26 February 2008

They'll be my mirror

How do people without students know who they are? I can't imagine having to judge my appearance or state of mind without their insight.

From Anton: "Do you know that your hair swings from side to side when you walk? It's like the Brady Bunch."
Unfortunately, I understand the reference, that I apparently have the Jan Brady walk that causes her long hair to perkily swing back and forth with the movements of her head. Although my hair is neither long nor blond, I spent the rest of the day concentrating on walking with my head very still. It was not easy. I eventually gave up.

From Katie, Justin, Maurice and Laquaisha, at various moments during the day: "Miss, you look mad tired."
Yes, in fact I did, and in fact, I was.

From Jahida: "Miss Huth, you'd look better with some red tips in your hair. I'll do it for you."
Although I did not take her up on her kind offer, I have no doubt that I would look better if my hair were any number of different colors.

From Quintel: "You look mad skinny now. Are you working out or something?"
Hmmmm . . . why can't males ever understand that females don't want to be "skinny" ? They want to be "slender" or "slim." I will grant him, in his youth, my assumption that he meant this kindly.

From Amber: "She (me) doesn't want to hear anymore of your stupid jokes! She's got work to do!"
While I was amused by the lame jokes, I did have work to do. Since I was sitting politely trying very hard not to look at my email, I'm not sure how she knew this.

This is just a small selection . . . but from just this week alone, my students have let me know that when I walk like Jan Brady, my boring-looking hair swings back and forth, possibly hiding the circles under my eyes from listening to too many jokes and not doing enough work.

If only they paid as much attention to their classwork.

23 February 2008

Charon at the edge of the river Hudson

Mosh pits are interesting things. Seething, sweating, tattooed cauldrons of latent homosexuality run amok, mosh pits are alternately revolting and fascinating. I recently found myself in the unfortunate position of feeling like the gatekeeper to the mosh pit at a small venue where one of my favorite bands, Flogging Molly, was playing.

My vantage point, right by a small, hip-level wall overlooking the pit and mere feet from the stage, was a prime location. Erin, Geof and I were able to maneuver to and then maintain this position through the two opening acts and finally to the headliner. I, however, was on the end, the end by the stairs leading to the pit.

As Flogging Molly took the stage, I found myself having to reexamine my position in the universe. On my left were my husband and daughter and relative calm. On my right, however, was a rather violent stream of humanity struggling frantically to reach the pit below us (which was down the stairs to my right).

First, I watched. One shirtless, drunken and/or stoned and/or something I'm not even aware of young man decided to stand by me, closely, elbows flailing level with my face. He apparently thought I was invisible. I continued to watch his elbows, his beer bottle, his vacant eyes, along with the "surfers" whose feet were a tad too close.

When he shoved himself into me, hard, in a futile attempt to widen the opening to the pit, perhaps, I made a decision. Standing with my feet firmly planted was not enough. He was not even aware that I was a human being whom he had chosen to shove in a most impolite fashion. To him, I was certainly not even a human being old enough to be his mother (my own daughter standing next to me as evidence of that). I did know that I was annoyed as hell at being shoved, hard, by a sweating, drunken idiot man-child. So in the interest of self-preservation (mostly) I shoved him back, equally hard. In the direction of the pit. He seemed to appreciate it.

For the rest of the night, I found myself standing my ground at the edge of the stairs, a Charon ready to ferry the doomed to the River Styx. As the masses flung themselves into me in a misguided attempt to enter the pit, I helpfully bumped and pushed them away from me and toward where they wanted to be.

Aside from having far too many sweaty, tatooed and drunken bodies pushing into mine, the concert was amazing. I'm slightly ashamed, however, at the side of me that appeared that night, the side that was almost gleefully urging the young, the drunken, the vacant, away from me and into the mosh pit.

21 February 2008

Paying to be shot: Is that why tuition is so high?

The day after the most recent shooting at a college, some of my students expressed concern. They are, after all, seniors whose college applications are being processed right now. For the first time, they are beginning to picture themselves on some campus next year.

Some wondered if any college would be safe. Some told me how sad they felt for the students who were killed or injured, and their families. Some wondered why there were shootings on campuses only now, as if these were manifestations of our troubled, war-focused times. *

One student told me that he was thinking of not going to college next year because he resented having to pay all that money to be shot. (My answer was that technically, he wouldn't be paying to be shot . . . I'm sometimes astounded by the things I find coming out of my mouth in this job.)

When they ask me if they'll be safe next year, my sadly honest answer, the one I believe I must give them is, I don't know. I think so. I hope so. As parent, as teacher, in loco parentis, I want to assure them of their safety, that things will be okay. I don't want them to worry.

I remind them that campus violence of this magnitude is extremely rare. I remind them that much of their safety at college remains within their control, that they should lock their doors, not walk alone at night, be careful about parties and driving . . . They shake their heads and laugh gently. "Oh Mom," they seem to say, "it's so cute that you think we don't know that." So as teacher, as parent, I continue fruitlessly to dispense advice, to try to shoo the scary monsters out from under my kids' beds.

I wonder why the big violence seems more probable than being raped on a date, getting in an accident while driving drunk or being attacked or robbed because of walking alone or leaving a door unlocked. Then I remember what they've already seen: the school shooter who kills 30, the planes crashing into buildings killing 3,000, the thousands claimed by war. Is this enough to skew their sense of the reality of violence? How big do the numbers have to be to be scary? (My guess is at least double digits.)

Certainly every generation grows up with, deals with its own horrible violence, its own war, its own shocking public massacre. This group, however, seems less shocked than fascinated, less frightened than resigned. They are so much older than I was.

*They are occasionally too self-centered to believe that anything significant or interesting happened before their birth in 1990. In 1966, my father's very good friend, Bob Boyer, a visiting physics professor, was one of 14 killed by Charles Whitman on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, for example. Yet, they somehow believe that campus violence began with their generation, and more disturbingly, that it is de rigueur.

16 February 2008

Movies without answers; futures full of questions

One of the constants of teaching is that students will never ever agree on anything. If I have five classes reading the same book, I might have a general consensus within a class on the book's quality. However, I will never have five classes that agree that the book is good. Or that the book is crap. I won't even have three classes that agree on the book's goodness or crappiness. Such is the nature of teaching. Those of us who do it accept this, albeit with clear annoyance. On the other hand, this reality allows us to choose books with a strange sense of abandon; since someone will always like the book and someone will always hate the book, whatever book, what real difference does my choice make? Ah, such freedom.

Strangely, however, I've finally found one small thing that all five of my classes (and seemingly all students in each of the five classes) agreed upon: that is that the ending of Children of Men totally sucks. Without giving away the specific ending, it will suffice to say that the end (final long shot of the scene quickly cutting to black and then the movie's title) was universally greeted with groans and loud moans of despair: "Noooo! Tell me that's not the end!" "Are you kidding me??" "But what happens??" "We don't know whether she gets to the boat!" "Maaaaannn!" "Jeeeeeez!" "That sucks so bad!"

Now, while I'm grateful that I was able to show a well-respected movie reinforcing our current vague theme of how man deals with his place in society and actually have my students respond, I'm nevertheless puzzled by a couple things. First, why can't they figure what probably will happen next? Second, why is it so important to them to have all the answers laid out?

Perhaps they are so literal-minded that they cannot read the (fairly obvious, I think) figurative clues. Perhaps they don't trust their instincts. Perhaps they would prefer to read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens and have little summaries of all the characters' fates at the end.

Somehow, I don't think they'd prefer to read Austen or Dickens . . . but still I wonder why they need to know all the "answers" at the end.

Me? I prefer the open ending, the lack of answers. Without "answers" the possibilities, while not endless, while still needing to fit within the criteria the author or filmmaker has set, are much richer than with the neatish closing of Austen, Dickens or even say an Animal House that tells us that Bluto Blutarsky goes on to become a senator (or something similarly ironic).

I much prefer to ponder the possibilities without having the answer key pressed into my hands. I can handle it. I don't want to know. I want to imagine. To me, the future looks better without the answers but then again, I'm at a different point in life than my students. Perhaps to them, a future without answers looks pretty scary.

13 February 2008

Snow days are better when you're young

The problem with snow days is that sometimes the anticipation far exceeds the reality. Such was the case today. When my alarm went off at 6:00 this morning, I immediately checked the TV to see whether my school was delayed or closed. We were closed, for the first time this year. I cheered quietly, so as not to wake Geof, and crawled back into bed. When I returned to sleep, however, I found myself dreaming very intense and disturbing dreams. While I often have trouble remembering whatever dreams I have in the middle of the night (or whenever such things occur), those dreams that occur after I would normally be up are easy to remember and sometimes bizarre. At some point, between 6:00 and when I woke up for good just before 10:00, I had several dreams of a type that I hate: I categorize these as "The dreams in which I must face my shortcomings."

Usually they involve school. Occasionally, I'm in college and realizing at the end of the semester that I've not attended a single class. More often, these dreams feature me being somewhere else while I have a class to teach. I have, for some reason, decided to go out for a beer. Or I have decided to take a nap. Or I have just been unaware that I had a class at that particular time. These dreams always end with me hearing someone in the main office asking me over the PA system to report to wherever I'm supposed to be. I'm mortified, aware that this is totally unlike me, and I wake up vaguely ashamed.

Sometimes, my students decide to stage a coup, often involving lots of swearing, shouting and standing on desks. From these dreams I awake frustrated, angry and feeling vaguely powerless.

This morning's dream was a combination of the two common themes: Even though I thought we had a snow day, it turned out that we didn't. Therefore, administrators and students spent the morning looking for me because I was home sleeping, secure in my belief that we had a snow day. When I finally (for some reason--guilt??) went to school, I faced the annoyance and anger of my superiors and my students. I had failed them both. I was stupid, inappropriate, lazy and just dead wrong.

An inauspicious beginning to my snow day.What should have been a day to relax and perhaps perform some useful task ended up being a day where I was dogged by a sense of my own limitations and vague unrest. It took me until this evening, really, to shake the feeling, and it's only now, as I write this in front of a fire with a Guinness next to me, that I feel fully prepared to deal with the world.

10 February 2008

Books so far and what I wish I were reading

1776, by David McCullough
McCullough is one of the most literate and accessible historians. A favorite writer of mine, crossing all genres.

Amnesia Moon, by Jonathan Lethem
Post-apocalyptic fiction, read in one sitting. Much less depressing than The Road, but what isn't?

I wish I were reading Harriet the Spy right now and discovering "The Walrus and the Carpenter" for the first time.

09 February 2008

When we realize it's depressing to consider people eaten by bears

I've had a vague sense of foreboding this week, and I think it's due to watching Grizzly Man three or four (or five) times a day for the last three days. That and the constant rain. My students seem to be reacting similarly: fascinated and repelled, relieved to see it end, yet unwilling to stop watching, hoping for more of the story.

On to Children of Men next week. I may have to watch This is Spinal Tap on my own just to recover.

04 February 2008

Harlan Pepper! Would you stop naming nuts!

I have come to accept that my life is mere repetition. Every aspect requires it.

As a mother, the repetition becomes little mantras ensuring success: Do you have your homework? Drive carefully. Call when you get there.

If I say these things, ask these questions each time, the future is assured in my favor.

As a pet owner, the repetition is always directives ending in sheer futility and exclamation points aimed at one of our three dachshunds: Stop licking my floor! Stop eating the firewood! Get out of the kitchen!

Saying these things ensures nothing.

As a teacher, the repetition is both a tiny prayer for success and an exercise in sheer futility: That was due yesterday. Yes, you may hand it in tomorrow. Yes, I'll be taking some points off. You need to pay attention because we'll be discussing this later. You missed my explanation because you came in late. I will fill you in after class.

The problem with those who must repeat themselves is that they find themselves often ignored (hence, the repetition. Or are we ignored because the repetition is necessary and ultimately boring? Who knows?). We see ourselves as lonely, frustrated voices that speak the truth, so many Cassandras foretelling doom or prophesying good fortune. Doesn't matter because no one's listening anyway.

All of which brings me rather ungracefully to my point: In the midst of repeated explanations of why we were watching the R-rated Grizzly Man (because the main character separates himself from society, and this is a theme we've followed in literature this year from Hamlet to Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart and will continue to follow in Into the Wild), why I needed permission slips even though they are 17 and 18 (because the movie is R-rated and the school district is not the real world), and finally how a grizzly bear could hold (as the movie rather baldly specifies) four garbage bags of human remains, I noticed one of my children pondering this last topic.

As the others debated the issue and I, for once, stayed out of the discussion, it being the end of class and all, one student, who never speaks in class, not ever, but who occasionally smiles and always appears to try, to want to please, finally summed it all up for all of us: The reason for the four garbage bags, he said was because "that bear ate them like he was eating a candy bar without taking off the wrapper." A brief pause, and then a flash of recognition from the class, horrifying, yet somehow gratifying all the same . . . Ohhhhhhhh. Ewwww! Man!

A strange ephiphany, but an epiphany nonetheless. Such are the small accomplishments in my world of repetition. For now, my children are safe, my pets are not gnawing my firewood or licking my floor, and my students eagerly await the day two showing of Grizzly Man. I'm not sure I can ask for more than that.

03 February 2008

Books so far and the wonderful taste of orange juice

Unfortunately, I've not finished any books this week. Several factors have conspired to keep me from reading. First, I had to spend an evening at school trying to convince 8th graders and their parents to choose my "house" at the high school. Second, I spent two evenings watching Lost, mostly old but one new episode. Finally, I found myself succumbing to the nasty illness Geof had spent two days in bed with and so spent Saturday in bed myself fighting achiness and intense headache. I'm much better today and might be able to read a bit more of 1776. We'll see.

When I was little, and sick, I never stayed in bed. Instead I would lie on the pull-out couch in the sunporch and draw. Usually I would have nothing at all to eat or drink, but occasionally, orange juice was the only palatable thing. Yesterday, alternating between chills and fever, I could not get myself out of bed, but for much of the day the only thing I wanted was orange juice. And then one dry frozen waffle. And then some ice-cream. Okay. Perhaps I've overestimated the power of orange juice, but nevertheless, I credit it for unparching my throat, rehydrating my wizened body and awakening my appetite, even if only slightly.

And I'll have to look for sweater buttons next weekend.