Why not...

My last of twenty-seven years in the secondary classroom, my baby just now in college, a government and economy looking like something out of Duck Soup, a pituitary tumor, chronic migraines... Hell, why not write a blog?

(My students are now gone. I'm now a civilian and really no longer a "lame duck." I hope the readers of Mama Duck will come to my new blog for some new writing and new directions. My new blog is at: Writing Isle to Isle.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Overnight Memes and Brilliant Satirical Response

I've been watching in amazement the proliferation of Photoshopped images (now a meme) of the sadistic officer pepper spraying UC Davis students. This article gives a good sampling of some of the better ones if you've missed these popping up on Facebook. http://www.christianpost.com/news/casually-pepper-spraying-cop-internet-meme-uc-davis-pepper-spray-incident-goes-viral-overnight-photos-62728/

The best use of this meme I've seen to date, though, is a dubbed YouTube video done by Sarah Harbin called "Hitler Reacts to Pepper Spray Meme." Had to share it here. (I've noticed that double clicking and going directly to the YouTube page will get better results for some reason. Don't know why this is the case, but it is. Trust me, it's worth the trip.) Thanks to Sergio Toporek who had posted this on his Beware of Images Facebook Page.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A bit scared of red?

This morning I made a quick run to my mailbox in the school office to check for mail. Our union flyer I had hung there last Wednesday that reminded teachers to wear red as a show of solidarity for the opening of the special legislative session today hung over me as I sorted through mail. I caught just a snippet of a conversation leaving through a door questioning if red was appropriate-- "Isn't red the color of Communists?" one teacher questioned, mostly in jest. Still, I sent this quick note to the staff and thought I'd share it with you all as well. 

Why red today?

For those a bit uncomfortable with the Socialist and Communist links to red, a bit of history might allay your worries. Red has long roots as a signifier of defiance. Captain John (a teacher on our staff known for nautical lore) might tell you that late 13th Century records show ships at war sometimes used red flags to indicate ‘no quarter would be given’ meaning surrender was not an option and any prisoners taken would be killed. Red meant business. It’s time we as teachers mean business when we say “no more cuts!” http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/vxt-dvb2.html#baucens

Later on, castles, ports, and towns that refused to surrender during a siege would hoist a red flag, following this tradition. Perhaps we should all hoist red flags above our public school buildings, above each and every crowded classroom. 

Socialists and Communists certainly adopted red in their 19th and 20th Century struggles. Teachers as well, many with Socialist and Communist tendencies, adopted red flags as their symbols. One was Yetta Stromberg who taught at a summer camp that helped working-class kids. She was a dedicated teacher and communist. She was also 19 years old. Her problem was hoisting a red flag daily which violated a California law passed in 1919 that prohibited the public display of red flags—dangerous stuff. Yetta was arrested along with other camp counselors. Their case went to the Supreme Court. Alito and Scalia weren’t on that court, and the Court found for Stromberg. Ah, the good old days when our Supreme Court actually protected individual speech. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0283_0359_ZS.html

Red, of course, has other symbolism. Blood, passion, anger—all of these should fit the circumstances of our teachers in public schools today as this special legislative session opens to figure out what to do with a budget short fall. A short fall not caused by us, but by national circumstances and regressive tax structures within our state. We put our blood and passion into this job, and we should all be damn angry that any legislature would entertain cutting our public schools again.

So time to hoist the red flag gang!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Shopping Stinks

This morning my husband and I marveled at the viral YouTube video, The Waffle Riot, showing Walmart shoppers climbing over each other while showing ample ass crack in an appliance-grabbing frenzy. (I had earlier posted the video, but it appears to no longer be working...hmm. Is Walmart offended?) Anyway, I guess I’m un-American. I don’t get it. Not only would I never hang out for a bargain at a box store, I don’t like to shop. Period. I don’t like the crowds. I don’t like having to cruise row after row of cars, only to in the final moments of actually finding a vacant slot for mine, have to battle for it like Mad Max with some frantic guy in an SUV. The poor bastard, of course, is on his way to fulfill a jewelry-store fantasy planted in his head by a Jared commercial, but the diamonds he’ll buy his wife are no doubt dripping in Congolese blood. I don’t like the plastic bags, or plastic smiles on the salespeople, or plastic sales prices. I don’t like having to stand in a long line to give some corporation my money.

The worst part of shopping for me is the fragrance. Well, calling the stench in malls “fragrance” is like calling midriff tops on middle-aged women “fashion.” Trying to shop in a mall for a migraineur is a process of breath-holding zigzags through pungent clouds of synthetic compounds pumped out of stores like Abercrombie and Fitch. Of course, like radiation, these chemicals don’t stop at their doors. They fallout into the public course ways landing on jackets, hair, and purchases; the benzene derivaties, aldehydes, and other toxins and neuro-sensitizers—many known carcinogens are inhaled by hapless shoppers like me looking for jeans that fit. Nine-five percent of the chemicals used in fragrances are derived from petroleum. Breathe in that middle-eastern oil, shoppers.

These odors not only trigger migraines, but possibly cause cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions—these are all pretty serious allegations. But of course, we have known about these health risks for a long time, or at least our government has. In a study brought before the US House of Representatives in the 1980s in a report --Neurotoxins: At Home and the Workplace, Report by the Committee on Science & Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Sept. 16, 1986 (Report 99-827)—it was clear that the soup of chemicals used in the various fragrances used to cover the normal odors of life posed health risks. But government opted for "self-regulation" to “protect” consumers from these dangers. After all, fragrance companies are the experts on fragrance. Why should bureaucrats get involved?

Even though both the FDA and EPA have the power to regulate these toxins, government has handed our health and safety over to industry associations like the International Fragrance Association and the Personal Care Products Council aka the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA). Of course, just like the rest of the government regulatory structure, the entries and exits to these private guardians of public consumer health are strictly guarded by revolving doors. Take John Bailey, PhD, the former head of FDA’s cosmetics branch. Guess what lucrative digs he’s in: yep—Vice President of the Personal Care Products Council. Bailey and his friends at the Personal Care Products Council are busy lobbying for over 600 companies in Washington, D.C. to promote “science-based legislation." And on goes the iron-fragrance triangle.

“Science-based legislation.” What could be wrong with that, right? Well, since the cosmetics industry “self regulates” in order to protect their precious ingredients (we could tell you what’s in our fragrance, but we’d then have to kill you), it’s their science we must rely upon. That’s kind of like relying upon BP’s scientists to tell us if the Gulf is safe for manatees, or relying upon PG & E to assess the levels of hexavalent chromium in Hinkley, California. Lobbying organizations, both international and national tell consumers they’ve set “safety standards” and have strict “code of practices” while ensuring their member manufacturers that their trade secrets are kept in the vault. That, of course, prevents governments from moving toward labeling or demanding a knowledge of ingredients that would be required to do independent research for the protection of public health. My favorite PR piece on the Personal Care Products Council website is a “petition” that consumers can click on that reads as follows:

I strongly support the Safe Cosmetics Alliance and am eager to sign this petition. It supports science-based legislation that will modernize and strengthen FDA oversight of personal care products.

I love the personal care products that I use - from my daily moisturizer to bath soap to shaving cream - and want to ensure that they continue to meet the highest safety standards. That's why I support the work of the Safe Cosmetics Alliance and legislation that will modernize the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in ways that will enhance cosmetics regulation and further empower scientists at the FDA. I fully support the Alliance's efforts to enhance FDA oversight and give the Agency the information and flexibility it needs to continue to ensure product safety and safeguard my health. Therefore, I join the members and employees of the Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors, the Professional Beauty Association, the Direct Selling Association, the Personal Care Products Council, and consumers of cosmetics and personal care products in encouraging you to support science-based legislation.

Unfucking believable. You really do have to hand it to the public relations/lobbying world. Somewhere in the fragrance is a whiff of Frank Luntz. In the meantime, malls have become veritable chemical zones. Last summer I needed to run into an Apple store in one of our local malls. I knew the closest exit to the store, I walked directly to the Apple store, purchased the item for my daughter’s computer, and left immediately. I wasn’t in the store five minutes. Unfortunately it’s in the same wing of the mall as Abercrombie and Fitch. I didn’t even walk by that store. When I returned to the truck, my husband, who had been waiting there for me said, “God, you reek! You’ve got to get that sweatshirt off or you’re going to have a migraine.” I shelled off the sweatshirt and stored it in a cubby in the bed of the truck. It was too late. The odor was in my hair, in my jeans, in my skin even. We rolled down the windows and I helplessly felt the pain come on.

Yes, shopping stinks. Literally. But so too does the reason it stinks. And that stench can be followed all the way to Washington, D.C.

Want to read more about the issue? Here are some links:
Environmental Health Network Petition Summary Analysis
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Living in a state of blessedness

Yesterday morning I woke up 52. There’s nothing particularly sea-changing about that number, but there it is. There’s evidently no numerological protection from pain associated with the number, no Mayan calendar significance for 11/19/11, because as I write this, I have the usual morning migraine.

Even so, yesterday and today I awoke in a state of blessedness. I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept over the past week. I sit in a warm, comfortable home with a beautiful view. I get copious amounts of love daily from my husband, my daughter (now from an Iphone), my codependent cat who must be on my lap constantly, and our rescue wonder dog, a high-strung Border Collie who possesses equal amounts of high IQ and emotional baggage from when she had been abused before we got her. Our other cat cuts into the fray with body motions I’ve seen Great White Sharks use on National Geographic shows. She tries to communicate--what I’m not sure. She’s short on social skills (possibly a form of feline Aspergers), so her methods of getting and giving love are hard to figure out sometimes. But she’s part of the family, and we’ve dubbed her “Sharkey” (even though that’s not her name). She sleeps by my side of the bed, and I think that’s her way to tell me she loves me. Or that she loves her cat bed placed there. Regardless, our home is filled with lots of funny, furry love.

For a living I’ve been doing what I love for 27 years—teaching. And my philosophy of teaching is that inspiration and motivation (two things that don’t show up on standardized test scores) are some of the most important components of my lessons. I have a lot of fun in my classes—I laugh a lot with my students. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have done it this long. I believe that laughter is in itself a state of blessedness. Last week I had a student linger after school to open a conversation about possibly studying history or political science next year after he graduates. I encouraged him of course. Then he said, “I’m sorta thinking of teaching…I mean this class makes me want to teach…I can be a real pain if I don’t like a class, but I really like what we’re learning.” I smiled. I told him I used to be a pain if I didn’t like a class as well. He’s a bright young man, the kind we’d hope would find their way into teaching. Let’s hope the powers that be in education with their standardized tests and new acronyms every Thursday will find a way to keep him once he’s in the field. Teachers need support, a simple blessing really—well, that and a better paycheck, especially for entry-level teachers.

My blessings extend beyond my immediate family and my career. I couldn’t talk about this feeling of being in a state of blessedness without talking about my two best friends. I somehow fell into a tripartite accord that has lasted since 1977, the first day I walked into my college dorm at the University of Montana. The three of us have kept the others’ bodies, souls and spirits afloat all these years. One of the greatest blessings that comes from this triangle is to have a language all our own. Over the years we have cobbed together some synthesized trialogue based in Jimmy Buffet lyrics, Steve Martin riffs, and margarita moments. And how comforting it has been to effortlessly fall into the rhythm of that language at moments in my life when I could barely stand on my own. A hair-dye intervention when my dad was dying and my mom had Alzheimers. A call before neuro-surgery. Lifting me after a long bout of migraines. As I’ve told them, we’re as sturdy as a three-legged Montana bar stool.

The etymology of the word blessedness in Christian texts comes from 15th century beatitude, meaning “supreme happiness.” But of course, Christianity mixed “blood” in suggesting Christ’s sacrifice for sins committed by all of us sinners to come. In the writing and re-writing of various books in the Bible, blessedness meant anything from Old Testament blessedness that God bestowed upon Adam and Eve in providing them companionship and a Hawaii-like setting to the kind of blessedness Israel received. “That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.” (Genesis 22:17). The land of Canaan was later delivered to Israel as a birthright, and “Judah and Israel were many, as the sand which is by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking, and making merry.” (1 Kings 4:20) Later in world history, after the Balfour Declaration, pogroms in Russia, and a couple vicious world wars, the Palestinians scratched their heads and said “whose blessing?”

 Of course the most significant Christian teaching on blessedness comes from Christ’s sermon on the mount (Matthew 5). How the Christian right fails to keep this portion of the Bible in their NRA crosshairs is beyond me, but not being a Christian myself, it’s a part of their scriptures I particularly like:

The Beatitudes
1Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2and he began to teach them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Christ was a lot more about doing than saying, and for him, a state of blessedness resulted from deeds. The Hindus likewise believe that a state of blessedness, nirvana, must be earned through deeds. I like that part of their belief structures; I don’t like the notion that poverty is explained by not doing a good enough job in the good deed category in a past life. One life can be challenging enough; I hate to see children in desperate poverty assumed to be guilty for something they did in a past existence. But then America has a status quo way of justifying poverty, and it is just as deeply rooted in the Protestant work ethic and our Puritan roots. Go figure.

Of all religions, I find the teachings of Buddha to resonate most clearly about true blessedness. After all, isn’t blessedness how we cope with the dualities of life? Isn’t it a process of finding rich fulfillment in those we love while living within a world constantly darkened by a pepper-sprayed hate? Aren’t we, especially as we age, losing family and friends by cruel illnesses and tragedies only by pulling ourselves through those losses in finding life-affirming connections and joy in those we still have with us? Don’t I continue to despair at our broken political and economic system and at the same time find enormous humor in its players? Can I prevent the corporatization of public schools or curb testing that doesn’t gauge critical thinking? No. But I can inspire and teach and motivate until the end of the year. And have a hell of a good time doing it.

So here I am in my state of blessedness, continually looking and attempting to learn more as I age. There’s so much to learn and do and be before I grow up, and my fulfillment will continue to be in the people I love and the connections I make with others. And that includes my animals. For who could look into the eyes of a Border Collie and not think of the word nirvana?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A John Gault November Rain

 Joshua Trujillo, from the Seattle PI, took this picture of 84 year old Dorli Rainey who had just been pepper sprayed to remove her and others from Occupy Seattle.

It’s raining today. It’s a God-awful cold, oppressive rain, the kind that feels like a million John Gaults pouring down from the smothering gray. I know each drop is a false prophet sent from FOX News. Miniature Gaultians all boasting and blustering, but few produce grand machines or wet us with brilliant self-reliance or teach kids to read. It’s a kind of rain that drowns us with mortgage-backed securities and horse’s-ass-race politics. It’s a trickle-down kind of rain.

It’s just the kind of rain that soaks kids and old women and priests holding the lines at Occupy Seattle. It’s the kind of rain chilling those in Occupy Portland. It’s a rain full of police truncheons. A rain that smells like pepper spray. It’s a window-pounding rain rapping in a staccato “Zuc-cot-ti Park” “Zuc-cot-ti Park” rhythm. And this damp night cadence that reminds me that kids and women like Dorli Rainey, pepper sprayed at the age of 84 for holding her ground, for being an age at which one knows that dignity comes from endurance, no longer have tents tonight. Tents. Tents are too much to ask when regular people are exercising their First Amendment rights. Our Supreme Court sprinkled corporations with our rights as if those rights were holy water anointing medieval kings. So endorsed and blessed, these corporations exercise their First Amendment from the comfort of leather boardroom chairs and attorney luncheons.   

But our kids and old women like Dorli continue speaking truth in raw sopping cold. How much I owe them. And, God, I do hate November rain.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dr. Jekyll, have you tried herbal tea?

I haven’t updated this blog as of late. I’ve struggled with migraines and haven’t been myself. Or maybe this is my new self.  I don’t know. Cancer survivors talk about “the new normal.” I’ve been living with disabling migraines as my normal for nearly twenty years now.

I have Jekyll and Hyde migraine cycles. I’ve had an especially Hyde run in the past two weeks. Today I sit here without any pain and think about the woman—that agonized and exhausted and dispirited and edgy Ms. Hyde who’s been walking around in my scarves and sunglasses. I drank no potion for her to assume my identity, and there’s no consistency for when she’ll show up for a week or two. I have no real antidote for her arrival either, none that spirits her away to another dimension. I sit here relieved, though, just glad the imposter is taking a break for a while, for I know she could assume my identity by tomorrow morning.

Ms. Hyde looks a lot older than me for starters, partly because her face is contorted by the pain in the right half of her head and partly because she is too exhausted in the mornings to apply makeup. She awakes in my bed almost daily with half of her head skewered by some invisible sharp object. Sometimes I can dull the pain in her right eye and send her packing; sometimes I can’t. She wears sunglasses to class and looks to the world like a bitter mid-lifer with a hangover. She barely smiles at students I happen to adore. They’re enormously patient and indulgent with her. She reads emails from administrators and loses patience too quickly with their inept decision-making. Loud bells, perfume in the halls, and flickering fluorescent lights only elevate my alter ego’s potency. By the end of the school day Ms. Hyde is spent from her forays into my world. She drives my car home (using my driver’s license) where she falls into my bed and sleeps on my pillow for hours. This after kissing my husband. The nerve of the woman!

I’m not bi-polar, and I know Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, from where we get the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde metamorphoses, certainly was not written as an allegory for a migraineur’s cycles. But there’s something to the lack of control I currently feel over my own life that parallels Stevenson’s tale. There’s likewise an echo in his story about a general public lack of understanding (or sometimes even disapproval) and resulting personal shame tied to migraines. And Dr. Jekyll increasingly could not control Mr. Hyde. In the past two weeks, that’s the way I’ve been feeling. I’m losing control over these migraines, and thus, I’m losing myself.

Migraines are different than other chronic diseases. They come with a lot of baggage in public ignorance. People are sympathetic, but often offer well-meaning advice on how to “cure” your “headaches.” Here’s a partial list of advice I’ve received from perfectly lovely people who’ve wanted to help:
“Do you have stress?” (I teach high school…ya think?)
“Use wrist bands.” (The kind with special pressure point balls on them. Useless as teats on a boar hog.)
“Drink herbal tea.” (Very popular in my part of the country. So many herbs to choose from. Cannabis? Now that might work.)
“Have you tried acupuncture?” (I did; it was relaxing but did nothing to prevent or alleviate my migraines.)
 “Have you tried deep-tissue massage?” (I did; and it actually triggered migraines.)
 “Try Vitamin C.” (In all forms…nothing.)
 “Have you tried salty foods? Just eat a bag of chips when you start to get a migraine.” (Eating when getting a migraine is beyond me. I’m a chip slut otherwise. Enough so that I should never have migraines again.)
“Have you tried cold packs?” (Yes. It helps with alleviating the pain some, but it certainly doesn’t get rid of the pain. And that’s only after you get one.)
 “Have you tried feverfew?” (Yes.  Doesn’t work.)
 “Vitamin B2?” (Tried it.)
“Vitamin B6?” (Tried it.)
“Vitamin B-12?” (Yes, I take it daily.)
“Peppermint oil for your temples?” (Peppermint smells better after you vomit.)
 “Masturbation”….honest to god…masturbation. As if when I was getting that kind of pain in my head I’d feel like rubbing myself into ecstasy.  Seriously?
“Jazz music and menthol on the temples.” (I really should introduce the last two people. I envision a great-smelling jazz club.)
“Gingersnaps.” (Might be good for mild nausea but not the kind of full hug-the-porcelain dry heave for hours kind of sick I get with migraines.)
“Ginger root.” (Ditto)
I remember one person telling me that her migraines stopped when she got a divorce. (Yikes. I love my husband so much and couldn’t have survived all these years of migraines without him. But I have met husbands that would trigger migraines. Mine isn’t in that category.)

This list of advice given me illustrates a general lack of understanding of migraines as a neurological disease. And the fact that I’ve tried so many of these things shows both my desperation and journey of understanding myself. Migraineurs fall into magical thinking. “Maybe there will be a simple thing I’ll remove from my diet and migraines will be gone forever.” This comes from anecdotes shared from some of these same people. “My friend removed all cultured dairy products and never had another migraine.” Of course, I know my worst food triggers and have eliminated them from my diet. But as a chronic migraineur, it’s just not that simple. There are so many triggers. And food that triggers a migraine on one day might not trigger one on the next.

But advice keeps coming. This last week an ex-student posted on my Facebook wall (again with the best of intentions) the following: Have you tried juicing before? Or watched the movie "Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead"?? It's changed my life and probably my dads. There's a whole piece in there about a woman with migraines improving so I was thinking about you!”

Wow, I thought as I read it in pain. “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.” What a title. I don’t really feel all that fat, but sick sure fits the bill. I’d be highly insulted if I didn’t know this young woman’s heart. I felt like posting “I have a juicer—love fresh juice, but it doesn’t do much for neurological disorders like migraines.” I didn’t.

Researchers have much to figure out, but they’re pretty sure now that migraines are largely an inherited genetic abnormality. In short—migraines are a neurological disease. Brains of those of us who get migraines, especially chronic migraines, react differently to types of stimuli, especially visual stimuli. Our brains are hypersensitive and over respond to triggers, which cause profound pain. People with “normal” brains exposed to the same stimuli or triggers have no such response. This puts migraines into a similar category of understanding as epilepsy. Both are chronic neurologic disorders with episodic manifestations. This similarity is a reason anti-seizure medicines epilepsy patients take are also preventatives given to migraineurs.

Do people with epilepsy get told by friends that juicing could change their lives? I hope to hell not. And don’t get me wrong—I know that food and a healthy life style are essential to fighting any chronic disease. But would “remedies” like vitamins and herbal teas and—God help me—masturbation be offered up to those with epilepsy? My hunch is probably not. We have a much different social story around epilepsy (although there’s a tragic history of public misunderstanding there as well).

One diet change that has helped me manage my disease in the past is an anti-inflammatory routine. It helped in prevention, but it didn’t keep me from having all migraines. I’m moving back to that process now. That helps because it pretty much takes just about any food trigger out of my diet because it takes just about all food out of my diet: no dairy, no sugar, no wheat or gluten, no alcohol (which I so rarely drink because of migraines anyway—it’s no problem), no chocolate (certainly a migraine trigger), no red meat (no problem), and heavy on Omega 3s—fish, etc., etc. I’ll really miss bread. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, my mind wanders like Rick Perry’s during a debate. I imagine Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde somewhat differently. What if Dr. Hastie Lanyon had, instead of trying to talk Jekyll into some rational sense, offered him the following advice?
“Dr. Jekyll, what might work is to simply have some herbal tea.” Or
“Dr. Jekyll, have you tried masturbation when a metamorphosis is coming on?” Or
“I say, Dr. Jekyll old friend, have you tried juicing?”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Happy Talk

I’ve never liked being on script, unless, of course, I’m in a play. So today when our principal required staff members to go around the room and recite what they found “positive” about “Smart Tuesday,” I looked for a cue from the wings. I drifted momentarily into a faux South Pacific set where my principal morphed into Bloody Mary. She hustled potions, grass skirts and attempted to pimp us—the women in the room (suddenly nubile Tonkinese beauties)--willingly to handsome lieutenants. Was Bloody Mary leading us in “Happy Talk?” My fingers damn near started to mimic two talking birds of paradise, clicking much like something you’d see in the Tiki Room. Would we break into an over-produced choral number where we as a staff sang 
“You gotta have a dream,

if you don't have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?”

I snapped out of it. But Bloody Mary was still there glaring at me, awaiting a regurgitated statement similar to those previously offered from some of my colleagues: “It was nice to work one-on-one with some of the students.” “I had large numbers show up to make up work.” Shit. I hate this type of coercion.

I took a breath. “Well,” I started, “I had about six students come who were all from the same class, the result of how our scheduling and tracking seems to work.” Bloody Mary frowned. “None of them had done the same assignment, so I had them all work on one which was essential for skills needed to go on. I tried to work with them individually.” My voice was programmatic and edgy as hell. “I also had students come in to study who said they just needed a quiet place to study. I didn’t get to help them.” She moved on, grunting as she kept herself cool with a palm frond. Not amused.

Bloody Mary squeezed as much sweet nectar from the “Happy Talk” portion of the meeting as she could. But then clouds gathered around Bali Ha’i. No more “Happy Talk.”

“CUT! CUT!” A director bellows! “This is entirely off script!” But it’s too late. She had to listen to what didn’t work. At one point Bloody Mary actually “shhh’d” my husband when he countered a point about student sign-in sheets, to which she caught herself, and immediately apologized. She actually “shhh’d” a thirty-year veteran teacher with an outstanding reputation as an educator. He hadn’t been disrespectful. He’d just disagreed. And he had too obviously been right. She a few sentences later admitted as much.

Nobody expected the new program to work perfectly. And this isn’t a case of schadenfreude. But the entire scene would have been much better (or even prevented) had teachers been genuinely included from the beginning. And, are we going to fix the problems brought up in our discussion by the next “Smart Tuesday?”

No…just “Happy talk, keep talking happy talk,
Talk about things you'd like to do
You gotta have a dream,
if you don't have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?”

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"You're either on the bus...or off the bus."—Tom Wolfe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test's Approach to Including Teachers in Decisions

It’s a common story in public education really. Administration goes to some kind of conference and tastes some tasty Kool-aid handed out in small flowered cups from some other administrators working the upward ladder. Needing a program, those sipping the refreshing small Dixies of information come back to their respective school districts with all the revelation of Tom Wolfe’s pranksters and laud the mind-expanding possibilities of said program. Oh, God, “if only you mere teachers, who’ve not sipped out of those cups could see the possibilities the way we do,” they say. The principals’ eyes are wide and dilated. They speak in new acronyms. The program will be a perfect fit for our school! Even though we don't have the details down, and even though the schools that have implemented the plan are nothing like our school, it will be like...like (breathlessly delivered here) "a cross between  Fernand Leger and Dr. Strange, roaring together and vibrating off each other as if somebody had given Hieronymous Bosch fifty buckets of day-glo paint and a 1939 International Harvester school bus and told him to go to it." (Tom Wolfe, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) The principal (I’ll refer to her as the chief from here on) damn near passes out with all of the beginning-of-the-year enthusiasm—some of it real and some of it just thespian mirage.

Christ, if we could just expand our simple teacher minds to see their possibilities. Maybe the chief should just distribute blotters of LSD at the library door before the meeting, and we’d climb on board. The younger teachers and new teachers are working very hard to see nothing but possibilities. They’re not going to need to place any little cartoon character on their tongues. The older teachers, the master teachers are skeptics by nature. That’s where you need to hand out the LSD first.

But of course, we’re educators, and like any group of teachers at the beginning of the year—with only one paid day to prepare everything—it’s hard to take any of this breathless prattle from the chief very seriously. A giddy chief with no logistical plan—to that we groan and roll our eyes. “How is this going to work?” somebody asks. And with eyes still dilated in enthusiasm, the chief spreads her fingers out in front of her as if to spread magical fairy dust upon the staff and happily replies “I want you to figure out how we’re going to do it.” Then she uses a new acronym she learned from her friends on the merry prankster bus ride back from the conference. We sit like dumb prisoners chained to a wall, heads all facing her, some strange shadow of reality—confused by the new shape in front of us. “Your departments,” she finally clarifies. Now, those with the lowest thresholds for bullshit are clearly not “on the bus.” Sighs and huffs are audible.

But, skeptics and optimists alike, for the next several weeks we take the sprinkles of fairy dust, mix it with clay and common sense and come up with a viable intervention plan. It’s not perfect. It’s easier to follow. Instead of a Hieronymous Bosch we offer up an Edgar Degas. We took the chief’s instructions, “got on the bus,” and fetched up a program that would work better for kids and teachers. We thought for ourselves and used our own creativity. We spent our own time working on the plan. We presented it up to a supportive staff. Isn’t that being “on the bus?” We learned this week, er….fuck no.

Evidently being “on the bus” is driving it hell-bent down hill without brakes just like the pranksters did in The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. We’re using the chief’s plan, conceived in some cosmic collusion between a top-down mandate from central office and some notion of principal autonomy. Being “on the bus” is conformity to the wishes of those driving the bus I learned.

(I suppose that’s why I always had problems with Wolfe’s book. I kept thinking, aren’t they just conforming to nonconformity? Okay, that and the fact that I hadn’t dropped acid. I could be a poor critic.)

So next week, we’re driving the bus into the land of “Smart Tuesday.” Students will get to “do their own thing” and join us “intrepid travelers” with the goal of taking their academic skills “FURTHUR.” Perhaps there will be Kool-aid at break so we all see the cosmos fly by in day glo crazy colors as we ride the brakeless bus to the bottom of the ravine.

“It's like a boulder rolling down a hill - you can watch it and talk about it and scream and say Shit! but you can't stop it. It's just a question of where it's going to go.”—Tom Wolfe (Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why the ukulele, you ask?

I had thought it Kona’s magic
The gecko
And lifting my small singing token,
from burnt rock salt splashes
With closed eyes
I could be there for a moment.

I now have the answer
The echo
Bouncing from my empty left atrium
where my daughter’s laughter erupts
like unstoppable lava.

For to hear her giggling
like happy uke chords
and cackle with her father
over a viral video they are watching--
C, F and G7 chords.

And now, my ukulele
strums that voice
that only a banjo could rival.

Friday, October 14, 2011

'Smart' Tuesday Genesis


How Shit Happens

In the beginning was the plan…
And then came the assumptions
And the assumptions were without form
And the plan was completely without substance
And the darkness was upon the face of the Employees
And they spoke amongst themselves, saying:
“It is a crock of shit and it stinks”
And the Employees went unto their Supervisors, saying:
“It is a pail of dung and none may abide the odor thereof”
And the Supervisors went unto their Managers saying:
“It is a container of excrement and it is very strong such that none may abide by it.”
And the Managers went unto the General Manager, saying:
“It is a vessel of fertilizer and none may abide its strength”
And the General Manager went unto the Chief Executive Officer saying:
“It contains that which aids plant growth and it is very strong”
And the Chief Executive Officer went unto the Chairman saying:
“It promotes growth and is very powerful”
And the Chairman went unto the Board of Directors, saying:
“This new plan will actively promote the growth and efficiency of this organization and these areas in particular”
And the Board of Directors looked upon the plan and saw that it was good
And the plan became policy.
This is how shit happens.

--from Hank Warren’s It Simply Must be Said: A View of American Education from the Trenches of Teaching

I’ve been thinking about how this applies to the new clusterf#*k Lickspittle High is embarking upon called “Smart Tuesday.” I’m thinking it goes like this:

Smart Tuesday Genesis

In the beginning Lady Lickspittle created “Smart Tuesday.”
And it was without form.
And the spirit of confusion hovered over the faces of the staff.
And they spake of their confusion and asked for form.
And then Lady Lickspittle said, “Let there be form,”
And bade us “get into thy PLCs and so create form.”
And as Lady Lickspittle called the night Day, and the day Night, we divided like the firmament from the earth and waters into what we discovered
were really our departments.
And the departments gathered amongst their own for the entirety of the next moon,
Thinking they with dominion over pedagogical expertise
And with a genuine desire to create a workable intervention program
Might offer fruitful and intelligent design to Lady Lickspittle’s
Yet formless “Smart Tuesday.”
And she nodded, for seeing them working was very good.

And because the mornings of the fourth day would provide for more
Curricular continuity, the staff offered the idea of
“Smart Thursdays” instead
And for these there was form
And for these there was consistency
And for these there was intervention
And for these there was teacher buy-in.

But Lady Lickspittle said
“On the educational system tree fruits hang high and low,
but the apples of decisions, staff shall not pluck nor eat,
No, no!”

And the staff blinked mystified when
Lady Lickspittle sent her messenger
The assistant principal to apprise the staff
of their mistake
and that “Smart Tuesday”
regardless of thorns and thistles and
lack of form
is created in Her image
and as such
shall not be questioned.
And shall commence without such form
on October 25th.

And a flood of students shall
wander campus on that day
and for at least three Tuesdays thereafter.
And they shall wander without direction
and will not be paired by real learning needs in any
meaningful way with staff.

And the staff looked at the situation and said,
“this is not good.”

Monday, October 10, 2011

A new generation takes to the streets...

I don't know if other parents take comfort by grabbing their cell phones and finding pictures of protests with an attached message like "at Occupy _______, mom," but I do. I find great comfort in knowing that my daughter is a part of something important. And I find great comfort in knowing that a new generation is taking on the responsibility of shaking us all out of our stupors (as is evident by the cross-generational composition of this crowd). And here we thought they were just watching Jersey Shore.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Homecoming, Class Warfare, and Privatizing Lickspittle High

I don’t know what you see when you drive up to your job on a Monday morning, but here’s what I saw this week as I drove up to my usual parking spot: a posse of toothless, camouflage-capped, flanneled teenage boys doing their damnedest to emulate the bad guys out of Deliverance. Not only had they dressed like those rural river bullies, but also they stormed the quad brandishing a confederate flag the size of a whitewater raft. I put my aching head on the steering wheel. Fucking Homecoming Week.

I took my bags to my door and started to unlock it. A sweet girl came bopping up in a straw hat, freckles painted on. “Hi! Ms. __________,” she chirped. “Are you going to be a hick today?” I laughed and said “Today and every day.” I escaped into my room. What fresh hell do we have this week? I checked the schedule. Okay…
Every day we have an altered schedule. Every day we lose class time to activities. I added up the minutes. 200 minutes this week out of instruction. Why can’t Johnny read indeed?

Monday.     Hick Day (Well that explains a lot.)
Tuesday.     Pink Day (To raise awareness for breast cancer.) How cool is that? Wow!
Wednesday.     Good and Evil Day (Could be fun.)
Thursday.     Class Struggle Day Wait a minute! Did I just read that? Do they mean freshmen sophomores, juniors, and seniors? Or are we talking social classes?

I went into the office for clarification. Is Thursday really to be interpreted as social class? “Yes, can you believe it?” the administrative assistant responded. She shook her head in disbelief and disgust.
“So this really means social classes?” I still couldn’t believe it. Surely there had to be
a mistake. After all, we’re a liberal high school in a liberal, progressive community. We have an Amnesty International chapter and a Gay Straight Alliance for Christ’s sakes! I looked around for an administrator to talk to, but of course, there were none. Both were out of the office at the same time, again. I went back to my room in a huff.

I sat at my desk and tried to think rationally. I knew the kids at the helm of the Associated Student Body. These are great kids. Some of the best student leaders we’ve had in years. These are culturally sensitive, thoughtful students. What had caused them to come up with such a plan? And then it dawned on me. Their theme for the homecoming dance was Titanic (the film). Rich girl meets poor boy and their love lasts forever—or at least until the boat sinks. A ‘first class v. steerage’ kind of theme. Thursday must have been some kind of way to advertise for their dance.

The kids were right to pick up on class struggle associated with the Titanic disaster. After all, if you were wealthy and a woman in first class, you almost certainly survived the disaster. So too did your children. But if you were a mother in steerage, the chances that your child got into one of those lifeboats was less than one in three. And that went for men as well. Fifty-five of the 174 first class male passengers survived. But of 440 men in steerage, only 59 got onto lifeboats. Demographics of the Passengers on the Titanic

That should ring familiar given our current socio-economic structure. Our public education lifeboats have been and continue to be deflated so fewer and fewer of those in steerage can climb aboard. Only those with the ability to afford a first-class education, even in our land grant colleges, are promised the cold, dark ride to something better. And as we know from watching Occupy Wall Street http://occupywallst.org (okay not on mainstream media…they’re too busy sniffing faux asses like Palin’s big no duh report that she’s not running—no shit), kids who went to those land grant colleges are now standing with diplomas in one hand and 70K worth of bank notes in the other. And all in an economy dismantled by those who got to ride in a Rolls-Royce Phantom, sip Perrier-Jouet Champagne, and then step into a bailout raft while the rest of us were playing "Nearer My God To Thee."

But I digress…

Back to the kids and teaching, yada yada yada….

I had about 10 minutes before the students came into class and decided the whole thing needed to be solved by them. After all, they’d just had a hands-on lesson about power and influence when a wealthy member of our community had single handedly pressed Lord Lickspittle (our superintendent) to change the date of the homecoming dance because it conflicted with Yom Kippur. This all occurring a week and a half prior to the dance. Oh, yes, I suppose this is a subplot worth telling.

Context is everything, as I always tell my students, and the context to this story is one of a school district in the throes of financial despair saved by a supportive suburban community. Follow the trajectory of events boys and girls. This is truly a lesson in trickle down economics:

1.     Large moneyed interests got scores of deregulatory measures passed in the late 1990s and 2000s. Among these was Clinton and his cohorts getting rid of part of that pesky Glass-Steagall Act from 1933, making it hence okay for commercial banks and investment firms to have nearly unfettered love sandwiches.
2.     Wall Street taps sweet, seductive derivatives, and credit default swaps in the US alone in 2008 were worth about 58 trillion. But of course, that wasn’t backed up by anything but Monopoly money, so when the entire thing tumbled, the only institution big enough to bail out the banks that the government allowed to get too big to fail was, the government.
3.     Economic recession ensues. Political parties bicker, and stimulus packages are passed, but not enough is done to jump-start the economy, especially when one party’s main goal is not to renew the economy but to bring down the president.
4.     States’ coffers dwindle. Federal revenues to states drop. States facing their own revenue shortfalls cut state employees, state programs and their state employees’ pensions.
5.     Washington State, with $5 billion short for the 2011-13 budget cut damn near half of that from education, including a 1.9 pay cut for staff and educational support personnel.
6.     Our local district finds itself short almost three-quarters of a million dollars and scrambles to keep programs running. Seeing public sources gone, the superintendent turns for the second year in a row to private sources to run the local district. And, in all fairness, while I have many differences with the man over how our schools are run, were I to own a car dealership, he’d be the first guy I’d hire for sales.
7.     A supportive and affluent local community that cares about its public schools rallies together to raise the needed funds to make up at least a half million of the district’s shortfall. Tireless volunteers find donors, both large and small, to keep our schools and programs afloat. It really would take a damn mean dog to bark about that.

Well, Woof! Woof!

As the great and unfortunately late Molly Ivins used to say, “You got to dance with them what brung you.” And if there’s one thing superintendent Lord Lickspittle can do it’s dance.

And of all the policies we have in our district—and we even have one where we’re not supposed to help students one-on-one in our classrooms unless somebody actually can visually see us helping them—you can’t make this stuff up—the one policy in absentia is scheduling extra curricular activities with religious holidays in mind. And let me state for the record that I think there should be such a policy. Were I Jewish, I would be highly insulted if my child had to choose between spending time with her family during such an important and sacred holiday and attending a school event. I, too, would have been calling the school and demanding to know why we didn’t have a policy that was more inclusive of all religions.

But here’s the rub. I would hope I would support a change in policy, not just a change for my own religion. And, I know Lord Lickspittle wouldn’t listen to me because I’m not a big enough donor. And this little tap dance of Lickspittle’s—a last minute shifting of the Homecoming dance to the weekend prior to homecoming--was just one more example of pay-to-play politics in our district.

Right now in our high school, because of the cuts, we have huge class sizes. One of our college preparation senior English classes has 35 kids in it, so many students that they’re sitting on the drama make-up tables in the back. In contrast, because of a group of parents with money and a penchant for curriculum choreography who wanted to ensure their students would get special attention from a retired debate coach, they gave Lickspittle money for the debate program to ensure its survival during cuts. The caveat for the money was that the retired coach had to be rehired for that one class. We’ll call the debate coach the Grand Poobah. He’s truly a nationally recognized debate coach—amazing debate coach, but the guy gave up on teaching anything else a long time ago.

Now, because the principal has admitted that coach has no interest in teaching the younger kids in the room, she has a problem. To get the money for the program, Lord Lickspittle says she has to have him back. So she put two teachers in that classroom—two teachers teaching 26 kids. She’s calling it a “transition year.” Train the new guy. I kid you not! Nowhere in our staffing do we have this kind of luxury.

Obviously the second teacher shadowing the Grand Poobah would be better used to teach another section of English. I can tell you with certainty that none of us get to choose not to teach half of our classes. That’s repugnant, unethical, and cause for dismissal. But, our system has allowed a group of parents to carve out a specialty, privately funded class within our public high school. We’ve become so ravenous for cash that we look the other way when it negatively impacts the rest of the school or it violates basic educational ethics.

My husband challenged both Lord and Lady Lickspittle (our principal) on this arrangement. They scheduled a meeting with my husband; they listened to him, and then implored to know what he’d do next with his information and concerns. He said he wouldn’t go to the press but that it wouldn’t take much for the story to emerge from other sources. I told him I never made any such promises. And I was utterly disgusted with the arrangement. An arrangement that provides a more quality education within our public schools for children of wealthy patrons at the expense of the students sitting in those larger classes, many of whom come from families whose parents didn’t have the same capacity to donate. Class struggle? You God damn right!

So back to the kids coming into my room…to the teachable moment…to letting them solve the problem, if in fact they’d see it as a problem. We’d been talking about media and framing, so how the wording of what they were trying to convey was important. We’d studied Frank Luntz. I showed them this film. I asked them simply, would students end up dressing like these people? And if so, how did they feel about that? Poverty in America

The discussion was thoughtful, kind, and students decided that since it was intended to convey the theme of the film Titanic for the dance (a dance which admittedly was by then over since it had been moved to the weekend prior to homecoming week), that perhaps reinforcing the idea of First Class and Steerage would be more appropriate. Student government kids clarified that Thursday was to be a day to dress like they did in the film Titanic. On Thursday, students seem to have followed their advice. One small victory in the day in the life of a teacher during homecoming.

Going one step further to talk about rural poverty and the stereotyping of the rural poor on “hick day”…I’ll leave that for another day.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Bank of America, I can no longer be your bankcard bag bride

Bank of America, as of today I’m quitting you. It’s going to be tough. I know that within the next several weeks when I attempt to shift our several accounts from you to our teachers’ credit union and reconfigure automatic payments and deposits to a benevolent system, I’ll no doubt go through convenience withdrawals. I can foresee this difficult period so tedious and stressful, in fact, that at some point in the next week I’ll be tearfully exhausted at the end of a long workday, and cuss so loudly at a customer service menu that the dog will flee from the room. Even so, Bank of America, I know I have hit bottom. I can no longer be you groveling bankcard bag bride. I will follow, as millions have, twelve steps to make this change in my life.

1.     First, I admit that I am powerless over you, Bank of America, except as a tiny, infinitesimal consumer. The fact that you want $5 a month from regular people while last year you spent $4 million in lobbying alone tells me that my society and government have become unmanageable. Bank of America Lobbying Expenditures 2012 By the way, the $60 I’ll be saving next year I plan to send to Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign. I trust you’re not funding her campaign since you’ve already pumped $19,750 into her opponent’s race this year alone. Scott Brown's Corporate Donations 2012 And of course that doesn’t include any of the front group money you spend anonymously as a result of Citizens United. It’s not much, but the small check will make me feel much better.
2.     I have come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. It’s called collective action. And the more of us that pull the needle, and collectively stand together to say we did it, the better. I’m posting this on my blog and I’m sending this to all my friends. Don’t worry. I’m no prom queen, but I do have enough like-minded friends who’ll send it to their friends, and they will then send it to their friends. And, some of those friends have friends who are some damn good looking middle-aged prom queens, so watch out.
3.     I’ve made a decision to turn our money over to the care of a credit union—sort of banking Gods. For what it’s worth, the way I understand banking Gods were like what I grew up with in my small town in Western Montana. Those banks, and the people who ran them, were much like George Bailey and his savings and loan. If you want to see that kind of God, watch this: Move Your Money
4.     I’ve made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself. Here’s what I’ve found: I have only two reasons to continue to bank at Bank of America. First, up to now I’ve been just too lazy to switch accounts; second, the women in our local branch are absolutely lovely and helpful and just like the rest of us. They’re part of the 99%. Corporate heads have made stupid decisions, and it’s these poor women who have to absorb all the anger. I know the corporate policy is not their fault. Regardless, I must remove their company’s needle from my arm.
5.     I am admitting to the credit union staff when I go there to move our accounts that I have simply been too lazy (and busy) to switch accounts until now even though I have always called myself a progressive. I am admitting to all of the readers that I am more often than not inconsistent.
6.     I’m entirely ready to have the credit union remove the defects of my character. Unfortunately, I think they don’t offer that service. I’m hoping they’ll do basic electronic funds transfers.
7.     Steps seven through eleven—sorry, I’m too agnostic to even ponder a parallel.
12. I trust once I break free from my pusher, once I get all of these fiscal fuss-items fussed with, I’ll feel righteously indignant. One might even call it a spiritual awakening. I’ll post a message in the future to other Bank of America junkies to let you know how it’s going.

The good news, though, is that there’s help. Call it a sponsor. Here’s a website I found in my darkest hours. http://moveyourmoneyproject.org/about

***This post is in no way intended to denigrate those who use 12 Step programs to battle addiction. I honor all who use any means possible to find their way out of that dark and disabling disease. We’re all really traveling through life one day at a time.