It’s all the rage

A few years back, prompted by the writings of my erstwhile high school seniors at the time, I coined a new phrase for a phenomenon I never knew existed.  Two-plus years later, the spectacle I envisioned then came back to my classroom (an entirely different locale and temperament than where the original story occurred) via a conversation amongst some of my  new crop of students – sophomores.   The phrase?

‘Sprite Rage.’

It all started with a simple start of class, ‘Do Now’ writing prompt. 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, I post  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.


Ronald McDonald getting arrested was apparently not all that funny to my students – 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, in this kid’s version of the prompt response,  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. “Ohhhhh-kay, 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. Uh-oh.

“You never seen that?!”  The kids eyes showed great surprise, as did his tone of voice.

“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.


“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, more slowly.

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:


“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.

Two weeks, in the books

A full ten days of the school year have now concluded. Having been hired to come in for second semester last year, this is my first full year at my current high school; it has been an interesting perspective of getting new information along with new-new teachers and staff, but with the IMG_20160801_094409advantage of having already spent half a year here learning on the fly.
So far, so usual. I give you…my new crop high school students.

From the Ralph-Malph-“I-still-got-it!’ department:

It took less than an hour into day one of the new school year to make a mark.

Three of my homeroom seniors were having a light-hearted dispute. A young man said, in mock-whiny tone, “Mr. Lucker – can you please tell this girl to give me my juice back.” The young woman next to him held up a small bottle of apple juice. As I walked over, another young woman chimed in that “I gave him the money for that juice!” I approached, sized up the situation, said to the girl holding the juice, “Miss, are you bullying this young man by taking his juice and not giving it back?” They all immediately picked up on my tone. “No, I’m not bullying him…I’m just not giving him the juice.”

“So…you are telling me that you took this young man’s juice that this other girl paid for?”

All three nodded in solemn agreement.

“Well, this is easy. I have some little cups over at my desk. We can just split up the juice three ways…”MM_Product_Share_1200x630_AppleJuice_10flozBottle

“Ohhhhhhh, no!” exclaimed the financier of this escapade, snatching the bottle of juice from her surprised friend and walking way, noting “There is not enough juice in this bottle for all THAT!”

Solomonesque, I was.

No matter what grade level I am teaching, I like to start off using a set of writing prompts that I can use to explain a deeper thought process than what they normal employ. One of my favorites is this:

‘If you were a school supply of some sort what would you be? A ring binder or folder – a keeper of interesting information? Would you be loose leaf paper that new ideas can be created on? Maybe you are an eraser that fixes problems. Would you be a highlighter or a pen or…? Think about what kind of person you are and then describe yourself as a school supply.’

For the most part, my sophomores basically regurgitated the suggested angles, with a few noteworthy twists. To wit:

“If I were a school supply of some sort I think I would be a highlighter. I feel like highlighters are a little too much because you can simply underline. I feel like a person that does too much when I could just say things as they are. They just make things prettier and that’s how I am.”

“I would be a pen. I can relate to being a pen because a pen is just in its shell and then it pops IMG_20160806_115901up to write.”

“I would not want to be a highlighter because they do the most moving.”

“I would like to be an eraser but not to fix errors. Just to make everything very neat.”

“I would be a notebook. People could write notes in me and important information. You will come back and look over what you wrote in me. I am used as a vital resource in everyday school life.”

Well, honestly I don’t like the idea of being a school supply…because basically you get used up and thrown away.”

We have potential here.

Week two found us settling into routines, and my senior homeroom getting to know me a bit better, purely by osmosis. One morning, as I was signing something for a student while another kid asked me a question. The acoustics in my room are pretty good, amplifying nicely, and when I answered the question, I apparently came across a bit differently. (Full disclosure: I began my career as a radio announcer, but these kids know nothing of my previous life.)

“Mr. Lucker, You know what you sound like? You sound like the guy on ‘Price is Right’ who tells about the prizes.” Without even lifting my head up from what I was signing, I simply replied (with earned authority) ‘Youuuuu have just won a trip. TO. The. Baaaaaa-HAMAS!” A brief moment of stunned silence was quickly followed by puzzled excitement


“See?! I told you!”

lets-make-a-deal-doors“Mr. Lucker – that was awesome!”

“You the dude who tells what prize is behind what door, aint you?!”

“Tell me I won a car!”

“Ummmm….o.k….” The bell was just beginning to chime, “You have just won. A. BRAND! NEW! CARRRR!!!”

Laughing, the seniors spilled into the hall, wishing me a good day, saying goodbye. A potise-and-ralphfootball player was just shaking his head as he left, but I could hear him as he went down the hallway, repeating over-and-over to the confused looks of other students and of staff: “You. Have. Won.  A BRAND! NEW! CAR!”


I still got it.

Spiritual roadie

Traveling solo for an extended period is always a bit weird; being away from my wife, sons, and dogs – my own bed. This summer found me roaming from my current base of New Orleans back to my hometown stomping grounds of the Twin Cities, as I was helping my mother get situated in a new living arrangement, and I had a lot going on. Definitely a working trip for me – six very full weeks’ worth of work

Not that there weren’t some advantages.

After eight years in the southern climes, one thing I love about the Midwest in the summer is sleeping with the windows open. Fresh air, when you can’t get it regularly, especially at night, is a true joy. Not having to work around the schedule of others made the myriad of things I pizzaneeded to accomplish a ‘my schedule, my call’ kind of deal. Same with eating. I probably had more pizza than I should have, and got to experiment with different frozen varieties while ordering a few times too many from a favorite place. There is also the fact that you never have to negotiate custody of the TV remote – which was primarily key for having as much baseball on as possible, especially my hometown Twins.

Flying solo also allowed me some Sunday flexibility in going to church – so I basically went on tour this summer: two states, four cities, six churches, one nursing home chapel. Save the chapel and two of the churches, were I visited a former pastor and his family in one case, our niece in another, I had some personal/historic ties to all the others.

Full disclosure: my list includes both New Orleans churches that I attend, and I hit them on stmark2successive Sundays before leaving town; plus, one of the Minneapolis churches on my list I made it to twice, the second go-around by personal invite from one of the pastors, our niece, who wanted me to hear her preach one Sunday. Definitely one of the highlights of my tour…

Lollapewlooza ’16.

I figure every decent band tour has a name, so that’s what I came up with: Mark’s Lollapewlooza tour. Catchy, right? I’m considering having a shirt made, though no physical Lollapewlooza 16souvenir is really needed. Barnstorming a variety of different churches helped me cope with all the craziness I was dealing with, but it also allowed me some much-needed perspective on where I’ve been, where I am, where I am headed spiritually.

My on-the-road Sundays were truly Sabbath days, for the most part. I was able to go to church somewhere in the morning, taking the afternoon to wind down and regroup a bit with a leisurely lunch and some Twins baseball, pay a visit to my mom, come back, have some dinner, and catch some Sunday night baseball. (The only real glitch there was when the Yankees were on ESPN. I don’t want to watch the damn Yankees. Ever.) I suppose I could add CHS Field to my Lollapewlooza list, as I spent a glorious Wednesday even there watching the St. Paul Saints play, but that is another story entirely.

One thing Lollapewlooza really wasn’t was nostalgic.

Even though my family and I once attended Park Avenue UMC in south Minneapolis, my visit to their ‘early riser service’ held no wistfulness. The music was great, the lay sermon was spot on, and it was nice to just see the place. I popped in, listened, contemplated, headed out to my second stop for the day, Minnehaha Communion Lutheran (MCLC, for short) just a couple of physical miles away but light years from Park Avenue in tone and style. That is not a judgement on my part. The two congregations both have a strong presence in their respective neighborhoods, but vastly different demographics and approaches to service. As it should be.

I enjoyed my visit to MCLC, and upon arrival, I was immediately met an old friend, who was passing out bulletins and had recognized me when she saw me drive up. We got to chat a bit both before and after the service, and she brought me up to date on who was still around – a lengthier list than I might have thought. All good. She also introduced me to one of the current pastors, and I was able to strike up an interesting conversation with a current board member, and he seemed to enjoy my historical take on the place – a perspective that is rather unique.

I chaired the committee that created Minnehaha Communion, back in 1994.

At the time, I was a young, brash thirty-something congregational president of Holy old HCLCCommunion Lutheran Church; a typical for the time aging (demographically and physically) financially struggling, old-school congregation. Roughly a mile-and-a-half to our south was Minnehaha Lutheran, whose situation mirrored ours. The decision to merge started out casually, then became real very quickly. I was elected as chair of the merger committee for two very obvious reasons: nobody else wanted to touch the job with a ten-foot-pole, and there were movers-and-shakers who felt I was young and malleable enough to be able to be manipulated. The former is indisputable; the latter was quashed right away, as I was young, astute, and headstrong – plus, our Holy Communion congregation was made up largely of elderly, savvy, take-no-prisoners women to whom I was a communal grandson.

The oldsters had my back.

To the amazement of everyone from the synod bishop on down, we completed the merger process (including selling the Holy Communion building to a new, just starting out congregation) in just a year – that was twenty-two years ago.

Fast-forward to Lollapewlooza ’16 and MCLC is now a healthy, vibrant member of their Longfellow neighborhood, having absorbed another struggling Lutheran church into their fold about ten years ago. I sat there in a pew at MCLC and couldn’t help but notice the large banner IMG_20160626_105432on one wall, noting the names of the two original churches, and their dates of operation, and the date of the new ‘Minnehaha Communion Lutheran Church EST. 1994.’

I felt a reasonable sense of pride in that, and not a little astonishment that the place was going strong. Pretty cool, though I will admit to a bit of angst on one point: the name. From the get-go, I thought we should go with an entirely new name for the merged entity, but that was not going to fly. And Minnehaha Communion was the least clunky combination we could come up with. One of the only battles I lost, but hey, won the war and here MCLC still stands.

The politics and mental gymnastics of pulling off the merger were draining, and after we got the job done, I had to step away for a while. That was when my wife and I started attending Park Avenue UMC – mostly as a compromise choice, as the first few years of our marriage we had been in a bit of flux, she coming from a Baptist background, me being Mr. Lutheran. In the end it all worked out for the best. So that Sunday morning was less a trip down memory lane, more a touching-base with some of my faith roots.

Gotta know where you’ve been to understand where you are.

Mill City Church is a growing congregation based in a north Minneapolis school building. They are a young, extremely active in their neighborhood, and very contemporary in mood and style.

Did I mention they were young? Not just the congregants, but the staff, of which my niece Anne IMG_20160612_110300is a part of, as the youth pastor. My first Sunday in town, I stopped in for the service unannounced and surprised her afterward. Later that week, she called and asked if I could be in attendance on June the nineteenth, as she was preaching. So that is what I did. She was wonderful. It was a personal, emotional, and exhilarating sermon.

I was drained. Fortunately, the Twins were on that afternoon, and smacked the Yankees around, 7-1. kepler-homerun-fuehrt-twins-zu-krimi-sieg-image_620x349The game and the pizza were great, then I took a nap, with the patio door open. That was about as good a Sabbath as I could conjure up.

Isanti, Minnesota is about a forty-five-minute drive from my mother’s place in suburban north Minneapolis. I made the jaunt up that way on Fourth of July weekend to visit the pastor and his family, who were our pastoral family in the small town in rural Minnesota which we lived before moving to New Orleans. A few months after my family and I left town, Jim took a new call to plant Spirit River UMC in a rapidly growing (“Are we rural or are we urban?”) area that has a lot of challenges – many related to changing demographics and growth.  We all share the ‘moving on’ experience. A few years after forming, they purchased a defunct banquet center to house spiritrivertheir congregation and outreach. It is a different worship experience to be sure: people sit at large, round tables, in comfortable banquet chairs.

Spirit River reminds me that churches are not buildings. Hope Christian Church, my non-denominational hang out in New Orleans, is housed in what used to be a theatre, in a large, century-old warehouse shared with a Hopeused furniture store and a t-shirt shop I would describe both Hope and Spirit River as funky and functional, and both are very contemporary in their respective worship styles.

The weekend I visited pastor Jim and his daughter, the congregation was having their newly-traditional, most-of-the-congregation-is-gone-for-the-holiday hymn sing; right up my alley, as while I don’t have a problem with contemporary services, and am not wedded to liturgical certainty, modern praise and worship music is not at all my thing. Give me ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ on alternating Sundays, and HowGreatThouArtI’d be good. Maybe something from the soundtrack of ‘Godspell’. So my timing to go to Isanti was perfect, and after church I went to lunch with Jim and his daughter Stephanie, and got to listen to the Twins on the radio driving back to suburbia.

It was a satisfying final stop on Lollapewlooza ’16.

What have I learned from the spiritual side of my road trip summer? Not a whole lot of new insights, but a lot of reminders of how faith can be a burden lifter, mind clearer, refocusing tool. That seems pretty basic, but we frequently lose sight of that; I think sometimes doing the same thing in the same way every Sunday, faith becomes rote and oftentimes ineffectual.

I admit that there were a few Sunday mornings this summer where going anywhere was not high on my list at all, but knowing I had limited opportunities to do some things I wanted to do, I just did them. I am glad that I did. Glad I saw the folks that I did, fortunate to have heard the messages they had for me – both congregationally and personally.

This summer also helped me reconfirm what I do and don’t like in a worship service, and that I am something of an anomaly in that I appreciate and enjoy a good, spontaneous, free-flowing contemporary church service, doing so with older music (hymns, seventies folk, you know – united-methodist-hymnalgood stuff with high lyrical quality) would be my ideal – even by a funky, electric house band. That hybrid is hard to find consistently, so I go with what I have at hand. I also realized that while the off-beat (theatres, banquet centers, nursing home chapels, public school auditoriums) have their own Lutheran BOWquirky charm that can get you to think differently about the worship experience and the place in a community of the church overall, sometimes plopping your keister into a good old-fashioned, varnished, walnut pew (St. Marks, MCLC, Park Avenue) and hearing someone crank up a grand piano or an organ touches the soul a whole lot differently.

I discovered that the roots of my faith run deep and are intertwined. I left Minnesota and IMG_20160731_122320headed back to New Orleans, tired and unsettled, as I didn’t get done nearly as much as I thought I should have, but in reality, got more done than I should have logically been able to accomplish. Spiritually, I headed south feeling refreshed.

There is a lollapewlooza to be said for that.

History, in person

I am thinking today of my mom’s great aunt, Maybelle Sivertsen.

Having watched Hilary Clinton accept her nomination last night, and seeing all the posts on Facebook – especially from women – history came to life for me.

Born in 1898, Maybelle was an intelligent, raucous, bawdy, charismatic, charming and always elegant woman of deep faith,who was married to a prominent doctor, but her own life resume was pretty impressive in its own right. Among her many suffragettes2proud accomplishments were being a suffragette, and the work she did in helping women achieve the right to vote.

There is a family photograph from a cousin’s wedding in the mid-70’s. It is in my aunt and uncle’s basement, at the afterparty. Maybelle is seated in a chair in the corner, hands in front of her on the head to the cane she then used. She is sitting up bolt-straight, and is obviously in mid-oration. It is a picture that perfectly captures Maybelle as I knew her, but it is not what makes the fuzzy, Instamatic shot so memorable.

Sitting at her feet – some cross-legged on the linoleum floor, one or two crouching, all in their powder-blue tuxedos, many with long, ‘hippie hair’ – are the groomsmen from the wedding. Their heads are all tilted upwards as they are focused on Maybelle, and a couple of the more visible of the young men’s faces carry looks of awe. I have no idea what she is regaling them about; even in her mid-seventies, she was abreast of all the current issues and had definite opinions about all of them. She was a progressive, all-in for civil rights and equal rights.

Whatever she was saying the rapt attention of those young men. I totally get that.

Maybelle always had time for me; in part because she made time for everyone, in part because, more than most of my immediate family, I loved history and loved hearing (and telling) stories. At about the same time the photo was taken, America had just ratified the 26th Amendment giving eighteen-year-olds the right to vote. I was still a few years shy of eighteen, but Maybelle wanted to make sure I was crystal clear on the importance of that newly-minted right – a right that was obtained a lot more peacefully than was her’s.

From a woman who had personally worked, a half-century before, to get the 19th Amendment ratified, giving her suffragettes1entire gender the right to vote, I heard the gravity in her plea, the hopeful tone. In Maybelle’s eyes, this was a logical progression, just another step, and the right to vote was something I should cherish, and take very seriously.

I still do.

So the morning after watching history unfold on television, I am thinking of my great-aunt Maybelle – the suffragette. Somewhere, she is seated in a chair, sitting elegantly, proudly…her hands clenched firmly atop the head of her cane.

She is beaming.


Six summer weeks on the road, traveling from my New Orleans base back to my Twin Cities home turf. Let’s call it a ‘working vacation’…that I now could use a vacation from.

The trip itself was mostly a success, but while living in the south, sometimes a return to my Midwestern roots leave e scratching my head. Vice versa upon my return.

I was able to document some of the quirkier things I ran across. Maybe it is because I have spent the past eight years in a region where the odd is commonplace and celebrated, but some of these things I encountered seemed misplaced – especially some of the gastronomical quirks.

IMG_20160624_173647For example…barbeque hummus? Yeah, a Midwestern take on Middle Eastern staple that even I would think thrice on before trying. For real overkill, I suppose you could use barbeque flavored chips for your dipping/sopping option.

Even in the barbeque-happy south, grilling peas seems a cultural mismatch. It is also mildly disquieting that there is a certain ‘that aint kosher’ element to this little snack.

In downtown Minneapolis, I pulled up alongside a food truck – not unusual. The cuisine? That’s different.

In Minnesota parlance, where fishing is almost a faith, I used to refer to sushi as ‘lure on a plate’ which was usually IMG_20160602_131031greeted with a nod of acknowledgement. Now I guess the saying would have to be ‘bait on a tortilla’.

Or in true Minnesotan, ‘Minnows on lefse’.

Speaking of fishing, there is a small, family-run hardware store right by my mom’s new apartment, and as I frequently needed hardware items or tools to fix something at her old house, or prep something at the apartment, I became something of a regular. My first stop, the window signage caught my eye, but it wasn’t until my next-to-last (73rd but who’s counting?) stop that IMG_20160629_145402I said something almost pithy about ‘duct tape and nightcrawlers’ to the clerk at check out.

She sighed, glanced over her shoulder at the ‘live bait repair’ window paint job, with resignation and said,  for what sounded like the ninety-sixth time,“Yeah, they didn’t think that one out very well”.

Honestly, I did not see the upper-pane labeled ‘screen and window’ until at least the fifth time I passed by.

Off-beat signage always interests me, though this theatre marquee in Minneapolis is spot-on, local language wise.



On the other hand, I don’t know the genesis of this little gem I saw posted behind the counter of a neighborhood café where I was having lunch with a couple of old friends, but it definitely has a New Orleans/Mardi gras vibe

But this t-shirt? Definitely a Midwestern thing.IMG_20160628_122559




That hopefully stays right where it is.

I need to get back to my unpacking. More on-the-road shenanigans hiding between the dirty laundry and stolen hotel towels. So…

Later, kids.



I was leaving the assisted living place we moved my mom into yesterday, and stopped by one of the big day rooms by the entrance; volunteers were setting up for a book giveaway – one thousand books, free to anyone who wanted one. I had seen them earlier on one of my multiple trips between mom’s new apartment, the center office, and my car outside, and they encouraged me to have my mom (an avid reader) come down – a good way to ease into her to new surroundings.

As I was leaving, the woman I had spoken to earlier waved at me, and asked if my mother would be coming down. I went in, picked up our chat from earlier, all the while she was lifting stacks of books out of a Rubbermaid tub. She told me the books were all donated, free to anyone, and I should help myself. I laughingly told her I was a high school English teacher and writer, and had way too many books already. Thanking her nonetheless, I was getting ready to leave, just as she sat one more stack of books on the table in front of me.

“Oh my God” I said, startling her a bit. The top book on the stack was a book of Bill Holm essays, ‘The Music of Failure’ – one of his I did not already have. “Bill Holm was one of my professors in college! A huge influence on me.”

(Seventeen-years my senior, his typical, thunderous greeting for 46-year-old me was ‘Nice to have another old fart in class’!) He could be appropriately (or sometimes not) bombastic at any moment.

“Well then…you should have this”. the woman said, handing me the book.BillHolmbook
I was more than a little taken aback.

On the road for nearly a month now, twelve hundred miles from New Orleans, trying to help my mother navigate this new phase of her life, from independence to assisted living, has been a roller coaster; ups, downs, loop-de-loops, wild turns- all really fast. Even though things have gone about as smoothly as possible for the situation, it is has been stressful for all concerned and at times and more than a few times you think ‘get me off this ride’. Hence a recent spate of Bill–like rants; some serious, some in mock-jest, some crazed takes on the vagaries of the universe. Some just to blow off steam at nothing or nobody in particular. I just stood there looking at the book and I started to laugh. The volunteer said, “Go ahead. Take it. Really something that it’s a guy you know, huh”?

Yeah, a guy I knew.

Of all places to find him again: a very nice, assisted-living place in upscale, suburban Minneapolis. Bill would surely have something to say about corporate, commercialized aging. I can only imagine eloquent tangents. I was still laughing and shaking my head in bemusement as I thanked the woman and headed for my car, the sudden gift of a book of essays to read tonight. I am not at all sure if this is the ghost of Bill telling me to ‘rock on’ or ‘chill out’ – or maybe, ‘keep it up, you old fart’.

I’m just grateful he stopped to say ‘hello’.

Reprise: Happily, Less Full of Phil


I learned just today of the passing of a great poet and incredibly influential teacher: professor Phil Dacey. I was finishing up college as a middle-aged non-trad, Phil was in his last year of teaching before retirement, and he helmed my first class at Southwest Minnesota State University. The year – and his tutelage – I will not forget. I wrote this piece four years ago.  Rest very well, Phil. You will not be forgotten.


This year provided one of the best last-day-of-school experiences I have ever had; certainly the best in the four-years since my mid-life career change placed me in front of various New Orleans high school classrooms.

The fact that I am slated to start the next school year in the same place I ended the previous one is a celebratory first. Being recognized for the accomplishments of my students via their test scores, developing a strong set of professional relationships at a place I really enjoy working and being part of a team-oriented environment all puts a decidedly different spin on reviewing the past year and looking ahead to the next. Add in the fact that I did most of what I did this year on the fly, being hired a month into the school year at a ‘turn around’ school, and there is a lot of personal and professional satisfaction to be had.

But there is another, doesn’t-show-up-in-the-grade-book stat that points to a successful year: I’m running low on my supply of Phil Dacey’s old poetry journals.

Phil Dacey

Phil is a poet, and a pretty darn good one . I first met Phil in the fall of 2003; he was one of my professors in the writing program at Southwest Minnesota State University, and I had the immense good fortune of catching him in his last year before retiring after over thirty years of teaching. As a forty-four year old ‘non-trad’ in a top-notch college writing program, I had a different take on things than my peers, and a different appreciation for some of the different verbal proclivities of some of my professors – Phil included. I was often the only student in the room chuckling at an obscure aside.

I spent my first semester back in school after a fourteen-year layoff in Phil’s very intense poetics class, where we spent the semester working our way through an 810 page volume entitled Poems for the Millennium; the University of California book of modern & postmodern poetry. A book and a class like that can either ignite or squelch a love of poetry. In Phil’s hands, we got to explore. And love. (Well, mostly love) poetry of all kinds.

Phil’s plan for retirement was to move from the plains of southwestern Minnesota to the confines of a New York City apartment. This required divesting himself of a massive collection of books, journals and other poetic paraphernalia amassed over a forty-plus year stretch as a student and teacher, and his preferred method of disposal of these goodies was hallway distribution to anybody who wanted them.

An added, tactile bonus to my first year at SMSU.

It became a routine of many of us: swing by Phil’s office to see what he placed in boxes or simply stacked outside of his office door under a Magic Marker-scrawled ‘Help yourself’ sign. While I snatched a few hard-cover books from my daily office drive-bys, I concentrated mostly on the myriad of poetry journals Phil was releasing from dusty shelf captivity and back into the wild.

I fancy myself a poet, and to be hanging out with and learning from poets like Phil and other SMSU notables every day was an experience that I was soaking in and enjoying to the hilt. The fact that I was also expanding my library exponentially on a weekly basis was just frosting on the cake – though a source of dismay to my wife, who was not a fan of my pack-rat tendencies in general.

But there was a method to my madness. As Phil and his fellow poet-profs reminded us regularly, if you’re going to write poetry, you need to read a lot of poetry. So I did.

To say Phil’s collection of journals was eclectic was an understatement. There were mainstream and underground selections, slick, university press journals and crudely mimeographed, hand stapled tomes and everything in between. Some were very high-brow, many were themed-endeavors of some sort, a lot were outright weird. Many of them were sent or given to Phil for review and were autographed with personal notes; many of them also had Phil’s notations covering much of the margins. (One thing I don’t think I ever told Phil was that I learned as much about his evolution as a writer and evaluator by reading his commentaries on the work of others as I did from actually reading his poetry.)

Most of these journals dated from the 1970’s and 80’s – apparently Phil’s heyday for such poetry publications, both in terms of volume and breadth of styles and topics. While there were a number of slick, professional looking entries (mostly from prestigious university presses) most of them were modest budget and fairly small and thin; thirty, forty pages or so in length, most about the size of a Reader’s Digest.

By the time the ‘03-‘04 school year and Phil’s career as an official teacher had come to a close, I had amassed a sizeable chunk of his journal horde – a couple hundred volumes, tightly filling three copier-paper boxes.

Phil retired and I went on to graduate in 2006 with a B.A. in literature and creative writing and an impressive personal library of books my professors had written augmented with a whole lot of interesting poetry journals prominent and obscure.

Fast forward to 2008. I moved with my wife and two sons to New Orleans to step into a new life as an English teacher in one of the worst public school systems in America, while at the same time  my wife was transitioning to become a special education teacher. While we left behind corporate careers and shed much of our stuff, I made sure my library (including aforementioned poetry journals) came with me – for professional as well as personal reasons.

While I had visions of some sort of initiating some sort of inner-city-Dead Poet’s Society-love-of-words epiphany for my students, courtesy of my personal love of poetry and my rather broad collection of non-mainstream poetical works, it has yet to materialize.

At least, the way I envisioned it.

Over the past four years, beginning with my first-year-of-teaching, aged 13-to-17, New Orleans ward-loyal, gang-banging, ankle-bracelet-wearing eighth graders, through last year’s 8th, 11th and 12th grade New Orleans East charter school wannabe toughs, to this year’s batch of struggling west bank (some well over age) sophomores and juniors, those journals have been trotted out at least a few times each semester, whenever poetry rears its mischievous head on our curriculum.

They get us out of the standard textbook’s American Literary Canon and mainstream stabs at diversity, and sets us off on some very different planes. (Oh sure, I still give them a dose of Whitman and Dickinson, and I love Frost so they get a bit of him, too, but we go off on some…definite roads less traveled.) It’s funny what kids will connect with.

Poetry overall is exasperating for my students. They are frequently confused with poetry in general, as the idea of interpretations varying widely from person to person frustrates them; they seek concrete yes/no answers, and poetry – good poetry- doesn’t often offer that singular certainty.

To top it off, in Mr. Lucker’s class, wildly different poetic interpretations (as long as they have some rational basis) are celebrated, further adding to my student’s consternation. Whether they are more frustrated with differing viewpoints, or my embrace of multiple viewpoints…I haven’t figured that out yet. I can tell you that my students test scores have been pretty good, and that when it comes to reading comprehension, my students score quite well. I attribute some of that to our reading a lot of poetry.

I don’t pander to the (often) lower common denominators of basic metaphor and simile examples in the textbooks. Phil’s old poetry journals help me go further than that. I like getting out those journals into my students hands – they’re different. They are compact, and for the most part, don’t look like the typical turn-off-their-interest book, especially once the students open them – often the most difficult part of the equation.

But my stash of old journals is shrinking.

I noticed as I packed up my room last week that I am down to my last copier-paper box of Phil’s poetry journals – and not a quite full box, at that. Over the past four years, many of them have disappeared into the bookbags of my students; many of them under some sort of subterfuge (I’m not sure I could ever accuse a kid of ‘stealing’ poetry, so I let ‘em go) and many go to kids asking if they could keep a particular journal, or specific poem. (Instead of letting a kid who asks to ‘tear out one poem’ from a journal, I tell them ‘just take the whole book.’) A few of the journals have basically disintegrated from classroom use and abuse, but for the most part, they have simply found their way into a student’s hands and head. Where they end up…?

I think Phil would be okay with that.

Making poetry accessible was, and I would think still is, important to Phil. Nowadays, it’s important to me, too. So even though my supply of poetry journals is running low, I figure the box I have left should get me through the next school year. It’s been fun while it lasted, and hopefully some of those kids got something out of whatever little volume they took from my class.

It is not what I had planned when I began collecting Phil’s old journals, but then again, what poet ever plans a really good poem?