My village elders

It takes a village, and mine was well populated.

Father’s Day weekend is my ‘take stock’ time; gratefulness for healthy, happy, successful-in-their-own-unique-ways children, a self-check on how I’m doing as a father and grandfather.  It is also a time of reflection and a reminder of the men who played the unofficial and the codified dad and grandpa roles in my life: my dad, Gramps, my pseudo-grandfather Ivar, my uncle Don,  and stepfather Gary.  The value of what I received from all of them is incalculable  – the sum only as great as it’s multiple, generous parts.

I am simply thankful – well aware that I was blessed by having them all in my life.

Along with dad, Gramps, Ivar, Don, and Gary, there are other men that I think about on Father’s Day – gentlemen whose lives intersected with mine in a wide, ongoing array of ways for many years each; they all brought something special to the smorgasbord of skills, abilities, and character traits that make me, me.

A lengthy and impressive roster, it is.

There were Elving, Albert, Art, Cleo, Ray and Harold – all helping ride-herd on curious, rambunctious, me every Horseshoe Lake summer of my youth. Len, Henry, Win were family by choice, not blood.  Hjalmer and Palmer, father and uncle of boyhood friends and our up-the-street neighbors; master mechanics, guardians of our block, and wink-and-a-nod sages.

It’s an imposing roll call, and humbling when I stop to think of all the time and wisdom they invested in me. Each of them played very significant roles in making me into the man – the husband, father, grandfather, teacher, and leader that I am today.

The list of tactile, hard skills that I learned from these guys would fill a flash-drive: plumbing, house painting, carpentry, roofing – and my personal favorite, lumberjacking.  Master plumber Ivar and would be proud that I still mostly know my way around underneath a sink and can still handle a pipe wrench with aplomb. With satisfaction – and with a brag or two directed toward Ivar –  his best friend – and master housepainter – Elving would note that with house paint and brushes, I am more than proficient.

I’m still pretty damn good at cutting a doorway or window.

The lines of memory blur when I try to place a specific skill to the individual I got tutoring from. Even so, I learned things then learned that everyone has their own way of doing things. So much the better for me.  Youthful understanding of the concept that there is always more than one way to skin a cat has served me very well.

Truth be told, it truly was a village effort.

No matter who may have shown me how to do something, each person added their own take on how to handle such tools as chainsaws, splitting mauls,  axes, logging chains and cross-cut saws – among other tools of the wood cutting game; how and when and where and why (and why not) to use each of them.  Knowing the difference between a framing hammer and ball peen hammer is good; skill with each of them, even better.  A number of these guys took a hand in teaching me the nuances (along with their own peccadilloes and quirks) about how to drive a stick shift, change spark plugs or the oil in one of Detroit’s finest, and I still know of multiple ways to bait a fish-hook, hoe the weeds from a potato patch, scale and filet a sunfish.

That is only a partial list.

Len showed me how to use a lathe, Albert how to properly seine for minnows, and how to properly stack a cord of firewood;  Harold instructed me in how to whittle – knife safety of paramount focus, aside from the artistry. I handsremember many of those lessons vividly, and later on the looks of accomplishment and satisfaction when I showed some mastery at any of them.

Those were just some of the unique slices of tangible skills – physical expertise I was shared that stand out.  Those guys were all present and responsible for so much more than that I just listed.

I also remember others who played lesser, but powerfully important and fondly remembered roles as additional father figures; Mr. Keuken across our Minneapolis alley; Vic the taxidermist, Joe the bartender, and Birkeland the electrician – role players in my summers at the lake.  That’s how I knew them, (Vic, Joe, Birkeland, anyway) and what everyone else called them. Vic and Joe did have last names, Mr. Keuken and Mr. Birkeland had given names.  I remember my dad’s friend Bill, theatre manager and raconteur extraordinaire. There was also Ray, the anthropology professor-cum-writing-coach, and Super Joe the grocer: trust me, loving life and laughing boisterously is a learned skill.

As I peruse this list, I still know I am forgetting somebody.

To this day, I tend to get more than a bit peeved with someone when they marvel at some skill I have displayed or off-beat competency I have shared. “Where’d you learn how to do THAT?” 

Their ignorance, my bliss, I suppose.

In my days as an employment counselor, I helped develop and then taught a class on skills identification – an easy and fun assignment, as I have significant expertise in a lot of areas – and I could also honestly imbue my students with the thrill of acquiring skills and how such knowledge itself has benefitted me in learning other things.

Writing that curriculum came rather easily to me: I saw it as a tribute to all of the men on this list, and quite a few others as well

There is a popular meme that makes its rounds on Facebook pretty regularly stating  ‘Well, another day has passed and I still haven’t used algebra.’ I used to share that attitude, but I now know better. Algebra? Maybe not; but the skills that go into solving equations, the critical thought involved…oh yeah, I use all of that. But I am still lousy at algebra itself. As a high school English teacher, I constantly have students complaining that (fill-in-the-blank) skill I am trying to impart on any given day will never be of use to them.

Their ‘aha’ moments will come for them. In time.

One more aspect to the men listed above that I have always been aware and in awe of: I wasn’t their sole focus. For the most part, there was no obligation to include me in much of anything; these guys were volunteers in the purest sense of the word.  They had their own children and grandchildren, a lot of other things to occupy their time.

The skills were hands-on, as was the problem solving; the lessons often implied, frequently not grasped until after the fact.   Thanks, guys.

If you were to Venn diagram all of the key dads, granddad and facsimiles thereof in my life, the outlying rings – the ‘not in common’ stuff – would be filled to overflowing.   As a village, ‘eclectic’ would be a good name for this tribe. The inner circle – the ‘in common’ – would be full and diverse as well, and would make a good primer for how to live a life: treat people with kindness, respect, dignity. How to develop patience and put it into practice. Do onto others. Help somebody. Follow your gut and your heart, but don’t lose your head doing it. Don’t get frustrated – figure it out. Have faith, live it out.

Clichés?

A damn good instruction manual for how to live a life.

No, I do not regularly use most of the skills I mentioned here on a day-to-day or even-year-to year basis.  As an urban guy, I sadly have little need to lumberjack anymore, and adjusting a carburetor is not something I will probably ever need to do again.

It is unlikely I ’ll anytime soon be needing to shingle a cabin, patch a fiberglass canoe, or lathe a wooden flower vase – though in a pinch, I could still show the younger crowd a thing or two.  Especially on a roof; you modern day guys and your wimpy nail guns; do you even own a framing hammer?

On the other hand, maybe I will someday get a chance to again pilot a pontoon boat.  That would be exquisite.   Will I have to treat a maple dance floor with dance wax again? Probably not – but there is always hope; a man’s got to have a dream.

Oh, I still get to play cribbage from time to time, and might hopefully get a chance to get a hold of some cards and play whist again.  Or canasta, Chinese checkers, mumbly peg, the harmonica.

But I will definitely have to fix another toilet, and there will always be a room that needs a new paint job, something to be repaired or replaced, and each day brings something that needs to be brainstormed, finagled or simply figured out.  There will always be stories to tell, lessons to imbue, parables to impart, jokes to be told.   Spiritually, to me wasting a skill is sinful.

I will always write, always need to think.  I will forever need to laugh, need to cry, need to empathize. I will always need to give a damn, and to help others.

This is where the rubber meets the road. Because of what I learned back then, refined and cultured through the years, I can dive in with confidence – anytime, anyplace, anywhere. I am Mr. Problem-Solver, because of all of all of these guys.

If anybody wonders how I can always say “I got this” it is simply because…

I had them.

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To absent friends

 “I miss my friends tonight, their faces shine for me,
The clamor of their singing like some mad calliope.
Still ringing through the Lion’s Head until the morning light,
comedians and angels, I miss my friends tonight…

                                                                                – Tom Paxton, ‘I miss my freinds tonight”

My fortieth high school class reunion weekend commences tonight – two evenings and a Sunday afternoon of remembering, reflecting, reconnecting; relationships reconstituted and South 2rejuvenated. For some of us, festivities have already begun; coming into town a few days early, staying with friends:

Coffee and donuts with a friend, followed by a solitary, reflective walk through an old neighborhood.

Longtime besties and their respective spouses getting together.

A spontaneous, uproarious, karaoke outing lasting till the wee hours.

Old flames on a long-pined-for dinner date.

But tonight is our initial group outing; a mixer at a tavern near our old school. Beer and pizza, lively conversation. Scorekeeping; who is here, who isn’t, will be duly noted – some solemnly, some with a measure of relief.  Some will not be remembered by many, as it is in a large school, with over four-hundred-fifty graduates. The actual tally can be a daunting Screenshot (12)eye-opener: just over four-hundred located, 39 deceased, 42 listed as ‘missing’.

Casualty numbers from the war of time.

Toasts will be offered to those not with us, a few tears will be shed, some rueful laughter; memories will be shared.

“A song for every season, a smile in every fight,
comedians and angels, I miss my friends tonight…”

My hope is tonight will not be one dedicated to mourning, but of celebration – of what those no longer with us meant to us, individually, collectively.  We were more than classmates, not just friends. We were, in many ways true family.  Make no mistake, those no longer here left their marks.

Great anecdotal stories, heartfelt toasts, tears shed: legacies not taken lightly at this stage of life. The indifference and sadness of youth has given way to appreciation for what – who – was lost, and what gifts and opportunities those of us who have preserved, survived, have been allowed to enjoy.

“I wonder where they are now – could be anywhere
in hell, or California, or back in Sheridan Square!
They left us where they left us, so we put o ut the light,
comedians and angels, I miss my friends tonight…”

Some of those we will raise a glass to were not even members of our class, but dear friends a year ahead of us, a year – or even two – behind. Still part of us, members of our ’77 family.

“Each one drained a parting glass and sailed out to sea,
And what a crew of rogues they made, in gleeful anarchy!
They sang to the horizon a song no pen could write,
comedians and angels, I miss my friends tonight…”

Comedians and angels, indeed. Also rouges and connivers, charmers and brusque ne’er-do-wells. Not always the easiest to live with, not often recognized or saluted. The South 3innocuous, the brash; those humble, and the ego-driven that often drove us.

Like I said, family.

The list of those no longer with us is lengthy, and the names vary in memory and significance to each of us, but on behalf of all of us still here, still carrying the banner of the class of 1977.

Godspeed, my friends.

And thanks to you all.  We miss you, and hope we’ve done you proud.

“They sang to the horizon a song no pen could write,
comedians and angels, I miss my friends tonight.

Comdians and angels…I miss my friends tonight.”

Shades of Black and White

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

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

He looked like a man holding a purple tarp.

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

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

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

We talked.

Though I remember the day vividly, I oddly cannot tell you what we talked about in any great detail; he wanted to know my travels since we had graduated in the spring of 1977, and get an update on the whereabouts of some mutual friends is all I remember. He told me of his illness, what he had been through, how excited he was to be n the transplant list.  His mind was sharp; whatever medications he was on had not dimmed his intellect or humor. He was still Johnny.

He was still Johnny.

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

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

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

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

Life is funny like that.

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

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

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

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

Life is funny.

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

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

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

What would Johnny think?

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

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

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

Looking now at the young faces behind me, swaying and bouncing up and down as we traverse a curvy two lane highway, I wonder about a lot of things. They are engrossed in every sort of electronic engagement, a few sleep with their heads tilted awkwardly on pillows against bus windows. I wonder if any of them had ever been a racial first for someone, as Johnny and I had been. There are a select few who I believe have contemplated such scenarios as they prepare to head off to college, although most of that is naiveté born of circumstance; outside of school, there are few white people with whom most of my students interact with any sort of regularity. Many of them will go off to college and be stunned with the diversity they encounter. I wonder what their reactions will be.  I have had other students, from other area schools, who have returned to regale us with stories of suddenly finding themselves thrust into a world not-so-homogeneous as their high school or their ‘hood.

There are many firsts on their horizons.

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

Usually the biggest looks of surprise (and the rare verbal exclamation of surprise) comes when I very purposely counter any talk of stereotyping Johnny 5(‘white people don’t…’ or ‘black people are…’) with a rejoinder that labeling groups of people is, in my classroom, automatically racist in nature, then adding something along the lines of “Well, I think most of my black friends would probably disagree with your generalization.”

Even amongst the most stoic, nonchalant of my students, there is almost always a sense of astonishment that I have (and had, as a teenager) black friends. I would go so far as to say that the most common reaction to this revelation is incredulity, mixed with skepticism, and some of my students adamantly stick to their initial belief that I am lying about having friends of a different skin tone.  Those are sometimes jarring moments, when a student digs in their heels on such an issue, but such situations almost always lead to some positive discussion and food-for-thought. For them and for me, I hope.

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

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

Color me contemplative.

Encounter

06/24/16

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

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?

@55

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

The Double Nickel. Stay alive, drive 55.

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

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

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

I am blessed.

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

O.K. it’s a bit clunky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving legally comes to mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At fifty-five.

 

Happily, Less Full of Phil

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?

Characters who helped shape mine (#3 in a series) The Drama Teacher

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

As You Like It Act 2, scene 7

Like a traveling minstrel of Shakespeare’s day, my adult life has found me front-and-center on all sorts of stages in a long-scrambled accounting of locales and situations; small towns, big cities, rural and urban.

I’ve been the star attraction and the stagehand, watched from the wings and took some center stage bows, brought up the lights and brought down the house. Sometimes I’ve been the guy quietly sweeping up the stage after everyone else has gone home.

I started out with twelve years in broadcasting, spent a decade working in the hotel business then moved into social services, then training. I finally got my college degree, and now find myself at midlife as a high school English teacher working with at risk youth.

A real traveling production; five states and counting.

Shakespeare’s seven ages? I’ve opened and closed most of those shows multiple times. In stage parlance, I have been master of the revival.

The first curtain went up about three-and-a-half decades ago.

Like a first love, I remember very distinctly the first real stage I actually set foot on: the worn, lacquered boards of an intimate thirty-by-twenty foot stage in room 204 of Denver South High School, home of the drama department and headed in my day by Mr. J. Joe Craft.

Mr. Craft (‘J. Joe’) was one of my favorite teachers and arguably the one who had the most profound, tangible effects on my life; to say I go back to what I learned on that stage in Mr. Craft’s classroom and under his direction on a regular basis is not just a nostalgic turn on my part.

There were the fundamentals that you’d expect from a high school drama class; voice and diction basics, stage directions, the vernacular of the theatre, that sort of thing. There were also the byproducts of all that: self-confidence and self-awareness, the ability to deal with overcoming fears, dealing with rejection. (Auditioning and not getting a role, rejections from publishers, students who fail your class – been there, done that. I learned how to deal with all of it via Mr. Craft.)

It was there that I also experienced Shakespeare for the first time; Mr. Craft had studied for a time at Stratford-upon-Avon, and just sitting on those metal folding chairs as he stood on that classroom stage in rattling off a soliloquy from Hamlet or Midsummer Night’s Dream in his booming baritone is still fresh in my mind. It really came back to me a few years ago, as I had a small role in a Shakespeare in the park production of Merchant of Venice in rural, southwestern Minnesota.

Stage learning was not confined to our drama room. South was known throughout the city for its year-long slate of full-scale theatrical productions; a drama in the fall and a musical in the spring being our hallmarks. We all had the chance to partake in everything involved with a production from stage building to marketing and ticket sales; everyone had their shot from the hangers-on to the divas.

Being a part of a drama department, putting on a play or show of any kind, is a great environment for learning how to successfully collaborate with others. Mr. Craft’s insistence that everybody have a hand in every aspect of putting a production together that taught me how to function as part of a team; that is also where I learned how to put together and lead a team, and how to give meaningful but tactful redirection when needed. Skills I have continually refined and used successfully through the years in both my personal and professional lives. Abilities I began cultivating under the direction of Mr. Craft.

One very specific example of how I put what I learned in room 204 into practice: Mr. Craft taught me how to coach job seekers.

One of the biggest issues for young or new actors is the idea of emoting; being on stage means you have to play things a little larger-than-life, or it doesn’t translate well to the audience from up on stage. You need to be a little over the top, not hold back. One of Mr. Craft’s reminder mantras to young actors was, “Just when you think you’re pushing things too far is where you are just starting to get to where you should be.”

In other words, just when you think you have gone wayyyy overboard, anyone watching you is just starting to get a feel for you putting out any kind of emotion or observable, believable characterization. The trick comes in pushing yourself over the threshold from wooden to passionate, but still conveying honesty and believability in your performance.

Hence my success in coaching job seekers.

About a decade ago I found myself working as case manager and trainer for the Minnesota Department of Economic Security in Minneapolis. As a classroom trainer, I taught weekly four-and-a-half hour classroom sessions in how to find a new job; Creative Job Search. I also taught classes in networking, resume writing and Internet job search, and devised and led a class on Skills Identification.

I saw the job search process as putting together a show; you needed a script to follow, and some lines to learn. Under some good direction, it was easy to go out on stage and ‘knock ‘em dead.’

As a trainer, these were tough crowds to play to; most of them had a chip on their shoulder because of their situations. They had been laid-off, fired or merged out of a job, and all they knew about finding a new one was checking the want ads. Aside from the valuable information I was having to convey and the old-style mindsets I had to change, I needed to keep the enthusiasm level relentlessly positive and keep the class looking ahead, not back. Plus, in any given week I was likely to have minimum-wage line workers and six-figure executives sharing table space in my classroom; those eight-to-twelve-thirty sessions could be draining.

Roll playing the networking aspects of the job search process with attendees, going over the same ideas, critiquing and then cajoling a better result out of them was a piece of cake – because I had done it all in play rehearsal under Mr. Craft.

Along with the group classroom instruction, I also had a case load of about 125 job seekers that I assisted with resume and other logistical advice, help in getting them additional training or certification, that sort of thing. But the most complex part of my job was playing the role of director of a little dramatic production called interview practice.

Interviewing for a job is one of the most stressful things in life, a terrifying proposition for many. A big part of being an employment counselor was to coach my clients in how to conduct their part of an interview, and that meant role playing (with me as the director/hiring manager) in a one-on-one production in my cubical or one of our conference rooms. Countless times when coaching my clients I could literally hear Mr. Crafts voice in the back of my head; “Just when you think you’re pushing things too far is where you are just starting to get to where you should be.”

I always went into an interview coaching session trying to push my clients to a ‘Brando’ – a ten on a personal, varied-with-the-client, 1-to-10 scale – figuring if I could get most of them to a six or seven, they would be in good shape. I settled for a lot of fours and fives, but that still put most of them light-years ahead of where they started

All the worlds a stage; my clients had a pretty good track record of good reviews – interviewing successes.

Drama was my favorite class in high school. Five days a week exploring everything from Greek drama to Shakespeare to the American canon to more contemporary stage fare was great. Getting to act out scenes on that thirty-by-twenty foot stage was eye-opening and liberating. We learned how to expand our boundaries and how to handle failure. We also got to direct one-act plays, learning in the process how to lead and manage, coach and coax the best out of people who aren’t always sure they can do something.

Those are all wonderful things to have a solid grasp of as you head on into the adult world.

At the end of our junior year, Mr. Craft left South to lead the theatre department at Denver’s new Career Education Center, a magnet school featuring hands on training in a wide range of disciplines ranging from theatre and dance to E.M.T. training. It had a vocational focus which included its own store and café; very cutting edge in 1976.

I spent the mornings of my senior year there as part of Mr. Craft’s Children’s Theatre Class. I was one of three students from South in the class, and none of us had been anything more than bit players or chorus members, but in a class of twelve students from seven different schools, we all got our shot as we took a production of Little Red Riding Hood on the road to a few schools, produced and videotaped a Tonight Show satire that we wrote ourselves, and capped the year with a full-fledged production of The Wise Men of Chelm, at the Denver Jewish Community Center’s prestigious Schwayder Theatre.

That year was memorable in many ways; not the least of which was getting to be on stage as Shimmer-Eli, the enchanted tailor who buys an unruly goat in Chelm, and mastering the Yiddish dialect for our interpretation of the stories of Shalom Aleichem (his many Chelm stories were the basis for his classic Fiddler on the Roof) for a largely Jewish audience, including my father.

The Schwayder was a far cry from room 204.

There was a trick Mr. Craft showed us to make my goat: a thick, hemp rope was slightly unwound so straightened coat hangers could be pushed into the center of it to give it form. The resulting mutant-pipecleaner was then bent into a collar and leash, and I was believably able to lead around (and also be lead by) an invisible goat for the entire play. The bobbing nature of the hanger-reinforced rope made it seem like I really did have a goat on a leash. I have used the same rope/hanger technique successfully through the intervening years to portray various animals in Christmas pageants and Cub Scout skits.

There was also the aluminum foil, masking tape and rubber cement mask making techniques Mr. Craft taught us to transform me into Little Red’s nemesis wolf I have used a number of times since, in everything from church programs to radio promotional events. As I now live in New Orleans, I have to think that somewhere along the line I’ll be using foil, tape and rubber cement for some sort of Mardi Gras facial adornment.

New Orleans is where what I learned from Mr. Craft comes full circle.

My wife and I came here to teach in 2008, part of a program that recruited people from the business world to come into the classroom as the city struggled, post-Katrina, to rebuild one of the worst public school systems in America; a system that was abysmal before being obliterated by a hurricane. It is an ongoing, daily challenge, as we deal with kids from poverty, single-parent and no-parent homes and a litany of other issues. Most of my tenth and eleventh grade English students are at least two-to-three years behind grade level in reading. Some are motivated, most are not. Some have a need and desire to express themselves, but have no idea how.

I try to get them to write…every day. I use the same “Just when you think you’re pushing things too far is where you are just starting to get to where you should be” with my students when it comes to my students writing. The results aren’t where I would like them to be – yet.

But I am a patient guy. You have to be, as I learned long ago, a show takes a while to go from rehearsal from being ready for opening night, and that it rarely goes totally according to the script at hand.

I have been thinking a lot about Mr. Craft lately as I have spent the last three weeks working with my inner-city sophomores on getting through Julius Caesar. Not the easiest of reads, but Julius Caesar is in our textbook and highlighted and encouraged in our state curriculum. Shakespeare in general is a hard sell for these kids, but oftentimes street-smart kids from the environments that we are working with can connect on some level to Caesar’s concepts of loyalty and betrayal, and certainly the violence and mayhem of the play should ring true here in the murder capital of America.

We’re getting there, very slowly.

Once again, much as with my job seekers, my audience here is oftentimes angry, resentful, and fearful. ‘Why-am-I-here-and-what-relevance-has-this-got-to-my-life?’ attitudes abound. In a way it seems that I have been in rehearsal for the last three decades for this three-week stretch.

I have also been thinking about Mr. Craft as we begin to wind down the school year, and look ahead to fall. I have had a good year, and for the first time in my four-years here, it appears that I will be back at the same school, but teaching what? A month or so ago, our administration had us fill out forms about our intentions for next year, and what we might like to teach. My school is trying to remake itself, and would like to offer more electives. The form asked if we were certified for any specialty, or if we would be willing to get certified. One of the things the school would like to offer is a drama class of some sort, and I could add the drama certification to my license simply by passing a national certification test.

I listed ‘drama’ as one of the electives I would indeed be willing and eagerly able to teach.
If the timing is just right, and they decide to go that route, maybe I’ll get the part.

As I write this, Mr. Craft is about to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival that he founded in 1984 and continues to direct. According to the press release from the DPS, ‘About 5,000 costumed students from more than 75 DPS schools will perform’ at the day-long event this coming Friday, May 11, 2012.
( http://communications.dpsk12.org/announcements/scenes-and-sonnets-to-be-performed-at-dps-28th-annual-shakespeare-festival )

Meanwhile, my fifty-three New Orleans tenth graders and I will continue to work our way through the last acts of Julius Caesar. It isn’t a festival and nobody will hear them reading the lines, but I hope some of it will resonate with some of them on some level.

So here I sit, thirty-five years removed from my last classroom or stage session with J. Joe, and I am still using what I learned from him on a regular basis. The curtain always goes up, the show never closes. Life is like that; you play to whatever audience happens to be in the seats.

As it should be. The show must, of course,  go on. I learned that from Mr. J. Joe Craft.

 

Risk, Reward and Rational Explanations

I come from a long line of risk-takers. Though maybe ‘long’ is stretching it a bit.

I am a second-generation American; all four of my grandparents were immigrants who left behind native their lands to make a better life in America. My mother’s parents came here from different parts of Norway in the 1920’s, met and married while living in New York City before moving on to Minneapolis , where my grandfather’s cousin ran a hospital and offered my grandfather a job. Leaving behind whatever they had in Norway was bold enough; packing up and heading to the great prairie from New York City during the height of the Great Depression was something else entirely.

Risk takers, one-and-all.

My father’s parents were a Russian Jews who left just after the turn of the twentieth century and also landed in New York. While the information on my father’s side of genealogical ledger is spotty, history alone tells me that being a Jew in Russia in the decades leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution was not an easy lot. Getting out of said situation was no easy chore, either.

Though what they each left behind was deemed, for whatever reasons, to be inadequate, it still takes a lot of gumption to leave behind everything you know and love to move somewhere thousands of miles away to a strange land.

Risk and reward. Seems simple, but when the reward part is a whole lot of uncertainty…not so much?

So, given some historical context, my wife and I packing up two kids, a dog, and every other aspect of life and moving from small town life on the southwestern Minnesota prairie to New Orleans has a kind of ‘makes perfect sense’ feel to it.

Same holds true for our move to the small town (population about 13,000) of Marshall, Minnesota, six years prior to that. Add in the fact that our move from Minneapolis to Marshall was not only a culture shift, but also a major career move for my wife, and the risk taking aspect looms large to some. Just as both of us chucking the corporate life mid-career to move into the classroom as teachers, helping to rebuild one of the worst public education systems in America was something of a risk.

Sometimes I think that the nonchalant way in which we relate our tale is unnerving to a lot of people.

Old friends of mine are visiting from Minnesota, and at dinner the other night they were asking about our motivations in moving here, and as usual we dutifully recounted the story of wanting to do more with our lives, answering our perceived calling, the trials and tribulations of dealing with teaching kids in poverty, etcetera. This has become a commonplace conversation, as over the past four years we have had a steady stream of visitors from our ‘past lives’ who have found their way to New Orleans for a visit, or just stopped by on their way to somewhere else. (If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear for some people it’s a sort of cartoon mountain-top guru pilgrimage simply to ask us why we are here and how we could pack up and move to a strange place the way we did.)

Our answers frequently seem to leave people confused by its simplicity – like there has to be more to it. After some recent, close together visits from various folks, I am starting to understand that a little better, and I think I know the answer.

We come from a long line of risk takers.

Whenever we relate our story, we include the faith aspect; how we have followed what we felt G-d was calling us to do, and through prayer and reflection, we simply acted on that. Our various church families in Minneapolis, Marshall and now, New Orleans, all know the story, but even many of those that can easily see the faith aspect at work in our decision-making and execution can get hung up on the ‘how’ we could make these moves. What frequently unnerves people is the ‘well we just did it’ aspect of the entire escapade. Maybe it’s because we tell the story fairly frequently,

I come from a long line of risk-takers. So does my wife – her line being a generation longer than mine on one side, two generations longer on the other.

My wife’s great, and great-great-grandparents were Swedish immigrants. Whatever situations they, too, were leaving behind, the whole late 1800’s immigrant-to-America scenario is risk-taking personified.

For the record, though both sides of my wife’s family and my mother’s families all hail from Scandinavia, there is no record of any Laplander blood in any of the lines, so our people are not nomads by nature; a pretty sedentary lot, all in all. Based on the little info I have on my father’s side of the family, the same seems to hold true, though as Jews, the diaspora aspect would seem to put them in the ‘nomads by nature’ category.

If this seems like some sort of prelude to another move on our part, it isn’t. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I felt so…sedentary.

Still, there is more to this whole risk-taking thing than packing a steamer trunk and hitting the open sea. My whole existence is owed to some rather grand limb-stepping aside from that already mentioned. For example…

My dad marrying my mom. Dad was 17 years her senior. He was also divorced with a son and a step son – not conventional sell to a young bride’s family in the late 1950’s, but they made it work, and work pretty well. My mom’s father (Gramps) and my father were extremely close – so much so that many times someone meeting my family assumed that they were a father/son not father-in-law/son-in-law combo.

They made it work well for 28 years, until my father’s death from cancer. Unless people knew the backstory, most of those years were pretty typical work-and-raise-a-family years with little if any obvious risk-taking. Except…

When I was ten, my parents up and decided that we would move from Minneapolis to Denver. Just because. They had been to Denver on their honeymoon in 1958, and in the summer of ’69 we had driven out there on vacation, with Gramps in tow. We returned to Minneapolis, I went to the lake for a few weeks, and then they came there to pick me up and said, “We are moving to Colorado!”

“Umm… okay?”

They had no jobs waiting there, and in fact, were both willing to leave behind long-standing jobs, family and friends for nothing more than perceived opportunity in a new place with a (then) booming economy. It worked out well; my father ended up doing roughly the same thing he had been doing in Minneapolis, but for a lot more money. My mom found a better, more lucrative career than what she had in Minneapolis. Me? I spent the next eight years in Denver, graduating from South High School with a diploma, a solid knowledge on how to live life, and a wonderful cadre of friends – many of whom remain, to this day, an important part of my life.

Risk takers. Reward earners.

Following high school, I moved back to Minneapolis, spent a year living with Gramps and going to Brown Institute to become a radio announcer, which I accomplished, and then took a job at a little radio station in rural Missouri, heeding the advice my father gave me: “Take a job wherever it’s offered even if its someplace you never wanted to go. Experience something new.”

Small town radio was an interesting experience for this city kid – so much so that I repeated the adventure in Iowa, then moved on to stations in various points in Minnesota, before I got out of the radio biz and moved back to Minneapolis, where I moved into the hotel business, then into social service and adult training and development, which eventually led me to teaching in one of the worst school systems in America, which I love doing.

Risk/reward. Seems pretty simple.

My wife started her journey in a small town in northern Minnesota, moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul to attend college, became a social worker. Worked on an adolescent treatment unit, ran a teen center for high-risk youth, then moved into the corporate world and became a human resource executive. Along the way, she took the huge risk of marrying a divorced guy with a seven-year old daughter and a bunch of other baggage. (You want to talk ‘risk’? Ask her about ‘risk.) Corporate H.R. gave way to administering special education finances for a school district, and now she teaches special ed kids every day. She, too, loves her job.

So the whole pack-up-and-leave-your-homeland-go-west-go-further-west, go south-go-north-go back- further-south thing has, generationally, worked out pretty well.

Our ‘Family Kerouac’ routine is not without circumstantial provocation or family precedent; we are not quite that spontaneous. I believe there is a life cycle to almost every situation. One of my favorite bible passages is Ecclesiastes 3:1, ‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’

So, with a little bit of context, our rather convoluted life story makes perfect, logical sense.

Why are we now living in New Orleans? Why did we chuck the corporate world and become teachers? Just how much of a stretch is it, really, from leaving behind Russian pogroms to distancing ourselves from corporate downsizings and other shenanigans? From leaving a culture where you have next to nothing because you are not the first-born, or because you are a female, to come to America and leaving a culture you know and are comfortable with to live in a place like New Orleans, where people speak a different language, live a different lifestyle?

You see, we come from a long line of risk takers…

Characters who helped shape mine (#2 in a series) The Professor

It would be cliché to say that some of the greatest teachers I have had in my life never stood in front of a classroom; the best lessons rarely came framed by chalkboard proscenium. One of the most unique teachers I ever encountered, I had  the privilege of seeing in action holding class for his solitary student in a south Denver donut shop.

I matriculated, pushing maple bars.

Ray Rector was an anthropology professor at the Denver University; I was the seventeen year old nighttime clerk at the Donut House, a small, ma-and-pa shop in a dingy, half-block long strip mall at the busy intersection of Illiff Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.

No ivy-covered hall of academia, except maybe to me.

I began working at The Donut House in the summer of 1976, just before starting my senior year of high school. Ray was a regular at the shop, which was just a five-minute drive from the D.U. campus, and he could be found there many evenings grading papers or reading, and drinking copious amounts of coffee.

Morning was the busy time of day at the shop; evenings providing the chance to eat donuts and write, as my more sporadic nighttime clientele consisted mostly of some local beat cops (who always got free coffee) the guys from the Chicken Delight restaurant down the block, and friends of mine from school. We would also get the stray D.U. student or two who would hang out and study.

And there was Ray.

We met early in my Donut House tenure. My usual perch in the evening was on a bar stool situated in the doorway leading from the donut frying area to the back office. This elevated vantage point was centrally located, and high enough that I could easily see over the glass display cases, affording me an unobstructed view of the front of the shop and door.

Sitting on the stool also allowed me to brace my right foot on the door jamb, so I could use my propped-up thigh as an easel for my notebook: ‘The Thinker’ in apron and paper sanitary hat.

This is how Ray saw me one night as he came in for coffee and a cruller. I had chatted with him a few times before, but this particular night I was apparently a little too much in what I was writing, and was a little slower than usual to react to the jingling bell of the door opening.

He greeted me with a chuckle, commenting on how engrossed I was in what he assumed was homework, when in actuality I was actually me writing a poem. Our casual small talk that led to this discovery piqued his curiosity, and he asked if he could read some of my work sometime.

‘Sometime’ became a regular thing.

I worked three or four nights a week at the Donut House, and rare was the week Ray didn’t pop in at least one or two of those nights. He became an ongoing reader and editor of my stuff, offering up elaborate, eloquent critiques from a little round table in a neighborhood donut shop.

That is, when he wasn’t grading his real/classroom student’s papers from the same table by the wall, or when he wasn’t regaling me with anthropological insights on all things word and language related. Ray loved words, as did I. The volume of my writing amazed him, and the quality impressed him. Every night I went to work I brought at least one or two of my notebooks along, hoping for enough time between raised glazed sales to get some good stuff down on paper, and in hope that Ray would stop in – not just to share my latest work with him, but simply to engage in fascinating conversation.

Ray was middle-aged and divorced. He had grown up in rural Oklahoma, traveled a lot, seen and done a lot, and was more than happy to share his stories and expertise. And I was a willing listener, soaking it all in. As an anthropology professor, he had a curiosity and interest in all things human-oriented. This included my regaling him with tales of my yearly summer Greyhound bus jaunts from Denver to my ancestral homeland of Minnesota, and all my summers at the lake. Tales of the northwoods and young love got special attention.

As interested as Ray was in my writing, the process of my writing fascinated him; tales of writing while watching Nebraska roll endlessly by through SceniCruiser windows, my purchase and reading of small town newspapers from various, obscure stops. Overnight layover stays in depots in Omaha and Des Moines, all perfect locales and people-watching, behavioral fodder for my writings.

My perspectives of small-town middle America as a city kid fascinated him, and his interest only intensified after I graduated and moved on to a career in small-market radio, and we continued our friendship via the U.S.P.S.

But that year wasn’t just about my writing; Ray was expanding my horizons.

As often as he was in residence at one of our tables with a stack of papers to grade or a book, he would frequently find himself engaging other patrons (D.U. students, my favorite beat cops, fellow professors etc.) in various lengthy and in-depth conversation on politics, religion, philosophy, sports and more over coffee and raised glazed. I was always invited to participate, which I did when customer traffic (or lack thereof) allowed.

A Formica topped Algonquin Round Table, littered with cake crumbs and sprinkles.

Learning of my Minnesota background, Ray familiarized me with the work of proletarian and feminist writer (and fellow Minnesotan) Meridel Le Sueur, gave me off-beat books on vocabulary building. We discussed my literary hero Sinclair Lewis, and Ray also introduced me to the quirky history of E. Haldeman Julius’ ‘Little Blue Books.’

(Beginning in the early 1900’s Haldeman-Julius began printing 3.5″ x 5″ pocket books on cheap pulp paper. The Little Blue Books were consciously directed at “Mr. Average Man.” Through them, for a nickel, he could buy works by Thoreau, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, Sophocles and many more classics, along with contemporary scientific journals and Socialist-leaning political tracts. Haldeman-Julius called his books ‘A University in Print.’)

Ray gifted me with two-dozen of these classic little books as a graduation gift, and I still treasure them.

I have almost always been surrounded by people who encouraged and supported my efforts at writing, but Ray took it to a whole other level; he was my first serious editor – and a damn good, brutally honest one at that. Ray Rector didn’t teach me how to write, but he made me a better writer. And, I’d like to think, a better person.

That’s what the best teachers do, isn’t it?

My senior year of high school had a lot of high points, and one of those was a part-time job working nights at small donut shop. Off all the classrooms I’ve spent time in, The Donut House was one of the sweetest.

Ray and I communicated via mail and phone for a number of years before losing track of each other in the late 80’s. I’ve tried to track him down a number of times since using everything from the D.U. alumni association to a website for anthropological studies and the SSI Death Index, all to no avail. I’m betting he would see the Internet as the ultimate anthropological petri dish.

I’d love to reconnect and get his take on contemporary society – over donuts and coffee, of course.

I’d also like to show him my blogs; this one, and of course, my poetry blog, Ponderable polemics, poetic https://markluckerpoet.wordpress.com/

And I’d like to tell him, after thirty-five years, I’m still taking his nightly parting words to heart: “Be well. And keep writing.”

Thanks for everything, Ray.  As we said in our donut days, “It’s in the bag.”