Schoolyear Homestretch: They Know Not of What They Speak. Or Write.

The discussion in my predominately black, tenth-grade classroom was focused on racism.

We have been working our way through the book A Lesson Before Dying, a wonderful 1994 Pulitzer nominee about a rural Louisiana black man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Set in 1947, the story pre-dates the Civil Rights days of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King (the only such benchmarks my students really know) by a decade, and chronicles the effort to see that the accused man dies with a sense of dignity.

Racism is a dominant theme of the story, and a concept that many of even my brightest students tend to incorrectly think is something in the past or, more sadly, not a huge part of their present.

During the discussion on where racism really ‘comes’ from, a black student stated firmly that racism is generally learned from one’s parents – ‘Even black racism.’ This idea was met with murmurs and nods of approval from those that are inclined to jump so forcefully into a discussion like that, but I wanted to point out that that might be a little over-simplified, noting that what parents think or believe doesn’t always transfer to a child and asking my students to think of things they disagree with their parents about. I told my students that I know of plenty of kids who aren’t racist even though their parents seem to be.

This idea was greeted with a few moments of silent indifference until one of the few white kids in the class chimed in proudly with an affirmation of my concept. “I’ve got proof of that, Mr. Lucker!” the kid said earnestly. “I’m supposed to be a fifth-generation KKK Klansman…

….but I’m NOT!”

“That’s…..good, Darren. Thank you for, umm…sharing that.”

The class stared at me, a few with quizzical looks that I can only assume were a reaction to whatever facial expression I had as I stared at Darren* for a moment. Aside from a few nods of agreement, nobody had a thing to say in response, and at first I was more surprised by the lack of reaction than I was the initial comment.

But I’m not. Just another day in the front of my classroom.

My students have a propensity for being obstinate – like most teenagers – but they will dig in their heels ferociously and adamantly defend their version when their take on a turn of phrase is challenged. Two examples from this year stand out.

The first was a sophomore who wrote about an essay commenting on her sister’s positive attitude, and the inspiration the sister provides her younger siblings, including Brenda, my student. She lauded, in worthy prose, her sister’s ‘self of steam.’

Even with provided context, I still had to read it a few times to understand what ‘self of steam’ meant for Brenda.

Discussing her paper with her, I was met with a puzzled look as I tried to explain that what she meant was her sister had a lot of ‘self-esteem’ – even going so far as to having her look up ‘esteem’ in the dictionary. Still, she contemplated, paused, looked at her paper and the dictionary, then looked up at me standing over her and said, distinctly, and with a definite correcting me tone of voice: ”Yeah, it’s her SELF. OF. STEAM, Mr. Lucker…how good she feels about herself.”

And the young woman’s ‘self of steam’ stayed that way in the final draft.

Maybe that’s what my students mean when they say, “Mr. Lucker…you’re blowin’ me!”

But I’m not.

The other top curious turn of phrase also came from a sophomore girl, who noted that when talking about literary point-of-view, it is not third-person-limited and third-person omniscient you need to understand, but rather ‘third- person limited and third person ammunition’ point-of-view.

She too, was left unswayed by logic, or the class handout on her desk we had been reviewing and discussing, or the textbook on her desk, all focusing on ‘third-person-omniscient’ narration.

Carlene was steadfast in explaining ‘third-person-ammunition’ point-of-view – which she actually did quite well.  If you overlook the fact that ‘omniscient’ and ‘ammunition’ are not synonymous. If you do that.

Even in New Orleans, I’m not sure ‘third-person-ammunition’ is a viable legal defense.

And finally…

I had a good chuckle to wrap up the last full week of the year with Ms. W, our school’s lead librarian. (The librarians love me because I bring all my classes there at the start of the semester to teach them about the library; apparently I’m the only English teacher who does that. Plus, I actually assign book reports – hence the initial library-orientation visit. They then know where to go to find the books for their book reports.)

Seems a student came into the library on Friday to return a book that he had checked out in October and found only now while cleaning out his locker. Aside from any pangs of guilt over depriving some other poor student of a book, the return of said tome also probably removed a financial hold from the kid’s record. Fortunately, the fines cease when the fine amount reaches the cost of the book; $16 in this case.

As Ms.W clicked away on the computer showing the book as returned and getting the kid’s holds removed, she said the running dialogue continued as follows:

“Well, at least I hope you enjoyed the book.”

“Eh. It was o.k. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

“But you liked it.”

“It was alright. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

All she could do relating the story to me was laugh about the kid’s ongoing ‘Mr. Lucker made us read a book.’ I shook my head and said ‘So, I suppose I should wear that as a badge of honor?

She continued laughing as she headed for the door, “Why not, Mr. Lucker? Why not?”

All this time I thought I was teaching English, not eastern philosophy. But I guess if the mantra “Mr. Lucker made us read a book” is the primary result of the year, maybe that will enhance someone’s self-of…Eh. You know what I mean.

Eh. You know what I mean.

Conversation

“How many students of yours have been killed?” Her tone was inquisitive, non-invasive.
“A dozen” I replied softly, taking a deep hit on my bottle of Coke.

She sighed, audibly. “At least nine” I clarified. “Nine that I have seen the obit on, story on the news, newspaper article about. Nine.” I was running through the Coke more quickly than usual; it burned going down.  I continued. “That’s one for each school year I have taught in New Orleans. On the plus side, it’s been three years since I added to the list.”

I finished off the Coke, raising the empty bottle. “Cheers.”

“Why’d you say ‘a dozen’?”
“Nine I am sure of, but I have heard of another two, three. Always running into former colleagues and students, always hear, ‘hey – remember x-and-so’? He got shot.”

She sighed again, more uncomfortably. Her voice took on a nervous edge. “How’s that make you feel?”
“I don’t know how that makes me feel.” Easy to answer frequently asked questions.
“Sad.”
“Sadness is part of it.”
Sighing can be far more communicative than one realizes. “It’s not what you signed up for, huh?”
My turn to sigh. “Even if it was, who would believe it would really be…this.”

She took a deep breath, then exhaled. “You saw some of them on the news?”
“Yep.”
“Wow.”
“Ten o’clock lead story, one kid. Morning paper is worse, though.”

This seemed to puzzle her, and I think she had run out of sighs. “Shocking to see a student of yours on the front page?”
“Ahh! My front page students have been perpetrators. Victims inside. Open up the metro section like the bomb squad handling a suspicious package. THAT”S what you want to do along with your morning coffee.”

“Your students ever kill each other?”
“Ohhhhh, no!  My front page alums are in a whole different class. Some are doing hard time, a bunch are doing -various times for various…infractions.”  Gallows humor isn’t always funny.
“How many of those?”
“That, I stopped counting.”

I was drumming my empty Coke bottle against my leg. We stood there, relative strangers, friends of a mutual friend making small talk because we really had nobody else to speak with, both being from somewhere else, originally, and finding our adopted environs to be quite different than anything we had experienced elsewhere. We had hit upon a mutual topic – careers in education. Now, we were each getting one.  Some party.

“Roughly how many kids in ‘I stopped counting’?” she asked, with trepidation.
“Really, I stopped counting. I meant that literally.”

There was nothing more she could ask, nothing more I could say. I could see in her eyes that she was looking for something in mine, but wasn’t finding it. Whatever it was she DID see, she seemed ill at ease with. Not seeing anything resembling an answer, she apparently thought it best to go looking for one.

“How does all that make you feel?” she prodded.
“Angry discouraged pissed off.” It wasn’t so much a varied list as it was a newly-coined, matter-of-fact adjective. “Disturbing thing is, ‘surprise’ isn’t part of it for me anymore.”

That was more than she seemed ready to digest. She found a fresh sigh, punctuated this time with a disbelieving shake of her head. We stood there, awkwardly filling the void of incredulity that permeated the whole concept of what it meant to be an inner city high school teacher. We watched others mingle, laughing at told jokes, work anecdotes. A few seconds passed, maybe an hour – who knows?

I started to speak and she looked at me intently. “I say the same thing every time I see a former student in the news – only thing I can think of to say: ‘What a fucking waste’.”
“Yeah. I bet.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Yeah.”
“Thanks for the insight.”
“Yeah. Nice meeting you.”

What a waste.

Ya buy ’em books…

An elementary school I drive by daily is emblazoned with signs announcing their ongoing book fair, and I will admit to a bit of nostalgia.  An only child, books were my constant companions, and book fair time at Horace Mann Elementary in Minneapolis meant my usually-not-overly-indulgent parents were willing to drop a few bucks at my behest.

Good stuff, Maynard.

I tried to indulge my own kids to an extent every time a bookfair rolled around, but those were different affairs – much more than books available for purchase.  Now, as a New Orleans teacher for the past nine years, I have encountered even more of the whole Scholastic book-selling-cases-on-wheels operation. A few years back, I was working at a K-12 charter school.  One afternoon, the delivered carts and cases full of books and related paraphernalia was pretty well in place in our school library, and I got to browse a bit. Many of the young adult titles and series looked familiar, and it was nice to see that many of the various series I remember from their younger days are still around, with new some titles in the series, to boot. (The gang from Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type are still going hilariously strong – bless ‘em.) There was also an admirable selection of classics.

As I roamed our makeshift Barnes and Ignoble, one of the selections on the ‘Adult Bestsellers and Cookbooks’ table caught my eye. It was a cookbook entitled “9 x 13:  The Perfect-Fit Dish – More than 180 family favorites to fit America’s most popular pan.” For the record, had I been asked ‘name America’s favorite pan’ I would have answered, “Sauce”.

Only in America: a cookbook predicated on a specific size of pan.

Sorry, but I couldn’t see this in the same vein as crock-pot cookery, or Dutch oven cooking like we did in Boy Scout days. This is something else entirely. The phrase ‘lame gimmick’ came to mind.

The blurbs on the back cover of the book are intended to be, one supposes, enlightening. To wit:

“A 9×13 pan can do everything from roasting a chicken to baking brownies!”

Really?

But there was more…

“Feast on comfort foods you grew up with, including Beef Stroganoff Casserole and Tuna Noodle Casserole.”

Sure, let’s recycle the gastronomic 1950’s – only in the correct sized pan! Let’s also salvage the word ‘casserole’ from the culinary dust heap. (Personal, two-part aside: 1. I hail from the Midwest, where the term ‘hot dish’ reins supreme over ‘casserole.’ 2. I know of very few people who would make a hot dish in a 9 x 13 pan.  That is what ‘casserole’ dishes are for, Chucklebunnies.)

So continueth the back cover hype:

“Revel in new flavor twists such as Cajun Mac and Cheese and Chocolate Chipotle Brownies.”

Chipotle brownies? Last guy I knew who put spicy herbs in brownies ended up getting two years probation.

But there was additional hype – and we haven’t even left the cover of the book yet:

“Dig into potluck pleasers such as Smokin’ Tetrazzini and Herbed Chicken and Orzo.”

‘Smokin’ Tetrazzini’ falls somewhere between ‘Cajun blackened’ and ‘left under the broiler too long’ while Chicken and Orzo is shorthand for ‘chicken-and-schizophrenic-starch.’  Is it pasta? is it rice? Is it crawling around your plate?

Then there are the recipes – no! Wait! The cookbook opens with a helpful ‘Pan Comparison’ page in which they compare 9×13 pans, covering various and sundry pluses and minuses.

‘Glass or Stoneware’ 9x13s have more pluses than ‘Metal’ 9x13s – but also more minuses; ‘breakable, cannot withstand sudden temperature change’ among them. (Pyrex or Corning Ware anybody?) Chief plusses include ‘Clear glass makes it easy to monitor browning’ and ‘Shows off beauty of gelatin or layered salads’ (except for stoneware, I guess) and then my personal favorite glass-or-stoneware ‘plus’:

“Some pans come with lids.”

Golly, what will they think of next? And why haven’t those pesky metal 9×13 manufacturers gotten on this ‘lid’ bandwagon? They don’t have it listed as a metal ‘plus,’ so one wonders.

And we can’t forget our third category of 9×13 pan, the ever popular…

plastic?

Plastic pans? Containers, maybe. Vessel, receptacle, canister, holder are all reasonable possibilities. But plastic pans? As we like to say in our household, “I don’t think so, Tim.”

The authors state that while plastic 9x13s are ‘good for no-bake recipes, refrigerator salads and freezer desserts’ they do allow in the minus column that they ‘may not be used for baking.’

That’s news you can really use, though there is not a word said about lids and plastic nine-by-thirteens. The authors need a Tupperware intervention, stat!

A bargain at $16.99, even without reading the actual recipes.

Just out of curiosity, I wondered what the book sold for elsewhere, and clicked over to Amazon, where I found not only the edition of the cookbook that we will be selling, but also this rather curious entry:

9 X 13: The Perfect-Fit Dish (In Memoriam Volume III Exclusive Edition) In memoriam?
Volume III?
That is a lot of commemorating.

I kid you not -new and used editions available…but that’s all on-line. Curiously, no mention of just who is being commemorated via cake pan.

Though $16.99 for a 9×13 pan cookbook seems pennywise, but pan foolish.

Hey, it’s all for books for the kids, right?

Judge, jury and…say what again?

Recently called for a month of jury duty, I showed up at the various appointed times, and actually made the next-to-final cut for two different cases, but never got the nod to actually sit on a trial jury.

Not to say I didn’t leave my mark in Orleans Parish Criminal Court.  OPCH

My second day there, I got the call to go upstairs as part of a pool of fifty potential jurors. We were escorted to the courtroom in groups of twenty-five, and for the questioning, I was seated in the top row of the jury box – an interesting comfortable vantage point to the whole voir dire process.

This particular trial was not a typical situation – it was a cold case; nearly twenty years had passed since the crime, and both the prosecution and defense told us they would be relying on the reliability of possibly degraded DNA evidence, and two-decade old memories for testimony. Both sides acknowledged up front that testimony via hazy recollections and recalled memories presented a variety of challenges.

The defendant sat stoically through the proceedings as the prosecution took their turn at interviewing us. He remained that way through the early part of his defense team doing the potential-juror questioning, though by then he had started making more notes on his notepad – adding a few doodles at times.

The prosecution had moved us through all the basic stuff – occupations, background, our attitudes about a variety of issues, what television crime shows we watched regularly. That part surprised me, but apparently this is standard procedure these days in cases of this nature due to the proliferation of the ‘crime show procedurals’ as one of the prosecutors put it. Both sides said they want juries bloodvialsto understand the science of crime fighting via DNA and other forensics is not as cut-and-dried as on ‘CSI and shows of that ilk’ s one of the attorneys phrased it. When asked, most of my fellow jurors and I were in agreement that was all a very reasonable line of questioning, though a few seemed expressed bewilderment that watching TV would be a factor.

It was interesting.

As this was a cold case, both the prosecution and defense took great pains to note that this trial would hinge primarily on witness testimony – twenty-year-old memories and changed relationships. Both sides also asked a series of questions focusing on how we judged people’s trustworthiness, especially after a lot of time had elapsed. When the lead defense attorney got his crack at us, he said right at the start that we may not find some of the defense witnesses to be particularly likable or even all that supportive of the defendant they were testifying for. He was very pointed in asking us if we felt we could still believe what someone had to say, even if our personal opinion of that person was not very high.  Some of my fellow jurors-in-waiting were very uncomfortable with the prospect.

Me? Not so much.

The defense attorney, an African-American man of about thirty-five who had pretty much stuck to confirming questions about my background and neighborhood of residence to that point, finally got around to asking me about how I viewed people and their credibility.

csalesofjustice“Mr. Lucker” he intoned calmly, “Would it be possible for you to accept and believe the testimony of witnesses who may not seem at first glance to be all that credible, and decide the case on that testimony if you didn’t always find them credible?”

“It depends.  I guess a lot of it would depend on the rest of the equation, how much I did or didn’t believe the other side’s witnesses. ”

He looked at me intently, and his tone turned somewhat quizzical, and very pointed. “Mr. Lucker, are you saying you could foresee a trial situation where you didn’t necessarily believe anything that anybody had to say?”

I shrugged. “I teach high school. I deal with that, evvv. ry. -DAY!”

The place erupted in laughter; even the judge was chortling. The court stenographer actually turned and looked at me. The bailiffs seemed especially tickled, as did all four attorneys. The defendant was chuckling as he scribbled away on his yellow legal pad. The defense attorney smiled, shook his head, looked down at his notes briefly before looking back at me, making eye contact and giving me a little ‘good one’ salute before moving on to one of my partners-in-jurisprudence, still smiling and shaking his head.

I made the initial cut down to ten out of our pool, but did not make the final jury. Nor did I get in the last word.

Wrapping up his juror questioning, the defense attorney revisited a few of us who had made the cut down to ten with a series of final questions – though in my case it was more his pre-follow-up-question salutation that was noteworthy: “One more question, Mr. Lucker. We have already established…” he paused dramatically. “That you teach high school….”

william_talman_raymond_burrThe room was again enveloped in laughter, including mine. I returned the attorney’s ‘nice one’ gesture from earlier, and he smiled.

Touché.  I had been Perry Masoned during jury selection.

So while I never did get to provide much service-to-society in the way of fulfilling my civic duty, I did get a good taste of both sides of our judicial system:

I got to deliver the punchline and play the straight man.

Corn is in the eye of the beholder

Speaking with some of my A-day sophomores at the end of class on Friday, I was informing them that I wouldn’t be seeing them for nearly a week, as they will spend the bulk of the day Tuesday doing pre-ACT testing – new territory for them, and I’m not sure they are ready for the rigor of this sort of testing. I was collecting work as I reiterated some of the test strategies they should be using, and they were generally agreeable – then, one young man, usually one of my hipper, more engaging students in that group, asked what I would be doing on Tuesday, if I would be giving a test.

“Nope. I have a senior homeroom, so I get to spend the morning being SpongeBob.” I continued my stroll around collecting tests.
“Being SpongeBob?”
“Yeah. I get to be…HALL MONITOR!
There was a pause, then the same young man said, “Mr. Lucker – that was so…corny.”
His tone was one of great concern.
“Corny?”
“Yeah. Saying you get to be SpongeBob is corny.”
“O.K. But it will be a nice opportunity to wear a SpongeBob tie.”
His tone switched to one of disapproving admonishment. “But that is really corny.”
“Corny that I will be a hall monitor?” The rest of the class seemed nonplussed.
“Yeah, and I don’t think you should be.” He was serious, though the disapproving tone was mostly gone. He was drifting into disappointment.

I shrugged, the bell rang, I told them to have a nice weekend.

I thought the kid’s use of the word ‘corny’ was out of place, so I did a quick check on Urban Dictionary to see if I might have missed some nuance to his concern. What I found didn’t stray very far from my initial thought of how I would use the word ‘corny’ – meaning a lame joke or reference to something. Turns out urban teen ‘corny’ is pretty much middle-aged-dude ’corny’:

‘Something presented as fresh or original, but which is actually tired
and/or lame.’

‘Especially, when its lameness derives from being obvious or done to death.
Oh Grandpa! That joke is soooo corny.’

‘Trying to be cool, but ultimately very uncool indeed, and often even extremely embarrassing’

‘Something cheesy or lame’

‘The status of “corniness” is achieved when something picks up old and overused fads just to “fit in,” falsely believes it is cool, and then takes itself too seriously, resulting in a complete destruction of its social life’

I was going to post the encounter for a throwaway, end-of-week classroom anecdote on Facebook – until I did a quick search for a graphic to go with my little tale and got this from Google:

 

 

 

 

 

Encyclopedia SpongeBobia?

I have been a SpongeBob fan since the beginning of the show in 1999, but haven’t watched much the last few years, kids being pretty much grown up and all, though I have watched a few recent episodes with my five-year-old grandson – and, of course, I have seen the movies.

But Encyclopedia SpongeBobia was new to me.

Having two sons both into comic books and superheroes to one degree or another, and being a high school teacher, I have a reasonable understanding of fandom and general obsession with the minutiae of certain characters and their environs, but this?

Of course, I had to (virtually) thumb through the ESB.

Original episode air dates, character list, plot synopsis (‘In this episode, SpongeBob becomes hall monitor, resulting in chaos.’) pretty basic, sums it up nicely. But so does the six-paragraph full synopsis you can scroll to further down the page. And you can keep scrolling, because there is a lot more. In fact, reading through the key points on this compendium entry will take you far longer than the eleven minutes it would take you to watch the actual episode.

Who knew?

Then I noticed a little notice at the top of the page: ‘If you were looking for the article about the book, then see Hall Monitor (book)’

OK, kids cartoons being made into books is not a new thing – you could purchase Little Golden Books of many of the cartoons I watched as a kid, but my curiosity being hat it is, I decided to click to see if the unbridled enthusiasm of the episode Wiki was as detailed for the book.

All sixty-four pages. Thirty, if you are reading on a Kindle.

I am a Kindle-kind-of-guy, so I had to check it out. Sixty-four pages gives you a lot of time for character development and story exposition, and by golly the folks who put it together deliver on all counts. Pretty decent read, to be honest – a bit of an Alexander Wollcott/Robert Benchley vibe, actually – and it did hold my attention, probably more than it should have.

This started out being about the concept of corniness, and while some of this strikes me as all rather corny, and while others may say there are people with way too much time on their hands, I think Encyclopedia SpongeBobia is a good example of how information can be mined, refined, and shared with a broad audience. I mean, somebody had to take the time to compile this information, reformulate and format it, post it for the world to see. That took a certain set of skills that I would love to impart to my students and I might just be able to turn this little classroom anecdote into a true ‘teachable moment.’

My students would surely find that to be a very corny thing to do.

But I’m still wearing a SpongeBob tie on Tuesday.

Dressing the part

Friday was a ‘dress down’ day at school – pay five bucks for the privilege of wearing your favorite pro or college team jersey and jeans. Yee-ha!   My inner city New Orleans high school kids know img_20161007_155732nothing of hockey, so I was interested in gauging their response to me wearing my U of M hockey jersey.

With the exception of one kid who said, “Ummmm…Michigan?” (detention, AND an automatic ‘F’ for him) the kids mostly got the ‘M’ for Minnesota part, because they know me well enough, but my favorite interaction was with one of my more thoughtful tenth graders, a gregarious kid who always shares his writing with the class, and who often ponders things before speaking – a rarity in my classroom.

“So, Mr. Lucker…Minnesota, right?”
“Yep.”
“That’s where you went to college?”
“One of the places.”
“That a hockey jersey?”
“Yes it is.”
“You were a hockey player?”
“Nope.”
“You played football.”
“Nope.”
“Baseball.”
“Nope.”
Pondering pause, trying to fathom, “You weren’t a basketball player?!
“Nope.”
Pondering pause, ‘I give up’ head shake, shrug.
“I was a mascot.”

Pondering pause, eyes growing wider.

“You mean, a suit and everything? A costume?”
“Yep.”
Pondering pause, eyes still wide.
“Costume, big fiberglass head. I was awesome.”
goldie4Pondering pause, scrunched-up face, look of confusion.

“What Minnesota is again?”
“The Gophers.”
Pondering pause, head shake of incredulity.
“Damn, Mr. Lucker.”

He smiled, still shaking his head as he went back to his writing.

“Texting, one, two…really?”

For those of you who have followed our saga as teachers the past eight-plus years, and for those who have read my book (‘Do You Know What it Means, to Teach new Orleans?’ http://lrd.to/do-you-know-what-it-means ) know that we have our share of offbeat stories to tell. Classroom stories and oddities galore, to be sure, but also parent stories.

The latest will be hard to top, and will definitely make it prominently into book two.

The other night I called a parent to discuss their child’s rather odd classroom behavior, and I got a recoding stating, ‘this customer’s phone is not currently set up to take incoming calls’ – inexplicable to me, when it is the phone you put down as the contact for your kid’s school, but not unusual in my parent-interaction experience here.

Being incommunicado is, apparently, a common thing.

As that was the only number I had for this student, I hung up set the phone down, and went back to my laptop for the number for the next kid on my list. Almost immediately, my phone buzzed, as I had a text; the number was the one I had just called, and the terse message I saw caused me to catch my breath:

‘My momma was killed today’.

I had no idea how to reply. I have dealt with an inordinate amount of death with my students during my eight years in New Orleans classrooms – and with the number of students I know who have died as victims of violence keeping an even ratio with my years of experience – I have sadly become a bit jaded hearing such news. But this was new, this was different: a text message, in response to a call from me. And all the message said was: ‘My momma was killed today.’

Sitting there, mulling over how to respond, I quickly clicked onto a couple of newspaper and TV station sites to check the latest local crime news – nothing 100_6230posted there that seemed to fit this situation. After a minute, I decided on, and typed, a very simple response:

‘I am so sorry.’

Within moments of clicking send, I got an odd (seemed to me) response: ‘Who you looking for?’ I quickly typed out the name of the woman I was trying to contact, mentioned the school, and finished it up with ‘But it can wait’ – figuring the woman had enough going on without having to deal with the triviality of her daughter being a classroom problem. I put my phone down, and went back to my laptop to get another number, when my phone suddenly rang. It was the woman I had just texted.

“Hello, Mr. Lucker?” she sounded cheerful. “This is xxxxx’s mother, I saw you called and you got my message. I use that when I get calls from numbers I don’t know, so I don’t have to deal with people. What can I do for you?”

Her ‘I use it when…’ combined with the rapidity that she responded to my initial message led me to believe that she has this as a ‘canned comment’ in her phone – and her matter-of-fact nature leads me to believe she uses it more than occasionally.

I explained to her why I was calling, what her daughter was doing. She was attentive, seemed concerned, stated that her daughter’s cellphone use and texting in class had been a problem previously, and that she would certainly talk with her daughter to see that it didn’t happen again.

I thanked her for her time, and that was that.

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.

RonaldMcDonaldStatueArrest

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.

“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, 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:

'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.

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

“Wow!”

“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!”

Yeah.

I still got it.

Reprise: Happily, Less Full of Phil

07/13/16

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.

MLL

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  http://www.philipdacey.com/ . 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?