Love, per an Old Sap

Boy, I love this line of work.

I love how four boys today during Advisory (aka X-Time) researched for some inexplicable reason “cowcatchers” and then drew a detailed multicolor diagram on the classroom dry-erase board, complete with cow, sun, clouds, birds, and of course cowcatcher-equipped locomotive. From a distance, the “cow” looked like a giraffe, because of its “←cow” label which extended upward from the brown lump on legs.

I love how the same boys begged me not to erase their work until the end of the day, which meant projecting LA-related visuals over it for two class periods, which was totally fine with me. 8th and 9th period know what cowcatchers are now, too.

I love how much these boys smiled when they re-entered the classroom for LA this afternoon.

I love how when I shared the first line of a GoodReads.com summary of today’s Book Hook, Five Feet Apart — “Can you love someone you can never touch?” — one boy in 2nd period impulsively said a slow, drawn-out “yeeeessssss…”, before catching himself. I laughed out loud, and said: “Um, that was a rhetorical question.” And, by the way, I think that boy is, in fact, in fourteen-year-old love as we speak.

I love how during yet another wave of standardized testing (“Illinois Assessment for Readiness!”  — our local repackaged PARCC), Will could not for the life of him sit still. As the clock ticked away toward the final 15 minutes of the seventeen years 105 minutes provided, and all students were long done, I wrote on the board “Sign Language Lesson: ‘Will needs to sit still’, and slowly, twice, signed the sentence to the class, which they silently practiced back to me, grinning.

I love how Will then produced a scrawled message on his piece of scratch paper: “That is impossible”, and held it up for his class neighbors to see.

I love how much I’m going to miss Will once June 1 arrives.

I love how Kyle says “Thank you, Mr. Carlson” every time he leaves 3rd period LA.

I love how 9th-period kids always groan when I stop our 12 minutes of read-aloud, especially when we’ve only recently started They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, and they’re captivated.

I love asking quiet, introverted Mackenzie what song I should play during the passing period, and she always smiles and says “anything”.

I love how Jack tells me via stream-of-consciousness about the incredible book he has just pilfered from his older sister’s collection, and it’s about the thickest possible YA book on the surface of this planet, which he ironically wedges into the tiny basket on his knee scooter upon which he flies — almost literally flies — through the wing as his fractured tibia heals.

I love how the other Jack will be back tomorrow, even though he has been suspended these past two days due to bullying others, because it will be good to see him, and he deserves another start, and he belongs here.

I love how much these kids make my eyes sting with tears when I think about what they mean to me and how my heart will break a little bit about 115 times over when they walk out that door for the last time at the end of their 8th-grade year.

I love what an old sap I am.

I love these kids.

I am so blessed. I love this line of work.

A Curricular Caste System

It’s Monday, and it certainly felt and looked and sounded and smelled and tasted like Monday. And that was before late afternoon.

A Monday came crashing down to something much worse than simply the first day of what is to be a long week.  By 4:30 this afternoon, word spread throughout the wing that significant and difficult changes are coming for next year, and even more so for the year following.

Late last week, all teachers of Science and Social Studies were asked to meet with the principal and the director of human resources at 3:15 today. They were advised via the union reps that this meeting, although with its veiled agenda, would not be about cuts in staff or job security. The appeasement, however, was short-lived.

Kelly, a fellow 8th-grade teacher (and former student of mine, #grandpaofthewing) appeared in my doorway. “I want to give you the heads up,” she said. “That Science/Social Studies meeting did not go well.” And she coached me to be ready to console my Science teammate, Bridgett.

It turns out the Science teachers, in particular, were hit hard. Beginning next year, they will be teaching an Exploratory class (in this case, First Aid, Coding or Computer Ed) in addition to their four sections of grade-level science. They will no longer have an Advisory period, and in effect, will be detached from the rest of their middle school team during that vital period of the day. It is during the midday Advisory (or “X-Time” as it’s called here, a boldly generic title) that 8th-graders seek input from their teachers, remediate skills, and further develop relationships with peers and adults alike. The exclusion of one-fourth of the adult team during these 40 minutes is a punch in the gut for middle-school teaming integrity.

The following year, all Social Studies teachers in the building of 1500 students will similarly be required to teach an Exploratory class. By 2021, many Science and Social Studies teachers in the building will have three completely disparate preps — and no meaningful Advisory/Home Room/”X-time” (or X-Files, as I like to call it … the truth is out there …) with students. In other words, 50% of academic core teachers will be unavailable to students during their advisory class period.

The lowering in status of Science and Social Studies curricula and relevance continues. All roads lead to the only two subject areas routinely tested: Reading and Math. Teachers in all other disciplines have been advised to “support the Math and ELA Standards” through the work they do. In effect, what is being created is a caste system across multiple subject areas, with students and parents alike receiving the consistent and firm message that some subjects are more important than others.

The spiral of deterioration, accelerated significantly this afternoon, is maddening. Students’ choice and voice are being squelched while teachers’ passions and effectiveness are being compromised. It’s plain wrong all the way around.

I hurt for my colleagues who had the air knocked out of them today. I am angry about the minimizing of what they do so well with their expertise and experience. I am angry, too, that students will lose vital daily access to 1/2 of their middle school team of teachers.

A pivotal question persists: how do such financially-motivated, philosophically aberrant decisions make us better teachers and our students better learners?

Bully

It’s getting dicey in the 8th-grade hallways.

We are a week away from Spring Break.  It seems that all of us have a subconscious tendency to slowly roll toward shut-down mode when we know that a much-needed respite is on the horizon. But are teenagers inclined to shut down significantly sooner? It sure seems so. This is absolutely the most difficult week of the school year to motivate kids to concentrate and do their best. And to compound the challenge factor, we adults are simply exhausted.

Not so coincidentally, we had a significant bullying situation peak this past Friday. And come to think of it, “peak” underscores how the adults in a school only see the tip of what takes place, right?  In this case, a single observed exchange between two boys as we were settling into 2nd period set the dominos in motion. After a couple of brief but intense conversations with the apparent target as well as a close female friend of his, it became readily apparent that an ongoing pattern of harassment had been taking place for several weeks. It was so impressive to witness these two students’ unflinching rejection of the culprit’s persistent attempts to cut them down, both directly and through carefully-planted rumors. Once confirmed, all of us teachers on the team were keenly sensitized to “D’s” nefarious words and nonverbals, and he was suspended by mid-day Friday.

I’m proud of the two who stood strong. They became a target because they had subtly shown their disapproval of D’s disruptive and rude behavior. Other kids are intimidated by him, so they tend to laugh along with his antics, lest they themselves stand out as prey.  D was unaccustomed to anyone suggesting that he was less-than-best, and he reacted in what is apparently the only way he knows how.

It is all such a complex and sobering psychological web, the predator and prey nature of early adolescence.  Not that 14-year-olds are vicious. Most are the opposite: thoughtful, kind, compassionate when it comes down to it.  I wouldn’t want to teach any other age group. Still, it’s disconcerting to see some victimized through cruelty, taunting, and rumor-mongering. And it’s equally troubling to observe the victimizers, who lash out perhaps due to their own trauma and insecurities, unaware of the path they are following into adulthood. Childhood bullies often grow up to be adult bullies.

Our nation is bearing all too heavily the harsh impact of one of those. And certainly, our children are listening — and some, indeed emulating.

Dear Mr. Iger – My Name is Connor Carlson.

“My name is Connor Carlson. I daydream write my Connor’s Story book.”

Connor is our 26-year-old son, and these are the first sentences of a letter of application he wrote this past week to the CEO of Walt Disney, Inc. He crafted the letter independently, about two dozen sentences in length, unbeknownst to Ellen and me. Along with the letter, he produced eight pages of story and movie ideas, including titles and lists of characters.

I was kid at Deaf Drama schools.

Connor suffered a massive stroke at the age of two, as a result of complex congenital heart defects. The stroke destroyed all language capacity, both expressive and receptive. Despite the many challenges, he is an intelligent, creative, funny and personable young man.

I will bring my Connor’s Story book. I write 5 more stories. Animated films and hybrid with live action and animated.

His dream is to write screenplays for Walt Disney. Since a young age, he has been captivated by all things Disney. He continuously brainstorms ideas, adaptations, and sequels. He also corresponds frequently with the American Chillers series author, Jonathan Rand, whom he has met in person (and who is a generous, caring and inspiring person, by the way).

I don’t want waiting will old man too late. I’m saving young now. I’m 26. I never met girl. I wish love fell girl.

Perhaps more than anything, Connor wants what he perceives to be a normal adult life. He wants to love and be loved and to attain the dignity of meaningful work. No money in the world can buy this life, no parents in the world can make this happen for their son. But more than anything, Ellen and I want this for him, as well.

I learned read Fairy Tales books from Scandinavian and Ireland and Russian and African. I like read The Disney Book.

I don’t know that Connor has ever seen or read a letter of application.  His ability to identify his qualifications, as he sees them, for a job at Disney was learned on his own. In the letter, he also firmly states his opposition to R-rated movies, citing how when he was 11, a “deaf bully his name Max bad finger at me” shaped his views of “bad R rated”.

I’m have problem naughty people belong R rated. People have sign bad words marched in Washington DC.

(The man has his standards, by the way …)

As Connor’s father, I am not sad about the life he does not yet have. Rather, his letter fills me with hope and joy.  Realistically, of course, he will not land a job as a screenwriter for Walt Disney, Inc. But his mind is sharp and his heart is hopeful and his spirit willingly confronts obstacles.

He fully intends to mail his letter to Mr. Bob Iger, CEO. Who knows what Mr. Iger will make of it. After all, there’s a whole lot going on in that letter. Maybe, given the massive corporate web, Mr. Iger won’t see it. Someone will, though. And that someone will undoubtedly recognize the existence of a remarkable young man’s dream, a dream he owns and continues to nurture.

Dream on, Connor Joseph. Keep writing and keep reaching. You have a beautiful life ahead.

Blue Moons with Ginny

Early yesterday morning, I had the impulse to text a friend, asking if I could swing by after work to “visit”. We always “visit”. It’s a vestige of her 1950s childhood.

Ginny has been a significant part of my life and my family for about 25 years now. We first came to know each other when we were placed on a teaching team together at our middle school. Although we were able to be teammates for only four years before teams were scrambled again, we formed what is a lifelong bond during that time. In fact, to superglue that bond, Ellen and I asked her if she’d be the godmother for our youngest son, now 18. (She said yes, by the way.)

I cherish visiting with Ginny. She taught me the art of conversation: ask lots of questions and laugh often. She is funny, engaging, intelligent, despises Trump (oops! did I write that?), and her love knows no bounds. In turn, my three boys, Ellen and I consider her family. It is instinctive for us to include her in all holidays and family events, major and minor. (You should’ve seen our Arbor Day celebration last year.  Can you say deciduous?)

Before yesterday, I had not spent any reasonable time with Ginny in weeks. The slog of the late-winter school year was on, and although it would’ve been easy for me to take a break and meet her for Starbucks or such, I hadn’t made the move. But I took the initiative yesterday, weary after a long, full pre-Spring-Break week, and looking forward to a couple hours of her company.

I picked up a six-pack of her favorite beer (Blue Moon) between the middle school and her house. Although she did have to make last-minute snack shuffles (subbing the carefully arranged cookies and washed grapes for pretzels and mixed nuts), she was thrilled to have an impromptu Friday Happy Hour over a frosty one (or two).

Ginny is 79. And although she is as vibrant as ever, she is experiencing a part of life which I can not yet relate to. She is witnessing the passing on of beloved family and friends. As we laughed and talked about the goings-on at the middle school she taught at for 25 years and still misses, and the antics of her godson afflicted with horrible senioritis, I happened to see on the side table next to her a handful of black-and-white photo booth pictures. Ginny saw me glance at them and picked them up.

She laughed, again. “Oh, lord, look at these,” she said. “These are Jane and me, from senior year in high school.” I took the three or four strips. There, two beautiful young women from 1957 smiled, struck glamorous poses, and made fish faces. They were wonderful.

“Jane is in hospice as of yesterday,” Ginny said. “Pancreatic cancer is a mean, mean disease.” And she began to tell me stories about her friend, their past and present. I held the photo booth pictures while Jane’s wild and whacky personality came to life through her beloved friend’s words. I had known that Jane had been diagnosed with cancer about a year ago. But I had not known that her health had deteriorated to such a point in recent weeks.

Maybe when two people like Ginny and I have such a connection, they develop an instinct for when each other needs company. My spontaneous text to at 5 a.m. Friday morning was proof of this.

Those two hours we spent together over Blue Moons were the high point of my week. Good, good friends should be just that, shouldn’t they? Ginny will hold her memories of her friend Jane close, just as I will always hold close these memories of funny, remarkable, wonderful Ginny.

Bar on Friday after a Mass Shooting Down the Road

I wrote the initial draft of this in a bar, of course, a mere few weeks back. The mass shooting in Aurora, Illinois had just taken place down the road, midday. Details were still sketchy by late afternoon. Ultimately, five people were killed, including Trevor Wehner, a 21-year-old college student three hours into his internship in human resources.
I’m not a violent person, but I wanted to punch something. Again.
I wrote this instead. The people and the conversations are real.

Bar on Friday after a Mass Shooting Down the Road

 

Four officers have been shot

down the street

and a quantity of civilians.

We can’t yet staunch the flow of numbers.

A cold hopside down in front of me,

I listen as men at the bar

proudly thank God

that the nation is never invaded

because most residents have guns.

 

So sixteen neighbors are casualties of a Friday afternoon.

The bar screens have been switched

to downhill skiing, where conditions are less than ideal,

since blood does not sell beer.

 

My friend’s 10-year-olds are

locked down after school hours.

I imagine that as American kids, they’re bored.

Their parents will pick them up afterward

and ask what they’d like for dinner in Illinois,

this heartland. Maybe milkshakes.

 

Turned toward the TV,

some dumbfuck  belly up

just bought a lake house

while the bartender feigns interest in

the fact that the woman next to me is unsure

of buttery Chardonnay.

 

This road runs directly to where the bodies have been carried out.

They rest, awaiting next of kin.

 

The din is rising; I crush peanut shells underfoot.

You can just feel the weekend around the corner.

Hey, Kiddo. Hey, John.

At times, being a teacher, there exist concentric circles encompassing our kids, literature, and ourselves. And it can knock the breath out of us.

I am going to be learning from the reading of Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka for the foreseeable future. The graphic novel has drawn well-deserved acclaim over recent months for its portrayal of a teenage boy boldly persevering through the years of family dysfunction, parental substance abuse, abandonment, financial hardship, and heartache. Emerging from the wreckage is a nurturing grandfather, a flawed but loving grandmother, and a gritty young man who is able to fully reflect on the hardships and commend them for the strength delivered.

Have you ever read a book that hits so close to home that you must read with courage and even fear that the lines of fiction and reality may blur? After just a few pages, I realized that indeed this would be the case for me and Hey, Kiddo. I quickly saw much of my father in Jarrett’s mother, much of my best friend’s mother in his grandfather, much of myself in Jarrett. This was a novel I knew I needed to get into my kids’ hands but knew that I might struggle in talking too much about it, given the barely separated concentric circles the book and I run in.

When I book-hooked Hey, Kiddo to my four LA classes, I reminded the kids that sometimes we need to read (and write) about the tough stuff. That there is catharsis in living through the days, weeks, months and years of a character who has faced and overcome challenges that are closely aligned to our own. And then, who connected with me the next day to ask if he could borrow the book? John*, one of the most challenging, disruptive, frustrating students I’ve known within the past several years. John, whose academic intentions are feeble, and who openly proclaims that he just doesn’t care.

John’s home-life is a mystery. His mother appears to be as supportive and invested as she can be, but is clearly overwhelmed. And John’s father? An enigma, a mystery. We’ve never met him. We have been told that he’s big, he’s tall, and he yells. Their son is not yet big or necessarily tall, but he yells in his own way, by lashing out at others, defying peers and adults alike, and imposing his own agenda over that of the school institution.

And then, this minimalist reader dares to politely ask if he can borrow this book. For the second time in as many days, Hey Kiddo was knocking the breath out of me. I kinda wanted to hug him right then. I kinda wanted to say, “You’re telling me something right now about your home life, aren’t you?” But I didn’t do either; I just said “absolutely you can” and handed over my copy.

Today is just five days after that little exchange. In the interim, John has been up to his own tricks, and he and I have had to have our requisite handful of terse conversations. But at one point, he turned to me during a quiet moment in class, looked me in the eye, and said with a tone of significance, “I finished the book.”

There was a brief pause, and then — “I’m so glad you did, John, ” I said. “Are you glad you read it?”

“I am,” he said.

Damn it, why can’t we hug our kids more often? Especially the ones that are just too hard to hold?

John, thank you for continuing to teach me to look beyond the surface. I see you. And I see more than a bit of me in you.

And I know, I truly, fully know: You can do this, buddy. You can do this.

 

* not his given name