my shoulder, the passion that swelled in their voices, then overflowed, flooding the room; I remember their excitement about something they'd just learned or read--or just figured out. I remember their tears when they read lovely lines of verse.

I despair when I think that we are creating schools where such things are less likely to happen, where some future student's memory of a teacher will be only a flicker on a flat-screen monitor.