Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Butter over Too Much Bread

This is my tenth year teaching. In an average week, I'd say there are three days that are life-choice validating, one where it's just another job, and one where I seek solace toward the bottom of a Smirnov bottle.

This entry is about that last one.

We were trying a new method of teaching writing in my district, one that involved conferencing with students. This can be valuable if it isn't over-administrated. We had a quota: meet with each writer in your class twice a week.

It was being over-administrated.

Ask any teacher and they'll tell you this is where the sacred calling becomes a job, a shit job at that. There was no need to meet with them each twice a week. It was what Dilbert would've called a "random act of managment."

But like any other job, we have to try to keep our bosses happy, so we jumped from writer to writer to writer. Each conference grew more superficial than the last, but damn if every kid didn't get two piece of shit conferences a week.

Obsessing over it did get me thinking about the future I fear, which puts me in creative mode. What would be the tools of pointless administration in the future? What would that feeling of being pulled from kid to kid look like in a Sci-fi setting?

What would it be like to adapt the point of view of an administrative scumbag? How does the other half live?

In "Lord of the Rings" Bilbo describes feeling thin, like butter spread over too much bread. This is the driving emotion behind "Equality Chair."

Equality Chair

Today was revelation. I simply must tell you about it.   
It occurred in the least likely setting for any epiphany – a school. Not an enclave academy either, one of those red brick monstrosities in the outlands.
My young wife worries when my duties take me beyond the Enclaves. It isn’t her fault. To her it’s just a rational opinion based on limited world experience. We go to Jamaica and we’re behind the walls – tall, beige, tropical. We go home to Pleasant Edge and we’re behind the walls – stoic opaque concrete. My wife is like so many of my old mates from Central Academy: she’s been around the world, but she’s never even wanted to see past her precious walls.
In my duties, I can have no walls. I must venture out to the other America. As I tried to explain that night she was hurling our polished ceramic souvenirs like so much emotional artillery, a man’s work sometimes supersedes his safety. This affords pets and women peace.
Besides that, I’ve always felt the outlands had a certain primal charm. There’s something about knowing I’m out there, exposed, where a Miserable with a sophisticated enough I.E.D. could rip my armored limo in half. It makes me feel so vital, so present and alive from moment to moment.
I should stop. My feelings are immaterial. This document is for the schools.
The Jennie Oakes School – that was the setting. Their front gates are black iron, more of a psychological baby blanket than actual security. The grounds are kept trim and green by standard keepers, rewarded with a life of safety. Or, at the very least, a life free of starvation, a life behind gates.
All of that was pedestrian, tedious.
It was the sign that first piqued my interest: an old world rectangle light bulb with black trim and black letters. It read, “The Jennie Oakes School: Every Child Special as the Next.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. Old Jim, our usual driver, he actually asked me if I was feeling alright, sir.
That only made the laughter worse.
The building itself was nothing remarkable – the same baked brick that contains all the outborn children who would take that “monumental” leap, up to the title “lettered outborn.” In their rather bland atrium, I met the principal, Dolores Harpe, one such example of this leap.
Like so many of the other lettered outborn, she reminded me of a cow placed in charge of chickens. Being in lower management, she thought she was no longer livestock, perhaps even a farmer.
I introduced myself cordially as a gentleman, as a Corporate-national inspector, should. Of course, I had to ask her about the sign. I laughed again.
She frowned. The poor woman didn’t understand why it was funny.
I explained to her, “My dear,” I said, “if every child was special then no child would be special.” She blinked like a micro-fiber of shrapnel was burrowing through her cornea. I proceeded. “To be special means to be unique, apart from average, distinct. If there were no average children, no normal children, there would be no standard with which to judge excellence, to judge who was, in real terms, ‘special.’” 
Her response: “Every child at the Oakes School is as special as the next.”
A man in my position is often prone to this kind of error. Miss Harpe was a product of her institution, as much as my wife and I are products of Enclave parents and Enclave schools. She would respond to criticism of her institutional platitude by repeating it verbatem, as if to do so was to verify its philosophical foundation. I could point to the mud on which such a sentiment rested, and tell her, “This is mud” and she would blink stupidly. I could shove her wide face into it, until I pulled her up muck-faced and slobbering, and she would just look at me like I was some powerful sorcerer, capable of changing the density of substances at will.
It would never occur to her the structure of her beliefs had always been wobbling precariously, on a bedrock of pure shit. 
Then again, look at the institution that molded her. Her happiest memories were probably sitting in a desk in this very building, pleasing the impossibly tall figure at the front of the room with a raised arm, a predictable insight, a sugary grin. She was always going to come back here. I should forgive her. Our society is built with a hundred thousand Dolores Harpes, pledging passionate allegiance to some platitude on a light bulb sign. 
I apologized and told her it was a wonderful slogan. Every child was indeed special and we merely needed to unlock their potential. She smiled a prescribed smile and led me down the main hall.

(End of preview)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Changing Fear

Fear changes with age.

In fourth grade, I heard that urban myth about people flushing pet crocodiles that grew up abandoned and angry in the sewers.

Supposedly, one of them, before it was fully grown, crawled up a sewer pipe and bit some kid’s wiener and balls off while he was sitting to take a dump.

This was ’88 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were dominating the toy aisle and cartoon ratings. So in some versions the gator was a mutant. Our sci-fi always taught us that radiation gave you super-strength, rather than monstrous tumors.

That’s the kind of thing I was afraid of in grammar school. Sitting down to take a dump and suffering castration via mutant sewer croc.

In junior high, I saw my first R-rated movie, “Halloween 5: Revenge of Michael Myers.” It was a shit bomb like every Halloween but the first.

So I’m sitting in the theater with my friend Barry and his mom, and all these cool people who are drunk and/or stoned are all around us yelling cool things.

My personal favorite, Myers corners this girl in a barn and impales her with a pitchfork. Some drunk stoner yells, “Ya shoulda fucked ‘er first!”

Barry and I thought that was a real gem. We laughed our asses off through the movie.

But when it was late and I was alone, I saw that white fucking mask in every shadow. I barely slept.

In high school and college we mostly fear failure. Bad grades and sexual rejection specifically. At least my grades were good.

Then we grow up and fear changes. We fear bosses and bills.

Once we get the decent career and relationship and living situation, what’s left to fear?

Just one thing…

How about falling into auto-pilot and waking up lost? How about fear of a life poorly lived?

Scarier than Michael Myers or a cock-eating gator, if you ask me.

This is where I got the idea for “Making June Matter”. Teaching lends itself to auto-pilot, if you aren’t careful.

It was the last day of school, 2009, when I was standing with another teacher watching the kids play volleyball (our last day filler). We let our eighth graders go one day early so they don’t cause anarchy. One eighth grade boy had come in just to see his seventh grade girlfriend.

Their happiness was visceral. You could tell neither of them had been so utterly into another person before. They were in love the way only adolescents can be, with no regard for how shitty it will be when it inevitably crashes.

I turned to my colleague and asked, “Remember feeling like that?”

And he said, “No.”

And my story alarm went off. What’s it like when a teacher hears of a student’s success and he isn’t happy for the student? What do you do when you realize, perhaps too late, that you’ve lived poorly?

What if your greatest fear comes true?


P.S. I still have no idea how to charge anyone so I’m just using this blog to try and generate interest for now. Also, try to keep an open mind with the second person thing. I was trying something new and I fucking loved “Choose your own Adventure” books. Now turn to page 57, where you’ll be impaled.

Making June Matter

You stand where you stood yesterday. You separate the monster S.U.V.s from the toddling elementary school students walking down Learning Lane. At least once a day, you wonder if they were being ironic about that street name.
You stand here all of June. You stood here the June prior.
You sip cooling coffee from a thermos that’s never really empty or clean. The kid in the cartoon shirt is still four car lengths up the road.
When he gets to the intersection, you’ll do your part. You’ll stand in the road: a meat target. You’ll keep the phrase “fatal school accident” out of the papers, off the internet.
You choose not to see the two boys from period three, the ones in the band shirts, the ungrateful recipients of charity D-minuses, spitting on the back of the building.
You think of an old song. Schoo-ool’s… out… for… sum-mah!
Your deodorant fails and the warm drip runs down the new bulge in your side. It settles in the fold, the fat crevasse you developed over this last school year. You think of all those sit-ups, all those years fighting gravity.
You remember a young man who posed before showers, a man who bought a full-length mirror specifically for that purpose – to study all that geometric, sharp-angled flesh, the reward for all that sweat and effort. You remember curve and symmetry, smooth and hard.
You realize, gravity won.
The boy is at the corner, but suddenly you don’t want to be a meat shield anymore.
You run a thickened hand through thinning hair.
You wave the boy forward. On the curb, you turn and face the street to see a small pink-haired woman in a giant white truck. She takes a quick right turn without signaling or dropping her phone, or her large purse, or the small dog in it.
She hits the breaks on time. You step off the curb and take the boy by the hand, the rest of the way across.
You hear the odious drone of a power window lowering.

(End of preview)