Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Last Day At Elzy

I know I indicated that this next post would be about Ink Stains and our television debut, but I have to stop and just tell you something else first.

At a certain point, all the boxes are packed, all the desks are back in line, and the scavenger hunt of signatures to get cleared have been obtained. The latter being the process for being released into the summer. Turn in folders, place stickers here, textbook inventory, and turn in the keys. All with little initials and the guarantee of your paycheck.

For the first time in 360 school days I no longer have a classroom. I took down my decorated door. The classroom rules and consequences. All the binders that could not be salvaged went in a giant black trash bag.  Crates stacked in the corner housed all the work students completed. My desk sat empty ready to accumulate summer’s dust. A few students came to visit. We stood in the room where all our words had their say.

At the end I remember first day of school’s electricity. Every student is ready, hungry from days a humid wandering for anything. We limp into the end of the year. All the disruptions. The dam of accountability is broken and students rush out of the school, carried about by the currents of corner stores, family trips and the prospect of sitting uninterrupted for a while.

Storm clouds have shadowed much of these days. My windshield collided with a rock and now bears a large crack. At another point in my life I might read these as indicators of mood or symbolism of some larger influence, but life is not a novel. And this ending carries none of the catharsis I anticipated only a strange longing for a pavilion many hands raised. The hours of listening and responding that got a few students inside, and the hope that those behind will carry the work coupled with the promise of visiting.

At the Freedom Project I’ll still be Mr. Stevens. Though, it will carry another meaning, like tomatoes off the vine, in a preserve jar, or in a sauce. Each carrying the same essence, but changed each time.

As I packed up my classroom these last few days, and sat in the silent school, I looked back at my white board where all my students signed their names. It started with one student drawing my name in big bubble letters, and then, one by one throughout the day, students came and added their names around mine. Perhaps not a symbol, but a nice ending.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Freedom Project

Part III The Freedom Project

The town of Sunflower is small.  It has a population of about 696 people and is home of the Sunflower County Freedom Project (SCFP). There’s a little Post Office, a corner store, a gas station, various housing, and many fields. I’ll drive each day from Cleveland to Ruleville to Doddsville and then make my second right turn of the thirty minute drive into Sunflower.

Here’s a little snippet of the history:

The Freedom Project is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to educational excellence and leadership development in Sunflower County, Mississippi. We use the history and spirit of the 1960s freedom struggle to motivate young people to become capable and compassionate leaders in their communities. Read the rest here.

Next year I’m going to be taking over the as the Program, Health, and Communications Director at the SCFP .I’ll spend time working with students in a garden, publishing a literary magazine, visiting colleges, camping, applying to summer programs and internships, building the character traits a person needs to grow, thrive, and lead - all of that after school. The kids that are this program have a level of dedication that is astounding. They range from sixth to twelfth grade. They’re bound for a future that is chosen by them. My time after school has always brought the most significant growth. The opportunity to mentor and commune one on one without the barrage of classroom constraints inherent in a dysfunctional system directly interfering in the day to day.  

I’m choosing the Sunflower County Freedom Project because my work is not finished here.. The control, support, and freedom that the new position offers me will allow me to put students in the situations and experiences that give them the control, give them the power, and give them the growth. It is no longer about Mr. Stevens’ room, but a about what a group of students empowered together can accomplish with and for each other.

My heart is heavy because I know the students I’ve taught at Amanda Elzy deserve such a program. They have an open invitation to drop in one or two days a month a commune with the Freedom Project Fellows as writers and thinkers. The pen will keep us connected and write our futures, one letter at a time.

Next Part IV: The Local TV Station Comes and Watches Me and My Students be Sweaty

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Life With and Without Air Conditioning

At the end of the year there are series of moments that are a mosaic that makes up the end of Corps Members commitment. I will offer you these to you a series of short parts in the last week of school. All I've done here in Mississippi is owed to you all back home who have read, called, and donated. You have given money, time, and advice. These reflections are by no means comprehension or even that well written. They are my attempts to capture what happened here from my perspective.

I hope you enjoy parts one and two. Thank you.

I At The End
.At the end of two years with Teach for America I could hold out my hands a look at the ashes around me. All the burned up attempts and shattered flying machines I pedaled off numerous cliffs.  The cynical edge adopted in such a focus would indicate that the ten percent I’ve reached might have been reached anyway. Before such toxicity can converge  dozens of faces rush up to meet mine and shatter whatever self pitying vision was forming.  They are wide eyed with notebooks in hand, small mouths down turned into ovals. Their foreheads are sweaty because the AC is still broken in my room. They’re looking at me and their hands are extended out to all the work that I’ve assigned them. They’re pointing to piles of poetry and now they’re pointing at Ink Stains. I can seem them shouting their poems into the stained wood rafters of Turnrow Bookstore. They demand I see the good and learn. They demand what I ask of them.  

There’s always more work to be done. The movement occurs with nudges from a lot of shoulders. It  feels glacial at times. Nothing like what Ginsberg described in “America.” What I’ve done down here isn’t so much a mad shoulder to the wheel, but more the inching of a titan. In such slowness  guilt, repercussions, and doubt can dominate.. The staff that have seen countless CMs come and go in a range from the toxic to the mediocre to the exceptional, can always demand more. At the end of it though I have to remember the humid fanfare of my last few nights of Ypsi. When every face I ever knew  showed offered a hug, advice, a beer, and filled a sloping backyard with all the fuel that took from 94 to 75 to 240 to 55 until I arrived in Mississippi. I think of all the books that came down in some fifty boxes of all the notes and all the supplies and debriefs and thousands of sheets of paper and toner cartridges and lost sleep and face to face meetings and comments on essays and calls home and individual progress reports and countless phone calls with professors, master teachers, and TFA staff. I can look at all of that see ash or I can see the fire that burns without my insistent and interfering hands.

II The State Test

Two weeks ago  State test is in full effect. Teaching stops and the schools empty out with a full two weeks left on the roster. We all sit in the heat and we do our best to generate what we can. The only think sticker than those classrooms in late May heat is the shame and guilt of being so powerless in the face of that test. All the talk and writing and demonstrations of knowledge are flattened by some 400 multiple choice questions filled in silently a dark air conditioned gym. 180 desks lay out on a massive tarp and teachers roam and intimidate students we have watered with our hearts and minds. Every time I’ve seen my students sit in those desks they often look at me with fear. For many of them they’re futures are being determined by the few strokes of their pencil. Now my students, those thirty percent mentioned at the beginning, they’re fine. They smile and we shake hands, it’s the other seventy that are asking for a highlighter or just put their heads down or use an odd trick like starting on number forty five because that might change it. At times like those I try and sit in their shoes and I think of all the choices that lead the to being scared. The arguments that took them out of class, the choices on the corner, the substitutes, the teachers who placed the books on the desks put the questions on the board and sat down, and I think of myself and my catalogue of failures as an educator. I know that the greatest effect against this is dependability: a teacher who becomes a pillar, and then I sit in silence with the students from 8am till 2pm and I leave emptied and dehydrated. My thoughts blank. The first hour is clear though, I can see it all.

Next Part III: The Sunflower County Freedom Project. Part IV: Ink Stains.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bomb Threat: Poetry Round One

In case you're coming to this unaware, April is National Poetry Writing Month. The goal is to write a poem each day. I'll share some of them here with you on the blog. Comments are open feel free to share your own. The slashes indicate what day out of the next thirty days the poem was written. Most poems will not have titles beyond that. 


Yesterday a boy called in a bomb threat
We stood out on the bleachers
while the sky threatened rain
and the electric blue and yellow wooden risers
held little puddles.
Students formed knots and hollered
threw raps and compared peoples’ heads
to tomatoes, q-tips, and thermometers.
The teachers stood beneath the students
on the plank
that ran longest near the handrail.
The football field sat overgrown
and dotted with hurdles.
The elementary kids did jumping jacks
and across the muddy fields we could see the flashing
We all worried about lunch.


Though this isn't an apology,
and the pressure remains unsatisfied.
I can hear the piano keys
playing a melody simple.
I like their sound: undercoated

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ink Stains: Let Student Talent Shine

Hey Everyone,

Getting published is the moment where all the silent effort of a writer receives light. For students across the Mississippi Delta that moment can come in the form of Ink Stains, a publication that I, and my two compatriots, have put together. These students have rewritten, added concrete imagery, appealed to the senses, performed for their schools, and are ready to see their names in print. Ink Stains will feature short fiction, memoir, and poetry. As of this moment we have 11 days to raise the last $285 on Kickstarter. If we fail to raise it we get none of the money pledged.

You can donate here:

When you donate we will mail you a copy of the magazine. Your donation is the same as buying a small press publication off the rack at a fraction of the cost.

Even one dollar gets us closer. Writing this makes me think of all the NPR pledge campaigns there are. I remember the guilt I feel and the strong desire for my radio to possess some kind of fast forward button, but if you donate you will receive the powerful and original work of new emerging writers who are not heard by the big publishing houses, television stations, or even seen in films. These are voices that deserve to be heard.

Let me just give you a taste, two different stanzas from two different poems that I think puts into perspective what we're trying to put out to donors across the country and communities across the Delta.

my abnormal anomalies usually mirror astronomy,
So greatest praise to the most high honorably,
But it’s funny to me how I covet the same things that I was structured to be.

And here's another in a much more direct and conversational language: 

Hey You,
You know that land they call
Free, but still tries to prevent
Me from being me

Give a few of your dollars so that these poems can be read by the audience that they deserve. Share the Kickstarter link and this post with anyone you think can help. 

Thanks for journeying with me to this point. 

Word is bond, 

Mr. Stevens

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Zombies Elected America's Saviors

Photo From The Walker Stalkers

                Somewhere along the line our greatest fantasy became survival. I see it in our pop culture, namely The Walking Dead.  Our new desire is the right to live and shoot guns at an onslaught of people who are inhuman and Other. We can execute our adversaries with little guilt or greater remorse.

                Goodbye frustrating boss take this pick-axe to the head.
                Hey taxman, taste my buckshot.
                Hello foreigner, whose ethnicity and Otherness makes me uncomfortable, feel the thunderous wallop of my baseball bat and boots.

                With this apocalypse comes an end to debt, promotions, and going to work. Now each task we complete is directly related to meaning. Wash the clothes, fish, and go on patrol. Each task serves a purpose. No e-mails to answer or texts to send. In the zombie apocalypse you have: A FAMILY, A COMMUNITY, and A MISSION. These things clearly define you. Life is hell, but hell in a way that differs from the beige hell you live in now. The old hell dissipates and is replaced with a hell that can be confronted. We can finally live and triumph now that everyone else is dead.

                These desires we exercise in The Walking Dead are nothing new. The ancient Israelites, in their times of greatest distress and suffering, would write apocalypse narratives. Many scholars see these stories in those times as breaths of relief. Those stories (the book of Daniel for example) are artifacts of an ancient culture in great pain that is crying for deliverance. In drafting such a vision the present became more bearable for the ancient Jews and – spoiler alert –may have had a hand in how many Jews still exist today.

                Today, in our life of little control, we fantasize and are captivated by the living dead, those grotesque and visceral representations of population anxiety, daily drudgery, and economic strife. It even further demonstrates our amygdala’s (the part of your brain that recognizes threats and outsiders) response to the vibrant mosaic of cultures foreign.  

                Maybe, like other civilizations of the past, our fascination with apocalypse (literally “disclosing of knowledge”) is our own sojourn toward peace. In confronting our greatest fears in entertaining dramas, reflecting on the crushing world we inhabit, and in gaining temporary relief in the vision of a possible end, maybe we’ll make it to the next millennium. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Hey everyone,

This week I'm directing you to my short story "Kudzu," which has been published at this link:


Mr. Stevens

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Television and the Meaning of Life

We watch people in life and death situations on television in an attempt to make our life choices seem like they're powerful or at least escape to a reality where such choices occur. At any given moment we could teeter of the cliff into realizing that our life and job are meaningless. Whether television helps or hurts this is questionable. In some ways it is the ultimate distracter, like many distracters before it and epics before that. Each narrative attempts to help us escape and find a place in our work and lives that is meaningful. Some might argue that pursuing it this fashion we become further removed from true meaning.

I bring this up to you tell you about The West Wing and how it relates to people telling you that they will hit you "in yo motha fuckin' face." I’ve been watching the West Wing and in an episode in the first season Josh gets a card that will direct him to the safe zone in the event of nuclear attack. He is conflicted about this privilege throughout the episode, and the root of this is revealed when he visits his old therapist and explains that his sister died in a house fire. He feels responsible and does not want to feel that he has survived those he loves, again, undeservedly. What a powerful moment. All the history woven together and scored and profoundly acted. Imagine this arc when your holding your coffee cup and wondering if you have time to use the bathroom thoroughly, before driving to work.

At the core of the West Wing is the question: what is it to be a good person?. With our eyes fixed on the figure of the President it is easy to understand why he is held to such a high standard. In the hands of Aaron Sorkin every conversation reaches the sublime with wonderful nuances of language and the gravity of every sentence is seen and felt with the impact of ninth inning World Series pitch. In looking at my life I see a constant stream of tiny choices. Times when I can be rude or, in my mind, justifiably angry in a last ditch effort to draw boundaries with people. In comparison these choices seem small and hollow. 

No, you cannot go to the bathroom. 
Yes, you can borrow that pencil in exchange for your house key. 
No, you cannot have some of the almonds in my lunch box.

I want to be good. 
I want to be a part of something. 

The West Wing makes that dream seem so possible, which is part of the show’s escape. Our office job or classroom seems to carry none of the gravity of the Oval Office. If we turn our ear to a certain Avant Gardes ,they would have us think that this dichotomy only reveals the inherent purposelessness of all existence and necessitates our need to create meaning for ourselves outside of institutions and super structures.

Reading is important. Yes, you have a quiz tomorrow. 

What a daunting task: constructing meaning in one’s life that can carry the weight of drudgery. At times work can become only because the means by which we get to enjoy the people or things that give us purpose and that can be kind of a drag. Man.

Have a seat please. 

It is however a worthy task. But sometimes that task is being undertaken in February. No matter what another teacher tells you, February is the hardest month. We see it on each other's faces. I tell the first year teacher everyday at lunch, “Don’t kill yourself.” He nods like this is valuable advice and really appreciates someone saying it to him. After I told him that Monday, students ran and threw themselves into my door and then when reprimanded told me they’d hit in me in my “motha fuckin face.” Now, they don’t mean it. They really didn't, but the social skills and coping mechanisms necessary needed to not tell an authority figure that you want to hit them in the “motha fuckin face” are severely lacking in our current education system. (For example there aren't any classes about starting a snarky blog.) It is my response to being told that I'll be hit in "my mutha fuckin' face" that can make my classroom feel like the Oval Office some days.

Comic Created by Matt Posky

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Most English Teachers Know They're Better Than You

If you have friends who teach, you already know about The Arrogance, and all I can do for you is apologize for all of us, thank you for your patience, and try my best to explain why we need it. 

I like to image The Arrogance as a talking but inhuman head growing out of my shoulder. It looks and sounds like the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal. The Arrogance grows inside a teacher’s body somewhere, or inside a teacher’s brain. Sometimes, it makes that teacher say things no healthy adult would say. It condescends and corrects. It has even been known to sneer.

Imagine a conversation between two healthy adults. A literary allusion would sound like this: “I chased it all over the place like Captain Ahab.” That is a clear reference and no explanation is required. In a conversation between one healthy adult and The Arrogance, that allusion will be explicated: “I chased it all over the place like Captain Ahab. You see, there was a very famous book called Moby Dick. It was written by a man named Herman Melville, and it is about a man named Captain Ahab who vengefully pursues a whale.” Be calm, dear reader.

A healthy adult may say this phenomenon is “pretentious”. The Arrogance would say this phenomenon is “pretentious. That words means conceited or overly showy.” Do try to unclench your fist.

The Arrogance is a system of defense. Our days are spent in front of crowds not guaranteed to understand us or believe us or care about what we are saying. Bear with us.

Confused Disney-eyes often greet the inter-textual verbosity savored by lovers of language. (The Arrogance is eager to tell you what “verbosity” is, with examples drawn from classic and contemporary literature, but I am doing my best to keep it silent.)

Skeptical glowers often greet our often vain attempts to assert our authority. I mean here our intellectual authority as well as our dominion over the classroom. (The Arrogance is eager for me to tell you, anecdotally, all about my past experience with this, as a way to totally prove that everything I am saying is right and you should believe it because you’ll need it when you go to college. And, anyway, I’ve seen this kind of shenanigan before so you’re going to have to get up pretty early to throw me for a loop, Buster.)

Profound apathy often greets our frequently giddy content-area geek-outs. (The Arrogance wants to win your interest in this topic by comparing it ham-fistedly to a scene in The Dark Knight Rises.)

The Arrogance grows out of habitual strategies designed to deal with these situations. It isn’t easy to leave it at work. We teachers, like everyone else who works passionately in a field that matters to them, have trouble putting our occupations behind us when we’re back in the non-work world. The Arrogance comes out over dinner or in the lobby of the movie theater. I’m sorry. It’s not me. It’s The Arrogance talking.

I hate The Arrogance. I hope to extinguish it someday, and not because I want to be popular at dinner parties. I would be a better teacher without it. Yes, to assume my students understand or know or care about too much can result in poor instruction, drowned in impenetrable obscurity and obfuscation. However, assuming they understand or know or care about too little can result in an opposite problem. My students often respond to The Arrogance much as you do, by shutting down. Who wants to listen to some snob, anyway?

I’m doing my best. In the mean time, your patience and tolerance are appreciated. When you see that Skeksis head pop up to correct your grammar, smother it. Just be understanding when you do.

*Special Guest Post: Arrogance  
My good friend Michael Stohrer wrote this he's an amazing teacher, musician and writer. You can read his fantastic music reviews here: and his teaching blog:


Tune in next week for the delayed post about Television and The Meaning of Life

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Interrupting MurderTube for the End of War

In looking at Counterinsurgent warfare we can see a reflection of the change that is happening all around us and learn how change can be implemented in our communities. Counterinsurgent warfare means an end to a frontline marked on a map or with razor wire and the birth of “Suspicion in 360 degrees” as David Finkel puts it in his book The Good Soldiers. His book takes place during “the surge” in Iraq and focuses on one of the battalions stationed near Baghdad. This battalion’s commander, Kuazlarich, is a true soldier ready for war. Instead, he and his soldiers are tasked with being community developers and advancers of democracy instead of winners of battles. As an aside, the difficulty of this kind of war is why we won against the British Empire in That War. This kind of war makes one nostalgic for World War II where the boundaries and objectives were clearer and met advancing in one direction.
Counterinsurgent warfare demonstrates the complexities of the issues we face domestically. Take education for example: there is no war to be lead. No front line to charge at. I think this realization disappoints a lot of people. We saw the citizens of Iraq pull down the statue of Saddam – we saw Saddam and Bin Laden killed – but none of these moments give us the feeling of victory that we think V day would have given us. Our current society really lacks the moment when we get to see THE END. And I venture that is it because THE END was the biggest lie we ever swallowed. This reality really upsets people. We carry signs about what God wants and who He hates. We yell in the street. We make an Independent film and make our family and friends sit through the unabridged version or we start a “noise band” or a blog. Whatever our outlets we get a little upset and start longing for WWII and the Cold War and to be European because the boundaries were clearer and we had someone to demonize.
In education we have no demon. There is no leader of inequality that we can hold siege and give our list of demands to. There are just 1,000 towns that deserve long term cohesive teams. Early on the education movement we had a progression: the creation of public school and Brown vs. Board. We crossed boundaries. Now, we have a giant mess. There is not a clear answer beyond finding teachers and principals who can work as a team that are committed to excellence in a position that –with wonderful notable exceptions – is seen as noble but without prestige. Can we expect 6,000 U.S. soldiers to become duel citizens, fluent in Arabic, and commit their lives to changing a country they’re not from? No, but we can expect U.S. citizens to become involved in their local communities.
After each election we look to the President to change everything for us. We want the Legislative branch to bow to him and have our favorite Ex-President awakened from the grave (metaphorically in legislation) and enact the new Golden Era or become Europe!
Instead what we are called to become involved our communities. In volunteering, becoming active in local elections, paying attention to our neighbors and neighborhoods we can create change. There are no IEDs or EFDs waiting for us as we go to get the mail. Only a neighbor we hate because they’re too loud; a school we wish would just go away so that we can pocket the millage; a local proposition we don’t have time to read about; a child who is not ours and therefore not our responsibility. Becoming involved in one small aspect of our community and contributing a garden or free technology workshop or giving our time as Big Brother or Big sister can prevent  a shooting, give happiness, raise property value, and enhance our self-worth.
Spoiler alert: we weren’t able to change Iraq into what we envisioned, but we can change the U.S. It just takes the grit to continuously act on the problem we see right in front of us every day.

This ends this public service announcement we now return you to your regularly scheduled MurderTube. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Slam It Like a Fast Food Cash Drawer

Before we begin talking about fast food, I wish to tell you something about my teaching:

 Teaching a novel means grading homework. Though the effort of grading is worth saying, "Pass your homework up to the front of your rows."

Saying that phrase is a teacher rite of passage that I savor. Kids squirm in their desks and sshift their eyes toward the desk bordering theirs. Students' arms rise with the authority of bridges as they proudly push that lined paper forward. I put a paperclip on a given stack, smile, and get to say second favorite phrase: "It's time for your reading quiz."

Now, this five question exercise in accountability is hardly something to fear. For the naysayers out there who are having HS flashbacks - or the English teachers think I'm drilling and killing - stay your hands; I am much more satisfied with the discussion of the novel the students are reading. The sound of students' dialogue as they interpret the text and break down the directions to one another - the sound of interdependent learning -  is a choir filled with the cast of the Voice standing on a mountain of golden Godiva products being conducted by Michelle Obama. Students reading outside of school, not just out of fear pf grades, is better.

Before I go: Twice a day five days a week I drive past the McDonald's on the corner near the school and I think this:

McDonald's I want you with both drive-throughs open.
The cash drawer rattling open slamming against the counter,
hungry for me. 
French fries odor a giant cartoon hand pulling my bumper along
my fist trembling as it releases my money. 
I want the sauce spewing out the wide open windows
flowing all through my ride, sweeter than break beats. 
Your salt will rain down on me like the seven plagues of old,
destroy my heart and liver and I'll thank you. I'll let my head rest on 
the steering wheel - let the horn blare- when I realize I failed to use
my Monopoly coupon for a free McFlurry. 
Most people would run, drive past, or weigh you - and those who consumed you- 
but my arms are open. 
I want you like the camera man on the local newstation
wants that the action shot of sweating five hundred pound man
gyrating his elephant sized torso, his face covered by a black bar
all in time for the American obesity five minute story.
Just not today. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Reflecting Pool

Dear Friends,

I’m in the thick of an insane Wednesday after having a three day weekend- I know, pretty rough.  What I realize time and time again is how as a teacher my work never ends, and that teaching really parallels writing. Both are careers that can absorb as much time as you will give them.  I’ve got a great piece of fiction going had to pry myself out of my desk and into my car to go to school. I pried myself out of my classroom at four pm so that I could come and snack and keep working. Yes, award me with the Jesus 2013 award.

My students are doing Lit Circles right now, which means that they largely work in groups, do the reading outside of class, and strive to have great discussions. I have a feeling that sex and drinking cough syrup work their way in-between discussion questions, but the circles are growing into the classroom I always wanted. It takes time to plan it so that it comes off right, just like it takes time to write a good story. It’s not just a matter of typing, but of listening. The ability to listen – to my students, to my characters, to myself, to silence– is such a pivotal skill. It requires slowing down. It involves a relaxation that seems to stand in conflict with the things that MUST BE DONE. But, it is only in relaxing that those things can get finished.

The big light bulb from the past three months has been this: if you want to do something, or be something, you have to do it now. There is no vacation coming that can make up for the daily writing needed to develop my skills; There is no individual who would come and do my grading the day I gave the assignments so students would take the work they got the next day seriously (though if that person is out there and wants to work for free please e-mail me); There is no teacher whose plans perfectly fit my students needs and would allow me to start watching The West Wing or season four of Buffy. There are a vast number of people in my extended community who answer my FB messages, e-mails, and forgive my late thank you cards. They send their books, their resources, listen to my manic phone calls that turn into decent lesson plans, and laugh at my poetry when I want it to be funny. Thank you to all of you – you know who you are.

Decide on what you want start now and ask everyone you know for help.  


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Nobel Lords and the Breaking of Thumbs

When I wrote this piece I really didn’t want to come right out and discuss my students with all their baggage so popularized by made for TV movies and awful hip-hop. I think there are archetypes at work here and did my best to combine some intellectual musings, venting of pent up emotions and humor. I hope you enjoy it.

Nobel Lords and the Breaking of Thumbs

There are students who become legends. They overshadow their high performing peers, and those unfortunate well behaving quiet students in the middle who do everything they are asked and are punished for it.  You had one, or several, at your school. In all likelihood you called them by their full name and their insanity was a source of humor or entertainment for you; a source of stress and exasperation for your teachers. I teach such a student.

Foulcalt in his book Madness and Civilization  probes numerous questions, but one is when we began locking up the insane and contrasting with times when the “mad” were seen as offering a needed perspective on societal life. I think when graduate students and intellectuals read this text they imagine something like Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind” writing wildly on seven chalk boards and being ostracized by his peers. They don’t imagine a student climbing up into the grating above a classroom door yelling, “Pinocchio!” at one of their colleagues who has been designated by the students as having a “dick nose.”  They don’t further imagine this individual being in their work place disrupting, interrupting and antagonizing them at every move.  They don’t imagine this individual hiding behind a tree as administrators chase him or him stumbling into classrooms through unlocked windows.

We will call the student described above Benjamin Richards III, just to keep thing interesting. Benjamin Richards III is tall, strong, has a large nose, a laugh that can only be labeled psychotic and often spits out his food into trash cans. He has an occasional good day, but when added to the myriad of cacophonous interferences that press on an individual’s cranium in a day, he increases the risk of inducing a psychotic break by fifteen percent. The fortitude required for a regular day displays itself in enduring impromptu assemblies, changing of the bell timing, colorful epitaphs and choral renditions of songs about “ratchet ‘women.’” Look it up.

On the day I would fracture my thumb I stood on duty musing and staring at the floor tiles while I let coffee convince me of sleep’s insignificance. Benjamin Richards III traveled into my classroom and sat  Little Lord Fauntleroy’s seat. 

The two began to argue and I told them to sit somewhere else. When I next looked back one Little Lord had Mr. the Third pressed against the wall shouting in his ear and pushing his hands to the side in a mutated curtsey. The specifics are unclear but as I advanced back toward them they pulled their shirts off and began what the ancients might call “wrassling.” Students in the surrounding classrooms sensed the disruption almost instantly and flooded the doorway and hall enamored with the spectacle. The fight interwoven with punches and headlocks escalated when fifteen desks flipped into two distinct piles. I wish I could say that my concern for Fauntleroy and Richards III’s personal safety is why I hopped into the fray, but as the desks became closer to the terrified group of girls in the corner and my computer it became clear and to myself and, the wild eyed student, The Duke that we should do something. 

This became clear when The Duke, said, “You should probably do something Mr. Stevens. I’ll get Fauntleroy you get Benjamin Richards III.”  As we intercepted my left hand got launched back putting my thumb some six inches in the wrong directions fracturing its base. In a flurry of polo shirts and the Duke with his vast strength lassoed Fauntleroy with his arms and yanked him into the library nook.  Richards eventually submitted and the cavalry arrived (the Oreo crushing security man and the Sherriff) and all parties were subdued and removed. They broke free in the hallway continued their fight on the rainy breezeway (read romantic Byronic castle rampart) and left with the most massive Sheriff's deputies West or East of the Mississippi.

The Sheriff – and every other Mississippi adult native I saw- upon seeing my hand brace a few days later, said, “Guess you learned to leave those fights alone Mr. Stevens.”  And all I could think about was that Richards III has a driver’s license.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Watch the Titan Fall

The Blog will now be updated every Wednesday. Tune in a next week for the tale of how my hand was broken at school!

When I look at the origin of McDonald’s I can’t help but feel nostalgic for a small hamburger joint started by two brothers where boat sized cars rolled up and milkshakes after school  were representation of the imagined 1950s youthful innocence. In that era the titan of McDonald's was born and has since risen to a global corporation recognizable to anyone over the age of two.
In his article “The Empire Strikes Back: Rome and Us” Adam Kirsch ends with this line “Art and poetry leave us awed by such titans; but the historians make us grateful they are gone.” This line comes after a lengthy literature review of books that have come out in the past eighteen months about the 99% Romans, the barbarism of Rome and the exploits of a few choice emperors.  The sentiment rings true however, especially with McDonald's and the 1950s which so many long for but the brutality of – especially in the town I currently live in – I have no desire to revisit.
His article is timely and finds fertile ground here in America where comparisons to Rome are often made. I have often had a fascination with that ancient city and have had the great fortune to visit it. I hope to see it again. It still retains its glory and speaks to both the modern world and all the history one imagines. One aspect of that modernity is a high number of McDonald’s. Though the menus add a few extra items (slightly different chocolate shakes) the fast food establishment is much as you’ve known it.
Greenwood has one McDonald’s and has recently constructed another a quarter mile from my school. The town has a population of about 15,000 and draws in many people from the surrounding small towns during the lunch hour. Since it’s been built the drive-thru is always full. When I’ve needed coffee, or a sausage biscuit pick me up, I’ve gotten in that line and happily given my money away. Secreting the greasy items back to my classroom or car and devouring them with a mix of shame and elation.
The construction workers broke ground on the new McDonald’s right when school started. The site stands right where I make my second to last turn before arriving at school giving me an easy monitoring of its progress. At the end of the fourth week of school, the building exterior was done, the new sidewalk finished, the parking lot started and electrical had begun in the interior.
 In contrast, Amanda Elzy High School has a leaky roof affecting several classrooms and the main office hallway where parents arrive and staff members use the punch clock. This hallway is often dotted with buckets that collect water and act as a kind of morning slalom for arriving teachers, janitorial staff and cafeteria workers. I don’t bring this up for pity points, but the contrast is alarming. Down the street a restaurant, that most of the world agrees damages our health, is rapidly undergoing development  six miles away from the McDonald’s that was newly built two years ago. If I were to raise this point at home while the coffee brewed and my family gathered around the kitchen table to engage in our traditional debate my brother-in-law would raise the point: Isn’t that how capitalism is supposed to work? I wouldn’t be able to argue, but I would, and will now, on principal.
McDonald’s is a for profit institution that has high demand product. A school is a free public service that most if pressed to provide a descriptor would use the words “sucks.”  If a school gains any income it is through fundraising, concessions at sporting events or the sale of items to the student body. A McDonald’s can introduce a variation on a hamburger or ribs and have people waiting in line to give them their money.
All the same we have a potentially noble institution that few enjoy and damaging one that people gladly support or snobbishly shun. What matters is that my school continues deteriorate and the McDonald’s will be built and if ever damaged would be remodeled in the time it takes to make fifteen batches of fries. The school has since been repaired. Well, the most egregious hallway has been repaired over a period of 19 weeks.
The reality is that the only major businesses near the school are the cotton processing plant, several gas stations, a country club and now a McDonald’s. The students I teach challenge me, but many possess a talent that far overreaches what surrounds their school or is offered in their town.  
I feel it’s best summarized  by the MC of Gang Starr Guru in “Code of the Streets,” “I can’t work at no fast-food joint/ I got some talent, so don’t you get my point?” McDonald’s is where many people will be employed and that is positive, but its arrival comes at some larger expense in the name of immediate gratification. If the titan of McDonald’s fell I would feel much more comfortable waxing nostalgic about it instead of watching it gain a foothold near the place where I teach.