This Morning

This morning, I am done with grades. This morning is the last of my school year.

This morning I received notification that California has approved my application for a teaching license. This doesn’t change my immediate plans, I will still be staying in Tucson for the next academic year; but it gives us more options for the year after that. It also shows, I think, that my sordid past is now behind me, because if even the champion nanny state approved me, I don’t think anyone will say nay because I was mean on a blog almost ten years ago.

More importantly, this morning is the last of my wife’s career as a teacher. She returns now to doing what she always should have been doing: making art full time. She has been a wonderful teacher, who has helped many students to improve their skills, gain confidence and interest in art, and especially to see the world in a different way; she will be sorely missed at school. But this is the best thing for her, and this is what is right: because look. Just look.

 

 

 

So congratulations, Toni. You have more than earned this. I am so proud of you for what you have done as a teacher, and I’m even more proud that you are walking away from it to dedicate yourself to art. You amaze me every day.

Especially this morning.

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This Last Morning

This morning I’m thinking about endings, about finales.

Oh right, I hear some TV show ended last night, didn’t it? Sure hope that lived up to everyone’s expectations.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about this morning.

This morning I turned off my alarm clock for what may be the last time for the next two and a half months. That is a lovely thought.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about this morning.

This morning I am thinking about my friends who are leaving my school. Because today is their last day of teaching.

My friend Veronica, who came to Tucson and to this school from out of state, and was thrown right into the deep end, teaching high school students who have, many of them, gone to the same charter school for five, ten, or even twelve or more years (We had a graduate last year who went to pre-school with this charter, so, fourteen years in one school. It’s like Little House on the Prairie or something.), and who were used to their friends and their teachers, and who DON’T LIKE CHANGE. Then a year later, and for no valid reason, she was switched entirely to middle school students — who are, of course, demons. Turns out, Veronica is a splendid demon wrangler, and she spent the next two years lashing them into submission, mostly with her height, which is remarkable; her voice, which can be both piercing and booming as she wishes; and her humor, which is far more biting than her students knew.

But I knew, and that’s what I’ll miss: her humor. The evil little chuckle, the manic smile, the way she says “YEAH!” when I make some joke about making students suffer. I’ll miss the dedication and effort she put into helping children, too.

My friend Kellie had a similar experience with coming from out of state to teach high school and then ending up with middle school, except Kellie’s was even faster: she never even got to teach high school. And it’s an absolute crime, because she is exactly what a high school teacher should be: she has deep knowledge of and love for her subject; she’s cool and relaxed; she can relate to teenagers and speak to them like human beings. The school found a great science teacher — and then they threw her into the demon pit of middle school, where she suffered all year, without support, without any consideration for her needs or wishes. Since she had taught before, she knew exactly what she was missing, and she is leaving this school to go where she belongs: to a high school.

I’m going to miss her humor, her style, her passion for science, and her companionship. It’s been great to have her on my end of the hall, and it’s going to be far less interesting next year without her.

Adriana, my fellow English teacher, came in specifically to teach middle school, because clearly she’s insane. But what’s really insane is this: she taught them. She taught the hell out of them. She took students who were absolute hellions, and she not only controlled them, not only taught them to follow her rules and expectations — she taught them English. Whoever ends up teaching those kids when they get to high school is going to have a far easier time, with far more capable students; and it will be because of Adriana. I am personally grateful to her because her willingness to teach those tiny hyperactive, hypersonic imps meant that I didn’t have to do it: she spent three years jumping on grenades for me, and I can’t thank her enough.

I’m going to miss having her in the department, having her in meetings, hearing her infectious laugh, and knowing that the students were being mashed into some kind of shape by her incredible efforts. She’s been an inspiration to me, and I’m grateful for it.

The last one is both the hardest and the easiest to deal with: because it’s my wife, Toni DeBiasi. She’s been in the classroom next to me for the last three years, which has made them the best and most enjoyable three years of my two decades in teaching. She’s been utterly incredible: she came in with not much experience teaching, certainly nothing like multiple classes for an entire year, and she mastered it, entirely and completely. She’s so smart, and so capable, that she has been able to build a successful fine art program, in a STEM school, while also becoming a vital emotional and mental support for her students, who love her almost as much as I do. She came in to an empty room, almost — except it wasn’t, it was chock full of crap — because the previous teacher took out all of her teaching materials and lesson plans, and left Toni with a small, cramped room filled with shelves, filled with old paint and old paper, old clay and ceramics, old tools and materials that she had no idea what to do with. It took months to clean it all out, even while she was trying desperately to come up with material to teach her five classes, covering every ability level from elementary to college. May I also note, since I saw it first hand (Though I’m sure that the other three did the same in their own lives), that she managed to help me keep our household together and running, if not smoothly, at least consistently.

I’ll miss her at school, but at least I have the consolation of coming home to her every day.

 

I want this post to be more about recognition than making a point, but there is a very clear point here: all four of these women are excellent teachers, and all four of them are leaving the school within three years of being hired. That’s an issue. All four of them taught middle school, and for three of them, that’s the main reason they’re leaving (Veronica can’t stand the Tucson climate, which is also fully understandable.); that and the near-complete abandonment of them all by the institution. This is a problem that needs to be dealt with, or it will only get worse. Though all of them have gotten support from fellow teachers, friends, and loved ones, still, the school has not been able to give them what they need, and so the school has lost them — but the loss will be felt most keenly by the students. And by me and the rest of the faculty, of course, because these four women are lively and fun and intelligent and splendid to be around, and we’ll miss their spirit.

I will also note that three of the four are leaving teaching, two — Adriana and my wife, Toni — leaving forever. This is, again, a problem that needs to be dealt with, and it is a problem for this entire country. Twenty years ago, nearly, I wrote an essay about being a teacher, and in it I pointed out that the lack of structure and support, and the lack of respect and interest from students, was the main reason (along with money, of course) that 40% of teachers left the profession in the first two to five years. That has not gotten better: if the trend at my school is any indication, it’s gotten worse.  We need to fix it before we lose everything.

But any fix will be too late to save this loss.

Thank you all for your friendship, and for your wonderful gift of teaching. I appreciate you all, and I will miss you all in the hallway.  May the best of your past be the worst of your future, and may the road ever rise up to meet your feet.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about work.

Not just my work, which, frankly, I wish I wasn’t thinking about; there is only one day left of regular classes, followed by three days of finals — except I’ve already given all of my finals, so that’s three days of nothing — and then the school year is over. My students stopped thinking about school weeks ago if not earlier; I wish I could follow their example. Ah, well, I’m sure after this coming week I will stop waking up at 4am and thinking about school.

Until the next school year starts, that is.

This morning, though I am also thinking about work in general: why we do it, why we consider it a person’s defining characteristic, and why we hallow it. And why my students have such a love-hate relationship with it.

So why do we work? To some extent, of course, work is necessary for survival; life is a struggle, with too much life vying for not enough resources; there’s not another way that life works on this particular planet, that is just, as they say, how it be. When we were primates in trees, and actual predators and prey, we had to work to get food and to avoid becoming food. When we became  hunter-gatherers, it was the same; and we added work required to build a society, starting with a family or a pack and building up to a tribe, a clan, and then, with the discovery of agriculture and animal husbandry, a village and a town and a country. Now there’s all that added work to prepare the area for habitation, and then to protect it from those who are still working in the predator-prey field. And, basically, we still do that: we work to survive, and we work to maintain and protect what we have.

The question is, what we have, and what the threat to it is, and whether it really needs this much work to keep it.

We work for more than mere survival. We work to get more than the minimum: we work for personal gain. I don’t just want enough food to keep from starving, I want enough food to be satisfied, to be fat and happy; and I want the right kinds of food. Not just all the squirrels I can catch: I want donuts. And Cheez-Its. And good coffee. And also, I don’t want to eat squirrels. But now  we enter into the realm of abundance: because frankly, if there are limited resources and we are competing for them, and there are people working to survive while I am working merely for Cheez-Its and good coffee, then the survival workers are likely to win, because they want it more and they will work harder. Of course, there are people working to survive in this world while I work for Cheez-Its (And I feel like an absolute heel saying that, but it’s true, so thank you for reading the work of a heel), but we have localized abundance, and localized limited resources; and we have lots of people working hard to make sure that the people with limited resources can’t take my Cheez-Its.

So now we have working for survival, and working for personal gain and abundance. (We also have people working to protect my abundance, but they generally do that work for the same reason I do mine: they just have a different job. Inasmuch as they work to promote and preserve a culture, I’ll get to them in a sec.) I’m struggling to find a way that my working for Cheez-Its is positive, in the face of the fact that people are starving and working for food. I mean, I can’t fix the famine in Yemen, not even if I give up Cheez-Its (I’m not trying to be flip here, but if I changed to something less shallow than Cheez-Its as my example, it wouldn’t change the fact that I am working for abundance while Yemenis starve to death.); but in the grand scheme of things, there can’t be a moral good in working for abundance in a world with people who lack what they need to survive.

But there are still other reasons why we work. Take the one I just left alone: working to protect and promote a culture. People who do that often work without a tangible reward, which means they aren’t working for survival nor for personal gain. Why do they do it, then?

Take the attempts to reshape the national culture. Fundamentalist Christians are trying to re-brand America as a Christian nation. But we are not a Christian nation, not explicitly nor implicitly, not historically nor ideally; so this means, essentially, that Christians are trying to take the nation we have and turn it into their nation. Why? What would they gain from it?  Clearly not survival and not abundance; there is no money in protesting abortion. (There’s plenty in being a politician or a PAC that promotes abortion restrictions, but I’m not talking about them; I’m talking about the people who march with signs, and yell at people outside Planned Parenthood, and write opinion letters and online arguments about abortion and gay marriage.) Do they work to gain a place in Heaven? No, that’s guaranteed to them based on their own good life and good faith. The salvation of other American souls? That also is based on Americans accepting the Christian faith, and unless you think banning abortion and gay marriage will make people see the light of God in church every Sunday, then the attempts to achieve those political goals doesn’t make sense for their faith.

“Because it’s the right thing to do” seems to be the answer that makes the most sense (Unless we accept the notion that socially conservative movements are aimed at the eventual goal of subjugation of the masses for the elevation of conservative Christians. Then it’s more taking of something that isn’t theirs: power. And there’s a different idea of why we work.). Not that I think banning abortion and gay marriage are the right thing to do, but lots and lots of religious people, particularly devout Christians, do think so, and they’re the ones putting in the work to take these institutions (Is that the word for pregnant women in the aggregate? Marriage is an institution; is pregnancy? Motherhood? Womanhood?) under their control. So here’s another reason why we do work: not for survival, and not for personal gain: for morality. And maybe for control, for power.

Working for power doesn’t make sense. Power is, essentially, the ability to gain something without having to work for it. If I have power over my slaves, say, then I can order them to make me a cup of coffee, and I get the coffee without having to make it myself; presumably I also force my slaves to do work that will bring in enough money to buy the coffee. I’m buying myself a life of leisure, a work-free existence. So if I have to work to gain that power, so that I can use the power to stop working, then it’s a wash. The only thing that makes it make any sense is if I can gain power disproportionate to the work I put in, so I work less hard to keep my slaves subjugated than my slaves work to keep me in coffee and Cheez-its. It would make sense if I put in work at the outset in order to stop working after I gain the power I seek; but that requires a kind of power that remains even when I stop working to maintain it, and there aren’t a lot of powers like that. Most power leaves as soon as you stop working to keep it.

So then the people who work for power aren’t looking only for power: they want to wield that power to some other purpose. It makes  sense if this comes back to morality. People who work to gain power over others, so they can force those others to act the way the powerful one wants them to act, because the powerful one thinks that’s the right thing to do: okay. That’s just working for morality at one remove. You could also work for power in order to use that power to gain greater abundance and personal wealth; though at some point the abundance becomes more than you could ever need — Bill Gates, the Waltons, especially Warren Buffett (who is 88 years old), will never be able to spend all of their money. That becomes a circle: work for power, to gain wealth, to gain more power, to — ? Presumably work for moral goals, as the Koch brothers have, as Sheldon Adelson and George Soros do.

Have I missed anything? Is there any other reason we work? Oh, wait, of course: we work for the benefit of other people. I work so I can give my wife food, so I can buy chewtoys for my dogs, so I can afford a house with a fenced yard for my tortoise to live in. (I give my wife more than food, and I do also give food to my pets. Just so we’re clear.) On some level I do these things for selfish reasons, for survival or my own luxury, because I like when my wife takes care of me and when my dogs treat me like a wonderful person — often immediately after I feed them; but I also do work for other people who do not benefit me directly. (I know that many people who fight to end abortion feel they are doing the same thing. Allow me to disagree. I do not think that anyone arguing against gay marriage is sincerely doing that for the sake of other people: it is a moral conviction they hold, and nothing more.)

And here’s where we come to my students. I work hard for them. Not for my survival; believe me when I say I could do a tenth of the work that I currently do and keep my current position, and therefore keep my salary; actually, if I arranged it well, and focused my minimal efforts on prepping my students for tests, I could potentially make more than I do now, because my school has merit pay for test scores, which I consistently ignore in favor of working hard to teach my students. I don’t work hard for personal gain: I don’t get anything tangible from students except the occasional gift of coffee or baked goods. I got a $25 gift card for Starbucks yesterday, but I make $25 an hour or so, and I’ve spend far more than an hour on the student who gave me the gift. (Please know, especially if it’s you who gave me the card reading this, that your gift was much appreciated: far more than my salary.) It’s the same problem as working for power: if I work so I can get gifts that save me work, it’s a wash. In my case, considering the amount of work and the value of my gifts, it’s worse than a wash, it’s a waste.

To some extent I work hard as a teacher for a moral purpose: I believe that education is valuable, and that literature and reading and writing are both valuable and wonderful, and I want to promote those ideas; my efforts contribute to that, I think. But not enough: because for all of my effort and all of my passion, my students do not generally become readers. Maybe they gain some respect for literature and for reading and writing, but they aren’t converted to my beliefs. The other reason I work hard is for their benefit: my students often don’t read well, and rarely write well; I think their lives — not my life, and not necessarily the country or the world as a whole — would be better if they could read and write more clearly, more purposefully, more powerfully. So I try to help them. For their sakes.

The biggest hurdle I face in that effort is, naturally, my students themselves (Also the educational establishment, which would really prefer it if I taught to the test and the skills and standards they have determined to be more important than literature; but that’s their moral purpose for work, not mine, and I haven’t been converted to their views. So, no.). Because the only way my students improve is if they work.

And why would my students want to work?

Not for survival; I hate to think that any of them would be denied food or water or shelter because they didn’t do well in school. I’m sure it happens sometimes, but I would turn that parent in for abuse and neglect, not praise them for motivating their child to learn. Not for luxury or personal gain, not exactly; some of them get money or presents with good grades, but that’s rare at the high school level, and only has influence around grade time: when it’s September and they feel like sleeping in, the awareness that they’ll get paid for every A come January does not get them out of bed to study for that test. The same for the overarching motivation we try to use on them in this country: work hard in school, then go to college (Where you’ll work harder, and buy yourself a mountain of debt which means you’ll have to work EVEN HARDER when you’re out of school) so that you can get a high-paying job. THEN you can work for abundance and personal gain.

You know what? That’s too much work, for not enough reward. The reward is much too distant, and too fraught; because  we all have stories about people who work hard and are miserable, and we share those stories with students. Students see their parents working too hard to earn money, and they are capable of recognizing that their parents may love the work they do, but that doesn’t make it worth the hard effort they put into it. I myself am not a good example to become a teacher: they all know how hard I work for them, and how little reward I get for it. Why would they work hard now, to work harder in college, to work harder as a teacher?

Even my students aren’t that dumb.

Maybe we should rethink this system.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about appreciation.

Yesterday I tried to recognize the teachers and educators I have worked with (And I still forgot a few — so thank you, Mary Wells, for all that you do, and thank you, Nora Caragan, for being the best paraprofessional in the history of paraprofessionals), and I got a grateful and heartwarming response. Teachers loved hearing what I had to say.

But there’s a problem there: I had to say it.

One of the things I object to, even though I participate in, is the support network that teachers provide for each other. It is a staggeringly wonderful thing: these people, who are already working so hard, and who are already giving so much, turn and without hesitation give even more to each other. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it: teachers go into each others’ rooms all the time, and frequently the visitor comes in mad or frustrated or down — until they see the face of the person they are visiting, and see that that person is feeling even worse. Suddenly, whatever the teacher came in to complain about or vent or even ask for help with is gone: frustration vanishes in concern, and the visitor says, “What’s wrong?” Prepared, in an instant, to take more burdens onto shoulders already weighed down with overwork and the emotional strain of seeing up close and personal the struggles and sufferings of children (And also with the strain of struggling through the suffering caused by children — and the worst is that it is often the same children, that those who are neediest and most desperate are the most obnoxious people we see. Which is saying something.), not because we don’t need help any more, but simply because a friend, a fellow teacher, needs help more, or even just needs help too: and so we help.

It’s amazing and inspiring. I will say, without any humility, that I participate in this, that I support my fellow teachers at all times and in whatever way they may need, and that I rarely ask for help myself because  I don’t want to trouble them.  I’ve even seen this go too far, when I was part of my union’s negotiating team and we were  fighting for better compensation and working conditions; trying to get teachers to actually stop working, to stop sacrificing, to start asking for something for themselves — and not luxuries, but a living wage and necessary health care and the like —  was nearly impossible. They wanted to give up whatever they had to give up in order to make everyone else happy. The magnificent bastards.

But here’s the thing: we shouldn’t have to do that. Of all the people who should be sacrificing in order to keep teachers sane and healthy, IT SHOULD NOT BE TEACHERS WHO DO IT. That makes no sense. It defeats the purpose. We not only put on someone else’s oxygen mask first, we take ours off and strap it on top of that person’s own oxygen mask just so they can be twice as safe while they watch us suffocate.

If it’s not clear already, this drives me nuts, that teachers do this. I don’t like that I do it, either, but it is without doubt who we are as people, and what the culture of teachers encourages in us. This is why we spend our own goddamn money on school supplies for our students, despite how little we are paid. And perhaps the worst part, though this is not the place to get into this, is that we are therefore propping up a system that is in many ways a terrible system: not terrible for us, though it is that, but terrible for the students, and terrible for the country. Yesterday I bought donuts for all of my students taking the AP Literature test. I encouraged and helped students to “succeed” on a high-stakes test run by a private corporation with disproportionate influence on college admissions. I structure the whole class around that damn test: a test I should be opposing with every fiber of my being. But I bought them donuts.

So here’y my request, for those who want to appreciate teachers — REALLY appreciate us, not simply nod in our direction while we lie bruised and bleeding in a ditch. (I know, it’s hyperbolic, but it’s also the end of the year, and it feels like that. I feel bruised. I feel sick because I haven’t been sleeping, and I feel sore because my body has been too tense for too long: my shoulders honestly ache right now.) Ready?

Make it so we don’t have to hold each other up.

Give us enough support, and take away enough of our burden of responsibility, that a single person can do a teacher’s job alone, or at least can handle the pressure alone.

Specifically, that means essentially three things: money, time, and trust. In the first years of a teacher’s career, there is a fourth, which is: help.

I don’t want as much money as I want, if I can be permitted that sentence. I want as much money as is needed so that I don’t have to worry about it. That’s all. I’ve been a teacher for twenty years, and I still don’t earn enough to own a home, and I don’t have any retirement savings, and I still have debt that I haven’t been able to get rid of.  I want to make enough money to take care of those problems. I don’t need enough to pay for vacations or jet skis or that diamond-encrusted pirate hat I’ve had my eye on; just enough so that I don’t have to suffer from money stress. I want to be middle class. I aspire to the bourgeoisie.

I want enough time in my school day to get my work done in my school day. I don’t mind planning lessons from home; it’s kind of fun sometimes. But I don’t want to have to spend one more weekend grading, not one more evening filling out paperwork. I already work 40 hours a week at school; why is it that I am expected and required to add another 10-20 hours on top of that, every week? It’s because I have too many students, and too many requirements for teaching those students. Too many things I have to cover, too many things I have to compensate for, and too many people I need to report to and satisfy in order to show that I did my job. You know what should be the only evidence needed that I did my job? That my student can read a book, write an essay, discuss a poem. That’s it. Don’t ask me to prove that I did my job: ask the kid. See what he can do. And ask him, honestly, if I helped him do that. Make it his responsibility to prove that I did my job. He is the product, after all. (Please note: this is not a serious suggestion for assessment of teachers. Students shouldn’t have to have that burden either, and too many of them are not reliable witnesses nor reliable learners. All I’m saying is that I don’t want to do it, to prove to all and sundry that I did my own job.)

And anyone who thought “But you get summers off!” just know: I am currently mentally punching you in the brain. Hard. Kicking, too.

The last thing I need is trust. I have proven that I am a good teacher. I’ve won awards, I’ve won accolades, I don’t have anyone who disagrees with that basic premise: not students, not students’ families, not other educators. Of course not everyone likes me or likes my class: but I don’t believe there’s a single person who could genuinely say that I teach badly. So please, I beg you. BACK OFF AND LET ME TEACH. Don’t try to improve my curriculum for me, or my methods. If you’ve got suggestions, I’ll listen, of course; but don’t tell me what to do, especially if you’re not versed in my subject or my profession. Stop assessing me: my driver’s license is valid for 25 MORE YEARS: and that’s based on a single test I took more than 20 years ago. Yet my teaching license expires every three to six years, and requires hundreds of hours spent on learning to be a better teacher. I get observed every year, often twice a year, and have multi-page evaluations, every year. How much proof do you need that I can do this job? The answer is that there will never be enough proof that I can do it, because I will never be trusted to do it. That has nothing to do with me and everything to do with our culture and our system, but I don’t care why it is that way: I just want it to stop.

I already care about my profession, and about my students, and about my subject. I care about my fellow teachers and educators. Please, stop making me also care about and for myself: let someone else do it. Give me some real appreciation.

And don’t let it come from other teachers.

This Morning

This morning I am thinking about teachers.

It’s teacher appreciation week. That doesn’t always mean a lot, but the only way to make it more meaningful is to actually fill it with meaning. So here goes.

Thank you. Thank you to all the teachers who have worked with me over the years. Thank you to everyone who has been an inspiration, who has been a help, who has stood beside me and fought back against the rising tide of ignorance.

Thank you to Molly Jonnum, Deanna Martin, and Robin Mills for mentoring me as a student teacher. You let some random jackass come into your experimental new course that you’d been planning and fighting for for years, and you taught me everything teacher preparation classes couldn’t. I wouldn’t be a teacher today without you.

Thank you to everyone at San Pasqual, my first job. Carol Byrnes, for taking me in and giving me advice and friendship. Kelly Devine Grigsby, for being the teacher I wanted to be, and for being my friend at the same time. Linda Schott, for working with the hardest students and never losing your sense of humor. Laura Whitten for being the perfect mentor and friend. Cindy Finn for struggling right alongside me. Renee Sherry-Farrell for being the ultimate math teacher, and Marc Salazar for being an awesome social studies teacher. Art, Trish, and George for being the best supervisors and APs I’ve ever had, and Steve Spraker for being one of the best principals. And the guys in the band for letting me play with you —  that was one of my favorite experiences. Thank you to all of you for your neverending patience and kindness, for your intelligence and your experience, and your ability to translate what you know into something that others can learn. You’re all amazing.

Thank you to — well, most people at St. Helens High School. (Maybe not the ones who tried to take my license away. Or the one who was arrested last year.) A thousand thank yous to my PLO cohort, Tonya Arnold, Carrie McCallum, LaDonna Joy, David Schmor, Gerry Tinkle, Martha Sipe, and Ron Barnett, for everything you shared with me and showed to me and talked through with me. You were the reason I made it through ten very difficult years. You do the same for your students. Thank you. Thank you to LK for being the coolest person in the building, to Brian Dickerson for being one of the most dedicated and honorable and optimistic, to Amber Horn for having the biggest heart. Thank you to Keith Meeuwsen for always fighting. Thank you to Tamera Wahl, and Bill Dale, and Sib Owens, and all the other teachers whose names I can’t remember offhand, for being the best SPED department (along with LaDonna) that I’ve known, by far. Thank you to Mike Herdrich for being an entire damn school all by yourself, and the same to Pat Brame, and also for being an artist. Thank you to Jaime  Meadows and Jean Simmons for being the librarians and for doing everything good librarians should do, despite all the crap that got heaped on you by people who don’t understand that librarians are solid gold. Thank you to Diana Peterson and Lorraine Coopersmith and Denise Bennett — and Ruth at SP — for being the secretaries and functionaries who actually run the school, and thank you to Ted and Andy and especially BG for being excellent administrators in a sea of bad ones. Thank you to Alex Reed for being the best neighbor ever, even though I was the only one who thought that. Thank you to John Prunty for beards and music and laughs, and for looking exactly like Socrates. Thank you to all the teachers I knew and talked with and liked but did not name here — including Jessica Porter and Linda D’Amario and Alexia Hamilton and John Lessard and Cory Young and Todd Smith and Mary Downey and Kelli Curtis and — honestly I don’t remember everyone’s name, but I remember you, and I am grateful to you for the work you do.

Thank you to Tom Fuller for teaching me.

Last but not least, thank you to all of the excellent teachers at my current school here in Arizona: thank you especially to the brilliant and wonderful Lisa Watson, for everything that you do and everything that you give, and for everything that you are not appreciated for: I see you, I appreciate you. Thank you to Scott Ayers for being so damn delightful, and to Marty Sade for being so damn cantankerous, and to both of you for your brilliance and your dedication. Thank you to Danielle Randall for being so incredibly practical and capable, and also so much damn fun. Thank you to Toni Ramos-Hickman for being everyone’s mom, and for sharing coffee with me. Thank you to Jim Collins for teaching math without being evil yourself, and for reading every day. Thank you to Amanda Hanson for being the Platonic ideal of a teacher. Thank you to Adriana and Veronica, and Kellie, for fighting through the first years and being excellent teachers despite all the terrible nonsense you had to confront. Thank you to Mustafa Kilcak and Aichu Zhalilova for being so cool and so kind. Thank you to Helena Boosamra-Ball for being so — everything — and for loving dinosaurs and trivia. Thank you to Melisa and Scott Cole, Diana Benson, and Barbara Kahn for doing good work, and then getting out when the getting was good. Thank you to Mimi Akcay for being an excellent counselor, and to Carol McCluer and especially Dana McGirr for running the office. Thank you to Mustafa Alkhazov, and to Tim Luttrell in St. Helens, for being the angels of the school — and also for being the kindest men, and good fathers, and for working despite terrible health crises, both of you. I don’t know how the hell you do what you do, but I am forever grateful. Thank you to Florencia Ruiz for being the linchpin that held the admin together and made the school a hundred times better by your presence and professionalism.

And thank you especially, forever, with all of my heart, to my wife: who taught me everything that has made me what I am, who taught me everything I know about being an adult, and being an artist, and being in love and being married. Thank you for being so incredible in every possible way — and, as if you weren’t already perfect, for coming to teach beside me every day for the last three years, for being an inspiration, for being an amazing teacher even though you didn’t have the experience or training. Nothing stops you. You are a wonder. I love you. Thank you.

Thank you to everyone I missed. Thank you to everyone who teaches.

This Morning

This morning I’m thinking about being sick.

I have a cold. Came down with it Friday, and spent my weekend not feeling very well. Fortunately it’s not severe enough to really limit me: I still walked my dogs, ran errands, looked for new rental houses, read books, and even graded a half-dozen rough drafts. But the whole time, doing all of those things, I felt pretty crappy. Friday at work was the worst: I could barely get myself to teach anything at all, some periods, and others I was more cranky than teacher-y. (I can’t even think of a better word than teacher-y. More pissy than pedagogical, how’s that?) Now it’s time to go back to work, and I still feel under the weather.

It’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? Under the weather? Aren’t we always under the weather? I assume it’s supposed to mean directly under the weather, meaning out in the storm without a roof to keep off the rain or walls to block the wind; that would be pretty miserable, all right, which seems apropos.

Regardless, though, I do not feel like working. The fact that I was sick this weekend already put me behind, both in my grading — I got a half-dozen rough drafts done, but I should have finished all of them, and maybe done the other class’s essays, too — and in my relaxing, because while I did nap several times a day, I never felt a whole lot better. At least, I don’t feel a whole lot recovered now.

This is one of the problems with teaching, too. We get more sick days than most professionals, I think — that is, other than the ones who are simply trusted to make up their own minds about when they can and cannot come in to work, and they are considered responsible adults who can get their work done even if they don’t actually show up every day, you know, like professionals — but we can’t just call in sick: we need to arrange for a substitute. This school the administration actually gets the sub, which is an improvement over my last school, where the teachers did it themselves: yet another example of something teachers are all too willing to take on themselves because we want to help, and because we want every petty shred of control, including, apparently, the ability to select who we give control to when we can’t have it ourselves. But in any case, I have to plan lessons for my classes. It’s both easy and hard for me: because I can always give them something to read  — but nobody can run my class the way that I can. Other people could surely run a discussion, but you have to really know the literature to run it the way I do, and subs would not, of course. So every day I’m out is basically wasted, because it can only be something extra, never the thing the class would be doing if I were there. My students realize this, of course, and so they are not as dedicated or as involved as they would be with me there. That’s not to say they’re all that dedicated or involved regardless; they are teenagers and it is almost May.

That’s the worst thing. It’s almost May. My school starts its year ungodly early — August 1, usually — which is a hideous ordeal in August; but it means we finish school in May, before Memorial Day. I only have three weeks left before finals. My students, as you may expect, are done already; the only thing keeping them going is my will to keep dragging them behind me. That and a certain amount of fear of bad grades. (But the smarter ones realize that as the semester nears the end, grade inertia sets in: because new assignments are just added to the pile, and so no specific assignment will change the overall grade very much. When the total points in the class is, say, 100, then a 50 point assignment means everything; but three months later, when the total points are 5000, 50 points is kinda nothing. Shhh — don’t tell the rest of them.) So the point is, the temptation for me, not feeling well, cranky, and behind on my grading anyway, to just throw up my hands and say, “That’s it, we’re done: somebody put on YouTube and get out the Uno deck,” grows daily. And my students would like nothing more.

But I can’t complain too much. Because my wife — God, my poor wife — has all of these same problems: only worse. She got sick too: with the flu. Knocked her down for three full days two weeks ago. And then, because the flu made her cough nonstop the whole time, it gave her laryngitis: she basically coughed her voice out. She went back to work last week barely able to whisper. Spent the whole week coughing and wheezing and suffering. And now it’s pollen season, and her allergies are kicking in: so she feels almost as miserable now as when she had the flu.

On top of that, when this school year ends, she’s done. She’s quitting, to go back to doing art full time (and not a minute too soon). So think of how eager she is for these three weeks to pass. And when it comes to subs, she not only can’t get a sub who can do what she does, because no sub understands drawing and painting like she does, but also her students don’t really care about her class, because they see it as some elective they have to get through to graduate and nothing more, a problem only exacerbated by our school’s focus on STEM. There are exceptions, of course, but most of her students are pretty indifferent to art. So they’re even less likely to work for a sub, or for my wife; and they are that much harder to drag behind her towards the finish line.

And by the way: where do you think we both caught these diseases? That’s right, from the little germ factories that surround us every day. It’s like being in the trenches while they’re chucking biological weapons in at us. For three more weeks. Three long, tiring, sickly weeks. I expect they’ll be three of the longest weeks in my wife’s life.

That’s what really makes me sick. That I can’t make these last three weeks go faster for her.

If any of you could do something about that, I’d really appreciate it. Thanks.

This Morning

This morning, I am thinking about teenaged boys. I am thinking about why teenaged boys suck.

Why do I say they suck? Because teenaged boys are, almost without exception, annoying, obnoxious, lazy, cruel, abusive, self-centered, vicious, snide, concupiscent fools (Sorry, but I love that word and never get to use it;  means “horny.”) who would be better off locked in a box for about ten years and only let out when they stop being bastards.

Who am I to say these terrible things  about teenaged boys? Easy. I was one. And I was as much a bastard as any of them, and worse than most, because in addition to being a savage amoral wastrel, I was smart, and so my cruelty was particularly biting, and my foolishness was particularly poignant, because I could have been so much better than I was.

Fortunately, I survived it; too many teenaged boys don’t, because they team up with other spear-wielding thugs to kill the pig,  and end up being the pig. Once I got out of being a teenager, and realized just how terrible I had been for all that time, I mellowed: I got better. Most of us do. But I don’t think that all of us gain much from our experience other than regret; I’d like to use my knowledge of teenaged boys — knowledge that has since been reinforced by observation in my years working with teenaged boys — to try to make the situation better. See, I don’t think teenaged boys have to be this way. I think they are put into a position where being this way seems the best option, if not the only one. Left to their own devices, teenaged boys would still be obnoxious — all teenagers are — but not a tenth as bad as they are now.

First let me deal with that last dig at all teenagers. No, actually, first let me say that I genuinely like most of my students. There are a few who are really pretty rotten, but even those grow out of it in time. Most of them I get along with quite well. But that’s because I am a teacher, and I can get them in trouble; they are on their best behavior with me. But then I watch them interact with each other, and I remember how nasty we all are at that age. It’s that contrast, between how they treat me respectfully and kindly, and how they treat each other, with the basest and most flippant brutality, that makes me want to try to make them better, all the time, particularly to each other. Okay? This blog, regardless of the apparent bitter hyperbole (Bitter, it is; hyperbolic, it ain’t. If you think it is, watch a group of teenaged boys going to lunch together. Watch them pick out the weakest of the pack, and pick on him, relentlessly, mercilessly. Even if — especially if– all of them are friends. Friends make the best victims. I can attest to that.) is not born out of hate. I don’t hate teenaged boys, and I don’t hate my students. I know how much better they could be, and I am maddened and saddened that they aren’t like that.

Next thing: why do I say that all teenagers are obnoxious? Two reasons: one, because the teenaged years are hell internally, with the ravages of adolescence and the psychic pummeling of hormones. Everything sucks when you’re a teenager, and so you suck, too, because when in Rome… The second reason why all teenagers suck is because they are all in this impossible position where we start expecting them to act like adults, but we give them literally none of the pleasures and privileges that make adulting worth the effort it takes. Seriously: what makes it worthwhile for me to act like a grownup? I get respect; I get independence; I get freedom. I can have my own family, my own job, my own property. I can be in charge of my own life. And teenagers get none of that. The closest they come is being able to choose romantic partners — but often those choices get  refused by parents, or mocked by peers, or rejected by the would-be romantic partners themselves — and cars. Teenagers get cars. In exchange for having to drive everywhere their parents don’t want to, which at this point is everywhere. (Don’t even talk to me about how they don’t have to work and pay bills: many of them do work, and that work is in addition to their actual full-time job, which is being a student, and as one of the people who make that job hard because I make them do work, believe me when I say BEING A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT IS NOT EASIER THAN HAVING A JOB.) And while we put all the responsibility we can onto teenagers, we don’t ever talk about that weight, that stress they have to carry; instead we talk about how lucky they are that they don’t have to deal with all the terrible things that adults  deal with. How is that supposed to make teenagers feel? They’re already suffering, and we run them this, “Just wait until you’re older, when things will REALLY suck!” Wow, thanks, Dad, now I’m motivated to try even harder and suffer more now. Because then I’ll get to keep on suffering my way through the rest of my life. Super!

But this isn’t about all teenagers; this is about the boys and the special ways that they suck. And the special reason for the extra suckitude of male adolescent humans is this: it’s competition. That’s right: I’m still on the same topic, just homing in on one particular aspect now. The rise of toxic masculinity. Also known as: Boys Will Be Boys.

We very carefully and meticulously teach all boys that competition is the only way they are allowed to find happiness. Sports, video games, playing Army with their friends; it doesn’t matter what era, what environment a boy grows up in: he is taught to fight, and to revel in victory. Even me, as non-competitive and anti-sports as I was, I was taught to take great pride in the fact that I was smarter than most other people. I was pulled out of class for advanced reading and advanced math; I remember in first grade I wasn’t even pulled out, I was just given access to the more interesting books to read, sitting in the classroom with all of my peers who were struggling with the Dick and Jane style readers while I got to read on my own; and my math workbook had some kind of banner on it reading “ADVANCED” in some large font that could be read all the way across the room, by the kids in the remedial section of the class. Spelling bees, gold stars, student of the month, honor roll; all of these things separate us into winners and losers as readily as do sports. And where girls are taught, at least some of the time, to play cooperatively, using their imagination,  playing dress-up and baking cookies for each other, boys are sent outside to wrestle and break stuff, especially each other.

(*Note: I recognize I’m being grossly stereotypical in this depiction of children’s upbringing, and of course there are exceptions; I had massive quantities of stuffed animals and was encouraged to use my imagination. Lots of girls play sports and are as competitive as any boy could ever be. I’m speaking in generalities. Bear with me.)

Breaking stuff, then, is really all we know how to do. So we get very good at it. We find each other’s vulnerabilities, and we stab at them, again and again. And the rest of society? They laugh, or at most, they say, “Take it outside,” with a strong intimation of “Come back with your shield or on it.” I was taught that story, that ethic, when I was a child. What the hell was I supposed to do with Spartan battle training when I was in elementary school? How was I supposed to think about it? How was I supposed to deal with that moral fable about the Spartan boy stealing food, keeping an animal concealed under his tunic while he is being interrogated by the farmer he is stealing from, until the boy drops dead because the animal has disemboweled him under his tunic, and the Spartan boy showed no sign of the pain. What the hell do I do with that? Do I admire it? Do I try to emulate  it? I do: because my friends will, and so will my enemies, and if I say, “Jesus Christ, that’s insane, that kid should have given up and admitted the thing was under his shirt,” my only reward for that honesty would be a contemptuous sniff and the old standby insult, “Pussy.”  Or something along those lines. I was taught that Spartan story in elementary school, while we were learning about the ancient Greeks. I did not learn how they admired close male bonds, both Platonic and romantic: I learned how Achilles savaged Hector, not that he did it as revenge, because Achilles was maddened with grief over the loss of his lover and companion Patroclus at Hector’s hands. No no, I can’t hear about that love; that’s gay, bro. Tell me more about how Achilles dragged Hector’s body around Troy through the dust of the battlefield. That’s manly as fuck. That’s the guy I want to be.

Did you know that in the Odyssey, Odysseus meets Achilles in Hades? And Achilles says that he regrets his famous choice, to die young and be remembered gloriously? The greatest of all Greek warrior-heroes, and he wishes he had lived a quiet life as a farmer, surrounded by loved ones.

Yeah, they didn’t teach you that story, did they? Or if they did, it wasn’t when you were young and impressionable? Or they didn’t emphasize that story, focusing instead on the slaughter of the Trojans by the Greeks in the wooden horse? Or the slaughter of the suitors when Odysseus finally returns home after twenty years away –and his first act is not to embrace his son or his wife, but rather to kill and kill and kill?

That’s what we teach boys. We teach them to fight and to win. No wonder that they act like everyone is their enemy, and they have to hurt them all, as much as possible: that’s what we want them to do. Teenaged boys suck because we do, and we pass that torch straight into their eager hands. Burning end first.