Drums

One of the nicest perks of my job is how much praise I get for doing it in the first place.  Mention I’m a teacher, and people get all “Oh, I could never do that” and “Oh, God bless you” and “I don’t know how you do it. I’d murder those little weasels.”

I’m not exactly running an orphanage or tending to abandoned sick dogs, but yes, it does take a great deal of patience to be a teacher.  And tonight, I think I figured out where I got that patience.

I play the drums.*

Band practice is a funny thing for a drummer.  There’s a lot of waiting, just sitting there while the guitarist figures out a solo, the bass player works on his harmony, or everyone debates about how the song should start.

I can’t just bang away on the drums.  They’re loud, distracting.  The other guys have volume knobs, rendering their instruments more or less silent while some business is being done.  Not me.  I just sit there, waiting patiently.

And that’s where the patience came in.  For decades, I’ve sat on an uncomfortable stool, waiting for a member of my band to “get” whatever it is he needs to “get.”  And until recently, I didn’t have a smart phone to noodle with while someone tunes a guitar for the tenth time (Oh, if only I had had Words with Friends for the past decade or so).  I just sit there and wait quietly.  It’s exactly what my job is like now.  I just stand there and patiently wait, for them to get it, for that kid to stop talking, for someone to hazard an answer to my question.

I don’t seem to mind.  I’m used to it.

The Group Work on CELEBRITY APPRENTICE

I’m not proud to say I watched this 2012 season of Celebrity Apprentice, but I did.  There’s no going back.  I heard Penn Jillette, whose art and views I’ve appreciated for years, mention it on Twitter; I felt compelled to watch.

If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s standard competition-based reality TV.  It moves at a snail’s pace, and the narrative often stinks of too much interference from producers trying to craft a good story.  Trump and Trump alone appears to have the final say in who gets fired, and he often bases his decision on which celebrities are too tired to argue and yell anymore (i.e. they’re done making good television for him).

I bring up the stupid show here because there are plenty of parallels of human behavior between the weekly projects Donald Trump assigns and the group work I see in my classroom.

Most immediately recognizable was when the celebrities weren’t bright or creative, so they claimed their talents lie in completing mundane tasks, doing grunt work.  It happened quite a few times on the dumb stupid show.  Lou Ferrigno would say he gave “110%,” when all he really offered was a few strong arms and no ideas.  It seemed to infuriate the actually smart celebrities.

I see this all the time.  Specifically, on the yearbook staff, I’ll have kids who sit idly by like potatoes when the important work is being done–designing, reporting, writing.  When I’ve got something easy to do (count votes, sort receipts, etc.), they embrace it like it’s their life work, their hidden talent. Alas, they don’t even do the grunt work very well.  The more talented kids would count the votes or sort the receipts faster and more accurately, but they’re busy doing the hard stuff.

Another parallel is the chaotic and surprising ways a project can come together.  On Celebrity Apprentice and in my classroom, a good idea can come from anywhere.  The motorcycle reality TV guy will mutter a slogan that becomes the foundation of a commercial.  A student will see the connection between his Odyssey project and the World of Warcraft video editing with which he’s been playing.  Both lead to a successful execution of a project.

When it comes to self-evaluation, the comparisons get a bit trickier.  No one gets “fired” in my class (though many have deserved it), so there’s little incentive to throw a peer under the bus, like the celebrities inevitably do on the dumb show, blaming each other for the disastrous results of a project.  While that does happen, most students stick together and say everyone did a great job, even if that’s not the case.

Recently, I had some big Journalism projects done in groups.  I conferenced with each student afterward, and they were predictably harder on themselves than they were on their partners.  It’s tough as a high schooler to say your peer deserves a lower grade for their incompetence, laziness, or ball-dropping.  It’s much easier when stupid Donald Trump is staring you down, forcing you to pick somebody on your team to call an idiot.

 

*I realize that the season of Celebrity Apprentice is not actually over yet.  But Penn Jillette got fired, and I have no desire to watch Clay Aiken and Miss Universe hang out on TV.

Aside

Over the weekend, a number of seniors at my high school were arrested for vandalism.  The actual charge was something along the lines of damage to government property, which is a felony.  Sunday night, I get word that a number of students I know (and care for a great deal–“love” is a tricky word to throw around about teenagers, but I would definitely help them move, if that’s a fair indication of how much I care) have been charged with a felony.

I’m not a busybody.  I didn’t spend the school day tracking down names and getting everyone’s stories; I had classes to teach.  I was scared to talk to the kids in my class that were involved (more on that later).  I have very little knowledge of what went on that night, outside of a list of kids arrested.  The closest thing to the truth I can deduce is that a chunk of kids were embracing their assumed duty to spray paint the intersection at our school’s entrance.  Some shadier elements of the group spread out, covering school building walls, walkways, and vehicles with their creative, inspiring message that, yes, they are “seniors,” and it is indeed “2012.”

I don’t remember my senior prank.  I wasn’t involved, because I hated high school.  Senior pranks are for those with a modicum of school spirit and pride, an opportunity to show one’s devotion by orchestrating a creative upending of normality or instilling some chaos into an otherwise ho-hum day of school.  School pranks are supposed to be thousands of forks in the football field, synchronized alarm clocks, greased pigs in the hallways.  You’ve got to love a place to go through that kind of effort to make light of it.

I hated high school, but I love my job.  I never considered myself a Patriot, or an Indian, or even an Owl (hoo!), but I very much consider myself a Raider.  And I didn’t see this as a prank.  I saw it as a selfish and idiotic attack on a place I consider home.  It’s one of the reasons this is so confusing; the kids in trouble for this are good kids who have demonstrated an enormous sense of school pride since I’ve known them.  They run student government, make homecoming court, travel great distances to see their football team compete.  Their actions were devoid of any creativity or substantial statement other than “Look at me!  I can destroy things.  Did I mention what year it is?  2012!”

Furthermore, it makes me feel like a failure.  Of the students listed, I taught six of them as freshmen.  I read To Kill a Mockingbird to them.  They compiled books of meaningful passages from the novel.  Nearly every single kid used Atticus’s powerful advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”  They wrote about what those words meant to them.  I know it’s been a while since they heard those words, but I thought I had done my part to demonstrate that ideal as much as possible.  I’ve spent the next three years watching these kids grow up, talking to them in the halls, recruiting them on to my yearbook staff because I valued their talents and trusted their character.  Again, I certainly haven’t a clue as to what exactly went on that night, but just their presence at such an ugly display of arrogant foolishness makes me doubt my effectiveness as a role model for young adults.  Naively, I thought I had made more of a difference.

It’s tempting to chalk this up as a boys-will-be-boys scenario (though many of the culprits were girls).  Also, I can certainly dig up the research about how an 18 year-old’s frontal lobe, the area of the brain that determines judgment, is nowhere near fully developed, making it almost physiologically impossible for these kids to make a prudent decision.  I can also mention a number of students turned themselves in to the police, possibly the only noble act possible in that situation.

I’m certainly torn between defending these kids (because I do know they are sincerely decent human beings) and very much wanting them to learn a lesson about what happens when you destroy someone else’s property for no good reason and disrespect a place that I and many others hold dear.

As a teacher, I have to be a source of authority and discipline.  I have to say “Take your hat off,” “Put your phone away,” “Don’t throw things.”  I don’t really care about their hats or their phones, but my paycheck demands I enforce a few rules.  But I’m really struggling with what my role is in this situation.  I’d be happy to lecture them (I clearly have opinions on the matter), but only if they wanted that.  It might sound crazy–who wants to be lectured?–but I think we all do sometimes, at those moments when it seems like we’ve lost control over what we’re doing.

What I want to do more than anything is listen to them.   I’m having trouble wrapping my head around their motivations.  I’m having trouble looking at them in my classroom, wondering exactly how they’re processing this experience.  And I’m sure not many adults are bothering to hear their side of the story (again, more Atticus Finch).

I’m also frightened to talk to them about it, though.  I’m worried they’re not learning any lessons at all or, worse, that they’re learning the wrong lessons.  If they’re not convinced of the severity of the situation, they’ll forever look at authority figures as forces of overreaction and unjust punishment.  I can also see how they could find comfort in sharing the experience with friends then claim they’re learning the value of solidarity (“we’re in this together, y’all!”), instead of the much more valuable lesson that society will judge you based on who you’re with, whether that’s unfair or not.

They get to graduate in May.  They get to move on and eventually laugh about this.  Maybe it turns into a English 1101 essay about how they learned an important life lesson.

But I have to stick around.  I get a fresh batch of seniors, already convinced that vandalism is a prank, already thinking of ways to top this year.  I also have to walk into the building past the faint outline of illegible graffiti, an ugly reminder that the only school I’ve ever felt truly proud to be a part of maybe isn’t as great as I thought it was.  They get to move on, but I don’t think I can ever look at any student the same way again.

You Remind Me of a Song

Some students’ names–based on their meter–instantly remind me of certain melodies.  I have no idea if I’m alone on this or not, but certain names trigger tunes in my head, without fail.

Need some examples?  Of course you do:

 

Type of name: 2 syllable first name; 2 syllable last name

Imaginary examples: Tyler Thomas; Wendy Puckett

Reminds me of: “Let’s go, Thrashers. [clap] [clap] [clap clap clap]

 

Type of name: 2 syllable first name; 1 syllable last name

Imaginary examples: Johnny Clark, Sammy Post

Reminds me of: The “rolling start” intro of Sega Saturn’s Daytona USA

 

Type of name: 3 syllable first names (usually with a soft ‘ah’ sound in the middle)

Imaginary example: Shwanna

Reminds me of: John Linnell’s “Nevada”

This link should work!

Of course, the accents have to fall on the right syllables, but stuff like this makes passing back their papers a non-stop melody in my big dumb head.

Foul Is Fair Use and Fair Use Is Foul

Dear Paulding County School Board,

I own a copy of Pulp Fiction. It’s right over there, on the Ikea shelf. If I felt like it, I could take it to work and show it to my students. Imagine that: my kids watch John Travolta accidentally shooting a guy in the face, Uma Thurmond overdosing on heroin, and–lest we forget–Quintin Tarantino himself going on and on about “dead nigger storage.” That’s just the first half, by the way, before we meet The Gimp.

I could do this. But I’d get fired. I should get fired, because showing Pulp Fiction to a bunch of teenagers in an educational setting would be wrong. We all understand this. We’re not morons.

But you know what I do want to show my students? Throne of Blood. Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 adaptation of Macbeth would not only clue my seniors in to the universality of Shakespeare, it would also provide the impetus to the covering of a number of state standards, standards you pay me a decent wage to teach to the best of my ability.

Our library doesn’t have Throne of Blood, but Hulu Plus does. And as a subscriber to Hulu Plus, I have legal access to the film. I watched it the other night; it was fantastic.

But I can’t watch it at work. It’s blocked. If I want to show it to my students, I’d have to hunt down a physical DVD, a task that’s becoming more and more difficult and inane by the day.  Throne of Blood is out of print and expensive, and, like I said, I already have 100% legal access to it.

This is a problem I’m encountering more and more in my attempts to teach our community’s children. Hulu.com? Blocked. Netflix (the only place I can find the very recent, very cool Patrick Stewart adaptation of Macbeth)? Blocked. Harmless website with lessons given to me by a college professor so we can collaborate on a visual literacy project? Arbitrarily, frustratingly blocked.

Why?

I can speculate two possibilities.
1.) The bandwidth. If every teacher hops on Netflix or Youtube at the same time, we just won’t have the internet capacity for all that streamin’. Our tubes’ll get all clogged up, you reckon.

To that I say: spend the money. Whatever it takes. Provide us with quality internet, so these valuable resources don’t have to stay locked behind a virtual gate.  Our students can’t prepare for a 21st century workforce with 20th century technology.

2.) You’re afraid of the content.  Bad things are on Netflix, so we should block it.

And I hope this isn’t your reasoning. Because I’m a professional. You trust me not to buy beer for my students. You trust me to dress like a professional, treat my students fairly, and represent the district on a daily basis. I do all of these things, so why don’t you trust me with a library of thousands of videos, some of which are inappropriate, some of which have immense value?

We’re entering a new world with unprecedented access to its media.  Embrace that.  I’ve always seen you as a county capable of keeping things simple, not complicating matters with bureaucracy.  So why not take the right step now, instead of burying your heads in the sand and pretending that the future isn’t staring you down, wondering when you’re going to see the light?

Remember, I could bring Pulp Fiction to class at ANY TIME. The only thing stopping me is common sense. I have some. I also have a Netflix subscription. Please let me use it.

 

Humbly yours,

Sonny Harding

 

To No Big Surprise

I was a good kid.

I should clarify.  Really, I was a wussy kid.  I’d follow the directions of any authority figure–parents, teachers, public service videos with cartoon characters asking me to conserve water.  I always felt behind, socially and developmentally, so maybe I lingered a bit too long in Kohlberg’s pre-conventional stage of moral development.

When my circle of friends started doing the things that (I guess) most young adults do–drinking–I got uncomfortable.  Started in high school.  Lasted well into my twenties.  It hurt.  They were doing things that I “knew” were wrong and dangerous.  I felt left out, not good enough, and terribly terribly nervous for my friends’ safety.  I still don’t drink.  It’s mostly a non-issue (I love to drive, so adding the adjective “designated” is fine by me), but there’s still an emotional smoothie of sadness, anxiety, and a dash of superiority when my peers imbibe.  I’m not proud of that, but it’s not going anywhere.

But this anxiety is only worse as a teacher.  My students are drinking.  Not all of them, sure, and most are probably only doing so occasionally.  But the thought breaks my heart.

I more or less try to stay out of their personal lives.  It’s none of my business, really.  I overhear things in the hallway.  The looks on some kids’ faces when conversations turn to these issues make it all too clear.  And sometimes, they just come right out and tell me.

But if they’re reading To Kill a Mockingbird or meeting their deadlines, then that’s all I’m really supposed to do.  I’m not a counselor or a parent.  I’m definitely not a friend, as much as I want to be sometimes.  If I’m going to stick with this career and hear those conversations, though, I’ve gotta develop much thicker skin, because I can’t just stick my head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening. 

Drinking is a hobby reserved for adults because it’s risky, so kids shouldn’t be doing it.  But even worse–even more upsetting to me–is this: alcohol is for adults because adults’ lives are boring.  And if an adult, whose sense of wonder and passion dimmed long ago, wants to make the weekend or wedding or ballgame a little more lively with alcohol, it’s understandable.  Like buying some reading glasses when one’s vision grows weak, a responsible adult has every right to enhance an evening’s enjoyment with alcohol.

So why do my kids need it?  Has their fascination with life, their ability to find excitement in everything really been dulled to the point where they have to get wasted every weekend?  It seems so irresponsible, but it’s also sad.

With my peers, the root of my anxiety was their immediate physical safety and, more honestly, not fitting in when they picked up their new hobby.  For my students, though, I’m more scared of what’s making them want to drink in the first place. 

I know they’ve got pressure.  With mid-terms and two yearbook deadlines this month, I’m a primary source of genuine stress right now.  My expectations are high: I assign my freshmen a chapter of reading per night while my coworkers play them an audiobook.  My seniors write six-page research papers, only to fail when they don’t bother to cite their sources correctly.  And my yearbook staff seems all too familiar with the face I make when I’m not satisfied with their efforts.

Add fix or six other classes of similar difficulty, maybe a part-time job, family issues, and the unbelievable melodrama in their social lives, and I can see how they’re growing up too fast, getting to that point where nothing seems fun anymore.  I just wish it wasn’t happening so fast.

 

 

Yearboooooook

My yearbook staff had their first deadline Monday.  It was stressful, more so than usual for a variety of reasons.  Like all setbacks in my classroom, I look at all of the relevant info and eventually blame myself.

My yearbook kids are sweet.  Adorable, self-motivated, socially competent geniuses.  4th period is a wealth of potential and skill.  They’ve got talent oozing out of their eye sockets.

And I’ve got too many of them.

Again, I love them all.  Absolutely every single last one deserves their spot on the staff.  They’re pulling their weight.  Some more than others, sure, but everyone’s performing.

Here’s my issue: Too many seniors.

Out of 22 staff members, I’ve only got 5 underclassmen.  Seniors–with all of their strengths and foibles–dominate the classroom.

I didn’t think it would be such an issue, but these kids–chin-deep in AP classes and extracurriculars–have senioritis nipping at their tails, beckoning them with its sulty Siren song (to mix too many metaphors and an Homeric allusion).  Everything in their work ethic says “I can get this yearbook done!” while their natural high school clock is begging them to take a day off and see what’s up with The Price Is Right.

After seeing how they handled the pressure of their first deadline (again, it’s supposed to be a relatively easy one), I can tell it’s going to be a rough year, wherein I’m praising one kid’s determination one day and cursing his laziness the next.