05 July 2020

When I Found Out That Not All Adults Are Good People

              From Kindergarten through second grade, I attended Wilkes’ Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas. Most days, transportation came via carpool. However, on occasion, I rode the bus. To be fair, the bus was really a powder blue (with white lettering and logo) 15-passenger van, but for all intents and purposes, it was the bus. In fact, Mitch, the driver, got a touch upset if you called it a van. And although I don’t recall many of our daily trips aboard the fun bus—most days were nondescript—for some reason, I do remember you didn’t want to make Mitch mad. He was, though, the adult, the one in charge, and therefore, the ultimate word in what we were supposed to do...right?
He wore ratty t-shirts and jeans every day, perhaps a jacket in the winter. An old-school green mesh ball cap with a foam front with a faded logo, like one of those generic pieces of hud they give you in little league molded his hair to his head, only a curly mullet strung out the back. Mitch had absolute control over the radio (loud), too, and he made sure everyone know it. And I remember that he was loud—louder than Van Halen or the Oak Ridge Boys. His ultra-loud nature disquieted my shy, quiet nature on a daily basis. 

Two other kids in my class rode the bus—Shawnna and Kira. The only other kid I remember by name was Stephanie, who was a third grader, who coincidentally looked like my wife did when she was in third grade. Somehow, Stephanie always got Mitch to crank up the volume when “Abracadabra” by the Steve Miller Band came on. No one else could get him to relent his music dominance. The rest of the bus riders were older. Due to my timidity and my unfounded fear of big kids, I usually hunkered down in the back until my stop came.
The mighty Mitch didn’t talk to me much. He had too much fun yelling at (and with) the older kids. I do remember, though, that every once in a while that he and/or one of the older boys would say something that I wasn’t allowed to say. I remember being perplexed about why an adult would let other kids use words like that or even use words like that himself. Adults were supposed to correct inappropriate behavior, not encourage it, right?
Another time Mitch had a shouting debate with one of the older girls about whether taking the Lord’s name in vain was really breaking a commandment. For a kid who was trying to learn to do what was right, the time on the bus really confused me.
              I don’t remember much of the route, or how many stops we made, but I do remember one distinct spot along a woodsy bend. This was where Mitch pulled over, leaving the motor running. He ran scurried across the busy, two-lane road, almost becoming a stain on the wood paneling of a white station wagon. Those of us in the bus who hadn’t been paying attention were alerted by the blaring horns and the one-fingered salute Mitch waved back with. He continued and ducked under a no trespassing sign into a yard surrounded by barbed wire with no trespassing signs. He came back with an armload of political campaign signs. He opened the back door of the bus, directly behind me and shoved them in, muttering to no one in particular about how the no good *expletive phrase* wasn’t going to win anyway. A pit opened in my stomach. We stopped a few minutes later to stuff them in a dumpster. I about swallowed myself. Was this an adult I was supposed to trust?
              The event that completely messed over my malleable mind was one time when Mitch had had an extremely hard day, I suppose, because the yelling started before we had left the parking lot to go home. He quickly detoured to a 7-11, one of his usual stops, and came back with two brown paper bags. The first, he shoved under his seat. The second he held up as he pronounced, “Listen up. I’m going to try something different today. If you are good, I’ll give you a piece of this candy. If not, you get nothing.”
              My young brain kicked into gear. I was always good. I never caused any trouble. I was going to score a Now-and-Later or a Tootsie Pop!

              It was one of the quietest bus rides I ever experienced. Even the normally rowdy crowd settled down for the afternoon. I distinctly recall cute Kira getting dropped off in front of her house, Mitch turning around, and giving her a treat as she exited. Shawnna got one, too. And Stephanie. And a few others. When my stop came, I reached for the door and paused, waiting for my candy. But when he didn’t even acknowledge me (not that it was anything new), my candy-loving, adult-trusting soul got crushed. Whether there was any blatant favoritism or not is up for debate. Wasn’t the promise that if I were good, I would receive candy? In my little mind, I didn’t get a piece of candy, so therefore….well, you figure it out.

              Why am I sharing this story? That is a good question. It has been on my mind for a while, but I don't know where to take it from here. I have literally typed and deleted eight different conclusions to this tale. Some were more didactic than others. All just felt wrong, though. That said, I will leave you with your own reader response. Whatever you get out of it is fine with me. I’ll just say this, though:
              Think about the messages you send to others, especially the direct statements or promises you make.

21 June 2020

Only Writing Produces Text: A Call to Repentance

This morning a local church leader challenged those listening to reflect on their strengths, the things that they did well. He went on to ask everyone to reflect on the things that bring us closer to God. However, my ears tuned out at that point, and I listened more to what my heart was saying. The parable of the talents came to mind, especially the poignant conclusion: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matthew 25:29). 
(taken from https://thescribblingssite.wordpress.com)
As I have noted on prior occasions, I do not feel like I have many strengths. I am just the Joe-of-all-trades, master of none—the quintessential Average Joe. Perhaps, instead of five talents, or two, or even one, I was given a couple of farthings or pennies, to carry on the Biblical metaphor. Regardless, I do not want to be the unprofitable servant. I have been given a few gifts, and I need to do better at improving those talents. I can’t squander what I have been given, or else it will be taken away.
I feel a little like the saints under more modern day condemnation—“But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given unto them, because of the fear of man. Wo unto such for mine anger is kindled against them….Thou shalt not idle away thy time, neither shalt thou bury thy talent that it may not be known” (Doctrine & Covenants 60: 2, 13). My "talent" has been hidden for a while.
Now, I am not saying that I am going to be struck by lightning (I hope) any time soon, but consider this my call to repentance. “Why?” you ask.
Lately I have not been writing.
(taken from https://www.raindance.org)
And as my good friend Melissa pointed out to me again the other day, if you teach writing, you should write also. A sermon I have not been practicing lately. (Gulp.)
I teach writing (Composition I and II at BU), but I have not been writing. You may have noticed this, as I have not been posting anything. 

So I’m calling myself on the proverbial carpet. Forgive me. I need to write more. As I am well aware, only writing produces text. My doctoral chair pointed out that simple truth as I began my dissertation, and I often impart its wisdom to my students, but every once in a while, like right now, I need to apply it myself.
It’s not that I haven’t thought about writing—I have. A lot. I just haven’t done much about it. And I'm not going to pass off my laziness or fear or whatever my problem is on simple writer's block.
Here and now, I declare that I will no longer squander my talents, as meager as they are. I am going to write more. I am going to share more. I am going to bother you more with my writing, about my writing, and perhaps even in my writing.
With some luck and determination I might actually turn my penny into a talent.
(borrowed from Bill Watterson)

30 April 2020

Poem in Your Pocket 2020-Quarantine Edition

Hey. Can I share a poem with you? It's Poem in Your Pocket Day. 

First, if you are not familiar with Poem in My Pocket Day, here are the rules:

1. Find a copy of your favorite poem...or at least one that you like...or has touched you recently...or whatever. Digital is fine, but it's more human if you print a copy or transcribe it by hand.

2. Carry it around in your pocket (at the ready) all day. You shouldn't have to search for it on your phone every time you pull it out.

3. Share your chosen poem with people throughout the day.

4. Relish the poetry of this world!

My selection this year came as I was contemplating my career move. I left the public school classroom to teach at the university level. Since then I have had several former students reconnect with me via social media. And so...this:

"Teacher Dreams"

Some nights
students return to me
like salmon to their spawning bed.
They shake my hand
and sit across from me
and tell me what they have done
what they will soon be doing.
I remember all their names
and just where each one sat
in my classroom.
Still, when they tell me
what they learned,
it's not what I remember teaching.

--Cecil W. Morris

This "teacher dream" conversation, as Mr. Morris phrases it, in my experience, is more of a reality than a dream. I have taught countless lessons to thousands of students over my twenty years in education, and I firmly believe that what I put into my lessons and what students receive is different. If I am prepared, each one of them will take what he or she needs as an individual for that day. That is why, as the great Joe DiMaggio said, "There is always some kid who maybe seeing me for the first [and I'll add last] time. I owe him my best."

(Oversimplified) Constructivist theory dictates that students will construct their own meaning from their personal experiences and social interactions. They will connect the new material presented to them to their own life experiences and learn and grow.

Sometimes, a student might be presented with adverbial clause exercises, reflective journal prompts, or even Shakespearean sonnets. And although she may not understand iambic pentameter or scratch out more than two lines about what she did over summer vacation, she still learns that she matters, she is safe, and she has ideas worth sharing. That is what teaching is all about--making a difference, building relationships, helping students learn for themselves.

I have had this conversation with many students at many levels. It is all worth it.

Check my Instagram @joeaveragewriter and Facebook pages soon for the video version of today's poem! 

18 December 2019

Stolen Life Lesson: (1) Be There!

I was told at the beginning of my teaching career that an educator is only as good as he or she steals. I like to think of it now as community collaboration. Feel free to collaborate with me any time you want. Just remember to give credit where credit is due. As our class mantra went for my final year in the public classroom, “Own it.” If it’s not yours, cite it. 

Today I am stealing a list from Roxanna Elden’s book See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. It is entitled “Ten Principles of Successful Living We All Hope Students Learn from Us.” A long title but worth the read. Last term I shared it with a few sections of composition students as a writing prompt, and the ensuing discussion (not necessarily about composing) was somewhat enlightening for all parties involved. So…I am going to share them here and probably discuss one or two of them over the next little while, adding my own two or three cents worth of insight or hindsight or sight beyond sight for whatever it is worth. 

First, here is the list:

Ten Principles of Successful Living We All Hope Students Learn from Us
1.       Be where you’re supposed to be, on time and prepared.
2.       Follow all steps of directions.
3.       Think for yourself, and do the right thing even when no one is watching.
4.       Think about the future and how your present actions affect it.
5.       Take responsibility for your decisions.
6.       Search for solutions instead of complaining about problems.
7.       Show respect and expect respect back.
8.       Present yourself as an intelligent person.
9.       Produce a finished product that won’t need any explaining.
10.   Put more into the world than you take out.

Now that you have the entire list, I think I am going to break these down one point at a time with examples and non-examples of students, colleagues, friends, and many people generally winning (or not) at life.
                Warning: most of this will probably have an educational slant to it, but I guess that’s what I do, right?
                Let’s begin. Somewhat disjointed rant numero uno:

1.       Be where you’re supposed to be, on time and prepared.

Students need to be in class—on time and on task. Attendance breeds opportunities to learn. If not present, the same opportunities are not available. Yes, you can gain information and knowledge through self-study or observation or reading; however, an absent student misses discussions and social connections—critical elements of constructing meaning and learning. (See Dewey, Vygotsky, Bruner, Piaget, etc.) The interaction and application of said acquired knowledge cannot be replicated in the same way when a student is absent either physically or mentally.
                I have a student (at the university) who never attends class. He submits work online, but he is prone to all the pitfalls students who attend class avoid because we work together to succeed at the assignments and the learning. He, unfortunately, has chosen to shun the class and attempt everything on his own. Now, he is smart, but he does not know everything. Besides missing the attendance/participation part of his grade, me misses what we struggle through collectively as a class. He misses the comradery and collaborative community that we construct. He is not present to receive advice or encouragement from me or from his classmates, and it takes longer for him to catch up to where we are.
                Granted, the Fitness for Life class I took my sophomore year at Ricks College was different. The academic environment geared itself toward individual learning and testing. It was not a collaborative environment at all. To earn my grade, I just had to read the textbook and show up at the track when we ran the mile and at the testing center on occasion. The lecture had nothing to do with the grade or the learning. It was simply a lecture. (I got a B+ and only went to class three times that semester.) However, I believe this type of education is on its way out the door, especially in public schools. This is now the exception and not the rule.
Online education has its place, but it is an alternative to meet the needs of self-motivated learners. I have taught online courses both at the high school and the university level, and I will only say that these deliveries are not for everyone. If a student cannot motivate himself in an isolated setting, it will not go well for him. Even in these digital environments, interaction with an instructor and classmates increases and augments the learning. I will say it once more: you can only get so far in educating yourself.
                Showing up physically can only get you so far, though. You must be mentally present as well. Teachers know all too well that a student will never learn how to implement the quadratic equation or correct grammar in her writing if she is thinking about the cure boy sitting in front of her, or the drama call-backs after school, or the zit on her chin, or whether or not her dad will ever come back.
                There are so many possible distractions these days, especially with smartphones in almost every pocket. And I could rant on, but I digress for sake of your time and sanity. I also do not need to air all my laundry regarding student attendance. Regardless of the delivery method, the course, or the peers involved, attendance is mandatory for maximum learning.

Stay tuned for the next installment. It may come sooner than you think.

05 December 2019

I Love Technology?

I always find “Touchscreen” by Marshall Davis (Soulful) Jones to be timely, even though technology keeps changing at a rate that leaves me standing on the curb thumbing for a ride. I willingly acknowledge that I am a digital immigrant. Despite my nerdy desire to program computers back in sixth grade, not much tech comes naturally to me. Just ask my own children or my students. However, lately, I am not quite sure if I want anyone speeding down the digital freeway to stop and give me a lift into the future.
(Taken from redbubble.com)
This is not a tech-bashing post. I readily acknowledge the plethora of benefits that come from advancing technology. I enjoy the advances I have seen in my lifetime, but I’m no Kip Dynamite, either.

Over the past few terms, I have noticed more and more how isolated my students have become. Not that they travel as lone wolves or anything; they are just distant—from each other and from the world around them. Before and after class they sit zombified, staring at the small screens in their hands—most of them absent-mindedly scrolling through unfiltered garbage—instead of talking to each other.
On occasion they break out of their self-induced comas when I ask a direct question. But as soon as my initial engagement (be it joke, sports commentary, food experience, or homework reminder) draws to a natural pause, they disengage from me and flee from the faces in front of them, retreating back to their notifications and memes. They snap senseless ceiling shots simply to maintain a streak with someone they haven’t actually spoken to face to face in months or even years.
It reminds me of the mentality of the monster Cy-Bug things from the movie Wreck It Ralph:
(Taken from disney.fandom.com)
when prompted or focused they are almost unstoppable, but when the beacon of brainless light switches on, they relapse into a drone-like state, oblivious to their environment and even to themselves sometimes. These generic, mindless entities all cry out silently, together, “Look at me! I’m part of the crowd.” And the sheep wander down the hall as a pack, bumping and touching one another but not in touch with each other. I’m not even going to get into how many things Ralph’s sequel accurately depicts about our cyber society.
Recently I came across an article called “A Silent Tragedy” written by Dr. Luis Rojas Marcos, which The Educator’s Room posted to their Facebook page on November 11, 2019. I have read several similar studies regarding the effects of a screen-focused culture. You can check it out for yourself.
When I liked their page, I found another piece entitled “The Death of Reflection in English/Language Arts Classrooms,” and I almost cried. It voiced a few of the exact thoughts I had been having as of late, looking at some of the assignments my own children bring home. It also made me reflect on a previous observation of mine during a filed trip I chaperoned many years ago. Happily, the school situation is not as dire as some people think. Creativity has not completely keeled over in schools. I was a personal witness for two decades. We still have great teachers out there who engage students, who actually want them to think for themselves. The trick now seems to be getting them to surrender their portable think-for-me machines for a long enough  period of time to make a difference.
“But that’s what our society is like now” some might argue. “We could never give up our phones or tablets or computers.” And some might agree with that. I fought how to ban or manage or integrate smart phones and other tech in the classroom regularly.
A comment from my cousin Michelle, who teaches middle school in Salt Lake City, gives me some hope:
“This year at our school we have enforced an absolute ban on phones during school hours. The first two weeks were rough. Now, we have zero phones to deal with and the behavior is markedly different. I don't think it's the ONLY factor in the improved behavior at our school, but certainly it's a factor. Bullying is down, fights are down, friendships and positive relationships are up. Kids are having face to face, real time interactions.”
              And I think that’s what I am really concerned about—relationships, real time interaction. As members of the human race, we are not meant to live in isolation; we are here on this planet to be social beings (Yes, even we introverts!), to interact with each other, to teach and learn and experience life. It’s not how many likes to get; rather how many lives you touch.
I’d like to rant a little longer, but I should take my own advice and go do something with real people instead of sitting behind the computer in my office.

I'll check back in a while to see some of your thoughts about technology and learning and relationships or anything else I rambled about in this hurried post.

01 November 2019

Back from the Dead (Halloween Hater)

Like a zombie from the crypt, this blog--dead or undead--has new life breathed back into it. It's part of my efforts to get back to writing more frequently. So how should I start it off? With a little personal narrative ramble, of course.

For the record, Halloween has never been my favorite holiday…even as a kid. I didn’t really get into jump scares or monsters. Truthfully, on the whole, the horror/slasher genre of lit and film bores me. Suspense, I like, but for me, horror involves no real fright—just frustration and consternation at how demented people invent such stories. The gross-out factor didn’t even make me gag (much). And yes, I tried haunted houses and corn mazes as a teen and as an adult, but they didn’t do anything for me either. Maybe I’m concerned that people actually enjoy these “scary” things. To me they aren’t scary, just lame.
Dressing up in a costume never did anything for me either. I simply don’t enjoy it much. Sure, I dressed up as the obligatory superhero or clown or vampire (I believe those were the only personas I donned for trick-or-treating or class parties.), but I didn’t really get into it. Too much work for so little return.
                The only payoff for me was the candy. And I only ransacked the neighborhood until I was ten. My parents had a rule that trick-or-treating was done after you turned twelve. I ended early, opting at age eleven to drag my younger siblings around, and by the time I hit twelve, I opted to stay home to answer the door and sugar-load the roaming hordes of diaper-sagging Supermen, pillowcase-toting Princess Leias, and demons nearing diabetic comas.
                My last year of candy retrieval we lived in military housing in Japan. I was a vampire (again): white Sunday shirt, dark Sunday slacks and shoes, a plastic bargain bin cape and false teeth that Mom had grabbed at the base exchange. No makeup. I have no clue what my brothers wore.
Dad escorted us around some familiar blocks, and I grew impatient. My younger brothers lagging behind—Marc stopping to examine his haul after each house and David was just tired. We were coming near the end of the night (Trick-or-treating was only allowed on base from 1800-2000 hours.), and I still wanted more candy. As long as we were out, it needed to be worth my time, right?
The homes were all your standard, military four-plexes, and the blocks consisted of sets of two buildings facing each other with a parking spaces between them. Each set meant eight doors to knock. Eight treats. However, the two four-plexes we approached all looked dark. Dad wanted to move past them and head for home. I wanted candy. I was out here going through the motions, wasn’t I? Maybe David’s fussing wore on his patience, or maybe I was an impertinent little ten-year-old, but somehow I convinced Dad to let me try the darkened complex anyway. The three of them moved on, and I was allowed to continue by myself.
So I ventured to the first door alone.
I went to the next. Again, nothing.
The third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh doors all remained shut.
At the eighth and final stop, frustration started creeping in, and I felt like an idiot for wasting my time with the darkened doors. Despite the blackened windows, my stubbornness knocked anyway. As I stood with my foot tapping, tapping at the concrete floor, I heard but silence, nothing more. Yet once again I started rapping, rapping at the darkened door, wanting candy, nothing more.
When I was about to admit defeat, the porch light flicked on burning my vampire eyes, and the door opened.
“Hey, kid.” A man in a ratty Chicago Bears T-shirt and sweats stood before me, beer in hand.
“Hey,” I responded.
“We haven’t had anyone come by tonight. Probably because the light was off, huh?”
I didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, he saved my caught-in-the-porchlight dumbfoundedness by turning, setting down his bottle, and picking up a large Tupperware bowl, hundreds of Tootsie Rolls heaped above the rim.
“So, uh, why don’t you just take the whole thing?” he proffered. “Then I can turn my light off and go to bed.”
Before I could speak, sweet, chewy goodness spilled out of the bowl, into my plastic pumpkin, and onto the ground.
Caught in a trance, I mumbled a thank you, and the door closed. The light went out. I scurried about, collecting as many more Tootsies that I could stuff into my pockets. Persistence paid off that night. But that was the end of the story—no more trick-or-treating for this kid.
I figured that my siblings would always bring home candy. And if I really wanted some cavities that badly, I could buy my own sugar. It always went on sale on November 1st anyway (as long as it wasn’t candy canes or Chocolate Santas). In high school I even sold Halloween surplus out of my locker for a while, which for me, was much more beneficial than sweating through makeup or a freezing in a cracking plastic suit while hiking from house to house.

 (from http://www.disneyfilmproject.com/2009/06/skeleton-dance.html)
What? This from a guy who enjoys writing zombie haiku? I know. It’s weird. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an absolute hater. Garfield, the Great Pumpkin, and the Headless Horseman all make regular appearances. And I’ve been known to set up a spook alley or design the occasional Viking shield, false bloody knife, or other costume accouterments. One of my favorite cartoons of all time remains Disney’s Silly Symphony “The Skeleton Dance.” When I was younger, I enjoyed helping my younger siblings create homemade decorations. One of our favorites included constructing haunted houses with working windows and doors out of construction paper. Sounds like I might (hypocritically) enjoy Halloween. Nope. I love when others enjoy Halloween. All the effort is for the kids. It does nothing for me. 


18 April 2019

Back with Poem in Your Pocket Day 2019!

So, those of you who noticed my nasty case of blog neglect and figured that I would forget Poem in Your Pocket Day were sorely mistaken. Yes, I am a self-proclaimed slacker, but I'm still here to ramp up the poetry madness, y'all!

 First, if you are not familiar with Poem in My Pocket Day, here are the rules:

1. Find a copy of your favorite poem...or at least one that you like...or has touched you recently...or whatever. Digital is fine, but it's more human if you print a copy or transcribe it by hand.

2. Carry it around in your pocket (at the ready) all day. You shouldn't have to search for it on your phone every time you pull it out.

3. Share your chosen poem with people throughout the day.

4. Relish the poetry of this world!

Now because I probably won't see all of you today, here is my poem for today. This year I chose to honor the late Mary Oliver, a poet I have read more extensively of late. I planned a longer blog post around this poem, and I may yet do it, but for now, here it is:

“What We Want”
(Taken from https://www.facebook.com/PoetMaryOliver/photos/)

In a poem
people want
something fancy,

but even more
they want something
made plain,

easy to swallow—
not unlike a suddenly
harmonic passage

in an otherwise
difficult and sometimes dissonant

even if it is only
for the moment
of hearing it.

Now do me a favor: take time for poetry today and share with me as well. Post your poem in the comments here or via social media somewhere (#pocketpoem), or send me a message if I won't see you face to face. Happy Poem in Your Pocket day!

13 July 2018

Another Writing Lesson from the Undead

Teaching at the Young Authors Academy this week provided interesting (a purposefully vague word open to interpretation) experiences. Along with a supervisory role for parts of the camp, I taught two classes: “Building Better Stories” and “Tales and Villains.” Yes, teenagers do sign up to go to summer writing camp, and no, I did not come up with the titles of the classes. Each morning we started in true Writing Project format with a scribble where I was able to begin flexing my writing muscles again. It’s been a refreshing change from writing a dissertation. (Still recovering.) Several authors came to present and talk to the students about writing. We had a great lineup: J. Scott Savage, Chris Crowe, Tess Hilmo, Ann Dee Ellis, and Hannah L. Clark. Matthew Kirby also came for an evening chat with the campers. Each brought their expertise and among other things, validated my own writing practices as well as writing strategies I promote in my regular classroom. 
One of my many takeaways is a revision tool—one that Chris Crowe shared during his presentation about micro-revision, a topic I spend quite a bit of time on with my own students. I had seen most of his presentation before at various workshops, but this one was new.
He had the students first write a word-ku, a deviation of a haiku. It is still a three line poem, but instead of counting syllables, you write five words on the first line, seven on the second, and five on the third. Words instead of syllables. He instructed them about the traditional content of haiku: nature. However, when I wrote my example, I couldn’t shake my previous experience writing haiku with Chris and the rest of my Writing Project fellows, and I composed a word-ku of a decomposing nature: zombies. What else when working with Dr. Crowe?
(taken from https://authorselectric.blogspot.com/2016/03/
none escape this rotting curse,
this infestation that enslaves my mind when
I write haiku—the undead

The next step, a revision strategy, was to take the word-ku, and without changing the content, turning it into a traditional haiku. Syllables instead of words.

the infestation
enslaves my mind, zombifies
my thoughts, my haiku

By forcing one format into another, you really have to think about what it is you want to say. Rules are there to help. It helped me look to tighten up this scrap of writing as well as a few other pieces I worked on during the week. I could go on about different ways to implement this small exercise, its benefits, the buy-in from the students, but I fear the brain activity might attract the undead hordes roaming the campus. I’ll leave it to you to figure it out how to make word-ku work for you.

10 July 2018

Do You Know Who You Look Like?

As I worked in the kitchen, cleaning up after a Christmas dinner at the church last year, I noticed a fourteen-year-old girl whom I did not know staring at me. Weird. Every time I glanced over at her, though, she ducked her head and scurried away. I wrote it off as unimportant, but she began cycling back into the kitchen every four or five minutes with the same routine: stare at me for a moment, run away, repeat. Weirder. I prayed I didn’t have a teenage stalker. That would be creepy on many levels.
Toward the end of the night, and to my relief, my friend John tapped me on the shoulder. Hiding behind him was the serial starer. He proceeded to introduce me to his granddaughter Hallie, and we exchanged brief pleasantries. As I turned back to the mountain of plates and gravy boats, she hissed and pulled on her grandpa's arm like a preschooler.
“You promised you would tell him.”
John exhaled and shook his head. “Hallie wants to me tell you that she thinks you look like someone on a show she’s been watching on Netflix. I have no idea who she’s talking about, though. Never seen it myself.”
“Ah. Bob.” A smirk crept across my face. This wasn’t the first time the comparison had been made since Season 2 of Stranger Things was released.
Hallie jumped out from behind him. “But you do. You do. You look just like him.”
“So I’ve been told,” I said and went back to the dishes. The staring ended. She was merely the latest in a slew of doppelgänger connections between me and Bob.
Earlier that week, my fifth period class debated the similarities between me and Sean Astin when I stepped into the hallway to chat with an administrator for a minute. The next day, they told me that they continued the debate over social media late into the night, debating which of Astin’s characters I most resembled in looks and personality. The top vote getters were Bob Newby (from Stranger Things), Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings), Marcus Tate (Forever Strong), Dave (Encino Man), Daniel E. “Rudy” Ruettiger (Rudy), and Mikey Walsh (The Goonies). A consensus was never reached.
Since I really don’t fixate on celebrities or much of anything in pop culture, this slipped away from my thoughts until yesterday as I started teaching my part of a seminar for young authors. As I introduced myself, the kids whispered up and down the rows of the auditorium.
During the break, three brave souls, who I assume to have been nominated by their peers, approached me.
“So, uh, have you ever seen Stranger Things?”
“Yeah, that was me…Bob,” I replied.
The kid with blue hair exclaimed, “I knew you weren’t dead! I knew it.”
“Not yet,” I said. “Not yet.”
This connection to Bob, or Sean, is not a new phenomenon. It happened with just about every movie or TV show Astin ever released. Growing up, I was frequently asked if I was still digging the pool in my back yard, applying to Notre Dame, or if I knew when the Fratellis were getting out of prison. My wife’s uncle sometimes chants “Rudy! Rudy!” when I walk into a room. It even started with The Goonies, which didn’t make too much sense because Sean is almost six years older than I am. I turned nine in 1985; he was 14 or 15. Despite the obnoxiousness, in most cases, I feel the connections are still pretty funny. I usually reply with a quip about needing to find Mr. Frodo and head into Mordor.
But as this debate has arisen again, I want some feedback. Which Sean Astin character most closely mirrors me? One mentioned above, or a lesser-known entity? Those who know me fairly well might have a different perspective than those who have only seen me. I am curious.

P.S. Don’t worry. You won’t hurt my feelings no matter your answer. Remember, I work in junior high.

P.P.S. It would also be cool for you to share your celebrity doppelgänger.

P.P.P.S. Only one of these pictures belongs to me. The others were found in various places on the Internet.

28 June 2018

Excuse Me, Do You Speak Baseball?

No matter the subject, there is always someone who knows more than you. Experts navigate the ins and outs of car engines or quantum physics or water reclamation or Minecraft with ease, while the rest of us struggle to keep up with the conversation. Just ask your seven-year-old about her Shopkins collection and be amazed at how much more than you she knows about this world of miniature painted plastic resin figures with faces. Her knowledge of their names and relationships and the whole Shoppie world leaves you in the dust. Not that you admit it out loud, but you find yourself an outsider. Those possessing such specialized knowledge and shared values or goals pertaining to a particular subject form a specific discourse community.
Discourse communities maintain their identity with an understanding of a particular literacy, a literary cohesiveness unique to that particular group. And although it may seem junior high cliquish, most people belong to multiple communities without much hassle. We are born into many discourse communities, while we acquire other discourse community affiliations when we get that first job as a Wendy’s fry cook, participate in a Boy Scout troop, join the jazz band in junior high, or get dragged to Comic-Con without consent. 
            Regardless of how you gain membership into a discourse community, or how deeply you become entrenched in that culture, the fact remains that upon joining you obtain a new level of literacy, a specialized literacy that outsiders to the community are shut out of until they receive the knowledge necessary to navigate the community, or at least the linguistic side of it. And I have to remind myself frequently that not everyone belongs to the same discourse communities I do. My non-teacher friends don’t really appreciate the jargon I spew during a social media rant about educational policy. Those of a different faith may have a hard time understanding some of my philosophical viewpoints. And sadly, not everyone knows their cuts of meat either.
            It is also important to realize that within any given discourse community, there are levels of understanding and inner circles of acceptance and inclusion—casual observers or participants, if you will, as opposed to hardball fanatics.
            My father-in-law describes his involvement with his colleagues in higher education with a simple academic bifurcation: “There are two types of post-grad professors—those who will do anything in their power to helpyou reach where they are; the others do everything in their power to preventyou from reaching where they are.” This perception illustrates a common, dangerous attitude that some members of specialized discourse communities hold: you are either in the club or out. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try to avoid them, prejudices regarding whether you are part of the group or not exist regardless of whether we’re talking about academia, anime, or aerospace engineering.
I was personally reminded of the disparity involved with discourse communities when I attended an Orem Owlz baseball game last year. Side note: it happened to be Star Warsnight, a completely separate community. Regardless, that particular night I happened to be wearing one of my favorite T-shirts: a simple black shirt with a math equation on it: 

As I headed back to my seat after pillaging the concession stand—or rather they pillaged my wallet—during a pitching change, one of the ushers stopped me and pointed at my shirt. She said, “The first time I saw that shirt I thought it was just some bad math…maybe that ‘new’ math stuff. Then someone explained it to me, and now it’s one of my favorite shirts. Gonna get me one.” I simply thanked her, told her where she could order one online, and returned to my seat.
Twice more I had to maneuver by her, and each time I overheard her explain her updated baseball literacy to others, beaming with pride. Despite her involvement in the baseball community, she still lacked some fundamental vocabulary skills. I’m glad I helped initiate this rite of passage into a deeper sanctum in the circles of baseball discourse.
Before leaving the ballpark that night I posted about it on social media. As an afterthought I added a snarky hashtag: #itsasmartpersonsgame, flaunting my mastery of the baseball community discourse. The only people who “liked” it already had a passion for the game. 
Driving home I realized my remark might be misconstrued as being elitist, kind of like those uppity professors my father-in-law warned me about, definitely not the signal I wanted to transmit to the world.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t edit my post just then, but when I did find a minute to retract my unintentional snobbery, I found that my cousin Tina had been brave enough to post her baseball ignorance:
            T: Ok. Someone explain it to me! I imagine it’s related to baseball?
Within minutes of her plea, my friend Richard responded with a simple explanation, giving her (and the rest of cyberspace not included in the discourse community) the knowledge to be part of the in-crowd.
R: Each position in baseball is assigned a number. In this case 6 for shortstop, 4 for 2ndbase, and 3 for 1stbase. In scorekeeping, 6-4-3 is the most common notation to indicate the batter has grounded into a double play. So 6 to 4 to 3 equals 2 (outs).
            Tina’s replied, voicing the thoughts of all who come to be included in a new discourse.
T: Richard, thank you. That makes perfect sense, and not being a baseball fan, I feel less stupid since that’s some pretty specific notation going on there!!
            Other friends and family then proceeded to admit their own lack of baseball expertise. Richard, only too happy to help, then went on to include a link to a video clip of the 6-4-3 in action, adding to Tina’s newfound discourse knowledge. What a guy!
            While this small piece of baseball literacy might not be pertinent to anyone’s salvation, or even semi-important to the general public’s pursuit of trivia, a division still exists between people who know why the infield fly rule is important and those who couldn’t care less about the designated hitter debate. However, the social boundaries that discourse communities create shouldn’t erect fences similar to Boston’s Green Monster. I shouldn’t be a snob about what I know and others don’t. Even if I had a degree in baseball, I shouldn’t wave it in others’ faces.
Yesterday, I wore the double play shirt again, and I observed occasional head bobs, nods, and knowing smiles—all signs of discourse inclusion, of shared knowledge, of understanding. However, more obvious were those people furrowing their brows, awkwardly doing the math, counting in their minds—a few on their fingers. This at bat, though, encouraged me to be more empathetic toward those not included in the discourse communities where I have membership. I even stopped and explained in to one young man and two grandmotherly women on my way back from lunch. Helping outsiders find a way into the ballpark, even if it means sneaking them through the turnstile after the game has already started, brings more joy than an autographed ball. To those rookies, I can be the veteran on the bench, sharing the discourse instead of withholding it.

26 April 2018

2018's Version of Poem in My Pocket Day

I can't believe I almost forgot Poem in My Pocket Day! I put it on my calendar and in my planning book, but until I looked at the date ten minutes before school started, it slipped my mind. And then, I thought to compose a draft of an email reminder to my faculty early, but I ended up sending it two days early instead of saving it for today. Needless to say--but you notice I'm saying it anyway--this year has been a little crazy.

So, for a recap for those who may not be familiar with Poem in My Pocket Day, here are the rules:

1. Find a copy of your favorite poem...or at least one that you like...or has touched you recently...or whatever. Digital is fine, but it's more human if you print a copy or transcribe it by hand.

2. Carry it around in your pocket (at the ready) all day. You shouldn't have to search for it on your phone every time you pull it out.

3. Share your chosen poem with people throughout the day.

4. Relish the poetry of this world!

(Taken from http://irelandinruins.blogspot.com/2016/08/)
For those whom I won't run into today, here is my poem this year. Recently, I picked up a copy of Seamus Heaney's Selected Poems 1988-2013 and have been marveling at his craft, even when I have to look up older Irish farm words. This one stuck out to me as I was reading during class last week, and I knew it would find its way into my pocket this year.

Field of Vision
Seamus Heaney
I remember this woman who sat for years
In a wheelchair, looking straight ahead
Out the window at sycamore trees unleafing
And leafing at the far end of the lane.
Straight out past the TV in the corner,
The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain.
She was steadfast as the big window itself.
Her brow was clear as the chrome bits of the chair.
She never lamented once and she never
Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight.
Face to face with her was an education
Of the sort you got across a well-braced gate —

One of those lean, clean, iron, roadside ones
Between two whitewashed pillars, where you could see
Deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.
Do me a favor: take time for poetry today and share with me as well. Post your poem in the comments here or via social media somewhere (#pocketpoem), or send me a message if I won't see you face to face. Happy Poem in My Pocket day!

08 February 2018

Death Drives a Lambo

                “C’mon, Dad.” I impatiently tapped my foot. We had been “discussing” my plans for celebrating the coming new year for the past fifteen minutes, and I wasn’t making any headway. Josh and some other friends waited, crammed into the small entryway of the house. I was the last to be picked up that night.
                Dad shook his head, frustrated. “It’s not a good idea.”
                I argued back. “Why not? It’s not like we’re going to drink and drive. We’re not going to do drugs or anything.” I felt low playing a line like that, but I desperately want to go.
                My father sighed deeply. Silence passed.
                After what seemed like eternity, he finally spoke again, and when he did, he looked directly into my eyes. “It’s other people’s choices that worry me. The roads are going to be dangerous tonight.” His voice trailed off but then came back more purposefully. “I’ll let you make your own choice, son. Just know that I’ll be disappointed if you choose to go. I just have a feeling that you shouldn’t.”
                A knot in my stomach started to form but not from any hunger pains. Deep within I knew he was right, but how could I explain that to the posse waiting for me?
                I swallowed down the guilty feelings. “Fine,” I blurted and resolutely, stubbornly, stormed out the door, homies in tow.
                “Be safe.” I heard him call over my shoulder.
                “Whatever,” I thought.
                Sliding into shotgun in Josh’s full-size van, I heard someone from the back whisper, “Dude, his dad’s pissed.”
                I turned around and glared into the dark; the back of the vehicle went silent.
                Josh turned the key, and the engine revved to life. I cranked the music to push the disagreement with my dad out of my head, and we pulled out of the driveway.
                We hit Rally’s for a cheap burger and fries before crossing west over the Mississippi, and soon we were cruising the winding spaghetti-like highways and byways of the greater St. Louis area. On and off freeways, we twisted and weaved our way to a plethora of party stops, only staying long enough at each one to see and be seen. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve, 1993, the last one before I graduated from high school, and I intended to celebrate in style, or at least in quantity.
                My buddies and I, floating natural highs, cranked the speakers beyond their capacity until they cracked and surrendered to our demands. Even when shouting in the close proximity of the van, it was impossible to understand what anyone else said. Greasy wrappers cluttered at our feet, near-empty drinks rattled in the molded vinyl cup holders, the piles growing higher as the night waxed on. We dropped in at various bashes and dances; from churches to community centers to private homes, we came, we partied, and we left in search of more.
                Midnight came and went, I recall, and we were hunting for more food before we moved on to the next stop on our list. We were driving west on Highway 40, I believe, away from downtown, and I’d guess we were cruising around 70 or 75 miles per hour—fast for that area, but not fast enough to be pulled over. When out of nowhere, we heard a raucous clamor over the thumping bass of Cypress Hill. I was sitting in the passenger seat. A little perplexed, I silenced the pounding tunes. The noise grew louder—the thrum of an engine. I looked out my window scarcely in time to see a yellow Lamborghini streak by, almost clipping the front bumper of the van. Neon purple emanated from underneath, underlining the blur. With an apparent kick of nitrous oxide, the car hit another gear and rocketed away from us, a fluorescent streak darting through traffic, disappearing into the darkness, like the Millennium Falcon making the jump to light speed.
                “Did you see that?” came a reverent whisper from the back. See it? We felt it as it whipped through the river or cars and trucks. The van now slowed involuntarily. I glanced up and down the freeway; we weren’t the only vehicles pausing to soak in the dangerous beauty of that car.
                “Dude!” Josh exclaimed. “He must have been going at least ninety!”
                “That guy’s gonna kill somebody,” I muttered under my breath. My stomach tightened. “Could’ve been us.”
                Nanoseconds passed before the entire van buzzed with excitement about the Lambo. Tales of exotic sports cars we had seen or sat in or even driven filled the space—typical testosterone-fueled boasting. Even though the run-in with yellow Lamborghini only lasted a couple seconds, THAT was pretty cool.

                Soon we pulled off into some suburb to refuel both our van and our bellies; the entourage needed more sustenance to keep going. The goal to literally party until the break of dawn needed some assistance: caffeine and fast food.
                It wasn’t long after we had returned from our pit stop to the freeway that the world, or at least the traffic, slowed to a crawl, almost like a slow-motion scene out of a bad action movie.  A collective groan from the seven of us rose above the bass groove. Bumper to bumper the cars inched forward, stuck like concert-goers going through a turnstile, bunching, maneuvering to get ahead but going nowhere. Josh pounded the steering wheel in frustration. Horns blared around us, dissonant and piercing; they cut through the slow jams fuzzing through the cracked speakers, putting a damper on the night’s revelries. I lowered the window to catch a better sense of what was happening up ahead. A wicked sharp wind caught my breath and carried it away in the night, leaving my throat frozen. Lights flashed—red, blue, and the amber of emergency vehicles.
                “Wreck ahead,” I announced and silenced the music again. Impatience stirred.
                Incident management trucks, police cars, and fire engines blocked most of the view. Forty-five minutes and half a mile later, we reached the bottleneck. A lone officer directed the clogged artery of traffic. Emergency personnel moved back and forth. Glass littered the freeway. Some of it, we noticed, was tinged red. Several inspector-looking people flashed cameras. On the shoulder sat three or four cars, twisted and bent, forming a heap of metal usually only seen in a junkyard. As we soberly rolled by, we noticed along the cement barrier was a streak of yellow paint about the length of a school bus. And then we saw it. A heap of metal and glass and purple neon sitting by itself: the Lambo…or at least what was left of it. The only recognizable semblance that this mound had once been a car was a solitary yellow door, sticking straight into the air, a monument to this symbol of extravagance that not even an hour earlier had whipped past us without a care. The twisted scrap pile looked like the Terminator and Wolverine got into a wrestling match inside the Lamborghini and decided to rip it open like a giant aluminum soda can and spill its guts onto the pavement. Spots on the concrete were dark and wet.
                We watched in a horrified silence as an EMT slammed the back doors of an ambulance, pounded twice, and walked away. The ambulance drove off: lights on but no siren. I noticed that it fell in line with two others, who also flashed lights but no sound—a signal that there was no rush to get where they were headed. A nagging thought filled my conscience. A couple of inches, and that could have been us. Dad had been right—someone else’s choices ruined more than the night.
                All of us sat stupefied by what we had just seen. Josh kept driving west. The only conversation the rest of that night was when I suggested we turn around and go home. Josh only nodded. I think some of the others fell asleep.
                A contemplative mood fell over the van as we returned to the Illinois side of the river. Scenes flashed before me as the streetlights drifted past, shedding their own blurred orange-white light on the night’s events. All I could do was shake my head and try and shake the image from my mind.
                When we pulled up to my house, I noticed that Dad’s car was gone—already off to work, so my admission and apology would have to wait. “Dad, you were right,” I said remorsefully to myself as I stumbled through the front door. It could have been me. The slick red spots twisted into the silver and yellow could have been me. I might have wiped out my future without even having one. Splat. Over. Not my choices.

This is the last of the four personal narratives I wrote with my students this year. Somehow it got shuffled under a pile and forgotten until a few days ago. Some of this piece has been fictionalized for the sake of continuity and artistic license...and the fact that I don't exactly remember who was with me on this adventure. I can say that even though at times I was a butt-headed teenager and didn't listen to my dad all the time, I can say that now he is one of my best friends, and I always seek out his counsel. I'm not sure who coined the adage, and I'm too lazy to look it up right now, but I agree that the older I get, the smarter my dad gets.

I think I'll post a little writing every so often...some polished...some rough. And I welcome any comments or criticisms or cupcakes you care to throw my way.