Dim bulbs

Regular visitors to this spot have likely heard me state that, in my life as a New Orleans high school teacher I encounter “More flavors of stupid than Baskin-Robbins has ice cream.”

dobledipconeToday was a double-dip.

The fun stated near the end of my third-period senior English class. At my classroom door was a guy from our district’s I.T. department – a welcome sight as the bulb in my interactive white board went out a week ago Tuesday, reducing the nifty technology to nothing more than a very pricey easel, festooned as it currently is, with masking-tape mounted chart paper. I opened the door, he introduced himself, and stepped over to my Promethean board, where the following conversation took place, while my getting-ready-to-depart seniors looked on…many with their typical and all-to-familiar, ‘What the _____?’ expression.

“So, can you turn on the Promethean board for me?”

“I can, but it only stays on for two seconds – just long enough to flash the ‘replace bulb’ message.”

prometheanboard“O.K. But its policy…I need to check it out to see if that’s really the problem.” He was looking upward at the ceiling-mounted projector, which made it very hard to miss the bright orange ‘Replace bulb’ light that has been glowing in the corner of the projector unit for a week-and-a-half. I clicked the remote, the projector turned on, then immediately shut off. He continued staring up. “Let me see” he said. I handed him the remote.

Three more times he turned it on, and it clicked right off. Click, click. Click, click. Click, click.

“Yep, it’s a bulb issue.”

No doo-doo.

“I’m sorry. I know this seems dumb, but it’s the department policy that we come out and check it before we just replace the bulb. There are only six of us doing this, and with having to make two trips each time, we are stretched really thin these days. And I’m pretty sure we are completely out of this model.”

Two trips? I stared at him silently, my hope that he at least had a bulb in his vehicle now about as bright as my Promethean projector.

“I understand they only keep about a half-dozen bulbs on hand” I noted casually, both of us still looking at the projector.

pboardlamp“Sounds about right. Plus, the district is thinking of bidding this work out so a third-party can take care of all these units. They don’t want a lot of stock on hand if that contract gets signed.”

Now I know from my years in the business world you don’t want a lot of stock just sitting around collecting dust, and at $150 – $275 a pop, these bulbs aren’t cheap, but for the largest school district in the state, with projectors in virtually every classroom…

We looked at each other. The I.T. guy shrugged.

“Soooooo….any idea, guestimate of any kind on when I MIGHT get a new bulb?”

“Nah. I wouldn’t even guess.” He shrugged again. Scribbling something on his clipboard, he bid me a ‘nice day’ and headed out the door. I turned to face a group of quizzical looking seniors.

I smiled at them. “He needed to make sure it was a bulb issue.”

The bell rang, my seniors left – some shaking their heads.

speechmegaphoneFourth period is my speech class – my last of the day. A mixed bag of mostly underclassmen, they are starting to come together as a cohesive group, and there are a couple of kids who will get up at every opportunity to speak, and are good at it. The other kids enjoy them.

I do have one knucklehead in the group; a kid who insists on texting all through class. Two phone conversations with his mom have failed to curb his phone use, and I had submitted a written referral for shenanigans the two previous days.

Late in the class period, kids were getting up and doing impromptu speeches. Mr.Texter one-upped himself; he was on his phone, carrying on a conversation with someone. As usual, names are pseudonyms.

“Daniel. Please get off the phone.”

“Please get out of my face.” He continued talking.

“Daniel. Please get off the phone.”

“I told you! Get out of my face!”

iphonepicThe rest of the class is watching, expecting me to go off on the kid. Instead, I walk back to his table, sit down directly in front of him. He continues talking. I fold my hands, check the clock. Then I rap my knuckles on the desk next to him. knockknockknock “Hello? Anybody home?” I intone sweetly. “Hello?” No response.

“I told you, please get out of my face so I can finish my call.”

“Can I please say hello to whomever it is you’re talking to?” Daniel sighs, rolls his eyes. Putting the phone on speaker, he holds it in front of me, saying “Hold on, Mia, my teacher wants to talk to you.” While rolling his eyes. The rest of the class is completely quiet – no small feat.

“Hi, Mia?” I ask sweetly. “Did you know that Daniel is getting into a whooooolllle lot of trouble talking to you, because he is in the middle of class?” I hear female giggling from the phone.

“Can you  just leave me alone now?”

I nod, get up quietly, walk to the front of the room. A girl in the class decides she has had enough. “Will you get off that f****** phone! This is school!”

With no Promethean board, we're kickin' it old school in Mr. Lucker's class; flip charts, TVs.
With no Promethean board, we’re kickin’ it old school in Mr. Lucker’s class; flip charts, TVs.”Get off the f****** phone! This is  school!” (Glad to know I’m not the only one who noticed that.)

“Will you get out of my face?” Daniel is addressing the young woman, which prompts a number of other classmates to begin yelling at him. “Get off the phone!” “Man, you are an ignorant child!” “Get off the phone so we can hear people talking!” And more, um choice comments.

Daniel seems taken slightly aback. “Man! Why are you all bucking me? This is a private call! Everybody get out of my face!”

(Memo to Daniel: the privacy issue went out the window a while ago.)

I push the call button to the office and ask for a dean or disciplinarian to come to my room. Then I tell the class to calm down, and not to engage Daniel. To their credit, they tone it down, but between the classmates yelling at him to get off the phone, and the others, in disbelief, saying “Man I can’t believe this!” and “I have never heard of anything like this” It’s pretty obvious that Daniel has lost any support he might have had at one time. Undeterred, he tells Mia, “The whole class is bucking at me! They just need to go one with their thing and let me finish my call!”

Ms. R, one of our disciplinarians arrives at my door. I open it, greet her warmly, adding cheerfully, “It’ll be just a minute, Ms. R. he has to finish his call.”

Yes, he is still talking to Mia. Ms. R, hands on hips, eyebrows cocked precipitously, “Daniel, get off of that phone and get out here!” She looks at me, I can only shake my head. “Unbelievable” is all she can muster as Daniel adds the coup-de-gras to the escapade: “Well, I gotta go. Looks like they’re ‘sending me somewhere.” Punctuated, of course, with another eye roll.

He joins Ms. R in the hallway for, what I found out later from Ms. R, was an interesting walk to discipline. Seems Daniel was a bit put out that we ‘interrupted’ his phone call.

As they left and I closed the door, the class erupted in a release of tension. I told them to settle down, and again to their flipcharts2credit, they quickly did. I turned to Michael, who had been standing at the classroom podium this whole time and told him he could start his impromptu speech whenever he was ready. “O.K., Mr. Lucker” he said with a nervous laugh, shaking his head and smiling. The last ten minutes of class went very smoothly, and they were off to lunch, shaking their heads, muttering ‘wow’ and telling me to have a nice afternoon.

Both my third period seniors and my fourth period speech kids all had stories to tell today. I just hope my second period seniors don’t catch wind of it and start to feel left out.

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Lessons Learned in Mr. Lucker’s Class on the Last Day of School

Photo1792If you are a high school sophomore, soon-to-be-a-but-probably-not-yet junior, and you bring a water gun (‘squirt gun’ in Mr. Lucker’s youthful vernacular) into Mr. Lucker’s classroom on the last day of class, and Mr. Lucker watches you (pseudo surreptitiously) fill  said squirt-gun from a water bottle, he will wait until you have jussssst about finished reloading before he confiscates the squirt gun by asking you for it.

Then, just so you understand where Mr. Lucker is coming from, once you sit down, he will silently empty said confiscated water gun by watering the potted plant sitting on his desk while you glare at him, he looks back at you, and everyone else is watching for your reaction.

Ostensibly, the squirt gun (sans water, of course) could be returned to you during the customary last-day teacher escort to the busses .

Unless, of course, you pout about it, asking Mr. Lucker repeatedly when you will get your water gun back, and when told that he is under no obligation at all to return said squirt gun to your possession, you walk out of his classroom and stomp around the hallway in a snit, complaining over and over “You got my water gun! When am I gonna get it back”!?

Photo0407Mr. Lucker will then return to his desk and finish emptying the water gun into his plant dirt.

At this point you, and the rest of the class, understand that Mr. Lucker doesn’t abide last day shenanigans. Even in the last period on the last day. Especially the last period on the last day.

Class dismissed. Have a nice summer.

Homeroom Homeruns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s with you”? Asked one.

“This Gatorade is nasty. Its cucumber”!

“Let me try it”!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

testform“You have kids”?

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

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

“Yes. Now, in box ‘R’…”

“You got a wife”?

“I do. Now…”

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

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

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

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

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

Just another start to the day in room 261.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They love sarcasm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knew?

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

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

Whatever works, I guess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right on”! Exclaimed Marcos*

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

Did I mention it is almost Mardi Gras break?

Taking Note

I read with some interest the story of the fifth grade kid who missed school the other day and had a note from President Obama excusing him. At least three publications I have seen have labeled the kid’s note a ‘presidential pardon’ – wholly inaccurate as a pardon is forgiveness from a crime or misdeed. But I’m nit-picking.

No matter. The note is quite the heirloom; I hope he gets it back from his teacher.

I got to thinking about the notes I received this past year in my New Orleans high school classroom; there were no notes from the president, nor anyone else of any prominence. I did not get any notes signed ‘Epstein’s Mother’ – in large part because I had no kids named ‘Epstein’ – although I did get one from a mom who signed the note ‘Christina’s* mom’ but with her full name and phone number underneath.

In our school, the notes need to be processed through the office; they are the ones who do the actual record keeping, though the students do need to show the excuses to their teachers. We, in turn, are to sign them so the kid can return them to the office, and we make any record keeping such as gradebook/assignment adjustments accordingly.

Of course I saw the usual doctors and dentist notes – including specialties ranging from optometrists to OB/GYNs and dermatologists. The notes from pediatricians that listed not my student’s name, but rather the name of the student’s child always gave me pause, as did the couple that I received from psychiatrist’s offices.

The court notices were the most sobering.

Not unusual to see the notices from district court that the kid in my charge had a court appearance – I’ve seen plenty of those over my four years here. What did surprise me a lot this year were the kids who were handing me these notices. Kids that I wasn’t having disciplinary issues with. Kids that didn’t strike me as ‘troublemakers.’ Kids that I now had at least an inkling about some of where their classroom distractedness and academic issues may be stemming from.

The kids that were definitely uncomfortable with handing me their court papers to initial. The kids that weren’t. The kids that, almost gleefully, made a production out of bringing me their court papers: waving them at me, singing about their court appearances, showing them off with pride to classmates. Bragging about them.

Sometimes, when the student would show their court papers to somebody on their way back to their seat just after I had signed them, I felt, for just the briefest of moments, like some sort of rock star who had just leaned over the front of the stage and autographed an 8-by-10 glossy for a diehard fan.

Yeah, sometimes, they are that excited to show them off.

The incident in Minneapolis the other day wasn’t the first time President Obama has done that; he did something similar for a young girl a year or so ago. He writes his notes on nice paper, with a White House letterhead embossed at the top. The notes I get are usually crumpled and tattered; the ones from the court are usually pink or yellow, oftentimes part of some triplicate form set up. They have stamped signatures stating ‘Clerk of Court’ next to a signature.

They only tell me a small part of the story, but they frequently give me at least some partial answers.

A note from the president excusing a kid from class? Can’t say I’ve had the pleasure. I also can’t say it would be the strangest note a kid ever handed me.

Digging in the Dirt Pile of Memories

The other day I was standing on the front porch with my sixteen year old son Will, waiting for his family car pool ride to school, sophomore year now in the homestretch. I was on spring break from my school and was savoring the opportunity for a little morning one-on-one we don’t normally have; younger son Sam and wife Amy were already off to their respective schools.

Mug of coffee in hand, I watched Will sitting on the porch swing, organizing his contemporary teenager-self: loaded, full-size backpack, small, nylon pull-string backpack, insulated cooler lunch bag, personal electronic device (with ear buds dangling from his neck) and cellphone. His school I.D. badge and flash drives dangled on lanyards beneath his beatnik-hearkening goatee. He was texting his girlfriend and I could see him smiling beneath the brim of his ever-present grey baseball cap.

Leaning against the porch post and looking down the block I motioned to the big pile of dirt two lots down; another new home for the neighborhood as the post-Katrina revitalization continues. I jokingly mentioned that the big pile of dirt made me want to “Get some old Tonka trucks and go play in the dirt for a few hours.”

Will finished his text and glanced at the dirt pile. “Do you remember that crane we had in our yard back in Marshall? That thing was so cool.”

I nodded, remembering the homemade wood-and-steel contraption: a small, square, carpet-remnant covered seat attached to a couple of wooden runners hat made it look like a really small sled – except for the two-foot long arm with a two-levered metal crane bucket attached to it. One lever made the crane arm extend, the other made it curve inward like a hand and wrist, which allowed the actual digging to occur. A kid could sit on the thing, dig a hole, swivel around (360 degrees, even!) dig another hole, then another. Homemade and won by Will’s uncle Ted at a church raffle after his own sons were past sandbox stage, we placed it in the sandbox beneath the ‘crow’s nest’ of the big, wooden playset we had built in our backyard when we moved to Marshall, Minnesota – when Will was seven.

Will gleefully dug a few holes in his day with that thing, as did three-years-younger brother Sam. We more than got Ted’s dollar raffle ticket worth out of it.

“You remember that thing, huh? Uncle Ted won that in a church raffle, if I remember correctly.”

“That’s where we got that? From Uncle Ted?”

“I think so.” I nodded, taking a sip of my coffee. Just then, Will got a text from his girlfriend Lien. Without looking up from his cellphone, fingers flying on the tiny keyboard, he added, “That thing was so cool.”

I nodded, and got to thinking…

A few years before the crane, some friends of ours found a swing set being dismantled and put on the curb by neighbors. With their help and a borrowed pickup truck we got it, took it apart and brought it to our yard in south Minneapolis.

Nothing fancy, just two plastic swings on chains, a short sheet-metal slide, a plastic glider and a swinging trapeze. Four-and-a-half year old Will was fascinated by the prospect of the pile of spot-rusted metal actually morphing into a swing set. He would pick up the yellow seats and then stare at the pile of tubing with a quizzical look on his face. But a few dollars’ worth of new nuts, bolts, bushings and three hours of re-assembly later, there it was.

The shiny new hardware stood out more than the rusty old ones, highlighting its age and hand-me-down nature. No matter. It became Will’s pride and joy, the thing that he most looked forward to coming home to. Even after full summer daycare days in the park, with the big swing sets, Will wanted to come home to “his playground.” On Saturdays, Will would take his lunch outside and eat it while sitting on his favorite swing (the one next to the trapeze.) It became a focal point for Will’s friends on the block, and became a trusty companion when they weren’t around. It was also a refuge on those days when the world got a little gloomy, and many were the nights it barely got to rest while dinner was consumed.

Came our first snow, and I hadn’t removed the swings yet. It didn’t much matter. Our parka-clad boy brushed off the seats and got in a few minutes of action before dinner, and another ten or so after, till it just got too dark. The cool air accentuated every creak of the metal, chains and “S” hooks that made it all work. Spring eventually returned and become summer again and Will continued swinging away until we moved, leaving the swing set out on the curb for someone else to claim as their own – which they did within a day.

Once we moved, Will had his big, wooden playset and his gift-crane…

“Here come the Worthylakes.”

Will’s carpool had swung into view from around the corner, and in a few quick seconds he, seemingly in one, fluid motion and without getting tangled in multiple lanyards, effortlessly threw on both backpacks (lunch bag clipped to the big one with a carabiner) adjusted his cap, stuffed his PSP into his pocket, threw his arm (with hand still clutching cellphone) around my neck, gave me a hug and said “Love you dad” before bounding down to the steps and out to the S.U.V. at the curb.

“Love you, bud. See you this afternoon.”

“Bye.” He threw the farewell over his shoulder, hopped into the backseat, gave me a quick wave as they drove off.

I took another sip of coffee and went inside, lacking any old Tonka Trucks ® and figuring I had had my dirt pile enjoyment for the day anyway.

Addition by subtraction

During the first week of February, I wrote about some of the classroom issues I was having in my New Orleans area high school classroom, and had a little scorecard of that week’s statistics.(The entire post can be reviewed here: https://poetluckerate.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/clear-view-from-the-front-of-the-class/)

What I reported back on February third was:
• 5 kids in/out of in-school suspension
• 1 young man earning 5 days out of school suspension
• 1 young woman transferring to alternative school. Hopefully.
• 6 teen moms/dads with baby and/or baby’s father/mother issues
• 12 sleepers; kids who fall asleep often enough in class that I have to wake them up (I am something of a human alarm clock some days, and my general admonition to awakened students, “If you want to take a nap, get a room at the Days Inn” is not well received.)
• 5 kids who are on daily check in/check out point-system behavioral plans that require daily updates of their written goals. (One girl earned only half of her available points on the one specific goal of ‘refraining from using profanity in classroom: sailors don’t blush in her presence, they check their thesauruses.)

Update!

In the five-plus weeks since then, I can report that the one young woman did transfer to an alternative school, and that while my half-dozen teen moms/dads still have teen mom/dad issues of varying degrees, the two that seemed the most frazzled by those issues have calmed considerably. I can also report that while most of my sleepers still try to sleep, I have refined my ‘wake up’ process to a quick rap of my clipboard on their desk (as close to their ear as possible) as I pass by with minimal interruption to class proceedings. I was down to two check-in/check-out students, but have now moved back up to four who are all on two-week stretches of CICO. (Love those ubiquitous acronyms!)

Oh, and Ms. Potty-mouth got herself expelled for a variety of transgression in and out of my classroom.

Along with two other kids from the same class period.

Oddly, none of the three expelled students had any particular negative interaction with one another, and simply found themselves on their own separate yet parallel paths to departure. Were I a math teacher, I would probably turn that experience into a word problem of some sort: “If three students each depart the classroom by expulsion over a six-day stretch…”

You will probably not be surprised to learn that that particular class period is running much more smoothly than it was a month ago. It aint the autobahn yet, but we’re calling AAA much less frequently.

In talking the numbers game with a fellow teacher at my school, I told her my favorite story of student departures from a classroom of mine. It came from the year I was a sub, and was at an inner-city New Orleans high school I had been at numerous times. This blog note from January, 2010:

“I was standing with another student in the doorway of a classroom of full of ninth graders, discussing that student’s behavior (which was worth bringing him to the doorway to discuss, but wasn’t anything that would have gotten him sent to the office or any such thing – an important note) when one of the school’s assistant principals walked by, and said “Everything O.K., Mr. Lucker?” To which I replied, “Nothing we can’t handle. We have it worked out.” when the student interrupted with his own, somewhat contradictory answer to the A.P’s inquiry: “This man is tryin’ to tell me things!”

The AP stopped, and the following ensued:

AP: (calmly) “Son, Mr. Lucker is your teacher…he is supposed to tell you things.”

STUDENT: “Uh, uhh! He can’t tell me nothing! He aint my teacher…Ms. Russells’ my teacher!”

AP: (more calmly) “Son, please come here.” (Finger motions kid across hall to where he is standing)

STUDENT 2: (Yelling from inside classroom) “You can’t get on him for sayin’ that – he’s right, this man aint our teacher! He can’t tell us nothin’!”

AP: (motions STUDENT 2 into hallway) “Son, come out here please.”

STUDENT 3: “Man, you can’t say nothing about that to them!”

AP: (less calmly) “Boy! Get out here!” (Finger motions student 3 to hallway)

STUDENT 4 (girl) “Oh, mister! You’re wrong for calling them out there. They didn’t do nothing! And Mr. Lucker ain’t our teacher!”

AP: (less calmly but still retaining his cool) “Young lady, please step out here.”

At this point, the assistant principal has four students along the wall across from my classroom, and a security guard at the far end of the hall comes down to investigate. He and I are standing in the doorway as the AP is telling these kids why they should be listening to me, when, out of our peripheral vision, we both see an English textbook go whizzing through the air.

The security guard immediately points at a young man, and says “Grab your things! You are going home!” To which the kid loudly protests: “Why am I going home? I wasn’t throwing that book at him (pointing at me) I was throwing it at HER!” as he points to a girl sitting in the corner, who sits shrugging her shoulders.

As the kid gathers up his belongings, the security guard shakes his head, looks at me, and says “Sometimes they just don’t know when not to say anything”.

Five students gone in one fell, 90 second swoop, and I hadn’t said a word. It is, to date, a personal record. The rest of the class ran pretty smoothly.”

What I didn’t say at the time was that in the aftermath of all that, some other staff at the school was marveling at my ability to clear a classroom of five trouble makers in one fell swoop, especially as a sub, and all I could do was humbly ascribe the events to self-directed learning I had very little to do with.

Fast forward two years, I am back in my own classroom, first year at my school, and I have developed a bit of a reputation for not accepting the status quo with some students.

One day a member of the counseling team stopped me as I was leaving campus to talk about the expulsions, marveling at the way I was able to rid my classroom of two very problematic students (This was a day before the third student got herself booted) and I could again take no real credit for the events, just benefit from them, which is what I told her.

She laughed heartily at my taking advantage of the right place/right time attitude and we went our respective ways, her congratulating me on my ‘getting them gone’ over her shoulder as she went to her car and I went to mine.

I related both stories to my colleague who quietly made this observation: “It’s all because you actually try to engage them in something constructive. A lot of teachers just ignore them until they go too far, then they just kick them out of class. You’re just doing your job.”

Who knew.

We just keep on truckin’. Or teachin’. Or something.

Parable Incomparable

One day this past week I was being observed by one of our administrators, a science teacher during her classroom days. I was working with my sophomores dissecting Edgar Allen Poe, via his use of allegories. This had us reviewing the topics of allegories and parables. One of the girls in the class was explaining to her classmates what the difference was between the two, and nicely used the biblical parable of the mustard seed to prove her point.

I helped her tie it all up with an allegorical bow, noting for some personal student connection that the tiny mustard seed does indeed provide us with the large plant and resulting greens that are such a part of local cuisine. Somewhere along the line in this discussion, the light bulb clicked on with a young man, ‘Daniel’, who usually doesn’t contribute much in a positive way to the class.

“Wait a minute! You mean the yellow spread, and mustard greens, come from the same plant?” asked Daniel, accusingly.

“Yep. They do.”

“Aw, that can’t be right.” His tone was quizzical, but with his typical, I’m-challenging-you-here, thug-wannabe edginess.

“It is. The same plant gives us both mustard and mustard greens” I confirmed, hoping to get us back on point. I was successful for about three seconds, and then…

“Mr. Lucker! You’re telling me that the spread…the yellow spread…” he motioned slowly, holding his hands high and pantomiming spreading mustard across a piece of bread, “…and mustard greens come from the same plant?!” in a tone of voice that suggested I had insulted a family member.

“I am.”

At this point, our visiting administrator jumped in and tried to explain how the yellow stuff in the jar is made from the seeds of the plant all ground up and mixed with other ingredients, while the greens come from the top of the plant, and where the seeds are located within the plant, which seemed to totally overwhelm the young man, and most of the rest of the class.

He stared at her with disbelief.

“I forgot we had a science teacher in the room today” I interjected, trying to steer us back on course. “But yes, mustard in a jar and the mustard greens that get cooked up come from the same plant.”  Wishing that he would be satisfied with that, I was moving on. ” So” I asked hopefully, ” what is the parable about the mustard seed saying? What is the message of that story?”

The room was silent, but the facial expressions of the most of the other twenty or so kids mirrored that of young Daniel. The whole ‘yellow spread/greens’  thing was still looming large.

“Mr. Lucker” said ‘Daniel,’ earnestly and sadly, shaking his head, “The spread and the greens comin’ from the same plant! That just. Aint. Right.”

“What can I tell you, Daniel. It is what it is.”  He frowned, and with a sigh, rested his chin on his now crossed-on-the-desk arms.

We eventually got back to parables, allegories, and Poe – but I am pretty sure the key take-away from class for most of my students was unexpectedly culinary in nature.

All things considered, I guess I should be grateful the girl didn’t use the prodigal son as her example parable. At least we got Daniel to open up a bit.

Maybe that is my mustard seed.

Keeping it (and my) coooool

earworm (EER.wurm) n. A song or tune that repeats over and over inside a person’s head. Also: ear-worm, ear worm.

I have a technique I use on those days when I need a little ‘something extra’ for getting myself in the correct frame of mind for dealing with my classroom full of underachieving and behaviorally challenged high school students, and I’ve found it to be very helpful. It’s all about keeping things cool.

I get the ‘Peter Gunn’ theme rolling in my head; a self-inflicted ear worm, if you will. You know; that menacing slide trombone da-da-da-da-da-da….
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMSi4x1ezEk&feature=related

The self-inflicted earworm is a very effective technique that I highly recommend, though the choice of tune is totally up to you, and is certainly situational based on you and your personality – and of course, your job.

Da-da-da-da-da-da….da-da-da-daaaa….

There are times when a random tune has cropped up to frame a specific classroom situation – like when from across the room one of my teenage charges thinks I don’t see him/her using their cellphone, and I can casually, stealthily come up behind them to quietly deliver their invitation to the next session of lunch detention for said electronic device infraction. That’s when I start hearing the theme from ‘Jaws’ in my head.

Dumdumdumdumdumdumdum…

Fortunately, that one (song or mood) doesn’t hang around very long.

Mostly I stick with the planned stuff. Peter Gunn is a hip,cool, ‘hey-I-got-this’ confidence booster/mood setter. Television and movie themes from the sixties in general have a strong track record in this regard, though Hawaii Five-O is a bit much, with the beat jacking up the testosterone too much and then overpowering the plot and the scene. Too sinister for classroom use is The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, though that one has been known to pop up in staff and management oriented situations. Or parent teacher conferences. If I’m going toe-to-toe (nose to nose?) with a parent who insists their little darling is not the thug wannabe sitting in my classroom, that forlorn whistling helps.

For the record, Mission Impossible works well if you need to get your head straight to deal directly with the district office: think, ‘blowing things up, start from scratch.’ And of course, mood wise, if the week starts to drag a bit, I can always mentally cue-up the Route 66 theme to speed up and smooth the path for Friday afternoon departure. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vcZ1k4d02KA

Just like in the movies, an excellent soundtrack can set the scene, set the mood and make for powerful scenes and memorable moments. Though in the case of the self-inflicted, on-the-clock earworm, be careful; with great power comes great responsibility.

I figure I’m okay as long as I continue to use my powers for good and not evil. Da-da-da-da-da-da….

…daaaaaaaaa-DADA!

Characters who helped shape mine (#1 in a series) The Grocer

It is well documented that scents and smells are among the most powerful of memory triggers; I have to believe that sounds cannot be far behind.

When I began teaching, I purchased a set of self-inking stamps for classroom use, one of which I use on a daily basis: my red thumb. The thumb stamp has become one of my most versatile and effective tools with the high school kids I teach, as I use it during certain class work times to quickly update students. A ‘thumb up’ is for encouragement, a ‘thumb down’ is a silent indication they need to get on track, a ‘sideways thumb’ is my ‘rethink this’ signal – a true student agitator.

My students all know the thumbs and their meanings, and I hear about it quickly if I am not making the rounds with my stamp when they think I should be. Many will react a table or two away if they hear my now-familiar ’ca-chick, ca-chick’ stamping sound, and start writing faster.

My students periodically work in class from literature workbooks that are nicely self-contained; a literary selection, sidebar questions on every page, more extensive written work at the end of the selection. This format allows me to do a fast check of the day’s work, stamping quickly as I go through a pile of workbooks. Students can get a variety of thumbs on a given selection. If a student hasn’t done any of the work, I can blow through the selection with a rapid fire series of thumbs down in all the blank spots.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

I have been doing this for quite some time, and never gave it a whole lot of thought. A few days ago I was sitting in my classroom going through some workbooks of a particularly difficult pair of students that refuse to do any work. I had tried dealing with them during class, but knew that not a thing had been written in either book. Sure enough, as I started thumbing through them, everything was blank.

‘ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick…’

And all of a sudden, it was 1965 and I was six years old, in a SuperValu grocery store at 34th and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis; light-years literally and figuratively from my current home base of New Orleans.

The store was one of the first supermarkets in the neighborhood – huge, for the time. It was a clean, crisp shop owned by the Williams family; Joe, Marian and Randy. My parents preferred shopping at the new Red Owl supermarket a few blocks further down Chicago Avenue, but Ivar and Lila, the elderly couple that owned our duplex shopped at SuperValu. They were my de-facto grandparents in so many ways, and they would babysit me on Friday nights when my parents went bowling. Friday night was also their grocery shopping night, so after dinner, we would pile in to their red-and-black ’58 Nash-Rambler station wagon to load up for the week.

Ivar was good friends with Joe Williams, the store owner, and always referred to him as ‘Super Joe.’ Ivar was an immigrant Swede who gave all sorts of people nicknames as a course of generational, immigrant habit, I think. Every time we were in the store, the two of them would strike up a conversation while Lila and I began cruising the store aisles. One of Ivar’s many nicknames for me was ‘Little Squirt’ – usually just shortened to ‘Squirt’ – a nickname that the startched-white-apron-and-paper-hat wearing Joe then adopted whenever he would see me; “Hey, Squirt! How are you today?”

The store was also right across the street from Horace Mann Elementary School, and once in a while I would  be in the store after school with someone or another. Super Joe always greeted me heartily, which was impressive to any other kids who happened to be around: I knew Super Joe and Super Joe knew me! (This was on display vividly during Thanksgiving of my first grade year, as our teacher, Mrs.Kime, brought us all to the store to shop for a Thanksgiving feast we then prepared at school. Joe told everyone I knew the store so well I should be leading the tour and explaining things.)

Friday night bowling was a big deal for my parents, and for me: an evening with Ivar and Lila meant having dinner and going grocery shopping, maybe watch a little television or play Chinese Checkers before bedtime if we got back early enough. May not sound like much, but it was a rockin’ Friday night for me, usually kicked off with Lila gathering her shopping list and coupons and Ivar announcing in a sing-song, Swedish-tinged, “Time to go see Super Joe!”

Every trip to SuperValu with Ivar and Lila followed the same basic script: Ivar and Joe would chat, Lila and I would start shopping, Ivar would catch up to us, and I would then be on the lookout for Super Joe. Once any eye contact was made with Joe, I would immediately dash to the aisle where the baking supplies were.

The bottom shelf on one side of the baking goods aisle was reserved for all of the big bags of flour and sugar, the twenty-pounders and such. (Hey, people were still baking from scratch a lot in 1965) Once I reached the baking goods, I would find an open spot on a bottom shelf, then squeeze myself into it, pulling my knees up against my chest, and resting my chin on my knees – sort of like during a fallout shelter drill at school. It was usually a tight fit, but they didn’t call me ‘Squirt’ without cause.

Within a few seconds, I would hear Super Joe walking down the aisle, wondering about what the price of flour was that week. A furtive peek around the bag of Pillsbury Gold Medal that I was huddled next to revealed Super Joe standing at the end of the aisle, drawing his shiny silver price stamper from his holster and adjusting the little wheels on it to the correct price. The wordlessly, but usually humming or whistling to himself, he would make his way down the aisle stamping the bags of flour with their correct price:

Ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick…’

When he arrived at my locale, his only acknowledgement that I was scrunched up there was, in one single, smooth motion, to place his hand on my head, smack the back of it with the price-stamper, and continue on down the rest of the aisle, wordlessly heading on to some other part of the store.

‘Ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’ fading into the distance.

At this point, I would get off the shelf and run to catch up with Ivar and Lila, wherever they were in the store, and ask them to check the price on the top of my head, to which Lila would usually say “I think you’re worth more than that!” while Ivar would reply, “Ya, I tink it’s about right!” That usually got him an “Oh, Ivar” mock-scolding from Lila. We would then finish our shopping, get our S&H Green Stamps, and go home.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

1965 was also the year that Ivar and Lila retired, and moved to their lake place north of Brainerd, in Minnesota’s north woods: Horseshoe Lake was the locale where I spent my summers for the next dozen years. As my family usually shopped at Red Owl, I didn’t see Joe nearly as often.

But we weren’t through with Super Joe. He and his family visited us at the lake from time to time, and a few years after Ivar and Lila moved north, Joe and his family followed suit; they bought a small town grocery store in resort country about an hour’s drive from Ivar and Lila’s place. Both families remained friends until Joe’s untimely death a few years after that, when I was  thirteen or fourteen. I had experienced death before, family members and close friends, but I remember this was the first time I had grieved for someone that I really had no strong, tangible connection to. He was just a good guy that I knew from going to the grocery store with Ivar and Lila.

I have no idea why Super Joe and his price stamper escapades all came back to me the way they did, nearly fifty-years after the fact, sitting in an empty classroom in Louisiana. I use my stamper frequently. But return to me they did, and it gave me a smile when I needed one, being less than thrilled with the performance of my students.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

I don’t know how the flour-bag routine got started, not sure why it still resonates so strongly with me today, it just does. Ivar and Lila were a huge part of my life; de facto grandparents who hosted me at their lake place for the entire summer every year of my youth. The relationships made and the life lessons learned over all those years are immeasurable. The old SuperValu store? Now an inner social-service outreach center. Super Joe Williams? A nice guy we used to buy groceries from who took a couple of minutes each week and once on a Thanksgiving shopping trip to make a kid feel special.

That’s all there is to the story, really. Just a childhood memory that returned at the oddest of times, triggered by a now oddly familiar, new yet retro sound. Or maybe its just a fun-filled Friday night remembrance.

Whatever it is, you just can’t put a price on it.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’