The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Archive for December 2009

A Culture of Deception

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Faithful reader(s)– here’s how it should have been earlier this week. It took some digging, but I found a copy of the post the way it should have appeared to you. A special shout-out to my man Herb, who recovered the post in his email and sent it back to me. You remember Herb, right? If not, check out his take on Michael Jackson’s death last summer.
— Jeff

Warren Township High School got caught cheating on last spring’s Prairie State Assessment Exams. Warren is my local school district; so local, in fact, that from where I’m sitting right now I could practically hit the junior/senior building with a rock. An article was published in the local paper last week that detailed what happened.

For years before tighter regulation (NCLB), a lot of districts played fast and loose with testing requirements. A popular ploy used by many high-scoring districts was to keep their lowest-scoring students out of the building during the testing. Sometimes it was a field trip, sometimes they were told to stay home. For some, I’m certain, it was suspension because of issues not related to the tests. So, when you’re most at-risk students weren’t there to drag down overall test scores, then the overall test scores looked pretty good. The message sent to the public, then, was that everything was fine and look how good our students do. Just not all the students. NCLB counteracted a lot of those ploys with legislation, but that wasn’t enough to keep my local school board from inventing new ways to cheat.

Federal law states that all high school juniors must take the PSAE. Across the state of Illinios, for the most part, a junior is a student who has earned 11 credits. School districts cling tightly to that determination, so even if a student has attended high school for 3 or more years, he most likely won’t take the tests unless he has earned 11 credits. Warren’s school board tweaked the 11 credits requirement to include 2 full years of English, Science, and Math. They can’t do that.

The article points out some interesting statistics as far as who was excluded: a quarter of the black students at the junior level, and about a third of Hispanics, low-income, and special education students. Guess who traditionally scores the lowest nationally on standardized tests? Minorities, students from low-income families, and, of course, students with learning disabilities. What would Warren’s scores look like if they hadn’t cheated? It’s hard to say exactly, but the recalculated scores show that Warren failed.

So who cares? Lots of people, especially residents in neighboring districts who have lower (and even declining) property values. Property value is determined by the standardized test scores of the local school districts, so I’d say those people have good cause to care about who is cheating. Three of Warren’s surrounding districts not only have lower property value, but have significant numbers of minorities and low-income families.

It’s hard for me to say, however, that the people in Gurnee care. They seem oblivious to what is happening in the local schools, so long as the test scores keep climbing. That implies tacit consent for achievement at all costs, even if that means cheating. The cheating issue is but one serious problem my local district has had recently. A short list includes a gun in school earlier this year, a teacher-student sex scandal a few years ago, and an issue with a principal that used district funds to pay for personal items such as ties and phone sex.

It’s interesting to note that when I researched and fact-checked the phone sex issue, the name of a whistle-blower came up; it was the same person who blew the whistle on the standardized test deception– a retired teacher from the district who appears to know things from the inside. I have to admire his ongoing commitment to keeping things on the up and up at his old job. I also have to smile, knowing that the district can’t touch him.If you read the article, scroll down to the online comments posted by readers. One reader advised the whistleblower to mind his own business, and even inquired as to who among the excluded students asked the whistleblower to speak for them. This to me points to the great disparity among races and socio-economic classes in Gurnee, and a prevailing intolerance for minorities and the poor. That reader was probably one of the people who is in favor of splitting Warren so that each building is 9-12 (the current set-up has frosh/soph on the east side of town; juniors and seniors on the west). The problem is that the east side of Gurnee, where it borders Waukegan, is where the poor and minorities mostly live. People who favor the split would have no problem creating a ghetto school, so long as their children don’t have to deal with different skin colors and smaller wallet sizes as they pursue their education. It’s easy for me to think that from there, the elitists would push for two entirely different districts altogether, so that westside money isn’t wasted on trying to educate eastside savages.

I’m glad Warren got caught. I was happy when I read the article. It puts more pressure on the community to pay attention to what is really happening on campus, and hopefully to push for reform. That reform needs to start with the school board members who approved such a short-sighted policy, obviously with the intention to cover the shortcomings of the school and to lure more money into the district from taxpayers and the state. As a teacher who works in a neighboring district that Gurnee residents generally feel pales in comparison to Warren, I feel an ounce of vindication. At least we don’t cheat.

Written by seeker70

December 31, 2009 at 8:08 pm

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A Christmas Poem

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This dates to 2008, a week or so before Christmas. The last time I touched it was the day after Christmas when I was flying to Los Angeles.

Goodbye, Mr. Claus by Jeff Burd

The lights I strung around
my balcony are covered in
snow. Each bulb glows,
radiating a soft white cushion
under the blanket that settled
atop it last night.

The lights resting upon the rail
are a landing strip, perhaps
guiding Santa to my house?

There was a similar arrangement under
Bahaman waters in a film I once saw;
it was Largo’s plan to land a
jet bomber and highjack the payload
of nuclear missiles to hold the world
for ransom.

Lucky we had 007 to thwart those
plans a half century ago.

Who do we have in this new millenium
to stop the spectres who have
stolen Christmas?

Written by seeker70

December 18, 2009 at 1:00 pm

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SGT. Danger shoots… He Scores!

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In a little less than a year from now, long-time friend of the blog Nathan Geist will be enjoying the following luxuries at a resort and spa in Mexico:

Full breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks each day
Unlimited international and domestic premium brand alcoholic beverages
Pool and beach wait service
Endless daytime activities
Live nightly entertainment
Theme parties, oceanfront bars, and entertainment venues
And more!

This is not to mention that ol’ Sarge will be taking this all in with his lovely bride Joanna.

See, last spring Nathan was home from Afghanistan on a short leave– just long enough to get engaged. He sent a mass email detailing the engagement (a la the SGT. Danger updates), but I didn’t run it on The Seeker, so those of you who followed Nathan’s updates from Afghanistan on this blog have no idea what happened.

Well, the young couple has been planning their wedding and honeymoon ever since, and they recently ran across a honeymoon giveaway contest at The Knot, a wedding planning website. To enter the contest, they had to tell the story of how Nathan proposed. The site editors narrowed all the entries down to the 5 best, and then set up online voting. “Understanding the Rules of Engagement” came out on top. Nathan’s bride-to-be Joanna Pearson narrates:

I was at my birthday party surrounded by several loved ones, except my boyfriend, Nate, who was deployed with the Army in Afghanistan. It had been a difficult year without him, but I knew it was temporary, and at that point he only had 5 months left overseas. The party wasn’t my idea, but Nate’s friends threw it for me so I wouldn’t feel so lonely on my special day. The last present I opened was a card that told me to check my closet upstairs. In the closet, I found a DVD with a note that said “watch immediately.” It was a video of Nate in Afghanistan, holding a sign that said to go to the first place we met. Nate and I had gone to the same kindergarten together, so I knew he was referring to the school. All 11 of us drove over to the school and I walked to the playground where Nate and I played as kids. As I approached, I saw someone sitting on a slide. When I walked closer, I saw the person was wearing a uniform, and before I could process it, the soldier slid down the slide and came up to me and hugged me. It was MY soldier, Nate, who had somehow managed to come home. I started bawling on his shoulder as I dug my hands into his side, and he whispered, “I love you,” into my ear. After everyone’s shock subsided a little bit, Nate explained that he was given mid-tour leave. But that wasn’t the only surprise he had: after he explained that he had two weeks to spend at home, he got on his knee and pulled out a ring that was custom-made in Afghanistan for me; Nate even hand-picked the 9 diamonds. He asked me, “Will you marry me?” I could barely utter yes! Our former teachers approached and congratulated us. Apparently Nate had asked my dad months prior for his blessing to marry me and had been planning the surprise since, coordinating with both his friends who threw the party, as well as the school whose property we were on. Nate returned from Afghanistan in September. Our lives have been abundantly blessed, and we are excited for the road ahead.

Congratulations, Nathan and Joanna. You have an excellent story. Thank you for sharing it.

Written by seeker70

December 16, 2009 at 2:38 am

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The Road

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The Road is ugly. Every setting is caked in ash and grime. Every window is seemingly shattered, and shards of glass are scattered everywhere. Auto bodies are mutilated and rusted down to the tires, which are blown out or slashed. Weeds poke up through cracks in asphalt and cement. Entire forests are denuded; felled logs clog rivers. Human and animal carcasses frequently litter the ground, or are gathered in piles. The few humans that populate the bleak landscape are in no better condition. To a person, they have grimy skin and greasy, matted, hair. Their teeth are black or missing, and all too often they have amputated limbs or digits gnawed off at the knuckle.

If you can look past all that, The Road is worth seeing. I watched in last week, but not before driving to Evanston because the film is inexplicably not in wide release. That’s hard to fathom given its star billing (Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron); if that’s not enough, the source material won the Pulitzer Prize, and the previous Cormac McCarthy novel that hit the screen (No Country For Old Men, 2007) raked in 4 Oscars, including Best Picture. Nonetheless, The Road is out there for the viewing, even if you have to travel further than your local cineplex. The story takes place a decade or so after an unspecified apocalypse has wiped out all plant and animal life save a handful of humans. A character known only as “the man” roams the abandoned highways with his son (“the boy”), searching for the last vestiges of humanity. Others still alive are generally on the move to merely survive, which means not only finding food and shelter, but also eluding cannibalistic clans that rape and pillage their way across the post-apocalyptic wastelands.

This is one of the rare books I’ve read in recent years that has been turned into a film, and I’m glad for that because my familiarity with the text proved to be a good basis by which to judge the film. And the film doesn’t disappoint. The story remains mostly intact, at least as much as a story can when it goes from paper to celluloid and has to operate within a Hollywood system that generates far more turds than treasures. Like the book, the film strives to define what it means to be human even in the face of the most unimaginable horror. The man is unwilling to concede his life or his belief that good people remain in the world. However, it’s a delicate balance throughout. He carries a pistol with two bullets remaining: One for the boy and one for himself if things should reach the point where death is the best option. Early on (and throughout the film), he tutors the boy in the best way to kill himself using the pistol. At one point, he has the weapon pressed against his son’s head with the hammer cocked as cannibals close in on them. It’s the film’s willingness to create those scenes that helps it have an impact the likes of which the book achieved, even though the film isn’t as brutal or violent as the book.

As can be expected given the setting, the film is full of dillemas that would be ethical if only there were still ethics in a post-apocalyptic world. The man is forced to kill another person in direct sight of his son on several occassions; at other times he has to withhold food, clothing, or mercy from other travelers in order for him and his son to survive. In this regard, it’s no surprise that that cinematographically there is so much gray in the sky and physical surroundings; everything is a gray area, all the way down to the basic beliefs held by the man and his son.

Unfortunately, the film is unable to convey two important elements of style that McCarthy employs in the novel. One is the fragmented narrative structure that subtextually conveys so much about post-apocalyptic human existence. All that is left of the world are fragments of what we used to know: pieces of roads, buildings, ships, humanity. Throughout the book, McCarthy writes in short passages that are frequently only a paragraph or two; there are no chapter or section divisions. The closest the film comes to parallelling McCarthy’s structure is the backstory that explains what happened to the mother who was part of the family structure before the boy and his father set off down the road. Her story comes to the audience by way of several flashbacks throughout the film (it’s odd to think, however, that Charlise Theron “stars” in the film as the mother; she’s only in it for about 5 minutes).

Another issue is the dissolution of language. Even a decade after the apocalypse, chunks of language have dissolved into non-existence. The father has to explain at several points what even some of the simplest objects are (a can of Coca-Cola, for instance). The film touches only briefly on this idea. It does this most effectively at one point in which the boy and father make a horrible discovery at a farmhouse. The father is unaware that the residents of the house are returning, and as the boy watches them approach, he seems unable to find even the most basic words to convey the approaching danger.

One thing I found compelling, and that was in both the book and film, was a scene in which the man and boy stumble upon an unused fallout shelter, fully stocked with canned food and clean water. They make a big scene out of bathing themselves, which in the world of literary analysis is a symbolic baptism that is usually followed by a drastic change in the character’s circumstances. McCarthy, however, reverses that expectation by following it with scenes in which their lives don’t just remain the same– they get worse. The scene pushes the story further into the realm of post-modernism in that it represents a reversal in the standard expectations we have with most any literature we experience.

In the end, the film did exactly what I hoped it would do for me, which was to make itself inseparable from the book. It’s hard for me to recommend it without attaching the novel to it. Each enhances the other, and together they make a satisfying (if disturbing) package that manages to make deep, meaningful commentary on the human condition.

Written by seeker70

December 8, 2009 at 2:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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