In mid-season form

I stayed late at school today, and had a chance for a little fun, on the eve of our school’s first football game of the year, tomorrow night.

I had dropped something off in the office, and was walking down a nearly deserted hallway – maybe seven, eight, kids milling around, here and there – a few football players, a cheerleader, others that I did not recognize.  As I approached, a kid I do not know as a student, but just from being around, walks to the middle of the hallway, facing me, and gets into a defensive-back stance: hunched over, hands out, flexing, as if to ‘chuck’ a receiver coming off the line. “Come on, Mr. Lucker. Show me.”

I reciprocate, mirroring the kid’s pose – except I have my clipboard in my left hand.

“No, Mr. Lucker! I’M the defensive back, YOU are the receiver – you got to line-up like a receiver. See? Offset from me, like this.” The kid shifts his feet and body to his right, gestures with his left hand. “See? Now my outside shoulder is lined up with your inside shoulder!”

I drop into my best Randy Moss impression; leaning slightly forward at the waist, up on RMOSSthe ball of my right foot which is pushed back a bit, left foot ready to push off. I am glancing slightly to the left, making eye-contact with my imaginary quarterback. My arms dangle at my sides, my fingers are twitching waiting for the make-believe snap of the ball.

“Ohhh” I say, casually, “you mean like this.”

“That’s it, Mr. Lucker! You know how it is! You done this before! Now — ”

He never finishes.

I bolt down the hallway: my arms pumping, my feet flying; I am yelling. “I beat him off the ball! I beat him off the ball!” Fifty, sixty,  feet down the hall, I stop and look over my shoulder. The kid is still mostly hunched over at the waist, looking back over his shoulder at me, incredulous.

“Man, Mr. Lucker…!”

His voice trails off, he is smiling, shaking his head. The other kids are laughing, as I thrust both arms skyward, still holding my clipboard. “I beat him off the ball!  I beat him off the ball!”  Arms still raised in triumph, I turn the corner to head down the next hallway, the kids behind me all still laughing.

A little bit of guile, I can always make ‘em smile.

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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?

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 (#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.”

Bookmarked

Being a New Orleans sub for nearly a full school year now affords me some unique opportunities to interact with some of the same schools staff and kids on a regular basis – especially now that I have been to some of these schools ten or more times each.

As the year has progressed and my networking has taken hold, I’m getting requests for my services on a regular basis – mostly from individual teachers, though at times from school administrations. From the school’s perspective, I’m a good call to make because I know the ins-and-outs of how a school works, its culture and expectations, that sort of thing. From the teacher’s perspective, they know that I have a viewpoint apparently not shared by a large number of local subs: that I won’t put up with a lot of crap, and that I won’t hesitate to deal with issues. Oh, and that things should go on as usual, and work should get done.

Imagine that.

In fact, the gig I am spending most of this week on came by request from a teacher I had met on previous visits to a favorite high school, and who asked for my business card after hearing students coming to her class from the one I had and complaining about me – that I made them work! She had to be out most all of this week, and called to see if I was O.K. with that before assigning me the gig in the Kelly Ed Staffing computer system. We also spoke for about ten minutes yesterday, where she reiterated her appreciation for me actually trying to teach in her absence, and she told of a story of a sub they had to tell Kelly not to send anymore: after returning to her classroom the day after this other teacher subbed, she found things in disarray, and lesson plans untouched. When she asked a student what they had done while she was gone, the kid shrugged and said, “I was talking on my phone…I don’t know what the rest of the class did”.

I’ve heard similar stories and gotten similar calls from other teachers at other schools, so I have come to learn one thing very well: simply showing up and doing my job tends to elevate my standing in a school relatively quickly. As Woody Allen has been quoted as saying, “Eighty-percent of life is simply showing up”.

Who knew?

It also helps that I am an adaptable quick study, even tempered, don’t take slights personally and (most importantly) have a macabre, off-beat enough sense of humor to appreciate – or at least tolerate and process – the most absurdist of situations and children populating New Orleans high schools.

Like the kid who last fall offered to steal me a car each time I came to sub at his school.

After encountering me arriving at school in my old (fully paid for, running well) Ford, he approached me later in the day at the end of class.
“Mr. Lucker – you need a new ride”.
“Really”?
“You tell me what kind of car you need, and what you want to pay, and I can get it for you”.
“Ummm….define ‘get’”.
“I can find you whatever car you want, Mr. Lucker…and you tell me what you want to pay for it”.
“Define ‘FIND’”.
Kid, exasperated, “You know, I can GET it for you”.
“No thanks, man, I’m good”.

I’ve been back to that school recently, but that rather oddly likable young man isn’t there anymore. I haven’t asked, but I’m certainly hoping he hasn’t progressed from car procurement to license plate manufacturing.

Then there is the rather surly young woman I had in class this week who would argue with me on the most banal of points. When I mentioned her name in a conversation with another teacher, I was told “I think she’s cranky because she just got out of jail”. News I could certainly use.

One of the more bizarre aspects of subbing at a school repeatedly is the IBMish nature of kids memory. One of the charters I visit frequently has a group of sophomore girls who seem to find me something of a curiosity, and always engage me in some sort of fairly in-depth conversation. On my last visit, two of them walked into my classroom and said “Hey, Mr. Lucker, you know we was talking to you about that baby stuff the last time you were here…” like we were picking up where we left off the previous afternoon.

Only I hadn’t been there for three weeks.

This pattern has repeated itself on numerous occasions – picking up right where we left off after a week, two weeks – a month – like a computer bookmark. I don’t have that level of pick-it-up-right-where-we-left-off with people I have known for years. I guess I must be making some sort of positive impression…but it is weird to be left scrambling for the details of some previous conversation when I can sometimes encounter 300 or more different students in a week, if I work at a different school each day. Fortunately, many of these conversations (and conversationalists) are vivid enough they stick with me.

Like the ‘baby stuff’ girls I mentioned.

A group of three young women were talking in class one day about a pregnant classmate, and how they would not find themselves in such a position. I was drawn into the discussion only after my facial reaction to one of their comments caught one of the girls eye. As I was strolling around the room observing group work, she had made the comment that “It’s all them boys fault when you get pregnant – so you just can’t let them finish.” Seeing my perplexed look, she said “Aint that right Mr. Lucker? The boy is supposed to stop it before he gets to the end and makes the baby, ‘cause them not stopping when they can is what makes the baby so it’s on them when a girl gets pregnant”.

“Please tell me you didn’t learn that in science class here”. To my relief all three girls shook their heads.

“No, that’s what my mama says” said one, to which the others nodded in agreement.

“It’s the boys fault if you get pregnant cause they get a warning and know when they should stop…everybody knows that”.

“And you can’t get pregnant from a boy who never done it before” said girl number two.

“It’s always the boy’s fault, Mr. Lucker. He can stop it. And condoms don’t work”. Added the third. They all looked at me for affirmation.

“Why don’t you just not have sex then you won’t have to worry about it” I replied. Three quizzical faces stared back at me silently. Fortunately, it was the last class of the day, and the bell was about to ring. Saved by the proverbial chimes, I was.

At least I gave them another option to think about.

Of course, the bizarre perspectives aren’t confined to the students. I had a gig a month or so back at a real hard core inner city high school, and the classroom I was subbing in was used by another teacher during planning period. I had nothing else to do, so with the other teacher’s blessing , I sat in on his GEE (Graduation Exit Exam) review class. This was a class for juniors and seniors who had already bombed the test once – a test they need to pass in order to graduate.

The guy teaching was thirtyish, African-American guy, very engaging. The sample test questions that day covered 1960’s American history. He first stumbled over the Kennedy years, talking about JFK getting assassinated…then losing the election…all in 1965. (?) We made eye contact, and he must’ve sensed my bewilderment (imagine the students confusion as this continues) and asked me what year it was Kennedy was shot. “1963” I replied. To which he said (asked) “So then Johnson came in, right”? “Yep”.

He fumbled around the rest of the decade, confusing LBJ with Nixon a couple of times, and wondering about how long the war in Vietnam was, mentioning that he had “no clue why were in that war”, but the topper was when he scrolled down the test page on his Smart board to an essay question about the moon landing. He read through the question, pointed out the photos of Neil Armstrong coming down the ladder, and Armstrong’s footprint in lunar dust, and then added this priceless caveat:

“But for my money, none of this ever happened”. A disinterested group of nine students didn’t react – but I did, sitting bolt upright from a more relaxed pose. “There is no way this could have ever happened. It couldn’t. If Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, who took the pictures of him on the moon? And anybody can make a footprint with a boot in some sand. This whole thing was shot in a desert in New Mexico or something. But if they ever ask you this on a test, this…” he said, pointing to the projected paragraph and pictures, “…is the information you want to give them”.

And THAT should clear up any confusion those kids might have had about American history.

I encounter slight variations on all of these incidents on a weekly basis; mid-stream conversations jumpstarted after weeks of dormancy, bizarre teacher antics, implied felonies. It’s like my life has a set of Internet bookmarks in place, and that I can walk into a school now, and know immediately which life-site I’ll be jumping to that day. I think that might end up being my new nickname; ‘Bookmark’.

That, and as people keep telling me about our New Orleans experiences ‘You should write a book, Mark’.