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…continued from yesterday…
My research didn’t come out of the blue. Given what was happening on the political scene last year at this time, it seemed that a major candidate from one of the parties was saying or doing something that smacked of arrogance on a daily basis. I found myself flashing to thoughts of Dan most every day last year as this ugly scene unfolded. The things he said still rang clearly in my head. Finally, I looked around on the internet.
What I didn’t know at the time of my interview with Dan was that I was talking with the Indiana Teacher of the Year for 1995. Also, Dan had collected further acclaim as a Milken Educator for some innovating pedagogical strategies he developed and implemented in the Evansville school district. The Milken Awards people refer to their recognition as the “Oscars” of teaching and seek out “…early-to-mid career education professionals for their already impressive achievements and, more significantly, for the promise of what they will accomplish in the future.”
Eventually, Dan left Indiana all together and took a position as a principal at a high school in South Carolina. He lasted nine years before somebody tested him on the claim he made to me about knowing how to cheat.
I discovered that for his final two years as a principal, Dan changed two hundred and fourteen grades for thirty-three students. According to what I read, grades were changed from failing to passing, and Dan said he did it to provide motivation to students he felt had worked hard and deserved a break. His considerations did not, however, include his district’s policies for changing grades. At least one teacher complained about this to the right people, and those people concluded through an investigation that Dan had done exactly what the teacher accused him of doing. He not only broke district policy, but state law. The superintendent demanded Dan resign, and he did. He later surrendered his administration credentials to the South Carolina Department of Education.
None of this surprised me when I read it last year. I was actually pleased in many ways. I could list about ten administrators I’ve known in my career who I’d like to see get caught for stunts they pulled. Invariably, their reasoning comes back to the most tired excuse in public education: Trying to help students. By a cursory examination of the numbers alone, Dan changed six or seven grades per student, and could have wiped out an entire semester or academic year of failing grades for a student. It’s unclear to me how that helps a student, except in the immediate circumstance of them failing and potentially not graduating. However, the consequences of Dan’s decision are tremendous. He completely nullified the judgment exercised by the teachers who saw those students every day, and ignored the standards those teachers set. Plus, students got the idea from an authority figure that they can work around difficulties in their lives. I could go on and on about this issue, but suffice it to say illicitly changing grades is a serious offense. That’s why school districts have substantive policies in regard to how it’s done, and why states have laws that apply to how it’s done.
It’s not uncommon for teachers to have a strong bent towards social justice, and I am no exception in that regard. I want to see things done the correct way and according to policies that I am mandated to follow, and it bothers me when people who are in leadership positions flaunt authority and act with impunity. It seems I wasn’t the only one bothered by Dan’s unprofessional and unethical behaviors (I never thought I was, not with how blatant he was with me over a mere few hours of interaction), but finally somebody stepped up and Dan had to face the consequences for his selfish, short-sighted decisions. There was overwhelming, irrefutable evidence of him going too far. I cling to this thought and to the understanding that our country in many ways is built on the idea of accountability and fairness from the top of the government all the way down to the private citizen. I’m heartened by the fact that Dan was caught and punished, and I’m hoping that more of the same happens at a much higher level in regard to someone who seems to have been a role model for how Dan conducted himself.
In the spring of 1995, I received a call from Dan, a teacher at a high school in Evansville, Indiana. He said he wanted to interview me for an English and Speech Coach position. I was game since I was two years out of undergrad without a job and was eager for a contract. The offers were just starting to roll in since I had completed an English endorsement to supplement my teaching license, and I was willing to go wherever whenever.
I bisected the state of Indiana from northeast to southwest, about 700 miles round-trip, to meet with Dan and see what he had to offer. The school was huge, with very modern facilities and a football stadium carved out of a hillside in back of the building. I was impressed, too, with an administrator I met along the way who had perfect command of what I would come to call a “firm but kind” approach with students. She knew names, had made connections with students, and was firm but kind with the number of them she interacted with when I talked to her while she was patrolling the cafeteria during lunch. It was clear that students liked and respected her quite a bit.
Dan, however, was a different entity. He showed me around the school, but he didn’t walk so much as he strutted. The pager he had clipped to his belt lent him an air of authority. At one point along the way, we came across a teacher walking towards us who was very pregnant. She was wearing a pair of shorts, so I assumed she was a Physical Education teacher. Dan called down the hall to her, “Hey, sexy legs!” She replied with a wave and hello and turned into an office before we had any further contact. Later, Dan spoke to me about some of the other teaching faculty around the building. He soon got to talking about a trio of young female teachers from a few years prior who, he indicated, liked to flirt with him. One sat on his desk one day after school and talked to him; a student had seen the interaction and made some vague negative comment to Dan. Dan told me that he referred to the young and allegedly flirtatious teachers as “The Whore Corps.”
It turned out that I had gained Dan’s interest because of my theatre experience. He headed the school’s maverick Speech Team, and there were forensic events I could coach that would suit the skill set I had developed as an undergrad. He talked for quite a while about his Speech Team, and justifiably so. They had won the state title that year (they would go on to win several more), and would soon become a national power. Dan bragged that he had a cross-section of the student body represented on the team, and that it wasn’t uncommon for a Speech Team member to come to practice after school and then leave for football practice because the kid might be a varsity offensive lineman. Dan also disclosed one way he recruited kids when he was establishing the team: “I’d go to the basketball courts after school and take on kids in one-on-one. I told them if I won, they were on the Speech Team. And I usually won. Because I know how to cheat.”
I didn’t get the job in Evansville, and Dan told me as much in the presence of another teacher he was interviewing. I was never much bothered by the news, if not the approach to hearing it. I had interviews rolling in throughout the spring and summer, and had a feeling that I just had to be patient and the right one would appear. If nothing else, my trip to Evansville was practice for what was to come. Turns out I was right, and the right job that I found took me in a far different direction geographically and professionally than working with and for Dan would have.
Dan’s sheer arrogance and unprofessional conduct have stuck with me these many years. I wish I had spoken to his principal or superintendent about the things he said, if only for peace of mind. All of Dan’s behaviors came in the course of an afternoon, and they rolled out of him like he always conducted himself in such a brazen manner. I can’t imagine what someone who worked with him for a long period of time might list as his arrogant behaviors. The word “arrogant” keeps coming up here, and that’s why Dan still comes to mind twenty-two years later. “Arrogant” is a word I seldom associate with teachers. Arrogance is not usually a personality trait of a person who works for a mediocre income at ground-level with children and teenagers, tirelessly endeavoring to help them improve their skills and station in life no matter where they are. I may be biased when I make this claim, but teachers are some of the most humble people I know. On the other hand, the most arrogant people I’ve known in education have either been college professors or school administrators. I don’t know about the former, but Dan became the latter about ten years after I met him. I wasn’t surprised to find that out when I googled his name.
…continued from yesterday:
The only regret I’ve experienced with The Joshua Tree was missing the tour. The most viable place close to me where U2 stopped was The Hoosier Dome on November 1, 1987. It was a Sunday night. It was three hours from home. I was seventeen. The question didn’t even fully leave my mouth before my father said, “Hell no.” I have lived with that regret ever since. But that hasn’t been too horrible of a burden to bear. I saw U2 twice on my own terms when I still considered myself a fan. And besides, The Joshua Tree is now a quantified, calculated entity entombed in the morass that makes me me. I have lived within its universe comfortably and prosperously for thirty years. I always know what it has to offer, and am grateful for the coming-of-age landscape to which it transports me when I hear a single or listen to the whole album. But that’s also why I now have a U2 dilemma.
The album is thirty years old this year. Not surprisingly, U2 has seen good cause to tour, with the album as their featured piece. My understanding is that they will play the album in its entirety, and follow up with other stuff. They’ll be at Soldier Field in early June, and I know with certainty that I can get tickets. But do I want to get tickets? Dunno.
Here’s the catch: Can I go see a band that I can no longer stomach, even if they are featuring an album that has left an indelible print on my life? I don’t know if I can suppress my disdain enough, or even long enough, to find enjoyment in what they bring. Also, what if I decide to go and get hyped up about it… and the show sucks? I fear that I will have compromised something sacred to my life, only to see it screwed up. And then the next time I listen to The Joshua Tree, and probably times subsequent to that, I will replay an unfortunate concert experience in my mind. The whole thing could potentially desecrate something I hold sacred, and I’m not sure I could overcome that. And I’m damn well sure that I will be listening to The Joshua Tree, or wanting to, a whole helluva lot of times between now and the time my eardrums surrender to old age.
But what if U2 brings their game? What if this is a breakthrough for them and ends up being a transcendent and sublime experience for them and the audience? What if it ends up elevating The Joshua Tree to somewhere in my mind that I don’t even know exists? A good friend whose opinion I respect pointed out to me that chances like this are very rare, and get even rarer the deeper we get into life. The band is still together. They are the original lineup that created the album, and they’ve been intact all these years. I only stand to gain by taking advantage of what will essentially be dropped in my lap.
What if all of this angst is shallow existential bullshit and angst brought on by the corrosive effects of mass-marketing and the fiendish plot by record executives to play on nostalgia to put butts in seats?
A U2 dilemma indeed. I’ve got three months to think about it. It could come down to a game-time decision.
Don’t mistake me for a U2 fan. I’m not. In fact, I mostly can’t stand them anymore for the last fifteen years. I don’t need Bono’s condescending attitude. I don’t need their swing into the mainstream, both with their pop sound and the social and political stance they affected when they broke onto the music scene almost forty years ago. And I sure as hell did not need Songs of Innocence crammed into my iPhone. I got through four songs before I started looking for ways to contain the contamination and sear the experience from my memory.
It wasn’t always like this. In fact, it didn’t really get like this until I saw the band at The United Center on the Elevation tour in 2001. I realized that they had been in a free-fall on the scale of my musical tastes. Their overblown stage antics and Bono’s insatiable ego and thirst for attention turned me off to a great degree. I have to admit, though, that part of my dis-affectation with the concert stemmed from the pre-show tailgate party being so excellent that it became the standard by which I’ve measured a lot of tailgate parties in the past fifteen years. But the antics and the ego? Those were perfect for PopMart in 1997 at Soldier Field. In fact, that seemed to be the theme for the show: Excess. Look what the music industry does to everything it touches. It was a satire, and a damn fine show.
Up until about 1997, you could have seen me bleed if I’d gotten into a debate about the merits of U2. I had a run from 1986 until ’97 when they were as constant in my life as the air I breathed. They seemed to hit all the right notes in my teenage and early-adult life. They had a unique sound deeply rooted in the first wave of alternative music, their songs carried meanings that rang in my mind far past their 4-minute play time, and they had a blue-collar, slightly grungy look and feel that spoke volumes about their roots. In fact, it was in 1987 when they went from being a niche band that few kids in my hometown had even heard of to being the world’s biggest band. Joshua Tree came out in March of that year, and my world was never the same.
I was chilling with some friends in somebody’s basement at the beginning of spring break that year when the “With or Without You” video came on MTV. I burst off the couch with such enthusiasm that my friends thought something bit me. I practically screamed, “They’re speaking directly to me! They can see into my soul!” I had heard the single a week before on my hometown radio station that considered Christopher Cross the edgiest music they’d ever played, but having a visual representation of the sonic experience is what truly sent me through the stratosphere. I had the album within a week, and it immediately left an impression on my heart and mind that has lasted across the three subsequent decades. I can still recall in intimate detail the experience of unwrapping the cassette (it smelled like grape!), slipping it into my stereo, and settling in for my first full listen. Am I hyperbolizing? Not hardly. I think if any of us looks back to the media experiences that have had a profound impact on our lives, most of us would respond with an equal amount of enthusiasm. I can point to Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Grapes of Wrath, Welcome Back, Kotter, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Quadrophenia, Saving Private Ryan, A Piece of My Heart, and many other entities that I hold sacred as a writer, a teacher, a thinker, and as plain old me that routinely generate the same degree of excitement and enthusiasm years and even decades after I experienced them as The Joshua Tree.
The Joshua Tree is concrete evidence of perfection. There is not a song among the twelve on the album that rings a false note. They are a tight, unified construction that takes the listener on a stunning aural journey, and one just as stunning and meaningful in the mind and heart. Lost love, the empty longing for utopia, heroin addiction, the crisis in Central America, savage industrial destruction of the environment, the addled mind of a serial killer, the lyric treatment of the death of a close friend, and vague longings are but some of the stops along the way, and each one lives within while still building upon the jangly and moody soundscape co-producer Daniel Lanois was able to coax from the band. The songs spoke to me of things my teenage mind knew, yet also of things that took me beyond my borders. And to understand just how tight the Joshua Tree package is, one need only listen to the deluxe edition of the album to hear the songs that didn’t make the cut. Several of them stand well on their own, and have even become respected parts of the U2 catalog. Damn! How good is your album when songs like “The Sweetest Thing” and “Silver and Gold” weren’t good enough to make it, but still go on to be hits in their own right?
I’ve been mindful of keeping myself away from and above the vitriol that the nation has put on display over that last five days. That has meant trying to limit Facebook time, and discriminating about what news I read, watch, and discuss. I don’t like how politics is shredding the social fabric of our nation, and have hoped that by disengaging and elevating myself I would be able to avoid getting too emotionally involved in any of it until things simmer and I engage the situation with some perspective rather than while slogging through it. But there’s a saying: Hope in one hand, shit in the other, and see which fills up faster.
As a teacher, social issues tend to appear on my radar whether I want them to or not, especially since I teach predominantly poor and minority students. It is those students who most deal with the fallout of corrupt and discriminatory social policies and practices, and it helps me to understand what they are going through at any given time. As such, I could no longer ignore or elevate myself from the current situation when an issue was unexpectedly dropped in my lap last Friday. Maybe I was foolish to try to keep the issues at bay. Maybe I thought that ignorance and apathy would serve me well, or things would go away if I didn’t think about them too much. Regardless of where my mind was, what happened four days ago gave me a chance to think.
I have a student new to me this semester who last week wore a t-shirt from a small college near my hometown of Angola, Indiana. This kid is African-American, a senior, and has made a name for himself in sports and academics. He has shown himself thus far to be affable, focused, and possessing a decent view of his future. He told me the college in question is interested in him for sports; them along with Aurora University closer to home here in Illinois. He said he hadn’t made a decision yet.
I offered my insights into the Indiana university he’s considering. I know it’s in a very small town (smaller than Angola), and that town is a long-time college town since it’s titular university is well over a century old. My knee-jerk reaction was to think of how diverse the institution was, diversity being a key to cultural sensitivity and awareness not just on campus but in the surrounding areas and even the state. “Having been there so long, the school must be familiar with diversity,” I told him. But then I stopped and remembered something. It was like an alarm sounded in my conscience. “Indiana and Illinois are different states,” I said. “You might want to keep that in mind. Indiana is a Trump state.” I found myself concerned with the boy’s safety traveling from the Chicago area across long stretches of rural Indiana, and possibly being off campus in the town where he might be attending college. I wasn’t so sure all of a sudden how far my home state has come with its racist reputation in the last eight years, much less in the post-Civil Rights era. I hated to think that somebody could feel emboldened by the philosophies and practices of the new presidential administration and decide to cause trouble, or worse—harm him.
I realized I was digging a hole instead of endorsing the very state where I was born and raised, and softened my approach. “There are liberal and inclusive pockets in the state,” I continued. “No doubt the big cities and the larger college towns are diverse and have some mindsets attuned to different cultures. Indianapolis. Ft. Wayne. Bloomington. South Bend. Evansville. You can include Lafayette and Muncie, too, I guess.”
I thought back to this encounter numerous times over last weekend. I second-guessed myself about what I told him, how I portrayed the Indiana I knew, and how much I may have brought reluctance to him rather than confidence in whatever his decision might be. I haven’t missed the right-wing religious soul and racial homogeneity of Indiana since I left over twenty years ago, but how heavily were my own biases playing into what I told him? I thought about speaking to him again and what I might say, but then I found myself reading a Facebook post from a high school classmate Sunday night that changed my mind.
It seems my former classmate visited Chicago last weekend, coincidentally right in the midst of the protests that were taking place downtown. He posted a picture of himself holding a sign he appears to have found in a parking garage. The sign read “Pro-America / Anti-Trump.” The picture itself struck me as a risky proposition given how it could easily be taken out of context. On the surface, it looks like my former classmate was part of the march and offering his support against Trump. If that were the case, he would stand to lose a lot given his family’s business concerns in Angola, but that’s his situation to handle if people decide to interpret the picture that way. He noted below the picture that the sign was “a remnant left behind.” He added, “Can’t we all just get along.” I wondered if he was joking. Regardless, the message he sent didn’t resonate with humor.
I flashed back to my conversation with my new student, and any second-guessing I did subsequent to our conversation vanished. The picture of my classmate confirmed that my instincts were correct in how I cautioned my student about the nature of rural Indiana. And to answer my classmate’s question (if it was a question; I took it for one despite the missing punctuation): No, we can’t all get along. Millions of Americans wouldn’t protest unless there were called to action by significant threats to their personal well-being and the future of the country. Millions of women especially wouldn’t be moved to organize and protest unless something extraordinary happened, like their new president objectifying, berating, and assaulting them before moving to restrict or deny their reproductive rights. These are merely starters for why we can’t all get along. And we especially can’t all get along when someone, who I hope did it offhandedly and not with malicious aforethought, appropriates a phrase connected to the legacy of police violence against minorities in our country and turns it against a group of peaceful demonstrators who will not tolerate the short-sighted, ignorant, and hate-laden policies that are going to be forced on them because of brainwashed conservatives and religious zealots who voted for a mouthpiece who is bringing their brand of hatred into the mainstream.
I hope my classmate was joking. If he was, it was in poor taste. He’ll have to deal with the fallout of his picture, if there is any, and maybe that’s the best way to tune one’s sense of humor. If he wasn’t joking, then he only confirmed the spirit of what I told my student last Friday. My greatest hope, then, is that my former classmate stays out of the way while change is forged. Perhaps he doesn’t realize it’s far more likely to happen in the city he visited last weekend rather than the city he lives in. I hope, too, that his thoughts and beliefs and like-minded brethren stay away from my student should that young man choose to attend college in Indiana.
What kind of grinch would take time away from family and holiday celebrating to run yet another 5K? Well, me and 110 other grinches who showed up at the Indiana School for the Deaf on Christmas Day to chug around the campus grounds. And Santa Claus must have been around somewhere and thinking of me, because just when the girlfriend was practically rolling her eyes that I am yet again finding a way to run a race at an unexpected time, along came Robert from Naperville, Illinois, at the start line. I commented to him about the Everton FC shirt he was wearing, and came to find out he had driven from Naperville specifically for the race and was driving back directly after the race. Hohoho! That’s about eight hours out of somebody’s holiday, six of which are spent driving, and makes my quest for thirty look a little less spastic by comparison since I was already visiting family in Indianapolis and wouldn’t be taking so much time out of the day. Robert even commented that he told his wife he’d run a 5K or 10K every weekend for a year, so my present was being able to maintain some degree of normalcy in the eyes of my girlfriend since I’m “only” doing thirty 5Ks in a year.
Regardless of the degree of normalcy, it felt abnormal to run a 5K on Christmas Day, much less in the middle of the freakin’ afternoon in the thick of the celebrating. What it meant more than anything was that I needed to lay off the coma-inducing eating, stay away from the bottle of Redbreast 12 I bought my sister’s boyfriend, and maintain some sort of pre-race empty-stomach discipline well into the afternoon. I didn’t know how well I would be able to manage all that, so I had resigned myself to running at a slower pace and merely finishing, and then unleashing the Christmas consuming beast inside me.
That all lasted until I turned into a long straight-away as I closed out what felt like the first mile of the race. I had noted that I was starting rather fast for someone who hadn’t raced for three weeks and who couldn’t remember the last time he even ran outdoors. The pace was peculiar, but not so much as the feeling that it felt right and sustainable. It came to me that I had been on vacation for 8 days and was almost as well rested as I am throughout the summer. A barrier crumbled in my mind, and I found a long-lost cruise control switch in the rubble.
I maintained the pace throughout the shittily-marked course, and even managed to catch up to Robert after two and a half miles. We made it through a vague turn around (nobody seemed to know where it was, exactly), and he pulled ahead on the quarter-mile stretch to the finish line. Dude certainly looked like he had run fifty 5- or 10Ks up to this point in the year, and I was surprised to have even gotten near him. But I felt as relentless as time, and decided I was going to go for it. I caught him, and we sprinted against each other until I edged him by a nose at the finish line (a nose that is exactly .65 seconds long).
My time was recorded at 24:59.67, which made it my second fastest time in the last four years. Regardless of the crappy course markings and how exact that time is, I’ll take it. Thank you, Santa Claus! Maybe I should run a race every Christmas.
If there are such things as unicorns and long-time followers of The Seeker, the latter might remember that I’m big on the Poem-a-Day Challenge. It happens every November, and the idea is to write a poem every day for the month of November. Dude in charge gives you a prompt each day, and you take it from there. By the end of the month, you have thirty possible poems. You spend this time of year up until mid-January refining your poems and ultimately you submit a small number of them to dude in charge. He looks at your chapbook and decides a winner.
Winning isn’t the goal, though. Besides which, it’s damn near impossible. Meeting the challenge is the goal, and everything after that is gravy. I’ve written here about the sundry benefits of forcing oneself to write every day; mostly, that means shutting off the inner critic and ripping out a poem. Or at least something that could become a poem. I’ve been consistently surprised at some things I’ve churned out, and even some of the interesting trash. What’s perhaps best, though, is that the PAD Challenge gives me purpose and keeps me busy writing for two and a half months of the year without worrying about where the next idea is going to come from.
So I’m in my third year of the marathon writing and editing session, and I can’t see any good reason to not do PAD again next year. I’m working diligently on my chapbook, though to look at me you might think I’m trying to pull my own teeth instead. Feels about the same. Anyhow, I was shaping a poem yesterday and was having a lot of fun with it, even though it’s not going to go into my chapbook because it’s not a thematic fit. Seems like a shame to just let it float out there in the wherever, so I’m going to put it up here.
This one originated on November 16th. The prompt was “Play _____”. I was tasked with filling in the blank and using the expression as the title of my poem.
You’re a Model T
or a 78 SP.
A wooden leg.
Only an odd few
are still facile
the abstruse aspects
that made you you.
None of that
back in the day
better than that.
You’re not dead, so
don’t get bent
out of shape—
with your old bones.
They don’t make you
like they used to,