Sunday, October 19, 2008

Confessions of an American Teacher

I’m tired of saying the right thing.

I've taken too many bullets for the team.

I've been a Pollyanna with my head stuck up my ass… and a visionary that changed kids lives.

I've walked picket lines, exposed evil, compromised my integrity, and given freely with all my soul. I’ve ranted across the desks of more than one superintendent, and rolled over for others. I’ve charmed, trashed, ignored, sympathized with and bull shitted hundreds of parents. I’ve gotten up and faced surly classes and then flipped them into open minded learners. I’ve missed as many teachable moments as I’ve caught. I’ve helped some kids gain 4 years on the reading test and ignored others because they were hopeless punks who pissed me off. I’ve hung around in the computer labs and classrooms of my school weeping with inspiration and happiness for simply being part of a learning environment I’d dreamed of building, and I’ve hated the deep rut of driving back to school every morning to participate in the systematic destruction of joy and trust that small minded inane administrators and school board members call education.

I’ve been an American Teacher for 37 years and I’m sick at heart about public education. I want to tear the system down and let the ferrets run free. I want to teach skepticism and critical thinking and create a generation that will fight for their minds, fight for freedom, but I’m so scarred by tilting at wind mills that I’ve learned to choose my battles. I’m not sure how much fight is left in me.

Sometimes I just want to scream and tell it all. All the good, all the bad, the lunacy and the laughs and everything in between.

Instead, I’ll just blog.

I got my credential in 1974 in-spite of a system that kept trying to talk me out of wasting my life in the classroom. All my neurotic friends in the English Department at Berkeley thought I was nuts.

“You’re too good for teaching. Why waste your talent in a classroom?”

The application committee at the teacher’s college asked me the same thing (after beating me up for misspelling the word professional in my writing sample). “You don’t want to teach. There’s no money in it. You wont’ be able to get a job, there’s too many teachers already.”

But I was stubborn and burned out by the life I’d been leading and looking for direction.

I’d gone up to Canada found a spot deep in the woods and thought about it all. I’d spend a lot of time on mountain tops and in the wild thinking about it all. After awhile talking to fish and sitting on the high ground with a rifle gets old and you’re still left with the questions only you can answer…

It came down to law or education. I could be a lawyer or a teacher.

It came down to making a living working with people at their worst or helping kids learn. I chose teaching and despite 37 years of classroom joy and pain, I don’t regret the choice.

It was Mr. Pinto in the 8th grade that sealed the deal. Mr. Pinto saved my mind from the terror and made me want to be a teacher.

I was 14 year old living in gut grinding terror of getting nuked out of existence. The junior high I attended had me cringing under my desk, conditioned like a rat in a Skinner box by institutionalized drop drills.

Every time I curled up under that pitiful flimsy little wooden desk I could imagine the flash and blast of a hydrogen bomb taking out downtown LA and rolling hell fire over the hills to the San Fernando Valley where I’d be toasted alive.

I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, panicked adults fighting over groceries and the afternoon when everyone thought the button would be pushed.

I remember the sincere horror of thinking the whining air raid sirens were for real.

I remember just wanting to ride my bike home so I could die with my family. Instead I cowered on the floor, weeping, huddled on the dirty linoleum of the overheated classroom, backs to the wall under the windows so the flying glass wouldn’t shred us.

My teacher was crying, she wouldn’t answer when we begged, “Is it real? Is it the bomb?”

Hell the teacher was crying, kids were running through the halls screaming…it had to be real and I was going to die, away from my mom and dad and brother.

After fifteen minutes the moron who was principal got on the P.A to announce it was all just a drill.

I learned a lot that day. I learned that faced with certain death I was too afraid to get up off the floor. Nice lesson.

That’s American education: just curl up in a ball and wait for it… lay on the floor and pray… let’s spend a fortune to train kids this way… children, when it comes to fiery death, STOP! DROP! and wait for it like sheep.

In my day it was the Russians and ICBMs, overkill and nothing left but the cockroaches.

Now it’s a Stalinist Dictator with a nuke or a Jihadi hoping to pack a bomb in a suit case…or an FBI agent dragging out an 8th grader for threatening the president on MySpace… and let’s not forget the twisted 15 year old in a trench coat shooting kids in the head while they lay on the floor and pray.

After the phony air raid, Mr. Pinto gave me a way to deal with my fear.

We were debating nuclear war in his Social Studies class and someone asked him what he’d do if the air raid sirens went off for real. Just thinking about this 50 years later makes my stomach knot. Thinking about Mr. Pinto makes me smile too.

"Kids, if the bomb gets dropped we’re all finished. We’re so close to prime targets.. there’s nothing we can do. I’m not hiding under my desk. I’m getting a six pack of beer, and a folding chair and climbing up on the roof where I can see it all. It will be one hell of a light show…"

We cracked up… “The teacher said hell!”

Nuclear annihilation suddenly seemed funny. Mr. Pinto with a little smidgen of honesty, helped me vent the paranoid steam of the arms race. He gave me a way to confront my fear and begin to stand. His fatalistic and funny advice gave me a game plan.

I was 14 years old. That’s when I started thinking seriously about being a teacher. I could say things that might help people… and get summers off!

Now after decades as a teacher, it seems right that my career choice was founded on visions of Armageddon laced with fatalistic humor.

My years in the classroom have been sublime and mediocre. I love it and I hate it. I’ve gone farther and done more than I ever dreamed and I’m still dissatisfied with what I’ve accomplished.

I've met some of the finest people on the planet and I’ve uncovered power corrupted evil-doers. I’ve fought the good fight and lost.

I've stood up for my principles and been cut off at the knees.

I’m not done. I still want to break on through to the other side. If that means taking another beating… I’m going to punch back.

I’m still standing… maybe I’m standing on stumps, but I’m still upright.

... and I'm still teaching. It's how I breathe.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Dad's 1965 Chrysler Newport Convertible

The day you brought home that new, black, sleek, '65 Chrysler Newport convertible was a special one. That long machine parked out front under the shade of a walnut tree said something to the whole neighborhood. The hood polished so deep and wide the whole canopy of that huge old tree was reflected back from between the front fenders.

It was fall, the new model year just announced; the street was deep in crisp leaves. They crunched underfoot as we sprinted out to admire the enormous new car. John and I ran our hands over the convertible's long waxed flanks. We breathed deep the new smell. Sunk in the rear seat we looked up and watched as you lowered the top. The deep mechanical groan as the convertible top elegantly descended, folding itself accordion style into the boot behind the rear seat. It was miraculous.
John and I stretched the snaps of the tonneau cover into place. Then scrambled again into the back seat and sunk into luxury. The newness was overwhelming, the smell of the upholstery, the flawless flanks of the black beast gleamed and unmarked. Truck was enormous. We could almost lay down full stretch. The two long doors were heavy, solid, with heft like refrigerator doors.
Why is it that I have no other solid memory of the Chrysler? Must be that I was off to school the next year, and I'm sure I didn't get to drive the thing.

That car lasted. Morphing from a fine mid-sixty's high status Realtor's Ride into a ragged, beat, brick truck. The once pristine interior was now thrashed and coated with a fine red dust. Dad hauled load after load of used brick for one of his Great Chinese Wall building projects in the poor sagging thing.
Still, like Dad, the Chrysler had style. Even at 200 thousand miles, despite the beat down of time, with the rear end sagging low over the tires, it was a ride to remember.

Pop-on's Death

I could hear you crying mom in the other room. It scared me bad, scared John too. John and I shared a bedroom in the Callahan house. I didn't know before that night that sound traveled so well through the walls of the closet. You were sobbing on the other side of the wall. You just kept crying. John and I got into the closet and listened to the awful sounds of your sadness. Your pain came through the wall. Dad's voice was murmuring, trying to soothe, your wails came in waves, reaching a peak, splashing over us, receding, and peaking again.

We didn't know what to do. We huddled there in the closet surrounded by our toys, the clothes hanging down over us and looked at each other. We bit our lips, tears came to our eyes. We were paralyzed with sadness and fear. John and I had seen you mad before, and unhappy. But the only time we'd seen you cry was in laughter, begging us to stop some joke or monkey business. We'd never heard or seen you cry like this.

I was afraid to come out of the room. As much as I wanted to know why you were hurting, I was afraid to knock on your door. I was afraid to move. It felt like I was holding my breath for hours. I strained my ears for the sounds of doors unlocking, knobs turning, footsteps in the hall knowing that It would mean you were coming to get us, that you were ready to tell us what the terrible thing was.

But you didn't come get us. Instead you cried all night, the waves pounding on our bedroom wall. Both John and I returned to our beds. I covered my head with my pillow. But I could still hear you, the awful murmur of your distant tears seemed to make the walls swell and crack. I tried not to listen, but could only hear more and more. I fell asleep to that awful sound.

The next morning you said nothing. Your eyes were red, but you smiled as much as you could, shrugging off our tentative questions. It was bad knowing something was wrong. It was worse not knowing what it was.

That night John and I were ready for you to begin crying again. We lay in bed waiting for the sound to come back through our wall.


We quietly crept into the closet, scooting down on to the floor, with ears to the all.

Silence still.

Several days later you told us that Pop-on was dead.

I had my answer. I understood why your were crying that night. Your dad had died. I've always wondered about that night. Had you just heard he was dying? Had you seen him at the hospital that day? I should have asked these questions sooner.

When Honey died I knew I had to tell my kids about it immediately. I didn't want Brenna or Erin to know. But I knew it would be worse if they misunderstood my grief. I wanted them to know why I was sad. Waiting wouldn't help.

I told Brenna first. "Brenna I have bad news. Honey has died." She cried, we talked.

Erin didn't really understand. It was very hard to do. But better than waiting. There's never a right time to tell your children about a death.

You just do it.

Justice for Penny

"Neeyah! Neeyah! Neeyah! I'm having a birthday party and you're not invited!"

Penny stuck out her tongue, dug a few more Neeyah! Neeyahs! into my soul then flounced off head held high. Penny radiated aloof, self-satisfied disapproval. She left two little boys in her wake. We were not invited to her birthday party. Neeyah! Neeyah!

Her name was Penny. She was an enemy!

It must have been something about the soil in Encino, a lot of clay was turned up when the subdivision was graded. It clumped great. Dirt clodded into fist size chunks naturally.

I seized a coconut sized chunk and looked at my buddy Ira. He nodded in wordless agreement. “THROW IT!”

Penny was a long way down the sidewalk by now. She seemed small in the distance, an impossible distance to throw a dirt clod. She was just a silhouette skipping down the sidewalk of a 1950's middle class sub-division in the late afternoon at Encino California.

I threw the clod high, arching, and well to Penny's right. It soared upward truer than any baseball I was ever destined to toss. The clod arched slowly reaching the apogee of it's flight, just as Penny turned right on her walk. It dropped straight down, exploding on top of her head.

The clod vanished in a halo of dirt. Penny dropped instantly. A perfect hit. Ira and I couldn't believe it. I never dreamed I'd get close, let alone land a perfect hit. I looked at Ira slack-jawed. His eyes glazed behind his glasses.

"It was perfect." he whispered. "She just turned and walked right under the thing at the perfect moment and “Wham!” and she's down!"

"Daaaaaaaaaaaaaady!" Penny was up and screaming. Three front-yards away and I could hear the shock, anger, and hunger for revenge in her whining, Neeyah! Neeyah! little girl voice.

The beauty of the shot was forgotten in guilty panic. Ira disappeared. I ran for home, slammed through the door, scooted into my room and slid under my bed.

I knew Penny's dad was coming for me. It was claustrophobic and quiet under my bed. Little dust balls rolled in front of my nostrils. I counted dust tumbleweeds in the high desert under my bed. I knew a storm was coming.

Thump, thump, thump! I heard Penny's daddy's angry fist on the front door. Thump, thump, thump!

I could hear the floor creak as my Dad walked to the front door. (Even then I knew you were big dad.) I heard angry voices and stayed very still. Slamming doors.

Dad came into my room and called me out from under the bed. Gentle voiced. No shaking rage, no heavy anger. In a gentle voice. "What happened Dennis?"

I told you. You listened. And as the story unwound, I know you understood the wonder of the shot, that magic trajectory, the incredible long flight of the clod as it extinguished the ringing sound of ²Neeyah Neeyah³s in my ears.

Later mom told me you'd grabbed Penny's daddy by his redneck and held him up a bit when he'd tried to pass by you to get to me.

I don't know if that really happened. But I hope it did.

Green Star

I wanted a star on my paper. The star's color didn't really matter, the size didn't matter. I just wanted a star on my paper that said I was one of the smart ones.

But I could never get one. I already knew I was one of the dumb 6 year olds, I just wasn't smart. I knew it. I couldn't read or add. The books were always too hard and directions confused me. If you weren't neat and couldn't follow the directions you didn't get a star. At least not in the first grade at Our Lady of Perpetual Yearning Elementary

I could read numbers though, and I had a theory about my situation. I was certain that the # 2 on the spine of my reader stood for second grade. I hung on to this belief as an explanation for why I couldn't read. It was my secret hope that I wasn't so stupid after all. I was convinced, despite mounting frustration and embarrassment that my problem was caused by a book that was too hard. None of my classmates bought my thinking, but I hung on to the hope that I wasn't really dumb after all.

Finally, one day late in the year, after the longing for a star had given way to hopelessness, it happened. Sister dropped my paper down in front of me.

There it was attached proudly to the top of the page near my name, the green star!

I knew that the best stars were the big golden ones. The next best were blue, still larger than the green star I'd gotten. But my first star seemed huge to me. It was a metallic, shadowed shamrock color. I traced my finger over the thin foil ridge on each of the 5 points. Points of achievement there on 'my page'. I couldn't believe it! I was reeling, flabbergasted, overjoyed,

I'd gotten a star!

I turned proudly to the kid next to me, and shoved the paper under his nose. "I gotta star!" I crowed.

As the words left my mouth a shadow descended. The tall dark habit of Sister blotted out the sunlight. She swept up the paper.

"No Talking!" Sister shrieked in a fury.

Slowly, meticulously, with a pent up frenzy that said this woman longed for a world without loud boastful little boys, Sister meticulously tore my paper into shreds.

As she swept away, Sister dropped the crumpled fragments on my desk. I searched through the remains, but I couldn't find my green star. Now I wouldn't be able to show my mom.

My green star was gone forever.