Saturday, April 28, 2007

Finished? So soon?

Was it really four months ago that I drove up the winding drive and started what I had pledged oh-so-long ago? Find an adjunct position at my beloved alma mater, Seton Hill. A New Year's Resolution penned January 2, 2006, just a week after losing my father. Sometimes I wonder if he had a hand in it, if he gave a little nudge to someone down here.

We like to believe that the dead can do that. It helps make the absence less real.

But this post isn't to conjure anything but the amazing sense of accomplishment (for lack of a better word) felt today as I left the Hill. Natalie Merchant's song Wonder came on when I hit the CD play button.

When it was first released, I misheard the lyrics.... laughed as she came to my cradle, oh this child will be able... laughed as my body she lifted, oh this child will be gifted -- with love, with patience, and with pain... she'll make her way...

The muse that comes to bless this child doesn't promise the gift of pain, I realized after a few listenings. She promises the gift of faith.

I like the first, the misunderstood version, better.

Call it a survival tactic, a way to maintain sanity perhaps, but I think that there is a certain gift that comes with pain -- the gift of strength. The cliche "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" means that you do experience everything unhappy. You do have moments when it seems that the world is falling apart and that you are a powerless nothing. You have moments when you aren't riding a wave but tumbling within it, drowning.

It allows you to have other moments, ones like today, when I finished my first stint as an adjunct. They called me "professor," even though -- technically -- I'm not. (Yet. I'll know in January.) Seems that I accidentally put that title on my course website. I don't know quite how I did that. I don't know how to remove it, either. (Then again, I still have trouble with the copy machine's stapling function.)

I'm going to miss this group. They were incredible. Attentive, prepared, literate, well-mannered... a teacher's dream. Virtually every class ended the same way: four o'clock would come too soon, and I'd walk to my car feeling as if I could conquer the world, humbly astounded at myself. Was I the same one who, up until last December, questioned whether or not I should remain a teacher or pursue that writing career? Should I admit to that?

This August will mark my tenth year teaching. Ten years is nothing in many respects. In others, it's astounding. My classroom stories from those ten years range from nightmarish to healing, the worst closer to the beginning -- as I suspect would be the norm for any career's learning curve. After all, how I reacted at 24 is no longer how I'd react at 34. Older and wiser, the survivor of a few crash courses in administrative politics and student threats, I know better when to stare adversaries down and when to retreat gracefully.

Seton Hill brought healing I didn't know I still needed. It brought self-discipline, too, which I knew I needed but could never quite manage.

A confession: I was terrified the first day of WCT I. Knee-shaking, white-knuckled terrified. Who was I , fourteen years out of WCT itself, to teach this class? What if I forgot something? Mistaught something from the book? What if they took one look at me and demanded a real teacher? Ten years is a blink. Every ounce of credibility I felt I had went into hibernation mode.

But, as you know, my panic was apparently for naught. If anything, the fear allowed me to grow as a teacher. I am a PowerPoint queen now. My binder of typed notes is four inches thick -- and that's without the fifteen corresponding PPT presentations with thirty or so slides each. (Yeah, pass the pocket-protector. I'm a nerd.)

...people see me, I'm a challenge to your balance... I'm over your head now, I astound you and confound you too....

I'm not so arrogant to think that I strike awe in people. Myself, yes. Others? Give me another decade and ask again. I am, however, pretty damn sure that I've confounded quite a few of you out there. And, if my students could tell you, I'm good at pushing people off balance with my two (in)famous questions: Why? and What if we're wrong?

I have one more, which I didn't use enough this term: What if we're right?

You know, it's easy to think about being wrong. Being right though... man, that's terrifying. It means that we might know what we're doing. I'm up for the challenge though.

So what now? Teach some more, write some more, apply for that Ed.D to become a real professor.

And have more fun then I ever thought possible. You know what? I think that dreams are coming true.

Thanks, gang. Watch out for that plaque.
You know why.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Mindlessness at its best.

That last post was pretty heavy, so methinks that lightness is in order this time around. And, I ask you, how much lighter can one get then Britney Spears?

(I can promise you that this blog involves no stress and, apparently, very little in terms of reality.)

Click here to find the MSNBC article: Turning the Tables. It's the second blurb down, the one after Paris being mocked by Prince.

In short, every tabloid's dreamgirl now wants her fans to sneak up on their friends at midnight and take candid, paparazzi-like photos of them. These pics are supposedly going to be used to promote her newest fragrance, Midnight Fantasy.

I don't know, readers. It sounds a bit stalker-ish to me.

Now, there are some rules, of course. Underwear must be worn, for example. Violence and nudity are discouraged, too.

Um... since she's telling her fans that midnight is the witching hour, well.... gee, how do I put this? If you're not doing something that involves nudity or violence at midnight, just what are you doing? Probably sleeping. Maybe, like me, staring at the computer and blogging away. There's an exciting pic: little old me sans make-up in old jeans and an even older t-shirt, sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop. There's a midnight fantasy for you. (Eeeek!)

Frankly, I feel sorry for the girl. She's screaming for someone to pay attention to her. Not to her money. Not to her fame. Not to her mistakes. To her. The person she is underneath all of that tabloid press. Most of us have been witness -- willing or unwilling due to the media -- to her rise and fall; and most of us probably watch with the same morbid fascination we have with train wrecks. It's not that we want to stare. It's just that we can't always help ourselves.

My question is this: who came up with this idea? Who actually thought it would be a good idea to suggest taking secret -- and no doubt un-flattering -- photos of friends for an ad campaign?

"Midnight Fantasy" is a perfume. Perfumes are to attract. Perfumes are sold by beautiful people. Perfumes are not sold by candid pics of my friend sleeping on the couch at midnight... and drooling. Pics like that are meant to be photocopies and hung up in the dorm. Perhaps given a clever caption and sent to a few others. But to sell a perfume whose very name suggests sex, desire, and perfection?

If I buy a new scent, I want to know that the idea being sold with it is one of attractiveness and happiness... not a few shots of some average joes or janes who were blindsided by their camera-wielding "buddies." This isn't the Dove Real Woman ad campaign, you know.

The truth is this: if I'm going to have a midnight fantasy, readers, I suspect there might be more to it then my tired friends chatting on-line.

Was this mindless enough? I think so... thought, somewhat ironically, I did come back and edit it twice since posting this afternoon...

Monday, April 16, 2007

Columbine revisitied

I like to think that there is a special place in Hell for people who chain the exit doors and open fire. In truth, I think that Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the brains behind South Park, had something when they portrayed Hitler having a pineapple shoved up his a** on a regular basis. Come to think of it, perhaps a pineapple isn't enough. Perhaps those who leave their baby daughters out in the snow to freeze to death, who put dying babies into book bags and shove them under twin beds, and who emotionlessly slaughter their classmates need the whole f**king pineapple tree. One tree after another. Continuously.

Day in and day out, I teach my business communications students to write without emotion. I tell them time and time again that to calm down before they pen those professional missives.

I don't think I can do that today.

How lucky I am to not know anyone at Virginia Tech. How lucky I've been over the years to know nary a soul involved in any of the school shootings.

Each day I walk into my own classroom. Each day I stand before students who have book bags that I would never dare look into, believing that ignorance is bliss. I don't want to know who's packing and who's dealing. A stupid sentiment, I'm sure. But am I really any safer knowing what they carry? Or will it only make me more paranoid? Everyday at work, we teachers know exactly what we walk into. Last week a former student was shot by police after a brief foot chase. Had he not pulled his gun, they probably wouldn't have fired. Incidentally, he's considered a "person of interest" in his stepfather's murder. Two weeks ago a seventeen-year-old girl died from an apparent overdose. The woman whose baby was found under the bed... yep, had connections here. Each term, at least one student will have to drop out due to incarceration. Students who go m.i.a. are common.

We walk into that and we teach and we try so damn hard to pull those who want to learn up to where they want to be but don't quite have the coping skills to do on their own. We pester and cajole, bribe and bargain. Let me help you. Come to class. If you at least try, I can show you where you're right and where we can work to improve. I can't help you if you don't come to school. We call absent students every day. We try to live by the school's catchphrase: "Students First. We Care."

We pound our heads against the wall sometimes.

I don't yet know the story behind today's massacre. As I write this, they've yet to identify the gunman. It makes me think, though, about what must go on in such a person's mind. Is such an act really a last resort, as pop psychology and magazines tend to explain? Somehow I doubt it. Not this time.

It makes me think about my students, many of whom I know -- for the most part -- lack basic coping/problem-solving skills.

Tomorrow we have finals. Tomorrow I will have a student or two or six walk in and say: "I don't have a pencil. What do I do?" That person will honestly not know what to do when faced with a Scan-tron exam and no pencil. Bringing a pencil or asking a classmate to borrow one will not cross that student's mind. When you grow up in an environment that does not prepare you for the pressure that comes with an authority figure asking you where your pencil is, how will you deal with the student who attacks you, who perhaps accuses you of dating her man or sleeping with his woman?

We had a forum of student safety some time ago. I was mercifully absent that day. It wasn't, you see, a meeting on improving our physical safety on campus. It was to discuss creating a "safe" environment in the classroom -- one where the students would feel like they could raise their hands to answer questions and risk being wrong.

Oh the goodness of that migraine. I'm not sure that I could have handled that meeting. The next day a fellow teacher told me that a request for call buttons was denied because they "didn't want the students to think that [we] didn't trust them."

It is the consensus of several of us that we won't be a target. We'll just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our students won't be the ones who chain the doors and plan; they'll be the ones who pull the gun out of a book bag and start to fire at whomever "wronged" them and God help the bystanders.

So why do I stay? Why don't I go work on some nice, safe little campus somewhere? Maybe because such a thing doesn't exist anymore. Maybe because I know that I'm as safe as my brother, who is an administrator in a very well-off school district. Wealthy kids snap just as easily as poor. My mother actually admitted that she feared for both of us, not just me. We know, from experience, that even "nice, safe schools" have students who might say the wrong thing and turn everyone's world upside-down.

But why stay? Why stay in education at all? To martyr myself someday on the alter of idealism? I suppose that's where it's heading. I suppose that this blog has turned into another ponderance on why I bother to teach grammar during the week when, on weekends, I can explore a myriad of ideas -- ranging from the role of women in the creation of early weaponry to the role of the church in current political ideologies. I can ask "why" and "what if we're wrong" and not worry about someone's mind liquefying because I went too high on Bloom's Taxonomy. I can take risks and ask students to examine their belief systems.

I answered that question before. I stay because, right now, I have a point and make a difference. When I stop having a point, making a difference, then I'll hand in my resignation. I love my students, the vast majority of which are no different from me. My coworkers make each day even more enjoyable. We laugh and talk, have happy hours, punk each other now and then, and find comfort in knowing that we're all in the same boat at work. While I'd love another job, one with more intellectual challenges, I'm content to take my time and find the "perfect" one. I'm still lucky, I don't have to rush and take the first one I come across.

For now, while I look for that perfect job, I'll watch Cartoon Network with Gavie and eat popcorn and laugh at Lazlo and Blue and all of those other lovely little blips of ink -- and, while he giggles at their antics, I'll try to figure out how to teach him how to cope.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Ballad of Turtle Louch

My kid is a great traveller. He didn't complain much -- for a near-four-year-old. He took the airport pat-down in stride (nothing beats taking your shoes off in public), didn't fuss overly much about sitting in the holding area before we boarded (actually, watching the luggage loading was pretty fascinating to the little fella), and loved the airplane bathroom (I probably don't have to explain how I know that little detail).

At Disney, he woke up each morning eager to get out to the day's adventures. Breakfast was a struggle, I admit, because -- after all -- why waste time eating when you can be riding Peter's Pan's Adventure or seeking out Captain Hook for that coveted autograph? For once, there was nary a protest when we said rise and shine.

Each evening, after a long day of sensory-overload, he'd fall asleep on the shuttle that took us back to our hotel, the Caribbean Beach Resort. We'd carry him to the room and tuck him in with Turtle, his current favorite "pet." Each morning, we'd leave Turtle behind. Safe in the confines of the room.

Or so we thought.

Turtle, we had told Gavie, was much better suited to the hotel. There were too many people and too many opportunities for him to get lost at the various parks. Gavie concurred.

So we went to MGM Studios, we visited the Animal Kingdom, and we explored the Magic Kingdom sans Turtle. That was okay, Gwammy bought him a few net "pets" to hold throughout the day. We ate at a dozen different restaurants, had too much cotton candy, and gorged on popcorn. All the while, Turtle sat at the hotel, guarding Gavie's daily acquisitions.

Or so we thought.

You see, one morning was a bit rushed and, well, we left Turtle in Gavie's bed. That night, returning with a sleeping child, we gave the toy little thought. We didn't, in fact, think about Turtle until the next night. It was then that we realized that it was gone.

While Gavie slept, we turned out hotel rooms upside-down. We found a few coins, but that was it. Turtle, we could only assume, had been accidentally bundled up with the sheets when the cleaning lady came through. We called home.

"Code red, code red, Louch homeland security is at elevated levels. Code red, all stations are on alert," the big guy told his younger sister when we called home the next day -- while Gavie was on a ride with Gwammy and out of earshot. He told her about Turtle. Na, as we call her, helped fill in the biggest blank we had: where Turtle came from. Seems that Kohl's was the answer to that. It was from a Kohl's Cares for Kids promotion some time ago.

Knowing the trauma that we'd run into once Gavie missed Turtle, Uncle Donn manned the computer station and hit E-Bay. Within minutes he found a replacement thanks to someone buying a few dozen and reselling them. He and Na re-assured us that all would be well. True, but until that new Turtle came through, we were still on alert. Gwammy bought Gavie a new turtle, Squirt from Finding Nemo. For the remainder of the trip, my son somehow remained none-the-wiser, blissfully unaware that his beloved Turtle was, probably at that very moment, in the spin cycle at Disney's gigantic laundry facility.

It wasn't until Monday night that he noticed. Can we say "heart-broken sobs"? Holding my little boy as he cried for his best friend made me swear that Turtle II would never leave our house. Ever.

Two long days later, the Turtle "came home from Disney," as we told Gavie. "He was staying to help Mickey Mouse a little bit," we lied.

As long as you don't look at Gavie's Christmas portrait (with the original Turtle lovingly clutched in his three-year-old grip) and the different pattern of spots on Turtle II's back, you'd never be the wiser.

A week later, a small padded envelope arrived from Disney. We'd filed a report with the Lost and Found Department, but knowing the size of the laundry facilities and the sheer number of hotels, we had little hope. Judging by the size of the envelope, it was too small to be Turtle anyway. It was probably some little stuffed Mickey, sent to console my son.

It was, instead, one well-washed Turtle. He not only went through the whole wash cycle but also the entire drying process. You know, I never knew that stuffed animals could shrink!

I can only hope that God forgives the white lies of mothers. "Gavie! Come here, honey! Mickey sent Turtle's little brother to you!"