Friday, April 29, 2011

I should probably get that bag of recycling from 2009 out of my trunk.

Sometimes I get lazy.

This actually happens quite a lot, but it's rarely too terribly visible to the outside world. If I get lazy about, say, shaving my armpits, it's no biggie. Only one person is ever really close enough to them to even notice, and he doesn't seem to care. Every now and then I'll realize that I'm getting a bit shaggy about the pits at an inconvenient time, like while putting my hair up at the gym or while chaperoning a dance in a sleeveless dress, but I can easily mitigate that by just keeping my damn arms down.

Often, I get lazy about correcting student work or planning lessons in advance, but the only person who really suffers for that is me, since I need to do everything eventually anyhow. My seventh graders usually couldn't care less what grade they got on one paragraph one time, which shows me that I have them very well trained to focus on learning rather than grades. (This is a strategy that is both pedagogically sound and a glorious accommodation for my frequent lapse in professionalism.) Regardless, I have the roughly twice a month day from hell in which I have to edit and grade sixty-one papers, plan for the next day, and inevitably juggle a pile of other professional minutiae while magically working in dinner, sleep, and bathroom trips. Funsies.

I know that with another human being literally depending on me for his or her very existence to successfully continue (that'd be you, Batman), I will need to mend - or at least modify - my slothful ways. Don't get me wrong: shit gets done. I cook food, bills get paid, errands get run, cat boxes get scooped (often enough), exercise gets done, and I sometimes even have time to do my toenails and gussy up my hair before I leave the house. Still, I know I need to streamline a bit.

I used to hate, hate, hate to clean my room. Even now, our bedroom is...questionable...most of the time, but when I was living with my parents, it was a horrific pit. Indiana Jones would literally crap his chinos with fear at the prospect of spelunking in the landslides of junk that occupied my room. Watching the show "Hoarders" now, I wonder how my parents didn't force me to seek psychiatric help. I didn't NEED all that stuff, and I honestly didn't even want it there. There were times when I was so repulsed by my living space that I read myself to sleep under the blankets with a flashlight just so I didn't need to see it while dozing off.

Really...I was just lazy. I couldn't be bothered to clean, no matter how often my parents threatened to ground me or revoke sleepover privileges, so eventually they got so fed up that they hired someone to do it for me. Before you start thinking "hmm, I'll bet she just went out back to the stables and rode her gold-plated pony all afternoon while eating teriyaki peacock skewers," let me remind you that my parents were solidly lower middle class for most of my childhood. HIRING someone to do something only happened if none of us could do it, like installing new carpeting or cleaning the chimney. This was an utterly unprecedented occurrence, and what did I do with my beautifully organized new space? Turn it back into a shithole within six months. Yup.

The moral of this story (aside from "don't bother to hire someone to clean your kid's room, just lock them in there until it's done") is that until you decide to make a positive change for yourself, anything anyone does to "fix" or "improve" the problem is just a temporary fix. Once I decided (in college) to be responsible for my living space, it got infinitely better. Now I deep clean at least three or four times a year, with roughly bi-weekly regular-strength cleanings, and it NEVER gets so cluttered that it is really embarrassing. Why? Because I want to. I actually kind of like cleaning now, and I will ride you like the pony I never got if your room ever gets half as messy as mine was.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Reality check: why am I doing this?

Consider some of the "great writers" time. My experience at a small, private liberal arts college (however flagrantly and showily out of the mainstream it may have been) exposed me to a veritable cornucopia of literary and other composed works dedicated to or inspired by lovers, admired public figures, friends, pets, and just about everything else from cars to certain features of the anatomy. Even if the author's intended consumer, target, appreciator, critic, or what have you was simply "whoever picks up and reads this thing what I wrote," or "I'm just doing this for myself, bee-yotches," there was still someone - anyone - on the receiving end of that writing.

You don't exist yet beyond the simple physiological reality that some egg floating around in my lady-parts will eventually combine with some lovingly contributed genetic goodies to make you. You are, in fact, the kind of abstract possibility that I can accept about as readily as aliens. There's a really good chance you're somewhere, but until I get proof, I'll just keep watching reruns of "The X-Files" and daydreaming fondly of your potentiality. You are, put simply, a perfect audience.

I love writing, and over the years, my aspirations have shifted from, "I will write the great American novel!" to, "Maybe I'll publish my own short story collection!" to, "Er...I should try to publish anything, or at least spend more than an hour or two a month trying to write at some coffee shop," to finally, "Crap, I haven't written anything in ages; this is getting sort of lame, so maybe I'll start a blog?" Thankfully, with that depressing progression came the realization that personal essays are probably the medium in which I will have the greatest success. I love talking about myself (you're welcome, internet readers!), and the fact that I am quite anal-retentive about the mechanics of language becomes a stylistic boon in that particular format. I basically got kicked out of my college's creative writing program for adhering too closely to commonly accepted rules of usage, so this is my quiet revenge.

Okay, so a blog is a good idea. It forces me to spend deliberate and meaningful time writing. It's a nice opportunity to continue practicing my written voice, my execution of stylistic application, and the self-aggrandizement that basically doesn't come out (except by accident or Freudian slip) in my normal daily routine. If my experience as an educator has taught me nothing, it's that there is a profound need for an authentic audience for any assignment. Who's going to read that paper? Your teacher? Big whoop: you can phone that in, keep it totally generic, and still get a passing grade. Wait, it's being sent to the town newspaper as an editorial, to be read by every damn person in your postal code? Shit, you'd better check your commas and not repeat the phrase "I guess I think..." sixteen times.

That's where you come in. You are my authentic audience. If I was just vomiting my opinions and weird childhood reflections onto the internet, I really don't think I'd be any better than certain egocentric celebrities who have built cults of personality based solely upon their ability to put stuff in or on other stuff in a pleasing fashion. (I still buy the magazine in airports sometimes, I'll admit.) Batman, I know it will be a while before I let you read this, and not just because I believe strongly in the right of every individual to swear whenever it is fitting to the situation. Still, knowing that someday, someone who will doubtlessly mean the world to me will read this and know me better for it...that's all the motivation I need.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Don't make me get my beat stick.

I reeeeally hate the fact that teaching in a public school means that I have to impose disciplinary consequences for kids who are basically just acting their age. I'm pretty fluffy-bunny when it comes to discipline at all, regardless of whether it's for kids or adults. I firmly believe that preventing bad behavior is both more effective and just generally better than imposing punishment after something happens.

This, however, is kind of a best-case scenario. You don't always have the opportunity to teach someone the good behavior you want them to practice, like when some asshat cuts you in line at the grocery store. Had I known this person in her earlier, more formative years, or even twenty minutes ago when she wasn't in the process of nearly crushing my toes while frantically racing to pay for her three shallots, Moxie, hard taco shells, nail polish remover, and light bulbs, I might have been able to share with her the notion that "cutting people in line is rude, and one ought not do it if one wishes to be looked upon fondly by surrounding strangers in public environs." Alas, my only recourse in a situation like this is to either make angry faces at her and hope that someone sympathizes, or turn into a ranting bitch and make the situation worse by trying to verbally shame the offender, inevitably just making her annoyed and in no way shape or form resolving the situation.

Working with seventh graders is EXACTLY like that, except that you do have some chance of modeling or setting expectations for good behavior. Kid wallops another kid in the face with a notebook ("because he was annoOOoying me!")? Okay, clearly I was relying on kindergarten teachers to set some ground rules about that one, but I am stuck playing disciplinarian now. You with the notebook? Go to the office and get yourself punished by someone with greater authority than I have. You with the oozing scratch on your eyelid? Go to the nurse, but when you come back, we're having a serious conversation about how to treat classmates.

At the best of times, I can spend little tidbits of transitional times modeling and explaining the kind of behavior I want to see. When we get back from a vacation, long weekend, snow day, etc... I usually start class by telling the kids how well I KNOW they can behave and focus on being awesome students. I use the word awesome a lot, possibly too much, but it's a hell of a lot better than one of my coworkers telling them to "act their age." Uhm, I'm sorry, thirteen and fourteen year olds ARE acting their age when they spend an entire class flirting with the guy they like by kicking him under the table, stealing his pencil, and whispering jokes that cause him to laugh and get yelled at by the teacher.

Maybe my disciplinary strength really lies in having reasonable expectations. When I read a passage with a character named "Gaylord Smitts," there are going to be giggles. Rather than screaming for them to be respectful, mature, or whatever, I say "yes, yes, that's a name that someone with a not-yet fully developed sense of social conscience would find humorous, so get it out of your system and let's get back to our reading." A few snickers make it out, and then they get embarrassed and we can move on. Lesson learned, situation squashed, and no harm done. Heck, our one student with parents who are gay looked smug, so I figure I did okay.

I guess where I'm going with this, Batman, is that if you do something just plain stupid, like allow cutsies in line at an ice cream stand on a really hot day on a boardwalk with jillions of screaming kids already waiting behind you, you deserve some kind of consequence. If you KNOW you're doing something wrong, or doing wrong by someone, nut up and accept some discipline. On the other hand, knowing not to in the first place saves everyone a lot of angst, so I will do my best to help you know right from wrong, acceptable from unacceptable, and face-punch worthy from not-face-punch worthy. Note: I'm firmly against any sort of physical consequences for poor behavior, save those accidentally caused by the misbehaving individual (i.e. stack of jostled stuff falling on head), but I can't be accountable for that guy you cut in the ice cream line whose kids have been screaming in his face for the last six hours.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Holy moly, I'm bored.

So, one of the glorious duties expected - nay, demanded - of teachers is to be available for some ungodly long chunk of time at least once a year for parent/teacher conferences. At the elementary school level, I gather that teachers share developmental and social concerns, review the adorable activities and projects that they do, and generally fuss over who the kid is and who everyone wants him or her to be. This might be difficult for a teacher to pull off for 20+ kids in the span of one night, but there is a crucial difference between the parents of elementary students and the parents they become once those little darlings cross the border into middle and high school.

At the high school where I worked for the 2009-2010 year, parent/teacher conferences ran from 2:00PM to 7:00PM one night, then 12:00PM to 4:00PM the next day. They were supposedly "student-led," which basically meant that the kids were supposed to show up and talk a lot. (Few kids showed up, and of those who did, even fewer said more than a few words.) Parents scheduled a twenty minute block of time through the ladies in the school office, so we didn't even know who was showing up until the day of conferences.

Inevitably, it was the parents of kids who basically don't need adult intervention in their education who showed up. One parent (whose daughter had never earned less than a 95% on any assignment, and who behaved almost unrealistically perfectly) spent his twenty minute conference - and my next two appointment blocks, which otherwise would have been my only free time in the day - telling me all about the problems with the American legal system. His wife, I gathered, was attempted to bamboozle him out of his every possession as they divorced, and her "crooked" lawyer was allowing this to happen. Honestly? Is this my business? I think not.

Sometimes parents of kids who really needed some parental support would actually show up. One such mother sat across the table from me, grunted as I shared my observations, then told me that her kid was probably never going to amount to anything anyhow because of his asshole, alcoholic father. Another set of parents did truly seem to care, and were even receptive to the idea of tutoring or an extra study hall to help their daughter get up to speed, but they only realized in the nineteenth minute that they were talking to an English teacher, not math, and instantly lost interest.

Sure, it is awesome to share with caring, involved parents how wonderfully their child is benefiting from their obvious support and guidance. It is a truly beautiful moment when the downtrodden parent who tries his or her best to do right by their kid (despite divorce, poverty, illness, etc...) realizes that their child has grown into an accomplished and dynamic human being. Even when the kid is really struggling, it makes my heart soar to see parents who are ready to buckle down and help in any way they can. Do you know how many times I have been involved in one of these situations? I don't think I even need both hands.

Parents of high schoolers are notoriously checked out, whether it be because they want to let their kid "be an adult" (I call shenanigans on unguided relinquishment of responsibility), because they have just stopped putting forth the effort as a parent, or because something else in that adult's life takes priority status. Parents of middle schoolers are somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, they are still involved...sorta...but they are also somewhere on the road to either giving up or letting go.

Yesterday, I was stranded in my classroom for six and a half hours for "student-led conferences." In this case, they actually were student led! Maybe it's the natural enthusiasm that lingers in middle schoolers from their elementary days, or maybe it's that age's lingering desire to please parents and other adults they respect, but every single one of my kids who showed up yesterday sat down, pulled out the reflection sheet they'd prepared in class with me, and talked their parents through their strengths, weaknesses, successes, and failings with (mostly) great detail. Put simply? There was basically no reason at all for me to be there. I stood and awkwardly observed these conferences happening before me, and essentially served no purpose but to look up grades if someone asked me to.

I was bored. Really bored. As a teacher, it's not uncommon to do things that are in and of themselves unexciting, like discuss the conversion to a standards-based teaching and learning system with a bunch of teachers who still think not performing and enunciating the pledge of allegiance perfectly is a detention-able offense. In a situation like that, I know I am serving some purpose, even if that purpose is just to be a body in the room possessing an specific opinion. At these conferences, a cardboard cutout of myself might actually have been more effective; parents would have been able to see and recognize my face, and I wouldn't have given off awkward vibes while I hovered over them.

Batman, I can promise you that I will always go to your parent/teacher conferences, even if you don't want me to. As a teacher, I know that your teachers will probably dread conferences with me more than other parents (teachers are often aggressively wary of one another), but that's all the more reason for me to show up and show your teachers that I have high expectations for you and them.

If we ever encounter something like this "student-led" business, you can bet I'll be there, but I'll also bring a sudoku puzzle or something for your teacher. Yesterday, I resorted to scouring the internet for pretty clothes, reading up on completely fluffy world news, and (after cleaning and organizing my classroom as best I could) chatting online with a handful of people who seemed shocked that I had so much free time on a school day. Put simply, I'll acknowledge that teachers are human beings, too, not just cardboard cutouts. Maybe I'll even bring a cardboard cutout of your teacher so she or he can sneak off for a quick nap...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Lesser-est of Two Evils

When I was in elementary school, there were two bus stops near my house. I did not have the vocabulary to accurately describe the difference between the two stops until I read "The Odyssey" in ninth grade. From the safety of my house - squarely centered on the block - I could choose to brave either Scylla or Charybdis. Despite Odysseus' heroic transcendence of both obstacles, when I was eight, no one had thought to share a copy of his tribulations with me. I was left to flummox with the decision, and, as my panicked, undeveloped self knew then, there really was no right one.

At one end of the block was the Scylla-like hell-beast I will lovingly title "Jerk-face." Jerk-face was the youngest of three boys, and although he was only two years older than me, he was a leviathan. He towered nearly six feel tall, and had a gut that hung like a damp sack of rice over the waistband of his sweatpants. Jerk-face ate anywhere from two to four packages of either Pop-Tarts, toaster pastries, or some other pre-wrapped breakfast pastry product for breakfast, and always littered his wrappers on the lawn of the sweet old couple whose house was on the corner. He and I were most often alone for the five to fifteen minutes before the bus arrived, and he was the type of bully who presented an angelic face to adults, then turned to show you the glowing embers of hell-fire in his eyes behind their backs.

Unless I timed my arrival to be almost concurrent with that of the bus, Jerk-face took advantage of every second of our time together to injure me in ways that were virtually undetectable by the school nurse or my mother when I went to one for treatment. Jerk-face could punch literally anywhere on a prepubescent body without leaving a mark. He could force you to eat anything from old leaves to small rocks (although I developed a strategy of hiding stuff in my cheeks that probably saved me from a lot of potentially dubious snacks shared with me by college classmates). Jerk-face's worst punishments came way after the fact: he would blame me for any perceived slight to his appearance or intellect, none of which I was stupid enough to perpetrate in the first place, then attack me during recess, while I was playing in my yard on the weekend, or really any time adults were not present. I was pelted with BB's, splattered with mud, pushed over onto asphalt, and forced to punch visiting friends while he watched, cackling like a hungry ghost starving for the nourishment only my suffering would provide.

The Charybdis at the other end of the block presented a far more subtle danger. I'll call them "Demon A" and "Demon B." Demon A was a scrawny, freckled, baseball cap-wearing little asshat who most enjoyed teasing me for my weight and not-so-stylish second-hand clothes. Demon B was the kind of chubby that adults still considered "baby fat," and he liked to bump me with his gut while telling me how much everyone else in our class hated my guts (oh, the irony). Since both boys were in my grade, some combination of us ended up in the same classroom every year, and in fourth grade, we were all in Mr. O'Brien's class. He was an exceptional teacher - really top-notch - but he suffered a back injury mid-year and was temporarily replaced by a woman who utterly ignored the obvious bullying happening in the room.

My life rapidly became a living hell. Not only was my awesome teacher no longer there to get my back, but my mother decided that I really needed to make nice with the Demons since we had to spend the whole year together. She called the Demons' parents, complained about the bullying, and suddenly everything they did grew quieter, subtler, and almost impossible for an adult to overhear or notice. Nice one, Mom.

What could I have done, Batman? I had one obvious choice. I started lurking in the whatever shrub or bush looked densest near either bus stop, and I would leap out and bolt for the bus as soon as either the Demons or Jerk-face had already gotten on. I did miss the bus a few times this way because my backpack or clothes got caught in the branches, but it was totally worth it. Was this necessarily the best problem-solving strategy? Probably not. Did I survive until middle school with a drastic reduction in social and physical abuse? Heck yeah. This, Batman, is the kind of conflict avoidance that yields the most positive results: if you know someone will just sucker-punch you in the solar plexus when you try to overcome their douchebaggery, it's better to hide in the bushes and know that their uppance will come.

The real win came my last week of high school when I learned that Demon B hadn't been accepted to ANY colleges because of his hideous disciplinary record, and that Jerk-face (who had graduated before us) had dropped out of school and was employed as a paper pusher in some hideously boring government basement. Demon A, on the other hand, approached me at graduation to ask if I thought it was as funny as he did that he used to torture me so. I told him it wasn't funny at all, and he seemed confused. In front of his current girlfriend (who I gather dumped him during their first semester of college), I asked him if he thought it was funny as funny as I did when he crapped his pants in kindergarten. Surprisingly, he did not agree.