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.

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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.

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?

It’s all the rage these days

Prompted by the writings of my erstwhile high school seniors, I coined a new phrase for a phenomenon I never knew existed.

‘Sprite Rage’

It all started with a simple start of class, ‘Do Now’ writing prompt one day a few weeks back. 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, there is 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 not funny, apparently. 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 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. “Okay, 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.

“You never seen that?”

“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.

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.

Hanging with ghosts and great ideas

Photo1650It is a brisk March Wednesday night in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Once a smitten, first time tourist, I am now a resident of the city, though not a permanent denizen of the Quarter.

I have lived here going on five years now, and remain infatuated with the city, and this unique segment of  it.

Some good friends of ours have a condeaux (colloquial spelling, so sayeth the whimsical plaque hanging on the courtyard wall) that they use for weekend getaways. They play tourist in their own hometown, taking in the sights of the Quarter and the Marigny; live music on Frenchmen Street, plays at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre, various restaurants. Sometimes they just hang in the Quarter.

When they are not test driving retirement, they sometimes make it available to friends. This is my lucky night.

Right around the corner, and literally seventy feet as the crow flies, is the former home of Tennessee Williams. From the courtyard I am sitting in, I could easily toss a baseball onto Tennessee’s former roof. The proximity of his home to Peterson’s condeaux was a surprise to them, as I discovered it on my first visit to their getaway neighborhood, as I read the bronze historic marker affixed to the wall of the structure. That is my compulsion here in the Quarter, where it is nearly impossible to travel a full block without some sort of Photo1645wall-mounted commemorative alloy indicator of some sort.

This is no New England ‘George-Washington-slept-here-yeah-right’ tourist gimmick.

A casual stroll in any direction of the French Quarter is a history lesson to be absorbed: the tribulations of Spanish ownership and French possession, the days of Jean Lafitte, Marie Leveaux and other sundry rogues are all venerated in ample, forged bronze. Jazz greats and their many milestones as a genre was birthed and the purest of American art forms evolved are also celebrated. There are notable pirates, heroes and villains. Painters and writers. Scalawags and incognito ne’er-do-well share historical marker space with captains of industry and high society madams. Generals, governors, future presidents – an array of historical pomp and circumstance –all here for the fascinating, abbreviated reading. There are also trumpet players, trombonists, drummers, pianists and producers to be celebrated. All get their due, because they spent time here. They came here to pillage, conquer, control, carouse and create in. They came to write.

Tennessee Williams wrote here. So did William Faulkner. Tonight, I do too.

Photo1652I picked up a six pack of Abita Amber on my way down to the Quarter, where the courtyard, a small café table and comfortable chair await. The beer is satisfying, the night crisp enough to keep it adequately chilled, the atmosphere and inspiration keeps keyboard fingers warm and nimble even as the unseasonable temperature dips into the forties.

Upon my arrival, while truffle-pigging a rare, elusively available, Quarter parking spot, I encountered a couple of horse and mule drawn carriages on tour, and hoped that once ensconced in the courtyard and at my keyboard, the sounds of hooves on pavement and cobblestone would add to the mystique. Instead, the thick walls, and the condeaux location at the back of what was once a fine antebellum home (their condeaux – all 300 square feet of it – is the former slave quarters) leave me isolated from most of the traffic and neighborhood noise, save the occasional police siren and barking of a few large dogs.

I type, sip beer, revel in every moment.

The silence is crashed by surprising and lengthy horn blasts from the Steamboat Natchez, announcing her return from the evening dinner cruise up the Mississippi. The long, slow, steam whistle is comforting Greek chorus to the soft clicking of my laptop keys, and far surpasses hooves on asphalt for adding ambiance.

Photo1648As I type, I realize that while I may be emulating Williams, my medium would be foreign to him. I have no paper to align or platen to spin; finished work, removal of the page with a clicking flourish satisfaction is not part of the equation here. I think back a few years, to an Internet offer that came my way: a program that turns the sounds of your laptop into that of a typewriter – clicking keys, end-of-line bell, carriage return zipping – all customizable and authentic to the sounds of your favorite vintage make and model typewriter.

At the time, it seemed mildly amusing but frivolous – and also likely to become very annoying after five minutes of use. Were I to receive the same offer tonight…?

Not so much.

Another sip of beer and I set the bottle down on the table to my left. I am no gin drinker and good whiskey was not in tonight’s budget, so I am less Williams or Faulkner than I am Kerouac wannabe, settling for beer. And while the bottle of Louisiana brew beside me is flavorful and satisfying, it is an accouterment to the evening – not an office supply.

Photo1656The night continues, the chill settling in, the writer’s block plaguing me of late is going the way of the mercury and crumbling to dust like so many of the two-century-old red bricks that surround me – though far more quickly. The Quarter, at least my cozy locale, is quiet. The big dog down the street is no longer agitated – or at least in for the night. It has been a solid hour since any sirens, the steamboats are at rest wharf side.

Time passes by with ease, the ideas flow at the same pace. It remains quiet, save the tapping of words coming to life.

The sound of my fingers on laptop keys is different, new to me – a remake of a classic song you know, but don’t quite recognize.  Most often my writing is done in pseudo solitude with a soundtrack of city traffic, two ambling, and tag jingling dogs, video game playing teenagers, Sinatra or sixties via plugged-in ear buds. A life in motion, with soundtrack.

This is most definitely not that.

Photo1646The sounds of my keyboarding begin to amuse me: I am no Buddy Rich of the laptop. My irregular pounding lacks rhythm or anything resembling a tempo or musical beat. I doubt my seven-finger-and-both-thumbs modified hunt-and-peck method would even qualify as good scat.

I type to the beat of my own drummer until I sense a restful sleep coming on. I shut down my laptop, take a last look around, head inside, closing French doors and hurricane shutters behind me; the clicking of the various ancient hinges and latches momentarily sounds like ice cubes being dropped into a glass. I imagine the ghost of Tennessee Williams seeking to borrow a cup of gin as I lock the door, smiling, and settle in for the night

# # #

Thursday morning in a French Quarter courtyard. A little past five, and as refreshing and satisfying as last night’s beer was, the morning coffee (New Orleans, not Irish) freshly brewed, locally roasted, offers even more. The morning is crisp – I can see my breath, rising and evaporating along with the steam from the coffee. I pick up where I left off the night before, awaiting a crooked dawn, knowing that my cozy alcove will let in only a hint of the day’s sunshine. I type, sip, prepare to fully welcome the day at hand.

Photo1657The coffee is superb, as is the arrival of the morning sun, peeking as it does, over and around the surrounding roofs. In an hour I will need to finish the coffee, pack up laptop and leftover beer, and head for school – our last day before a long, Easter weekend. The kids were done yesterday, but teachers have a morning of training before parents begin arriving for early afternoon conferences. A light day, off to a relaxing start.

Photo1658As I sip my coffee and watch the first rays of sunlight waving hello I wonder just how strange this tableau would seem to Messrs. Williams and Faulkner; a laptop, hot coffee, a fiber bar for breakfast. No liquid morning ‘pick me up’ is needed. Not here, not now.

I finish most of the half pot of coffee I brewed, put the rest into a travel mug. I pack up, lock up, and head for the street to find my car and head to school. As I step out into the coming-to-life Quarter, I am passed by a middle-aged man riding a bike, steering his bike with one hand, holding an in-progress can of beer in the other. As he passes me, he waves with the hand holding the beer, then takes a swig from it.

As I watch him head down Burgundy Street, a perfectly logical New Orleans thought comes to mind: “He’s probably a writer”. Laughing at my own joke, I get in the car and drive off into the sunrise to go to work.

Photo1662

2012 Leftovers: Scraps, tidbits and what-thas…?

100_3851The ever-present-in-my-back-pocket Notebook of Niftiness (NON) becomes something of a Rubbermaid tub throughout the year; while many of the ideas and tidbits make their way into a post on either this blog or into a full-fledged poem for my poetry blog, some just languish there, out of sight, out of mind, but safe in the tub for future use. Or not. Many will never see the light of day again.

Some the notes in NON are tantalizing tidbits to build upon, some are merely interesting quotations I ran across during the year. Some were shorthand notes that made little sense days, weeks or even hours after I jotted them down. Some were interesting or amusing at the time I jotted them down, not so much after-the-fact. Some of the hasty chicken scratches I can’t even read.

Sometimes NON is more than an acronym.

Time to empty the tub. Or at least, rummage through it.

Wile-E-Coyote_fallingYear End News Item #1: ‘Congress reaches a short-term deal to avoid the fiscal cliff’.

Why do I continue to get mental images of Wyle E. Coyote and the word ‘ACME’?

Prime Misconception of the Year 2012: So with all the hubbub about the end-of-the-world via the Mayan calendar, even though it was well documented that the Mayans failed mayancalendar1to account for leap years and Monday holidays, many people were still fixated on the prognostication skills of a vanished culture that couldn’t even foresee their own demise.

The real reason the Mayan calendar ended with December 2012? Impractical design. Made of chiseled stone and measuring three feet or more in diameter, the damn things kept ripping the nails out of the Mayans adobe garage walls before the calendars crashed to the floor in pieces.mayancalendar2

That, and the sacrificial virgin pin-up pictures weren’t much to look at.

My 1st Prediction for 2013: Having moved to New Orleans nearly five years ago, I have become well acquainted with hurricanes, having had to evacuate for one twice in that fifty-some month span – including this past August for Isaac. The naming of hurricanes is curious. Something called the World Meteorological Organization (think ’10 o’clock news weather guessers in super hero tights’) have come up with the list since 1953, only adding male names in 1979. There are six lists that continue to rotate. The lists only change when there is a hurricane that is so devastating, the name is retired and another hurricane name replaces it. Interestingly, 2013 seems to have a decidedly more ethnic flavor; Fernand, Humberto, Ingrid, Lorenzo, Olga and Pablo standing out.

bookieMark my words: somewhere along the line, some elected idiot will somehow work this year’s hurricane names into the national debate on illegal immigration.

My bookie is standing by to take your sucker bets.

MarkTwainNotable quote seen…somewhere/Affirmation:
“In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards”.
– Mark Twain

In addition to the new state testing procedure were are now in year two of teaching toward, this year we also began the implementation of the new national Common Core Curriculum (don’t get me started). Oh, and this year our district is also adding mandatory ACT testing and the associated…uhm, teaching? It’s less ‘teaching to the test’ and more teaching ‘which test is which, again’?

Conclusion? Twian’s faith was grossly misplaced.

Year End News Item #2: Twenty percent of Americans who admit to making New Year’s resolutions say that ‘spending less time on BLOG in Portugese (2)Facebook’ was one of their main decrees to self. The Facebook proclamation came in third after ‘quitting smoking’ and ‘losing weight’.

As long as ‘reading blogs’ stays in the single-digits as a resolution, I’m jiggy with the whole ‘resolve to give stuff up’ approach. Good luck with that Facebook thing, by the way.

Things come in threes…

Early last fall, I wrote in this space about a sophomore who wrote an essay commenting on her sister’s positive attitude, and the inspiration the sister provides all of her younger siblings. She lauded, in worthy prose, her sister’s ‘self of steam.’

surprised-lady steamDiscussing 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. She paused, looked at her paper, looked up at me standing over her and said, distinctly, and with a definitely-correcting-me tone of voice: “Yeah, it’s her SELF. OF. STEAM, Mr. Lucker…how good she feels about herself”!

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

Toward the end of the semester, we had some more writing to do that focused on sense-of-self and self-awareness. Sure enough, ‘self-of-steam’ once again reared its pesky head…not only with the girl who originally coined the phrase, but in the papers of two other classmates as well.

This episode reminded me of my first teaching gig a few years back. On a district social studies test, much to the amusement of our social studies teacher, three of my homeroom fifth graders used the same, oh-so-unique answer on a question about the effect that iron tools had on irontoolsthe new world: “When they got iron tools in the new world, people didn’t have to take their clothes to the dry cleaners no more”. Much as with my current sophomore, they could not be swayed that their answer was not perfectly logical and correct.

Maybe they could all get together to use some self-of-steam to press their uniform pants.

goodtimecharlierecordHey, it could always be worse. With apologies to Danny O’Keefe: “…sometimes it pours…sometimes it only sprinkles; Good Time Charlie’s got the periwinkles…”

A final thought: School cafeteria food raises the intriguing question, “Haute cuisine or hot food?” If you answered neither, you are correct.

Happy 2013.

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?