Shades of Black and White

November 9, 2014

It was late summer, 1979, and my friend Johnny was dying.

Our star fullback in high school, heavyweight wrestling champ, all around BMOC sat, slumped, in a wheelchair in his parent’s Denver living room. His once chiseled, athletic frame was basically down to half of the 215 pounds he burst through opposing defenses with just three Johnny 6autumns before. His purple South High jersey with the white number thirty-three hung loosely over him. He looked more like a man holding a purple tarp.

A virus he had contracted had attacked his heart, and he was awaiting a transplant. He looked old – sounded very old. To my twenty-year old self, the raspy, croaked out whisper was more jarring than the visual. That Johnny Wilkins voice – Barry White-like booming bass, full-throated and billowing in laughter – was unrecognizable; a voice that, added to his physical maturity always made him seem much older than the rest of us, was now the gravely crackle of an old man.

But the perpetual Leprechaun-mischievous glint remained in still vibrant eyes.

Johnny2It was only when I sat down in front of him and he smiled, his eyes joining his mouth in playfulness as usual, that the Johnny I knew like a brother was again visible. His smile was even more pronounced, as it split the sagging skin of his jowls that had lost their elasticity, into something approaching Johnny normalcy.

We talked.

I cannot tell you what about in any detail. My travels since we had graduated in the spring of 1977, and update on the whereabouts of some mutual friends. His mind was sharp; whatever medications he was on had not dimmed his intellect or humor. He was still Johnny.

I was one of two classmates who had come to see him since his illness; the other was Terry Tuffield, a kind and beautiful girl who Johnny and I shared a bit of history with. Knowing I had a crush on her, he had begged me to let him set us up on a date, but I had adamantly ordered him not to intervene, preferring to ask her myself and never having to think of her doing him a favor by going out with me. This became a running joke through our senior year and is still one of the more bemusing episodes and fond remembrances’ of high school; especially his insistence in asking me to let him talk to her and my repeated, publicly made threats to kick his butt if he acted on my behalf.

The absurdity of the 145 pound white dude threatening his black, locker-partner Adonis drew more than a few raised eyebrows on many occasions. These exchanges were always punctuated with a stern look from me and a sonic-boom laugh from Johnny.

We were, in almost every aspect of late 1970’s high school life, an odd couple.

The irony of sitting in the Wilkins’ living room, knowing that Terry was the only other visitor from our high school days was not lost on me then 0001or now. That Johnny died less than a month later has always left me thinking that the Rebel visitor list ended with the two of us.

Life is funny like that.

I had been to Johnny’s house once before, in March of our senior year. I picked him up at his house and we went to Denver’s City Park to hang out for the day. We were preparing to graduate and we discussed plans for the future; college football and eventual marriage to his long-time girlfriend Gloria for him, my summer departure for a year of broadcasting school. Our senior prom, various escapades to that point were bantered about while cruising City Park Lake on a rented paddleboat.

One small piece of our conversation stands out to me to this day: Johnny’s casual mention that I was the first white friend that had ever come into his home. It was an observation, nothing more. My response, I believe, was no more than ‘Oh’ and it was left at that. At least until a year later, when Johnny, who had erroneously learned that I was back in town and dropped my parent’s house.

As he later related the story later in a phone call, he walked up, rang the doorbell. The door opened, and there stood my father, middle-aged white guy with glasses, all of five-five, who looked up at the hulking black dude with the bushy beard in front of him and said simply, “Oh, you must be Johnny.” Acknowledging that he was, my father than said, “Well, come on in.”

Johnny roared with laughter recounting the story later, finding my father’s initial statement both jarring and hysterical. His being asked in and hosted by my parents with conversation and lemonade for the next hour was stunning to him. Mine was the first house of a white friend that he had ever been asked into, and I wasn’t even there for the party. Johnny roared with laughter when I explained the obviousness of my father’s initial assumption/greeting: “You are the only big, bearded black guy I know.”

Life is funny.

Our personal string of racial firsts ended with Johnny’s death in August of 1979. He was twenty-one.

I am thirty-five years removed from that Denver living room and this story has come rushing back to me today. At mid-life career change and I am a high school English teacher at an inner city high school in New Orleans. It is my seventh year of teaching here and I have pretty much encountered every issue that traditionally plague poverty-stricken communities.

As I write this, I am sitting in the front seat of a school bus rumbling down a highway in rural Louisiana. I am helping chaperone a group of our schoolbus seniors on an overnight retreat. There is another teacher on the bus with me, two others follow in a car. Of the forty-two souls on the bus, I am the only white person. I sit with my back against the window, looking over my shoulder at row upon row of young black faces, and I wonder.

I am new to this school. As a first-year guy, I get tested by my students on a regular basis. Most of them have not figured me out yet, especially those I deal with only tangentially. Another teaching newcomer to the school is Mr.K, a history teacher across the hall from me. It is his first year as a teacher and we share most of the same senior students, so we are able to collaborate and share notes on students, and I mentor a bit. We have come to be seen by many students as best of friends, and this idea has been cemented, I believe, by the fact that students constantly, to the shared bemusement of Mr. K and I, confuse the two of us.

Mr. K is tall, thin, bearded and wears glasses; he is half-my age. I am five-five with beard and glasses, old enough to be his father. Yet on nearly a daily basis, I get called Mr.K. and he gets called Mr. Lucker. Usually students correct themselves, and will often apologize – sometimes profusely and with a sense of embarrassment. Mostly not, but sometimes.

The confusion has become a running joke between Mr. K, myself, and a few other staff members – black and white – who don’t find the constant confusion at all odd.

Looking at the young faces behind me, swaying and bouncing up and down as we traverse a curvy two lane highway, I wonder. They are engrossed in every sort of electronic engagement, a few sleep with their heads tilted awkwardly on pillows against bus windows. I wonder if any of them had ever been a racial first for someone, as Johnny and I had been. There are a select few who I believe have contemplated such scenarios as they prepare to head off to college, although most of that is naiveté born of circumstance; outside of school, there are few white people with whom most of my students interact with any sort of regularity. Many of them will go off to college and be stunned with the diversity they encounter.

There are many firsts on their horizons.

Over the past six-plus years, when students have brought up the racial aspects of our teacher-student relationship it is usually brought up with a tone of curiosity rather than accusation. They are trying to figure me, or other white teachers out. At the (much larger) school I taught at the three years prior to this one, black students would occasionally ask me to explain white student behavior in some way, which I would usually try to deflect, and use classroom techniques to get them to do their own analysis of the situation on the premise (and observed belief) that teenagers are generally teenagers

Usually the biggest looks of surprise (and the rare verbal exclamation of surprise) comes when I very purposely counter any talk of stereotyping Johnny 5(‘white people don’t…’ or ‘black people are…’) with something along the lines of “Well, I think most of my black friends would probably disagree with your generalization.”

Even amongst the most stoic, nonchalant of my students, there is almost always a sense of astonishment that I have black friends. I would go so far as to say that the most common reaction to this revelation is incredulity.

I don’t know precisely why this all comes to mind today, during a kidney-busting bus ride through the countryside…then again, maybe I do. At least on some level.

Johnny, I hardly knew ye. But I’m still learning from our much-too-short time on earth together.

Color me contemplative.

The Summer of My Clip-On Name Tag (or, Loves Labor Days Renewed)

September 1, 2014

Mark. My first name, in plastic, on a small clip. People readily took to using it, too, all summer. Mostly folks I didn’t know. An interesting departure from my full-time gig, where students and staff alike universally refer to me as ‘Mr. Lucker.’

IMG_20140901_120110It had been a few years.

I have written before of my rather, ummm, varied career (radio announcer to hotelier to social service case manager to corporate trainer to high school English teacher) and the numerous detours and sidelines I had earned money on along the way. (Check out my poetry blog for more on THAT topic ( http://markluckerpoet.wordpress.com/2014/04/26/walking-down-sesame-street-with-studs-terkel-at-graduation-time/ )

This summer fit right into my life’s working-guy theme. (English teachers are big on things like ‘theme’ in a narrative).

It was an interesting adventure.

I needed to make some money in my ‘off’ ‘ time and the chances of me doing it in my present locale seemed iffy, at best. Summer work is hard to come by in New Orleans, where, due to heat, humidity and threat of hurricanes, tourist season goes into a dormant period; here is not much temp or part-time work to be found. Hence my brainstorm: I would need to be in Minnesota for my daughter’s sisterssludge2014wedding come the end of July, so instead of (maybe) finding something then having to bail, why not work in my old hometown for the summer? I could stay at my mom’s, help her out with some stuff, get reacquainted with some old friends. I even lined up an art exhibit at Sisters Sludge, an old-stomping-grounds coffeehouse.

I’m clever that way.

During my previous career incarnations, I often supplemented my income with temp work through a variety of staffing services. In late spring, I contacted ProStaff – whom I worked for so long and so well for over fifteen years. An emailed resume and an office appointment to complete paperwork, and I was ready to go.

There was irony and symmetry in how that played out.

IMG_20140622_231206In short order, I got my first assignment: at a downtown hotel as part of the host staff for an international convention for management accountants. It was not the hotel where I had spent nearly a decade, but a hotel that I knew well. A temporary name tag in conventioneer plastic holder and I was set to go.

Working, essentially, as a mercenary concierge, I immediately took to the gig and made it my own. Like riding a bike, I foamboardquickly adapted and remembered why I enjoyed my hotel years. It was an enjoyable three days.

And, contrary to any stereotypes, the accounting folks were anything but staid, soulless, number-crunchers. They were, in fact, a lot of fun, and they were also helpful, as they allowed me to come back post-convention and take all of their high-end foam core signage that would have just been thrown out. Six-by-four foot sheets of top-quality stuff that come in handy in a classroom, and that I also used as the backing for some of the artwork I put together for the art showing.

The hotel was the ironic gig.

The symmetry came when fine folks at ProStaff then found me a longer term assignment working with an on-line university adapting materials for students needing accommodations. Interesting summer work for a teacher, very enlightening to get a different Ginellisperspective on that end of educational accommodations. Plus, the unit was a fun-loving group and we had more than a few laughs. It didn’t hurt that, being a teacher, I understood the basic concepts of what we were trying to do as well as the terminology. It was a good, easy fit for a temp job.

Plus, I got to roam the downtown Minneapolis Skyway system and even got to have lunch at a favorite old pizza place, Ginellis, which was right where I had left it decade ago. The pizza is still outstanding.

Meanwhile partaking in my hotel and educational endeavors, I had continued to search for other options, one of which turned out to be product demonstrator for a large, local supermarket chain. Actually, it was a contract gig through a marketing firm that had just gotten the contract, and between my teaching experience and my background in customer service, the outfit eagerly signed me up, and sent me my demonstrator kit: a matching red cap and apron set, a debit card to purchase the items I would be selling at each IMG_20140709_155112assignment, and a clip-on name tag with ‘Mark’ in big, white font.

Dressed in black slacks and white shirt (a combination I am usually loathe to participate in due to its mundane sartorial aspects) I spent weekend days in various Cub Foods aisles pitching everything from high-end hot dogs to exotic cold cuts to Greek yogurt. The only dud assignment came in trying to interest customers in some new cereal varieties. They were tasty enough, but even I had a hard time trying to spin breakfast cereal with the term ‘digestive blend’ in the name.

Yum.

Met some interesting folks, but never did run into anyone I knew, which was disappointing, because I had the opening line all set: “Off all the gin joints in all the world, you walk into mine.”

So it goes.

My favorite paid gig of the summer was serendipitous to say the least: I got to sell caps at Major League Baseball’s All Star Game at Target Field.

The Minnesota Twins were hosting this year’s extravaganza, and were seeking help during All-Star week festivities. Ironically, my wife, still in New Orleans, saw something about an All-Star game hiring fair on Facebook, and forwarded me the info. Much like with IMG_20140714_205827the food demonstrator gig, my background in the hospitality field got me the gig and the choice assignment in the stadium pro shop selling fitted caps. Far better than outside somewhere working smokey, messy concessions.  I got a spiffy plastic name tag in bold black font stating MARK L with the notation ALL STAR GAME-TEMPORARY WORKERS. Nice.

Baseball is one of my passions, and the Twins are my team. This wasn’t my dream job, but it certainly was a primo assignment that was interesting and fun, plus got me back into mid-semester on-my-feet-all-day form with four nine-hour-days of cap-hawking. A sweet deal all the way around as I got paid for spending my days talking baseball with all sorts of folks.

And I learned something very comforting: there are plenty of grown adults with a poorer grasp of math than I.

Fitted hats (at least the sizing of them) befuddled more than a few of my customers.

Caps were in a large set of wooden cubbies aligned by size in 1/8 inch increments, starting at 6 ¾ and going up to 8. The whole fraction thing was a puzzle to many, as customers would as to try a cap in what they thought was their size, only to find it too small. This was the typical exchange that transpired (more times than I would care to count):

IMG_20140712_210634CUSTOMER: “Seven and 1/8 was too small. Let me try the next size up.”
ME: (handing them the 7 ¼ in their preferred design) “Here you go.”
CUSTOMER: “No, I said the next size up. That should be 7 2/8.”
ME: “Yep. Seven-and-a-quarter is the next size up from 7 1/8.”
CUSTOMER: “That should be 7 2/8 then, shouldn’t it?”
ME: “Yes sir. But 7 2/8  is 7 ¼
CUSTOMER: “How does that work? Won’t that be too small?”
ME: “If it is, we’ll just try 7  3/8  or 7 1/2.”
CUSTOMER: “Huh? Those seem like they would be way too big.”
ME: “Nope. We should be able to find one in that range that fits.”

It usually ended up as a mini, chapeau-oriented version of Abbott & Costello’s classic ‘Who’s on First’? routine, and the whole 1/8 and ¼ thing got people even more confused at the higher end of the size scale. For some reason, the jump from 7 ½ to 7 5/8 got people even more adamant that my math skills were deficient. Most were pleasant about it, but a few got somewhat riled – one indignant woman in particular who was convinced that the cap manufacturer had screwed up, in that the 7 ¾ hat her husband tried on was too small, but the 7  7/8  he tried fit fine must be mislabeled, because, “That is a much smaller size.”

Aside from playing fun-with-fractions with numerous customers, my favorite encounter was a husband and wife in their forties who came to me with an interesting dilemma: she wanted the quality of a fitted cap, but needed the ‘hole in the back’ for her pony tail to IMG_20140715_204054hang out, as a fitted hat just gave her ‘a lumpy head’. (The ‘hole in the back’ of course comes only with adjustable hats, as the ‘hole’ is the space above the adjusting strap.) Clear to the fact that no fitted hats would fit the bill (pun intended) the wife had resigned herself to an adjustable cap, though she didn’t want any of the ‘cheap or cheap looking’ styles.

She was trying on a lot of caps, and her husband seemed more exasperated, rolling his eyes as she modeled each. We chatted while she browsed, and then I remembered some dazzling, sequined Twins hats that I had seen in a remote cubby, as the Twins had moved much of their regular merchandise off to the edges to make way for All-Star logoed stuff.

I excused myself from the husband, went and found the hat I remembered, brought it to the wife, proclaiming proudly, “Here you go – pretty cool hat and with a pony-tail hole!” She eyed the cap, tried it on, turned around a few times, took it off, put it back on, checked it out in the mirror from different angles…as her husband turned to me and said, quite dryly, “ I really admire your initiative.”

Hats off to me.

caps

Inspirare

August 17, 2014

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old
time is still a flying, and this same
flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.”

- Robert Herrick, 1591 – 1674
as quoted in the film Dead Poet’s Society

Along with many others, I mourn the recent death of Robin Williams. I have seen a lot of posts over the past day featuring clips of his DPS1iconic work as Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society– usually the ‘O Captain, My Captain’ scene from the end of the film.

It is a glorious piece of cinema.

When I think of Robin Williams, or of Dead Poets Society (which happens a lot this back-to-school time of year) I as often think back to the beginning of the film; the ‘carpe diem’ scene near the school’s trophy case, where Mr. Keating encourages his young charges to ‘seize the day’ as he invokes the faces of students long since passed:

“They’re not that different from you, are
they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones,
just like you. Invincible, just like you
feel. The world is their oyster. They
believe they’re destined for great things,
just like many of you. Their eyes are full
of hope, just like you. Did they wait until
it was too late to make from their lives
even one iota of what they were capable?
Because you see gentlemen, these boys are
now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen
real close, you can hear them whisper their
legacy to you. Go on, lean in.

The boys lean in and Keating hovers over Cameron’s shoulder.

KEATING
(whispering in a gruff voice)
Carpe.

Cameron looks over his shoulder with an aggravated expression on his face.

KEATING
Hear it?
(whispering again)
Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys,
make your lives extraordinary.

As someone who left the corporate world mid-life to become a teacher in the classrooms of New Orleans, it would not be a stretch to say I had some passing visions of being a Mr. Keating-type of teacher. That has yet to transpire – at least in any Hollywood sort of way.

But the allure of being a John Keating looms large for many of my colleagues and I, as I discovered this past week preparing for the new school year with colleagues at my new school. Williams’ death came up a number of times, more than just in passing.

Over the past few years I have frequently been asked to summarize my (fairly new but very eventful) teaching career, which I entered with a middle-aged, career-changer idealism that quickly took its lumps in the inner city classroom. In that particular regard, my teaching career mirrors that of Mr.Keating returning to his alma mater.

dps3 DPS4As I have become fond of saying, “I spend most of my days far closer to being Dr. Phil than Mr. Keating.”

There is irony in recalling that scene as I approach a new school year at my decidedly inner-city locale and all the inherent issues that come with that setting. No, I do not teach at an exclusive private school. Unlike the young gentlemen of the film, who may be intellectual giants but lack much in the way of street smarts, I will be dealing with kids who are for more savvy to the up-and-down complexities of real-life. My students will not need to learn of the fragility of life as those in the movie did as most of them have experienced it in some way.

I will not have to show my new students old photographs.

Nor will I be standing on any desks (though I have a new audience for my substantial supply of personal go-to antics) and I will not 5.0.2 suggest to my students that they call me anything but ‘Mr. Lucker’. That being said, I could do worse than strive to channel as much of my inner John Keating as possible. As Williams/Keating states in the film, “There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”

Or as I like to think of it, you roll the dice and sometimes you get to yell “Yahtzee”!

If my new crop of seniors comes out in May with just one key take-away from the year ahead, I can only hope it is this, as William-as-Keating notes in the film: No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.

We’ll see what the new school year, in a new environment (for me) has in store.

May Mr. Williams rest in peace. Mr. Keating will never have to.

‘Gather ye rosebuds’ indeed.

Backroads

July 23, 2014

Old habits of youth die hard, but are easily resurrected.

It is July; the heat of the summer of my fifty-fifth year and I am walking along IMG_20140722_141823 - Copy - Copya northern Minnesota country road much as I did nearly a half-century ago. As I walk, my attention centers on the gravel at my feet, though I alternately glance furtively at the wind-swayed birches to either side of the road.

But I am concentrating on the rocks and stones that I trod.

I am seeking two specific kinds of rock; white quartz, and shiny silica, favorites of my youth. In part it is a mental exercise to see if my powers of observation are still as keen as my youthful days of filling up partitioned whiskey boxes with various stones, neatly organized.

It does not take long for old behaviors to kick in, though to be fair, milky white IMG_20140722_144451 - Copyquartz is amongst the most common minerals in the world, and the alluvial and glacial till that paves rural Midwestern roads is as ubiquitous and unquestioned as the air itself.

I walk these woods whenever my family and I return home, no matter the time of year. I am walking today not so much to rekindle my youth, but as a comfortable respite from a hectic and at times stressful summer off, away from my New Orleans classroom where I teach high school English.

What was supposed to be six weeks of part-time employment, touching base with friends and family and general decompression concluding with my daughter’s wedding before an early August return to prepare for the new school year has been something else entirely.

IMG_20140722_142338 - CopyAhh, the best laid plans.

An unexpected death and subsequent funeral, car troubles, a stove conking out and needing replacement, a broken nose (not mine) and an array of other fits and starts have turned the summer into one more of mental gymnastics and retooling in many respects than relaxation and rejuvenation.

On the other hand, there have been unexpected and heartfelt reunions and revelations, surprising others seeking my input and counsel, some genuine and spontaneous moments I would not have predicted but am very grateful for.

It is all about perspective.

The first draft of this missive is being written in a black leather-bound journal given to me just the other day by dear friends of over thirty years. It belonged to their son, who died tragically this past spring at age twenty-two. The journal is (or at least was) empty save for two quotations about writing taped into the front and back covers. His parents had discovered this particular journal along with a number of others of various styles, sizes, bindings – mostly blank, awaiting their calling. In addition, there were dozens of filled notebooks and journals: poems, stories, quotes, song lyrics. Thoughts and ideas, random musings.

They are overwhelmed by the volume of books and have not had time to read through much of it as yet. The sheer number of filled notebooks is staggering to them, but I get it. I, too, have stacks of notebooks and journals filled with…life.

This one they wanted me to have, and I am grateful. I only hope I am up to the challenge of filling it properly.

The gift touched me, even more so now that I have it with me, outside in the IMG_20140722_193805 - Copysummer sun. The heat warms the leather, releasing the richness of its aroma. The scent permeates the pages themselves, as does Aidan’s presence, mingling with the fragrance of good wood pulp – the kind that makes an elegant, gliding, scratching sound when creased by the tip of a sharpened pencil.

The sound of words filling the page keep time with the rustling birch leaves. Orioles and chickadees provide backup harmony. Aidan played guitar.

We sat yesterday, his father and I, in Aidan’s room, taking it all in. The poems and song lyrics painted on the walls, the journals. Leafing through page after page of Aidan’s thoughts both ordinary and profoundly mundane. Sad and amusing, poignant and quizzical.

I knew Aidan all of his short life. I was, in fact, one of the first non-family members to hold him, though as families we had not seen each other much the past few years. He spent most of his life in and around the northwoods of Minnesota, and of Lake Superior. His relationship with nature was solid. Mine is deep but comes and goes; a city kid who spent the summers of youth on a northern lake, and only periodically returns to the woods for family visits and vacations, I don’t have the same relationship with nature that Aidan did.

IMG_20140722_144427 - CopyAs I walk along I take note of the freshness of the familiar; wild daisies and ferns, scrub and Norway pines, the ever-present birch trees – to me the most fascinating of trees in part because of the bark. The duplex in Minneapolis where I spent the first ten years of my life featured a large birch in the backyard. At the age of seven I nearly killed it stripping off its lower bark in order to make an Ojibwe canoe as I had learned about in school…

The rocks around me are in no such danger.

On Aidan’s dresser sits a large mayonnaise jar filled with crystals. I looked at them for a bit as we sat in his room, put my hand in the jar and picked up a few, running them through my fingers. They reminded me of the milky quartz I had collected those many years ago – though without the spiritual aspects that seem to go along with crystals. At least in theory.

The chunks of quartz that I am kicking up today, that I am picking up and putting into the torn off corner of a plastic grocery bag that I have lined my cargo shorts pocket with, are asymmetrical chunks and in varying sizes. Most are dirty, there is nothing terribly unique about any of them. But they are remindful.

I am back in professional youthful rockhound mode; I walk the gravel road with purpose, taking it all in, observing, catching a glimpse of white or shiny mica, or some other oddity, picking them up in stride, filling my bag-lined pocket. I am twelve again, walking through the woods, picking up rocks just because they are cool, communing with nature and then stopping to write about it.

Notebook filling, the old-fashioned way.

The afternoon is fading and I turn to head back to my brother-in-law’s house. I am now walking mostly westward, into the latter-day sun; the small pieces of
mica in the gravel glint in a way I have not noticed before. The white lumps of quartz take on a shinier quality, and thanks to the angle of the sun I even find IMG_20140722_150810 - Copysome less common rose quartz pieces mixed in the aggregate.

I am back at the house with a full pocket and a beginning to be filled journal. It is a good start.

Aidan, we hardly knew ye. But in some ways, I know you better now than I ever did before.

A Teachers Summer on the Road; Episode 2

July 14, 2014

Random (like the weather) thoughts.

spirographoriginal tattooTattoos are all the rage.  Personally, I have never had the urge to get one, and the more I work with inner city high school kids and with twenty-somethings adorned with them…

I really don’t care for the idea of somebody using my body as a Spirograph.

Walk into a tattoo parlor and ask the artist this: “What is the most common question you get about tattoos from new customers?”  Their response?  Almost universally, it is “What’s your most popular design?”

Ahh, America. You, you…you rugged individualists, you.

I have been spending the summer off from my New Orleans classroom in my hometown Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and have been doing a lot of temp work. It has been a few years since I have been consistently among a modern, corporate environment, and while it is enjoyable, I am ready to be back at work in a classroom setting.  Much has changed, much is very different in the decade or so since I prowled the Skyways, hallways and streets of an urban downtown as a worker bee.

filecabinetTechnology is the biggest change – no real shock there.  One thing it took me a few days to realize at the downtown Minneapolis firm I spent a week at as a temp is that file cabinets have gone the way of the De Soto.  It was my third or fourth day at this firm and I was walking from floor-to-floor of nice apportioned office space-slash-cubical farms when I realized that there was not a file cabinet to be found.

Not one. At least, not that was visible.

I discovered that each cube had one…in the small closet on the outer edge of the cube. Are those paltry two-drawers even used? Oh yeah. For storing lunch bags and purses.  And walking shoes for use during lunch breaks. And snacks, teabags, umbrellas, baseballs and Kuerig Coffee pods.  Papers?  Files? Anything officially work related? Not so much.

When I return to my classroom next month, I will look upon my old file cabinets with a new perspective.

Not that I am some sort of Luddite. On the contrary, one of the oddest thing about temping in an office is this summer is that my business casual attire of khakis, button down shirt and tie, just as in my classroom, I have had brief moments of panic and/or discomfort when I realize that I have forgotten to grab my flashdrive and I.D. lanyards.

My ‘teacher bling’ that is indispensable during the school year is not needed as an office temp.

flashdriveAs someone who worked in the corporate and for profit world for many years before moving into the classroom, I am truly a guy who straddles two communication eras. As a writer and artist, I favor good-old-fashioned paper – in files, or preferably, in ring binders. As a teacher in a contemporary classroom, I rely on technology. Virtually everything I do and work with at school is contained on the flash drives that dangle from my neck each day.  Unlike many of my older teacher colleagues, I am very at home with my younger teaching peers when it comes to sharing ideas and material with the simple “Hey, can you put that on my flash drive!”  I share as many resources and materials as I ask for, especially with younger, newer teachers that I help mentor; documents, videos, Power Points, stuff I find on the Internet that I don’t have a use for but think they might – you name it. It is very free-flowing.

But this summer, in shirt and tie? I feel naked without my flashdrives.  I will be okay, but I do remain committed to being  tolerant and forgiving of my Luddite  brethren. (cough!) Paul.

From the things that make you go “Hmmmm…” department:

My recent temp gig at a higher education institution had me working on making classroom materials accessible to students with disabilities. As a teacher, I found it interesting to get a different view of educational accommodations. And it was kind of fun. Of course, as a matter of course, proof of a disability needs to be provided to legally allow for such things as adapting copyrighted text, etc.  They school I worked at has had a rash of people claiming they need accommodations for dyslexia or other reading disorders, but when asked for the requisite documentation, many claimed to be self-diagnosed via ‘tests’ on the Internet or articles and websites they had come across and said, “Hey, that’s me!”

Just thinking out loud here: if you can take Internet tests, and read up on disorders to the extent that you can self-diagnose yourself with a ‘reading disorder’…

Do you really have a reading disorder?

I am not trying to be disrespectful. Just askin’.

heat-index-chartOne almost final note, all about perspective. Everything is relative, really. Like humidity.

A native Minnesotan, I have always liked humidity, which the upper Midwest claims to have a lot of due to all the lakes. Living in New Orleans the past six years, I have experienced humidity in new and spectacular ways. And I still prefer humidity (even ‘excessive’ humidity- which I have yet to encounter anyplace) to…not having humidity.

An unseasonably cold and brutal winter in the Midwest his given way to the other extreme; humidities in the (gasp!) 50 – 60% range with temps in the low 80‘s that pushes heat indexes into…the mid to upper 80’s.  Wowsers. Minnesotans whining and moaning about weatherhow ‘humid’ it is.

This amuses me immensely. Not once in my time in Minnesota over the past month-and-a-half have my glasses fogged up making the transition from air-conditioned house/vehicle to some other environment. There is no condensation on the windows in the morning. And my favorite…

The ‘Feels Like’ designation in on-line or newspaper weather forecasts in Minnesota have rarely differed by more than three-or-four degrees.  In New Orleans, the gap this time of year regularly triples that.

It’s all relative, though I am not related to any of them.

And finally, in keeping with our old/new, Ludditetonian theme….

AmishbuggyLast Saturday I drove the sixty miles from Rochester to Minneapolis, using a stretch of highway I have driven for years, happily noting that not much has changed. One of the familiar sites is a large business just off the highway – an Amish Furniture shop/warehouse that has been there for years.  What caught my eye and shoved one eyebrow skyward this trip, however, was the huge banner outside the establishment:  ‘BARSTOOL SALE.’

Time for one of those cheesy Facebook quizzes: ‘Just How Amish are You?’

A Teachers Summer on the Road; Episode 1

June 3, 2014

My first Monday back in my hometown of Minneapolis.Hire Me computer key

Reupping with an employer you haven’t worked for in over ten years is a bit like having dinner with a former lover. You start by discussing your separate, mostly unknown here-and-now’s before you move on to on shared pasts, getting each other up to date, filling in some blanks. Sometimes it is smooth flowing conversation; sometimes it’s a bit clunky.

Then you get a bit more comfortable, relaxed.

You also begin to remember all the good things you liked about each other ‘back in the day’ and why the relationship was so mutually beneficial…while also realizing why the relationship came amicably to an end, and just why it probably wouldn’t work for the long-term, then or now.

Or would it?

The folks at my favorite old temp service, Pro Staff in Minneapolis, have been gracious and helpful, and I am now officially back in the fold for the summer.

I can use the work, and I can do it. Jack-of-All-Most-Trades, master of a goodly percentage of them, proficient at the rest. A freelancesummer work fling would be just the ticket, with them or someone else.

If you need a writing or other creative project accomplished in a pinch, let me know. I am not a monogamous guy when it comes to earning some extra cash. If you are in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and have some other sort of job or project you need handled, and handled well…hey, you know where to find me. I have wheels,desire, talent.

Have skills, will travel.

Hey, I won’t even expect you to buy me dinner first.

It’s all the rage these days

May 10, 2014

Prompted by the writings of my erstwhile high school seniors, I coined a new phrase for a phenomenon I never knew existed.

‘Sprite Rage’

It all started with a simple start of class, ‘Do Now’ writing prompt one day a few weeks back. When my students come in, there is a DONOWEXampleprompt up on the smart board that they are to quietly write on in their journals for ten minutes. Sometimes I post a simple statement or quotation as a brain jump-start, or it could be a multiple-part question, sometimes it is something visual. Most days, there is a visual along with an idea. Usually the prompts relate in some way to whatever we happen to be working on in class, though some days they are just (meant to be) thought-provoking or just a humorous day starter.

As we transition from the daily ‘Do Now’ into the meat of the day, I replace the writing prompt on the screen with the daily agenda, which my students are supposed to copy down. While this is going on, I collect the notebooks and invite students to verbally share their responses to the Do Now prompt.

Sharing is a hit-or-miss proposition with my students; truly feast or famine. Mostly, we starve. The main reason I chose the picture below with no caption was that we had been in a bit of a sharing dry spell and I thought they could have some fun with it.

A few did, though a significant number of my street-smart, urban teens saw the event portrayed a less than humorous – some to the point where they refused to write at all about what some of their classmates saw as amusing, though not uproarious.

RonaldMcDonaldStatueArrest

Ronald McDonald getting arrested was not funny, apparently. Even if it is just a statue of him. The ‘why’ is what got me.

I may have become a bit jaded after six years of teaching here: the visceral vehemence with which some of my students approached this one did not strike me as all that unusual. At least at first.

Who knew?

My rather over-the-top third period group of thirty-three students saw at least six of them tell essentially the same story in different ways. Once one student shared their story, two others wanted to give their take on the situation portrayed. My fourth period group of twenty-five had roughly the same ratio of similar takes on the same theme, though only one felt compelled to share his out loud.

The situation my students saw (with some notable variations) in this picture was that of Ronald McDonald being arrested after either confronting and/or assaulting a restaurant customer for the apparently commonplace-but-much-frowned-upon practice of…

…getting a water cup, then going to the fountain dispenser and putting Sprite in it.

The first kid who shared his version of Vigilante Ronald told it humorously, but with a fair amount of physical violence. The offender was an “old lady who should have known better” and Ronald took care of her after jumping over the counter, leading to his arrest. It was cartoonish, but with some serious and very violent overtones. This prompted a girl in the class to share her version of Ronald and a soda scofflaw; hers lacked any humorous subtlety and while there was less physical violence, Ronald apparently can have quite the mouth on him when provoked.

I chuckled warily in response to both versions of the story. “Okay, anybody else have a take on this one that they want to share?”

Two more students imparted their perspectives on customer’s pilfering of pop, and Ronald’s subsequent arrest-inducing response.

“Seriously? Is ‘Sprite Rage’ really such a big deal?” I was asking only semi-rhetorically, though; I was curious to see how much of a big deal this really was to my students.

waterspritesidebyside“Mr. Lucker! Why you laughing?”

“Because I think it’s funny.” I started picking up notebooks.

“You never seen that?”

“Seen people putting Sprite into a water cup? Yeah, I’ve seen that, but I’ve never seen anybody get all bent-out-of-shape about it…”

The resulting tumult was instant and incredulous.

“WHAT??!”

“Mr. Lucker! You serious?!”

“Mr. Lucker, where you been?”

“I work at McDonalds, Mr. Lucker; we got to do that all the time! My manager jumps over the counter yelling at people when he sees ‘em doing it!”

“Oh, man, that happens all the time, Mr. Lucker!”

“Mr.Lucker, man, don’t you ever eat at McDonalds?”

“I do, but I have never experienced ‘Sprite Rage.’” I continued picking up notebooks.

There was a pause.

“Mr. Lucker – why you call it that?”

“Because that’s what y’all are telling me. If somebody at McDonalds gets a water cup and puts Sprite in it, somebody goes off on ’em. It sounds to me like road rage, only in McDonalds, not in cars.”

“It aint funny, man. I seen people get beat up for that s***!”

“I’ve seen other customers beat up people for that!”

“Seriously?” Now it was my turn to be incredulous, though I should know better by now.

Nods of approval came from all corners of my classroom

“Seriously?” I repeated. It was all I could think of. I stopped and stared at them. Had it been April first I would have felt like I was being punked, but there had been no time for coordination, or even jumping on a lets-jerk-Mr.Lucker’s-chain-today bandwagon. This was purely spontaneous, and heartfelt.

Struck a nerve, I did, with one of the most innocuous of visual writing prompts.

Interestingly, Sprite Rage seems to be a very commonplace shared experience amongst my students, and the circumstances don’t change much: In all but one case, the stories they wrote portrayed older women as the pop-for-water perpetrators and resulting recipients of Ronald’s (to me) overzealous response.

Calling Dr. Phil.

As my students completed their agendas and I finished picking up the notebooks, the daily writing coup de grâce was delivered solemnly by a kid who normally writes a fair amount but doesn’t say much in class:

'Youdaman!"

‘Youdaman!”

“I’ve seen it happen at Burger King, too.”

Apparently,  I need to get out more often.

When I do, I’ll play it safe…and just order a shake.

@55

April 27, 2014

55 3I just celebrated birthday number 55 – as a friend so euphemistically put it, my ‘speed limit birthday.’

The Double Nickel. Stay alive, drive 55.

The 70’s called – they want their slogans back.

I’ll go with ‘Thrive 55.’ No copyright or datedness issues, plus it’s mine and I am. Thriving, that is.

55 2For the most part I am. My health, and that of my family, is good; we are all happy and in relatively good spots in our lives. I am keenly aware of this blessing as many long-time friends struggle with a myriad of different chronic ailments. Even the dogs got clean bills of health from the vet this week.

I am blessed.

Approaching this mid-decade birthday, I have been paying extra attention to my health and well-being. Having dropped thirteen pounds since January the first, I can honestly use my new, self-appointed nickname: Lean, Mean Aw-What-the-Hell? Machine.

O.K. it’s a bit clunky.

I am generally of the just-another-year mindset with birthdays, but this year seems to have a lot of quirky numerical significance of milestones and anniversaries.

bouquetWP_20140420_015It’s a busy year. My daughter Lindsay turns thirty in June, and is getting married in July. She does not wish to be reminded of the former and eagerly anticipates the latter. Her two-and-a-half year old son – my grandson – Felix plays a prominent role in the festivities and I am greatly looking forward to it all.

Felix is a bright kid; he has figured out how to call or Skype me when he gets his hands on his mom’s phone. We pick up where we leave off whenever we can.

My eldest son Willi graduates from high school in a few weeks; he was accepted into two top-notch universities and has settled on mortarboradwhere he will go. Thus begins the process of his nest-leaving.

Meanwhile, youngest son Sam is wrapping up his freshman year of high school on the upswing after hitting a few fairly typical first-year-of-high-school rough patches. He now begins the process of flying more solo than he has had to up until this point in life. Daily life without his brother around to torment, nurture, harangue, bicker with, cajole and love (in all directions and all combinations) will be an interesting transition for all of us.

I recently realized that fifty-five is a big deal in part because of all the stuff that happened 40 years ago, when I was fifteen, which I have been thinking about a lot because that’s how old Sam is now. Looking back, fifteen was filled with all sorts of good stuff.

Driving legally comes to mind.

By the time my driving privileges were codified by that little yellow paper permit in 1974, I had been behind the wheel of various66 Valliant1964 Yeep pickup vehicles for a few years during my summer sojourns to Horseshoe Lake in northern Minnesota. I had driven Ivar and Lila’s ’64 Jeep pickup, in which I had learned to drive a manual transmission (though for the first few years, Ivar had to work the clutch from the passenger seat) which I proved my clutch prowess with by mowing down a sapling at age thirteen. I had also driven their ’66 Plymouth Valliant, a zippy little automatic transmission number that was compact enough for the smallish, pre-teen me to handle effortlessly.

Fifteen was also the age at which Ivar let me use the Homelite chain saw, and it was also the summer I occasionally (VERY oHomelite chainsawccasionally) got a full bottle of beer to myself. A story for another (and from another, very different) time.

2014 is also the 40 year anniversary my first job…of the approximately 72 different employers I have worked for to this date. Unless you include all the different things I did and places I did them while employed by five different temp firms. And of course, there was all the stuff I did on the side and sometimes off-the-books. Add in all the fun and funky stuff and the number of gigs I have actually been paid for easily tops 200. (see my poetry blog for more on that: http://markluckerpoet.wordpress.com/2014/04/26/walking-down-sesame-street-with-studs-terkel-at-graduation-time/)

As Sinatra sings in my was then/still is now theme song, That’s Life, “…I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet…a pawn and a king…..”  

If it is not illegal, unethical or immoral, there is a good chance I’ve dabbled in it.

Fifteen, the summer of ’74, was also when I discovered that girls were…? Aww hell, that they were girls. Different but still the same girls as in previous summers. They were something entirely new and familiar.

Fifteen was also the age when I began filling notebooks with teenaged profundity on solo cross-country Greyhound jaunts from Denver to Minneapolis at the start of the summer and back again before school reconvened. At fifteen, I was old enough to roll Grehound SeniCruisersolo. Add in shorter Greyhound hops from Minneapolis to Crosby, Minnesota and back, and I put a lot of miles on those spiral notebooks. That was over two-thousand miles a summer of life and writing about it, experiencing a wide array of people, different places. Big city kid soaking in small-town stopovers and all-night truck stops. Best scrambled eggs and link sausage I’ve ever had were at a truck stop in North Platte, Nebraska, somewhere around two a.m. on a June morning surrounded by bus vagabonds and truckers, great conversationalists and monologists straining their necks to see just what I was writing down in my green steno book.

I had seconds on those eggs from the truck stop buffet, more sausages, too. They were great eggs.

When I wasn’t writing, I was watching and listening. Sometimes to my fellow travelers, sometimes to Sinatra or Dean Martin on the cassetterecorderlittle Radio Shack cassette player with the single earphone I had squeezed into my travel bag. Now and then I listened to all of the above simultaneously, and I vividly understood how movies soundtracks really enhanced the flow of a story.

Forty years have passed. An anniversary of a coming of age.

Fifteen was a crucial demarcation point for me. Now, here I am, some forty years hence.Sinatra singing

“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king;
I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing -
Each time I find myself layin’ flat on my face…
I just pick myself up!  and get back. in. the. race!
That’s life…”

At fifty-five.

 

Jottings from a pocket notebook

April 21, 2014

Photo2596 (2)Yes, English teachers get spring break, too. A few days in to mine, all I can say is that the bulk of the items on my ‘to do’ list are not getting ‘too done.’

RobertBurns‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.’

Robert Burns must’ve had a few spring breaks like mine, but I don’t look great in a kilt.

 

deadhorse

Sometimes, people…

I understand the appeal behind the idiom of ‘beating a dead horse’ – (figurative) beating can be very cathartic.

But continuing to yell “Giddyup!” while doing it?

Dude, you got issues.

 

Lessons learned and re-learned

potholesSometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Me? I tend to be the guy with the shovels full of hot asphalt filling pot holes on a cul-de-sac.

On the plus side, I don’t need GPS to get back out quickly.

 

Kids, DO try this at home:

Rogets thesaurus“Umm…what?”

Favorite recent not-understood-observation-by-my-students on their classroom decorum, usually delivered following a deep sigh on my part: “An entire shelf of thesauruses over there, and yet – there are no words.”

Sometimes, there just aren’t.

 

‘Thank you for your support and concern’ department:

“Mr. Lucker! What’s up?!”
“My blood pressure.”

This is a not uncommon exchange in our school hallways during passing periods. Usually, it is at the start of fourth period, as my third period class of 35 seniors can be a real group of peasant’s donkeys; my fourth period seniors know this, and most empathize.

BPUsually the kids just shake their heads, smile, walk into class. But, once or twice a semester, one kid will actually HEAR
ME
, and stop, a look of concern crossing his face (it’s always a male student, oddly) and some form of the following ensues:

“Mr. Lucker, your blood pressure really bad? You should see a doctor about that. My granddad had high blood pressure. He had a stroke…and died!

“Same thing happened to my grandma.” chimes in student number two, equally concerned.

“Thanks, guys. Nice to know that someone cares. My blood pressure is going back down, but now I’m really depressed.”

“Ummmm? You’re welcome?”

 

Like, in an elevator, and you can’t place the tune…

I recently heard a cover version of a common wedding and graduation song played by a Mariachi Band; they called it Photo2594 (2)‘Tacobell’s Canon.’

That joke is obviously Baroquen.

Yeah, I know. There are no words.

The Tragedy of Macself

April 12, 2014

*This post is best read if imagined in the voice of say, Sir Patrick Stewart or Sir Ian McKellen

Macself   Act 1, Scene-hogger

Is this a cell phone which I see before me,Macbeth5
The camera toward my face? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see me still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A photo of the mind, a false JPEG,
Proceeding from the need-oppressed brain?macbeth9 (2)
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I snap.
Thou marshall’st me the way my post is going;
And such an instrument I will to use.

Mine posts are made the fools o’ the other feeds,
Or else worth all the rest; I see me still,
And on thy wall and Twitter feed gouts of envy,macbeth7 (2)
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:
It is the bloody self-portrait which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one viral half-word

Nature seems dead, and narcissists abuse
The curtain’d sleep; haters celebrate
Pale Hecate’s duck-face offerings, and wither’d murder,

Alarum’d by his viral sentinel, the message wolf,
Whose howl’s his forwards, thus with his stealthy pace.macbeth8 (2)

With hater’s ravishing dislikes, towards my design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
see not my poses, which way they face, for fear
Thy very updates prate of coffee shop ‘is at’ whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I Tweet, they live:

Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pusU90ov8pQ


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