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.