I have been nominated by the superb Adite Banerjie to take the Liebster Blog Award Challenge. The aim is to help bloggers spread the word about each other’s blogs. Adite is an excellent blogger and screenwriter, and I am looking forward to reading her first novel which will be published this fall. She is also only one of only two of my Facebook friends whom I actually haven’t met. As she explains, “Every nominee has to write 11 interesting/little known facts about herself, answer 11 questions set by the person who has nominated her and nominate 11 bloggers to take the challenge (and set 11 questions for them).” So here we go.
First, my eleven facts. I am going to try not to allude to anything I have already written about in this blog, but I may expand on them in later entries.
1. I was once alone in room with Renee Zellweger. Ok, it was a restaurant foyer, but both sets of doors were closed at the time, so technically this is true.
2. I am the President of my local teacher’s union.
3. Next year I will have my very first second generation student. I am officially old.
4. I have Parkinson’s Disease. This is the only thing I have in common with Muhammad Ali–other than the killer right hook.
5. I once had a pet tortoise named “Zorro.” I lost him in a divorce.
6. I was bullied in high school–by girls, who constantly made fun of the fact that I had no butt. True, girls were making fun of me, but on the other hand they were paying attention to me. It was a confusing time.
7. I was part of a group of high school kids who heaved our lunches, rocks, and assorted bits of landscaping at members of the Ku Klux Klan. I didn’t have a very nuanced view of tolerance in the tenth grade.
8. I was cast as Horatio in a junior theatre production of Hamlet because I was the only one in the cast who could cry on cue. Not sure what it says about me that I could do that at age 16.
9. I am a recovering alcoholic with 29 years of sobriety.
10. My college, UC Santa Cruz, at the time had no letter grades and was officially a clothing optional campus. This was proven each day by the presence of “Naked Frisbee Guy.”
11. Speaking of UC Santa Cruz, my wife and I had several classes together and some friends in common, but we didn’t meet until 5 years after graduation on the other side of the country.
I will now answer Adite’s 11 questions for me:
1. What’s your favourite time to write or do creative work? And why?
I like to write late in the evening, I think because it taps into my natural night owlishness.
2. What’s the first thing that crossed your mind when you woke up this morning?
Is that the dog cuddled against me or my wife?
3. What’s the one thing that drives you batshit crazy?
Other than bat shit? Condescension. It’s a great way to see how short-tempered I can be.
4. Describe briefly any one unforgettable moment in your life.
The day I married Valerie, my wife. I remember being sublimely happy.
5. Which is your must-do dream vacation?
The Galapagos Islands. The most unique place on earth.
6. Fill this blank: At age 10 you dreamt of “being _____ when I grow up.”
Someone who could talk without a stutter. A bit sad, I know, but’s how I felt.
7. If you could travel back in time which “period” would you visit?
I’d go to London in the 1960s, so I could see the Who, the Stones, Yes, and Jimi Hendrix all starting out and playing the Marquee Club.
8. If you could transform yourself into a celebrity for one day, who would you pick?
Colin Firth. That way I’d still have my wife’s undying devotion.
9. Complete this sentence. Fun is ________
10. If you could change any one of your (bad) habits what would that be? (You’re not allowed to say you don’t have any bad habits!!)
I would eradicate once and for all my social nervousness.
11. Tell us something that excites you about your current project.
It’s a teleplay about a high school, and it’s not silly and filled with autotuned signing. In other words, its real, which means no one’s ever seen that on television before.
Now my 11 questions for A Detailed House, Brant Smith, Beneath the Lamp Post, Emily Knudsen, Lesley Carter, Melissa Nosal, Mike Barnett, Sanchari Sur, Sushil Kumar, Ayanna Nahmias, and Valerie Brodie:
1. What’s the single most embarrassing thing to ever happen to you?
2. What book do you remember reading as a child that has stayed with you since?
3. What’s the one thing you would change about the world if you could?
4. If you had to pick a moment in your life that defines who you are, what would it be?
5. What song do you want played at your funeral?
6. You can have any meal on earth tonight, and money is no object. What do you choose?
7. What is your greatest fear?
8. What is your pet peeve?
9. Who is the person you admire most in the world, and why?
10. What is it in your life that gives you the most joy?
11. If you could live in one place on earth (and money was no object) where would it be, and why?
Looking forward to your responses!
Just a quick post to let everyone know about a talk I am giving at Eastern Connecticut State University on Monday, February 25, 3pm, at the Student Center Theater. As the title of this post suggests, it’s called “Growing Up a Part-Time Indian.” I hope Sherman Alexie can forgive me for that.
I hope many of you can attend. If you cannot, I plan on including many of the stories I will tell in future editions of this blog, so fear not should you miss it.
Check out the amazing poster created by ECSU student Melissa Nosal. One of my former students, it was her idea to have me do the talk. None of it would have occurred without her efforts, and for that I am grateful. The poster is here:
Melissa also does an excellent blog, which you can find linked at my blog roll below. Please do check it out.
That’s all for now.
After a brief departure, I am returning to my stories. I will not be reaching back as far into my past as I have with other posts. This is a more recent event, as you will see.
It was an old Honda, maybe from 1990. It looked like it was originally maroon, but so much of it had rusted and faded, it was hard to tell. Parts of it looked brown, other parts looked positively orange. That wasn’t the most striking part about the car. It was the way it roared into the gas station and screeched to a halt, tired brakes grinding and straining to freeze its velocity.
I was pumping my gas at a Mobil poised on a congested intersection flanked by two busy shopping malls. There were also several other vehicles parked at the pumps It was by no means quiet, but the car’s violent appearance startled me, and I turned to face it. The one working headlight shut off, and a figure leaped out from behind the steering wheel. In spite of the shadows, I could still make him out. Olive skinned, about my age, sporting an unkempt beard matched with a wild head of curly, dark hair. He appeared to be Middle Eastern–a strange geographic designation that included parts of three continents and was only coherent from the perspective of the Western Hemisphere.
His undetermined ethnicity was enough to cause all of us pumping gas to pause and stare at him in silence. He returned our stare, still as statue. None of us knew what was going on, and no one moved or spoke for a very long moment. Then the Middle Eastern gentleman reached into his back pocket and withdrew a long, black canister. Even though we couldn’t really see it, the shape was enough to raise the anxiety level in the station–you could almost hear everyone tense up. The man pointed the cylinder toward the heavens and squeezed a small trigger near his hand. The trigger snapped like a mousetrap slamming shut, and all of us jumped.
From the other end of the canister out popped…a tiny Egyptian flag.
Suddenly possessed by a spirit we couldn’t see in the darkness, the man threw his hands up in the air in triumph and shouted, “EGYPT! EGYPT IS FREE!!” He bolted towards us, racing and serpentining through the gas bays, waving his flag and shouting “EGYPT!” over and over again. This was followed by “NO MORE MUBARAK! EGYPT IS FREE!!!” He twirled and skipped like a third grader on the last day of school.
Satisfied he had conveyed the necessary message to those of us outside, he darted into the adjacent convenience store and began charging and racing through the tiny aisles. I could no longer hear him, but I spotted the word “EGYPT” on his lips several times. His fists pumped the air as he continued to wave his diminutive flag. After having exhausted the cramped space of the Mobil Mart, he shoved the glass door open, returning to us outside. I could now clearly see his face bathed in joy as his entire body quivered with giddy laughter.
I found myself smiling, and to my surprise, envying hin. I grew up in the United States in the late twentieth century. I have never lived without the privilege of taking my freedom for granted. I wondered how delicious it must taste to wrestle it away from a tyrant. Before I could contemplate that thought any further, the Egyptian man was suddenly before me. I briefly considered giving him a thumbs up, but I changed my mind, unsure whether Egyptians found that offensive.
As I turned out, I really needn’t have been concerned. Yanking me into a firm embrace, he shouted ”NO MORE MUBARAK!” into my ear. I would have happily returned the hug, but my arms were trapped under his, and his forearm strength was deceptively robust. I noticed the other gas station patrons discreetly climbing back into their cars, no doubt fearful they were next.
Finally, he released me, and we enjoyed a hearty laugh together. Even though we had just met, and didn’t know each other’s names, and hadn’t really had a conversation, we laughed like old friends remembering an inside joke no one else understood. We collected our breath, and he gazed at me before shouting “EGYPT!” again.
This was followed by the gesture that surprised me the most: he squeezed my shoulders and planted a kiss on my right cheek, and then another on my left. He then grabbed both my hands and pulled them to the sky. This time, I knew my cue: we both shouted “EGYPT IS FREE!” as a chorus.
He let go of my hands, and then almost as quickly as he arrived, climbed back into his depleted Honda. Peeling out onto the road, he honked feverishly, and I could hear the faint cry of “EGYPT!” disappear into the night.
After the horrible school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, I felt the need to reach out to several friends and tell them I was glad they and their children were safe, and to also express my love for them. Dan Blair, one of my dearest friends on earth, wrote this in response to my email:
“When I heard CT State Police say that the public was safe and the scene had been secured, I wondered what sort of dark humor that was … when have we been safe from …that? We’ve returned to what things were the moment before it started and we weren’t safe then, either.”
There’s a reason we all thought Dan was the smartest guy in our grad program a few years back. He was right a lot back then, and he’s right about this. My school district’s Superintendent–after saying nothing about this to her staff the entire school day–sent out an after school robocall to everyone in the district assuring us that the schools were safe, and that we had instituted new safety procedures. The problem was not simply that the Superintendent clearly read this prepared statement in a Watson Compter-like monotone. It’s that many of those new procedures were also in place at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
When you are an educator and something like this happens, it affects you in a very particular way. You look at you school differently, you look at your leadership differently, you look at your students differently, you look at yourself differently. You can’t help but think: that could have been here. If it had been, what would I have done? What could I have done? Every time something like this happens, all of us in this profession lose something we can’t get back. And while statistically schools are still some of the safest public places in the world, we become very cognizant of what can go tragically wrong in the environments we work so hard to cultivate as positive, secure spaces.
A recent Mother Jones article showed that over the last thirty years, there have been 62 mass killings in the United States, defined as a public killing of more than four people. That’s an average of more than two a year, but that doesn’t tell you the whole story. Seven of those have been in the last twelve months. The profile of the killers is very consistent: males in their twenties who suffered from untreated mental illness who had access to legal automatic weapons. Morbid as it may have been to study this, it tells us two very important things about the country we live in. One, our mental health system has failed. Two, our gun safety laws have also failed. This is clearly what we have to address.
We need to make mental health a priority again. It hasn’t been in quite some time, because it is deemed too expensive. There are also no political consequences for attacking the mentally ill, as we generally have little or no sympathy for them in our society. Programs get cut, few people notice or care. Yes, it will be expensive–but we certainly have the money for costly wars and drone attacks. Having a fully developed mental health care system would be a lot cheaper and actually keep us safer than attacking farmers in the Pakistani mountains. Also, notice the irony that we have billions of dollars to commit acts of violence around the world, yet no money to help a mentally unstable person who might somehow get the impression that violence is an acceptable solution to his problems.
Secondly, our gun control laws must change. Yes, I am aware that guns don’t cause violence and people do. I am not suggesting we ban all guns. I am suggesting we make it much, much harder for people to obtain automatic assault weapons like the Glock. If you make it harder for a mentally ill person to kill dozens of people at once, two things are going to happen: the violence will either not occur or it will be far less extreme. The reason the people in Arizona were allowed to stop Jared Laughner was that he had to pause and reload after firing off dozens of rounds. What if he had to after firing off just a few? The situation would have been far less tragic. Will this stop all of the mindless killings? Of course not. But since we can’t stop them all, why is it we can’t take any steps to stop some?
Yes, there are professional criminals who still be able to get automatic weapons illegally, but we aren’t talking about criminal mafias and drug cartels. We’re talking about mentally ill loners unable to grasp the consequences of their actions. Does anyone actually think that any of the mass murderers of Columbine, Aurora, and now Newtown would have been savvy enough to obtain their automatic weapons illegally? This is not a radical idea. We already agree there is a line. Even the most vociferous gun rights advocate would not argue that the average citizen should have access to rocket launchers, hand grenades, and weapons grade plutonium. I am just arguing where I think the line should be.
Maybe you disagree with that, and that’s fine. What you cannot claim is that nothing should be done to address our failed mental health system. So argue that people should still have access to automatic weapons. But argue just as strongly that we need to invest in and overhaul our mental health system so the Adam Lanzas of the world get the treatment they need. We won’t be able to help everyone, I know. But we can help some, and that to me seems like a worthwhile endeavor. Imagine what would happen if the National Rifle Association (who believe it or not, used to support gun control) actually put its considerable political clout into lobbying for an increased investment and expansion of mental health in this country, instead of worrying about really important things like President Obama sending in UN troops to confiscate their shotguns.
So it’s up to us. All of us. We need to fix this, and we know how. We just need to have the courage to say that we want all of our communities to be as safe as they can be, and do what needs to be done. And we need to do it now. We failed the children in Sandy Hook. We can’t fail any others.
As if often the case this time of year, I have fallen behind on my blog. The reason for this is because of the beginning of the school year, which has been especially busy for me this year. Classes are larger, staff is smaller, responsibilities are spread amongst fewer teachers, and I have stepped forward to be my district union president. Before I knew it, the first quarter had ended, but I had not yet managed to get back to the blog until now.
Spending so much of my time thinking about the stress of teaching got me reflecting on the rewards of the job. Sure, the frustrations are legion, and I have certainly expressed those in this space before. I don’t want to do that today, though. I want to share with you an assignment that made me extremely proud to do what I do. In the high school philosophy class, the students’ final exam is to watch Randy Pausch’s powerful “Last Lecture” and then go off and create their own version of the lecture as high school juniors and seniors. It is, by design, an extremely unstructured assignment. Some students are intimidated by the lack of structure, and find themselves at a loose end trying to figure out exactly what it is they want to say, and how it is they want to say it. Others find this challenge exciting, and relish the opportunity to create a project that is truly their own–which is the whole reason I leave the assignment so unstructured. Mind you, not every assignment calls for a lack of structure, but I believe strongly that this one does.
I am not certain if Morgan, the student who produced the video below, was intimidated or excited, or perhaps a little of both. All I know is that I was totally moved by what she produced, and the thought of the work she did has gotten me through some very trying days in the classroom. When a student does work like this, I am reminded why it is that I do my job, and why I still want to keep showing up every day, in spite of the stress and irritation it presents. Check it out–I think you’ll enjoy it:
In his lecture, Pausch discusses the notion of the “head fake”–the idea that we learn something best when we think we are learning something else (recall Daniel-San learning to “wax on, wax off” in the “Karate Kid”). Morgan cleverly includes her own head fake when she mentions at the end that her video wasn’t really for my assignment–it was for her kid brother. And if you are concerned, Morgan has given me permission to show this video here. She is now a college freshman at Ithaca college, no doubt impressing her TAs and professors up there.
So there I was again: the office with the frosted glass window on the door that read “DR. RICHARD SIX–PRINCIPAL.”
Dr. Six glared at me, no doubt trying to develop a coping strategy for my potential delinquency. First a pervert, now an upstart know it all? Who did I think I was–the Italian Prime Minister?
This time my father was coming. I couldn’t decide if this was a good thing. My father was the gentlest soul I have ever known, but he was working two jobs: managing a drive-in theatre at night, and driving a taxi cab during the day (bonus: when the black and white cab was parked in the driveway, neighborhood kids thought my dad was a cop. I got a welcome respite from bullying.) If he was on his way, he was interrupted from his only four-hour window of sleep. What would that mean for me?
I discovered shortly after he was escorted into the office. He looked exhausted–flushed skin, bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair. I instantly felt guilty, and sank further into my seat. And near as I can recall, what follows was the exchange between the principal and my father.
Dr. Six began. “Kevin was sent to my office for being rude and disruptive in class.”
My father eyed Dr. Six with confusion, then turned to me just as baffled. ”He was?” I couldn’t look him in the eye.
“Yes,” Dr. Six continued. ”He interrupted Mrs. Rathbun during her lesson–”
“Who the hell is Mrs. Rathbun?”
Dr. Six was taken aback. He was clearly not used to being spoken to this way. My eyes perked up a little, because I had never heard my father express impatience with anybody. Dr. Six cleared his throat.
“That’s Kevin’s teacher.”
“Rathbun? Her name is Rathbun?” Wait a minute. Dad’s making fun of Mrs. Rathbun’s name? We always made fun of her name behind her back. I suddenly started to feel better–like my father was protecting me.
Dr. Six plodded along. ”"Yes. Kevin corrected her during a science lesson.” For a second, although I cannot be certain, my father looked like he tried to suppress a smile. He then turned to me and said, “Tell me what happened.”
Dr. Six rose from his chair. “Look, Mr. Brodie, I really don’t think–”
“Yes. I’ve noticed.” The principal stood dumbfounded, his mouth agape. “I’d very much like to hear what my son has to say.” My father turned back to me, clearly uninterested whether Dr. Six approved.
I always found it easier to speak to my father, because he waited for me to finish, and never showed the slightest irritation with my stammer. I took a breath: “S-s-she s-s-said dinosaurs ex-existed at the s-s-same t-t-ime as cavemen.”
My father nodded, patted me on my shoulder. He turned back to Dr. Six. “Is that true?”
“Well, that’s not really the point–”
“Oh, I think it is.
“Mr. Brodie, try to understand–”
“You’re an idiot!”
What? What? Oh my god–did my father just call the principal an idiot? To his face? Not only that, his voice did something else I had never heard it do before: it rose!
“And that Mrs. Ratbomb–or whatever the hell her name is–is also an idiot! You’ve got a teacher doing science lessons with second graders telling them that dinosaurs and early humans overlapped! And in your wisdom decide the real problem is the fact that my seven-year-old son had the nerve to know more than she does? You don’t need to wake me up after working twenty hours and waste my time with goddamn foolishness! You need to get Mrs. Ratsass in here and explain to her what the hell science is!”
I couldn’t believe what was happening. Who was this angry man who looked like my father? Had he been possessed by a demon? Was he really the Hulk? (“Dad smash!”) In spite of my disbelief, I was beginning to grow confident that I wasn’t going to be in trouble. I was starting to worry that Dr. Six might be, though.
My father continued his rant. “What are you trying to teach him? That he shouldn’t be right? That he should just shut up and listen, even if he’s taught something false? Is that your theory of education? Where the hell did you learn to run a school? Madrid?”
“Mr. Brodie, I think that’s–”
“Shut up!” He turned and extended his hand to me. “Come on, son” his voice instantly reverting to normal. “Let’s go home.”
He led me into the foyer, and it was then that I realized that my father’s tirade and drawn a crowd. All of the office staff, several teachers and students had gathered to see what the ruckus was. My father turned and stared down Dr. Six one last time. He then slammed the door with such fury I actually jumped.
I looked back at it just long enough to see the words “DR. RICHARD SIX–PRINCIPAL” disappear, and the floor cover with shattered glass. Framed by the empty window that once held his name and title was Dr. Six’ horrified face, his eyes the size of salad plates.
Oh, man. That’s it. We are so in trouble now.
My father, though, simply took a step forward, and got in one last dig: “Serves you right, you bloody fascist.” Then we walked out, all of the gathered staff staring at us like catatonic mental patients.
After that, Mrs. Rathbun never said a word to me, and Dr. Six was transferred to another school. My father was never billed for the door.
Postscript: Later, I learned that those who espouse the belief in Creationism include the perspective that dinosaurs and early humans coexisted, given that the universe is no more than 10,000 years old. This is likely what Mrs. Rathbun believed. You know–science.
You may be happy to discover that I made it through all of first grade without being sent to the principal’s office, and was off to a good start in the second grade. I likely would have made it the entire year if my teacher hadn’t been Mrs. Rathbun (like the infamous Dr. Six, this is a name I am not fabricating).
Like many second grade boys, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. Giant, near-mythological reptiles, terrifying yet fascinating—how could a boy resist? I think what really got me hooked was a visit to the San Diego Zoo when I got to ride a giant Galapagos tortoise. I had seen tortoises before, but never one so big you could ride it! (This was also before it would have occurred to me to be troubled by a noble endangered creature being turned into a sideshow freak for profit.) Mind you, we didn’t go very far or very quickly, but just the idea that a small reptile could also come in such a huge form fired my imagination.
After that, I wanted to learn everything I could about dinosaurs, and I found myself a teacher—Roy Chapman Andrews. Long before Indiana Jones (or, to a lesser extent, Ross Geller) made archeology cool, there was Professor Andrews. He spent his life digging up dinosaur bones in the Gobi Desert and running the American Museum of Natural History, but he also wrote books for elementary school kids who wanted to learn more about Triceratops. I devoured all of his books at the local library, and got to the point where I could list all of the known dinosaur species, in what part of the world they lived, in what period they emerged and disappeared. I could tell you that, but I didn’t because of my stammer. That was all right, though—why talk to someone when you could just read another Andrews book?
I was never tempted to speak up in class until one rainy afternoon when Mrs. Rathbun began discussing dinosaurs. Suddenly, she had my attention, if not my participation. She asked the class:
“What were the names of the giant reptiles that lived in the past?”
Maria Gonzales raised her hand. “Dinosaurs!”
“Yes, that’s right, Maria! Dinosaurs!” Yes, she was right, but it hardly merited that much excitement. Who wouldn’t know that? Mrs. Rathbun asked a follow-up.
“And who else lived with the dinosaurs?”
I was pleasantly surprised that she would ask about the various plant and insect life from that period, but she then made the mistake of calling on Tony Nobiensky. In seven years of elementary school, Tony never got a single question right—including “What’s the name of our school?” It was Thomas Jefferson elementary, but Tony answered “George Jefferson.” And his answer to this question:
I snickered under my breath. Cavemen! First of all, that’s a totally inaccurate and oversimplified description of our human ancestors. (Probably not my exact thoughts at the time, but still.) Go ahead Mrs. Rathbun, be gentle. Our Tony knows not what he does.
“That’s right, Tony. Cavemen!”
What? What? WHAT???? I did not just hear her say that. Tony smiled, smugly, believing himself to be correct, and not a single one of my classmates raised an objection. They were all going to accept Mrs. Rathbun’s answer. I didn’t understand how she could tell the class this, when everyone knew that humans came millions of years after the dinosaurs went extinct. It didn’t surprise me that Tony thought “The Flintstones” was real, but my teacher? I found myself trembling, trying desperately to spit words out. Mrs. Rathbun noticed, and called on me, no doubt wondering what my problem was. I so desperately wanted to explain myself with the eloquence and factual documentation of Professor Andrews, but unfortunately the only words that would come out were these:
And then I was back in the principal’s office. What occurred after I arrived will be next time.