“Ain’t Got a Clue What He Put into this Stew…”

“…Must’ve scraped it off the street.”

–Drinkers, “Master of the House” from Les Miserables

Full disclosure:  I enjoyed the musical Les Miserables, seeing the touring company perform the musical twice in Los Angeles during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

And, just this past weekend, the wife and I had a chance to enjoy the recent film adaptation of the stage musical.

(Warning:  Spoilers follow.)

Rather than turn this post into a full blown review of the film, which, I must admit, I did enjoy, I came across this odd commentary by writer Steven Zeitchik in the Los Angeles Times today:

After nearly 150 minutes of Tom Hooper‘s “Les Misérables,” Jean Valjean has said a tearful goodbye to Marius and made him promise to protect his beloved Cosette. It is heartbreaking; it is satisfying. There are tears, and melancholic smiles.

But like a late-night infomercial, there’s more. A wedding follows. Marius and Cosette rejoice. Ah, a nice wedding finish. Wait, why is Sacha Baron Cohen back to make trouble? The movie can’t end with Sacha Baron Cohen making trouble, can it? Of course, it can’t. There is another scene. Candles. A convent. Valjean is still alive! No, no, now he is dead. But wait, he is given a new chance in the afterlife. The end seems to take, well, an eternity, as Hooper seems to grope around for an ending to match Hugo’s novel.

Steven Zeitchik is even more clueless than the drinkers in Thenardier’s tavern.

For starters, Les Miserables, the film, is an adaptation of the stage musical.  Of course, it was based upon Victor Hugo‘s novel, but the musical is, in and of itself, after 27 years, its own distinct creation.

Tom Hooper, the film adaptation’s director, was chosen with the idea of bringing the musical to the screen.  

The movie is not an exact match for the musical.  Director Hooper, on the differences which the set design and the presence of the camera led to specific changes:

What happened is, once we made the commitment to having it sung through, you then realize that any changes you need to make are going to need to be made through the books and the music. So every change I did was in the musical form, by writing lyrics. But because I had the original team, the original lyricist and composer, a lot of the changes are invisible. People aren’t even commenting, they don’t even know that they’re there. There’s a slight perception that we just took the libretto and shot it, and that’s true for quite a bit of it. But there were many interventions we did when we converted it to the screen that were simply about making the storytelling better.

Some weren’t even about lyrics. A really good example of something that struck me again last night, which was a change, was in the first battle, Eddie Redmayne is rushing to get a barrel of gunpowder and then get it torched to blow the whole thing up, and a soldier trains his gun on Marius. In the musical, Eponine’s been delivering a message for Marius, and she arrives at the barricade, she’s already been shot and it happened offstage, and she just happened to get shot as she’s walking down the street.

But the ending to the musical, is also mirrored in the ending to the film.

Because the musical is being filmed.

Did writer Zeitchik even consider this possibility?  Or was he so intent upon disparaging the film, for reasons other than Russell Crowe’s vocals, that Zeitchik hit upon this motivation about film endings to drag “Les Mis” into his hit piece?  The film version of Les Miserables ends in a manner very close to how it was performed at the musical’s 25th Anniversary concert.

The ending to the 25th Anniversary concert at London’s O2 Arena:

OK.  There was a change in the film.  Eponine does not appear in the climatic scene.  (Nor does Nick Jonas in Marius’ role–Phew!)

If the film didn’t work for Zeitchik, the musical would not have worked either.  In that instance, if he didn’t care for the musical, expecting to see something different in what was meant to be as faithful a film adaptation as it could be, was a fool’s errand. If he didn’t like the film, say so.

Last year, Steven Speilberg couldn’t trust the material he was given in adapting War Horse, and the result was a beautifully filmed mess.   In the case of Les Mis, Zeitchik apparently damns the film for being too trusting.  I honestly believe that Zeitchik, for himself, is being too lazy, confusing that impulse with being too clever by half, in seeking some sort of easy way to rip into Les Miserables.  He attacks the ending *as* an ending without realizing that it is, in fact, an ending used by the film’s very source material, the stage musical.

Worse, Zetichik criticizes the choice to not match the ending to Hugo’s original novel–but the final scene in the convent between Valjean, Cosette, and Marius, does, in fact, take place in the novel as well!  The wedding scene in which Thenardier (played by Cohen in the film) attempts to blackmail Marius, is meant to show Marius who it was (Valjean) who had saved his life after Marius was wounded at the barricades during the 1832 June Rebellion, enabling a final reconciliation between the young couple and Valjean before Valjean dies.

Yes, very melodramatic.  Because it’s a tear-jerking musical, for crying out loud–literally!  Hooper’s not “groping around for an ending”, he’s using that of the musical AND the novel.   Perhaps writer Zeitchik needs to take it up with Victor Hugo in the afterlife one day.

“…But listen, there will be more joy in heaven over the tears of a repentant sinner than over the white robes of a hundred just men.”
― Victor HugoLes Misérables


Into the Valley of Wal-Mart, Riding the Gift Horse

1206576751803092354elkbuntu_Blue_gift_with_golden_ribbon.svg.medWinter break has arrived, and with it, the incredible gratefulness that I feel that always accompanies any and all gifts from my students.  I didn’t become a teacher because I wanted presents at Christmas time.  After 16 years, this gesture still surprises me.  Nor am I the type to “brag” about what I get.  Sadly, I can recall a number of instances when teachers would get together, where the quality and the type of teacher gifts would get discussed and talked about, almost like you might hear from a discussion of last night’s football game on ESPN.

The point of this post is therefore not to brag, but rather to relate the misadventures that came along with one particular gift this year:  a Wal-Mart gift card.

Anybody who knows me personally, can vouch for my dislike of Wal-Mart.  This, for instance, encapsulates my feelings.  My old teaching partners at my old site used to love Wal-Mart, along with Chik-Fil-A, and even though a few had political leanings that mirrored my own, they couldn’t stay away from either place.  For my own part, I once actually won a Wal-Mart gift card to get supplies for my classroom at my old school site, and I politely turned it down citing to the principal the same sort of distaste and discomfort with their business model and practices I still feel.  Especially when you read stuff like this nugget from last week.

But all of that seemed to go out the window when, Christmas morning, I unwrapped the gift card that my student, A., had given me.

Dang it.  What did this mean?  Once before, I had gotten a gift card from Wal-Mart, but the wife and I wound up white elephanting the gift to someone who had no compunction about shopping there and who, at the time, eagerly accepted our largesse.  The wife heard my under-the-breath reaction and asked what was going on.  When I held it up, her “Ah” told me that she was on the same wavelength.

“That’s too big of an amount to give to her, or anyone else.”

“I know.”

“You should probably use it.”

“That means I have to go into the store!”

“See, if you can use it on-line…”

“Oh, yeah.”

It was brilliant.  I could be a hypocrite without even having to step into a store.

So, on Wednesday, as the wife found herself running work errands, and Kate buried herself in her room with her own new iPad Mini, I logged on to Walmart.com.

The website interface was as clunky and cluttered as the real-life Cerritos store had been the one time I had been in it, back in the early part of century.

Still, I knew what I wanted:  Dark Knight Rises DVD.  New Walter Mosley.  Maybe headphones for Kate’s new iPad.

2810-beAfter dragging Katelyn away from her iPad long enough to choose the bear headphones as shown on the right, I put in the payment information from the gift card.  I also noticed that shipping would be free if I chose what was called the “Site-to-Store” option.

I thought about it.  If I chose that option, I would be forcing myself to physically have to walk into a Wal-mart.  And not just once, 3 separate times.  Holding my distaste for what I was about to do at bay, I clicked to buy the items.  Later on that afternoon, the wife chided me for spending cash at Wal-mart, even though 95% of my purchase had been covered by the gift card:

“It wasn’t that much, though. Could have been worse…”

“It is worse.  It’s Wal-mart!” comes my reply.

On Thursday, I get the first text message.  Kate’s headphones are in.

“Wow, already?  Kate, your headphones showed up.”

“Yeah!  I want my bear headphones.”

We’d been driving her back from her hair appointment, and I see the message as we pull into our driveway.  Kate’s been complaining about wanting some food but that all vanishes when I tell her headphones are in.  She asks if we can go get them.

I agree.  I then begin to brief her.  I want this package pick-up to be as surgical an extraction as I can make it.  Get in.  Get out.

“Kate, hold my hand at that store.  Do not let go for ANY reason.  Ok?”

“I will, Daddy.  Is that store scary?”

“Oh shoot”, I think to myself.  I want to raise a Blue State child, but not at the cost of making her terrified.

I quickly reply to her, “No, just real interesting.”

We drive over. The parking lot looks somewhat empty.  It’s early on a Friday, and the Boxing Day crowds from Wednesday appear to have slowed a bit.  Still, I make myself aware of my surroundings, even though it’s the middle of the day, not Zero Dark Thirty.  For her part, Katelyn is perfectly behaved.  We walk through the parking lot and into the store.

Oh my.

It’s bright.  And I have no clue where to go.  The customer service department is to our immediate left.  But all I see are signs telling me that it’s for Returns.  Still, Kate tells me to get into that line.

“Daddy, it’s that one.”

“No, I don’t think so, Boots.  Let’s look.”

Except it’s hard to look. I am feeling conspicuous, but worse, I can’t see over the aisle shelves to read any signs to tell me where to go for Site-to-Store.  Following the arrows in any sort of organized pattern, I find myself all the way back where we started from.

“Daddy, are you sure that it’s not that line?  You should ask someone.”

She made sense, but she didn’t know that I was already planning on doing that, if only I could find an employee who looked like they weren’t busy with another customer, or didn’t look like they were in a bad mood.  I walk over to the checkout line, and find an employee not busy, but with an expression that looked like he was in a bad mood.  My thought: Michael Shannon

“Um, excuse me, I was trying to find the place to pick up “Site-to-Store” purchases?”

“Go on back to Jewelry.”

Huh?, I think to myself.

With Kate still in tow, we head back into the store.  The aisles appear even higher.  I remember and think back of how traumatic this might have been for the wife, when she had to go to a Dallas Wal-mart in the middle of the night a few years back, having missed a connecting flight on a trip, forcing her to spend the night without her luggage.  I dismiss such thoughts when I arrive at the jewelry counter.  Then I look around to see where they would put shipped items of various sizes in a counter area that wasn’t very big.  I walk over to a saleslady who is, mercifully, not with a customer.

“Excuse me, but an employee up front told me to come here to pick up a “Site-to-Store” order from the internet.”

She puzzles over this.  “No, not here.  You go back up front to Customer Service.”

“Oh,” I reply, “that’s what I thought.”  Then it slips out, “That guy might have been high or something.”  This gets a slight chuckle from the girl.  (Later on, Amber, hearing that, asks, “You didn’t say that, did you?”)

As we turn to head back up front for the 3rd time, this comes out from Kate:

“See Daddy, I told you.”

“You were right.”

Ok, the sign wasn't *this* small.  But it was close!

Ok, the sign wasn’t *this* small. But it was close!

We go back into the return line.  It’s longer than it had been when we walked into the store.  For a trip I had hoped would be quick, this visit was turning into a quagmire.  A manager-type is working the line, trying to get us to go to another register for returns, until she hears that I need the counter for “Site-to-Store”.  She tells me to go to the Photo counter, next to returns.  There I see the tiny sign for “Site-to-Store” pick-up.  And there is no line.  We walk up.  Our trip could have been over much sooner.  I have robbed Kate of precious minutes of her childhood wandering around a Wal-mart.

We at last get her headphones.  I get her back to the car (Everyone back to the choppers!), and we head home.

“So Daddy, you got me my headphones at Wal-mart.  You didn’t get my iPad there, too, did you?”  She asks that question with her unique sense of righteous indignation.

“No, of course not.  We got it from Santa’s special workshop in Cupertino, California.”

“No, Daddy, they make it at the North Pole.”

“Well, Katelyn, you see factually, Santa contracts out certain types of advanced technology…”

One trip down.  2 more to go.

Boxing Day is no Fight Club Celebration

The shooting in Newtown, CT have, for the foreseeable future, put my twin muses Cynicism and Sarcasm on hold.

This would normally be the time of year wherein I would eagerly tell anyone within earshot about my favorite Holiday song:

Yeah, not quite appropriate.

For that matter, my favorite Christmas movie…


Nope, not that either.

To do so this holiday season, what with all that has gone on over the past week, would put me in a place where even I am uncomfortable being, given the level in which such a place divorces itself from reality.

But that, apparently, didn’t stop NRA Vice President Wayne La Pierre last week:

LAPIERRE: And here’s another dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal. There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like “Bullet Storm,” “Grand Theft Auto,” “Mortal Combat,” and “Splatterhouse.”And here’s one, it’s called “Kindergarten Killers.” It’s been online for 10 years. How come my research staff can find it, and all of yours couldn’t? Or didn’t want anyone to know you had found it? Add another hurricane, add another natural disaster. I mean we have blood-soaked films out there, like “American Psycho,” “Natural Born Killers.” They’re aired like propaganda loops on Splatterdays and every single day.1,000 music videos, and you all know this, portray life as a joke and they play murder — portray murder as a way of life. And then they all have the nerve to call it entertainment. But is that what it really is? Isn’t fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography? In a race to the bottom, many conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate, and offend every standard of civilized society, by bringing an even more toxic mix of reckless behavior, and criminal cruelty right into our homes. Every minute, every day, every hour of every single year.

I found it interesting that LaPierre might have been giving this exact same speech after the 1999 Columbine shootings, what with the movies and games he mentioned so sadly dated that you have to wonder if he is still watching films on a VCR, or even a DVD, much less Blu-Ray.  And last time I checked, I can’t recall any recently significant music video, particularly given how what used to pass for music television is anything but an outlet for music video.  While a topic for another time, music television effectively killed the music video star.

But in order to obfuscate the point, the true sign of a Mayan Apocalypse, wasn’t in the nature of an End-of-Days, it was in the NRA’s stubborn insistence that American culture can only actualize through unbridled access to assault weaponry and/or high capacity magazines.  It truly must be an inconvenience to have to reload while shooting target practice; or to be an unprepared hunter in the face of either a wildlife banzai attack or a zombie assault.

Even more remarkable however, is that Wayne LaPierre‘s unctuous thinking is guaranteed by the First Amendment, even while he seeks to trample other people’s First Amendment rights, in this instance, filmmakers, songwriters, and game designers.  All of this to protect the gun lobby’s perpetual misinterpretation of the Second Amendment.  It calls to mind this exchange from Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine:

John Nichols: No one has the right to tell me I can’t have it. That is protected on our constitution.
Michael Moore: Where does it say a handgun is protected?
John Nichols: No, gun. We should…
Michael Moore: [interupting] It doesn’t say gun. It says “arms”.
John Nichols: Arms. What is “arms”?
Michael Moore: Could be a nuclear weapon.
John Nichols: It’s not these – That’s right. It could be a nuclear weapon.
Michael Moore: Do you think you should have the right to have weapons-grade plutonium here in the farm field?
John Nichols: We should be able to have anything…
Michael Moore: [interupting] Should you have weapons? Should you have weapons-grade plutonium?
John Nichols: I don’t want it.
Michael Moore: But, should you have the right to have it if you did want it?
John Nichols: [thinking about it] That should be restricted.
Michael Moore: Oh. Oh, so you do beleive in some restrictions?
John Nichols: Well, there’s wackos out there.

It was in this interest that I set out Christmas shopping over this final weekend.  My niece wanted roller skates.  My nephew, on the other hamd, wanted a gift certificate to GameStop–knowing how much the lad wanted to use that game as a chance to undergo training in mass violence and mayhem with which to use to eventually gain tragic notoriety…

Wait.  He wasn’t.  I had to take into account who his mother was.  Very few people cross my kid sister.  And William certainly wouldn’t.  In fact, my brother-in-law even mentioned that there’s no way that they’d allow him to purchase violent video games in the first place.  Still, on Christmas Eve, it was funny to watch my nephew beg my sister and brother-in-law to let him use the gift card to buy Assassin’s Creed III.

Even if they did wind up letting him get the game, my brother-in-law had shared, earlier, they trusted his boy to know the difference.

If the NRA is to be considered a vital part of this country’s conservative movement, it’s instructive (as well as sad) to consider how much so-called “conservative” values, amongst all of the frontline groups who claim to represent that side of the political spectrum, have succeeded in fraying the very familial infrastructure they claim to want to maintain–not just within the family, but each family’s role within the larger American community.  In a political climate that over this past generation has created a mentality of winner-take-all over all-for-one, for all of America’s purported freedoms, once eloquently summarized by President Franklin Roosevelt, freedom from fear has been summarily replaced by freedom to fear.  We’ve created an American culture rife with mutual distrust.  It’s little wonder that the only solace that such distrust can find manifest is the right to access heavy weaponry.

Years ago, while cleaning up around my house as a kid, I came across this battered old revolver.  I showed it to my kid sister, and the two of us asked my Mom, who took it out of where it had been and put the thing away.  We had a general idea where it was located, but neither of us ever considered looking for it again.  Still, honestly, when things used to get tense between my parents, I always wondered if I’d ever see its reappearance.  But that I never did, taught me something — that having access to a weapon does not mean you have to use the thing.  That even with the inevitable tension between my parents, usually about something financial, I never got the sense that the argument would be ended with firepower.

Exposure to something doesn’t mean being tainted.  My daughter hears expletives, and knows not to repeat them.  My nephew could even play Assassin’s Creed, and not get urges to attack people with a musket and hand axe.  My sister and brother-in-law are aware of what he does.  But I also know that our respective domestic situations are far more secure with respect to familial dynamics than those situations that are not.  Adam Lanza’s domestic circumstances, in addition to his mental state, had to have something to do with his internal demons.  Ready access to weaponry at home had to have made it worse.

Of course, there’s this:

In addition to his technological and weapons prowess, Adam Lanza was an excellent dancer – at least within the confines of the Dance Dance Revolution video game.
“It’s an arcade game as well as on the home systems where you basically dance around to a pattern on the screen,” Hanoman said. “And he was extremely good at it.

Wayne LaPierre should have been all over that, decrying “Dancing with the Stars” or any movie directed by Adam Shankman, no?

Hold on There Little Buckaroo!

There’s a scene in 2011’s Rango, where our titular hero is being fitted with his new “Good Guy” outfit, as befits his appointment to sheriff.  He is asked by one of the town’s children to sign an autograph.  Initially surprised, Rango draws his revolver on the child.  Then, realizing that the kid only wanted an autograph, Rango hands him his revolver.


“There’s a bullet in this!”

The child then proceeds to handle the gun in all the ways you wouldn’t want a child, much less an adult, to handle it.  But somehow, in the logic of the NRA, the equation merely has to be about whether or not the person handling the weapon is good or not.  That’ll be enough to keep him or her safe.  At today’s benchmark press conference, the NRA’s first public pronouncement about the shootings in Newtown, CT:

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President, National Rifle Association

What happens, though, if one Good Guy faces another Good Guy?

One of my favorite films of the 1980s, Rustler’s Rhapsody, actually addressed the question.  In the film, Tom Berenger is a stereotypical good-guy cowboy, Rex O’Herlihan, who is drawn out of a black-and-white film and transferred into a more self-aware setting, an updated cowboy movie, but with the idea that the Good Guy now realizes that he’s caught in the same story arc, albeit in a different setting each time.  All of the features of the classic 1930s/1940s Westerns remain, in that the Good Guy always wins the shootout against the Bad Guy.

Eventually, the Bad Guys also become self-aware themselves, and decide that the only way that a Bad Guy can kill a Good Guy is to hire a Good Guy to fight another Good Guy:

Money quote:

Now hold on there little Buckaroos.  You can’t be hearing language like that.  Get on back to school.  Obey your teachers and study really hard.

And if the NRA has anything to do with it, at that school, there’ll be Good Guys patrolling the hallways looking for shooters, the Bad Guys.

But the problem is what’s going on in the head of the Good Guy.  Alex Sietz-Wald in Salon:

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for anyone, let alone a lightly trained and inexperienced civilian, to effectively respond to a shooter. The entire episode can take a matter of seconds and your body is fighting against you: Under extreme stress, reaction time slows, heart rate increases and fine motor skills deteriorate. Police train to build muscle memory that can overcome this reaction, but the training wears off after only a few months if not kept up.

Or, of even greater concern to me, is when you have armed Good Guys wandering around the campus, in the dark, in search of the one or two armed Bad Guys.  It then becomes a matter of dumb luck that someone doesn’t get killed in the chaos that might ensue, or worse, when the armed police assault team arrives, the police now can’t differentiate between who is a Good Guy and who is a Bad Guy.

While not quite a circular firing squad, how that manages to save lives in such a situation is beyond me.  In light of such advice from the NRA, perhaps the suggestion that we train unarmed kids to bum rush shooters makes far more sense, no?  Of course not.

Karoli, in Crooks and Liars:

Arming teachers isn’t the answer. Scapegoating teachers isn’t the answer. Supporting teachers, making sure they have adequate security, an evacuation plan, enough teachers’ aides and a manageable class size is about the best anyone can do. For all of the stories of tragedy told over the past few days, there are also stories of heroism, of teachers shoving the kids into bathrooms and closets, keeping them safe and shielding them with their bodies.

This is what teachers do. It’s what they’re trained to do. It’s why they’re teachers. Arming them is not the answer. Supporting them is.

Yesterday, at our staff Christmas party, a colleague suggests that perhaps the idea of arming teachers is the right idea.  For my part, as the school’s Union Rep, I try to gently suggest to her how wrong-headed such thinking might be, not to mention potentially harmful, to anyone involved.  I also try to point out that in the midst of unmitigated budget cutting in an era in which teachers are derided as being overpaid, yet are expected to produce magical testing results, to demand that we undertake weapons training, when we’re still trying to maintain a semblance of middle-class living at home, despite furlough days and pay-cuts, is certifiable.  Too many power brokers are content to cut those things necessary to achieve basic academic competencies among our students, yet they would somehow find the funds to pay for armed guards, or, absent that, weaponry for school staff?

Somehow all of that race through my mind to try to be eloquent enough to debunk my colleague’s assertion. But I also realize it’s a holiday gathering, and discerning quickly that my argument was falling on deaf ears, I was glad that the waiter showed up to cause the subject to get changed.

Yet there it was, in an El Torito, Good Guy turning on Good Guy.  I suppose that this was what the NRA wanted to see happen, in order to obfuscate real issues with the nature of the American gun culture.  My only hope as far as eternal punishment for the likes of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre lies with this unattributed quote:

If the devil punishes all the evil people, doesn’t that make him the good guy?

Meanwhile, on Board the Kobayashi Maru

My efforts to win at the no-win scenario

“War is over, we don’t need your help.  America is making war on itself…” — Bono, during a U2 performance of “Bullet the Blue Sky“, Boston 2001


I am old enough to remember how “Duck-and-Cover” was supposed to protect my elementary school classmates and I from a Soviet nuclear attack.

Now my students are old enough to “Duck and Cover” to protect themselves from an American attacking their school…

From today’s New York Times Opinionator, Sara Mosle:

 …because every few months, my daughter’s school, like others across the country, conducts a “lockdown” drill to prepare for a school shooting. A coded message comes over the loudspeaker indicating that there’s an intruder, most likely armed and dangerous, in the building. My job as a teacher, now familiar to many Americans thanks to the procedures rehearsed and followed by the heroic educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, is to rush the door, lock it, turn off the lights (to create the illusion of an empty classroom) and corral my students into a corner. There, out of sight, we practice huddling quietly as we would if an armed intruder were trying to shoot us through a doorway or window.

This past Wednesday, as it was apparently at other elementary schools in the local area, including my own daughter’s school, it was “Lockdown” day.

On Tuesday, my grade level team met for the first time since the Newtown shootings.  Lockdown procedures, rather than our IB curriculum, become the topic of concern.  As often happens with epic-level disasters or circumstances, they only become a topic of importance after they happen, rather than before.  As a new teacher at this school, I am admittedly unfamiliar with the procedures, and I need help in learning what’s appropriate at this school site.  At my old school, with its stand-alone classroom, my choices were self-explanatory with respect to a Lockdown.  (Of course, my final 2 years there were spent in a trailer that could have been at home after Hurricane Katrina.  Given its thin walls, and its isolated position on the outskirts of the campus, I could see little protection that it might have provided my students.)  But at my new school, with its remants of 1970s pod design, the classrooms open up to a central community area, and the school is split between the upper and primary grade areas, as well as a pod for the administration and the kindergarteners.  We are effectively cut off from each other in the event of some sort of emergency.

Says a colleague, K., who has the room next to mine, and whose classroom overlooks the parking lot and is the most exposed, “I think they were on acid when they designed the school.”

My reply, “Well, it was the ’70s.”

Still, she is worried about the ability to see into her classroom during a lockdown, even with the lights turned off.  At my team meeting the day before, I expressed the same worry, as my teammates and I discussed the timeline of the Newtown shootings, wondering if the various offices and storage rooms scattered along the periphery of the classroom pods were accessible to us with our keys, and therefore could be locked.  Reflecting up on how students, teachers, and staff, were able to find hiding places at Sandy Hook Elementary in such smaller rooms, we reach a grade level agreement to move our kids into the storage rooms and offices in the event of a lockdown.  I bring up the idea that we need to “buy” time in the event of such a situation, that the longer it would take for students to be “found”, the better chance local law enforcement would have to get to the school to intervene.

My colleagues’ keys work the doors to the storage room which sits between them.  Later on, I am reassured to find that my key will open the RSP room immediately next to my classroom.  Unfortunately, we are only 3 classrooms of 75 students, as well as ourselves, there is still a need to find such an evacuation spot for the SDC class, 2 4th grade classrooms, and 3 6th grades.  Given that this lockdown is meant to find out how we stand with respect to emergency procedures though, we set aside our initial concerns about trying to find places for everyone, until we know it works for our own classroom of kids.

So on Wednesday morning, before my students arrive, I spend a few moments with my 4th grade colleagues, who have the rooms closest to me, to find out what they’re planning on doing.  Both pretty much agree that there’s little they plan on doing beyond “ducking and covering”, because there’s not many places they can move towards.  I point out that with the lights out and quiet children, from the outside, the temporary wall between our classrooms does provide some cover when viewed from the outside.  K., who has that classroom closest to the school parking lot, and with 2 windows that can be used to enter the room, realizes there’s a corner where she can move her kids to hide them from anyone  looking in.  I suggest that later, after we’re done, we try to see if curtains are an option.  My 5th grade colleagues both have curtains on their room themselves, while I am using some posters.  Still, at this point, I move outside myself, switch off the classoom lights and try to see what it might look like from the outside looking in.  There are areas where children sit where enough ambient light, even on an overcast morning, allows someone to see in even with the lights out.  I make the decision to have that student move into the far corner during “duck and cover”.

Nevertheless, I ask myself if “Duck and Cover” would truly be that effective if a potential shooter choose to enter the school through my door or window.  Rather than immediately question that, I decide it best to follow directions during this drill, in order to question the choice later on, if necessary.  My aide comes in, at this point, and I brief him about the procedures we will follow.

When I go to pick up the students, as they try to settle in, I immediately cut off the usual insouciance, in order to explain the lockdown procedures the class will follow when it starts.  I move from the known to unknown.  Most of these kids have matriculated only through this elementary school, but it being the east side of my school district, rather than the west side, I wonder if these kids even know what a lockdown was.

“How many of you have been through a lockdown drill at this school?”

None raise their hands.  I find out later that lockdowns have been held in the past, but these kids apparently don’t remember it.

“How many even know what a lockdown is?”

My girl from Norwalk, a boy from Bell Gardens and another from Hawaiian Gardens, all raise their hand.  The other kids, local area lifers, are still silent.  I explain the lockdown and what it usually means.  Normally, in the area, it’s because the local sheriff deputies are out searching for a suspect in a local crime.  We can still function normally, more or less, in such a situation.  But today is more about the events in Connecticut.  While I have avoided getting specific about details about Sandy Hook, I do get specific now, not to scare the kids, per se, but to explain to them the “why” of what we will do.  I work very hard at trying to remain calm, and my usual casual humor is replaced by a more serious tone.  I want this to go well.   The principal then comes on over the intercom and reiterates a great deal of what I had already told the kids.  I am hoping that the kids will get the message to treat this with some measure of seriousness.

When the lockdown finally happens, I actually find my hands shaking as I deliver the instruction to get under the desks, and I head over and turn out the lights.  So far so good, but slowly, order starts to break down.  One kids bangs his head accidentally on one of the desk legs.  Others giggle, as they are wont to do during earthquake drills, without heeding my request for as much quiet as they can muster.

All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone. — Blaise Pascal

I strive to do my best to not raise my voice as move to the next step, getting the kids into the RSP office.  I try to walk around the room in those areas where it is darkest, and I ask the kids to start to crawl, in the dark into the RSP room.  Still, several of my students are determined that they have to provide a vocal soundtrack to the drill.  My kids move quickly enough to crawl into the RSP office, and I make a mental note about a couple of my students who backed out into the area of the room still lit from outside light, to remind them to move forward under the desk to crawl rather than backwards.

But my aide is getting frustrated as he positions himself at the RSP office door to help guide the student inside.  Unlike myself, he is naturally softspoken, but I can see him getting frustrated by the increasing noise level coming out of the RSP office.  My goal was try to hide the kids in the office, but with their inability to pipe down, they’ve done nothing but make themselves even more conspicuous.  It is all I can do to not throw propriety to the wind and not yell at them to shut up.  At this point, the principal, moving through our building to check on statuses, comes by and quietly tries to hush the kids’ giggling and talking.  He leaves, my aide and I are dumbfounded when the talking and laughing continue, especially when I see one boy light up his watch because he has to see what the time was.


During these drills, my students are often visibly anxious because they’re afraid of guns and don’t and can’t know if the exercise is just a precaution. We behave as if the alarm were real because it could be real, and so we can become accustomed to remaining calm during a crisis. My students hug one another and exchange nervous glances as we crouch on the floor and I silently mouth words of comfort. Someone begins to whisper until another student hisses, “Shhhhhh,” so any gunman wouldn’t be able to hear us. Our principal goes around checking doors in the eerily quiet hallways to see if teachers have followed protocol, and when he jiggles our doorknob, several students start as if in a horror movie.

My students, for their part, are far from anxious, because there are enough who couldn’t process what “quietly” even means.

When the lockdown is over, the kids head back to their desks.  I should debrief, but at this point, I’m looking for seriously methaphorical blood.

I ask T. why he was looking at his watch.  He replies that he needed to know what time it was, clueless that he belongs to me until 2:15 pm anyway.

I ask D. why he thought the whole procedure was so funny.  All he can do is shrug his shoulders.

S. starts to complain that someone was touching his butt when he looked out the office window, even though there was no compelling reason to look out the window if the point was to hide.  My class cynic, G., sarcastically retorts that if S. doesn’t want his butt touched, he shouldn’t look out the office window.  (G.’s internalized the Cause-and-Effect lesson I taught earlier this year.)

I am frustrated.  My principal enters shortly afterwards and starts to ream the students out himself.  He is not happy.  I can see this stuff rolling downhill to me and I want to get out of the way, but can’t.  He makes it a point that not only could he hear my students from outside, he could tell where they were based on the amount of noise they were making.

“Perfect practice makes perfect execution”, he leaves them.

I ream them again, because they’ve gotten reamed by the principal.

Later, as we debrief the fiasco in the RSP office, my colleague rustles my jimmies by suggesting it was a classroom management issue.  I consider, for a moment, ritual suicide to save face.  I find my principal, who’s resumed his normal rounds, and apologize for my class’ behavior.  Inappropriate humor or not, I volunteer that my kids and I would be willing to distract a shooter in real life.  But still, with tensions being as it was, I don’t relish the idea that 1/3 of my students don’t fully comprehend the criticality of making themselves as inconspicuous as they possibly can, which includes putting a muzzle on their insatiable need to conduct a running commentary during a drill that’s meant to be done in near-total silence.

When the kids return from their enrichment classes, I try to tear a new one out of what’s left of them for having been called out by another teacher.  But I stop myself.  I point out the ultimate need for such an exercise.  The state has entrusted their safety to well-being to me, and my responsibility is to keep them in a safe setting to the fullest extent that I can.  And when they choose not to follow instructions, they put not just themselves at risk, but also their classmates, and the rest of the school.  I point out what I had shared with my grade level team the previous day, that the point of the drill was to see how long we could last in silent hiding. Sadly, that’s not what had gone down.

I then praise one of my boys, who is normally chatty, distracted, and moving constantly throughout the room, as probably the one kid who “got it”.  L. tells me that he treated the exercise like a game of “Soldier” (I call it “Army Guy”, but most boys seem to gravitate to it at some point in childhood), and that he wanted to be as quiet as he could, just as if he had been playing that game.

I remark that the kids might have done better during the drill had they decided to treat it as they might a game of hide-and-seek.  But then, I back off, and reassure them that I can better keep them safe if they understand that in any emergency situation, since as fifth graders, they should start to know better by now, to listen absolutely to my instructions.  They owe that to themselves, as well as their parents.  I tell them that they have to trust in me just like my daughter Kate has to trust in her kindergarten teacher, or the kids and parents in the classroom of V.’s mom (who teaches in Long Beach USD) have to trust in her.  Then, I move on to what was left of my instructional time, hoping that today’s morning lesson, while painful, would sink in.

Finally Mosle:

After the lockdown drills are over, I try to reassure my students that their classrooms are unlikely to be overtaken by armed attackers. I do a short lesson on probability and the very remote chance that any of them will ever be involved in such an incident.

That evening, I arrive on Kate’s campus to pick her up.  Unlike my school, which is surrounded by a chain link fence around all the buildings, her district’s schools are wide open around the classroom.  It is not unlike the way in which schools were in the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up in that same area when I was in elementary school.   I wonder what could happen on such a campus.  As we walk out, I ask her about her day.  She volunteers that they had a lockdown drill at school.

Then, perfectly, Kates recites, in her remarkable ability to mimic what she hears, exactly what her lockdown instructions had been from her teacher.

Even my kindergartner had been better at a Lockdown drill than I had been.


*That* Conversation


And it’s true we are immune
When fact is fiction and TV reality
And today the millions cry

U2, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”

If the conversation was going to be had in a classroom across America this first morning back after last Friday, then this was my version of it.

These are savvy enough kids of mine that I was pretty sure that at least some of them had heard of the Newtown, CT shootings.  But what I wasn’t sure was how much they knew.  Or what I would say.  I am not the most subtle of speakers, to be honest, and my mouth has gotten me into my particular corner of hell more often than I want to remember.

Over the weekend, one of my friends from back east, who tangentially knows a friend who knows parents of some of the Sandy Hook victims, had asked me what, if anything, I would tell Kate.  In truth, I hadn’t said anything to Katelyn yet.  She was unaware of what had gone down in Connecticut, nor did it seem appropriate to bring the issue up if we didn’t need to do so.  Friday was the day she had gotten her first school award, and Mommy and Daddy were there to see her get it at her school.  We know now that there were parents of other primary graders converging on their own school 3000 miles away for entirely different, and ultimately, tragic reasons.

So my struggle for internal eloquence with how to deal with whatever question my 5th graders would have, was small potatoes.  I probably could get away with saying nothing about it, should I choose.  My daughter’s school district had put out reassurances from both the superintendent and the school principal that the issue would not be addressed.  I had been given no such directive in my own district.  I had leeway.  Why go there?  Because I couldn’t not.  If explaining the American Experiment to 10-year-olds was what motivated me to take up teaching, then explaining this incident certainly fell under that large umbrella.

Nevertheless, for one of the few times in my teaching career, I felt it necessary to preface the morning, with words that don’t come out of my mouth very often:

“I know I like to take a weird slant and attitude towards most things regarding life in general, or even our learning at times, but this isn’t one of those times.  It can’t be.  Does anyone have any questions or comments about what happened on Friday or what they heard from this past Friday or this weekend?”

There, I had stepped into it.  Had I been at my old school, I would have been truly concerned, since having a school leader given to openly over-moralizing everything, tends to color what you can and can’t say to your students.  But in this instance, even had I been back in my personal purgatory of a year ago, I would have done the same thing, I hope.  Just be honest…answer the questions, if there are any, as best as you can…

The questions come:  About the rifles, the pistols, the mother being a teacher (which I gently corrected).

We talk about Aspergers, and how this one incident is not about Aspergers, but other things.

We talk about the school safety plan.  Here I take pause to make sure I have all eyes and ears before proceeding.  I know my job is to reassure them, to make them understand that the random acts of violence that coalesced in a horrible morning 3 days earlier are as equally a random act, as a drive-by in South Central, or botched holdup in East Los Angeles.  Americans died, and a gun was involved.

One student brings up the Chinese knife attack, also from last Friday, sharing that his uncle said that “they had enough kids to lose a few out there, anyway…”  I point out that no one in that attack died.  I also find myself immediately adding that attacking someone with a knife is different than attacking with a gun.  Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything more, but several of the boys begin to ask about assault weapons and how they are different from handguns.

Fortunately, I had begun the school year describing each amendment of the Bill of Rights to my students.  When another student asks me about how hard it would be to get a weapon, I point out that both my aide and myself, should we want, could go out and buy a gun if we had the money to buy one.  I explain, in as unbiased a manner as I can, how there has been a gun control debate in the country for longer than these kids have been alive.  I finally, in a weak moment, admit that it is frustrating to me, personally, that it was harder for my wife and I to go through the legal magic show to adopt our daughter than it would be if I wanted to purchase a gun.

Again, though, the kids’ questions start to peter out after about half an hour.  I remind them again that my responsibility as their teacher puts me in the legal position to take their well-being into account.  That we have a safety plan that we’re supposed to follow, and we will follow it in order to keep them safe, be it an earthquake, a fire, or even something wholly out of the ordinary, as Friday’s sad events obviously turned out to be.

Then one final question, from G.:

“Wasn’t it a bad, bad weekend?”

“Yeah,” I reply.

But then I realize he’s talking about players on his fantasy football team.  “Beast mode” for G. means the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch.  Sandy Hook discussion over.

A few minutes later, the principal walks by our classroom.  Would he be addressing the kids in each class about last Friday?  No, he is the advance team, complete with walkie-talkie.

A PTA parent is dressed up as Santa Claus, visiting each classroom and handing out candy canes with his “elves”.  Sandy Hook has immediately moved into the background.  “Normal” had returned, such as it was.

Outside is America

mockingbird-by-kathryn-erskineAs much as I would like to avoid the Facebook postings today, the news about the Connecticut school shootings was unavoidable, as was the subsequent philosophical split between those who don’t want to “politicize” the tragedy and those who view events like today as a time in which we have no choice but to turn to politics.

Politics is, after all, by definition, the act in which we come to decisions as to how we want to govern our country.  When 26 die, including 20 children, certainly, the government failed in its overall intent to provide for the general welfare of those most in need of that provision.   At some point we need to have that discussion in our governmental and social processes.  Sadly though, we spend more time trying not to offend each other’s sensibilities in what must now, in my opinion, become an essential national conversation.  The can gets kicked down the road again.

But that’s not what’s got me on my soapbox.  Of bigger concern today was how I was supposed to have any sort of measured discussion and explain this to my students, 5th graders. I am growing weary, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Arizona, the Dark Knight Rises premiere in Aurora, followed by this week’s bookending by the Oregon shooter and today’s heartbreaking events in Connecticut.  I am growing weary because it’s getting difficult for me to be as unbiased about any explanation over either the subject of school shootings and/or the Second Amendment as my training tells me I have to be.

When I first encountered Kathryn Erskine‘s 2010 National Book Award Winner, Mockingbird, it was shortly after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in early 2011.  Teaching at my old school, we had been sharing out newspaper articles in the 6th grade language arts block.  When the shooting happened, the heartbreaking profile of young Christina Taylor Green in the New York Times captivated a number of my students, who took her story to heart.  I had already purchased Erskine’s book to use as a possible Read Aloud choice before this had happened, if only because of the Virginia Tech shootings which moved the author to write her book.  Given the manner in which my class responded to Green’s profile, I felt that Erskine’s book provided an ideal opportunity to have a thoughtful discussion of what the effect such a tragedy has on those who survive in a victim’s family.

In Mockingbird, young Caitlin is an 11-year-old with Asperger Syndrome.  She is forced to come to grips with the death of her beloved older brother after a shooting at a middle school.  She struggles with her condition, throughout the book, in order to provide not just closure for herself, but also for her father, as well as the young son of a teacher who was also killed along with her brother.

Last school year, after the Aurora, Colorado shootings, I found myself turning to that book again, in order to try to explain the aftermath of those events to my 6th graders.

This morning, the wife and I were part of a large gathering at Kate’s school.  Our personal handful of kindergartner was receiving an award for her ability to “think outside the box” in terms of her creativity.  Coincidentally, Kate’s school borders the community that was a scene of a mass shooting of its own late last year.  As the morning developed and Kate got her award, I then headed back to my own classroom to relieve my sub for the afternoon.  Hearing of the Connecticut shootings, I couldn’t help but do the cruel math as to what subtracting one of those classes of kindergartners from today’s event in such a brutal fashion might do the assembled parents and grandparents in the room.  The buzz of Kate’s accomplishment quickly wore off, as I realized I would have to be explaining yet another school shooting to a group of my students, just as I’ve been doing so often since I began my teaching career in 1997.

I didn’t say anything to my kids straight away though.  I powered through a Math lesson, got the class off to the lunch, and then I tried to update myself on the day’s events.  I shuffled through my collection of Read Aloud books I had planned for the immediate next few weeks.  I put Ralph Fletcher’s Fig Pudding, my traditional Read Aloud for this time of the year, back on the shelf.

When the kids came back in from lunch, I showed them Mockingbird, and began reading.

Precipitation and Perspiration


Rain is in the forecast for later this week, which means my students and I will be able to bond as we’ve already done on a number of occasions this school year.  Precipitation or Perspiration:  when either might be in a given weather forecast, rest assured that the kids will be spending time inside our enclosed, pod-like campus.

There’s a narrative to be found among the school year to this point, but damned am I to pinpoint exactly what it might be.  I’ve resisted sharing observations to this point not because I couldn’t, or didn’t want to do it, but because they’ve lacked a consistent commonality with which I could pull the constants out to write a story.  Instead, I’ve got stories that might or might not share common points as a whole, but work better as isolated images in a weird patchwork quilt.  Precipitation or perspiration, go figure.

Once a month, for instance, the school holds an award ceremony.  This is not unlike my old hunting grounds; many schools already do this.  On this particular morning last month, the kids start their day by depositing their backpacks at their desks, grabbing a carpet square from my closet, and heading back out to the school blacktop.

Walking out, I am by two of my boys, G. and J., football fans both, who, upon nearing the designated spot for my classroom, spy a primary grader wearing a Michael Vick jersey.  Despite it having occurred some time ago, both boys are nonetheless savvy enough to know of Michael Vick’s notoriety in his past life.  Any doubt to this is erased not even fifteen minutes later.  As it is an awards ceremony morning, parents are also in attendance; one parent has even seen fit to bring the family puppy, for whatever reason.  The puppy is being shown off like a newborn to the mingling PTA moms and my teaching colleagues.

The attention being showered on the pup is not lost upon G., one of the two boys I walked out with, and am now standing behind.  He motions to me to crouch down so he could say something.  I oblige.

“Don’t you think they ought to keep that puppy away from the kid in the Michael Vick jersey?”

On another day, I am finishing up the day’s selection from my daily Read Aloud, which is currently Susan Patron’s Newbery Winner, “The Higher Power of Lucky“.  The main character, Lucky, has a legal guardian who is French.  The previous month, we had read Cynthia Kadohata‘s “Kira Kira“, also a Newbery Winner, in which two Japanese American sisters begin to come of age in rural Georgia of the 1950s.  Naturally, the sisters begin to awkwardly experience the opposite sex for the first time.  Perhaps this is why J. makes his “big” announcement on this particular morning.

“I know what French kissing is!”  J.  Is very proud of this…

Finally, it is time for parent-teacher conferences.  Unlike most years, my class is ridiculously small this year, given the typical amount of students in an upper elementary classroom.  We are contracted to have no more than 32 students in our classroom, with arrangements for those situations where we are required to go over contract allowances.  For various reasons, myself and my two partners therefore consider ourselves to be fortunate to have only 25-26 students in our respective classrooms.  Even better, at least for conferences, we had 6-7 less parent meetings than we would normally would have had.

But less conference time didn’t mean less interesting conversations.  Not surprisingly, I learned where my student, G., apparently got his wit.  As we move through his specific report card, his mother mentions how much more talk she hears from her son about potential colleges. While nominally interested in going to USC, G. now “also talks about how much he’d like to go to Oregon, Washington, UCLA, Stanford…”

All Pac-12 schools, except my own.  No mention of Berkeley.  G.’s mother is somehow proud of this, in that I’ve managed to convince her boy to go to any school but the alma mater of her teacher.  (Fortunately, I have another student, C., who could claim both parents as Cal grads–yup!).  I mull over this reality however, and I am taken back to my own 6th grade year.  My teacher that year, as well as her husband, were both USC grads, and at that time, I thought that I might choose to go there as well.  This was status quo through my teen years until my newspaper adviser, during my senior year in high school, talked me into choosing Berkeley over staying home and commuting to downtown Los Angeles for four years.

The next day, I tell G. this story.  I grin to myself, and then at him.  I might know how his college script could end.  We all grow up, after all…