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 usually a couple of grade-levels above my chronology. I enjoyed them all, 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 really turned out to be, in detail. 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.

A new school year is beginning, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about connecting the dots of my life; how I ended up an English teacher in an inner-city, high school classroom. It is not a linear, algebraic equation.

I am a teacher in what has been, historically, one of the poorest performing cities (new Orleans) in one of the lowest-performing states (by most educational measures) in the country, Louisiana. My wife and I came here nine years ago as part of an influx of educational reform and general societal and infrastructure rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the area – though the problems in education here predated the storm by decades. I have seen some notable improvements in our years here; I have also encountered a huge number of folks who came here for many of the same reasons.

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

Start with that dot.

I joined a one-year program at Brown Institute of Broadcasting in Minneapolis, immediately following my high school graduation from Denver (Colorado) South High School.  There are lots of dots I can connect 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.

I am about to begin my tenth year as a teacher- time to take stock. Also, with one son having finished his senior year of high school, and my elder son entering his senior year of 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.

Eyebrows frequently become cocked and locked.

Objectively, I get that.  Analytically, maybe I can provide some inspiration to others also choosing a less-than-traditional path. In my days as an employment counselor, I was adept at helping people identify their ‘transferable skills’ – things they knew how to do, and could perform in other environments,

This a Readers Digest shot, working backward from now to then. 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?

I first came to Louisiana 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 the state – a unique experience.  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.

We both applied, and were accepted for the 2008 TeachNOLA cohort.

I was dramatically changing everything:  locales, to be sure, and going from training adults to teaching inner-city teenagers. Logical, to a point, but I had become a corporate trainer only after I was laid off from my position as a job search trainer and employment counselor for the state of Minnesota – who had hired me away from my position as a county financial-aid (AFDC, food stamps, medical assistance) case worker and job coach in Minneapolis – all of which gave me great insight in dealing with my new students and, just as importantly, their parents.  (Dot, dot, dot.)

thanksamillionI had come to the county job after having spent a very rewarding year working for a millionaire philanthropist/newspaper columnist named Percy Ross – who gave away money to folks in need via the column.  A logical stretch from that job to case management, when you think about it: I was still helping people in need. (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.  That had come at the end of a ten-year run in the hotel 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 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 drunk guy out without notice, he wrote it in his nightly report. That prompted the hotel general CTD5manager to instruct my boss the night manager to have me train new security personnel in how to handle delicate situations without confrontation. (Direct-line-dot-dot-dot to the corporate trainer gig.)

My skills at low-key, tactful, drunk-removal-with-dignity, I had picked up from Dennis, our night manager at a Holiday Inn I worked at previously. Dennis liked the way I handled people, and had also witnessed me training newcomers to the hotel. I remain grateful for his tutelage.

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. 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. Bob deserves as much credit for where I am as Dennis.

My first stint as a college student came on the heels of a dozen years of bouncing around small-market radio – not often a financially lucrative endeavor. 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

I not only got the job, but the higher paying, preferred, high-security routes. Dot, dot, dot…

This came in handy during my hotel days in St. Paul, where we hosted a number of V.I.Ps – which sometimes required staff to get security clearance.  Mine aways came through first, as I was already on file, which again got me preferred shifts and duty assignments at the hotel.

Again, not a linear progression, but a solid gathering of a wide range of transferrable skills, all leading me here.

Each of those dots that I have touched on 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.

Experiences that continue to serve me well.

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. In so many ways that are hard to convey, I tend to ‘get’ them (and their families and various situations) on levels that others may not.

Time to crank things up for one more year in the classroom.

Dot…dot…dot…

Shades of Black and White

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

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

He looked like a man holding a purple tarp.

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

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

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

We talked.

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

He was still Johnny.

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

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

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

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

Life is funny like that.

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

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

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

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

Life is funny.

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

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

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

What would Johnny think?

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

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

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

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

There are many firsts on their horizons.

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

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

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

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

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

Color me contemplative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

….but I’m NOT!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’m not.

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

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

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

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

And finally…

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

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

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

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

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

“But you liked it.”

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

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

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

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

Eh. You know what I mean.

Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a waste.

Ya buy ’em books…

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

Good stuff, Maynard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?

But there was more…

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

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

So continueth the back cover hype:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Some pans come with lids.”

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

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

plastic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dressing the part

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

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

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

Pondering pause, eyes growing wider.

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

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

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

“Texting, one, two…really?”

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

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

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

Being incommunicado is, apparently, a common thing.

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

‘My momma was killed today’.

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

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

‘I am so sorry.’

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all the rage

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

‘Sprite Rage.’

It all started with a simple start of class, ‘Do Now’ writing prompt. When my students come in, there is a DONOWEXampleprompt up on the smart board that they are to quietly write on in their journals for ten minutes. Sometimes I post a simple statement or quotation as a brain jump-start, or it could be a multiple-part question, sometimes it is something visual. Most days, I post  a visual along with an idea. Usually the prompts relate in some way to whatever we happen to be working on in class, though some days they are just (meant to be) thought-provoking or just a humorous day starter.

As we transition from the daily ‘Do Now’ into the meat of the day, I replace the writing prompt on the screen with the daily agenda, which my students are supposed to copy down. While this is going on, I collect the notebooks and invite students to verbally share their responses to the Do Now prompt.

Sharing is a hit-or-miss proposition with my students; truly feast or famine. Mostly, we starve. The main reason I chose the picture below with no caption was that we had been in a bit of a sharing dry spell and I thought they could have some fun with it.

A few did, though a significant number of my street-smart, urban teens saw the event portrayed a less than humorous – some to the point where they refused to write at all about what some of their classmates saw as amusing, though not uproarious.

RonaldMcDonaldStatueArrest

Ronald McDonald getting arrested was apparently not all that funny to my students – even if it is just a statue of him.

The ‘why’ is what got me.

I may have become a bit jaded after six years of teaching here: the visceral vehemence with which some of my students approached this one did not strike me as all that unusual. At least at first.

Who knew?

My rather over-the-top third period group of thirty-three students saw at least six of them tell essentially the same story in different ways. Once one student shared their story, two others wanted to give their take on the situation portrayed. My fourth period group of twenty-five had roughly the same ratio of similar takes on the same theme, though only one felt compelled to share his out loud.

The situation my students saw (with some notable variations) in this picture was that of Ronald McDonald being arrested after either confronting and/or assaulting a restaurant customer for the apparently commonplace-but-much-frowned-upon practice of…

…getting a water cup, then going to the fountain dispenser and putting Sprite in it.

The first kid who shared his version of Vigilante Ronald told it humorously, but with a fair amount of physical violence. The offender, in this kid’s version of the prompt response,  was an “old lady who should have known better” and Ronald took care of her after jumping over the counter, leading to his arrest. It was cartoonish, but with some serious and very violent overtones. This prompted a girl in the class to share her version of Ronald and a soda scofflaw; hers lacked any humorous subtlety and while there was less physical violence, Ronald apparently can have quite the mouth on him when provoked.

I chuckled warily in response to both versions of the story. “Ohhhhh-kay, anybody else have a take on this one that they want to share?”

Two more students imparted their perspectives on customer’s pilfering of pop, and Ronald’s subsequent arrest-inducing response.

“Seriously? Is ‘Sprite Rage’ really such a big deal?”  I was asking only semi-rhetorically, though; I was curious to see how much of a big deal this really was to my students.

waterspritesidebyside“Mr. Lucker! Why you laughing?”

“Because I think it’s funny.” I started picking up notebooks. Uh-oh.

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

“Seen people putting Sprite into a water cup? Yeah, I’ve seen that, but I’ve never seen anybody get all bent-out-of-shape about it…”

The resulting tumult was instant and incredulous.

“WHAT??!”

“Mr. Lucker! You serious?!”

“Mr. Lucker, where you been?”

“I work at McDonalds, Mr. Lucker; we got to do that all the time! My manager jumps over the counter yelling at people when he sees ‘em doing it!”

“Oh, man, that happens all the time, Mr. Lucker!”

“Mr.Lucker, man, don’t you ever eat at McDonalds?”

“I do, but I have never experienced ‘Sprite Rage.’” I continued picking up notebooks, more slowly.

There was a pause.

“Mr. Lucker – why you call it that?”

“Because that’s what y’all are telling me. If somebody at McDonalds gets a water cup and puts Sprite in it, somebody goes off on ’em. It sounds to me like road rage, only in McDonalds, not in cars.”

“It aint funny, man. I seen people get beat up for that s***!”

“I’ve seen other customers beat up people for that!”

“Seriously?” Now it was my turn to be incredulous, though I should know better by now.

Nods of approval came from all corners of my classroom

“Seriously?” I repeated. It was all I could think of. I stopped and stared at them. Had it been April first I would have felt like I was being punked, but there had been no time for coordination, or even jumping on a lets-jerk-Mr.Lucker’s-chain-today bandwagon. This was purely spontaneous, and heartfelt.

Struck a nerve, I did, with one of the most innocuous of visual writing prompts.

Interestingly, Sprite Rage seems to be a very commonplace shared experience amongst my students, and the circumstances don’t change much: In all but one case, the stories they wrote portrayed older women as the pop-for-water perpetrators and resulting recipients of Ronald’s (to me) overzealous response.

Calling Dr. Phil.

As my students completed their agendas and I finished picking up the notebooks, the daily writing coup de grâce was delivered solemnly by a kid who normally writes a fair amount but doesn’t say much in class:

'Youdaman!"
‘Youdaman!”

“I’ve seen it happen at Burger King, too.”

Apparently,  I need to get out more often.

When I do, I’ll play it safe…and just order a shake.

Two weeks, in the books

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

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

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

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

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

All three nodded in solemn agreement.

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

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

Solomonesque, I was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have potential here.

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

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

“Wow!”

“See?! I told you!”

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

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

“Tell me I won a car!”

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

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

Yeah.

I still got it.

Shakespeare: tragedy, comedy…and whatever it is my students do with it

william-shakespeareWhile getting my sophomore English classes ready to tackle Julius Caesar, we spend time wrapping up our unit on poetry with some Shakespearean sonnets, and then dive into a two-day crash-course in Elizabethan English, in part using a series of Elizabethan-to-Contemporary English ‘cheat sheets’. It makes for a nice segue from unit to unit and I have discovered that a few days focused on learning the language is worth the effort from a comprehension standpoint.

Some classes really get into it, some don’t – but there is one particular phrase that we always have some issues with: ho.

From one of our Elizabethan-to-Contemporary English glossaries:
ho—hey (roughly equivalent). “Lucius, ho!” [Brutus calling his servant]

There is, of course, some tittering the first couple of times this is said, but it is a very common phrase in Shakespearean language, and very soon the snickering becomes a natural, more comfortable, street-inflected ‘Hoe’ as opposed to the Elizabethan ‘Ho’!

juliuscaesar1953“Lucius, ho!”
“Lucius! Hoe! Come hither”!

The distinction is not very subtle, and adds a whole different layer of linguistic oddity to my sojourn through the Bard, as there is a vast difference between summoning someone and calling someone…

something like that.

Thou hast noooooo idea.

I always end our pre-Caesar or Macbeth week by having my students rewrite one of their daily start-of-class journal entries into a Shakespearean epic. The prompt I use is imagining or remembering a weekend outing with a friend, including a lot of dialogue. After the writing, we then share some of the results out loud – usually to a mixture of laughter and bewilderment, whether they read what they have written or have me do it.

Here are some of my favorite dagger-stabs at Shakespearean ignominy and glory – verbatim from student papers.


“I stood wall-eyed, “Whence did thee get that zany idea” I said, lapsed. “Thou art mad” I informed him. He discourses. “Thou shouldntst hark. I woo her”. I cursed him. I shook my head. “What are thee going to dost? Thee have a foe”’.

Heavy, he said “I know, come hither. Thou art verily something”. Balked and mated, he didn’t have the addiction of discourses words such as these”.

I am quite sure of that, actually. I think.

edwinbooth“Today, Friday the 13, my friends and I heard tidings that we had to go appoint to the mall for some hours”.

“My best friend hark me Friday, doth thee went to hie eat out”.
“Perchance, an I doth not have anything to doth”.

For which we can all be grateful, I suppose.

This next one from a kid who rarely writes more than a sentence or two…again verbatim:

“It’s Friday e’en, methinks perchance I should call my friend to see an thee wants to skate. Methinks also about thee girlfriend.  An thee hie hither, thee nots going to have a ride back home. I should privy the mom for a ride back home, but that’s too much. Adieu that idea, so thee calls my friend to come over. Soft, I left thee board in thee mom’s car”.

Hopefully, she’ll find it and give it back to the kid.

Some stray entries from our you-have-to-admire-the-honesty (HATH) department:

HATH #1 “Oft my morrow I am alone and maybe retired because I am an introvert. But were to I discourse and visit with my friends, we off hie to World Market and Barnes and Noble”.

HATH #2 “Today I shall couch. I fancy some chicken for today. Perchance even some tacos. Were I for my dad wrought me the money. I don’t want to woo a job with my friend”.

HATH #3 “Twas a quaint morrow and methinks of a cunning idea. The idea was to mate with a friend”.

The writer of HATH #3 and I had to have a little, um, sidebar conversation.

Moving on, as many of my New Orleans students and colleagues frequently say: “We were conversating”:

We couldn’t think of anything to do. So finally something came to me.

Hitting a bowling strikeCarla: Natalie, I thought of something
Natalie: Aye
Carla: Hark, the bowling alley.
Natalie: Perchance.
Carla: Okay because I couldn’t think of anything.

 Later that e’en we got dressed and my mom brought us.

Natalie: I bet I can rap a strike before thee
Carla: Methinks not.

Hair is always a popular topic with my students. ‘Going Shakespeare’ changes that not.

hair“It’s like this every Saturday night. Addiction hath I curl my hair. We go out after about two hours of unpregnant babbling”.

“This Friday I’m going to doth my best friend hair
It’s going to take all day but I don’t care
Thee will hie to the movies
whence everything is groovy”.

 

Stupendous efforts, all. But nobody else went quite in this direction:

One young woman, a recent transfer into my class and a very good, prolific writer, allowed me to read her lengthy and detailed entry, which centered on her mother, who suffered from a long-term illness,  giving her and her friends money to drive to a neighboring community to run an errand.

“Speaketh to Mary, Liz, Kenny and Jame” I told her as we got onto the bus. Charlene nodded, pulling out her cellphone and texting all the names listed. I called mother telling her we’ll clean the home, also that we made plans for the morrow. Mother insisted we’d deliver money to Sir Bradley for some of his homemade brownies”.

She went on, making good use of ‘forsooth’ and ‘hither’ among others in describing their nervousness in being followed (innocently and coincidentally, it seems) by a police officer as they returned home with the purchased baked goods from a neighboring suburb.

I read the entire piece, looked at the girl, asked if the story was true. She nodded. “Really? YC&Cfiberonebrowniiesou drove that far for brownies? Those kind of brownies”?

“You knew what I meant”?

“I grew up in the sixties and seventies. I know exactly what kind of brownies you meant.”

“Cool”.

Verily. Shakespeare with my students always is.