Dawn Reader

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

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 50

Over our lunch of fish sticks—I had one; Harriet, a lot—we gradually fell into our old familiar ways of being with each other. And I realized I’d missed it—this closeness with her. I looked over at her—her cheeks pudgy, full of fish—and could tell she was feeling much the same. I could always read Harriet’s emotions so easily—like a page in an illustrated children’s book.
“Have you been following the exploits of the mighty Blue Boyle this fall?” I asked.
Harriet stopped in mid-chew, then finished, swallowed. “Creepy,” was what she said. “I don’t even understand what happened with him,” she went on. “I mean, last summer, out on Green Island, he was a monster … there didn’t seem to be anything human about him. And now …”
“And now he lives on the sports page every week,” I said. “A hero.”
“A hero who tried to kill us last summer.”
“Yes.” We looked at each other. “But no one really believed us last summer, did they?”
“Our parents kinda did.”
“They don’t count. They love us.” I laughed after I said that, realizing how odd it must sound, those two sentences lined up together. “Well, anyway, he doesn’t live here anymore, so maybe we won’t see him again.”
Harriet looked at me closely. “You really think we won’t?
Silence. Then … “Think may be too strong a word,” I said. How about wish?”
Silence. Then Harriet said, “And wish rhymes with Bysshe—and with fish, and I’m ready for more!”
While Harriet’s mouth once again began to fill and fatten, I decided to tell her about the voice I’d heard in my house—and about how this house of ours had been a funeral home—and about the story that there’d possibly been an unexplained murder here. I waited until she swallowed, though. I didn’t want her to choke.
She didn’t take a single bite while I was talking—just stared at me as if I were insane. Which, as I think about it, may not be all that inaccurate a diagnosis. When I finished, she asked for a few more details—like what the voice had said to me—and what the voice had sounded like.
I told her. About the dream I’d had after I’d worked on my poem for class. The words that voice had said: I’ve never found death amusing, Victoria. About the rotting smell of death in my room afterwards.
“Vickie,” she finally said. “Please don’t tell something awful is going to happen again.”

“Something awful is not going to happen again,” I lied.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pete Seeger, R.I.P.

The news of the death of folksinger and political activist Pete Seeger, 94, was everywhere in the news this week. As well it should have been. Seeger devoted his life to making this world a better place for everyone, and I'm grateful that he lived long enough to see enacted at least some of the reforms he sang about with such passion and urgency for decades.

I'd never heard of Pete Seeger until the early 1960s when the folk music surge was so powerful everywhere that the Top 40 charts featured songs by folk groups like The Kingston Trio; The Brothers Four; The Limeliters; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and others. I loved that music--and decided then, in my late teens, that I was going to become a folk music sensation., too.

I talked my folks into buying me a banjo for ... Christmas? my birthday? one or the other ... so they promptly went to their default shopping source (the Sears catalog) and bought me a five-string banjo, a purchase they lived to regret deeply. They also bought me a teach-yourself-to-play banjo book, How to Play the 5-String Banjo by ... Pete Seeger. My book was red (later editions had different cover-colors), just like the photo here. I also subscribed to Sing Out! magazine, the folksong periodical. (Link to info about that magazine, still being published).

I had never played a stringed instrument before--well, not counting the piano (duh)--so I had no callouses on my left fingertips. So ... a period of pain as I was learning How to Play the 5-String Banjo. Seeger is a patient teacher in that book, explaining the history of the instrument, the function of the fifth string (a drone string you don't fret). And pretty soon I was picking along in a sort of rhythmically challenged way to some old-fashioned folk songs. I learned about chords and various picking styles (most of which I could not manage to do), and pretty soon I had an insight: I suck on the 5-string banjo. Even this very sucky one from Sears. (And it was a sucky banjo--probably the real reason I couldn't play very well, you know?)

So ... how about a guitar? I traded my banjo to some guy for a cheap guitar, and I found I was a little more adept (though hardly virtuosic), and--as I wrote here a year or so ago--a college friend (Chuck Rodgers) and I teamed up and in the mid 1960s sang urgent folk songs around Hiram College, whose students were far too polite to get up and leave when we started wailing. Actually, Chuck had a very good voice, and I could stay on pitch most of the time, and I could play the chords and strum in decent rhythm--sort of. As I wrote here before, we actually had an audition for Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour (the 50s and 60s version of American Idol) and were scheduled to appear on the show in 1967. But the news got to us after Chuck was already out at grad school at the University of Wyoming, and I was trying to stay alive in Aurora Middle School, where I'd begun my teaching career and was just under water most of the time.

Years passed. I drifted away from folk music. My guitar (a Guild 12-string, acoustic, by this time) went in a closet, to emerge now and then for something at school. But I quit practicing, my callouses softened, it started to hurt my fingers as well as my ears (and self-image) when I played. So I haven't touched it in years.

But when the news about Pete Seeger arrived this week, it all rushed over me again. And I felt such profound gratitude not just for the memories--but for the dedication of that man--to traditional music, to the quality of human life. If I still had a banjo, I'd get it out today--and maybe the horrible sound would awaken Seeger one last time, would make him grab his own banjo, pick a few bars, and say, Now, that is what I meant!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 49

Harriet’s craving for fish sticks sent me to the freezer. She was lucky: We had a package of Mrs. Paul’s. I waved them to her, and she smiled brightly.
“So I take it you don’t like working with Eddie Peacock?” I said, returning to my seat.
“He doesn’t know a thing about anything,” sighed Harriet. “And you know what’s worse?”
“His personality?”
Harriet snorted. “Well, you’re right,” she said. “He is pretty hard to take, isn’t he?”
Harriet was right: Eddie Peacock was about as unlikeable a kid as there was in our class.  To look at him, you couldn’t tell. In fact, if you just saw a picture of him, you would think, “Hey, I wouldn’t mind working with him on a science fair project!”
Because, you see, Eddie Peacock was—at least in the eyes of most of the girls in our class—good-looking. He was pretty tall for seventh grade—5'10" or so—had dark wavy hair and the most perfect teeth that parents could buy—and they apparently could buy a lot. I’m sure they spent more money on his mouth than Father had spent on my entire body in my entire life.
Eddie Peacock wore different clothes every single day and always looked cool—as if nothing in the world bothered him, as if everything in the world was beneath him, especially girls and women.
Harriet was disgusted with him. “He has no interest in even trying to win the trip to Niagara Falls,” she was saying. “All he wants to do is look at his reflection in every shiny surface in the room.” At that moment she was checking her own reflection in the side of our toaster. When she heard me snort, she laughed too.
“Didn’t he used to, you know, like you?” I asked.  Harriet looked at me sharply. “I mean, I used to see you together in the hall … for a while.”
“How observant,” said Harriet. She sighed deeply. “Yes, I actually went with him a few days … until I realized there was really nothing to him. I mean, he seemed, I don’t know, as if he wasn’t even a person … as if he was a … a …”
“A simulacrum,” I said.
Harriet shot me a look. “A what?”
“A simulacrum,” I repeated. “An image. Something that has form but no substance.”
Harriet just stared at me. And then … “You know some good words,” she smiled. “Some very good words.”
“Anyway,” she went on, “talking with him was like talking to yourself—no, not as good as talking to yourself. Because when you talk to yourself, at least someone’s listening!”

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Snow Day! (Part 1)

Until I was twelve years old, I didn't know what a Snow Day even was. My boyhood in the Southwest--ten years in Oklahoma, two in Texas--accounts for it. I don't remember much snow at all between 1944 (birth) and 1956 (when we moved to Ohio)--never much more than a dusting. We did get a bad ice storm once, though--sometime between 1953 and 1955 (the years we were back in Okla. after our Tex. exile, courtesy of the Korean War).

We lived on Elm Ave. in Enid, and our house sat at the bottom of a hill. Elm Ave. ran right to the top--and beyond, of course (no matter what I thought at the time, Enid was not the end of the Flat Earth). Anyway, one winter day we got an ice storm, a storm so bad that cars had a hard time getting up "our" hill. Most took a more circuitous route to to wherever they were going. (As bad as it was, they did not cancel school, however: Sooners are not wusses.)

Later in the day, I decided our hill was now a perfect sledding site. I conned my little brother, Davi, into going up the hill with me. It was so slick that we had to stay in the grass--and even that was an adventure. But eventually we got to the top, where Davi (already at age 6 or so he was wiser than I) decided he would not make the descent on our Flexible Flyer. But I would. Fearless I. Feckless I.

I flopped down on that wooden frame and realized within seconds that I had absolutely no control of the sled. I turned the wooden handles at the front. Nothing. That wasn't necessarily a problem, but the car parked in front of our house was a problem: I was heading right for it.

And then under it, where something underneath (I never have been good at knowing what's under a car--except the road, of course) met my head and decided it was time to stop. Immediately.

Blood on the ice. Yelps from me (laughter from Davi--or is that just my memory?). Inside the house where my mother looked at me as if I were the dumbest child in Garfield County. My mother knew me well.

Anyway, after the move to Ohio I experienced the wonder of Snow Days for the first time. My very first year (or was it the second?) we had nearly an entire week of canceled classes. The problem was not cold; it was the buses. The Hiram Township roads could be impassable in deep snow (some roads were still dirt), and if the buses couldn't go, neither did the school. (By the way, my mother, teaching high school English in nearby Garrettsville at the time, had to go to classes the final day of our extended holiday; she was not happy.)

(Hiram had a great sledding hill our first winter there--Squire Hill. We could sled all the way down to near the college football field. But then--adults screwed it up. Built a gym and field house at the bottom, and now the Kennedy Center--the student union--squats fatly on that once-divine sledding hill.)

We had a few snow days just about every year when I was the Hiram Local Schools. I loved them all--except on those days when we had basketball games scheduled. I hated to miss playing a game, and we did take some amazing icy bus rides to places like Atwater and Suffield and Randolph. You know it's cold when you can hear the tires crunch inside a yellow bus full of horny adolescents.

Not that school bus problems were ordinarily my problem. We lived close enough to the school (a mile? a bit less?) that my brothers and I walked every day, rain or shine or ice or tornado or tsunami or Armageddon or whatever. Or sub-zero. As I said, they never called school around us for cold--not unless the temps had frozen some pipes at the buildings, but I don't recall that ever happening in Hiram. Not until high school did I get rides to school--with my lucky township buddies who had wheels and would stop to pick me up down at the bottom of our driveway. Luxury!

Oh, and once we arrived at school, there was no gathering in a warm spot inside until classes started. Custodian Sherm Leach did not unlock the doors until moments before home room, so we huddled outside on cold days. Sometimes we could see Mr. Leach (okay, we called him "Sherm" among ourselves) standing just inside the door--warm! warm! warm!--leaning on a broom, looking at his watch, counting seconds. I can't really blame him, though. We trashed his building every day without a second thought--or even a first thought--about what it meant for him. Cold winter days were Payback for Sherm Leach.

When I attended Hiram College, the school never called classes for snow or cold. Never--not the four years I was a student there. (It happens all the time now. To be fair: Hiram was largely a residential school in my era--1962-66--and has many day students now.) Today--January 28, 2014--Hiram College has canceled classes, by the way. Too cold.

But the college did have a "Snow Day" back in my day--classes cancelled, snow-sculpting competitions on the campus, informal meals (we otherwise had to "dress for dinner"), free movie in the auditorium ... was there a dance, too? (A Snow Ball?)  I didn't really do much on "Snow Day" except sleep late, break my vow (to myself) about catching up on my homework, and go to the movie with my friends. And no snow sculpture! My Southwest background (my hatred for very cold temperatures) had made me a less-than-eager Michelangelo-in-the-Snow.

NEXT: When I became a teacher, I had mixed feelings about Snow Days.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 48

“So do you really like that Gil kid?” Harriet asked. She was washing the yellow bowl after making—and eating—the dozen or so pancakes that remained.
“He’s nice,” I said, not really committing myself.
“He must be.”  She sprayed the bowl, rinsing it. “Because you really spend a lot of time with him.”
“We have to do your science project together,” I said, feeling a little defensive. Where did Harriet get off criticizing me for how I spent my time?
“I guess you want to go on that stupid field trip.”
Stupid? Any field trip is better than being in school,” I countered.
Harriet couldn’t answer right away: She was draining a large glass of orange juice. She finished it, wiped her mouth, put the glass in the dishwasher, and slid into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. “True,” she said, “but you don’t have to get all defensive about it.”
Harriet was really getting annoying. She came barging in my house, began eating all our leftovers, then criticized me for working with Gil. She didn’t make me angry very often, but that Saturday she was getting close, very close. I sat down across from her, trying to control my temper.
“So,” said Harriet after a few moments, “do you think you have a chance of getting a Superior?”
“Who knows?” I replied. “Anything is possible.”
“I was just wondering a couple of things,” she said.
“Like what?”
“Well, for one, I was wondering why you’re working so hard on this project. You don’t usually try your hardest on school things.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked. I was surprised; I’d had no idea that Harriet was aware that I usually took it easy.
“Come on, Vickie,” she said softly. “I know how smart you are—how really smart you are. You fool most people, but you don’t fool me.”
I didn’t say anything.
“And the other thing I was wondering,” she went on.
“I was wondering if, you know, you could help me a little bit on my project.”
I just sat there in what I can only call a “stunned silence.”  For the life of me, I couldn’t remember a single occasion when Harriet had asked me for anything—except food, of course.
“Why, sure,” I stumbled. “I mean, whatever you want … if I can help …”
“You know who my partner is, don’t you?”
I did.
“Eddie Peacock,”[i] we said simultaneously, then laughed explosively, our tension forgotten.
“I don’t know why I’m laughing,” Harriet finally managed. “I mean, I can see why you are … but you don’t have to work with him.”
“Gil Bysshe looks pretty good right now, doesn’t he?”
“Bysshe? Is that really his last name?”
“Uh huh.”
“Rhymes with fish,” said Harriet. She seemed to ponder that a moment. “And fish would be good for lunch, wouldn’t it?”

[i] Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866) was a poet and friend of Mary Shelley’s husband. Peacock never liked Mary.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


114 Forest Dr.; Kent, OH
Our home from 1974-1978

I posted this photograph the other day in a story I wrote about showing our grandsons the "shrines" of their father's childhood--including this house in Kent where we lived until our son had just turned six. And the picture reminded me of something ...

You see that we had a concrete driveway--an improvement we added to the place a year or so after we bought it. But in the background you can also see a basketball backboard and rim. Also ours. And, as the Bard said, thereby hangs a tale.

I had been a middling basketball player back at Hiram High School--good enough to play on the varsity, good enough to earn 2nd team all-county honors in 1962, but not good enough to play much on the Hiram College freshman team--and certainly not good enough to play on the college varsity. I quit after my freshman year and played intramurals thereafter.

But I'd always loved roundball, and I'd always wanted to have a hoop in the driveway. First came the driveway; next, the hoop. We bought the backboard and rim at Sears, but I knew we now had a problem: My handyman skills are nil. But I thought, how hard can this be? (Plenty, I quickly found out.)

Fortunately, we had a neighbor next door (on the other side of the driveway), Mr. Gillette (his daughter, Patty, sometimes played with our son, Steve), who was very handy. He saw me out in the driveway one day about to kill myself on a ladder when he came over and offered help. I didn't need to be asked twice.

Mr. Gillette didn't know about basketball, but he knew about carpentry. He asked me How high does the rim need to be? I told him. He went into his shop, came out a bit later, climbed the ladder, hammered and whatever, and the backboard was up.  He went back to his shop, got his tape measure, had me climb the ladder. We measured the distance from rim to ground: exactly ten feet. He smiled.

I was grateful and ecstatic and began shooting hoops out there very day. (The sounds of the pounding ball probably made Mr. Gillette wonder what he had wrought!)

Son Steve was a wee lad at the time. Born in the summer of 1972, he lived in that house only until he finished kindergarten; then we moved to Lake Forest, IL, for a year. Anyway, Steve liked to be outside with me when I was shooting hoops. And I taught him to dribble and what-not. He was a very athletic kid--loved to play wiffleball and just about any other game. But what frustrated him was that hoop. He just could not hurl that ball high enough to get it over the rim. And it was making him very angry.

I did the usual Daddy Thing: I lifted him up so he could make a shot; I put him on a little footstool--that sort of thing. And he found all of that mildly amusing. But not satisfying. He wanted to make a real basket. He would stand right near the basket and hurl that ball with two hands--underhanded and overhanded--but it just would not go in. He would  keep trying until he had no energy left. And by the end--and as he knew his energy was dwindling, and as he knew a ball-in-the-basket was not going to happen that day--he would cry. Inconsolably. I tried to encourage him. Ohhhh--alMOST! But almost was not good enough for him.

But then--one glorious day--the ball went over the rim--and in!

Oh, the celebration. An NBA championship ... the French Revolution ... Don Larsen's perfect game ... the discovery of fire ... the domestication of the wolf ... the slaying of Goliath ... Neil Armstrong on the moon ... Balboa's sighting of the Pacific ... E=MC2--all paled in significance. And there were tears all around this time.

Years passed. Steve played on community children's teams, his middle-school team, his high-school team. And that was it. Years passed. Steve married, had two sons. Bought a house.

Bought a stand-alone driveway hoop--the adjustable kind. The kind that a sensitive father can lower for a little lad who wants to sink a basket. Just like Dad.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Grand(son) Afternoon in Kent

On Monday (Jan. 20), Joyce and I spent the afternoon with our two grandsons (both are nearing birthdays: Logan will be 9; Carson, 5). Steve and Melissa had some errands to run, so they dropped the kids with us a little after 2.

Oddly, it was the first time we'd had both of them for any lengthy period at all. Although they live close (in Green, Ohio, just twenty-four miles away--about a half-hour south of us), and although we see them often, we're not really close enough that we're convenient for quick babysitting needs. But Steve and Melissa were heading north anyway, so it worked out for everyone.

We decided to drive them over to Kent--where Joyce and I met (summer 1969), where Steve and Melissa met (about fifteen years ago), where we had several houses during Steve's boyhood, where Joyce and I received our graduate degrees, where ... well, where a lot of other crucial things happened in our lives.

But our first stop was to see my dear former colleague and friend, Andy Kmetz, who's now living in an assisted living unit south of town. Andy taught art in the Aurora Schools for many years, and during his time at Harmon (Middle) School, I worked with him on about thirty play productions. He was an artist, a superior dancer, so he worked on the sets, choreographed the numbers, and generally did whatever needed to be done to make the shows successful. Some of the most beautiful and memorable moments in those shows were Andy's, and I was supremely grateful for his friendship.

During the weeks of rehearsal, Andy and I would drive early Wednesday evening over to the Wendy's in nearby Streetsboro, where we would have supper and talk about that evening's practice. Joyce and little Steve would often join us, driving over from Hudson.. Later, Steve would perform in seven shows at Harmon, and he and Andy were great friends. (Andy had known Steve since our son's birth.) Later, Andy attended Steve's wedding--danced with his bride (and with mine, reminding Joyce, once again, how clumsy is her husband!). Those Wednesday evenings at Wendy's became a tradition, and we met Andy there for years. Until retirements and new jobs changed so many things.

We would occasionally stop by and see Andy in his apartment in Kent, but then even those visits became unspeakably rare, and we would see him only at various gatherings of "old" teachers--but he didn't always (often) go to those. Neither did I.

And then he had a stroke that knocked him down and changed his life. I learned from a former colleague that he was now in assisted living in Kent, and my conscience began flogging me relentlessly--as it should have been doing all along. So Joyce and I started going to see him on Wednesday evenings--and I write him a letter each week, too, sending him our puny news.

Andy had never met our grandsons, so we thought it was time. I called him shortly before we left and got a typical Kmetzian grumpy reply (Yeah, I'm here. Bye.), and off we went to see him. They took to one another immediately, and before you could say "Andrew Kmetz," he had them drawing and laughing and talking about themselves. It was all I could do to keep my tears in their ducts.

Carson, Logan, Andy Kmetz

See the door?
That's where Joyce
1st spoke to me!
Afterwards, we drove the boys to view some sacred sites in our history: the very spot near Satterfield Hall at KSU where Joyce first spoke to me in July 1969 (I want my ashes scattered there--and I am not kidding), the first apartment where we lived (323 College Court--where we carried the infant Steve into his first home), the site of our first rented house (214 South Willow--recently razed to accommodate the new "esplanade" in Kent), the site of the first house we owned (114 Forest Drive--where we lived till the summer of 1978, where Steve was living when he completed kindergarten at Central School, another site we showed them). We also drove by the Kent DQ and McD's, where we used to take our own little boy, by the Kent Cinema (downtown, where we always took Steve to see movies--which he adored--and still does; when he was little, he would cry when the films ended). We saw the route we used to take when we took him out in his stroller ...

We used to walk east on Main--all the way down to Friendly's Ice Cream (a convenient stop!). Sometimes we'd go across the street to the Kent Free Library to take half of their books home (his bed bore more weight in books than in boy). And we came up with a very odd tradition. One day on our walk we picked up an interesting piece of bark (about the size of a folded penknife). Steve would carry it in his stroller until we reached the long brick wall in front of the old Kent Masonic Lodge there on the corner of Main and Mantua. One day--for a reason only a toddler could comprehend--Steve asked us to stop, and he placed the piece of bark in the wall where some of the mortar had cracked and broken away. We walked on to Friendly's, to the library, and then on the way home we stopped and retrieved the piece of bark, which Steve then deposited on our front porch, ready for the next trip.

This became a solemn and nearly mythical ritual for a long time. Take the bark, put it in the wall, retrieve it, place it on the porch. Then Steve hit upon an inspiration. He would leave it in the wall. And so we did. And every trip we would pick it up, take it to Friendly's, to the library, then return it to the wall.

Until the day it was no longer in the wall.

Much sorrow. Many questions. No answers--no good ones, anyway. It was just gone.

Anyway, we showed our grandsons the brick wall, and Carson practiced asking his dad to tell him about the "little piece of bark."

By then the boys had had enough--we were all getting hungry--so home we rolled, where we made sourdough waffles and waited for Mom and Dad to arrive. But on the way, of course, I had to point out the apartment building on Fishcreek Rd, where I'd lived during the 1967-68 school year, a place where I was so poor that I could not even afford a telephone. A place where I dreamed of the Joyce I'd not yet met.

Soon enough, Steve and Melissa and her father, Bill, arrived, and we had a good time chatting with them before the darkening skies and the looming thought of school tomorrow sent them out to the car--and away.

And Joyce and I slumped on the couch, agreeing both that that had been a lot of fun and that it was time (6:30 or so) to go upstairs to bed ...

114 Forest Dr., Kent, OH
Our home from 1974-1978

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 47

After we finished our drinks, Gil and I headed over to the library and found an empty round table just inside the door.
“How do we make our project into a winner?” asked Gil.
“Well, the first thing we’ve got to do is to organize it better,” I replied. “We can’t just throw a bunch of stuff in the fridge and wait for it to spoil. We’ve got to pick types of food.”
“Like carbohydrates? Proteins?”
“Exactly,” I said. “We’ve got to label each type, keep accurate records, make sure we get really good digital photographs. Then I can use our computer to put together our presentation.”
Gil’s eyes were alive with excitement.
“There’s not a science teacher in America,” I went on, “who wouldn’t be dazzled. Gil, I wouldn’t be surprised if they just skipped the science fair ratings and just handed us a Nobel Prize!”
“That would be nice,” said Gil. “As long as we still get to go to Niagara Falls.”


The next Saturday morning there was a knock at the front door. I ran to it—halfway expecting to see Gil, who’d been calling me just about every night. Maybe he’s gotten enough nerve to—
But it wasn’t Gil. It was Harriet. She had a book bag slung over one shoulder.
“Hi,” I said with surprise.
“Hi, Vickie,” she said, pulling open the screen door and walking right in the house. “I smell pancakes.”
“Yes,” I said. “Your nose remains your best feature.”
Harriet looked at me and smiled. Her teeth—after many trips to the dentist and orthodontist—were a dazzling perfect white. Straight as a picket fence. “Got any batter left?” she asked, heading for the kitchen.
I just followed her. Slowly.
By the time I got there, Harriet was already looking in the refrigerator. “I see it!” she cried. She reached in, pulled something out, and turned around with the bowl in her hand.
“You don’t want to eat that,” I laughed.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “I eat just about anything.”
“Well, if you eat that,” I said, “you’ll ruin our science fair project.”
Harriet stared at me. “You mean …?”
“Yes,” I said. “You’re holding a bowlful of spoiling yogurt.”
“Yuk!” She turned around and replaced it.
“The batter’s in the yellow bowl,” I said. “On the bottom shelf.”
She found it, put it on the table, opened another cabinet, found the electric griddle and placed it on the counter.
“This is still warm,” she said. “It won’t take too long to heat it up.”
“Hi, girls,” said Father, entering the kitchen.
Harriet smiled at my father; he smiled back. They really liked each other—they had almost immediately liked each other, right from the first day when the Eastbrooks moved into the house next door.
“I see you’ve found what you were looking for,” he said.
“Harriet never has a problem locating food,” I said.
“Well, just clean up your mess.” He put on his jacket and zipped it. “I’ve got to go down to the paper for a couple of hours,” he said. “But I’ll be back for lunch.”

“Lunch?” cried Harriet. “You’re making me hungry!” Briskly, she stirred the batter.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Any Advice?": Conclusion

I've written some recent posts in response to a query from a former student who was about to begin his student teaching. He asked for advice; so far, all I've given him--a bunch of stories (posted here) about my own experiences with it. But I haven't really answered his question directly. So ... here goes. These are not in any particular order--well, they're in the order I thought of them. Great organization!

  • Keep up with your work. It is really easy to fall behind with all the planning, grading, and whatever that's associated with teaching. It took me years before I finally figured out a schedule for doing everything--and I quickly learned that if I deviated from that schedule, I would soon be so far behind that a Cloud of Depression would settle over me until I caught up. One example: student essays. When I taught in a public middle school (and always had more than 100 students/day), I gave myself a week to return essays: The kids turned them in on Friday; I returned them the following Friday. I divided the number of essays by the number of days and graded that many every day--without fail. I did not go to bed until I'd finished. As a result, I did not get behind--although I did get awfully tired some weeks--especially during the times I was working on play productions.
  • Plan carefully. As the years went on, I didn't need to write down so much, but even the last week of my career I was making lists of things I wanted to cover and accomplish each period, questions I wanted ask, problems I wanted to raise, detours I wanted to take ...
  • Be as specific as you can about your expectations--for the year, the term, the week, the day. By the end of my career (and even somewhat earlier) I passed out (at the beginning of the year) an outline of our topics and my general expectations for them (promptness, etc..)--and for me. Each new marking period I would distribute a tentative calendar of our activities; at the end of each week I would give them a list of assignments for the following week. It's so easy nowadays to post this stuff on school sites--Moodle, Blackboard, whatever--so kids (and parents) can see what's coming. And it also eliminates the old I-left-it-at-wherever excuse. Go to Moodle; print out another one.
  • Give kids lots of chances for grades--and be specific about how you calculate your grades. The fewer the grades, the harder it is for a kid to recover from a (very normal) screw-up. I always tried to give lots of assignments and would drop the lowest grade or two each marking period. I think the kids appreciated that.
  • Keep kids informed about their progress. I liked to give students (every week or so) a slip of paper showing them their grade ... so far. This helped control some problems later on.
  • Be both predictable and unpredictable. Don't do the same thing every day; mix it up. I even tried to avoid doing a single thing all period; mix it up. Kids should know what's going on--but they love surprises, too (pleasant ones).
  • Vary your media. Use films, YouTube, audio, and mother media. Go on field trips with them. Each method appeals to certain (not all) kids--for, as you know, they all learn in different ways.
  • Be flexible. Sometimes a kid's question or comment will take you somewhere you didn't expect. Go there. I had colleagues (like Mrs. Kutinsky, a supremely gifted science teacher) who were much better at this than I, but I did learn from her not to be so rigid about my planning. The unexpected lead to revelation.
  • Have fun. I enjoyed myself in class, after I learned to relax a bit. I laughed with kids pretty much every day--and they were wondrous about dragging me out of dark moods. I would be sitting in my room before school, feeling depressed about something, and here would come the kids, swarming in, teasing, laughing, happy to see me (for the most part!). And I found myself ... buoyed. It never failed.
  • Realize that misbehavior is going to happen--and that it probably has nothing to do with you or your class. This one took me some time to learn, too. Early in my career I was offended by student misbehavior--assumed it was directed at me. But almost always this was not true. Something had happened at home, on the bus, in the hall, out at lunch, on the playground, in a previous class ...  And my room became the stage where the performance commenced or continued. That's all. Once I stopped taking it all personally, I found I was able to deal with things more calmly--and effectively (though not always, of course!).
  • Avoid sarcasm. Sarcasm is the basis of a lot of our humor, but it's hurtful. Early in my career I used it all the time. Then one day--at lunch--I heard a kid say, "Mr. Dyer can cut anybody down!" A quick surge of pride was followed by a longer tsunami of guilt. How am I making kids feel? I eased off, tried to eliminate it altogether, failed, but did much better.
  • Be kind. The Golden Rule is golden for a reason.
  • Don't be afraid to apologize to kids. I did it more and more often as the years went on--apologizing for something I'd said, done, not done. (Be surprised for some shocked looks around the room!)
  • Don't be afraid to admit you don't know. I had a problem with this one--early and late (insecure?). But I think kids can tell when you're bluffing--or lying--so it's better to just say you don't know and then show them how you would go about finding out. (I had a high school teacher who would make us look up anything she didn't know--that wasn't exactly a reward, was it?)
  • Find out who the best teachers in the school are and stick to them like barnacles. Early in my career I was fortunate to have in the building a solid core of outstanding veteran teachers--folks whose names will mean nothing to most of you, but to me? They are on my Educators' Mt. Rushmore. Mrs. Thomas (reading), Mrs. Kutinsky (science), Mr. Wright (math). And some others. I watched how they worked with kids, how they planned, how they earned the kids' deep respect. I wanted to be like them
  • Develop your own style--one that's consistent with your knowledge, skill, personality. There's no such thing as the best way to teach. There are myriads of ways--despite our current love affair with standardization. An example: Mrs. Shirkey was a veteran English teacher who joined our faculty when I was just a puppy. She was very traditional, very conservative. We clashed, early on, in department meetings. But ... she nominated me for department chair (!!), and as the years went on, I learned a tremendous amount from her. I could never have taught in her style, but I learned from her that conviction--belief--in what you are doing is a powerful trait to have. She had students who adored her, who flourished in her class--who would not have flourished, necessarily, with me. (This, by the way, is yet another argument against the standardization of teaching styles: Kids need a variety of folks in the building--need to experience the varieties of teaching excellence. Kids connect with some teachers, not with others. And if there's only one kind of teacher in the building, guess what happens?)
  • Read, study, travel, go to museums, films, plays, etc. Keep yourself interesting. Go back to school. Subscribe to interesting magazines. Cut stuff out of newspapers (remember them?) Go into class every day and talk about something you just read-learned-saw-thought about. Show kids that learning is fun--an essential part of your life--all through your life. I always liked to go see things related to what I was teaching. In the summers, Joyce and I drove all over the country to visit the homes of famous writers, to stand by their graves, to view scenes they'd written about. I toured Shakespeare's house, climbed the Chilkoot Pass (a prominent route in The Call of the Wild), visited the Anne Frank House and Castle Frankenstein and the British Museum and the beach where the body of the poor drowned Shelley washed up and the house where Mary Shelley first got the idea for Frankenstein and the homes of Edgar Poe and Willa Cather and Emerson and Hawthorne and Melville and Hemingway and ...  
There are surely some other things I've forgotten--maybe I'll revisit this topic in a later post.

And of course there's this: If I were 21 again, I'm not sure I would even go into teaching nowadays, now that academic freedom is disappearing, now that standardized tests are driving everything, now that school can be such an unsmiling, deadly serious place, now that creative teachers are a problem, not a boon.

But maybe it will take a strong new generation of young teachers to stand up, to reclaim the vast territories surrendered in recent decades to the Unsmiling Ones, the Testers, and Procrusteans. I hope so. Studying and learning have been among the great excitements in my life. How I hope they will be so for the youngsters of today!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 46

I convinced Gil to stop with me at the little diner about three blocks from my house. I liked that place—for several reasons. For one, it was a real family business, not just another fast-food franchise. For another, hardly any other kids ever went in there—it was a place where Franconia’s old people liked to go. A place to get a cup of coffee, read the newspaper, and complain about the weather and politics and the Cincinnati and Cleveland sports teams. I liked the privacy. And I liked older people. They were either friendly or they left you alone—a nice combination.
“Why are you upset, Gil?” I asked him after the server took our order.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about. Everyone gets upset about something,” I said.  “Even Mr. Gisborne.”
Gil sort of laughed. “Yeah, I noticed.” He took a deep breath. He was about to say something when our drinks came. I had a vanilla milkshake; Gil, a cherry Coke. He took another deep breath. “It’s kind of hard to explain,” he said. “But I’ve just always been interested in the falls. And I never thought I’d get the chance to see them. And then, out of nowhere …”
That seemed strange. Never get a chance to see them? Sometimes kids forget that they’re going to be adults one day and will be able to do whatever they want.
“Well, don’t worry about it,” I said. “We’ll get a Superior on our project. And you can splash around in Niagara Falls to your heart’s content.”
“How can we?” Gil asked. “We turned in a pretty dumb idea—refrigerator goop!—and Mr. Gisborne said there’s no changing once he’s approved the project.”
“There are lots of dumb ideas,” I said, “that turn out not to be so dumb.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, like the guy who figured out Post-It notes? That was basically a failed experiment.”
“What do you mean?”
“A friend of his at the 3-M company had developed an adhesive that wasn’t strong enough to really do anything, and so the formula for it was filed away—and nearly forgotten.”
“And so this other guy got the idea that this stuff that wasn’t really very sticky would be just right to put on little slips of paper to use as bookmarks. He was right, and he made a fortune.”
“So are you saying we’re going to get rich on our science fair project?” Gil smiled for one of the few times that afternoon.
I slurped the last drops of liquid from my shake. “No,” I said. “But we are going to win a trip to Niagara Falls.” I set down my empty glass. “You can bet on it.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Any Advice?": Part 5

The past week or so, I've written, on and off, in response to a question from a former student who's beginning his student-teaching experience. I wrote a bit about my own student teaching back in the winter of 1966; I wrote some about my experiences supervising student teachers when I had my own classroom later on.

But I forgot some other experiences I had during the 1978-1979 academic year. In the spring of 1978, Joyce and I (we had both just finished our Ph.D.'s) had left Ohio and moved to Lake Forest, IL (just north of Chicago), where we both taught at Lake Forest College--a school a lot like Hiram College (my alma mater), a small liberal arts school with history dating to the mid-nineteenth century. Hiram (1850), founded by the Disciples of Christ; Lake Forest (1857), by the Presbyterians. We lived in a grand old faculty house (brick--with a library!) right at the edge of the campus. Joyce was teaching in the English Department; I was chair of the Education Department--and, lest you think the position was too grand, I was the only full-time member of the department! The campus was so close we could--and did--walk to our classes.

Our son, Steve, was in first grade that year, and we had a crisis when we had to remove him from the local public school (he had a beast of a teacher, I'm afraid--and I am not exaggerating) and enrolled him in Lake Forest Country Day School, where he flourished and quickly recovered from the effects of Ms. Beast. While our savings account hurried south.

At Lake Forest, basically, I had turned into my father. He had chaired the Division of Education at Hiram College--had taught teacher-training courses--had supervised student teachers. Now I was doing the same things at Lake Forest. I knew in a matter of weeks, by the way, that I'd made a mistake, leaving Harmon School. I liked Lake Forest--college and community--and we made some lifelong friends there--but I hated my job. I found it dreary to be talking/teaching about ways to work with youngsters; it was far more fun to actually do it. And so by October of 1978 I was already looking to get out of there, to return to Ohio, to Harmon Middle School, if possible (it wasn't--no openings--did not get back there till the fall of 1982; I taught at Western Reserve Academy for two years, at Kent State, part-time, for a year, before I returned to Harmon, where I stayed until my retirement in January 1997).

I tried to be a good supervisor for my student teachers, who were scattered all over the North Shore in a variety of situations--from Montessori schools to city schools to rural ones--a little bit of everything. I tried to make my visits as non-threatening as possible, to make them as frequently as possible, to offer as much positive feedback as possible, to be as useful as possible. Fortunately, I didn't have any problems to speak of. The young educators were trying hard, were generally succeeding. None of them had problems with their critic teachers--or with their classes (nothing beyond the ordinary, that is). I wrote detailed observations each time I visited, had conferences with the students to go over my thoughts--and to find out, privately with them, how things were really going. In a way, it was the best part of my professional life at Lake Forest.

But it couldn't last. I wanted out of there--and out of there we went in the summer of 1979. We moved to Hudson, Ohio, where we would both teach at WRA. Joyce stayed ten years (until our son graduated); I stayed only two--had a hissy fit about my salary--resigned before I even had another job (not the smartest thing I've ever done)--worked part-time for a year (that was profitable)--finally landed back at Harmon in the fall of 1982, where I'd yearned to be since we'd left Ohio in 1978.

NEXT TIME: So what advice would I give young people entering teaching today?

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 45

No one could believe it. A trip to Niagara Falls! Around the room questions flew like frantic birds, but Mr. Gisborne answered only by passing out a sheet of paper with the details of the offer from P.T.O.
“I just got these flyers in my mailbox,” he said. “So you’re the first class to find out. So aren’t you special.” He could be sarcastic, Mr. Gisborne.
I read mine quickly. He was right. All seventh graders with a “Superior” rating would be going to Niagara Falls in November. P.T.O. was paying for the transportation; each student would have to pay for food and lodging—but the school had gotten some kind of deal. It would cost each person only about $100.
I looked over at Gil. He was reading intently, his face glowing with excitement. Or what looked like excitement. Sometimes it was hard to tell exactly what Gil was thinking and feeling.
After class, he waited for me outside the door. “Let’s walk home today,” he said.
“Sure.” I was surprised at his offer, of course. Gil was so unpredictable. He avoided me; he sought me out; he shunned me; he welcomed me—sometimes all within a single school day. But I figured there was something on his mind—and I had an idea what it was. So I agreed to walk. “But let me call my father,” I said. “He always wants to know if I’m not riding the bus.”

It was a beautiful mid-November day, and I knew Gil wanted to talk about the Niagara Falls opportunity. That was fine with me, and I was thinking maybe I’d find out why he was so interested in the falls.
We walked quite a ways before anyone said anything. I didn’t want to seem nosy, so I was going to wait for him to start things up. But when we were half-way home and he still hadn’t said anything, I couldn’t stand it any long.
“So why did you want to walk home today, Gil?”
“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”
“On lots of nice days we just ride the bus,” I said.
“Yeah.” His head was down.  He seemed interested in his shoes. Very interested.
“Are you thinking about the chance to go to Niagara Falls?”
I waited. But he didn’t seem ready to add anything else.
“And so do you think,” I went on, “that we ought to maybe try a little harder on our project?”
Gil continued to walk along, staring at his shoes.
“Well?” I said, starting to feel a little annoyed. “Do you?”
I stopped walking. Gil went on a few paces before he noticed I wasn’t with him. He stopped, turned, and looked back at me.
I was about to yell at him when I saw that both his eyes were wet with tears.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Any Advice?" Part Four

Throughout my career I had quite a few student teachers--including one very early in my career, a time when I had no business supervising someone (it was, I think, just my second year in the classroom). I never really had a problem with any of them--in fact, most of them were better prepared for the job than I had been back in the winter of 1966. Sure, they all had various weaknesses--and strengths (as all of us do)--but no serious problems at all. One young woman, though, surprised me when we were doing Shakespeare when she said she'd never known that West Side Story was based on Romeo and Juliet. She said this to me with such candor--and even enthusiasm (she was excited to know this)--that I didn't have the heart to say aloud what my mind was screaming.

I knew, also, that I would never do to a young person what CT had done to me. And so I stayed in the room a lot (every period for the first few weeks), giving feedback every free period, at the end of every day (trying to be encouraging, giving suggestions, trying to build confidence). Gradually, I would surrender the classes, but I very rarely stayed out the entire day. One thing was kind of funny: The kids were always kind of eager (especially later, when I was, you know, old) to be in the room alone with the fresh young face instead of with the withered old face. (You develop a thick skin, teaching middle school.) But after a bit, they were always (usually? sometimes?) ready to have me back.

Here's a little sample of the sort of feedback I'd give a student teacher each day or two. I've changed any details that might reveal an identity ...

Each week—at least once—I’ll give you some formal, written comments in this format. It’ll give both of us a record of my thoughts about your progress, and it will help you, I think, to focus on various things throughout your experience here at Harmon.

•           First of all. welcome to the school. I really am  happy to have you here and am confident that you will be a fine teacher with a long, productive career.

•           During this first week you’ve already begun to “loosen up” and to show some of your strengths to the kids—e.g., your sense of humor, your intelligence and wit, and your obvious desire to like them (and to be liked by them). I would encourage you to continue to move among the kids when you teach (as I suggested yesterday)—and during homeroom time, too. I know you probably don’t feel too sure yet that this is your room, too—but it is, and as you move among the kids during unstructured time—talking with them, listening to them—you really get to know them better; they get to know you better; and as a result the whole classroom climate will improve.

•           Have you ever been more tired? I remember the feeling from my own student teaching: Never had I worked so hard. been so emotionally drained. It’s not that the actual work that’s so difficult (try to explain this to a laborer!), but it’s just the constant tension and pressure that close contact with people (people you’re responsible for) that drains you Anyway, as tired as I know you are, I think you need to get here just a little earlier . . . you need to have time to set up the room for homeroom, make adjustments to things on the board, go over things with me (if you need to). Can you make it by 7:15? That, I think, would give you time to get things done without feeling too rushed.

•           I  thought your myths presentation went better and better as you seemed more and more sure just what it was that you wanted to accomplish with them. I forgot to remind you not to just go around the room in a regular reading pattern….. If your pattern is  too regular, then kids far down the line just “zone out” because they know they don’t need to pay attention for a while. You can tell this is the case because kids ask “Where are we?” when their tum arrives! On  the other hand, getting volunteers for reading aloud is a problem that is always more difficult in the fall when they are in different classes with different kids and with different teachers. So even experienced (elderly!) teachers have to work at this at the beginning of each year.

•           In a discussion, don’t be too alarmed by silence. (6th period you can be grateful for it!) What I mean is this: When you ask a question and don’t receive an immediate answer, don’t assume that your question was not clear enough. Sometimes—often even—it’s just that the kids are thinking. If you provide an answer too quickly—or too quickly give them “hints”—then they cease thinking when you ask questions and just wait for the answers or hints. Also, answering a thought-provoking question is not like answering a right-and-wrong factual question: It requires venturesome behavior from the kids, and this can be daunting for them—especially at this time of the year when they’re very concerned about their images, status with peers, etc.

•           I try not to bring food/drink into the class. (Sometimes my caffeine addiction dominates, and you’ll see me with coffee. Bad boy!)  Anyway, my experience is that in the long run the kids resent my having a drink or something when they’re not allowed to. Kids have a highly developed sense of fairness (it’s not always correct. but it’s highly developed!), and a teacher walking around with a cold drink on a hot afternoon sets their Fairness Meters in motion.

•           Re: 6th period.  Remember what I told you another time: EVERY teacher has disciplinary situations to deal with; every teacher has tough classes, tough periods, tough days.   Sixth period last year, in fact, drove me nuts for months.  It wasn’t, really, until after Christmas that I felt they were with me.  What we need to do is what you started to do yesterday: Identify the sources of the problem and correct them.  It may seem, at times, that it’s the entire class that’s being crazy, but it hardly ever is.  So we have to work hard to make sure those kids who are doing what they’re supposed to are not suffering because of the others.  I will continue to help you to the best of my ability.  As I reflect on it, I probably should not have intervened so directly  yesterday.   I know that it was probably a relief to have those four guys gone for a few minutes . . . but the kids have to begin to see you as the authority-figure, and if I’m the one zapping them, then I’ve not really done you a favor in the long run.

•           Well . . . enough You may not think so, but things are going well Things are normal And as you take more and more charge of what is done and how it’s done, you’re going to feel more and more satisfaction with your days—always realizing this: Some days, no matter what you do, no matter how brilliant and clever and witty you are, no matter what a wonderful. engaging lesson you’ve created, no matter what a great person you are . . . you will go home wishing you’d majored in aluminum siding. You will feel that when you’re student teaching: you will feel it [later in] your career (believe me).

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"Any Advice?" Part Three

When my student teaching ended in the late winter of 1966, I was exhausted--but I also felt I'd done pretty well. I figured that if CT (Critic Teacher) had been worried about me, he would have spent more time in my room than the four class periods he managed to make it during my ten weeks or so. And Hiram College didn't seem too worried, either (the supervisor came for only one period my entire tenure).

But Hiram College ... there was an issue that it's time to confess. My father, Prof. Edward Dyer, was the chair of the Division of Education--had been since the fall of 1956. Yes, he was in charge of the teacher-training at Hiram College. (Actually, he was about to finish his final year at Hiram; the next fall he and Mom were both on the faculty at Drake University in Des Moines, a university whose new president was Dr. Paul F. Sharp, former president of Hiram College and friends with my folks since undergrad days at Phillips University in Enid, Okla.) Anyway, I think I probably would have had to have been a spectacular failure before anyone would have said too much to me. Maybe not. (Yes, I had a course from Dad--that's meat for another blog sandwich.)

But I had other evidence I'd done okay. The kids liked me (well, most did); CT had told me repeatedly I was the best student teacher he'd had (always hard to tell what that means--I mean, what if his only other two student teachers had been serial killers?); there was even a chance for a job the next year at West Geauga High School. I wanted only a high school job, mind you. One of CT's warnings to me: Whatever you do, don't get stuck in a junior high school. Oh, no, sir--not I! (You wouldn't consider, oh, thirty years or so "being stuck," would you?)

In those days Hiram was on the quarter plan: three quarters during the traditional school year; a fourth quarter (optional) in the summer. My student teaching grade came in two parts: 12 quarter hours for "Student Teaching in High School" and 5 quarter hours for "High School Curriculum and Methods," a course taught by my Hiram supervisor. It never met, not once. The former grade--the 12-hour one--was a grade that CT got to award. And I was confident. Until I saw that 12 hours of B+ on my grade report (I got an A in the course that never met--pretty nifty, eh?). I was dumbfounded. I thought I was the best student teacher CT had ever had.

Surely a mistake, right? I approached my Hiram supervisor, who said he'd check it out. He got back to me: CT had told him that you can't be an A teacher when you're just a student teacher. What? Of course that's true. But I was not a teacher; I was a student teacher. No matter. The B+ stood--and still stands--as does my permanent determination to go find CT one day (if he still walks the surface of this planet), tap him on the shoulder, punch his face when he turns around, and, while he's struggling to his feet (yes, I will knock him down!), I will say: You can't be an A boxer when you're an old man.  Then I will deliver a few vicious kicks in a few sensitive areas before I release the hungry wolves I've brought along. Feeding time.

And now ... I think about that grade. Did CT really award it to me? Or was my Hiram supervisor just passing the buck?  Now I'm angry all over again!

NEXT TIME: When I became a CT, too, later on ...

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 44


“There was not a murder in this house,” Father finally said.
“I just read about it!” I cried. “In the newspaper over at the library.”
“Don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper,” laughed Father, who wrote for a newspaper.
I just stared at him. I couldn’t believe he was making a joke out of this.
“Okay,” he said finally, “the first reports were that he had been murdered—”
“And then?”
“And then later the investigators found out it was a suicide.”
“A suicide? But what about the marks on his neck? The impressions of fingers on his throat?”
“Self-inflicted,” said Father. “He wanted it to look like a murder. It was, I guess, his ‘last laugh’ on the community.”
“Very funny.”
“Well, there was probably another reason, too. In those days insurance companies didn’t pay life insurance claims on suicides, so maybe he was just trying to make sure that his family would get his insurance money.”

When I saw Gil in the hall at school on Monday, I told him what Father had said.
“Well,” he said, “I guess you shouldn’t stop doing research just because you find something interesting.” He seemed to think for just a moment. “It was a better story when it was a murder,” he said. “But I guess I can understand a suicide.”
“You can?”
“Sure. Can’t you?” His blue eyes blazed.

“I’ve got some great news,” said Mr. Gisborne in science class that afternoon.
I waited to hear some news from the world of football—the only world Mr. Gisborne had ever really seemed very interested in.
“About the science fair,” he continued.
There were groans and muttered complaints from around the room.
“No,” said Mr. Gisborne, “I know you’re going to like this.”
The class settled down just a bit.
“The Parent-Teacher Organization has decided to offer a great incentive for you to do your best.”
We waited in doubtful silence.
“For everyone who receives a ‘Superior’ rating at the fair,” said Mr. Gisborne, “there’s going to be a special field trip.”
“Where to? McDonald’s?” I heard a voice shout from the back of the room.
“McDonald’s? Well, I suppose there’s a McDonald’s there.”
“Where?” came a chorus of voices.
“At Niagara Falls.”

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"Any Advice?" Part Two

A few days ago I began a response to a FB query from a former student about to begin his student teaching. As is my custom, I got off the subject and wrote about my own student teaching--high school juniors in the winter of 1966 at West Geauga High School in Chesterland, Ohio. I noted that when I arrived at the school for my first day "on duty," I learned in the office that my critic teacher ("CT," I'm calling him) had called in sick and that I would be teaching his classes all day--unsupervised. BTW: This is now forbidden--as it should have been back in the winter of 1966 when I faced four different sections of English III having only learned minutes before that I was going to be their teacher for the day. RFD (Recipe for Disaster).

Actually, it wasn't that bad. I did have a bit of a hassle in homeroom (I had no idea what I was supposed to do), but some kids helped me figure it out (after one behemoth had tried to confuse me--not hard to do), and the clock hands--all day--seemed to be moving not through air but through peanut butter. Every time I looked at the clock, it looked back and seemed to say: I go really slowly, don't I, when you want me to go fast!? A lesson I'd already learned in the dentist's chair.

By the end of the day I was exhausted. I was a smoker in those days, and during my free period--and lunch--I smoked about four packs. And all teachers know: Time flies during free periods and lunch--but not the rest of the day.

In the car, riding home with Mike Furrillo, I shared my day with him, and he was kind of quiet, though he did indicate that he didn't think giving me those classes like that was a very good idea. (I agreed.) And, later, even my parents (I was living at home that term), who never said much about the other adults in my life, were ... concerned ... about what had happened.

Next day: A very healthy-looking CT arrived with a wide smile on his face. "I always do that with my student teachers," he crowed. "Sink or swim." I thought of many bad words that I dared not utter.

CT had a good time while I was there, I guess. He saw each of my four classes a single time. He wrote me short little notes with advice like Don't always call on the kids who have their hands in the air.  That sort of thing. But that was it.  Four classroom visits the entire term. My Hiram College supervisor was there for a period, as well, and wrote things like Don't always call on the kids who have their hands in the air.

That term was the hardest I'd ever worked in my life. The preparations for classes, the paper-grading, creating quizzes and tests, the anxiety (oh, the anxiety!) that never seemed to diminish.

I wasn't too imaginative. The kids had literature anthologies, and we basically plowed through them, reading poems and stories, most of which I'd read at Hiram College, which had an excellent English department. And I found myself doing and saying things that my favorite teachers had done. My high school algebra teacher, for example, when she made a mistake on the board, would always lie and say that she was just seeing if anyone would catch her. I never thought that was a good idea. So I developed a better one: A different kind of lie.

Example: We were reading "anyone lives in a pretty how town" by E. E. Cummings, and I had no clue what that poem was about in the winter of 1966. Here it is, smarties:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone's any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came

sun moon stars rain

So I zipped through it, said a few sage (?) things, and moved on--or, rather, tried to move on. A smart kid named Ed (naturally, my father's name) said, "I think there's a whole lot more to it than that."

"Oh, yes," I lied, lied, lied, "but we need to move on ..."  Actually, we didn't need to move on; I did.

After school I would find CT in the teachers' lounge, relaxing after a full day of coffee and cigarettes and laughter (and naps?). "How'd it go?" he'd ask. "Great," I'd lie. "Great," he'd say. "You're doing a great job."


NEXT TIME: Some things I did during student teaching--then: how I dealt with the student teachers I had later in my career.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, Part II: 43

I confess it right now: I felt a whole lot different when I went home that night. I felt a whole lot different when I walked into that house, when I walked by the parlor—my favorite reading room. Where, long ago, corpses had lain for viewing …
Father was in his study, probably reading. I knocked at the door, smiling as I did so. He had a sign on his door, the same one that the author Jack London had posted on the door of his study back in the early 1900s:


I heard Father’s voice from inside: “Can’t you read!”
“No, I can’t,” I yelled at him. “My mean father has kept me illiterate my whole life.”
“In that case,” came his voice through the wooden door, “come on in, you poor abused child.”
He looked over the tops of his glasses at me, put down his book. I bent my head to see the title. I always did that when I saw people reading—in school, at the library, wherever. Nosy, I know, but I couldn’t help it—can’t help it. Father was reading Mary Shelley’s novel Lodore.[i]
“I haven’t read that one yet,” I muttered.
Father looked at me. “It’s pretty good,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe where some of it takes place—”
“You’re changing the subject,” I said.
“What subject?”
“I haven’t told you yet.”
Pause. Waiting.
“Did you find what you needed at the library?” he finally asked. “You’d been there so long, I was about to come over and see if you were all right.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. I found out what I needed … in fact, I found out a lot more than I needed to know.”
“Well, that’s good,” he said, looking back down at Lodore.
“I found out,” I went on, “about this house.”
Father looked up.
“About the murder in this house. The one you never told me about.”
Father’s eyes never left my face.

[i] Mary Shelley’s novel Lodore was published in 1835, seventeen years after the publication of Frankenstein.