Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What is it with me and colds?

I blame it on the snot-nosed kids I teach. I have my 3rd cold this year, except this one is accompanied by fever and chills and aches and what I feared was strep throat. The doctor threw that theory out the window, so I can breath easy on that one. Except that I can't really breathe easy.

So what have I been doing because I stayed home today? Read this. And felt every ounce of her unrequited misery. And felt oh-so-smart when Sue came out with it and fessed up to writing the whole thing and here I'd suspected it as fiction all along. Because what self-respecting single female would put herself out there like that? Somehow learning it was fiction gave me permission to read it in its entirety. Fiction or not, it's a fun little story to take up 2 hours. I say read it. It kept my mind off of the aches and shivers of the day. And it took me back to the angst and injustice of all my hurtful crushes.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 OR Further Proof That We're All a Little Insecure

When I was in college I was a poetry geek. It is true. I worked for the literary magazine my university published every year. Each week I met on the library's second floor with a group of fellow poets and friends. We even wrote a grant (well, our professor wrote a grant because let's face it I'm still not quite certain how one goes about writing a grant) to publish a volume of our work together. We thrived in language and imagery. We were cocky and young as only university students with their lives ahead of them can be. We were sort of snobby and elitist. And, to be honest, we took ourselves a bit too seriously, dropping lines like "honing our craft" and "I'm unclear on the antecedent here" like I dribble soup down the front of my shirt at nearly every restaurant between here and Hoboken.

That is the nice part about college. One can be peacockish there and everyone else reinforces the behavior. Preened by professors, praised by parents, one grows certain that they are the deepest thinker, the most sophisticated, and that the world is waiting for them, bachelor degree in hand. Perhaps it is because I belonged, full-bodied, to the generation of praise junkies. But, then again, maybe this was all just me (I've always been prone to delusions of grandeur, though, "one possessor of an overactive imagination" is the euphemism I prefer).

But I've gone on an unnecessary side trip. Back to The Poetry Geeks. We geeks meshed together when invited to a special week-long daily seminar and workshopping session with Robert Dana. Now before I go into the gory details of our week with Robert Dana, I must first say this: Writers, like most artists (and the vast majority of people, really), are full of themselves. They come to these literary and writing conferences as nobility. They come as guest writers at universities and, for a week, they live the life of a minor celebrity. Throngs (slight hyperbole there) of writing and poetry geeks trail behind them, hoping for that holy grail word of advice which ensures their shot at geeky publication. I won't get started on the boundary-crossing, student/guest writer romantic interludes that frequent these week-long visits, because I never crossed this boundary, one, and more importantly I find no reason to dwell on middle aged men's obsessions with the barely legal. It gives me the shivers. 'Nough said.

Now, when it comes to swollen heads, Robert Dana was no exception. I guess he had a right to it. He, with a few key individuals, built the powerhouse that is the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He was Iowa's state poet laureate for a time. He is known in literary circles throughout the US. And, to his credit, Dana, to my knowledge, never took advantage of a poor co-ed. But the man was ever-sure of himself. He lived life with the firm knowledge that he had "it." And, looking at much of his poetry of the past, he did have "it" at one time.

This attitude of himself carried into our workshop sessions. We scrawny, sniveling college students knew nothing and he knew everything was the basic theme of the week. This treatment tainted our view of his greatness. His new volume (the most recent collection of his poems we had to purchase in order to attend his seminar, of course) lacked that certain something one would like to see in poetry. And, feeling insulted as we did, we poetry geeks spoke mercilessly at his expense and the expense of his rather bad poetry when he wasn't in the room. Afterall, we were nearly as big-headed as he was just without having earned the right.

The last straw of his conceit was our culminating project: a Friday night reading. We'd each taken a brief five minutes sharing our work, when the star of the show took the stage, er podium, for a while. Somewhere in the midst of the reading, he set up his next reading, a poem about the death of a neighbor. He shared with the small audience that this poem had his favorite line he had ever written in a poem in it. He thought himself so clever. He read it with all the drama and histrionics and cheesy seriousness that only a poet can. His favorite line? You guessed it.

www dot Death dot com

We couldn't control ourselves, some of us might have vomited a little in our mouths, others may have even snickered a little (because we were so mature, afterall). This was his crowning glory? Poor Robert Dana. Poor Robert Dana's dead neighbor.

Now why do I tell this story? Frankly, I started to write it because it makes me laugh, and I got the obligatory thank you card in the mail for attending a poetry geek's reception last month. But, always the English teacher, I can't leave this post without a conclusion. What's the point? I'd ask my students. I guess the point is that we are all a little cocky and conceited. We all are a bit too full of ourselves. And we use this to compensate because deep down we all are a little insecure. Even Robert Dana. The nice thing about life is that eventually we get knocked down off those pedastals. Eventually life teaches us that we aren't peacocks, but people. Eventually we learn the graceful art of humility. And as much as it hurts to feel like a donkey's hind quarters, isn't it great that sometimes we get that humbling opportunity? And, I say it again: is THE WORST line I've ever read in a poem. Ever.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Oh to Be 14 Again...

If my students are any gauge, there is no hope of their teacher marrying.  Ever.  I shouldn't even bother. Because, according to the following, I must be in the dry spell of a life time.

To Ms. Rookie's Students:

Today's Journal Topic?  Pick your own!  Write about anything you want 
(school appropriate, of course). 

Little did I know that this little prompt would result in the following journal (edited so as to prevent the agony you all would feel reading just one of these babies).  Enjoy.

"Mr. C" is in my biology class.  He sits at the next table kind of behind me and he is so...soooo...yeah!!!!  YUM-MY! 

(Rookie here, preserving you from the yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah, superfluous exclamation marks, some bit about his hair and eyes and tight girl pants, and a run down of all their awkward interactions a la "and he was like, 'hey' and i was like 'hey.'"  So now you can feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude because I wish a summarizing voice of adult sanity would interrupt student essays and do the same for me).  

Anywayz, i really think that maybe i should txt him, you know?  But I'm trudishenil and he should totally txt first, NA WHAT I'M SAYIN?  

(Are you ready for the finale?)

(You sure?)

(OK, but you asked for it...)

And it is weird because I haven't felt this way in like for so long you know! 

Say what?  Did I just read that right?  Honey, you're in 9th grade.  "In like for so long"?  Seriously?  

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Hidden Life of the High School English Teacher

The English Teacher, in her natural habitat of lounge pants and a ratty t-shirt, brings home her fresh kill.

With anticipation she picks up her first essay, ready to be wowed.

But wait! Something is amiss. Whatever could it be?

Is that disappointment? Frustration? 
Oh, dear English Teacher, tell us what is wrong.

What's that? You aren't sure what, exactly, "This iz 4 REEL" is supposed to mean. Silly English Teacher, everyone knows that!

Don't get angry, English Teacher, anger is like a stress. It can make us throw clots and stroke out. 4 real.

We know, we know. But anger only makes matters worse.

Oh, that's really mature, English Teacher, REAL mature!

Oh look, the English Teacher is bored with her students' mediocrity.

But...but...she never finished reading! Should we wake her up?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Taste Test

I like to think I have good taste. All of us do. I like the way my house is decorated, the clothes in my closet, the "stuff" I am drawn to at Target. I go through life quite certain that my taste is the best taste. Contemporary, but not too trendy. Classic, but not archaic. Clean, but not unliveable. Yes, I am quite certain that my taste is anything but tacky.

But someone out there clearly doesn't feel the way I do. Someone out there is buying the elastic-banded, gag blue denim capri pants at the store (which, I might add, do nothing for your tush--and are they REALLY all that comfortable?). Someone is drawn to mauve and forest green wallpaper borders (the commitment-less wallpaper) to match their Deep Forest Dupont Stainmaster carpet. Someone out there decorates in several shades of my-worst-nightmare! And this someone is every bit as convinced as I am about their taste: it is good.

And I think I know who this person is. My landlady. "Crazy Pat", I'm quite convinced, is growing something illegal (for personal use only, of course) in her greenhouse in the backyard. "Crazy Pat" loves all things tie dye, including her hair which has ranged from a vibrant orange to a vibrant gold to a medley of brown, grey, yellow and orange all at once. "Crazy Pat" has a soft place in her heart for chihuahuas. Currently, we are up to four of the yappers. "Crazy Pat" expressed sorrow of the worst degree after a Jethro Tull concert because her one and only grandson will never have the blessed opportunity that is seeing Jethro live.

Yes, "Crazy Pat" is that special kind of eccentric you can appreciate having in the neighborhood, but living in such close proximity (as, say, her basement) is sometimes a bit much. I can forgive her many yapping chihuahuas. I can forgive her odd conversation. I can forgive her bra-less gardening. But I must express that there is one eccentricity that does me in.

Alice and I lovingly refer to it as "The Gypsy Cart."

Behold, what is only the tip of the iceberg in tacky lawn decor:

It is everywhere. Every nook, every cranny has a little sumpin-sumpin besides organic matter. The tree branches sag under the weight of dangling trinkets, rather than pears or plums. I would find it entertaining, if not for the fact that I live here. The path to my basement entryway is lined with all things tacky.

And so, I have three key words for our kindly (though eccentric) "Crazy Pat."

Less is more, Patty. Less is more.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

It Is True...I Miss Them AND Another Self-Portrait

This kid has a serious love for bananas, his silky black security blanket (an old pillow case) and my blow dryer:

And there's nothing quite like having your big sister around...

I miss you all, "TAGJAM FAM"!

Oh, and since it has been a while, another Self Portrait Challenge installment:

(Because I just love autumn, the rain, rain in autumn...).

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hukeb oN fonix, Communication, and Other Thursday Night Musings

Recently I tested my 9th & 10th grade students for grade level reading skills... Wait, perhaps, I should go back further...

Reading. All my life I have heard that reading matters. For me, always-the-reader, this message from educators and NBC service announcements was a white noise preaching to my lone little alto choir. I didn't need someone to sell me the benefits of reading. I enjoyed reading. I consumed books as a Fahrenheit 451 fire. But clearly, my story is not everybody's story. And certainly, reading doesn't even fit into the life stories of my students.

So how did Ms. Rookie's students perform on their reading placement tests, you ask? Low. Lower than they should have. Some are in the third grade still. Let me say that again: I have students who have made it into their sophomore year of high school reading at a third grade level. Their vocabulary is lost in a wasteland. Their comprehension isn't just failing to mention the elephant in the room, NOPE, my students, when reading, don't notice the part about the elephant even being in the room.

Now, this isn't everybody, a token few are even at a post high school level, but the majority of my students are reading below grade level. And I'm disheartened and angry and hysterical and disappointed and overwhelmed and frustrated and ill about this fact. You see, I teach Language Arts, the skills of reading and writing and recognizing the art and nuance of language, to people who are essentially illiterate.

Why are they illiterate? For some, English is not their native language. Some do not have a single book, excluding religious texts, in their homes. Some have learning disabilities. Some have never been to the public library. Some were never read to when they were little. And some just do not like to read. And Mom or Dad don't like/value reading. Or Mom and Dad or Great Aunt Ruth buy them books, encourage them to read, but their kid just won't do it. Their eyes scan the text, but their minds drift to other worlds like HALO or the skate park or Jessica Alba.

And it all makes me sick. You want my honest opinion? I believe we are becoming illiterate as a nation. Oh, we may be literate, even sophisticated in technology. Our minds may consume information at a rate so rapid we're left feeling drained by nightfall. But we are becoming a nation who cannot communicate effectively. And when communication fizzles, how do we express ourselves?

Listening to the candidates debate, drifting over blogs in the blogosphere, perusing the words my students write, I am weary. Our ability for communication seems to be waning into an abysmal future. Call me a language snob. Call me full of crap. Call me Ishmael. Call me Jonah. I don't care. I am worried about the diminishing face of literacy in our culture and society.

I write and I read because I want to connect with the essence of humanity. What does it mean to be human? What is the secret landscape of the mind? Effective communication turns the deepest fruit of who we are inside out, leaving the shining membrane of us as evidence: I feel, I think, I am. Language is what separates us from the animals, and somewhere over the past few decades, we've thrown that ability aside piece by piece.

And our next generation is worse off. Text messaging lingo consists of a rudimentary abbreviated vocabulary. What are we? Cave people?

I meet u

I know, I know, I'm ranting and I'm raving and my soap box is groaning under the weight of my intensity. My linguistic-guru brother might even tell me "Dear Rookie, language is always in flux, this is natural." But I am uncertain how to make up for years of illiteracy. I worry that without the language available to express the thought fully, the thoughts themselves might die away too. I worry that, when it comes to language, this generation gap is too wide. I worry that one day I will start talking, expressing the inside of myself, and no one will understand what I am saying.