Current/Recent Reading List

31 January 2008

Bound to Have Heard This Sooner or Later

Yesterday, the one and only boy in my yearbook class of 14 finally erupted with this one:


Yeah... I'm not even sure which girl it was directed at, but I just knew that was coming eventually. And the sad thing for the poor guy is that we all just laughed until he had to laugh too.

One day he'll make a really good husband - though today he said he wanted to marry Brittney Spears so he could make her all better.

27 January 2008

Me Need Male-Bonding

Most of my adult life I have been in educational or vocational situations in which I have been a minority male surrounded by women. There is obviously a lot to be said for this - it helped me nab a hot wife, after all. But I haven't been "on the make" now for almost 15 years, and even in my single days, frankly, I was never one to have been "on the make" too much anyway. Even speaking platonically, there are good things to be said about working more with women than with men, but forgive me, gentle reader, if I occasionally feel a longing for more good, old-fashioned red-blooded male bonding.

Saturday I attended a writing workshop at N.C. State, at the behest of my department chair. It was actually a good workshop and made me re-think a few things I do when teaching writing; in fact, I think I will attend their more extensive "institute" over the summer to earn many continuing education credits. But this workshop consisted of me, and 20 women. Seriously. Plus, it was a workshop. At one point they had M&M's out for one exercise, and at another point they had Play-Doh out. Seriously. I minimally participated in the M&M thing, and just flat out ignored the Play-Doh.

Thus, the plight of the male English teacher.

At school, things are much the same way. Because we have so many faculty members, we all tend to hang out mostly within our own departments. The numbers in my department are something like 16 women and five men, with two of the men being already retired half-timers, and one being only a year or two away from it. This leaves one other man who is just slightly older than I am. He is a very nice, cheerful fellow, and we get along very well and have some fun conversations, but our personalities, interests, and life experiences are simply too divergent for us to be bonding pals (for one thing, I need to be able to talk in-depth about sports from time to time).

So, while I'm extremely pleased with my employment situation at the moment, the one thing I lack is at least one good male-bonding buddy. At a big school, the coaches sort of have their own club, and you never see them or talk much with them. Other male teachers at the school are either simply too far away from my room, or are not in my age group. At my old school I had a couple of perfect bonding buddies, but so far I'm missing out at the new place. Creepily, I feel a certain incompleteness.

Hey, quit laughing.

23 January 2008

Second Verse, Close to the First

Tomorrow marks the beginning of second semester, which probably also means a restless night for me. Second semesters don't usually bring out the nerves quite as severely as in August, but it is still tough to anticipate (or to be more precise, worry about) the unknown with complete calmness.

From what others can tell me, it seems my classes have a minimum of "nightmare" kids on the roster, which will be excellent in the wake of last semester's fourth period. But, one shouldn't count one's chickens before they hatch (have you heard that before?). Again, I have two sections of English II, and then Yearbook, which will be tough as heck through March, what with deadlines and all, and then should be a glorified study hall after that until the books come in.

We have new faculty on board in the department, and in one case, a faculty member new to me because she's been on maternity leave. She seems nice, but a little cranky so far, though I guess we all would be in the same situation. Returning to work is one thing, but returning (after only two workdays) and adjusting in the midst of 90 teenagers is a real stress provider.

As always, I'm promising myself to be a real hard-ass this semester, and as always I'm bound to fail in that department. Maybe I can at least be a hard half-ass?

17 January 2008

Gee, Thanks.

The lead teacher from the freshman building told me yesterday she needed to discuss a student with me. Since she only teaches freshmen, and I only have sophomores, and we rarely see each other, I was understandably confused.

Well, turns out she has a Hispanic kid who simply cannot pass the state test for English I, and it turns out that not only is he still learning English, he is basically illiterate in his native language as well. He will be taken to a waiver committee meeting at the county level, and most likely will be allowed to move along to English II, since he is already behind and can pass the English I class (with heavy modifications), but just not the state test.

What she wanted to tell me was that of all the English II teachers, she wanted me to have him this coming semester, and she was passing that wish along to the guidance department.

And so, I am in the rare situation of being ambivalent, or perhaps downright unhappy, about receiving a legitimate compliment. Ah, the teaching life.

13 January 2008

You Put The Load Right on Me

You know that song "The Weight", by The Band, where the narrator comes to town only to seek some rest, and instead ends up dealing with a variety of eccentrics and becomes burdened by everything from dog-sitting to the Devil himself? Well, that was me on Friday.

It was Friday, after all, and my only big duty for the day was to proctor a state geometry exam in the morning, and then maybe, maybe do a little final exam grading of my own, if I felt like it (grades aren't due for another nine days or so). It should have been a peaceful, low-key day. But as soon as I got into my room, before I could even head out for my proctoring, a (now) last semester student was in the doorway, and I could tell she wasn't quite herself. So, I cut to the chase fairly quickly - "Is something wrong?"

"Well, in the last two days I've lost all my friends except two."

"What did you do?"

"I don't know, exactly. Everyone just wants to talk crap about me all the sudden, and one of them said they shouldn't talk to me anymore, and so they aren't."

"Well, maybe things will look much different a couple of weeks from now. And at least you will know who your real friends are by then. Now, I've got to go, but I promise I'll still talk to you next time you stop by, o.k.?"


And, I'm off the the geometry exam. It is scheduled for 150 minutes, after the preliminary pre-test activities, directions etc., but the state allows up to four hours for the test. So, it took 30 minutes to get everyone in place and started, and then, want to guess how long it took the last girl to finish? Yep - 3 hrs., and 50 minutes. That would be a total of 4 1/2 hours, roughly, that I couldn't do anything but stare at the walls, walk about the room, sit for a spell, and then rinse and repeat. I also couldn't go pee during that time, and my bladder ain't so hot.

And there was this: in the middle of the exam, a girl (these were freshmen), raised her hand. I was closest by, and kneeled down to her, noticing she had a stricken look on her face.

"Yes, ma'am."

"I can't do this. I just can't do it"

"What's wrong? Do you need to go to the bathroom?"

"No. I'm having a panic attack [starts breathing rapidly]. I just want to leave."

"O.k. We'll call a principal to come get you. Just put your head down and take deep breaths."


So, I stayed beside her until they came and got the poor thing, and thought about how doubly embarrassing that would be for a 15 year-old.

Speaking of youngsters, the administrator for the exam is exactly 23, and while sweet, is wrapped a bit tightly herself. There is a sort of sad back story for her - she is brilliant, which one can tell after just a short conversation with her. She graduated from this same high school five years ago, and was editor of the yearbook. Apparently she spent much of her senior year crying, especially when it dawned on her, once and for all, that there are mean, nasty people in the world who cannot be changed or reasoned with. She then went on to finish college early, and apparently found time somehow to squeeze in a marriage and a divorce. In any case, she was a bit on edge the entire testing session, but by the end I could tell she was not feeling well. Turned out she had an awful headache, and she was barely able to communicate by the time we were done. She seems like such an interesting, bright person, and yet like a Tennessee Williams heroine, so fragile - only at a much earlier age.

For dessert, I topped the day off by going to luch with colleagues, where I heard about one teachers' father dying when she was in eighth grade and her mother's subsequent emotional disappearance during the ensuing high school years. I heard stories about rampant drug abuse during the teen and college years of another teacher, who also talked about the lonely weekend he had ahead of him. I heard what I would term "soft gossip" about the totally screwed-up lives of a few other colleagues not present. And to top it off, when I returned to school I had to talk with three desperate students whose grades are near failing in my class, all wanting to know what they can do at this late date, and all filling me with a sense of dread when I consider their futures in the adult world. By the end of the day, I simply wanted a long nap, followed by a long night's sleep.

Now of course the pretense of this post is that I am the normal one (even with my pissed-off bladder), surrounded by bureaucratic nonsense, weird personalities, and the emotionally traumatized. Trust me, I'm quite certainly a weirdo in my own right, and I've had my own emotional traumas over the years (though, they never played out in public, due to my certifiable Southerness, which grants me tremendous natural abilities in the areas of repression and stoicism). Plus it's in my nature to listen and try to help others when presented with the opportunity - I can't take much credit for the way I was made. So I'm no saint or martyr. Still, there are days when enough is enough (or is that the Devil talking?).

Anyway, guess what song I dialed up on my iPod Friday evening?

09 January 2008

Best Whine of the Day

(During 1st Period's exam this morning, from a girl whose grade hovers between the dimensions of perdition and "passing by the skin of my teeth only by God's grace"):

"This exam isn't fair. It's on all the stuff we read this year."

You got it sweetie. Funny concept, that.

06 January 2008

The Weekend That Was, The Week That Will Be

As an introvert, I'm bound by law to dread parties, and so I did all last week before the pending 40th birthday surprise party a friend's wife was throwing him on Saturday night. I've known many of the people who would be there for over 15 years, but have not seen many of them in many a moon. This was further reason, in my twisted reckoning, for dreading the party (although, which is worse - a party where you will not know anyone, or one with people you know, but haven't seen in forever?)

Anyone, much to my chagrin, it turned out to be a delightful affair, and everyone was so warm and friendly and geniunely happy to see each other, including me. Too bad: Wyfe gets to add an "I told you so" to her tally book. Oh, well - I guess she can have her requisite one per quarter.


Now, this coming week exams start, and after the non-state mandated exams are given, we will spend seemingly endless days giving the state tests, then re-giving them to those who fail them the first time around. Thankfully, I don't teach any state test courses this year, so I am only giving my own painful exam, and then will be twiddling my thumbs as a test proctor during the morning most of the other days.

Because there are so many kids, and so many of them have test modifications that require separate room settings, our exam period will last a whopping NINE days, to be followed by MLK Jr. Holiday, and two teacher workdays. Then the new semester will start on a Thursday, by which point the kiddos will have largely been away from school for about a week and a half, or more. Can you say Christmas break Part II? Can you say minds full of mush on January 24th?

But I'll not complain, no, no, no! I'll take two weeks where I will be paid only to get grades in, handle some yearbook matters, and plan for the next semester, all without having to deal with the little demons, er, darlings. We should do this more often.

03 January 2008

One of My Puppy Dog Kids

Today, after school, a student who has frustrated me all semester dropped by to make up a couple of tests. Now, she is not a bad kid, but she is of the sort who make me want to pull my remaining hair out from time to time: always expressing how she hates to read and how the books we read are boring, demonstrating little in the way of curiosity or imagination, often angling for ways to quietly communicate with her friends instead of listening to class discussions or readings, too immature and whiny for her age, and generally giving off the whiff (only metaphorically, thankfully) of being a bit of a party girl.

But... she's also one of those kids who, no matter how much I fuss at her, or (sadly) try to ignore her, seems to always want to hang around, or tell me stories at the most inappropriate times in class, or stop by the doorway (distracting me from tasks with another class) while on a bathroom break during another period of the day. She is the proverbial lost puppy dog that takes up with you; you mostly want her to leave you alone, though a bit of you, begrudgingly, is glad she hangs around.

Well, this afternoon, after we discussed why her grade isn't so great, she started telling me all these things about her and her family - when and why her parents split up, why her workaholic dad has been mad at her for a couple of months now and won't relent, how he started trying to buy her off with money after the divorce, her step-mom who has fake hair/nose/boobs, the car accident that almost killed her and her sister last year (hit by a drunk driver) - it was a regular litany of problems. But she also talked about how close she and her mom were, how her step-dad has been one of the best things that ever happened to any of them, and how her step-brother is her best friend. All in all, she doesn't seem bitter, but just wounded. Wounded, but not so inclined to let it drag her down forever, from what I can tell.

She also admitted she doesn't give her best in school, and that she thinks she will have to go the community college route before a university will accept her. I pointed out she still has 2 1/2 more years left before then, and that it would be best to get rid of the laziness now. She and her mom have been talking about this, and apparently have made a deal of some sort to address it.

So, here was a student I didn't think I ever got through to about much of anything, and after today I would say that that is probably not true. She may not ever get over her loathing for reading, which is sad and frustrating, but maybe with maturity she will. If nothing else, she seems to have found me a positive force in her life this semester, and that is worth gold. Plus, I'm thankful, because I certainly learned something from her today.

On second thought, she can hang around whenever she wants.

01 January 2008

Thoughts on Winter's Tale

"It might signify nothing, and be valuable solely in itself. A dream is not a tool for this world, but a gateway to the next. Take it for what it is."

"What am I supposed to do with it?"

"Nothing. It's like something beautiful. You don't have to do anything with it."

- from Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale

Yes, I'm a day late and a dollar short, but here we go:

Winter's Tale is, in short, about (not necessarily in any order) a man who disappears in a cloud wall and reappears a century later; a magical, heroic white horse; a child's resurrection; the quest for the perfectly just city; a plan to build a rainbow bridge to heaven; a man protected from harm by his dead wife; and the triumph of the sacrificial over the selfish. Oh, and that's not to mention a comically incompetent midget, a fairy tale village, a criminal's quest to build a room completely out of gold, or the fastest consummation of true love you'll ever read about.

This was the third novel of Mark Helprin's I've read in a year and a half, and though I haven't even read any of his short stories yet (he has three collections), it is fairly easy to discern patterns in his style, thought, and tenor. Most importantly - and this is a huge part of why I'm drawn to his work - Helprin is obviously a believer.

Let me parse that out a bit. I don't know anything too specific about Helprin's religious views, except that he is religious, at least in the broad sense. Winter's Tale includes many mystical episodes, and many third-person assertions about the truth of life, natural and supernatural, but I suspect any attempt to hash out a cogent theology from the novel would fail. Helprin is Jewish, but I don't know how devout. What I do know is that his books, while not religious screeds or devoid of the worst kinds of suffering, are animated by belief in life and love, in laughter, in beauty, and in an ultimate Good we can know, if ever so slightly.

This alone will place Winter's Tale in the minority when it comes to acclaimed contemporary novels. In fact, though it apparently almost won the NY Times' designation as "best novel of the last 25 years", it has had many detractors, most of whom, while not disputing that Helprin is supremely talented, point to its untenable (in their minds) story of redemption. Apparently, this reeks of naivity in these wise times of ours.

It may very well be that Winter's Tale, as well as most of Helprin's work, can only appeal to those of us naive enough to believe in happy endings (I hope not - I encourage everyone to try the books).

Then again, maybe one day the last shall be first, and the most appalling naivity will triumph as the highest wisdom. Oh, these happy endings may not necessarily occur on our time schedules (with our finite perceptions of time), but to paraphrase the narrator and some of the characters in the novel, justice works itself out, tomorrow or centuries from now, or in another place.

I'm one of those who are betting on it. But then, I'm one of those who has a taste for reading Mark Helprin.