This is Teacher Appreciation Week, so I’m doing exactly that — remembering educators who enlightened and inspired me.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the late Melva Jean Watson, second-grade teacher at Washington Elementary, who read aloud from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Studies prove the benefits of reading to children, and I benefited both from the content of those books and the time spent listening to a capable reader weave words into a literary web.
Reading aloud was a big part of Judy Vien’s classroom circa 1980 at Marlington Middle School. One book in particular cast a potent spell: Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” read by Mrs. Vien in her soft Southern accent, so similar to how I imagined Scout, Atticus, Jem and Dill would sound.
I respected her for sharing a book that some find controversial, especially for sixth-grade students, and for not sugarcoating the expletives. Instead, she explained the racial overtones of the times; that mistreating people because of skin color, education or economic attainment is wrong; and that we were mature enough to know that saying certain words was not the same as endorsing them.
A few years later, Andrea Ogline and Nancy Schwan — my freshman and sophomore English teachers, respectively, at Marlington High School — encouraged my love of writing, each in her own way.
Mrs. Ogline, poor thing, waded through page after page of my journal entries, filled with dreary imitations of stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard and gallons of imaginary blood. Yet she was always enthusiastic in her comments, even when she would have preferred a nice Bronte pastiche to another psychopathic killer inspired by my fetish for horror films.
Mrs. Schwan submitted one of my stories to a regional contest. It didn’t win, but for the first time I thought about making a living with words and saw how revision improved my writing. She took the work so seriously that she once called me at home to address a plot flaw, just like a real editor. I am thankful for that, and how she never assumed that because my character committed suicide, the story was a cry for help. (It wasn’t.)
At Mount Union College, David Ragosin and John Bienz left their marks. The former introduced me to William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well,” one of a handful of books I regularly return to for inspiration, and he once told me I had the makings of a good college professor. My career didn’t go in that direction, but the words did — and do — mean a lot.
Dr. Bienz had such a quiet and unprepossessing manner that he put students, many of whom were secretly terrified of literature at the collegiate level, at ease. While he delivered effective lectures, he was a master of eliciting responses, both in class and on the printed page. I especially remember his Shakespeare class, where instead of a final paper, we performed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for elementary students. I was the fairy Puck, likely because of my long hair and effeminate build. (Both are victims of my forties.)
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I flattered the heck out of Dr. Bienz my first few years as a teacher, modeling my delivery on his. These days, I’ve found my own voice, but am still largely influenced by his technique.
Like most people, I am the sum total of the efforts of dozens of professionals, from Ms. Meese, the kindergarten teacher who introduced me to the Letter People, through Penny Arnold, an Ashland University professor who made me re-examine my grading methods as a practicing educator.
Even teachers whose subjects aren’t of great interest or whose styles are not inspirational make an impression. When they are passionate about their subjects, it leaves a mark. When they are not, that too speaks volumes.
If our lives are books, teachers occupy a large chunk of the acknowledgments, along with the standard tagline that while they provide a wealth of insight and information, we ourselves are responsible for any errors in fact.
“I am a part of all that I have met,” says Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem of the same name. This is especially true of teachers, whose impact lasts far beyond the final school bell and, indeed, tolls throughout our lives.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published May 9, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
education 28 Mar 2013 05:56 am
I work in a persistently poor performing school building.
At least that’s what the state indicated earlier this month when it unveiled new, “more rigorous” criteria for determining success and failure in Ohio’s public schools. My district was previously in “continuous improvement,” but this new ranking system means that even some schools previously rated “excellent” suddenly plummeted — based not on new information, but on a reevaluation of old information.
I’ve never been a fan of the way the state judges schools and issues report cards. It’s insulting, demeaning, and — most importantly — inaccurate. Designations are based overwhelmingly on test scores, and test scores, while important, do not tell the whole story.
So far this year, students in my classes have written and published three books. They’ve read and analyzed dozens of short stories, essays, poems and novels. They’ve interviewed senior citizens and written papers about the results. They’ve debated issues of equality and gender using nonfiction essays as a starting point.
Just next door, students have walked a simulated Oregon Trail to experience life as pioneers in the 1800s. Down the hall, they’ve participated in track-and-field events and measured the results to see real-life applications of science and math. One floor down, they’re learning to weld, work on automobiles and rehabilitate injured legs.
Students in my school routinely earn full-ride scholarships to prestigious colleges and universities, excel in athletics, create artwork for the walls of our local library, sing and act in professional-quality plays, produce daily news programs for television, create phenomenal meals, volunteer for local service groups, collect literally thousands of cans of food to help the less fortunate and enrich their community in dozens of ways.
Teachers in my school include first-rate graphic artists, home economists, mathematicians, journalists, valedictorians, researchers, and career educators — all sharing a goal to give kids what they need to succeed in a competitive world.
And we are nothing special.
Across the state, in almost every school and district, students and teachers are doing similar activities, excelling in similar ways, and achieving similar results. But the state takes none of this qualitative information into account when it measures our schools.
I’m not suggesting public education is perfect. Of course it isn’t. Teachers get tired, burned out, used up. Some public schools desperately need to be fixed. Some may even need to be closed, but not nearly as many as you might think based on the list of “persistently poor performing” buildings.
My wife works in a nursing home. When the state inspects her building each year, four or five evaluators from Columbus arrive, unannounced, for a weeklong assessment. A dietitian looks at the quality of the food, safety personnel look at the physical building, nurses pore over records and charts. Employees are interviewed. Patients are interviewed. When it’s over, the company receives citations for its mistakes, a window of time to fix them, and a later evaluation to determine that corrections have been made.
But in education, faceless bureaucrats in Columbus pull graduation rates, attendance numbers, and — most importantly — test scores, stack them against a pre-made yardstick and issue a determination. Nobody bothers to look at the school, talk one-on-one to people who work and learn there, or watch a single class.
Why can’t the plan that works for nursing homes work for schools? Why can’t teams of teachers and administrators, trained to look for the good and the bad, walk in some morning, observe classes, evaluate lesson plans, talk to students, parents, teachers and administrators, and make an overall assessment based on both qualitative and quantitative data? People and numbers, not just numbers and numbers.
Is it because this method is too expensive? Or is it because such first-person evaluations might reveal a different reality than the one politicians sell to the public, one that allows their rich, opportunistic friends to establish a foothold in public education and exploit it? Might such evaluations show that many educational disparities are caused by income disparities, a problem made worse by a widening gulf between rich and poor?
I used to believe this was the stuff of paranoia, but that was before I watched billionaires open their wallets and make huge donations with strings attached (I’m talking to you, Bill Gates), running — and ruining — education like a business to further their own ends while sending their own kids to ritzy academies exempt from such ridiculous mandates.
Public education still works. Don’t let the latest contrived reports tell you otherwise. Do what our lawmakers can’t or won’t — come to our persistently poor performing school and see for yourself.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published March 28, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for gun-rights advocates who keep shooting themselves in the foot — and other parts of the anatomy — in their attempts to persuade us that more guns equal a safer society.
Last Saturday was Gun Appreciation Day, selected by apparently tone-deaf organizers on the weekend before a federal holiday to honor civil-rights giant Martin Luther King Jr., whose own life was cut short by gun violence.
On this day, five people attending gun shows were accidentally shot — in Raleigh, N.C., where a man’s gun discharged, striking a trio of bystanders at the entrance to the Dixie Gun and Knife Show; in Indianapolis, where a man shot himself in the hand as he exited the Indy 1500 Gun and Knife show; and closer to home, where a man shot a fellow exhibitor while opening a box containing a gun at the Medina Gun Show. All were accidental.
“Accidental” and gun mishaps, unfortunately, go hand in hand. In 2011, 851 people died in this country because of accidents with the 310 million estimated firearms in civilian circulation.
It’s only common sense to recognize that the introduction of a gun into a situation increases the chances that a gun will be fired, intentionally or unintentionally, in that situation — sometimes to the detriment of the user and sometimes to the detriment of innocent bystanders. Also, to be fair, sometimes to the detriment of an aggressor, but not as often as we might hope.
For instance, one of several Time magazine articles published in the Jan. 28 edition (where most of the statistics in this column originate) notes that New York City police officers’ “hit rate” in a gunfight is 30 percent when the target does not shoot back and an abysmal 18 percent when the target returns fire.
Yet one of the most insistent reactions to the recent mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary is a call to increase the number of armed personnel in our schools — either with armed police officers or teachers. If a New York City cop has only an 18-percent chance of hitting a shooter, do we really expect better results from a seventh-grade science teacher?
Proponents argue that the presence of guns on school campuses is a deterrent, so that guards and teachers may never have to use those guns, that their presence is enough to keep potential shooters away.
But consider: If five people can be shot accidentally in one day at gun shows, how many accidents might we have to accept as a consequence of keeping our kids “safe” in class?
More knee-jerk legislation is not the answer to gun violence. The country doesn’t need additional restrictions on gun ownership because the vast majority of gun owners — last weekend’s accidents notwithstanding — are responsible people with the sense to store weapons and ammunition safely.
Yet we also don’t need to encourage the further proliferation of guns. With more guns than people in this country, we have enough firearms already.
It is unconscionable that the NRA is using the recent Sandy Hook tragedy as an opportunity to extend its political reach, and it is just as unconscionable that politicians, including the president, are using it as an opportunity to advance a political agenda. Both sides are preying on — and perhaps are victims of — fear. Cooler heads on both sides, or maybe somewhere in the middle, must prevail.
The sad truth is that, in 2011, the most common reason for gun deaths by far was suicide, with 19,766 people ending their own lives with firearms. Clearly, more needs to be done to bolster mental-health services in this country, which is why the $15 million that Obama has proposed to train teachers to recognize mental illness and the $40 million that would help school districts refer students to mental-health help are the most sensible components of last week’s executive and Congressional to-do list. The same sorts of services need to be made more readily available to adults, as well.
Unfortunately, the parts of the president’s proposals that will get all the attention are the attempts to ban assault rifles and high-capacity clips, which will serve only to offend gun owners who use those items lawfully and safely for recreational shooting. It will do little to curb crime.
If you own guns, lock them up. Store ammunition separately. While this greatly reduces the effectiveness of firearms for home protection (which is a false sense of security, anyway), the life you save and the injuries you prevent may be your own or somebody who has done you no harm.
Especially if you go to gun shows.
Originally published Jan. 24, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
It didn’t take long — hours, really — before horror over last Friday’s school killings in Connecticut turned into a rush to judgment and reform.
Americans took to Facebook, Twitter and blogs first to express shock, sorrow and condolences, and, soon after, opinions about why the 20-year-old shooter decided to turn an elementary school into an abattoir.
Some blamed the news media for a supposed focus on violence and sensationalism, noting that networks are quick to swoop in and fixate on numbers — 20 dead children, seven dead adults, plus the shooter himself — and compare them to other school tragedies in Columbine, Virginia Tech and, closer to home, Chardon. By sharing body counts, goes this school of thought, the media has created a twisted Top 10 to which other sick individuals will aspire.
Others looked to the removal of prayer in the schools. Conservative radio host Bryan Fischer said that God turned his back on the children at Sandy Hook Elementary because America has kicked Him and His commandments out of public schools. The only way to regain God’s protection, he said, is for school boards to authorize the return of prayer, even in defiance of the Supreme Court.
Still other bloggers and posters blamed gun laws, with the left calling them too lax and the right calling them too strict. Legislators have been too focused on the economy and the looming fiscal cliff to worry overmuch about gun control, an issue that polarizes Americans. Some opined that if teachers were allowed to carry guns, they could better protect their students in such situations.
A few thoughts:
- The media does fixate on certain stories, sometimes to the point of distorting their significance. While the situation at Sandy Hook undoubtedly deserved coverage, the nonstop barrage may have obscured the fact that, statistically, schools are still one of the safest places for kids. By contrast, one of the most dangerous places, motor vehicles, receives scant coverage.
- Individual prayer has not been removed from public schools. Students are free to bow their heads for moments of silence or to organize prayer groups to meet before and after classes. Schools may not compel students to pray. And the thought of a God who would purposely turn his back on children because of any policy instituted by adults, as Fischer suggests, should be repulsive to people of all faiths.
- I may have my membership as a card-carrying liberal revoked for saying this, but stricter gun-control laws would not have stopped the Sandy Hook shooter, who murdered using guns owned legally by his mother. What will help in the future is a greater focus on gun safety and on the importance of keeping firearms locked away, with ammunition stored separately, and with keys hidden from all but the person who legally owns the weapons.
- Of course, this greatly detracts from the usefulness (if that’s the right word) of firearms in an emergency situation, since most home intruders will not wait for a gun owner to unlock a gun cabinet, load a weapon, take aim and fire, which is why firearms in the home create a false sense of security and likely aren’t practical or helpful.
- In the wake of 9/11, law-abiding Americans lost many freedoms because of well-intentioned but overzealous attempts to protect us from terrorism. The Patriot Act, parts of which were reauthorized, was too broad and too intrusive. We would be foolish to trample the Second Amendment to enact feel-good gun-control legislation that may not do anything to make Americans truly safer.
- I am a teacher and would never carry a gun in my classroom even if I were legally permitted. I’ve read too many studies that indicate fatalities are more likely when both parties have weapons. Just as important, the presence of a gun on my person would fly in the face of the message I try to instill in my students — that reason and thought trump violence.
- Mental-health services are always among the first to see a decrease in funding in tough economic times, yet the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses notes that one in 17 people in this country has schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder.
- Statistically, the mentally ill are no more likely to be violent than the rest of the population, but a small number who are denied medications and services could turn to violence — against themselves or others — as a coping mechanism. Better to shore up compassionate services to this underserved segment of society than waste time in a fruitless battle to change gun-control laws that would affect only law-abiding citizens.
The killings in Connecticut may be a wake-up call, but if they rouse us only to the same tired rhetoric, then the tragedy is even greater. After all, in 100 percent of violent scenarios, the weapon of choice is the human mind.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on Dec. 20, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
My wife is taking a class in conflict management, so our marriage has turned into one big laboratory experiment.
I grew up in an era when people managed conflict with their fists. If the school bully gave you grief, you invited him outside at recess for a pummelling.
Unfortunately, I was always the party who got pummelled. (At least once or twice, I was the bully, too). The conflict was usually resolved when I stumbled off the playground holding my stomach. And a few teeth.
I know now, through the secondhand wonders of my wife’s higher education — and a textbook copyrighted in 1979, the same year I was being whaled on behind Ye Olde Red-Brick School — that violence is not the answer.
Instead, I should have resolved issues with reasoned speech. For example, when the class thug held me upside down by my ankles and shook the lunch money out of my pockets, I should have said, “When you threaten me, I feel uncomfortable. Please stop.”
I have no doubt this would have led to an extended debate in the boys’ room, whereupon I should have said, “When you stick my head repeatedly in the toilet (glub, glub), you make me feel (glub, glub) sad. Please (gasp!) stop.”
My wife isn’t nearly as intimidating as the neighborhood bully. Instead, this class has made her much worse.
Now she trots out a fancy psychological battery of expressions at every opportunity, which has raised her threat level on the Homeland Security Advisory System from blue (guarded) to orange (high), with some of our discussions edging my anxiety needle into red (severe).
Over the last month, I’ve been hearing lines like this: “It makes me feel secure in our relationship when you send me roses at work.” Or “When you rub my feet, I can tell you really love me.” Or even, “If you would pick a nice romantic comedy for us to watch, it would be a wonderful extension of your feelings toward me.”
Based on the listening-skills chapter, whenever she complains about something or someone, I’m supposed to validate her by saying, “I can tell you’re really upset,” or “It bugs you when so-and-so treats you that way.”
At which point she would likely turn to me and say, “No feces, famous detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle” or the shorter, alliterative version of the same.
I should also summarize her complaints to be certain I understand them. After she bores regales me with a 10-minute harangue about some minor incident at work, I’m supposed to say, “You were upset that Nicole laughed at you when you slipped getting out of the car.” This would be better than my usual response, which is to shrug my shoulders and go back to watching TV.
The most preposterous section of the book, however, is a hypothetical situation where a wife calls her husband “fatty,” as in, “Boy, fatty, look at you putting away that pie. You’re really packing on the pounds.”
The husband replies, “I don’t like it when you call me names, and if you continue, I’m not going to talk to you any longer.” Then he refuses to respond to any communication that uses “fatty,” until, after two days, she stops using the word and apologizes.
My wife asked me if I would use the same method as the husband in the book.
“I’m not fat,” I replied.
“But if you were.”
“But I’m not.”
“But if …”
(Hypotheticals are hard for me.)
So: I do not believe it would work, nor would it be my method. Instead, if my spouse insisted on calling me “fatty,” I would respond by calling her the most appalling, horrific, vile word I know; an expletive so irredeemably foul that it has never been uttered on cable TV, not even on the upper-tier channels where you have to pay extra for the good stuff; an epithet that would cause all the hair on her father’s head (if he had any) to straighten, curl, straighten again and then fall off; a term so scathing that it has been outlawed in several foreign countries and rejected by every dictionary with the moxie to even consider it; a train-wreck of a word, an atomic bomb of a word, a mincing, gnawing, mine-shaft of a word; a fiery nugget more spirit-deadening, more devastating than ten thousand “fatties.”
I’d say that, and nothing more. Where I come from, we call that the “turnabout-is-fair-play” type of conflict management.
I don’t think I’d do well in this class, which is why next semester I hope she’ll sign up for a course in human sexuality. At least those techniques would be fun to try.
@cschillig on Twitter
Do you have a blueprint for the rest of your life?
At the beginning of each school year, I invite freshmen and seniors to create one. My 100 Goals assignment urges students to draft 100 long- and short-term goals, select the top 10 and then write an essay about their No. 1 goal.
Like most good ideas, it isn’t mine. It comes from a book called “Character Matters” by Thomas Lickona. He even uses the expression “blueprint for the rest of your life” that I shamelessly stole for my lead.
It doesn’t matter who thought of it. The values-clarification is what counts — that, and getting kids to think past what’s for lunch and start considering the rest of their lives. Having just spent three hours poring over the final results, I can announce with confidence that, in the words of The Who — since I’m stealing, anyway — “the kids are alright.” (Apparently, nobody told the band that the two-word “all right” is the preferred spelling.)
Most students start the assignment certain that I am crazy, that they can’t possibly articulate 100 wannabe accomplishments. I’m gratified that most manage just fine, and some even whip up more than the required number. (They still think I’m crazy, however.)
Here is just a sampling from more than 1,300 goals that have crossed my desk in the past week. My goal is to …
Stop letting people get to me. Find a muzzle big enough for my sister’s mouth. Own an endless supply of Twizzlers. Say the most random thing in public. Learn to use chopsticks.
Take a bath in money. Stand on the Great Wall of China. Own a pink Camaro. Graduate summa cum laude. Become an extreme couponer. Be in a food fight. Grow spiritually. Zipline in South America.
Shoot par in a round of golf. See a double rainbow. Find the end of a rainbow. Make wool-free Uggs. Make my parents proud of me. Stop throwing up at cross-country meets. Wrestle an alligator. Swim in all the Great Lakes. Take care of my grandma.
Learn 100 digits of pi. Win an eating competition. Visit the real 221B Baker Street. Find something Duct tape can’t do. Own a teacup pig. Get crazy at a very important meeting. Learn to use chopsticks.
Treat my parents better. Bow-hunt a bear. Ride a cow. Stand up for myself more. Quit biting my fingernails. Not drink pop (soda) for one year. Be punked by Ashton Kutcher. Perform in a Shakespearean play. Go backpacking in a rainforest. Be a better listener. Cook like my mom.
Delete my Facebook page. Stop complaining so much. Pray every morning and night. Go out of my way to meet new people and make new friends. Send food and supplies to the troops. Exercise daily. Make sure everyone has a home. Catch the wabbit.
Stop caring what other people think. Own a cute puppy. Scream “You ain’t got no pancake mix!” during a fight. Visit the University of Michigan with my mother and spit on their campus. (She graduated from OSU.)
Help juvenile delinquents become better people. Play music in a presidential inauguration. Learn CPR. Donate a kidney. Donate blood. Visit the Louvre. Never lose the child inside. Never change who I am for somebody else.
I was going to write how great it is to work daily with a segment of the population for whom the future is filled with unlimited potential, but then I realized that we all have that same potential, hidden though it may be beneath obligations of work, home, family, mortgages and those bald tires on the car.
We should all have 100 goals, regardless of age, regardless of situation. My own list was drafted back in 2005. It’s probably time for a revision.
The assignment is pretty self-explanatory, but if you’d like a copy of the various categories I share to make the writing easier, send me an email. If you send me a list of goals, I might even use some in a future column, thereby fulfilling one of my goals: to make other people do my work.
As for the kids, they’re definitely going to be all right. Except maybe for the one who wants to scream about pancake mix during a fight. Him, I’m not too sure about.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published Sept. 6, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
education 23 Aug 2012 07:00 am
This week, I return to my full-time position in sales.
In this line of work, approximately 20 to 25 customers at a time enter my warm, inviting office, where pictures relating to the product hang tastefully on the walls. They take a seat and, whether they know it or not, begin to evaluate my pitch.
After about 45 minutes, a bell rings and the customers get up and go to another presentation. Or to lunch. Or to study hall. Four minutes after this first group exits, another group arrives, and so it goes throughout the day.
These sales seminars last for about nine months, with time off for weekends and holidays. Periodically, I evaluate how well the customers (and I) are doing — are they buying? what is their potential to buy even more? how can I help?
At the end of the seminar season, clients receive a three-month sabbatical before being assigned to other sales reps. These new reps will hopefully build on my selling techniques, just as I built on the techniques of those who had the clients before me.
To avoid confusion at parties, when people ask me what I do, I identify myself as a high-school teacher. But my real job is selling.
My specific products are reading and writing skills, but those are really just end products along a spectrum that includes self-reliance, productivity, critical thinking, the supremacy of education over ignorance and good citizenship.
I have many tools at my disposal — technology, textbooks, film, audio recordings, and skilled members of the community — but as any good salesperson knows, the number one asset is the seller’s skill in matching clients’ wants and needs to the product.
After all, I don’t want merely to make a sale. I want to make them want to buy. That difference is key. With the former, buyer’s remorse sets in almost immediately, and the next day you’re right back where you started. With the latter, the student finds the subject and skills so inviting, so interesting, so cool that they intrinsically want them, that living without them isn’t an option.
If all this sounds cold and calculating, it isn’t meant to. I recognize that my students are individuals, that they come to me with a variety of past experiences, good and bad, that have molded them into the people they are today. Like all of us, they are more receptive on some days than others. My job is to meet them where they are and advance them. Or more to the point, make them want to advance themselves.
Some days, I’m the sage on the stage, delivering direct instruction. Other days (the best days) I’m the guide on the side, watching and cheering as they practice and hone their abilities to analyze, strategize, and effectively communicate their positions. To paraphrase the title of a book by Donald L. Finkel, I must remember the importance of teaching with my mouth shut.
Everything I do — or don’t do — is an opportunity to close a sale. Appearance is important, so I lose a few points for mustard-stained ties and scuffed shoes, but I make them back with traits that really matter — the bemused grin, self-deprecating humor, corny joke, and incisive question. Like Charles Dickens’ Old Fezziwig, who “has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil,” I strive to make class fun, both for my own selfish entertainment and because it makes happier customers. And happier customers return more often, buying instruction in essay writing, rhetorical analysis, or the simple joy of a well-turned sentence.
It’s a sad consequence of the state of contemporary education that I have to clarify my little sales metaphor here and say that, while I see a definite and beneficial correlation between sales and teaching, this doesn’t carry over into the more business-oriented models of classroom instruction. The endless testing, the drill-and-kill “instruction” considered good teaching by legislators and too many administrators, the rating and sorting and grading of schools — all these drain the life out of the classroom and create a self-fulfilling prophecy to allow for-profit businesses to swoop in and “save” our kids while good teachers lose jobs and reputations, and large corporations feather their nests with more millions.
But those are unhappy thoughts for another time. The beginning of a new school year should have room only for optimism, unlimited horizons and the honing of the perfect sales pitch.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published Aug. 23, 2012, in The Alliance Review
Here is my Aug. 18 column, first published — as always! — in The Alliance Review:
At the close of each school year, I ask my Advanced Placement English seniors to write an essay modeled on National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” series. We share the essays on our final exam day, an experience I — and hopefully they — find more rewarding than yet another pencil-and-paper test. Because I never ask students to do something I’m unwilling to do, I write and share, too.
This summer, one of my former students (Hi, Sam!) sent me a message saying that he thought of my essay during a trying time. He didn’t know it, but his words reached me on a bad day and made it better. Our exchange became the impetus for my sharing the essay today. (Well, that and the fact that I’m just back from vacation and this is an easy way to meet a deadline.)
This may be schmaltzy, and people who know me well may wonder if I really feel this way. I do.
I believe in the power of right now, today.
Somewhere out there is a sunrise to watch, a mountain to scale, a pretty girl to kiss — even on a wet Monday morning or a meeting-filled Wednesday afternoon.
Our 24/7 society has become so focused on “what’s next” that we forget about what’s now. In my generation, a really bad band called Loverboy sang “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend,” and damned if we didn’t believe them. We’ve become so concerned about hanging on until Friday that we neglect the importance of Tuesday, so intoxicated by the thought of sleeping in on Sunday that we overlook the joy of waking up before dawn on Thursday.
For 50 weeks out of the year, we strategize for the other two. We breathlessly anticipate maturation and graduation, only to reminisce with nostalgia a few years later about the carefree days of high school. We fantasize over meeting Mister or Miss Right, getting married, having 2.5 perfect kids, a suitably fat bank account, and a nice house in the suburbs, only to look back wistfully on the freedom of our college days when we had barely two dimes to rub together. We drag ourselves to work, dreaming of the day we can retire, only to bemoan the fact that we are retired, wishing we had something worthwhile to do.
A colleague hammered this point home a few years ago when he told me that he liked to live “in the moment” with each class he taught, to be fully there for students, responding to their questions and enjoying their interactions. It made me realize what I wasn’t doing, that in the back of my mind a little voice counted down the minutes until I could announce tomorrow’s homework assignment and reminded me of papers I had to grade. Since then, I’ve tried to change and become more attuned to life in the moment — not always successfully, but I’m working on it.
I’m not sure, but it’s possible that our future-oriented obsession is a byproduct of marketing techniques. We are, after all, the most advertising-saturated society in the history of the world, having been exposed to an average of 40,000 sales pitches a year since childhood. And each of those messages is essentially the same: Your life will be better when you own that tricycle, bicycle, first car, or sports car; when you see that new film, read that new book, or download that new album; when you lose 20 pounds or gain 20 pounds or hide 20 pounds. People who are content and oriented in the present don’t buy; people who are discontented and oriented in the past or the future, do.
I believe that we need to reclaim the primacy of today. I believe that Mondays are inherently as good as Fridays, that three days before graduation is just as exciting as graduation day itself, that we can find something about each day and each moment — from the smile of a friend to the feeling of satisfaction we get when helping others — to make each day special.
Take time each day to enjoy where you are and to do something small but memorable. Blow the seeds off a dandelion. Take a friend to lunch. Play fetch with a dog. Re-read a favorite poem, or better yet, read a new one. We have only a limited number of “todays.” I believe it’s best to make each one count.
I had my junior Advanced Placement students write analyses of books, movies or songs for their final exam. They did a great job. Because I believe in recycling everything, below is my sample analysis of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” which seemed appropriate given the time of year.
What do you get when you mix four guys who can barely play their instruments, a raspy-voiced singer with a penchant for subversive lyrics, and a producer who knows how to wring the best performance possible from a young band?
In the case of “School’s Out,” the title track on the Alice Cooper album of the same name, you get a classic.
The song opens with a simple three-chord riff that has, since the time of its original release in 1972, become instantly recognizable to generations of listeners, an anthemic announcement of the end of another school year. When front man Cooper begins to sing, his is the voice of youthful anarchy, speaking out against drudgery imposed by parents, teachers, principals, and school boards:
Well we got no choice
All the girls and boys
Makin all that noise
‘Cause they found new toys.
The lyrics are childlike, the rhymes and near-rhymes simple and predictable. In the next verse, which also starts with a repetitive “well,” he sings,
Well we can’t salute ya
Can’t find a flag
If that don’t suit ya
That’s a drag
By combining “salute,” “flag” and “drag” with the idea of rude kids who don’t respect their elders’ authority, Cooper taps into the gooey center of the generation gap, both in his time and ours. Adults almost always see kids as lazy and disrespectful, but framed in the anti-Vietnam sentiment of the early ‘70s, this verse implies that kids are unpatriotic, as well. “Drag” creates a negative connotation with cigarettes and illegal substances, further winning over kids while alienating all the right adults, the ones who think that school should be year ’round and that kids should be nothing more than tiny adults.
For the band, it’s not enough that school is out for summer. It has to be out “forever” and “blow to pieces,” a vicious little sentiment that has taken on a more sinister meaning in this post-Columbine era. In contrast, the group next offers a kiddie choir intoning the classic schoolyard ditty: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks,” a nostalgic reminder of a simpler time.
Punning always plays a part in Cooper’s lyrics, and in “School’s Out,” he offers great examples, trading on dual meanings in the lines, “Well, we got no class/And we got no principles” before delivering the perfect follow-up, “and we got no innocence/We can’t even think of a word that rhymes.”
Producer Bob Ezrin, who would go on to work with Pink Floyd on Another Brick in the Wall, keeps Glen Buxton’s guitar solo short and fuzz-ugly and adds a distinctive distortion effect to the climactic ringing bell before allowing it to wind down like a record on the wrong speed. At three-and-a-half minutes, the song is a polished little rock-and-roll gem that grows more lustrous with each passing school year.
Ultimately, Cooper and his original fans have grown older than the adults who were originally outraged by the group and its onstage antics. Instead of a source of outrage, “School’s Out” is now a piece of Americana, a throwback to the “good old days” of the ’70s.
There is irony in watching Cooper, now 60-plus years old, perform a song about reckless, youthful abandon, but he can still sell it. Maybe that’s because no matter how old and jaded we become, inside each of us is still that little kid sitting on the edge of his seat some fine, final school day in late May or early June, waiting on a bell that signals the start of grand summer adventures.
As the new television season gets underway, networks have missed the perfect opportunity to piggyback on the country’s newly minted education obsession with a remake of “Welcome Back Kotter” for the high-stakes testing era.
Surely you remember beleaguered Mr. Kotter and his Sweathogs. Comedian Gabe Kaplan played Kotter, who returns to his alma mater to teach a baker’s dozen of incorrigible students, including Vinnie Barbarino (“Up your nose with a rubber hose!”), Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (“Hey, Mr. Caaar-TEAR”), and the uber-annoying Arnold Horshack (“Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh!” with hand thrust into the air). Kotter is regularly hassled by clueless Vice Principal Mr. Woodman, who dislikes both Kotter’s unusual teaching methods and the subhuman Sweathogs.
In the updated version – informed by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the federal government’s love affair with charter schools at the expense of public education, and one-sided documentaries that paint teachers themselves as little better than adult Sweathogs – we find that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In this new version, Kotter is still perpetually in danger of losing his job, only this time it’s because he has failed to improve his Sweathogs’ test scores in various target demographics, which include students from impoverished homes, students from specific racial and ethnic backgrounds, and students with special needs. Now when Mr. Woodman bursts into Kotter’s room in the middle of class, he’s waving spreadsheets, raving about “value-added” and “adequate yearly progress” and crunching numbers based on formulas that nobody outside of John Maynard Keynes understands. Audience laughter ensues.
In one episode, some of the Sweathogs apply at a swank new charter academy funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. However, they are denied admittance because the academy fears their scores will adversely affect their reputation in the community. The Sweathogs return to their original high school, which the charter school has cherry-picked for its best and brightest, thus perpetuating the self-fulfilling prophecy that public schools are stuck in an irreversible downward spiral. In a cameo appearance, Melinda Gates is hit upon by John Travolta’s Barbarino character and flees the school in disgust, blaming Kotter for his lack of classroom discipline.
In another installment, Kotter is temporarily replaced by an Ivy League graduate of Teach for America, whose résumé consists of a six-week crash course in educational theory. Applying a strict business model to the classroom (because it worked so well on Wall Street a few years ago), the new teacher realizes a modest increase in test scores. However, like most Teach for America candidates, she leaves after her two-year commitment, just at the point where, according to most studies, her teaching would become as effective as an experienced educator’s.
Kotter is rehired, in time to be asked to serve on a special panel to explore solutions to the nation’s educational woes. Fellow panel members include politicians, millionaires, and politicians who are millionaires. Kotter is removed from the panel when the other members realize he has actual classroom experience. He is replaced with Oprah Winfrey. Her appointment makes no sense, but it does give her a chance to say, “Up your nose with a rubber hose!” for the audience’s raucous applause.
The next week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invites Kotter and his fellow faculty members to a special showing of “Waiting for Superman,” the new documentary about American public education that demonizes teachers’ unions. Afterward, Duncan has Mr. Woodman threaten to fire the bottom ten percent of teachers, based solely on test scores (because idle threats are the optimal way to motivate people to do their best).
When Kotter points out that firing the bottom ten percent creates a (ital.) new (end ital.) bottom ten percent, and that it unfairly targets teachers (usually new and inexperienced) who work with the most challenging students in large urban districts, the audience boos. The very prospect that learning could be contingent on factors such as quality parenting and socioeconomic background is absurd; everybody knows public schools are solely to blame for all our nation’s ills. Besides, politicians have learned that blaming the same people you rely on for votes is ballot-box suicide; the teacher witch hunt is a much more convenient scenario, which is why they concocted it.
In a special episode, Kotter loses out on a merit-pay bonus by half a percentage point and must take an evening job working alongside some of his students at a local pizza parlor. He is so tired that he can barely stay awake, let alone be the dynamic entertainer-educator-innovator-surrogate parent-magician needed in the classroom. Meanwhile, the local newspaper considers running his students’ test scores on the front page, thereby exposing him to additional ridicule, all punctuated with a raucous laugh track.
I have more story ideas, but I doubt that more than half a dozen episodes of my proposed new “Welcome Back Kotter” would air before everybody finds something more interesting than education to worry about, like who the new judges on “American Idol” will be and will the nation survive this economic recovery. In that order.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter (cschillig).