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08 November 2009

Never Too Old To Be Cool in School

Friday was the last home football game for the seniors at school, and the tradition has been for the seniors to bring their home jerseys and ask one of their favorite teachers to wear them all day as a show of support. Frankly, I'd forgotten about this until a very large former student of mine, who I taught two years ago and whose girlfriend I've taught in yearbook now for three years, dropped by my room early in the morning, white and blue #82 in hand, and asked me if I'd wear it all day. My wry reaction was to ask, "Did you wash it?", but I agreed, and it fit pretty well since I had on clothing underneath it.

What I wouldn't have predicted in those first moments was how much this one little - er, big - jersey thing would make my day. After it started dawning on me how much of an honor this was (one I'd never had before), it also started dawning on me how ennobling this was, especially when everyone was making comments about it, or asking me about it, all day. Plus, a couple of other teachers were faux crabby about not being asked to wear a jersey this year, so my esteem climbed even higher, and I started standing a little straighter, chest stuck out a little more. When I had lunch duty, I purposely walked the busier routes and lingered longer at my post. When I had my planning period, I found myself inventing reasons to go walking about on small errands (to be fair, I do this on most Fridays during planning anyway). And, after school was over, when my former student came back to take some pictures with me and get his shirt back (his girlfriend, one of my all-time favorites and my son's babysitter, was just giddy about this all day), I was quite reluctant to take it off. I mean, I felt so coooool.

C.S. Lewis warned about the dangers of wanting to be in "The Inner Ring" and all the false esteem that comes with that, so I'll happily surrender the mantle o'cool. But beyond that I won't regret indulging in my day of being a BMOC. It's not like it happened for me back when it really mattered...

And, as mentioned before, it really was a tremendous honor, one that made my day not just for vanity's sake, but for the opportunity to feel blessed.

Quick Update: She Hasn't Killed Us Yet!

After three weeks with a newborn in the house, we have been surviving quite nicely, thank you. Baby Daughter has consistently been gaining weight and consistently gets a little more aware of her surroundings, and family members. She's not overly fussy except for the usual reasons. There is really not much more to be asked for at this point (easier to speak for myself than the nurser-in-chief, of course).

The Girl has also figured out that night time is for sleeping longer hours, which in her terms means four in a row at the most, but she's ahead of where her brother was at this point. We'll chalk that up to a combination of her nature and having calmer, more experienced parents who are, frankly, too old to get as worked up about every little thing as we did eight years ago.

Another difference this time around - which makes things more difficult on a dying-to-get-out-of-the-house mom - is that our pediatrician basically doesn't want the baby going anywhere in public for as long as possible, due to our good friend the Swine. The doc is actually not freaked out about the Swine in the larger pandemic sense, but is when it comes to infants who can't take any vaccines. So, Wyfe is pretty much homebound until Thanksgiving, and yes, we're all paying the price for that (wink, wink).

17 October 2009

Living Proof

"Well now on a summer night in a dusky room
Come a little piece of the Lord's undying light
Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon
In his mother's arms it was all the beauty I could take
Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make
In a world so hard and dirty so fouled and confused
Searching for a little bit of God's mercy
I found living proof"

- Bruce Springsteen, "Living Proof"

Well, o.k., in her mother's arms, and it wasn't a dusky room, but a triage room (click here for the official, if only 99.9% accurate version of the incredible delivery happenings - I don't recall saying "Holy Crap", mainly because I didn't say anything!). In any case, say hello to Holland Elizabeth:

12 October 2009

The Wages of Age

I'm going to be perfectly open and honest, and perhaps not too uplifting today. But, I'm going to guess that if people were closely observing me and my reactions over the past month to questions regarding the impending birth of my daughter (impending as in, due date is Friday!), they would have noticed a certain hesitance in my voice, a certain shift in my gaze, and a dampening in the enthusiasm in my voice. Fact is, the closerwe we get to D-Day, the more nervous and weary I grow in inverse proportion.

Why? Sure, it's my nature, but I also think it really comes down to one factor: I'm eight years older than I once was.

Count out your life eight years at a time, and I bet you'll agree that at each interval you've learned (or will learn) how much more fragile everything is than you thought, how much more dangerous everything is than you thought, how much less control you have than you thought, how much less you know than you thought.

We've been through so many worrisome days and weeks since about late March that you might think these would be the salad days. We got in the new house just in time, and Mom and baby are wonderfully healthy as far as some of the best doctors in the business are concerned. But I can remember, even when taking off the rose-colored glasses of fond recollections, that eight years ago I was much more upbeat, much more enthusiastic, and almost literally had no worries about the Boy's birth. My responsibilities (at least from my earthly perspective) have increased exponentially since then, it seems. The number of hours in the day seem to have dwindled, and I don't sleep enough as it is. Our parents are older and antsier, and fretting. Unlike eight years ago, I now have other people's children to worry over in addition to my own. And like most everyone else, we wonder how secure our jobs are, or at least how much real income we'll have in the coming years. I'm not even going to go down the national security road...

Sorry, little girl. It's not your fault, but Dad's not always a little ball of sunshine.

06 October 2009

The Edge? Yeah, He Can Play!

After almost a decade of not seeing any concerts beyond the NC Symphony's children's series, I've reverted to early-20's form and have now seen (and blown lots of money on) Bruce Springsteen and U2 in the last six months. And, well, they were both more than worth it.

Look, I can get as cynical about celebrities, music stars, etc. as anyone, and the ticket prices are decadent. But for now I just want to gush a little about these guys based on the work they do on stage and in the studio.

The U2 show Saturday was the first outdoor stadium show I've seen since the late 1980's, and what a spectacle it was, with the giant stage-set of doom holding up the giant 360 degree kazillion dollar video screen. These days, the video screens have HD t.v. quality pictures, so they are really hard to take your eyes off of. When I wanted to just concentrate on the stage, I lowered my head and let the bill of my ball cap block out the screen. Just, you know, to verify that I was at a concert and not a movie.

As for the band, they were fantastic, and when there are only four band members (only three of which play instruments the whole time) in the middle of this huge stage, amidst a sea of people, there is really nowhere to hide. Really, this should have been no surprise, but watching U2 live, I realized immediately just how much rides on The Edge's guitar work. He provides every bit of melodic atmosphere that each of their songs has, almost as if his guitar is a stand-in for three or four different instruments at once. Again, no surprise, but that guy is damn good, and how often can you say a performer was better than you thought he would be?

Similarly to Bruce, U2's shows, as with the major thrust of their recording work, are life affirming. Over half the show was comprised of the three most recent albums, and anyone paying attention knows about the spiritual nature of many of these songs. However, in spite of the stage and the religious coloring of the songs, there was never a feeling of overreach on the part of the band or the audience. Instead there was just a sweet affection between the two. When Bono spoke of "issues" (and yes, it would be more than fine with me if "issues" never came up at these concerts), they involved oppression of democracy in Iran and Burma (friend Brad pointed out that Bono sounded positively forceful in defense of democracy compared to certain elected leaders we could name). So, there was minimal damage on the political front. He did give a shout out of thanks to both the Edwards and Helms families for their support of his foundation, but I think the unintended main effect of this was to completely embarrass North Carolinians of all stripes ("Oh, those political figures are/were from our state? Really? Who knew?").

Best moment of the night? There were several terrific moments, but I'll take when Bono pulled a boy, around 10 years old, up on the outer ring of the stage with him and sang "City of Blinding Lights" to him as they strolled about, like a father singing to his son. During the song's intro he found out the boy's name (Brian?), and they even went for a jog together. Imagine being 10, minding your own business, and having tens of thousands of eyes suddenly trained on you. The boy's reward? Bono took off his omnipresent sunglasses, put them on him, and gently sent him back to his parents. I'm an easy sucker for this stuff - anyone who's seen Bruce's shows recently knows he regularly includes kids as well, and it is great fun for me to see big rock stars, who also are quite upfront about how much they love being fathers, letting that side of them show up in performance. Second best moment? "Where The Streets Have No Name" completely blew the place up - I never would have guessed that that would have been the show-stopper, but it was.

The cherry on the top for me came at school yesterday, when a couple of my students from the spring, who remembered I was excited about getting tickets, found me to tell me they were at the show as well. They were positively beaming when I asked them how they liked it, and I remembered (with just a tinge of melancholy), that I was about their age when I first heard, and was mesmerized by, U2. Nice symmetry, huh?

22 September 2009

Quick Update

If I had any energy I'd tell you about bizarre school happenings, bizarre family happenings, 8 year-olds and baseball, yet more un-settling down in the new home due to yet more re-arranging of furniture due to yet more home improvement projects, putting together a trampoline, the 60 personal narrative papers it's taking me forever to grade (fully 54.6% of them are about grandmother deaths - perhaps we should make "Grandmother Death Essays" a genre of their own), X-Box vs. PS3 dilemmas,and the much-hyped U2 concert in less than two weeks.

But I'll save it, at least until tomorrow.

Incidentally, yes, when the time comes I promise I will blog as quickly as possible on newborn news for the benefit of my, and the Wyfe's legions of loyal readers.

However, I hope to get in a few posts before then as well... stay tuned!

07 September 2009

On "The Speech"

More from me on our big move in the next post (hopefully), but since tomorrow is the the ballyhooed presidenttial speech to school children, I thought I should oblige with a few thoughts:

1. Happily, since our lunches will be taking place during the time of the speech tomorrow, my school is recording it and "making it available" (direct quote from principal, and I'm not sure what that means) during 4th Block. Why does this make me happy? I have planning period during 4th block, so I get to avoid the issue altogether!

2. Literally, I have watched 4-5 campaign speeches, two inaguaral speeches, no press conferences, no other presidential speeches, and no state-of-the-union addresses since about 2003. That has been it for me and political speeches - I loathe them, and can catch the re-cap the next day. So under no circumstances would I be looking forward to another speech, no matter how unoffensive, from a political figure.

3. Having said that, I've been perfectly confident from the beginning that this would be an unoffensive speech, and positive in tone.

4. Still, even when I was a kid and political rancor seemed a bit milder, no one would have expected people to be enthused about a speech given by someone they didn't vote for and have no particular enthusiasm about. Just part of the deal we all have to deal with. When I heard about the speech last Thursday, I rolled my eyes, and agreed with the Wyfe that we would check off on the form sent home that it was o.k. for our son to watch it. This is the response I suspect most of my family members would have had if a form had come home about a speech Reagan was addressing to school kids: eye roll, and check "yes".

5. Much has changed since then. If Obama had decided to do this in February, say, it would have been much less of a big deal. Now he is indisputably a figure of controversy on a fairly high scale, just as Bush was before him. If Bush had decided to do this at any point after his 9/11 bump had waned away, we would have had a similar explosive reaction on the part of many who opposed him.

6. I understand , and mostly (?) still subscribe to the notion that we should respect the presidency and other elected offices no matter what. But, I'm pretty sure that the ship has sailed on that as a civic ethic that more than half the country, if that, still wants to abide by. And, given the sorry state of our political elites these days, it is harder and harder to maintain that automatic respect is completely desirable. After a while, it is almost impossible to separate the abstract offices from those who occupy them.

In addition, that ethic implies that it is good and necessary on the part of citizens to do all they can to respect someone they will often disagree with, since at some point we all have to endure having those in office that we don't support. Truly, that is how it should be. But what if the elected officials don't also extend such respect to those who disagree with them? Isn't that even more important in a democratic country? That was a complaint with the former administration, and it has already become one with the current. Brooks Brother's Brigade or Angry Mobs, anyone?

7. I know people who have decided they don't want their kids to hear the speech, not because they think it will be a controversial speech, but because they don't like the president much, and don't like the precedent set of him being beamed into classrooms. I'm not much bothered by the precedent (it's happened before, apparently?). If the president tried this even once a year after this, or Lord forbid more than that, I'm convinced even his supporters would say, "Leave the kids alone already, will you? Let them get to work."

8. I'm also not worried about teachers trying to twist this into another chance to swoon over the prez. Sure, many of them will use it as an excuse to do so, but in my observations over the years, even the kids who agree with their teachers who show political leanings in class don't really care, and those who don't agree don't have their minds changed. Rightly, the kids don't take their high school teachers seriously over this stuff, unless it somehow affected grades. It would be immeasurably better, though, if it never came up at all in the classroom.

9. While I don't think this is part of a cult-of-personality conspiracy, I do think the president and his handlers like the iconography and hero worship that the support groups and the media have fostered for lo these many months, and don't mind tapping into it a little bit. The original lesson plans that go with the speech may or may not have been part of a "tapping" effort, but they were unnecessary (not to mention lame and artless) and provided fuel for the fire. It also doesn't help the president in a situation like this that his administration has already become associated with the phrase "Don't let a good crisis go to waste" or with the book "Rules for Radicals" (now an equal-opportinity tome, I guess).

10. I despise nanny-statism, and understand sensitivity to government elitists trying to do parents' jobs for them. I've heard that objection, but it doesn't strike me as particularly relevant here because of the content. Nothing there parents can argue with, probably.

11. I have my disagreements with the president on many issues. That put aside, it seems to me the more he speaks in public, the more damage he does to himself, and the more I wonder at all the hype. Could be wrong, but I suspect the ole' cult of personality thing may not be an issue for that long. So, hey, unless it's going to do the country catastrophic damage, maybe we should encourage more of this stuff!

12. No one can better display the truism about unintended consequences than government policy makers. Someone at the White House, or the Dept. of Education (hey - quit laughing!), probably thought this would help teachers and administrators in their work, at least a little. Instead, this has just added a complication to our jobs for a day. Thanks guys!

13. When all is said and done, though, it is just one day, and this too shall pass...

24 August 2009

Cue The Long March

"There's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I'm heading straight into the storm..."
-"The Promised Land"
Bruce Springsteen

O.k., perhaps that intro. is a bit dramatic, but we begin anew at the old school house tomorrow, and I can't imagine much more of an unsettled horizon for moi, though I hope it will be mostly positive unsettling. Still, unsettling is unsettling...

Aside from moving, birthing, and infant care issues, I have been curious and concerned for a while about the work atmosphere this year. With the combination of budget cuts, salary stagnation (actually a tiny cut), increasing student enrollment, and larger average class sizes, I expected sour attitudes from the start. But, I have to say, everyone (meaning faculty) seems much happier and settled down than they were at the beginning of last year. Maybe the tough times have given some needed perspective. Or, maybe it's just because there's not some damned election this year.

I have mostly sophomores, but one class of juniors has been added, and as usual I'm also messing around a bit with what I'm going to do so as to be more effective and, most importantly, avoid getting bored with my curriculum. The yearbook needs to make money, the students need to shut up and sit down, and I need to sleep well every night (ha!). Any questions?

By the way, yes I know The Boss is coming to Charlotte in early November, and that tickets go on sale Friday. Yes, that is two weeks after the Wyfe's due date, and a couple of months into the new steroided-up mortgage payment. Yes, the boy and I just saw him in May. And yes, like a good soldier I have ignored these realities anyway and have tried to prevail upon the fair Wyfe for permission to go. Alas, to no avail. Pretty unreasonable, wouldn't you agree? Anyone want to help argue my case?

23 August 2009

I Don't Write Much When I'm Nervous

As you may have noticed... Some people feel better by writing about their stresses and turmoils while they are occuring, but as for me, I basically just turn into a big ball of weenie, close off my word-forming faculties, replace them with groans and grunts and gnashing of teeth, and wait until the storm has passed.

I'll refer you to this and to this if you are unfamiliar with the details, but in short let's just say that between a cranky, hard-to-please buyer of our home and the Byzantine process of getting a loan approved in the current market, the last month has been full of its own special torture.

In spite of all this, it appears everything is still going to go through on schedule, somewhat miraculously. Perhaps one day it will make wonderful grist for the blogging mill. With a week left, however, I'm inclined to believe one or two more surprises are in order so I'm going to let that particular dog lie a little longer. There are other matters to write on, time permitting.

Oh yeah, and school starts Tuesday. Toodles.

21 July 2009

Summer Sketch #2

Lord, it just makes you worry for your children, every day, when you can‘t even trust people. And here she was just doing what girls her age do, babysitting for family friends. I’ll tell you one thing, it won’t two minutes after he heard about it that Tom tore out the parking lot - he didn’t even tell the other assistant manager. He didn’t run to his car, but walked fast and steady, legs trying to catch up with the rest of his body, which was lurching forward like it sometimes does. And here Tom hasn’t talked to the girl in months; she won’t have nothing to do with him since he showed up at the house drunk when they were having her sixteenth birthday cook-out. And she barely had anything to do with him before that. I don’t need to tell you her mama never speaks with him except when she has to.

But when he heard, he tore off, and I only learned the full story, little by little. First he tried to call Sherry while he was driving, but couldn’t get through. He left a message for her, blubbering and stammering, but I don’t know what he said. Anyway, in about fifteen minutes he’d made it to packing plant, where that Davey fellow worked the afternoon shift. Tom knew he usually worked the fork in the back, and so he just hopped the fence into the loading dock and walked around. Davey was sitting on the bench having a smoke, and Tom didn’t bother speaking to him; he just come up from behind, grabbed him by the collar, and slung him into the back of the fork that was parked there. Davey never knew what was coming, and Tom kicked him so many times in the ribs and the gut that he never had a chance. By the time they pulled Tom off, Davey could barely sit upright, and Tom was screaming and sobbing all at once now, screaming, “She used to love to chase your dog, David! Remember?! We’d hold her hand, and walk to the pond, and she’d break away and chase your dog… Remember?!”

They say the look on his face was the most pitiful, all purple-veined and twisted red, beard matted in sweat and tears. Ever notice how at the end of a fight nobody ever looks like they found the relief they were looking for in the first place? Tom did right though, I won’t deny it. Maybe it won’t the smartest way to go about it, but I won’t deny it was right. There's no telling what will happen to him in court. I hear Sherry still won’t talk to him, and she may not yet, considering her state of mind, poor thing. But he showed her something, at least.

Lord, it just makes you worry for your children.

16 July 2009

Facilitate This

Our school district is now requiring high school teachers who have honors classes to be certified in teaching Academically Gifted (AIG) students, something previously only required of elementary and middle school teachers, since in high school there are no "AIG"-only classes. However, since we all run across AIG kids in our honors classes, the county wants to make sure we can say we are challenging them sufficiently (and not doing anything to cause their parents to threaten lawsuits, as well, I'm sure).

O.k. fine - we get credit hours for completing the certification training, and I'm never going to complain about a central office push to pay some more attention to gifted kids and challenge them (which goes against the general grain of educational emphases over the last 30 years or so). I attended a couple of half-day sessions last week, and now have to develop two steroided-up curriculum units for a review in September.

One bone to pick, though (sure, I could pick many others, but won't). We were told last week that these units would ideally allow the kids to mostly work independently, and that we would serve more as facilitators than teachers. In so many workshops over the years since 2002, I can't tell you how many times I've heard this: with coming technology, we'll be facilitators; through online learning, we'll be facilitators; in 21st century classrooms, we'll be facilitators.

This bothers me on many levels. For one thing, most teachers who hear this find it demoralizing because a) it sounds as if there is a desire to devalue our knowledge, skills, and even (hopefully) wonderful personalities in the classroom, which means that b) we sound more replaceable. I don't think this is truly what is intended - in fact, what is intended is to push teachers to move away from too much lecturing and notetaking, because today's ADHD-electrogadgetized students allegedly can't learn this way. Fine, but I still can't figure out what the hell is the problem with the word "teacher"? Is directing students during a project, or meeting one-on-one with them for feedback, or pointing the way for research solutions, or looking at rough drafts, or setting up the context for a unit not teaching? Even in an online class, which has the regrettable defect of missing out on flesh and blood interaction, is there not teaching going on. What is wrong with this word? In our overly scientific age, does teacher conjure up too many ideas of wisdom, experience, respect, leadership, indispensability, and that all mysterious human touch?

I don't know, but I attempt to be a teacher, dammit. I ain't no stinkin' facilitator.

10 July 2009

Quick Shout Out For Me

Just wanted to inform everyone that here at the homestead yesterday I successfully handled my son and two of his buddies all by myself for a large chunk of the day, with nary a mom-type figure in sight. I successfully fed them, I successfully set up a slip-and-slide for them, I successfully monitored their slippy-slidiness, and I successfully watched them play the Wii (a lot, actually), all without a major altercation, major dammage to the house, a call to the sheriff, or a hospital air-lift incident.

Yes, dammit, I do feel empowered, thank you very much...

29 June 2009

Bathroom Humor, or Gotta Love the K&W Crowd

So yesterday we picked my son up from his grandparents at the usual hand-off spot, one of the ubiquitous K&W Cafeterias here in the Old North State, filled with the ubiquitous cafeteria demographic (uh, that would be old people for those of you not versed in the ways of K&W lore).

Since we had just driven in from out of town, I took the first opportunity I could to use the facilities. When walking down the little hallway to the restrooms, I had to make way for several women coming out of their adjacent restroom before I entered the men's room. Apparently an older fellow was right on my heels, because just as I'd settled in to my urinal stall, he sidled in to the one beside me and made a comment about not being sure at first that he was heading for the correct restroom, since so many women were exiting the same area.

Now, I have to say I'm not used to urinal conversations, and I'll confess it is particularly difficult to maintain respectful eye contact in such a situation. But my new-found friend carried on, and let me know about two times in his life when he accidentally found himself in the wrong powder room. It seems that the Cracker Barrell he frequents in Mechanicsville, Virginia has the men's room on the left, and the women's room on the right, but once at a Cracker Barrell in Kentucky he made the mistake of assuming the same configuration, with regrettable consequences. And then there was something about walking into the wrong dressing room at a hotel gala one time.

About all I could manage to get in as a response was, "Well, I think you've got two strikes against you already, huh?" But I'm not sure he heard me, as he had completed his stories and his main task, and had already shuffled off to the sink. Meanwhile I, who had gotten there first, had been to distracted and still hadn't completed my main task - hell, my only task - in there. Never was much good at paying attention to two things at once.

But I do love a good story...

25 June 2009

Summer Vacation Angst - Who Knew?

There are a couple of good essays over at Front Porch Republic, first by Mark Mitchell and then by Jeffrey Pollet regarding the current crop of young'uns we are raising and their senses of gratitude, as opposed to their senses of entitlement.

It's interesting that the spark for both authors is how either their kids, or their friends' kids, are spending time during summer break. Though they are mostly writing about adolescents or college kids, we've been doing a lot of thinking along these lines at our house in relation to our seven year-old. Unlike many we know, we do have choices. He has the luxury/curse of having me around as "House-Dad" all summer. But for about half of the summers over the last three years we still sent him off to YMCA day camp, just so he could have some interaction with other kids, and have some structure to his day. But this year he's been adamant about not wanting to go to camp, and listening to his reasoning, I think I basically get his point: hanging out with other kids is fun for him (except for the bully types), but he finds the activities and structure at camp dull, and he has little control over how he gets to spend his time.

Yes, I could mention to him times not-so-long-ago when he might have been spending his summer working with his parents in the mill, but nonetheless I can sympathize. I loved my wide-open summers as a kid, even as a teenager, and wanted minimum interference. Yes, we belonged to a pool we could go to any day, though I often found that boring after an hour or two. Being home was mostly what I wanted, and like dear old Dad, the boy is probably a bit of a home body.

The problem, of course, is that if he could, he would choose to spend all his free time at home watching Johnny Test or other cartoons, and/or playing video games. The other problem is that I am not a "hey, here are eight fun, structured activities for us to participate in today, son!" kind of Dad. And truth be told, Johnny Test is kind of mesmerizingly funny...

So, what we've worked out thus far is this: he's going to attend an evening Vacation Bible School with a few of his buddies one week, and evening basketball camp for two weeks after that. He's also in the midst of splitting a week at both sets of grandparents' homes. When he's home with me, he has mandatory reading time 2-3 times a day, and he has to do a little writing once a day (The Horror! The Horror! - we've already had a couple of knock-down drag-outs on those latter activities), plus do some minimal chores. Other than this, he can go to friends' houses, or they can come to his. That's about it right now.

What I want to avoid is encouraging the sense of entitlement and sloth mentioned in the essays above, but also forcing the kid into too many activities he doesn't want to (and doesn't have to) participate in. I guess my aim is, to paraphrase Polonius, "Neither a spoiled couch potato nor an organization kid be."

23 June 2009

Summer Sketch #1

A man who has lived a life of rot has been death’s companion day by day, and yet finds a way still open to him. He knows he can take it, and follow it back towards those he has blown apart. They see him, have known him, looming there all along, even as miles and mountains and widest rivers separate them. He will come, and they sense it, because a way is still open to him, and like all but the truly damned, he still glories in life.

Small talk will be his only possession until he earns something better, but he may use it as a weapon, they know, or as endless shelter. For a time it will be his only means of saying what he can’t say - they know this too, but know it may end up being all he can say, and the hidden words may never spring to the surface, so that all may remain dry, and worse than that, dry with no promise of hope. His daughters , for this, will shun him and accept the moments they cross his shadow only as discomfort to be endured. His sons, for this, will spy him as he walks across distant hills or passes them on county roads, but will mention him not at all.

So he knows what he must one day speak , but it is long past the time he can approach such words as empty gestures, simply means to get by. There also lies death. If there is a last start at such speech, then the words will hold him to the course, to the open way. To cut the words from the way, this time, will close it forever; to start down the way is to realize it will never offer itself again, that the words and the way are one - for his children will not listen, will not wait anymore for a ghost of a man. Is it not better to keep off of the open way, to let it tantalize a little longer so that he will at least know it is still there?

He packs his belongings, meager though they are. He looks like hell, he notices, with a quick glance in the mirror, but even amidst the gray hair and sallow cheeks he sees a hint of the boyishness he‘s always recognized. Death has been his companion for so many years, and will always welcome him back with open arms. That is not the embrace he seeks, but why go, only to fall again? For a brief moment, the words flash at him - that is a boy’s question, a boy’s thought, a boy forever a boy. The open way offers nothing but a chance that depends on the strictures of truth, but it is a chance. And he knows they see him, and have known he is coming all along.

17 June 2009

"As School Year Comes To End, Civilization Hangs by Ever-Fraying Thread"

In an alternate universe where I would somehow have anything to do with publishing a local newspaper, I'd make sure headlines like the title for this blog entry were the order of the day. And if you are of my ilk (i.e. neurotically concerned about the ongoing decline of America - which is to say, a normal and rational person) and would have witnessed my school's graduation last Friday, you'd know how such a headline would be appropriate.

It's not that anything completely awful happened at our ceremony, which took place last Friday in the traditional small (er, medium)-town way, on the football field under a baking June sun. But it does strike me how much has changed so quickly. What would have been considered totally inappropriate for graduates or attendees twenty years ago has become de rigueur. It used to be that if a principal asked the attendees to remain quiet until the last graduate's name was called, they did. And if graduates were threatened with not receiving their diplomas due to poor behavior during the ceremony, they knew to tread lightly. Ah, such days of innocence!

When I first started teaching seven years ago, I quickly realized that compliance was no longer universal, but those family members/friends who broke propriety by whooping it up when their special cupcake's name was called were still the exception, and were easy to dismiss (sad to say) with the use of that fine old condemnatory Southernism, "trashy". In the intervening years, now, trashy has apparently become the new appropriate. On Friday I could count on one hand the number of graduates, out of 390 or so walking the stage, who didn't receive a "Whoo! Whoo!" or "Yeeeeaaaahhh-uhhh! That's my baaaay-bee!!" from somewhere in the crowd. It quickly got to the point that: a) I started feeling sorry for the very few who didn't receive loud applause (had no one under 90 come to see them graduate, I wondered?) and b) I became grateful toward those who let out minimalist "whooping" that didn't run over into the next graduate's name; sure they were rude, but not as rude as the worst offenders.

While most of the graduates did walk the stage with dignity, there were quite a few who either struck poses or found distracting ways to acknowledge the clannish adulation they received - little pretend celebrity punks and punkettes, playing out their fondest awards show fantasies.

Speaking of fantasies, it is no wonder that many teachers express the following as a perfect commencement scenario: Everyone is gathered in place, the graduates march and file into their seats, and, just after the opening invocation, a massive thunderstorm suddenly rushes onto the scene, leaving the principal no choice but to pronounce everyone a graduate and send us all running off to our cars.

Sad, huh?

Hear that creaking noise, fellow Westerners...?

07 June 2009

Glad Tidings

On Friday morning at 9 a.m., I silently sat forward in a darkened room, my face bathed in sweat, watching a video monitor, and heard the technician say, "Everything looks really clear today. It looks really good." The doctor came in and confirmed this news for us soon thereafter, and though he wanted one more follow-up just to really play it safe, he said, "Really, I think you can put this out of your minds now." Those words ended one of the most difficult, trying months of our lives.

I struggled for quite a while about when, and how, to write about this, but if you read the Wyfe's blog you know about the ultrasound finding of an echogenic bowel we received back on May 8th. In short, this means the baby's bowel showed up more brightly than normal on the sonogram, and this is a "soft marker" which usually, by itself, indicates nothing. Usually it resolves itself over a few weeks. But that word usually (or often, or most of the time, or frequently) indicates wiggle room, and wiggle room exists because this marker is also associated with Downs syndrome, cystic fibrosis, blockages, and other worrisome scenarios. Though the odds were low, they were about half as low as before, and of course nothing guarantees worry like the phrase, "It's probably nothing; I wouldn't worry about it." So even though we were told that there was no need to drive ourselves crazy over this in the weeks until our follow-up ultrasound, we drove ourselves crazy about it.

It was a month of terrible emotional fluctuations, of internet searches that were more like pleas, of prayers both hesitant and (on a good day) bold, and of many a broken night's sleep. There were days when all I wanted to do was talk out my worries, the way a child keeps picking at a scab; then, especially over the last week, there were days when I couldn't bring myself to mention them even once. A legitimate point we always made to each other was, "Look, it's not like we would love the child any less, and we know people with Downs who are happy and well-adjusted, and whose families have perfectly normal lives." This was all true, absolutely so. But I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a bit of hollowness behind these statements. Many people deal with birth defects, and do so with all the love in their hearts, working through the extra burdens and complications. God bless them. No one, however, wishes for such a scenario.

Certainly, though, there are those who can face uncertainty with a stouter spirit than I can. I managed my way through the last month because I had no choice, and no control. But I did so with white knuckles. It's a hell of a thing to have someone ask you how the baby's doing, or how the pregnancy's going, and to feel you can't offer a convincing smile and a full-fledged "Just fine, thanks!" Then again, who ever promised certainty in this world, either before, during, or after birth? (I know of those who have had much, much worse situations)

We intend now, however, to assume everything is fine, just fine - thank you, Jesus.

And, oh by the way, did I mention it's a girl?

19 May 2009

Slackness As A Form of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

So last evening was "Graduation Project" night, the end-of-semester event wherein seniors stand in front of adult judges, in front of often-hastily-prepared tri-fold cardboard displays, and strain to speak for at least five minutes on the "product" they worked on all semester which relates to their research paper. Since this grueling night is always scheduled on Mondays - once in deep, dark December and once in beautiful May - among the things it produces are grumpy, tired teachers for the rest of the week.

Last night was the first time I'd been tapped as a judge of the presentations and "products" (which can consist of anything from volunteer time to actually creating or constructing something), and five of the six seniors we graded did just fine. There was, however, the sixth, whose paper and project were ostensibly on "The Effects of Racial Profiling on the Educations of Minorities." Yes, the young man doing this project was black. From what I could tell, he was intelligent, had the ability to be an effective speaker/presenter, and had an engaging personality. He was well-groomed, polite, and neatly dressed. And his project was...well... crap.

What he was supposed to have done was visit two elementary schools, one predominantly white and one black, help teach second-grade classes about something or other (he never was clear on what), and observe how students were engaged with, punished, etc. by teachers and administrators. What he actually did, it seems, is only go to the latter school and help the teacher pass out papers and line the kids up for recess. When asked what evidence he saw of racial profiling at the school, he told about seeing some black and white kids pushing a boy on the playground and calling him a "Mexican". On his tri-fold he had a few pictures from his classroom visit, somewhat random quotes and questions pasted on at slanted angles, and two print outs of surveys. One of these purported to show the rates of gang activity among different races (why?), and the other showed the disparity in rates of suspensions between blacks and whites in five states (not including NC), and Long Island (?). Suffice to say, this was not a coherent or impressive effort.

As judges, we were to decide how well he supported his argument, and what quality of work he did. As you might have guessed, we judged him as below standard. As you might also have guessed, the three of us are white. There was much conjecture as to what the kid might attribute his failure to.

Oh, we profiled all right. We profiled for "kids who slack off until the last minute on the most important assignment of their senior year." Not a race, but a common species, it seems.

02 May 2009

Me, The Boy, and The Boss

"This is our kingdom of days."
-Bruce Springsteen, Kingdom of Days

If you've listended to Bruce Springsteen's latest album, Working on a Dream, you may have noticed a running theme that threads it's way even through the mostly upbeat, winsome feel of the album: our days on earth are numbered, and we must do the best we can with them. Yes, laughter and love can abound in them. But know that they are numbered. Probably the first ten times I heard "The Last Carnival", Bruce's tribute song to fallen friend and band member Danny Federici, I literally wept somewhere along the way. Our days are numbered indeed.

The story of my first encounters with the music, and the phenomenon, of Bruce Springsteen is rather pedestrian by standards of so many of his fans. As with much of the country, I got hooked on The Boss's music in the spring/summer of 1984 as soon as "Dancing In The Dark" hit the airwaves, and Born in the USA hit the record stores. This was the summer between my eighth and ninth grade years, a time for feeling so grown up and yet so overwhelmed by what was coming. I bought the cassette of the album, and listened to it non-stop for months. It was a heady combination for an introverted teenager ready to pop out of his own skin: guitars, backbeat, the masculine tone of the songs, intelligent lyrics, the dark edges, the stories the songs told. I distinctly remember the summer ritual of having my walkman with me everytime I went out to ride my bike, and everytime I went to bed, the cassette playing over and over (I still have that cassette, by the way). All this would have made me a laughingstock among most of my peers, who considered Bruce weak water compared to their Kiss's/Iron Maidens/Jimi Hendrix's, so I pretty much kept it to myself. But I was hooked.

Years later I realized that for many Bruce purists the album was a source of derision, but it was my introduction to the man. Of course, within the next year or so I had found Born to Run in the cassette bargain bin at K-Mart, and had saved up Christmas money to by the Live 1975-1985 album, which opened up whole new Springsteenian worlds for me, all of them equally compelling. 25 years later I'm still listening, still a fan, even through the uneven albums of the 90's and the Boss's occasional uneven political statements. One of my wife's many good points is that she has always been a Bruce fan as well, and I've found several friends over the years with whom I can bond over Bruce. I neither have the breadth or depth of Springsteen knowledge/experience that a couple of these friends of mine have (friends Brad and Phil, for instance have - I believe- seen every Bruce show ever in the state of NC!), and I've only seen Bruce live twice, though those were two of the most unbelievable experiences of my life, celebrations as much as concerts.

I first played Born in the USA for the boy when he was three, thinking it would be a nice intro to rock and roll for him, and of course openly hoping he would take to it. He did, and we've been raising a little Boss fan ever since.

When word of the new tour came around, it occured to me (perhaps prophetically, perhaps not) that, with one bandmate already fallen, this could be the last time around for 59 year-old Bruce and his crew, and that maybe, just maybe I should go. Unfortunately, Wyfe begged off, as she just doesn't like concerts anymore, plus she knew she would perhaps not have the energy for it at this point in the pregnancy. The thought occured to me, fleetingly, that I should take the boy... but, he's too young, it would be too long, etc. Still, in the wake of the Bruce Superbowl appearance, he had been saying, "I wish I could see Bruce Springsteen sometime." After friend Brad told me about the numbers of children who trekked to Bruce shows with their (rapidly) aging parents on the last tour, well... you can pretty much guess the rest of the story.

So, tonight in Greensboro, child earplugs in tow, the boy and I will be sitting on the lower level, yelling, screaming, bobbing our heads up and down, and air-guitaring, spending our evening with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, a father and son sharing a place in time which will seem, for a few hours, like a place out of time. On this side of heaven, our "Kingdom of Days" are what we have, and we'll share a little piece of that kingdom tonight with a man whose given both of us, now, so much joy.

21 April 2009

Clique-ity Clack

At this point, having once survived high school myself and now having survived high school again for almost seven years, teenage cliques rarely bother me anymore. Yes, they are irritating, but so are spring allergies, and both come and go soon enough. Besides, I guess we've all been in some kind of clique at some point.

What I've run upon at school #2, though (and have mentioned before), is an adult clique I pretty much can't abide. Unfortunately, it is made up mostly of English teachers, all of whom I'm on good terms with. But when they are gathered together, something I usually witness while warming my food at lunch, the sum of their parts as gathered in their conversation equals any or all of the following: smarmy, immature, asinine, sneering, juvenile, hateful, politically chauvinistic, (anti)religiously chauvinistic, snobby, puerile, self-consciously chic, hedonistic... well, you get the picture, and see why I tend to delicately extract myself from the lounge rather quickly after my food is warm. I also tend to not sit right next to them during faculty meetings so as to be out of site of the embarassing notes they pass, or blatant talking they do, while the principal is speaking.

So yesterday a couple of my yearbook kids were out asking for teacher volunteers who might help us staff a distribution party after school on the day the books come in. When the girls went in the lounge to ask the gathered Clique, they were apparently dismissed rather rudely and haughtily sent on their way after being told what an awful idea this was. In the meantime, at least 12 other teachers had already pledged to assist and said it was a good idea, or at least worth a try.

What chafes me is that any of these Clique members, if approached one-on-one, would have at least been courteous, even if they declined to help. What is it about the group setting (maybe I should say the group-think setting) that can turn people into such turds?

Adults. Sheesh.

15 April 2009

The Prospects of Being an Old Dad

To continue my musings on impending fatherhood, Act II, let me point out a few other items of preoccupation:

*One of the first things that occured to me after we confirmed the news was that I would be 58 when this child, God willing, graduated high school. 58! I realize that in today's world this does not connote full decrepitude, and in fact this might only qualify me for the Viagra target audience, and not necessarily the mortuary. But will I be able to legitimately throw a baseball then without the kid going easy on me? Or stay awake by 10 pm? Or be able to intimidate a boyfriend? Yikes.

Plus, though this has not universally been the case, I've known many instances of a child being born to older parents, never having a real connection with them because they are so out of it, and turning into a rebellious turd. Will this child grow up thinking his/her parents are hopelessly outdated and just too old to share much with?

* What if this child is a girl? Seriously. Longtime readers are aware of the many head-shaking, not-able-to-be-rationalized stories I have from dealing with teenage girls on a day to day basis as a teacher. I've griped and griped about those bizarre creatures, so naturally I'm betting on a girl this time around. I picture myself wincing through the various delicate issues I would have to deal with starting at around age 10 or so. I picture myself shuddering at the thought of some boy touching my daughter. I'm not amused.

I will say I love what one of my favorite former students told me about how her father dealt with her and her two sisters when they would fall into "adolescent girl mode". This jolly, round man, usually the loudest person at all the sporting events he was at, was a fun-loving, blue-collar Catholic country boy (of all things!). But when any drama started, the exchange would go roughly like this:

Dad: "Quit whining, suck it up, and grow some hair on your chest!"
7th Grade-ish Daughter: "Girls don't grow hair on their chests!"
Dad: "Well then, suck it up and grow some titties on your chest!"
7th Grade-ish Daughter: "I don't really have any of those yet either!"

Doubt I'll be trying that line of attack, but you never know.

*What about the age gap in children? This I have the least anxiety about - I've surreptitiously been taking notes on others who have children this far apart, or grew up in similar circumstances. The anecdotal evidence is that all has been well, including the free babysitting down the road. What we don't want is for the Boy to feel either left out, or too left in (as in feeling like a third equal in the caretaking). We want him involved as much as possible, but to still be able to be a kid. This will take some work, but a good balance should be possible.

*I could go on about finances, time, work, the inevitable decline of the America, the loss of all public morality, and other worries, but no point in that now. By the time I'm 58 I'm sure I will have addressed those here, and with the kid, on numerous occasions.

14 April 2009

Undeserved Joy

As I've previously mentioned, my schedule this year is tick-tight, and the blogging has suffered, so how about a little update. What's been going on in SchoolMasterP's world? Well...

Let's see... a fulfilling Lenten season and Easter Sunday have passed, we're trying to sell our house and buy a slightly bigger one, the spring semester is halfway through, the hateful yearbook is finished, I just started a new Teaching Company course on Martin Luther, yellow pine pollen has once again engulfed eastern NC... uh, and... oh yeah, there is this matter about a baby on the way.

If you also read my wife's blog, or are a friend on her hateful Facebook page, you know all about the blessed news. Let me fill in some other pieces of this story of unexpected and undeserved joy.

A couple of years after my son was born, we decided to try, in earnest, for child #2, but whereas the conception of #1 was virtually instantaneous, as these things go, we had no such fortune this time around. According to the doctors, nothing was physically wrong with us, but nonetheless my wife had what turned out to be a short, unhappy encounter with a fertility drug just to see if it would help. After about a year, we decided just to let be what will be, but in reality we were both mostly convinced that the fertile years had passed us by. And so, that is the place we've inhabited for five or six years now.

What were our feelings, and thoughts, about all this? I must first admit that there was part of me, five years ago, that was relieved not to have another baby to raise after just getting through the infant/early toddler years with the Boy. Perhaps we were just meant to have one, and besides, since we aren't wealthy, and there is so much in the world for us to do with this child that maybe it was just as well. Where would we find the time or energy when we were already so sapped? How would we pay for another round of daycare? Selfish thoughts, for sure; at times, shameful thoughts. But real.

These feelings were balanced, though, by the almost unbearable disappointment my wife was feeling. Rarely does my wife seem permanently wounded by something, but this was one sorrow that seemed never to be assuaged. For one, there was the grief any woman might feel at believing her childbearing days are over. Plus, being an only child, she knew the unique challenges that growing up without siblings can present (there are, of course, unique challenges in having siblings as well!). Finally, there is just the disappointment of a dream not playing out as you'd hoped, and having that (relatively) perfectly squared American family of four was her dream.

Over time, especially the last couple of years, I started to feel the pinch of this same sorrow. I remember when the Boy was born, I thanked God so much for the privilege of being a parent, of just having that opportunity, that shot at it. I was mindful, and still am, that many who would love to be parents don't get that shot, which should always be a reproach to the smugness that comes from feeling you're "in the club." But having one child seems to naturally beg for having more, if possible - this is simply the way of life, not a judgment. It wasn't, apparently, our fate, and so staring at 40, it seemed an era of other possibilities had just slipped by us.

Increasingly, when asked why we didn't have more children, I found myself regretting that we didn't start earlier in our marriage, and regretting my former thoughts of relief over not having two little mouths to feed at once. The motivations behind such feelings ranged from low to high, the most craven of which is the thought that those with more than one child have extra buffers against the risks of losing a child. Who is more to be pitied, the thinking goes, than someone who loses the only child they have been given?

But I've also been looking upon my son with pity at times, for he is not only an only child, but an only grandchild on both sides of his family, which is a rarity. Sooner or later, I thought, all our misfortunes, all our burdens, all our infirmities will fall on his shoulders alone. It is not that he isn't happy, or that he hasn't formed many good friendships already at his young age. But it will all fall on him.

And now, we have the shocking, exhilirating, and (I'll admit) slightly intimidating news of a child on the way, due in October, with everyone apparently healthy thus far. And... Oh, my God, are You serious!?!?

Sorry, that still bubbles up every now and then. Stay tuned, dear reader, for Part II of my musings on the unexpected event...

23 March 2009

But In This County...

Our school just held its annual Miss ______ High School pageant a couple of days ago, and because I share planning and curriculum with one of our newer teachers who was helping with the pageant, someone who fortunately grew up in the socially-intellectually-materially advanced (wink-wink) town on the southwest side of Raleigh, I have heard quite a bit of the scuttlebutt surrounding the whole thing.

Of course, over the past few weeks there has been the predictable girl drama, the backbiting, the selectively leaked utterances of overconfidence, and the fake friendships (including, it seems, among the teachers organizing the event). But what was most interesting about the whole event was the girl my colleague really was hoping would win. Seems the girl is a great student, more of an intellectual than the other girls, a nice person, and someone possessing a most unusual talent: she played the sitar. Turns out, by the way, that this girl did win.

Granted, it sounds like I would have preferred her to win as well, had I been subject to daily helpings of pageant preparation. If you've spent much time around the pageant girl crowd - and if you are like me (that is to say, a typical man) - your patience has been tried early and often. Plus, as a rule, the dancing and singing "talents" these girls typically rely on are, to put it delicately, God-awful. So, good for this girl and her mighty sitar playing for laying 'em low.

But for the last few weeks all I've heard are how the rubes "in this county" might find something like the sitar too bizarre, or how people "in this county" don't think to ask the caterers of the event for vegetarian plate optiions, or how the people "in this county" aren't too concerned about proper syntax in the girls' addresses to the audience.

We should feel sorry for ourselves, I guess, living out here in the armpit of the state - a whole 20 minutes or so from civilization.

24 February 2009

Why Lent Matters

We've been reading Greek stories in my honors class, and the story of Perseus and his many heroic feats (in heroic sandals, I might add - get it? get it?) was one of the most popular with the group. As an extension assignment, I asked the class to write about the "Medusas" in their life they need to slay, and how and why they need to do this. I also told them that I wanted them to be totally honest about this, but if what they had written was too personal, they could put it in an envelope marked "Do Not Read", and I would trust that they did it (and honor their request of course).

Well, I did get about five envelopes - and yes, I believe that they really wrote the paper - but most everyone else was willing to share. Much of what I got was standard teen anxiety, such as worries about measuring up to expectations, or figuring out which social groups are the right fit. But there were also much darker stories shared, the kind of stories that almost make the world stop for a few moments.

I read a long paper from a girl who hasn't seen her mother in a year. This is the same mother who has been through four boyfriends over the course of this girl's sixteen years, who once had to go to the hospital after one of the boyfriends beat the crap out of her, which her girl vividly remembers. Upon last seeing her daughter, this mother showed more affection for her latest boyfriend's children than for her own, leaving the girl in tears. That will never go away.

And there was a beautifully written paper from another girl telling about how her life has fallen apart since only October, when she moved in with her mother. She writes about finally facing "reality", which for her means that people are essentially selfish and that the best way to make it through is to "not care about anything or give a crap about anyone." She's been in therapy, is taking antidepressants, has been in fights, and has failed classes. From her demeanor in class, I never would have guessed any of this.

So we come to that time of year when we give special heed to our own sinfulness, our own damned and damning selfishness, and when we do, we need to pay heed to the "least of these" who always suffer the most for it. But we do so not out of morbidity, not because of allegiance to death and darkness. We do so because there is Hope on the other side, blessed Hope. I hope our lost children, despite our best efforts, still know it's there.

16 February 2009

Coincidence by Design?

Honestly, I had no idea last week marked a Darwin anniversary of some sort until I saw a note about how Google had changed their homepage design to commemorate the date. It was pure coincidence then, I'm sure (?) that I was at the time delving into a fascinating read: John Carroll's The Wreck of Western Culture .

Carroll, an Australian intellectual, begins with the Renaissance and proceeds to march down the centuries until the 9/11, showing how humanism's first assertions of the great I ("we can become what we will") eventually led to the total unraveling of western culture in all but material aspects. Humanism, he posits, is now dead, and we live in its ruins, awaiting a new chapter. He utilizes brilliant readings of certain paintings, pieces of literature, and pieces of music to narrate his tale, and his heroes are the painter Poussin and the composer Bach, both of whom offered visions of life which still led to cogent answers for the three great questions: where did we come from? what is the meaning of our lives? where do we go when we die? Unfortunately, few others living under humanism's roof could address these questions - which tends to happen when we make ourselves the measure of all things.

Yesterday I read Carroll's chapter on Marx and Darwin, the final twin wreckers of the west. Marx, he points out, was full of rancor and bitterness (he actually never even toured a factory, and lived as a conventional bourgeois). Darwin's story is, to me, even more disconcerting - he wrote with no rancor, but with stereotypical scientific coldness, all along explaining how, in essence, the only god is the god of skulls (ape and human).

Now, whenever I read about the full Darwinian explanation for EVERYTHING (as opposed to the demonstrable portions of his observations), I'll admit a chill runs up my spine. Partially it is the worry that the largescale implications of his theory are correct, and that life is an absurd accident, ending merely in negation of being. Partially, it is the way so many embraced (and continue to embrace) this dead end, quite gleefully.

How to deal with this? How to answer Darwin, for those of us who stare out into his abyss, but recoil from it, not believing we do so in an effort to delude ourselves?

Well, I guarantee I have nothing profound to add, and can only speak for myself, but I find it amazing that all my Darwinian anxiety tends to lift as soon as I find myself in the company of others, working within the context of my relationships with them. Relations with my family, my friends, my students - they all put the lie to the nihilistic worldview, and for a Christian this should not be a stunning revelation. At its core, our faith is a faith in relationship - THE Relationship.

Perhaps it doesn't seem much to stand on, especially among the ruins of western culture. But from relationship comes a knowledge that the intellect, I believe, can only stand in awe of, and must follow. Darwin, when he overstepped his bounds, be damned.

27 January 2009

New Semester Rising

Because of our snow days last week, our new semester didn't start on time, so now tomorrow is the day. When I was in high school, there was no such thing as a "block schedule" semester calendar, so you stayed in the same classes from August until May. As a teacher, this mid-year changeover has always felt odd to me.

For some reason today I was thinking about the feel of this new semester versus the feel of a new school year in August. There is a touch of hope and optimism attached to the newness, but it is far more muted than it normally is after summer's end. Of course, it is the middle of freakin' winter, which is hardly conducive to joyous moods. Also, students and teachers alike have just finished last semester in a rush of activity, emotion, and exam angst, so none of us feel completely recharged to start over again, I suspect.

There is an upside, I think, in that I can still be hopeful about what lies ahead, but in a more realistic (chastened?) way. When I'm away from students for all those weeks of summer, I tend to get a little too "pie in the sky" about all my big plans and all the GREAT THINGS THAT WILL HAPPEN IN CLASS EVERY DAY!! AHHHHH!!!

Yeah. Well, some of those things did happen, so I'm thankful for them, and for the tiny miracles that will somehow occur even in this less-than-eagerly-anticipated semester about to begin... wish me luck, as always.

22 January 2009

"All Changed, Changed Utterly."

(With a hat tip to W.B. Yeats for my post title)

Snow, at least in measurable quantity, doesn't find its way to the central piedmont of N.C. very often, so it was a cause for celebration at our house when we got about six inches on Tuesday.

Especially during a morning storm, as the snow really kicks in, nothing seems quite itself anymore (I'm sure those in northern climates who are used to the routine would beg to differ!)

Added bonus - it only takes two days for it to disappear 'round these parts!

14 January 2009

I'll Take This...

How about a little self-pat on the back? Here's an excerpt from a student's "Farewell to English II" journal entry, which I took up after exams today:

"...I am going to miss you and this class SO FREAKIN'BAD!!! I had so much fun in here and I read more often than I have for a while - loving the Shakespeare! You helped me to start reaching out for bigger things and pushing myself to figure out what my limits really are. Thank you."

12 January 2009

"The Absent Thing Alone is Real"

Before he died last week, my wife's uncle (as we were told at the funeral) expressed that he was ready for death, tired after many a good fight, and ready to "go home." Two days later the author and priest Richard John Neuhaus died. Today I opened up the latest, now-melancholy issue of First Things to find the last words Neuhaus would ever publish in his column there. As he revealed a new bout with cancer, he wrote, among other things, "Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be."

I have nothing profound tonight to add on the subject of death (have I ever?). Only to note that the conjunction of these two deaths last week, one of a relative and one of a favorite author and thinker, greatly impacted my household, in different ways, of course. I'll also note the bravery, mentioned above, of each as they faced the final hours, knowing all the while they must have felt, at moments, less than brave. Which is to say they were human.

My wife's uncle was - will continue to be - described as "larger than life", and for good reason. He was a Marine who survived the hell-hole of Okinawa, a public servant and political force in his home county for decades, and a man who never met a stranger, nor, apparently, an excuse to throw a charitable fundraiser (preferably involving barbecue) that he didn't like. I usually only saw him once a year at Christmas, so for the fifteen years I knew him my perspective was somewhat unique - rather than the public man, I almost always witnessed the private man, often when eating breakfast with him at his kitchen table before the larger family gathering had commenced. He had me by almost fifty years, but we found we had similar interests and similar viewpoints, and I considered him my friend. He was generous with his attention and always ready to swap stories, the old Southerner par excellence. And, he didn't leave this world without teaching my son something - he taught the Boy how to salute! I, in turn, salute a long life lived well.

As for Neuhaus, I simply would say that whether or not you agree with his political stances over the years (and they were strong and principled), even if you never had the pleasure of reading his monthly "The Public Square" column, you would be doing yourself a disservice by not seeking out two books of his that have consoled me numerous times through rough patches - even crises - of faith. Death on a Friday Afternoon should be read often, but most especially, I would recommend, during Lent. And then there is Neuhaus's remarkable, luminous As I Lay Dying, his account of being at death's doorstep during his first bout of cancer, including the humble account he gives of an astounding encounter he had while lying semi-conscious in his hospital room. I remember going out to buy this book right after I had read William Cullent Bryant's alluring, nihilistic poem "Thanatopsis", and suddenly feeling the cold fear that all there is to life is this world. Neuhaus's writing has consoled me in the face of such fears many times now.

For all the consolations, though, there is still the grief of this world, always present, easy to find every day. We feel our losses deeply, and that can never change. I love this quote from Joseph Bottum in his obituary of Neuhaus:

"Grief doesn't conjure up ghosts. Grief renders the world itself ghostly. The absent thing alone is real, and in comparison, all present things are pale, gray, and indistinct: a vague background to the sharp-edged portrait of what is gone."

05 January 2009

And The World Continues Apace...

After a very long, very relaxing break, you can imagine I had certain trepidations about jumping back into the classroom today, especially with this being the last week before semester exams, and my having to return to grumpy teens their research papers, replete with notations along the lines of, "Make the following 15 corrections, redo your entire works cited page, and then resubmit."

One girl, in fact, got EXTREMELY angry that I told her to better paraphrase certain passages or else be in danger of the accusation of plagiarism, which was a heavy hint that she was, in fact in danger of the accusation of plagiarism. Well, she whined and fumed about how this is really the way she writes, and maybe she hasn't shown it all year but she could write like a stupid 5th grader if that's what I wanted, etc. So, I took her over to my computer, looked up a website from her works cited, found a passage from said website, and pointed out to her how she used the exact same sentences without quotation marks in her paper and just slapped an endnote on them.

I'm still waiting for my apology...

Later in the day, I also intercepted the following note, which I reproduce exactly as written:

What happened with you and Shotgun?

nothin I was just askin if you saw him. do you think he misses me?

I don't know, why? didn't u see him over the break

I told you already that Im not allowed to see him he will get sent to jail duh!

What? Why?
(end of note, as Mr. P took it)

There is definitely a Jeff Foxworthy joke or two just waiting to happen there, I know. Let's just hope ole' Shotgun, whoever he is, stays out of the pokey.