Poem, Poem, Who’s Got the Poem?

I started this month with the best of intentions: everyday, write a poem and post it on facebook. A worthy goal, and the type of challenge I normally relish.

Crash and burn this time. Publicly. This is my response to the questions about where the “Roses are red, violets are blue” has disappeared to.

The last year–fourteen months, if I’m really willing to dig into Dr. Freud-land–has been tough. I’ve made decisions that hurt people I cared about; I’ve been in situations that have shaken my image of who and what I am. I’ve experienced loss of several varieties, and I have found that my normally teflon-pysche is scratched and dull, and that when the 3 am voices come taunting, I’m as vulnerable as a 12 year old. I’ve let people down, and I’ve caused people to worry, not just about situations, but about me.

I am not as good at glib and glitter as I used to be.  My shadows–Sardonic and Clever–are hiding. I don’t know if they’ll ever return, but I’ll admit I miss them. I guess I thought that I could summon them to write poetry, stroking them till words purred out of my pencil…no. The words that came have been honest, and searching, and raw.

I hate being exposed. My idea of an insult is to call someone a “Care Bear,” and airing the patchwork threads of my soul in the tepid breezes of facebook–I can’t do that.

So here’s my new challenge: I’m going to write, whatever words I can wrench from my pencil. Any that are worthy, I’ll share. Maybe.

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“My most significant relationship is with my phone.” Yes,that sentence did slide out of my mouth Thursday, hours before I learned Steve Jobs died. And since my twitter feed exploded with tweets about his death, instead of analyzing how pathetic my relationship with my phone is, I’m considering my relationship with technology in general.

The first personal computer I used was an early Mac. As a grad student, I was the editor of a journal called “Perspectives,” which featured reviews of new children’s and YA books with whole-language approaches for teachers. I got the gig because of my writing and literature skills, but the first time I used the Mac, I figured out how to copy and paste–a skill that the professor who sponsored the journal had been unable to master in the three weeks he had owned the computer. That was my first hint that I “get” technology.

So even though I own almost no Apple products, Jobs was important in my daily life. MacWrite–the early word processor on the Mac I used–changed my writing process entirely; the “prewriting/drafting/editing” paradigm that I had to teach my students was obsolete by the time I started teaching…at least for people who had the ability to use a word processor. Writing was, and is, a more fluid, organic process, and the “steps” make no sense when you’re doing them all simultaneously.

As I remember it, when Windows was finally invented, I was thrilled because it meant my school could afford “fake Mac” type computers (since Macs were well beyond our means). Jobs’ and Apple’s invention of the iPod spurred a whole industry to catch up by creating mp3 players, then the iPhone again pushed innovators to try to re-imagine what phones could do. And the iPad, as ridiculed as it was when it was announced–well, the whole tablet industry uses the iPad as the product to beat.

Jobs’ was not essentially a technician. Many people invent or design amazing things…that no one uses. Before the iPod, few people were wandering around thinking that what they really needed was a way to stuff their entire CD collection in their pocket. Before the iPhone, no one was sad that they didn’t have a phone that could surf the net or answer email from. My students don’t understand that; they’ve had access since they were born. The world they know is radically different than the world that their 30 year old teachers came into, and a whole sci-fi novel away from what I was born into. Steve Jobs’ vision–and marketing team–were a major part of our society’s transformation.

I own a Windows-based PC, and my Android phone is rarely more than an arm’s reach away. For reading ebooks, I have a Kindle, not an iPad, and my personal mp3 player is from Creative Labs, not Apple. But my tech usage is a key part of my identity, so I wonder who the next Steve Jobs will be–because there will be another innovator. Everything that can be invented hasn’t been, yet. Somewhere, in a garage right now, there is a kid tinkering with code, surrounded by soldering tools and random technological parts, thinking, “ok, this time it has to work.”

And that’s how Steve Jobs’ will live on.


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Pass It On

I’m great at words, letting them roll out of my mouth in Mississppi-sized river of noise. But when deep emotion is involved, I go mute, opting for the cheap laugh if I have to say something. Often, though, the words do come, and I attempt to atone for my silence with a flurry of blogs, emails, and text messages.

This is one of those times. Today I went to the reunion of my high school church youth group. I’d known it was coming up, but didn’t decide to go until late last night when I made a run to the grocery for hamburger to make sloppy joes–yes, I know that’s only one step above taking potato chips. I considered taking chips, so I feel like a culinary wizard.

Why was I so reticent? I’m not sure. When I was in junior high and high school, this group of friends and my involvement in the church youth group was incredibly important to me. I tend to be very tribal–I have a few very close friends at any given time, but the tribe I’m in gives me a spiritual, intellectual and emotional home. For years, the youth group was my tribe. Other than my theatre/drama friends from high school and college,  I have never come close to replicating the sense of “tribe” I had there, and I know that I have tried, both consciously and unconsciously.

As a teacher, I can easily say that my greatest influences were my youth group leaders, Dick and Donna Snider. They taught me more through their patient, loving treatment of my friends and I than any college class or mentor I ever had. Their willingness to open their home and their hearts, non-stop and without qualification, to whoever wandered in, set a standard that I try to match everyday in my classroom.

So again, why was I so reticent about going? It’s odd to hear my friends–people who are 16 and 17 and 18 in my mind’s eye–talking about their grandchildren or what they’re doing since they’ve retired, but they are amazing people who are doing awesome things. Once I got there, I was eager to catch up with everyone.

But…it’s been a long, long time since I was the girl they remember. I’ve made a lot of choices that would confuse or disappoint my friends, and done things that I never imagined I’d do. Faith has always been complicated for me; I ask too many questions, follow too many bunny trails in my search for “truth.” While there are definitely points my conservative Evangelical friends and I would agree on, the places our faith journeys have diverged would trouble them. Even knowing that, I am comfortable being who and what I am. I just wasn’t sure I fit there anymore.

During the “sharing” time, when we were supposed to give an update about what we were doing and what our ministry is now, I avoided all that. I opted for the cheap laugh, in fact, when I got an opening (Sorry, Sharon–I really wasn’t going to give your husband my number….). Part of the reason that I was vague was simple: I don’t feel comfortable describing my career as a teacher as “my ministry.” I learn and gain as much from the kids and my coworkers as I give–and more honestly, I’m in a slump and know that at this point, I’m avoiding the deep connections and caring that “ministry” requires. I’ve been burnt and exhausted and known too many secrets, too many troubles. I’m stepping back, holding back–I’m letting someone else do the heavy lifting for a bit. I’ve carried enough burdens. That’s true in my professional life, at least.

That’s what I didn’t say today. The emotional tenor of the reunion struck me deeply, but I can’t openly sniffle and tear up like so many of them. I deflect, I joke, I nod sympathetically.

I sat there today, hearing all the stories about children’s accomplishments and meaningful lives, but I know that when I talked one-on-one with people, I heard other parts of their lives: health issues, professional disappointments, personal set-backs. Those felt more real to me than the litany of good, and those are the conversations I needed to have to know that I am still part of the tribe.



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Football. And Nascar. And….beer. Yes, lots of Beer**

I didn’t think I’d forgive Barbara Ehrenreich for her narrow-minded, condescending book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America a few years ago–and I still would like a couple hours to talk to her about it, preferably with no heavy objects in my reach–but this article about modern feminism may redeem her just a bit.

In the article, she analyzes the state of current day feminism, and laments that the single “woman’s issue” that generates any discussion is breast cancer. Slap a pink ribbon on something, and you’re woman-friendly. No need to deal with social issues or even health issues that are controversial and make women shrill and unreasonable. Wrap the world in princess pink and we’re all “feminists” because we all care about a woman’s issue–even though some science suggests that current standard approaches may not be the best way to treat prevention, detection or treatment of breast cancer. No worries–we’re still very concerned about women and we show that with the ubiquitous pink ribbons.

Does anyone besides Marlo Thomas and Gloria Steinem call themselves feminists anymore? Well, and Phil Donahue and Alan Alda, I guess. Even I hedge around the word, instead going into long explanations of what I believe; the label is too laden with baggage for me to expect I will be treated seriously if I just say, “yep, I am. You still getting used to the idea that women can vote?”

The feminist movement of the 70’s had so many issues to deal with that they ended up tripping over themselves like a centipede trying to tango. Instead of being known for groundbreaking work in insuring living wages for “pink collar” jobs and opening opportunities for women, the image that lasted seems to be bra-burning and combat-boot-wearing lesbians.

The record numbers of women athletes, women in grad schools, woman professionals and management–that is the product of hard work and talent, no nod given to their mothers and grandmothers who argued and voted and changed the game. My sister’s high school counselor offered her two options for her professional future: nurse or teacher. I can’t imagine anyone working with teens today that look at a girl and see her only options as housewife, mommy, teacher or nurse. It wouldn’t be tolerated. Thanks, Gloria Steinem.

A truly brave candidate for national office–or a truly daring reporter–would fight to open a dialogue again about the issues that have gotten buried in the kinder, gentler, pink-ribboned womens movement. What is the impact of women in the work force? Should society be doing something differently? Are latchkey programs and quality day care priced so the working poor can afford them? What messages are reality television shows giving our young women–and our young men–about relationships, sex, and life? We need thoughtful people acting as the third estate to make those topics dinner table conversation.

The article by Barbara Ehrenreich resonated with me today. I listened to an adult and a group of teens arguing whether boys or girls had it worse. The adult (NOT me) and most of the teens agreed that women have it easy, or at least easier than men. The girls who were drawn into the argument had their opinions dismissed because they were “just girls and they would stick up for girls without seeing how it really is.” Not one girl tried to counter that argument. All I could do was sigh. These kids, members of the sound-bite generation, just wanted to outshout each other, not discuss. And the adult issued proclamations and  dismissed the girls’ opinions as emotional, not logical. (This is why I drink Pepsi at school. It keeps me busy so I don’t scream. The miracle is that I don’t spike it with rum. Yet.)

I’m thinking that next year, I’m not going to teach. I should stay home, barefoot and pregnant, watching talk shows and reality television. I could dress in princess pink and wear a pink ribbon every day. It would be a much easier life.

**Do you really need me to explain the title?

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Remembrance of Things Past

And much more am I sorrier for my good knights’ loss than for the loss of my fair queen; for queens I might have enough, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company.
Thomas Malory, Le Morte de Arthur

A new school year started this week. It’s the first week in years–11? 12?–that Drew Chiles didn’t amble into my room and give me hell about whether I was going to teach the kids anything worthwhile this year. Or something similar. As much as his sudden death shocked our school last spring, I didn’t have an insight or memories or comforting words to spread as a balm over the people looking for answers.

I still don’t. What I do know is that this week, I’ve missed my friend more deeply than I expected. I don’t feel sorry for him–he’s past all that. I won’t post messages on facebook for him or write him notes; the man I knew would raise one eyebrow, stare, and comment on how droll superstition is when supposedly intelligent people act on it.

I also won’t engage in hyperbole about him. He was human–and flawed. The last couple months of his life, he and I had some intense disagreements, and we had some very hard conversations. That’s history–and I can honestly say that he and I don’t have unfinished business; before he died, we’d come to terms with what needed to be dealt with. At least as much as we could at the time. People have loved to corner me for sympathetic “talk” about whether Drew and I were “ok.” Guess what: I have no qualms about avoiding and shading the truth to most of the “concerned” people–if it was their business, they knew all the details they needed.

But this week, loss is hitting me hard in several ways, and the lesson I’ve taken from Drew’s sudden death is this: the wheel keeps on turning. There’s a new teacher in his room, a young, energetic man who is even teaching ONU classes for credit, so our kids still have that option. The Senior English/senior social studies combined class is still going on, with the new teacher and I inventing the curriculum to fit us as we are now. Our school may miss Drew the friend–but Drew the teacher has been replaced.

I miss Drew’s scoffing, devil’s advocate arguments with me, I miss sparring intellectually with him–and sometimes, I even miss his mind-games and power plays. But the wheel turns. The person I feel sorry for isn’t him–it’s me.

As a eulogy goes, it’s not much. He’d be the first to tell me I’ve engaged in needless emotional rhetoric without making a salient point. And he’d be right….but the wheel is turning again, and he’s getting further away. Next week, or next month, I’ll walk in his room without thinking of him. Soon, I’ll remember to quit calling his room “Chiles room,” and the kids will know it as Mr. Vermillion’s room. And the ghost fades further away, and the wheel turns another notch.


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….and the match goes to…….Sigmund!

Epiphany #20437: WWE wrestling and strip clubs are essentially the same thing. Obvious differences, I’ll concede, but at a primal level, they function the same way. Maybe.

Beyond the obvious trait the two share (waxing–lots and lots of waxing),  both are vicarious proofs of Freudian principles. In Civilization and Its DiscontentsFreud claims that men have certain immutable drives, and that sex and violence were two of the strongest.  (yes, I know I’m simplifying, but I still think my theory works).   Wrestling and stripping  allow modern man, constrained by the morals and laws of civilized society, to feed those urges to some degree within a framework that doesn’t violate social norms…..at least too much.

In both cases, the human body is the center of the experience. In wrestling, the idealized male form is hyper-muscular and commanding; in stripping, toned and at least somewhat buxom–and highly flexible–is the ideal. The puritan Judeo-Christian heritage in this country is morally judgmental about the celebration of the body and the glorification of the carnal, and both wrestling and stripping are colored in mainstream America’s minds because of this bias–although admittedly, stripping is even more stigmatized in large part because puritanical America rejects sex as good, clean fun–strippers are either victims or sluts, neither good connotations; I don’t think wrestlers have the same moral condemnation overlaying their image in the covered-dish-dinner crowd, but neither stripping nor wrestling fans tend to champion their passion at the church potluck.

In fact, the celebration of brains over brawn as the hallmark of a “civilized” society resonants through Western culture. St. Paul talks about overcoming the flesh more than once, and Pythagoras admonished people: “Choose rather to be strong of soul than strong of body.”  Often, people who take “too much” pride in their body are viewed as superficial; both strippers and wrestlers make their living by reveling in their bodies–in our culture, that’s easy to dismiss as vain and shallow.

Both entertainments are highly profitable–in a capitalistic society, that matters. Even in this economy, wrestling is showing a solid profit. Larry Flynt, sex business mogul, claims about $500 million a year profit--and less than $9 million of that is from his publishing. Flynt’s strip clubs are the anchor of his business–and like wrestling, there’s a solid market for what he’s selling even in these tough economic times.

The reason is simple, if Freud is right: his audience craves power/aggression and sex, especially when times are rough.  Watching a wrestler or a stripper both offer ramification-free escapism: no cops involved for really punching whatever needs punched; no nagging about taking out the garbage or bills that need paid when sitting in a strip club watching an idealized female.

This isn’t the whole picture, and there are some crucial differences, too. Because I’m not a regular patron of either, there are important angles I’m sure I just don’t get. And as much as I want to wave a feminist banner and write a screed about why these appeal to men for vicarious release, I suspect that I’m going to have Epiphany #20438 when I realize what the female equivalent of these two entertainments are. I’m sure there’s something, but I’m not sure what….yet. Reality TV? Shopping? Lifetime movies? I hope not….still thinking.

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…And George Was Curious

When I heard those words as a child, I knew that the Man in the Yellow Hat was going to have to rescue Curious George in just a few pages. The formula was clear: George got curious, George got in danger, George got rescued…usually by the Man in the Yellow Hat.  Even now, George’s antics lead me to intense questioning, like “why did the Man with the Yellow Hat think it was a good idea to leave George alone,” and “Wait–why did the MitYH take George from his happy existence in his native habitat to live in an urban environment?”

I didn’t, however, learn that curiosity was bad.  That is a major difference between me and almost all of my 11th and 12th grade students. In a recent class discussion, I used the word “curiosity,” and was struck by how many students seemed to assume that word had negative connotations.  I thought–hoped–that was a fluke—so I did what any English teacher would do: assign a writing prompt dealing with curiosity. I gave the students four quotes about curiosity, quotes by Walt Disney, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt–people who knew a bit about the topic. The students were to choose one quote and write about what they believed it meant and their reaction to the ideas in the quote. (That’s the short explanation of the assignment, by the way.)

I read almost 40 papers discussing those quotes. The students’ reactions were nearly unanimous. Being curious was dangerous. People who were curious were at great risk of getting hurt, getting shunned, getting punished. Several of the teen mothers and many of my students who bear a great deal of responsibility for younger siblings were graphic in their descriptions of how important it is to teach kids to stay out of things, not make messes, not bug people with questions. A few conceded that being curious could be helpful, but not generally.

These are kids who want to succeed at college, kids with dreams of being lawyers and engineers, doctors and veterinarians. These are kids whose home lives offer little support for those dreams–and with little understanding of the difference between a dream and a goal. Their parents care, but have themselves come from a culture that penalizes curiosity.  They limit themselves to what they are told to learn, told to think about–in the manner and context that they are told to, of course.

Current educational rhetoric blames teachers for all the ills of student achievements–and I will admit with no reservations that improvements in teaching are possible and needed–but when students have been taught even before they reach their first formal classroom that being curious is bad, student’s are only motivated to do the basic amount required for whatever grade they (or their parents or coach) deem acceptable. Students who are curious are a prime component in creating “excellent” schools and “effective” teachers.

I talked about Curious George with some of the students. A few remembered those stories–mainly from the short cartoons that sometimes show on PBS. Without exception, they agreed George was very bad and needed beat so he’d learn.

….and with that, I lost the curiosity that lead me to discussing the topic with them. There was nothing left to say.

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