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.

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?

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?

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

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

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

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

We talked.

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

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

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

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

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

Life is funny like that.

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

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

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

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

Life is funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are many firsts on their horizons.

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

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

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

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

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

Color me contemplative.

Connecting Disparate Dots

As an only child, when I was sick or we were on a trip, my family always loaded me up with the latest and greatestdottodot CTDcaptainkangaroo in interactive toys of the time: puzzle books.

Yeah, that was my time – 1960’s B.T. (Before technology.)

The books I favored the most featured a lot of word searches and brain teasers and word puzzles. But even though they were the easiest pages in the book, I always had a thing for connect-the-dot pictures. Most of the time you could figure out what the picture was before you placed pencil on paper going from black-spot to black-spot to black-spot on easily torn newsprint, but oftentimes I was surprised at what the resulting picture turned out to be. Especially while cruising some highway in the backseat of my parent’s Oldsmobile station wagon with my grandpa sitting next to me, this was not always the cut-and-dried, simple activity it may have appeared on the gas station magazine rack.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about connecting the dots of my life. It is not a linear, algebraic equation.

At present, I am a fully certified high school English teacher in what has been historically, one of the poorest performing states (by most educational measures) in the country, Louisiana. My wife and I came here five years ago as part of an influx of educational reform and general societal and infrastructure rebuilding, after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the area. I have seen some notable improvements in my five years here, I have also encountered a huge number of folks who are here for many of the same reasons.

microphoneThough to date I am the only one who began their professional life as a radio announcer.

Starting with a year of technical college at Brown Institute of Broadcasting in Minneapolis following my high school graduation from Denver (Colorado) South High School there are lots of dots I can connect that round out a picture logically leading to the front of a New Orleans classroom. To be sure, the picture turns out more Salvador Dali than Norman Rockwell. To the naked eye, sans connecting lines, the picture dots would not come into focus at all.

I may need to sharpen an extra pencil.

There are two big things going on here. With one son entering his senior year of high school, and looking ahead to college, getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and beyond has become a conversational focal point around here; it has also sparked some discussion as to how we even got to this stage in life as a family. And as a relative newcomer to the teaching field and to New CTDowlOrleans, I get asked to explain my story a lot, especially when speaking with other educators.

Eyebrows frequently become cocked and locked.

So, for family and friends, colleagues and the curious, children, grandchildren and whomever else, I’ll give this a Readers Digest shot, working backwards from now to whenever. Starting at the end was much the same approach I used so many years ago with those puzzle books in the backseat of the family Oldsmobile, so why not?

Teaching high school English, in New Orleans isn’t all that much of a stretch in some regards. I first came here in 2006 as a corporate trainer, helping the company I worked for in Minnesota get their Louisiana operations back on track following Katrina’s onslaught in August of 2005. I enjoyed training folks and helping them succeed, traveling all over Louisiana. My wife and I had long discussed getting out of the corporate rat race and doing something more meaningful with our lives, so when sitting in an IHOP Restaurant in Alexandria, Louisiana one night, reading a newspaper article about the TeachNOLA program recruiting folks to come to New Orleans to help rebuild the city’s long-distressed school system, it was a sign that my wife and I both took seriously.

So much so that we both applied, and were accepted for the 2008 TeachNOLA cohort.

I was dramatically changing locales and going from training adults to teaching inner-city teenagers. Seems logical. But how had I become a corporate trainer? That had never been a goal of mine. I had only been at it since 2005, after I was laid off from my position as a job search trainer and employment counselor for the state of Minnesota. I had begun that endeavor in 2001, when the state WorkForce center I was working at in Minneapolis hired me away from my county position as a financial-aid (AFDC, food stamps, medical assistance) case worker and job coach. I wasn’t actually doing any actual training in my county gig, but working with and coaching job seekers and others needing assistance. (Dot, dot, dot.)

thanksamillionI had come to the county job just a few years before that, just after having spent a year working for a millionaire philanthropist/newspaper columnist named Percy Ross as a sales manager for a syndicated radio broadcast he had in which he gave away money to folks in need. A logical stretch from that job to case management, when you think about it; helping people. (More dots linked!)

Mr. Ross had hired me after the children’s radio network I had been working for as an assistant business manager went out of business. I had been hired at the network after being out of the radio biz for a few years by my good friend Mike, who had originally hired me to work for him at a small radio station in rural, southwestern Minnesota a decade before. (Two more dots, light touch on the pencil.)

The network was a good stop for me as I was at the end of a ten-year run in the hotel and hospitality business, which I had grown weary of only due to the twenty-four/seven nature of the beast…which was why I had originally phased out of the radio biz. But that’s another story.

My last hotel gig was at a four-star hotel in St. Paul where I was hired as a security guard and assisted the night manager. One night, a situation required me to remove an intoxicated gentleman from our crowded lobby. As a rather exclusive property, our management wanted such things handled unobtrusively. Jeff, our restaurant manager, was so impressed with my subtlety and tact in getting the guy out without notice, he wrote it in his nightly report. That prompted the hotel general CTD5manager instruct my boss the night manager to have me train new security personnel in how to handle delicate situations without confrontation. (Direct-line dot to the corporate trainer gig.)

Among the other abilities I possessed, the skill of low-key, tactful, drunk-removal-with-dignity I had learned from Dennis, our night manager at the Holiday Inn I worked at just off the University of Minnesota campus. I had started working there as a bellman and van driver, but as I always had a knack for explaining things easily to others, my boss soon put me in charge of training new comers to the department (Dot!). Then Dennis hired me to fill in on his security team, and as a night manager. (These big dots are directly connected to eventually training new security folks in St. Paul, but what I learned from Dennis also helped me greatly in working with the county and then the state.)

I had begun my hotel career after ending (so I thought) my professional radio work, moving back to Minneapolis and deciding to go to college for the first time at the age of thirty. My three years at the University of Minnesota didn’t result in a degree, but by the end of my freshman year, I had been hired as a teaching assistant, thanks to one of my professors, Dr. Yahnke. Via that gig, I also did some work as a tutor in the computer lab of the U of M’s General College. You can draw a direct line (with heavy lead) from those dots directly to today.

My first stint as a college student came on the heels of a dozen years of bouncing around small-market radio in Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota – not often a financially lucrative career. That was why I became quite adept at supplementing my income corelationdotswith side jobs. Through the years, I moved pianos and did construction. I had stints as a convenience store clerk, racetrack security guard and census taker, to name a few.

Before getting into the hotel biz, I was a data courier – daily picking up and dropping off huge reels of computer tape for transcription and storage – for a company that, when I applied, asked if I had ever had a security clearance. As I had been working in radio in Iowa during the presidential primary season of 1980, I had gotten Secret Service clearance, which turned out to be an important dot to the data folks, as they had contracts with big name defense contractors and other security-minded firms. I not only got the job, but the higher paying, preferred security routes. Dot, dot, dot…

This came in handy later during my hotel days in St. Paul, where we hosted a number of V.I.P’s some of whom required staff to get security clearance, which I got very quickly as I was already on file, which got me preferred shifts and duty assignments at the hotel. Someday, I’ll need to get a copy of my file under the Freedom of Information Act.

All of those dots represent a number of different things; professional and personal experience, new skills, different CTDCTDperspectives, increased understanding of and empathy with folks covering a wide spectrum of socioeconomic America. Which is why I feel pretty comfortable and confident in standing in front of a high school classroom of inner city New Orleans kids as their English teacher, trying to get them prepared on some level to take on the world, trying to relate to them all how what you do today has an impact on everything you do tomorrow in some way.

Dot…dot…dot…

Homeroom Homeruns

We recently had an extended homeroom (two hours with fifteen juniors I usually only see twenty minutes a day) while we coded in bubbles on ACT test forms for testing later this month. (Not as easy as you might think: between college locales to send scores to and a actformscareer interest survey plus all the general I.D. and contact info, there is a lot of #2 pencil action to work through in those ten pages).

One of the young women in the class brought in a bottle of Gatorade – not an uncommon occurrence. She was the first student there, and we were chatting as I walked to the hallway to monitor hall activity when I heard her make a choking sound, followed quickly by an emphatic, “Ewww! Grrrrrrosssss”!

“You okay”? I inquired, moderately concerned and  turning around.

“Aggh! It’s this Gatorade! Mr. Lucker, don’t ever buy cucumber Gatorade”!

“Cucumber. Cucumber. Gatorade”? I thought she was joking or had misread the label

“Yeah! I thought it is a cool color, I thought it would taste good – it DOESN’T”! She held up in disgust for me to see.

limecucumbergatoradeTurns out the product is actually Gatorade’s new ‘lime-cucumber’ flavor. Not one I would have plucked off the shelf, but okay.

As a few other students filtered in, they saw the girl sitting at her desk, still muttering ‘yuck’ and wiping her lips vigorously with a napkin.

“What’s with you”? Asked one.

“This Gatorade is nasty. Its cucumber”!

“Let me try it”!

This is not an uncommon thing at school; students frequently share beverages, but being aware of the germ potential, their lips never touch the bottle – they simply raise the bottle high and pour. Their accuracy in hitting open mouths and nothing else is remarkable. If only their concentration skills pouredextended to academics.

The first boy to take a gulp shrugged and said, “It tastes stupid”. He offered it to another young man, who looked at the flavor and declined, asking (logically, I thought) “Who wants to drink cucumbers”? The girls filtering in and offered a taste all declined, most scrunching up their noses and/or shaking their heads. Finally the bottle was passed to one of our football players who asked for it with a brusque, “Let me try that”!

Matt* poured a big swig down from a range of about six inches above his mouth, then went about smacking his lips repeatedly – bugsandcarrotreminiscent of Bugs Bunny rapidly chewing a carrot before asking “What’s up, Doc”? He swallowed, then thought for minute.

“Tastes like salad” was his matter-of-fact reply, adding hopefully, “Can I finish it”?

Salad? Ewww! That’s disgusting”! Exclaimed a just arriving young woman to multiple murmurs of agreement.

I just shook my head and turned my focus to the crowded hallway.

The morning continued uneventfully bubbling in wide-ranging info on our ACT forms until we reached the section that asked for college locales to have test scores sent to. This required going to the separate instruction booklet they had been given and navigating a lengthy, small-font list of college and university codes. It was a bit confusing. I assisted those that needed it and returned to the front of the room for the next stage of our step-by-step, by-the-book process.

“Okay, now take a look at box ‘R’ on your forms”. I started to run through the instructions when one of the kids stated “Mr. Lucker, how you know all these forms and stuff”?

“It helps that I have a junior in my own home, so I’m getting proficient in all this ACT and college stuff. Now, in box ‘R’….”

testform“You have kids”?

“Three of them. Now the first thing in box ‘R’…” I was holding my copy of the form up to show them

“You got three kids”? Said one with surprise.

“Yes. Now, in box ‘R’…”

“You got a wife”?

“I do. Now…”

“I knew that he had a wife ‘cause I had his class last year. But I didn’t know you had three kids, Mr. Lucker”! Responded one girl, who indeed, was a student of mine last year.

Deep breath. “Okay. I have a wife, three kids, two boys and a girl, one grandson, two dogs – one big, one small…the goldfish died. I’m five-five, wear a size nine shoe and my blood type is O-positive. Can we finish this thing”? I was still holding the form in the air. There was a moment of silence as the class, staring at me, digested my statistics.

“Your fish died”? asked one girl with noticeable sadness in her voice.

testingpicI sighed. “Years ago. Can we finish this thing”? I waved the ACT form as a flag of surrender. Or ‘charge!’ – I’m not sure.

Their heads bobbed back down toward their desks and we finished box ‘R’ (and the rest of the form) without difficulty or detour.

Just another start to the day in room 261.

January in toto; so far, so…good grief.

beadtreeJanuary is a good time to be a teacher in New Orleans; you have the first half of the year behind you, you are (hopefully) refreshed from your two-week hiatus, and you have a Monday holiday the second week back. Add in a week-long Mardi Gras break for early February (this year, anyway) and spring semester tends to zip right along.

It has been a busy start to the year – I can tell, because the pile of scraps of paper with various notes and jottings on them that come out of my pockets at the end of the day and get put on my nightstand are at March height already.

That, and I realized haven’t posted anything on my blog since January sixth. Twenty-days is my longest post-less stretch in the three 100_3860years of writing this blog. Guess I need to start wading through the scrap pile.

So, meanwhile, back at the (classroom) ranch…

The return to the classroom following Christmas break gave me three fresh sophomore English classes to wrangle. This is notable on a few fronts: it’s the first semester of my career that I have had just one class prep (subject to teach) and it is also the first semester of my teaching career where everything I am teaching I have taught before. Those two occurrences greatly streamline my lesson planning, as I am mostly modifying what I did last semester, tweaking a few things, adding some others, changing dates on them before turning them in. For me, this is almost teacher heaven: one prep, same material, mostly put together.

I’ll enjoy this for a while. Good thing I’m not a fatalist.

As always, each class has its own personality, and one of my new ones has a unique persona: they are very quiet. They don’t chat with each other much, and they don’t engage in classroom discussions at all. They refuse to read anything aloud in group settings. The discipline issues are few and minor, and for the most part, they do their work.

They are actually sort of boring, and that makes them one of my tougher classes of late: it is really hard when you can’t find something to engage the group with. Even objecting to what we are doing would be welcome, but they didn’t even do much of that. They would just plod through whatever I threw at them, until I blindly stumbled across their trigger point.

They love sarcasm.

Part of my class structure involves is posting and having my students copy down a daily agenda, so they always have at their disposal a bookrunning record of what we are doing/supposed to be doing. To that end, as they are high school students, I usually don’t answer the question “What page are we on”? because, as I have told them repeatedly, between the agenda and just having a general sense of what we are doing at their age, they should be able to look at their agenda and/or the index of a textbook to discern what page we are on.

About a week ago, I was transitioning from one activity to another, which required them to use a text we don’t normally use. A number of kids quickly, lazily (in my view, which they disagree with) mumbled “What page we on”? My response was a less-than- laconic, “Look at your agenda, look it up in the book”. I paused briefly, sighed. “I know, I know, mean old Mr. Lucker is making his high school students work at something! Look something up! Figure out where we are! Having you do it for yourselves makes you guys think that I’m the lazy one, but oh well”!

A brief moment of complete silence was followed by a lone student sitting right in front of where I was standing. he looked up at me with wondrous eyes and said, “Man, that was sarcasm. Good sarcasm. That was very cool”!

surprised-ladyI stared at the kid. “Sorry, was it a bit much for you”?

“No, man! That was heavy sarcasm. It was great”!

Murmurs of approval rippled through the class along with the sound of books being opened and pages being turned. The jump in the energy level was palpable.

Who knew?

Since that day, the group has been more engaged (they still won’t read aloud) but their interactions with me and each other are more frequent, and they almost egg me on to say something sarcastic, which I generally try to avoid, so I have opted for comments more irreverent and esoteric on matters obscure and routine. They lap it up.

What was my most boring class period of the day is now one of my more enjoyably challenging, as I let the story or activity we are working with go in more…obtuse directions. My other classes remain blissfully surly and teenagerishly indifferent, but more engaged verbally.

Whatever works, I guess.

My classroom is a technological and amenity amalgam: the glaring, overhead fluorescent lights only slightly younger than the forty-cartsomething building, one switch controlling all lights. There is a chipped in spots, green chalkboard stretching along almost the entire the back wall, and a single, square window that provides a modicum of natural light.

At the front of the room, I have a Promethean board: a dandy, state-of-the-art, interactive white board I run through my laptop. Flanking my Promethean are two pseudo-whiteboards of the dry-erase variety; ‘pseudo’ because what they are in actuality are horizontally mounted, 4-by-8 sheets of white, laminated, hardboard panel board that go for about fifteen-bucks a sheet at Home Depot. They are a great, temporary and cheap fix over an actual porcelain finish, dry-erase board that has been damaged. ‘Temporary’ meaning that since this is not the product’s intended purpose, the lamination begins to wear off and then they become hard to erase completely.

They are a very commonplace make-do in the thirty-plus schools I have been in since coming to New Orleans four years ago.

Whenever I am using my Promethean board, I need to kill the lights as the fluorescent glare makes it impossible to view anywhere past the first table. My classes always begin with a writing prompt on-screen for our daily ‘Do Now’ journal writing, followed by posting my agenda for copying, so it is common to spend the first fifteen minutes of class time on the dark. I usually try to warn students when I make the transition; “Lights coming on” occasionally featuring the add-on, “…trying not to kill any vampires”.

twilightcharactersBelalugosiThis phrase came about a year or two back, at the height of the Twlight series craze, when all-things-vampire were de rigueur with the teenage crowd. The phrase used to get the immediate attention of the girls in the room; these days, not so much, though I still use it from time to time.

The other day, transitioning from Do Now and agenda time, I walked to the light switch, announcing “Lights coming up”! To which a young man sitting in the table by the door added seamlessly, “…hope we don’t kill no vampires”! before adding a resolute aside to his astonished table-mates, “Mr. Lucker wants to keep vampires in his class safe”!

One of the girls at his table groaned audibly, turning to me and mock-whining “Mr. Lucker! Marcos* is stealing your lines…and using them”! I stopped and looked at her, trying to keep a straight face.

“Well, if he is going to steal material…he might as well steal from the best, don’t you agree”? Said I.

“Right on”! Exclaimed Marcos*

100_2687 - Copy“Oy”. Concluded the young woman dryly, shaking her head.

Did I mention it is almost Mardi Gras break?

Nine down…

“Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like bananas.”
– Groucho Marx

Want to have some fun? Hang that quote in a high school English classroom and have students try to diagram it. I do.

Keeps me amused, anyway.

The past few weeks have been hectic, as we wind down the first nine weeks of the school year – a fall semester interrupted by an unexpected two-week break for the anticipation, arrival and aftermath of hurricane Isaac. We have had a lot of ground to cover, and even with an addition of a half-an-hour to the school day to make up the time, catching up hasn’t been accomplished.

But we keep plugging away. The quarter ended Friday, grades are due Wednesday and most of mine are already in, so for a change I am ahead of where I need to be. Now it’s revamping my approach for the second half of the semester, chucking what didn’t work, tweaking some other things, seeing what new wrinkles might fit. My biggest issue at this point is grading work that never gets turned in.

My gradebook looks like primer in binary code.

In one class, 19 of my 32 students are at an ‘F’ simply because of so many missing assignments. And it’s not just homework  I never see; most major classwork I have them turn in at the end of the period for review and safe keeping (book bags here are black holes – I swear there are seniors walking around campus somewhere with half a solar system hanging on their backs). At the end of class, I quickly count up what I have turned in, and the number of papers or handouts in my hand rarely matches the number of butts in classroom seats for that class. On more than one occasion I have been delightfully surprised that number of papers equaled or exceeded the number of students, only to realize later that someone has also, along with the day’s assignment, dropped one of the following into the white plastic turn-in bin:

• Older work totally unrelated to the day at hand (on the plus side, sometimes it’s from the same week we are currently in!)

Doodled-on scratch paper

• Their name and the day’s date (both things I am usually already aware of, thank you)

• An extra, blank handout of some sort (sometimes, even from my class)

• Homework or classwork from another class (Hey, Ms. B – if you wonder why some of your algebra students are failing, it’s because they leave their work in MY turn-in bin!)

Yes, numerous parents have been called. No, the behavior hasn’t changed much.

On the subject of parent calls, in my fifth year of teaching here in New Orleans, I can say this semester is the best I have had in terms of parents accepting/returning my calls, and of actually initiating contact with me. My phone call success rate is around fifty-percent; a far cry from the twenty-percent high-water mark I achieved in my last stop before my current school.

That being said, I do foresee a decline in those numbers, as my parental involvement/engagement is dwindling: more blocked calls and fewer returned messages tell the tale. My early semester ‘honeymoon period’ is over; I refer to this stage of the year as my ‘divorce period’. Usually I don’t start hitting that until closer to Thanksgiving.

On the plus side, I think we have stabilized things post-Isaac. There are still some kids (and families) who are suffering from the aftermath of that, and I also think that post-Isaac stress may account for some of my seeming parental indifference. If you are still dealing with flood repairs, insurance companies and FEMA, I might not be high on your ‘Hey, love to chat with you sometime’ list.

We just keep plugging away.

Another note on the plus side of the ledger: I was able to rid my problematic fifth period freshman composition class of some of the ne’er–do–well high school newcomers I inherited two days before Isaac scattered us. Three of the kids who are on probation and did nothing but disrupt class when they were actually in class were dispersed to three separate classes/teachers. While they are now someone else’s headaches, at least those teachers won’t be treated to the joys of two of the young men spending the day in class loudly discussing (so all their classmates could easily partake in the conversation and be awed) which one had the ‘cooler’ probation officer.

If they could have put half the effort into crafting and writing a rationale for anything we were doing in class to the discernment over the pros and cons of their respective P.O.’s, they could have been class stars.

We’re getting there with the freshman group, though I still have the boy who beeps instead of talks when he doesn’t like you, and the very sexualized young woman who calls everyone ‘Bayyyybee’ and during her last stay in ISS (in-school suspension) wrote me a signed note stating, “Mr. Lucker – I will not do any of your work while I am in in school. Sincerely,….’ and had the ISS teacher staple it to the work I had left for her to complete.

Hey, she made my life a bit easier: that’s one piece of a disciplinary/behavioral paper trail I won’t have to concoct from scratch.

We have a school psychologist who visits the school regularly, and the other day he asked if he could discuss a couple of students with me by doing an in-depth teacher-perspective behavioral analysis. As he was thumbing through his file to get the paper work, he said “I’ll do these two today, but I’ll also need to talk to you later about (girl noted above)”. He then paused, looked at me over his file folder. “And I also need to ask you about xxxxxxxxx. And also xxxxxxxx. And….” Pausing again, he thumbed through a few more papers, looked up again, then adding dryly, “Mr. Lucker, you have quite the collection here”.

Why, yes. Yes I do.

It’s not all pure insanity. Sometimes these crazy kids just say the darndest things. The other morning, just before homeroom, a gaggle of juniors was hanging out at the row of lockers across from my room. A young male was speaking, and a young woman said something she assumed he did not hear, causing her to repeat it, resulting in bewilderment by their friends courtesy of this exchange:

BOY: “I can hear you – I’m not death”.

GIRL: “What?”

BOY: “I said, I. Can. Hear. You!  I’m. NOT. DEATH”!

GIRL: “You mean ‘deaf’.

BOY: (very honestly puzzled) “Huh”?

It’s a different high school era, but the mantra still holds:

Just keep on truckin’…

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.