Things that make you go "awe"…

This cartoon appeared in the L.A. Times’ comic section last week:

Dan Piraro’s comics have forever amused me, with a number of them actually gracing our refrigerator, despite my wife’s professed dislike of a cluttered fridge.  I found it, to make the point of this post, “awesome”.  Wow, that was profound, as adjectives go, no?

Admittedly, bringing Kate (shown below) was enough to engender a sense of “awe” in me, as I began to consider what becoming a father was about to entail.

But this post, despite the gratuitous baby photo is not about becoming a Dad…let’s get some things immediately out of the way.  It’s about being in “awe” or finding something “awesome”.  At various points during the early part of the school year, I will revisit this topic.  But first off, definition time:

awe |ô|
a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder : they gazed in awe at the small mountain of diamonds | the sight filled me with awe | his staff members are in awe of him.

archaic capacity to inspire awe : is it any wonder that Christmas Eve has lost its awe?
verb [ trans. ] (usu. be awed)
inspire with awe : they were both awed by the vastness of the forest | [as adj. ] ( awed) he spoke in a hushed, awed whisper.

suffix forming adjectives meaning:
1 productive of : loathsome.
2 characterized by being : wholesome.
• apt to : tiresome.

awesome |ˈôsəm|
extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear : the awesome power of the atomic bomb.
• informal extremely good; excellent : the band is truly awesome!

But it wasn’t just becoming a father that was the only thing in my life which caused me to feel truly “awed”.

The detached propeller of the Queen Mary was probably the first thing in my life that I can remember inspiring any sort of “awe” in me.  I was probably 6 or 7 years old when I saw it, and I can still recall the chill I felt trying to comprehend the sheer size of it. These days, something that would engender a similar response would be something about the size of a B-52 bomber’s tail fin, like the one on display at the March Field Air Museum in Moreno Valley, that’s going to get the same sort of reverential reaction from me.

Watching Zubin Mehta conduct Beethoven’s Ninth during the inaugural season of the Walt Disney Symphony Hall in 2003-2004 was also cause for awe.

The fact that I can likely remember the few times I’ve seen something correctly described and defined as “awesome”, is enough to validate the point of the Bizarro cartoon. has at least 18 separate webpages devoted to finding a definition to the word, with a number talking about how overused the word has become in our vocabulary.

The video, above, talks about how to construct an “awesome” button that will insert a random synonym into a document when the urge to use the adjective strikes a writer.  This old column from a Portland, Oregon-based newspaper, hammers home a similar point about its overuse as well as how it’s infected the language as a result.  This article tries to do exactly the opposite.

Ultimately, like so many things in the culture today, the overuse of a particular word, whether it be “awesome” or something else, (like another of my peeves “closure”), simply reflects a general sense of intellectual laziness with which we use the same words to describe just about anything.  As a result, ordering a pizza, taking in a movie, staying up a bit later, sending the students out for early recess, among other things, are all described as “awesome”.   In my experience in the classroom, I can generally tell which of my kids have had experience in the many after-school academies which dot the area around my school.  The manner in which they use their 50-cent words are similar to how a number of their classmates don’t, simply because they don’t have it in their vocabulary.  So, when a word like “awesome” arrives, or any of its more contemporary running mates, you can almost count on its overuse.  The kids are copying what they hear.  My little girl is no exception.

(To whit, when the Charlie Sheen story broke, no surprise from me to hear my preschooler traipsing about the house muttering the word “epic”.)

So in bringing this back to the original Dan Piraro cartoon, my job, when I hear my students overuse a limited vocabularly is to politely demand some clarity.  While tongue-in-cheek overuses like “awesome” is one thing though, hearing other words like “gay” get abused is the unsettling component that worries me from an educator’s standpoint.  The pressure is on to push for precision, not allow for the verbal shorthand, and to continue to stress that words shouldn’t be thrown away too lightly.  As Katelyn reminds me from the back seat, she hears and repeats virtually everything.  While many people she comes across will share with me how impressed they are by her vocabulary, I’ve got to make sure that how she’s using her rapidly increasing mental word bank fits the right situation.  I don’t want to have to apply asterisks in order to understand her.


Buying some peanuts sans Cracker Jack…

Jered Weaver, if only he sold the cotton candy…

When I first considered even sharing out about taking my daughter to a baseball game, I had to think about how I wanted to even tell the story.  For me anyway, it was unavoidable that I began to consider how much I should bash on Arte Moreno, the Angel owner, and his irrational belief that Orange County is a part of Los Angeles.  (If you’re not familiar with what I’m specifically making reference, this is, more or less (because it is Wikipedia) an unbiased summary…) Of course, if you believe this man, he wants nothing to do with Los Angeles.  Which, incidentally, sets up a New York-style situation wherein a major league sports team’s metropolitan market resides in another state, but now I’m digressing…

It is worth noting however, that on the day of the game, the local paper was running Angel stuff below the fold–even while the Halos were battling to stay within reach of the Texas Rangers AND after a huge comeback win, while the Dodgers, in the midst of a terrible year, was getting all the attention by declaring bankruptcy while their owners were divorcing.  Oh yeah, Anaheim is definitely LA, Arte, and the Angels are gonna replace the affection for the Dodgers all across Southern California, right? 

But anyway, Moreno would have been too easy of a mark for me.  Despite his insistance upon a geographic impossibility, not to mention a total ignorance between the relationship between denizens of LA County versus those of the OC, in the end, did I want to write about someone “geographically ignant” or about what really mattered–my girl?   I mean, even at her age, Katelyn’s natural geographic curiousity (she loves to read a Disneyland map, and she can pick out California on a U.S. map), she intuitively knew that we weren’t traveling to Los Angeles by heading south on the same freeway we used to get to Disneyland.  So, deciding that I wanted to take Katelyn for her first *real* (explanation to follow in a moment) major league baseball game was never really that much of an issue.  Nor was it a question of *where*.  After all, this has been the season of this sort of stuff going on in the Dodger Stadium parking lot.  While, in many respects, I’ve come to prefer the Dodger Stadium experience (at least before it turned into a John Carpenter film.  But again, I’m digressing…the bottom line is that I felt more comfortable, given present circumstances, taking Katelyn, by myself, to an Angel game. 

Now then, despite my own preference of baseball as my fan game of choice (or college football, depending upon the season), trying to share that relationship with my preschooler has been a checkered effort, to say the least.  But to say the most, this past week’s (3-game series, with a Thursday day game) match-up between the Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels of Arte Moreno was meant to be my daughter’s first trip to a Major League ballpark–or, at least, the trip that she was supposed to remember.

As opposed to our first trip, that the wife and I are still trying to forget… (insert flashback screen effect here)

Our first attempt was inadvertant.  Katelyn was still in her infancy, and my wife was ending her first year as principal of her current school.  One of her teachers had scheduled her husband’s birthday party at Dodger Stadium.  Amber, Katelyn, and I, were invited, and despite my misgivings, off we went.  I had ample misgivings.  The tickets were for the infamous “All-You-Can-Eat” Pavilion in RF.  It was during the Mannywood heydey.  And, ultimately, it was a day game.

Ideal for an infant, right?  And an infant with a fever?  Of course!

Um, no.  Big mistake.  We had no idea she was running warmer than she should have been, but we didn’t help matters with the series of misadventures that followed.  The stadium’s outfield seats offer little if any shade.  My original plan had me buying Loge Level seats (which are shaded throughout the game), have us go and sit in the Pavilion for an inning or two, and then head over to our regular seats.  It made sense, but having not been to a Dodger game for a time prior to this particular game, the remainder of the afternoon was a comedy of errors, none of which was funny.

This was around the time the McCourts had changed the traffic patterns in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, so we wound up leaving the car too close to the Sunset entrance, which meant a long hike up the hill to get to the Loge Level area, but then further, since we were sticking to our plan to visit in the RF Pavilion.  We made it worse by running late, and by our choice to take our umbrella stroller and its limited shade, instead of our bigger stroller.  As such, we were pushing Kate through a rapidly heating parking lot, trying to get ourselves over to the Pavilion, all while the game was going on, and we were trying to reach the ticket holder to meet us at the gate to get us in.  Eventually we got in, and to me, the scene in the Pavilion was very close to insane as could be imagined.  As food was placed on the counters, it was quickly grabbed off not unlike a feed trough.  Cold water was lukewarm, at best.  At a certain point, it began to resemble aid being dispensed to desperate disaster victims.    

Eventually, we got ourselves out of our seats and below the pavilion, where there was shade, realizing that Kate wasn’t feeling all that well, and was likely having her fever getting worse by the sun exposure.  Either way, we had to leave–forget the idea of moving into the Loge Level seats. Later, after we had gotten home, the wife and I kept asking ourselves if we really were *that* unfit of parents for the entire Dodger Stadium fiasco.

But that was then.  I was determined, at some point, that I wanted to take Katelyn back to a ballgame.  My best friend had told me that he felt more comfortable taking his little girl to a game round about 3 years of age. So last summer, I grabbed 3 tickets on Stub-Hub for an Angel giveaway night–Snoopy Bobbleheads–that I wound up eating because of a last minute change of plans.  (I later found and bought the bobble for Kate on eBay.).  Consequently, I made it a point again this year to try again, identifying midweek day games as a likely choice, given, what I thought would be less of a crowd and more of an opportunity to take Katelyn around and show her the baseball crowd atmosphere.  But as luck would turn out, the better of two choices I had, an early July game against the Detroit Tigers fell smack into my summer school assignment, leaving only the Ranger game as my choice.  Nonetheless, I had no idea that the game would wind up with 38,000+ in attendance.

Driving up, I could already tell, even without the entry gates open, that it would be larger than I expected.  I thought to myself that scoring $10 Terrace level seats was therefore serendipity given such a large crowd.  Perhaps it might have been better had I been thinking about getting into the parking lot.  Unlike Dodger games,   Angel games are much cheaper, but I had mistakenly read somewhere that it was $8 rather than the $10 it actually turned out to be.  Naturally, I had $9 + change when I hit the ticket booth.  It was at this point that I had my first break of the day.  Clearly seeing my discomfort at having to try to turn around to get out of the parking lot, to go find an ATM, the parking attendant allowed me to go in for the $9.25 I had on hand.  As I drove off, I realized I hadn’t caught her name, already embarrassed by the fact that I had apparently read the wrong website for parking lot information.  (Either way, I am acknowledging her now–thanks!) I headed into the lot, found a decent spot, and, in a bit or irony, pulled out the very same umbrella stroller that had been a part of the Dodger Stadium fiasco 3 years before (including the stadium claim tag still attached).  With Katelyn still not 100% from a broken leg a couple of months prior, I thought having some stroller help would make it easy to get her through the Stadium parking lot.

So on we went, with me admittedly far more nervous about the upcoming several hours than my little girl happened to be…as we walked towards the large helmets that mark the home plate main entrance to the stadium, I went over with Katelyn the expectations and ground rules that I need to be followed–including the obligatory reminder that I needed smiles for photographs.  As I managed to get her towards the entrance. waiting for the gates to open, one of the ticket takers swung one of the larger gates open, stepped out with a portable ticket scanner, and zipped us inside the stadium.  At last…

First stop, swag.  Into the gift shop where the hope was an appropriately sized shirt (no luck there, as the smallest child size carried was small) along with a cap.  Given the team’s 50th anniversary, there were a number of replica throwback caps, including this one, worn by the team from 1972 to 1992.  Ultimately, this was the version Katelyn chose to have me get, after I made it a point to show her several of the other versions, and to my pleasant surprise, she agreed to wear it throughout the remainder of the afternoon.

Proceeding through the bowels of the stadium, I had to try to remember how to get back up to the Terrace level, not to mention there was a need to get food, a fact Kate reminded me as we passed down the first base side of the stadium to the general area of our seats.  Eventually, I remembered the stadium ramps, a link to the old Anaheim Stadium configuration, and pushed Kate up towards the Terrace level and, at last, towards a view of the field.

This was supposed to be the moment of Bob Costas clarity, Katelyn marveling at this “cathedral” of green, of players running across the field, catching, throwing, and hitting.  Since it was early, and we were fairly close to the home plate area, I had already pictured it in my mind.

Sadly, no.  Kate was definitively unimpressed.  I watched her face eagerly for a reaction.  None was coming.  She wanted a hot dog.  And cotton candy.  And peanuts.  No Cracker Jack (I tried…)  Worse, as I glanced across the field, with the exception of some Angel bat boys, and the Rangers’ starting pitcher CJ Wilson stretching with his bullpen crew, there was nothing in the way of player prep.  “Dammit”, I thought.  I should have known.  Early day games in Anaheim have generally meant no batting practice.  Consequently, there would be no chance for Katelyn to sit and watch balls get hit all over the place, in the same way my dad and I had sat watching, or other times when I’d gone to games with my best friend.  The communal act of batting practice, an experience lost on my wife for instance, who prefers to get to games right before they start, would have to wait for another day with Kate. 

Off we went for food, and the inevitable discovery, I suppose, that it’s hard to try to balance a food tray while pushing a stubborn umbrella stroller to get to our seats, which were just past the left field foul pole.  Then, the next challenge:  for the first time, I realized just how deep stadium steps would have to be in order to handle the seats to let people see over each other.  I raced the tray down to our aisle, then back up again to walk Katelyn down the steps, fully terrified that at this exact moment, someone would snatch up and kidnap Katelyn while I tried to situate a hotdog tray!  Once Kate was settled, I realized I had forgotten the stroller at the top of the stairs, so I raced back up, and brought it down, this time worried that in the 20 seconds of having my back turned, Kate would disappear.  I actually made it a point to introduce Katelyn to the stadium ushers so she could recognize them by uniform should something happen to me.  Alas, the usher uniforms of my youth had been replaced by white buttondowns, vest, and straw hat, but it was nonetheless recognizable enough to a 4-year-old, who spent a chunk of our time, pointing out ushers and security people to me as we went about our afternoon. 

Thankfully, despite my preparations, my worst fears for the day would not come to pass, and after I was able to get Katelyn sat down and eating, I could focus on trying to inculcate my little girl into the rhythm of a ball game.  But there was no batting practice, and aside from random live action from the Blue Jays/Mariners game being telecast on the big screen scoreboard, Kate had a hard time really seeing and asking questions about what was around her.  In retrospect, while I didn’t want to spend top dollar for seats near home plate, partly because I didn’t know how long Katelyn would hold up, being nearer to game action would have enabled me to better talk to her about the game, much like we had done a week or so earlier when I took her bowling for the first time.

Probably the first real reaction from Katelyn, aside from her nearly immediate discovery of the cotton candy vendor, were the fireworks during the national anthem.  I was proud that Katelyn listened to me, removed her hat, and attempted to hold it over her heart, even though I had neglected to even explain what the purpose of what we doing at that time.  She stood at attention about as well as you could expect an active 4-year-old could, but when she heard the fireworks go off out of the centerfield rock formation, that immediately became her focus for the remainder of the game.  Little did it matter that Mssrs. Wilson and Weaver would hook up in a nice pitcher’s duel during this afternoon, Kate wanted to see the rock formation, or, barring that, a home run that would bring fireworks.  Of the two, I knew I could deliver the former, and, as it turned out, neither starting pitcher, nor their respective bullpens would allow the latter.

Not surprisingly, while I’ve gotten better responses from having my girl watch snippets of sporting events with me, the game in front of her wasn’t registering all that much.  I can only guess that our view which, I mentioned above, was part of the reason.  I also know that the game occurred smack in the middle of her nap time, so it was not surprising to see her trying to recline on less-than-comfortable-for-napping stadium seats.  After a couple of innings of the game, wherein the Angels wound up scoring the game’s only run on a dropped flyball by the Rangers’ Endy Chavez (and to which I was oblivious because I wasn’t keeping score of the game as I normally would have done, as well as not paying real attention thanks to trying to keep my kid plied with peanuts and pink lemonade, we finally took ourselves up and out on a walk towards the “rocks” in centerfield. 

(at left: stopping by the Family section over the bullpen…)

I began to notice early on, how much more advertising was in the Stadium than had been in the past as I remembered it.  While my wife has jokingly noted that she was convinced that I had ADD, glancing about the park certainly triggered something if I, in fact, had it.  Growing up, this (scroll down to see archival photos of the configurations of the stadium since it began as Anaheim Stadium) 
was what I remembered from my youth and young adulthood (including sitting in the old upper CF bleachers at the 1989 All-Star Game to see this land just below our seats.  But now, I finally realized how much of the stadium that Arte Moreno had given over to advertising wherever he could stick it.  Katelyn was particularly curious of the Monster Energy drink sign placed over the hitting background, and I could only mumble openly to myself about Moreno’s own ADD.  (Stay classy Arte!)  Still, success was only footsteps away, Katelyn had reached the stadium’s rocks nearest to its waterfall.
Naturally, she demanded a chance to actually look at the water, and much like the California coastline it was built to resemble, the water didn’t quite look the correct color.  But that was OK with the girl, and we continued our little walk, past the Budweiser Patio and towards a makeshift carnival game area for kids.  I hd thought that this would be a good place to take Kate during the game, except that there wasn’t much to see in the middle of the week.  It turns out that the day to come is Sunday afternoons, when the area becomes a family area with arts/crafts, ubiquitous face painting, and some skill games.  Still, two of the games were open, without any line, Katelyn was able to show me how much I have to work on her ball throwing, and as we moved towards the ring toss, I realized that we needed some work in that area also, although the fact that the prize was the same Snoopy bobblehead she already had, I didn’t feel so bad.  Eventually, armed with a pink souvenir bat that we picked up on our way back to our seats, this was Katelyn’s reward…

While I was convinced the cotton candy was going to have me killed when my wife found out about it, I was fortunate in that the concept was more appealing than the actual treat.  She only ate a couple of actual bites before handing it back to me.  Unlike the leftover peanuts from earlier in the afternoon, which I bundled into my backpack, Katelyn was tiring by this point, not really watching the game.  By this time, it was the 5th inning, and I began to realize that the Rangers were actually losing (by being so focused upon Kate, I thought the game was still a scoreless tie, after I missed the Angels’ run score in the 2nd) by a run.  I tried to watch some of the action myself to re-acclimate myself, making the now restless preschooler sit through the crucial 6th inning, wherein the Rangers loaded the bases with two out, before Jered Weaver got 1st baseman Mitch Moreland to strike out to end the inning, and the Rangers’ last real threat of the game.  Ultimately, I was able to coax one more seated inning out of Katelyn to make it to the 7th inning stretch, where she was able to hear “Take Me Out to the Ballpark”, a song she remembered from preschool.  Once the song faded from the stadium’s loudspeakers though, off we went on another tour of the stadium, making a stop for lemonade, and again wandering over past the same territory we had covered in our earlier jaunt.  Ultimately, what impressed me the most, was how Katelyn had now taken 1 1/2 trips around the stadium’s terrace level on foot, since I had left the stroller under our seats on both sojourns.  I knew that my kid HAD to be exhausted.  Seeing her make a slight protest as we hiked back around to our seats, after I chased off some tween boys who had commandeered our seats, I could tell that she would could not sit still for the rest of the game, and I had to calculate the speed in which the 8th inning flew by to make the decision that it was time to leave, especially if I didn’t want to get trapped in the inevitable traffic heading out, mixed with the beginning of rush hour on I-5 heading north, on the way home. 

Within minutes of exiting the stadium up Gene Autry Way to the Santa Ana Freeway’s carpool on-ramp, this (at left) was what I saw in my rearview mirror.  Of course, no one had made her *want* to take nearly two complete trips around the stadium this afternoon.

Job done. 

This weekend, we will try this again, this time in San Diego, at Petco Park, at a Padre game.  Here’s hoping that I get my wish for some batting practice this time around. 

While Phineas & Ferb are at it…

What I tend to call “the silly season” is upon us, now that summer school has ended for me, and I actually get to settle into an unfamiliar pattern of trying to figure what the hell I plan on doing with myself, and, more importantly, my preschooler.  The wife, as a 12-month employee, is working.  Either way, my days promise to be busy, but nevertheless, thoughts never stray too far from what lies on the other end of the summer months.

Summer school this year has nonetheless caused me to have to periodically check my district e-mail.  Along with the summer school traffic regarding required lesson planning and test results, comes a usual e-mail from my boss, asking if any of us wants to take on a student teacher.  It wasn’t always thus;  I can recall my first few years as a teacher, when only a select few got student teachers.  At the time, in addition to student teachers from CSULB, Pepperdine, among others, were also able to get placements in our school.  As a Pepperdine graduate, eventually I was deemed worthy, and I was lucky to have 4 student teachers from their Orange County campus in my classroom.  After my last student teacher 4 years ago, Pepperdine somehow stopped using my school for a student teaching location, and, in retrospect, I was somehow happy.  (1)  I had become good friends with my final protege but (2) becoming friends with my student teachers after they left made their struggles to find jobs quite painful.

The job market for teachers right now is not the best, and it hasn’t been for a while.  As I type this, I am awaiting the fate of one young teacher with whom I’ve become acquainted, whose job prospects are completely dependent upon another teacher friend who was student teaching at my school around the same time my own protege was finding her way in my classroom.  Honestly, becoming close to and working with young teachers was a lot like rooting for players on some perverse form of the TV Show Survivor.  On the other hand, these are education’s future, and in a couple of cases, I strongly feel that these teachers have the potential to be far better a teacher than I can ever hope to be.  I worry for the profession if these folks are lost to the classroom because of a political climate where education is seen as some form of luxury and drain upon state budgeting.

What I am sharing out now is something that I wrote 3 years ago, as piece for the UCI Writing Project.  I’ve removed names of the people involved, as I am close to all of them still, but the rest of the piece is intact.  Perhaps it’s cheating to use something I’ve written previously, but the mere fact that I got that e-mail about student teachers this fall, coupled with the hand-wringing I’m doing waiting to hear if a friend will get her job back, has me in the same frame of mind now, as I was then…

The key into the closet door, and then it’s unlocked…“Um Huuuhhh…”

Since she was a 4th grader in my classroom years ago, I have come to recognize J.’s standard acknowledgement to herself that “it’s a good thing I’m here to help you”.  It is.  An August day in my classroom, which is, and it’s all too typical for me, a mess.   I am determined to make this the summer I clean it out, and having enlisted J.’s help—again—we’re about to start when I hear a knock on my classroom door.  

Glancing out the window, I see L.’s self-effacing smile on the other side.  I motion to her to come in while trying to keep a Darth Maul action figure out of box of graduated cylinders.  Introducing J. to her, I find it odd that she’d just drop in, until I learn the real reason…    “Hi, I just wanted to come by…[our principal] hired me on for the 3rd grade job.”

I know the back story, beyond the obvious need our school had for another 3rd grade teacher thanks to over-enrollment.  With class-size reduction still in place in our district, we had a slot for another teacher.  L., having spent her first year out of the credentialing program as a substitute teacher, has managed to snag the open spot—an open spot originally meant for someone else.  My school however, embodies the law of unintended consequences, and L. becomes the beneficiary, exemplifying the maxim that you make your own luck.  Branch Rickey once described luck as being the residue of design; for L., at least for this past school year, it has been.   Now though, the school year is over, and her full-time contract was only temporary.  L. is now looking for another job.

To paraphrase Graham Greene’s observation about suffering, anxiety need not be increased by numbers, because one person can contain all the anxiousness the world can feel.   Each and every year over 20,000 new teachers typically graduate with credentials in a state where over 300,000 currently work as teachers in the classroom.  But on Ed-Join, only 555 elementary and middle school classroom jobs (including substitutes) are listed as open.  Of those, there are only 182 job openings locally in Orange and Los Angeles counties.   Still, anxiety doesn’t increase by these numbers, because in L., I see all of the anxiousness.

Hi!  Hope summer is treating you well.
Question for you

Her message is detailed.  Reading it, I see that I need to talk to this girl but I can’t right now, especially not in a text message.  I switch phone screens under the table to get a message back out.

REPLY:  can i call u this afternoon?

Some time later, L. and I talk on the phone as I head out to the parking structure.  I have a list of errands to run, (and don’t forget Kate’s in daycare, [the wife] reminds me) but nevertheless, I know talking to someone right now is important and I have to find the time to speak to her.  A phone call doesn’t feel right for this conversation so I call my wife to rearrange  my afternoon before I call L. back.  L. is fine with meeting at a Starbucks.  We agree on a time and head our respective ways.
As I drive up the 405, I have never deluded myself into thinking that what I have to say could be that insightful for anything, but in this young teacher’s nascent career, I have stumbled into a sort of accidental mentorship, trying to gently guide her through a nearly barren job market for teachers.  I don’t mind the responsibility necessarily, and I am somewhat honored that someone other than my 5th graders feel that I have something meaningful to say, but L. has also become a friend.  That fact makes it worse, because I have no easy answers for her, and as a friend, I also might be charged with disclosing painful truths.  One of my 5th graders might muse over how “jacked up” these circumstances were.  “Yup” I mutter to that imaginary kid.  L.’s past year at Burbank impressed not just me, but others on my staff.  She was eager, enthusiastic, but also possessed of a quiet determination.  She comes early when the sun is rising and stays late after it’s gone down, often beyond reason.  L. even managed to find the time to help others with their adjunct duties, such as my work as the Yearbook adviser,  and she and I bonded because she knew that my legal issues with the baby’s adoption had nearly put me hopelessly behind.   But that was last year.  The 3rd graders whose presence had brought L. to Burbank were now headed to 4th grade, and L. is not being considered for one of the 2 open 4th grade spots.  Admittedly, unlike any number of new teachers, L.’s somewhat lucky.  Her circumstances will see her return to my school in the Fall, as she has accepted an open 50% slot working with another of my close friends, R., in second grade, with the option of subbing on her non-working days.  A 50% slot is not full-time she and I agree, and while we both talk about ways of find some way to make it work to her advantage, such as a return to school to get her Master’s degree, finding a full-time gig begins to dominate our conversations.

I remind myself that this process isn’t about me, and never has been.  My involvement is strictly as a spectator, and perhaps for that reason, it becomes so frustrating—I have no control over what will transpire.  I don’t know.  And it is in this “not knowing” and not being able to think of just the right thing to say to L. that my own anxiety grounds itself.  Worse, this is the third consecutive summer, following the struggles of young teachers as if I was following my fantasy baseball teams.  Two years ago, it was J., my student teacher that year, who finally, in mid-August, snared a job in Gardena teaching a 4/5 combo.  Last year seemed worse, because there were more people involved and because one of them was C., another of my student teachers—probably my best.  It was A., a former real-world co-worker in another life, and now the mother of one of my 5th graders.  And, it was yet another J., a former student teacher of my close friend and colleague, K.

Each of these women emerged from the cauldron relatively unscathed.  A., who had been a student-teacher in Lennox, got hired at the school where she trained and where they already held her in high regard.  C. had it worse, although partly through her own mechanizations.  Deluding herself into thinking that she could teach RSP, I got a call from her one evening.  She is in tears over discovering that she might be changing diapers on 12-year-olds if she wants to fulfill her dream of teaching in Downey, where she grew up,  because the only jobs they’re offering are for teaching the profoundly mentally delayed.  C. had made the rude discovery that this was not the journey she necessarily embarked upon.  Luckily for C., whose personal character mixes up the energy of a hyper teddy bear with the fierce loyalty of a mother grizzly, this specific chapter of her story will also end well.  My wife…is now a principal in [a local district], and seeing much of herself as a young teacher in C., and needing to hire several new staff members, my wife chooses her as one of her first hires.  But she’s not finished.  Late in the summer, when my own principal dragged his feet over whether or not to extend a job offer (for an open 3rd grade slot) to J. #2, Amber then arranged for an interview for a position at another elementary school in her district.  I am not surprised when J. #2 is hired.   She is good at what she does and I had warned my principal that he risked losing her on several occasions, then reiterated this warning to other staff members at my school who hoped that J. would take over the open 3rd grade position.  Because my principal either could not make up his mind or, in his words, had his hands tied by the district, J., who at this point, needed to look out for herself, cuts bait at my school, and heads to Whittier to accept a 1st grade job there.  Loyalty, in J.’s situation, can’t be reciprocated if it’s not backed up by actions.    Ironically, the open spot intended for J. falls into L.’s lap.  

The public never sees these stories about teachers, if they ever consider teachers at all, beyond the political demonization of teacher unions.   No, how the public still views schools is as Jonathan Kozol observed they did years ago:  they think that schools merely need the “savior”, the teacher as hero, be it Jaime Escalante, Joe Clark, Glenn Holland, or, most recently, Erin Gruwell.   They make it seem so easy, because the public demands it, all accompanied by the hip-hop soundtrack that makes money, but money that will never see the school systems that need it most, the ones that can’t find a job for people like L.  For any of the stories about teacher shortages, along with the need to cover so many impending retirements over the next several years, they undoubtedly assume that it won’t be that hard finding a job as a classroom teacher.   Older teachers don’t necessary retire “on time” and staffing needs can often get easily covered by creating combo classes or other sorts of  administrative subterfuge that makes it seem like jobs are open, when, in fact, they are not.  L.’s situation is likely not destined for Hollywood, but it doesn’t mean she hasn’t earned props.   Several of us on my staff have personally gone to our principal to vouch for her, and later on, when I get home, I will dash off another e-mail about her to my principal, opening up a message from the previous week.

>>> 06/23/08 1:22 PM >>>
greetings!  because j. is leaving us, we have an opening in fourth grade. the first step of the process to fill this position is to find out if anyone currently on staff would like to move to fourth grade.  if you would like to be considered for a move to fourth grade, let me know!
[my reply]
It wasn’t too long ago that I would have jumped at the chance to return to fourth grade. That having been said, you just hired someone for 2nd grade 50% slot who would make a fine 4th grade teacher, L.  If, in fact, there will eventually be another opening for the extra 4th grade slot, she would be buttressed by 2 veteran 4th grade teachers, an ideal situation for a newer staff member. – Hector

But that will be tonight.  I finally exit the 605 now and head down South Street, past the Cerritos Mall towards the Starbucks.  Finding a spot relatively close, I glance to my passenger’s side and see a familiar gray Corolla also pulling in.  As I walk up to the entrance, L. greets me with her usual quick smile.  I envy her ability to keep her perspective in the circumstances she finds herself.  Heading up to the counter, she starts to clue me in.  When we order drinks, I am quick to pull my wallet out to cover the order.

It is the least I can do.

As it turned out, L. wound up getting the fourth grade position, albeit after the school year had started.  She has tenure now, and is safe, at least for the time being.  And I wound up e-mailing my current principal that I would pass on taking a student teacher.  It’s getting too hard. 

Found: Poem

A common evening activity at our hourse is always bathtime, at least when I’m running it.  (The wife tends to be more of a “turn & burn” type of gal with respect to Kate’s bathtime…)  On my nights, Kate gets unfettered free time to indulge her LIttle Mermaid fantasy, athough when she’s playing with her baby bath doll “Chimbodes”, she sounds more and more like Ursula.  Either way, since my work desk abuts the bathroom, one of the things I like to do is play my usual random music for Kate to have a listen.  Usually this involves such masterpieces as Butterpants (from Shrek 4) or Baby Monkey (Riding Backwards on a Pig) (which, not surprisingly became my 6th graders’ theme song the final two weeks of the school year just past).

This past weekend, however, Katelyn became enamored with this “mash-up” from the 2009 Pixar film, Up, called Upular.  More information can be found here.  Here is a link to the artist involved, Pogo.  Watch for yourself:

Pogo, as he describes his own process, “Video for my track ‘Upular’, composed using chords, bass notes and vocal samples from the Disney Pixar film ‘Up’. The track also features a small number of percussion samples, including an obvious kick drum, crash cymbals and hi-hats.”  I does help, I will admit, that he had an Academy Award-winning soundtrack with which to work his magic upon.

Pogo has done others that I’ve inevitably introduced to Kate, and they’re some I thought she’d enjoy.  But for some reason, she’s quite taken by a tune that has Wilderness Explorer Russell “singing”.  She has asked me to download the song, to go alongside, for instance, more mainstream fare from the soundtrack of Disney’s “Tangled”.

Now, to be honest, the lyrics to this “Upular” aren’t immediately sonically apparent.  But they are drawn from the film’s screenplay.  In essence, it represents a sort of “found poem”, wherein the work of a particular author is reconfigured into a new piece.  Interestingly enough, I was exposed to the concept of found poems while working in the California HIstory-Social Science Project and later in the UCI Writing Project.  

For whatever reason (and with me, there always tends to be…), I finally tapped into the experience that I had in the UCIWP, while struggling to figure out how in the hell I was supposed to teach 3 rotations of English-Language Arts at my school.  I had my students create found poems from literature that they were reading at the time.  I have a number of examples now, that I can use when I revisit the project come this Fall, but where “Upular” comes in is that in addition to my little girl’s affinity for the song, what I like is that it now gives me a teaching tool to use as a way of introducing the assignment to this year’s crop of 6th graders, to go along with what I culled last year.

The idea of found poems, therefore, are not new and unique, but they involve an understanding of the parent text that does force students into comprehension beyond the surface.  In popular culture, they are achieving a certain cachet.  In one instance, Sarah Palin’s recently released e-mails from her time as Governor of Alaska were given this treatment.  Even more striking is how another artist, while not going the poetry treatment, used Barack Obama to create this. 

Force it! It’s OK…

I still can’t get over that this news reporter actually had the huevos to try this joke out, for real, on the man.

I often share a particular joke on my students, the majority of whom are Spanish-speakers.  The past week, in my Summer School class, as we delved into a lesson on words in context, I shared the story yet again.  Delivered in Spanish, in a nutshell, it involves a recent Mexican immigrant who is looking for a place to stay in L.A.  Walking down a residential street, he stumbles across a house with a sign that says “For Sale / No Lease”.  As this is written blog, I can’t phonetically get the words to sound as they would as they would being spoken, but translated, it means:  “Force it, don’t worry!”  And, therefore, the immigrant breaks into the house to spend the night.  He’s later arrested, and has to explain to the police officer the how and why of the sign he read. 

In Spanish, the joke is funny. (Or at least I think so…) But without the context of language, it winds up sounding a bit weird.  It’s context, it’s colloquialism, it’s the very nature of language used in a way to bring about a humorous set of results.  As a teacher, I’m surrounded by it constantly.  In the televised fiasco above, the Aussie broadcaster obviously overestimated the amount of colloquial English the Dalai Lama had in his background, hence the embarrassment above.  In my classroom, there are times each and every day where the amount of context can determine whether or not a student is even understanding whatever the hell it is I’m trying to explain, teach, or whatever…

This has been a consideration at my school site for some time.  As I’ve matured as a teacher, I’ve been even more cognizant than I have ever been regarding context because a common mistake we make while teaching is assuming that loquaciousness will equal background knowledge.  Some kids will talk quite a bit, and even talk over themselves and myself, and, as a result, will miss the crucial link and background they need to understand what’s really being said.  I’m forever shaking my head at how kids will laugh at a sound, but fail to respond to real humorous stuff, simply because they can’t quite understand what they’re really supposed to laugh at.  Not surprisingly, later on, when they’re in a situation where they’ve got to be following the classroom discussion, they’re understandably lost.   

On the other hand, another mistake that gets made is underestimating what the students do know.  I’ve often seen other teachers (and an administrator) fail to give the kids credit for the things they’re expert about.  That’s often where I have to go to reach them, in order to do the usual teacher thing of “going from the familiar to the unfamiliar”.  It’s frustrating to hear, as I have had occasion to observe this past year, that the lower kids won’t get it anyway.  

Well, dammit, then maybe we shouldn’t be claiming that *all* kids can learn when we just admitted that they can’t.  In effect, these kids have learned, they’ve established context, but it’s my job to try to find the key to unlock that.  Amazingly, the look on the Dalai Lama’s face in the video above, is remarkably similar to the look my ELL’s give me when I’ve said something, and they’re trying to polite and look like they’re trying really hard.  The worrisome part comes when they still don’t get it, and yet they’re being singled out for a failure to understand.  Sadly, who is the joke really on? 

Cardinal Rules

I have been working on a much longer blog post that I can’t seem to get finished for various reasons, not the least of which involve actually trying to find some specific way to wrap up the point of the post without an inordinate amount of birdwalking on my part.  Trying to do this more regularly has been a challenge, in that a multitude of ideas are already forming about what I want to write about, but trying to organize them logically has been the trickiest part.

But this little story was worth jumping up the ladder, even though it’s more of an anecdote that just occurred this past Wednesday.

I took a trip to the Apple Store over in Brea for one of their One-to-One classes (partly because the Cerritos location, which is closer, but is always booked for these sessions).  I’ve been struggling with my MacBook for certain tasks that I ultimately found out are likely due to how Firefox interacts with my printer (as opposed to Safari) and not by anything I was necessarily doing.  The problem was driving me nuts, and even with several other Mac users on my school campus, I finally realized I needed some help from one of their corporate mouthpieces.

I arrived at the store about 20 minutes early, partly because even though the Brea store is not as busy as the Cerritos store, it’s still got hella lot of people milling about getting their Apple on.  But I wanted a seat in their work area, and, lucky for me, once one appointment cleared out, there was one available.  So I dropped down my backpack, hoisted up on a stool and got my MacBook out.

One of the Apple trainers came over, a polite twenty-something, asking me if I needed a power cord.  Given that I had forgotten mine at home, I took him up on the offer.  Then this:

Glancing at my Cal decal on my Mac:  “You’ve got to be kidding me!”, pointing to both my computer, and my Cal hat, which I had set down on the counter.

Switching to what I call “Whittier Defense-mode” (which is tactic honed in Whittier, because surrounded by U$c fans, I go on offense with the fact that unlike the majority of Trojan football fans I encounter in Whittier, I actually went to college!), I replied, “Well, that’s where I went to school.”

“No, this is unbelievable, I just accepted my offer to start there in the fall, at Haas.”

“Really?”  And so it went, with me beginning to extoll the virtues of my
alma mater…

On we went for about 5 minutes or so, with me switching into my usual college night mode, but specifically mentioning, for his purposes, the local Cal Alumni club.  It was a good conversation, but I could tell that this kid didn’t need my affirmation.  After all, while he was leaving the Brea store in the Fall, Apple had already set him with a gig at the store closest to the Cal campus. “Unbelievable”, I thought to myself, “this kid is set”.

At around this point, thinking that I needed to get some things done before my class, and not wanting to monopolize his time, we parted ways.  During this time, an older gentleman had been sitting next to me, bearing mute witness to our entire conversation.  He had been working on a photo project during the chat I was having.  As soon as the young man left me be, the older gentleman leaned over:

“I went to Stanford…”