Friday, April 28, 2006


As Sunday nears, the day that my brother Jon would have been 22, I am feeling introspective. I certainly think of him on other days, but I'm conditioned that April 30 is my brother's birthday, and on that day we celebrate his birth and another year of growing older. This will be the third birthday we have experienced since his death. It makes me realize how much changes in life. I look back to times when Jon was alive, and they seem so removed; I am another person then. I lived those days, but when I look back, I'm looking in on another time, at a play that was performed. I am merely an actor who has forgotten some of my lines in the various scenes I've played. Memories are foggier and specific days fade away into general feelings.

It is good for me to take these times and deliberately think things through. I need a reminder that life doesn't consist of 140 seventh-graders revolving through my room daily. I get so bogged down in the here and now that I lose sight of the bigger picture. I had a 'moment' at the start of my spring break. We were flying to Los Angeles and my heart was in that ready state. Maybe it was because I'd taken a personal day to travel, maybe it was because I was rested and had few immediate, pressing demands on my plate. Whatever the reason, I was reading a book that I'd set aside for a season. It had been highly recommended by friends (Blue Like Jazz), and I'd picked it up and began reading it. Initially, I was somewhat intrigued, but in some regards I was just reading by rote. It was set aside and I lost track of it. Spring break approached and I discovered it again, and I was primed for it. It was really forcing me to think, and I was allowing the tangents to take place. Periodically I would set the book down and just gaze over the dark expanse below me. And I began to be taken out of my little world. There were hundreds of farms I saw, thousands of cars. Each one represented other beings. I wandered into predictions of these untold stories, putting flesh on the unknown. Who down there was experiencing heartache? Who was caught up in the mires of deception? All around me on a daily basis I cross paths with hundreds of others, but I'm so often focused on me and what I need to do to get by, to survive another first-year teaching job that I'm consumed. I can't get above my mire to notice what is really going on.

A friend and co-worker further fed this introspection. There has been a young couple closely affiliated with my school district--both teachers--going through a difficult time. She was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and just passed away a week and a half ago. I knew of them through co-workers and students, but didn't know them directly. The husband began sending out almost daily emails, detailing her progress the last couple months. After requests, he encouraged people to forward them on as they saw fit. My co-worker compiled them into a fifteen-page document and sent them my way. I had brought a book to read during the day as my students worked on reading their novels silently, but I instead read his words. I was drawn to the gripping messages.

I can't begin to imagine what it would be like to know your spouse is most likely going to die from this invasive cancer, and yet you must slowly watch the process unfold. She was losing her hearing, struggled with muscle deterioration, and ached with sleepless nights and pounding headaches. Even as a Christian, I was challenged and encouraged by their faith. He was frank in his feelings, but he was also filled with hope. They desired so desperately that she be healed, but they were willing to acknowledge that, if that didn't happen, God was still supreme and they would trust. Yet he didn't just sit back and let his wife die. They wrestled with God, begging for healing. The whole community embraced them, and through it all, she had a strong spirit that rarely complained. They were a testimony to everyone around them, many confused and amazed at how they walked through this trial with such grace.

Death is so sudden and unpredictable. Sometimes we have notice that lives are going to come to an imminent end, but it seems as more often than not, we are challenged with the unexpected: death through a freak car accident or a suicide. Is it easier to know in advance that a loved one is done for this earth, in order to prepare and have closure? Or does this draw bitterness about the inevitable? I guess I'm left with the truth that we aren't promised a certain number of days. God would have us to acknowledge our mortality each and every day, and live accordingly. But as frail humans, this is hard for us to do when events seem to coincide so smoothly into our predictable routines. It should be no surprise that, in those husband's letters, such eloquence was drawn out of such heart-rending pain. Struggles force us to bare our souls and thoughts and be honest with what is truly important.

Judicial Decisions, Coded and Outright

Recently it has become known that the judge in the Da Vinci Code case created a code of his own in his written decision, noted by randomly italicized and capitalized words in the text; he coined it the "Smithy Code." No one has yet decoded the message, but many are trying.

This leads to the discussion of other quirky decisions. Some judges will write in couplets, others insert movie titles. I'm fairly ignorant to the specifics, having instead to rely on an almost-lawyer friend. However, I have recently learned of another amusing judicial decision in Zim v. Western Publishing Co., 573 F.2d 1318 (5th Cir. 1978), a wrongful appropriation case. This is how it opens:

In the beginning, Zim created the concept of the Golden Guides. For the earth was dark and ignorance filled the void. And Zim said, let there be enlightenment and there was enlightenment. In the Golden Guides, Zim created the heavens (STARS) (SKY OBSERVER'S GUIDE) and the earth. (MINERALS) (ROCKS and MINERALS) (GEOLOGY).

Then there rose up in Western a new Vice-President who knew not Zim. And there was strife and discord, anger and frustration, between them for the Golden Guides were not being published or revised in their appointed seasons. And it came to pass that Zim and Western covenanted a new covenant, calling it a Settlement Agreement. But there was no peace in the land. Verily, they came with their counselors of law into the district court for judgment and sued there upon their covenants.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Writing From the Heights of Eloquence to the Depths of Erratum

Students compile their essays from the year, edit them anew, and then bind them into a book. They are all centralized around aspects of themselves, a staple in the seventh-grade curriculum. Parents even have the opportunity to write a chapter of their own, and those students who have parents that have participated in this have been beaming as they read what has been said about them. The additions to the essay components are a dedication, as well as a reflection on their work. I have been equally amazed by their eloquence and dismayed by their oversights. Here are the more memorable.

Some of the brilliant dedications are: "To anyone who woke up on Monday and thought it was Saturday" and this one from my little orchestra violinist: "To B-flat, the most resonant note of all."

Many students dedicate the book to their families, thanking them for their support and love. Here's an awkward one: "This book is dedicated to my parents. Without them, I wouldn't be here." So, what is she thanking them for, exactly?

I like to imagine the student writing her essays throughout the year after reading this: "This book is dedicated to Fiona, Bun-bun, and the rest of my animals. Without their funny antics, I would have gone crazy trying to meet my deadline."

One student added an Editor's Note to the close of her book: "Twenty years after this paper was written, the author became an eccentric hermit. When she told her mother and father of this, she reportedly said, 'I go in search of personality and mysteriousness.' To this day she lives somewhere in the Rocky Mountains with a flock of Belgian Quail D'Anvers. This should not alarm the reader if they plan on going mountain climbing: simply take along an offering of books to give to her when she comes to take the toll."

And here is the most memorable beginning to a chapter written by a parent: "[Our son] was born in Honolulu, Hawaii due to an ill-timed vacation by his normally responsible parents."

And if you want to end on a pleasant note, you should stop reading now. Below follows the tragic typos in these finished works.

First, let's begin with some irony, found in this reflection: "This year my writing is a lot better than the begging of the year."

And here's a dedication: "I dedicate this book to my mom. She is the one who helped me edit and prefect all off my papers." Somehow I imagine her mother didn't get to check this particular writing sample.

I don't even know where to begin with this reflection: "When I was righting these essays I notes a lot of things. I became a better righter. I became a better speller. I have learned how to right good essays."

And just more proof that when this year is finished, I won't know how to spell anything correctly: "When I reflect back on my essays from the beginning of the year I notice a lot of big mistakes and some miner mistakes." Is a "miner" mistake one where you accidently extract lead instead of iron? And when do you have opportunities to write in all that barren darkness? I can't imagine it's good for the eyes.

Here's an example of one of the most commonly misspelled words, by children and adults alike: "If you like sports, then you should defiantly read this." And as you read, perhaps you can scowl and vigorously thrust your fist in the air at appropriate intervals.

Finally, "I want to get married and have children, but I think I'll adapt." One must always remain flexible in such areas.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Jack of All Trades

This week I added yet another skill to my repertoire: I am now able to say I've been an orchestra conductor.

It's not unusual for a school to ask teachers to substitute for another class during their prep if the regular teacher has to leave during the day when it's too late to contact a substitute. Such was the case this Monday. There I was, partway through the day, being asked to cover orchestra. I recognize the importance of helping out others, and have previously done so, but I reluctantly agreed. I can do a pretty good job leading a lesson in a content area, but these arts are different affairs.

The conductor had jotted down plans for the hour: "Take attendance. Have them do Warm Up 1. Rehearse the three songs for concert. OR Run as a study hall."

Certainly the easy route would have been to ask students to bring study materials, but I'm a tough cookie. Students streamed in, glancing questioningly at me. I knew about half of them. I admitted to them that, while I had been in band, I had been a percussionist. Neither tuning nor scales required! One student tuned the group for me. Now was the time of reckoning. I recognize, as a teacher, the trick is capitalizing on the strengths of others. I knew that, while I could conduct, I was ignorant of the tempos for the songs, and I would stumble awkwardly through them. Better to pass the buck.

Fortunately, I had several willing volunteers to conduct. I first selected someone whose father was a conductor. Then another girl conducted for the next song. The latter even stopped the group in the midst of a song and mentioned the measures where they started falling apart; she gave helpful suggestions, and they continued. Their ears were more attuned to such things than mine. The experience was a success. There I was, watching junior high students conduct their peers and instruct them. Much more rewarding than if only a study hall had been held.

I did, however, acquiesce and allow them to spend the last half of the time to study and socialize. We had been able to work through all the songs, and short of the conductor being present to focus on specific sections, there was little more for us to do.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

My Glimpse Into the 'Real World'

This weekend was atypical for us. Friday night we attended a Harry Potter party. Who would have known that Professor Snape and Moaning Myrtle were married? Surrounding yourselves with others who are familiar with the series and are speculating about the final installment was an amusing endeavor. We haven't had much opportunity to delve into the nitty-gritty predictions with others, so it was a welcome venture.

Saturday found us catching up on rest. I have little work to do this weekend, so we indulged in a relaxing Saturday. Lately I've been grading essays or doing extensive planning on my weekends. Yesterday, however, I had the luxury to curl up in a chair, open up all the windows, listen to some music, and read for hours.

I recognize people with "real" jobs don't often have to bring work home with them, so sitting down for hours with a book may be a regular occurence. I just ate it up. Today I'm doing necessary planning, but I should still have a decent day ahead of me, including a pleasant walk in this gorgeous weather. I must savor the freedom while I can!

Friday, April 14, 2006

To Resign or Not to Resign--That is the Quandary

Today I had a meeting with my principal; he had done his last observation of me for the year, and we were discussing the class period. I've been fortunate to receive glowing praise for my teaching the last two years, but that is not the focus for today.

He asked me if Eric and I had made a final decision on next year. I updated him on everything. He wasn't invested in my answer, as I was only transferred to the middle school for a year to cover someone on leave. She had since decided to resign, but I'm low on the totem pole, so I wouldn't be guaranteed to continue in my current post, even if Eric and I were remaining in the area. I'm the only non-tenured English teacher in the middle and high school in the district, and with budget cuts, classes are scarce.

My principal informed me that I needed to resign my post. If I failed to, as they were rearranging faculty for teaching assignments next year, they would be forced to let someone go in my department. So here's my decision: I must either resign my post, or force them into the position of letting me go.

Since I'm not dependent on a job in the district, I try to not be bothered by the fact that even though I have received strong support and praise from administration and parents alike, the best I could do next year is receive 0.4 time in my current post. Tenure is an interesting concoction. I understand the theory of the system, but being on the receiving end has been a bitter pill to swallow. Tell me any other profession where the bright and competent are rewarded, not by recognizing their potential, but by lining them up first to let them go when funds are tight. After all, we're the cheap ones to pay!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Irony in the Classroom, Scene One

Setting: English classroom, mid-April, last class of the day

As we enter this scene, we see students working attentively. On their desks sit laptops. Students are editing essays from the past year before they begin composing their electronic portfolio. With temperatures in the eighties outside and all the computers giving off heat inside, the room must be stuffy, as the air conditioner has not yet been turned on. The two skinny windows have been opened to catch any hint of a breeze that may happen past, but that appears to be offering little comfort to the individuals inside.

We see our teacher sitting at her desk. Students have been bringing their laptops to her when they have questions, and she has stoically endured all of their innane questions: "How do I save?", "How do I open my document from this folder?",
"What's a Reflection?", "Will you type for me?" Ever gracious, she patiently answers them all. During a brief reprieve, the teacher looks up to see a student in his desk, quite near hers. Something about this student draws her attention. She approaches him slowly. Her suspicions were affirmed. As the lights go up on the stage, we too see what has caught her eye.

The student, normally quite verbal and active, has fallen silent. He has instead been lulled to sleep, drawn away by the muses. His head, with all of the cornrows, has found a resting place on his keyboard. Let us listen in on the exchange.

Teacher, shaking him gently: There is to be no drooling on my laptops.

Student, defensively, if not somewhat haltingly: I wasn't drooling!

As the teacher does indeed confirm there was no drooling, she draws his attention to the screen. It is realized that as he was cavorting with the muses in a cooler locale, his face was depressing a key as he rested. From where he left off his conscious state, there were now two and a half lines of a single letter, a subconscious gesture that seemed apt. For if the audience could also draw their eyes to the screen, they would see this:

My Dedication


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A Discourse on the Merits of Professional Conduct

I learned an important lesson this past week--the importance of getting to know the educational assistants that cross paths with me throughout the typical school day. These people are, on the whole, qualified and competent at what they do. Your burden as a teacher can be eased if you make it known to these paraprofessionals how their individual charge is doing and keep them updated on what you specifically need from them. I recommend also taking the time in the class period to get to know the para on a personal level, if the time warrants. It need not be every day, but when your paths cross for a few seconds here or there, ask a friendly question. A positive working relationship makes many otherwise tedious tasks go smoothly, and educational assistants appreciate and respect you in return. And who knows what will happen after this affable relationship is established. Perhaps a teacher could compliment such a paraprofessional on her flattering haircut and will learn that for ten years she cut hair professionally. And before you know it, it's a Wednesday afternoon after school and you find yourself getting your hair chopped off. Familiarity does have its perks.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Pretentious Scrabble Is Born

Eric and I were settled in for Sunday night, doing the old- married- couple thing, when we got it in our heads, almost instantaneously (it's scary how quickly this happens...) to play Scrabble. It had been months since we had touched this game, but now we had played it twice in a short span. We were warmed up from our previous game a week earlier, so we were being particularly witty. Suddenly, I was saddened that I couldn't quite make the word poultice. And then it hit me. As soon as this traditional game was over, I was going to engage Eric in a round of Pretentious Scrabble.

Scrabble variants are not unusual. I have learned Speed Scrabble is known to our separate circles in both Iowa and Minnesota, and I'm sure other states as well. Speed Scrabble is when you negate the board and everyone starts with seven tiles. Time begins and individuals madly throw around their tiles, trying to connect them all into words. Once someone has incorporated all of their tiles, they shout, "Draw!" and all unwitting players are required to draw a couple more, somehow using them to add to their masterpiece. This is a maniacal version. I hate putting my tiles together, only to have to completely disregard my work if I draw a new tile that needs to be incorporated. I should not have to be so disrespectful to such cooperative tiles! Trust me; this version is not for the faint of heart.

Anyhow, Pretentious Scrabble is a little more friendly than traditional Scrabble, and not as demanding as Speed Scrabble. This is how play works, at this early stage of evolution. All tiles are face up, and the endeavor is a joint one. Someone randomly chooses a lengthy word, lays it down, and you just build off of that. I like to call it Pretentious Scrabble so you can conveniently leave it out when you have company. They will come and be astounded at your genius (and luck of drawing letters), and you just remain silent to the whole affair. "Of course it's common to regularly incorporate such sophisticated words! What? You don't?" For this to be possible, one primary rule must carry over. You are still be limited to seven letters in a word, unless you later build off of it.
If you really want to impress unsuspecting guests, you will have themes to all words placed on the board. For instance, Eric still wants to do a philosopical bent for one. Alas, categorical imperative has no hope of making an appearance...

The picture shows the results of our maiden voyage. We used all the tiles, but we did cheat once; if you look closely, you will see that TC is on the board, and abbreviations are disallowed. But we like to think of it as a tribute to our current residence in the Twin Cities. I encourage you Scrabble lovers to try this alternate version. I realize that if you're competitive, you might not feel challenged in this bout, but we played two rounds last night and weren't yet bored. The challenge remains to use up all the tiles while creating some pretty spectacular combinations. Plus, Pretentious Scrabble eliminates feeling inferior when you realize you can't incorporate your letters into much of anything, but if you only had ____, then you'd really blow everyone away!

Monday, April 03, 2006

And the Winner Is...

As of this weekend, Eric has made his final decision. The grad school that will be our home for the next five or six years is Notre Dame. He has sent off the paperwork declining admission to the other institutions and written gracious emails informing said professors that have been instrumental in answering his queries. Having a decision made is comforting; people can only handle so many unanswered questions at a time!

It is somewhat anticlimactic. Now that we've made this commitment, Eric still has four months of work left. He had let them know last month that he would likely be returning to school. Fortunately, everyone has been completely supportive; some are asking for him, now that he has "parole," to send cigarettes back so they can have some bargaining power in the clink. You must admit, it's hard to distinguish a cubicle from a jail cell.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

For Gullible Humans Everywhere

In honor of the day, I need to post this link of a ranking of the Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes of All Time. I'm still early enough in the rankings, but it is amusing to read.

I know I have one thing to be thankful for: that this day falls on a Saturday. I'm sure I could have had a fun time toying with my students, but I don't want to know what antics twelve- and thirteen-year-olds would have tried to pull.