Retold by Michael Simms
A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He yelled: “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am!”
The woman below replied: “You are in a hot air balloon hovering about thirty feet above ground. You are between forty and forty-one degrees north latitude and between fifty-nine and sixty degrees longitude.”
“You must be a writer,” said the balloonist. “I am,” replied the woman, “How did you know?” “Well,” answered the man, “everything you told me was well said, but I have no idea what to do with it, and the fact is, I am still lost. Frankly, you have not been much help so far.”
The woman responded, “You must be a publisher!” “I am!” replied the balloonist, straightening his tie, “but how did you know?” “Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have risen to where you are by a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise you have no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is, you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”
It’s Senior Prank Season. This year’s Best In Show goes to the kid who snuck out of class, and put lubricated condoms on each of the outer third floor doorknobs. I don’t approve of this, which is not the same as saying that it doesn’t garner a certain perverse respect on my part.
Today at lunch, we had nominations for the annual Millardian Award.
Mr. Avril calls us to order, and begins, “First, an announcement. The last day of school will be March the 3rd.” Which is to say that it will be the last full day of instruction before — field trips, more fields trips, emergency field trips, cramming for the state exam, the pre-state-tests, the state test, the post-state-tests, benchmark tests, preparing for senior prom, senior prom, preparing for junior prom, junior prom, Culture Week, and senior skip day, just to mention a few.
Then the Millardian Nominations.
The Milliardian is named in honor of Millard J. Fillmore, deemed by our Social Science Department to be the president who came — and here is our single criterion for the award — as close as is humanly possible to doing nothing at all while still breathing.
In the administrator category, one nomination went to Dr. Hendricks, who, during her professional development session, showed a half-hour film without turning on the sound. It was like some bizarre silent flick without the sub-titles. And nobody in the audience said anything either. The session was so inane that the silence was greeted as a relief.
In the teacher category, we nominated Mr. Martinez. He was asked to sub for a language class. Since he’s Mexican, he goes in, lectures for a whole hour in Spanish. It was a Chinese class.
Mrs. Lane, our next nominee, began a lecture on Melville by saying, “Moby Whale is a big white dick.” Then she just dismissed the class. What would be the point of carrying on? The sweet little detail I love is that, during this one sentence lecture, she stretched out her arms as a kind of measure of length. Or perhaps hung-ness.
In the Total Dissociation category, we have Mr. White. He had a meeting with our batty vice-principal. She talks, and he stares. And stares. And stares. He becomes so dissociative that she runs into the hall for help, because she thinks he’s had a brain seizure.
The nomination for Best Announcement goes to Mr. Danbury. Danbury read a list of maybe fifteen foreign students. Slaughters, just slaughters, every single name. Then he gets confused and announces, “Ah, the names I just read, ah, you don’t need to do anything. Everybody else needs to go to 314.”
Avril concludes, “Nominations will be open until March 8th, the day Millard Fillmore died, as near as anyone can tell. Lunch is adjourned sine die.”
There’s an announcement, an “emergency faculty meeting” immediately after school. On the way, North mumbles something like, “Somebody better be having sex with a student, because I was planning a barbeque.”
It turns out that we, the district, need to spend half a million dollars by Friday. Someone downtown didn’t read the bit that said this grant money had an expiration date, Friday. So now, rather than spend it over the course of a year, we’ve got Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
There are some conditions. The grant it’s not for core academics. It’s for stuff like field trips, extra-curricular activities and like that. All of which have to be ordered and done by Friday. So field trips are out, as are 99.9% of all extra-curricular activities, because we couldn’t possibly get a bus, plan, get the thing done and all that by Friday.
We can also spend it on “perishables”. No one knows what a “perishable” is. North mutters, “Can you spend it on me? I’m perishable.”
There’s some talk about educational movies for the kids. I suggest “Into Great Silence” and “Last Year At Marienbad”, both of which are duly noted. I’m asked to spell Marienbad. No one ever explains “perishable”.
In the end, we settle on are three huge pizza parties for the entire school. For three days, every day from one to three. It’s being billed as a celebration. North asks for his pizza to be vegetarian. The principal gets so mad he puts North in charge of the events.
Last thing I hear is North on his cell phone ordering “854 pepperoni pizzas, and one vegetarian, for tomorrow at one. And the same order for Thursday. And the same order for Friday.”
I’m guessing that , for the first time in human history, by Friday there will be teenagers who will be tired of seeing free pizza.
The rest of the money we just throw back.
We had “an emergency faculty meeting”. So I took these notes.
“– The state test is coming up. Get worried.
– Teach the test and nothing else.
– We need everyone to pass the state test. So don’t give it to any kids who won’t pass.
– According to a new state regulation, we can now exempt some kids (they’re described as the lizards) who we know will flunk. Kids, for example, who have been speaking English for an hour fifteen minutes. So flunk anyone who won’t pass the test.
– On the other hand, the state mandates that we have a 95% passing rate. So don’t flunk anybody, because that makes us look bad.
– Also don’t give anyone a D. That makes us look like we’re passing kids we would otherwise flunk. Which, of course, is true.
– So if a kid is going to flunk, give the kid a C.
– Everyone is here all the time. We also need a 95% attendance rate. The last two weeks, we will have 100% attendance.
– To repeat. Do well on the test, and get the lizards out. But don’t flunk them. And everyone is here all the time.
– Oh, and don’t write the answers on the board. That made us look bad last year, because it made us look too good. That’s why we have to get a 91% this year. We got an 81% last year.
– Have a good day.”
My student teacher gets back from a meeting at his university. So I say to him, “I see other teachers in this building teach all the time. So I know what I look like compared to Mr. North, say, or this one and that. But I have no idea how I compare to other mentors of student teachers. So how do I compare to what your peers say about their mentors?”
He thinks seriously for a second. “Well, they say, for the most part, that their supervising teachers are young, perky and uplifting. And you’re — well — you’re none of those things.”
I love working with student teachers. Perhaps, in part, it’s a way of revisiting my youth. Perhaps, in part, it’s an act of hope.
Today, Mr. Palmer, my student teacher, made one of those mistakes we all make when we are young teachers.
My students, his students now, are writing non-fiction. So Mr. Palmer brought in a love story he studied a few years ago when he was an undergraduate. My class, his class, is an A. P. comp. class, in theory a college class. In theory.
In any case, a love story. A young American, lonely, taking a train from Paris to Beirut, meets a young man, and falls in love. They want to be alone, so they head for the bathroom.
This is the point at which I perked-up, stopped grading papers and –
It turns out that the young lover is a cross-dresser. In the bathroom, they fire-up a joint. At which point the Lebanese dude bends the cross-dresser over, and humps his ass. He rather tenderly gives the American a reach-around. The story ends with the narrator, years later in a gay bar in New York, sadly recalling his one true love.
In truth, the story is narrated with great tenderness and nostalgia, to the extent you can get nostalgic about a reach-around. That said, I see why my student teacher recalls it as moving. I also believe it to be the only story to which my students paid unflagging attention.
When the bell rings, when the students are gone, Mr. Palmer says, “You don’t even need to say it.” I give him that ‘We all make these kinds of mistakes when we’re young’ speech — then I immediately run to David North’s room with that whole ‘You wouldn’t believe’ thing going on.
On Monday, the faculty of the Social Studies Department was informed that they wouldn’t need to teach for the next three days. Instead, they are to give a test. A standardized language test. The students will be shunted into the music rooms, because those rooms are big. There aren’t enough chairs, but there is enough space.
Some pooh-bah somewhere downtown decided that a standardized test, this one to be given to the immigrant kids, should not take so much time. Right idea. So, instead of administering it bit-by-bit over two weeks, they decide to give it all day everyday for three days. This is where the fuck-us bit comes in — if you’re a social studies teacher. Someone decides that teaching psychology, or, say, the constitution, isn’t as important as giving a standardized test. Thus the social studies teachers have to give the reading portion of the test. All day. 8 AM to 3 PM. For two days, plus a make-up day..
The test is for the kids who speak English as a second or third or whatever language. The reading bit involves listening to the kid read a paragraph. A paragraph. The same paragraph. For two days. Plus a make-up day. 8 AM to 3 PM. A paragraph. The look I saw on Mr. North’s face when he heard this will forever define for me the concept stupefied. I mean the poor dude had to lose at least fifteen permanent I. Q. points in five minutes.
Thursday is make-up day. And it’s really strange, because nobody can find the immigrant kids. Someone gets the idea of checking out the bathrooms. And, Allah Akbar, the bathrooms look like Little Baghdad. Yea, you gotta love these kids. They can’t do that she sells seashells by the seashore thing – but that doesn’t mean they don’t know when to run and when to hide. Unlike some social studies teachers I know.
There are rules and procedures. Whenever something is confiscated, say a cell phone, we’re required to tape it to the referral form, make a xerox copy, then send said form, said contraband, and said kid to the in-house suspension room.
So this morning a wet kid showed up to the in-house suspension room with his referral form reduced to soggy wood pulp. The teacher confiscated a water balloon, wrote the kid up, and taped the water balloon to the referral form. The kid, and the balloon, made it about half way down the stairs. Luckily the damn thing didn’t break while it was in the xerox machine.
Then there’s Kim. This afternoon she tells me she referring this kid for having a tampon on her forehead. I don’t even bother to ask. At which point she shows me the referral form, the tampon, and asks me if I have any tape because she’s out. I tell her to not forget to xerox the referral, making sure it’s xeroxed with the tampon attached, and ‘I just got to have a copy. Please. Really, please.’
Christine got called downtown for a disciplinary hearing. The central office was looking to fire her. Her offence? An email which reads, “I hear you. I’ve also got a class of 42. Fuck us!”
Apparently, there is some policy somewhere someplace against saying “fuck”, although there doesn’t seem to be any policy against getting fucked.
Christine survived. As did most of the thirty other teachers whose emails were flagged. They are untenured, young. In other words, vulnerable. But they also have choices, choices not available to the many of us who are older, tenured, and getting close to a pension. Meaning that, instead of “Fuck us!”, Christine’s next email might read “Fuck this.”
The great irony is that downtown is angry about the use of the word “fuck”. Nobody seems to care that a teacher has forty-two kids in just one class of her seven classes.
Then there was Mary, with whom I taught at a Catholic high school. Mary was called to the door by the principal, a nun. As they chatted, the kids behind Mary got boisterous. Mary was a bit embarrassed. The principal was right there. So, in frustration, she turned to the kids and shouted, “Will you shut the fuck up?!” The nun, in her wisdom, decided to treat it like a UFO sighting — think I saw something, but I’m not going to report it because nobody would believe it.
by Michael Simms
I’m a seventh generation Texan, and I’d like to offer an apology to the people of the United States for all the crooks and nitwits we’ve sent to Washington. On the other hand, we also gave you Molly Ivins who famously said, “I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn’t actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.”
So much of Molly’s wit depended on context and timing. I remember watching the Republican Convention on television twelve years ago when Molly was a commentator beside Jim Lehrer. After Pat Buchanan finished his speech attacking immigrants, minorities, unions, teachers, and intellectuals, Molly waited a beat, then said in her flat Texas twang, “It was better in the original German.” Lehrer nearly fell out of his chair trying not to laugh….
We miss you, Miss Molly.
The school district asked us to propose a slogan for its letterhead. I emailed –
The Metropolitan Public Schools
Standardizing The Future One Test At A Time
My kids are so tired of taking standardized tests. Tomyko, a kid in my Advanced Placement class, devised a strategy to entertain himself.
Tomyko noticed that, on this computerized test, every time he answered a question right, the next question was harder. And the reverse if he got the question wrong. He did excellently the first time he took it. But he was bored.
Yesterday, Tomyko had to take the newest version of the same boring test. He thought he’d entertain himself, and see if he could reduce the test to asking him three word questions. But he felt himself a failure, because he could only get down to four word questions, like “Are you still breathing?”
The problem is that the results came back today. I am instructed to take this kid out of Advanced Placement, and send him to a special ed. class. The results of Tomyko’s test, if taken seriously, indicate that the school is responsible for little more that watering him once a week, and making sure he gets plenty of sunlight. And the school is taking the score seriously.
I’ve advised Tomyko to go to the test giver guru, confess to his smart-ass-ness, and throw himself upon the mercy of the school district.
In the meantime, the vice-principal has called “an emergency meeting” of the English Department. We’re to discuss all the kids who didn’t take the literature part of the state test last year. The meeting comes equipped with hand-outs. We’re each given a list with almost 900 names on it, plus some numbers and some blanks Just names and numbers and blanks. We’ve got to make sure the untested kids get tested. I presume the blanks are the untested, but nobody can really tell. The vice-principal, who is running the meeting, forgot the key. So she goes on for an hour about how important it is for us to get everyone tested. And we just stare at names and numbers and blanks. Finally Milford, who is sitting right next to her, notices that she has the key in her notebook. Long story short, I have three students total — three! — who have not taken the test. Two are immigrants, who, at test time last year, were dodging snipers in Baghdad.
The other is Tomyko. How he dodged the test, who knows? But my respect for this kid is growing exponentially.
We no longer love you, boss,
but the reason – it’s just hard to tell;
though there’s one thing we know,
and we can tell this full well –
we’d all love to smash your ass, boss.
Today, after school, I stood by a yellow bus. I looked up and saw a broad wing hawk swooping down on some pigeons. Poor pigeons, I thought. But as the hawk narrowed on a single pigeon, it turned abruptly. The hawk overshoots. Then the pigeons begin to swirl around the hawk, swirl in such a way that the hawk can’t get at any one pigeon. The pigeons use what they have, speed and maneuverability. It turns out the hawk can’t corner worth a damn. As they get to about 30 feet, the pigeons scatter in all directions, hide in this crevice, beneath that window sill, between those chimneys. A clean get-away.
That’s my students. That’s me. We’re the pigeons. We use what we’ve got. And we live to fly another day.
I once taught in an inner-city middle school, in which I was one of only two white people, both of us teachers.
A student once asked me, “Hey, cous’, what page we on?” I run a rather formal classroom. So I turned to him and said,
“Mr. Knight, I’m white and you’re black. Do I look like any cousin of yours?”
“Honest, sir, it depends on what side of the family we’re talking about.”
Black folks use the word “dog” in the same way white folks use “pal” or “buddy.” It’s familiar. It’s friendly. But it’s not suited to formal discourse.
So Victorio says to me, “What page we on, dog?” Then gapes at me, knowing he’s crossed a line.
‘That’s Dr. Dog to you, sir!’ We pause. Then we all laugh.
From now until the end of the year, I’m Dr. Dog.
“If Obama can force you to get health insurance just by calling it a tax, than there is nothing to stop him from making you gay marry an illegal immigrant wearing a condom on a hydroponic pot farm powered by solar energy.”
– Stephen Colbert
Yesterday at the faculty meeting, folks complained that the announcements are way too long, and that many, delivered to the whole school, only pertain to a few. The principal promised to think about it.
Thus it is that, today, we have had the following announcements:
“Just a short announcement to those for whom this announcement is, ah, you know, an actual announcement. Six Flags.”
And my favorite thus far. “Just a short announcement. Bluetooth.” Someone, I think it was Mr. North, hollered down the hall, “Can I buy a verb?”
Then there was simply, “Don’t wear black tomorrow.”
And, “Just a short announcement to those to whom this announcement is to you. Stand-by.”
by Songyi Zhang
Now I understand why the car owners from my hometown, Guangzhou, whine and complain. They’re worried when they don’t have cars, but after they have cars, they’re even more worried. Living in a populated city, they think owning a car makes their lives more convenient than having to take the sardine-can buses, but in fact drivers are often cooped up in their cars in the traffic for hours.
My driving experience is a bit different. It’s not Pittsburgh’s traffic but the car maintenance that frets me. Owning a car is as much trouble as raising a pet.
A year ago, I bought a 2002 Chevy Cavalier with 116 thousand miles on it — big mistake. I used to think the car would be fine if I didn’t drive it too often. Not true. If a dog needs a daily walk, a car needs a daily ride. (It also helps to call it sweet names and stroke its snout — just like a dog.) Thanks to the treacherous winter weather in Pittsburgh, my car went into the garage for a checkup or repair nearly once a month. And I became one of the Pep Boys’ best customers, if not their best friend. In addition to the normal oil changes and yearly inspections, my car suffered from a flat tire and fuel pump damage. It also suffered from a problem in its immune system which caused it to wheeze and hiccup (I’m amazed at how much mechanical jargon I’ve learned in the past few months.).
Different from the Chinese auto mechanics who are usually young men in their late teens and early twenties, slender and industrious, American auto mechanics tend to be middle-aged men, gray-haired with retreating hairlines, standing behind the Pep Boys’ service counter with names like Hank, Bill, and Rusty embroidered on their blue shirts… (I’m very suspicious of any mechanic named Rusty. I can’t imagine this happening in China.) And despite working at Pep Boys, they’re certainly not boys, but they are sometimes peppy guys with potbellies.
Despite my long wait in the customer lounge, I never got used to the strong Pep Boys smell of tires and gasoline. The red front doors seem to separate two worlds—one with fresh air and traffic noise, the other with the strong chemical smell and pop muzak in the background. I hope Hank, Bill, and Rusty have a good health plan. They’re going to need it breathing this poisonous air every day, wheezing and hiccupping just like my car.
Of course in America, as in China, the customers who overpay for any service are the ones who haven’t done their homework. To make sure I’m not one of them, I download an owner’s manual from the Internet. I learn that the symbol which looks like an Aladdin’s lamp is called engine oil pressure. So that’s what I tell Rusty, my Pep Boys’ mechanic, . “Rusty,” I say confidently, using his name in a friendly American way, “I think it’s the engine oil pressure.” After a few hours of celebrating my triumph of talking like a professional American mechanic, I see Rusty who comes to visit me in the customer lounge. “Ma’am, it’s not the engine oil pressure that’s on, but the check engine light .” Rusty reads the analysis of my car’s problems and quotes a price. “Fine,” I say with a gulp, I have to agree to the cost before the repair can proceed. I may not trust a mechanic named Rusty, but who else can I turn to in my hour of need?
Heavy repair on a car is like major surgery on a human. Looking at the three-digit number on the receipt, I figure that the labor alone totals one third of the cost. American labor is expensive! From now on, I’ll have to pray not only for my own good health, but also for my car’s. I’ll also pray that Rusty changes his name.
by Songyi Zhang
This is the second year I’ve lived in Pittsburgh. Just as the Chinese New Year arrived in early February, I received two magazine-size tax return manuals—one from Pennsylvania, the other from the city of Pittsburgh. I guess once you have an identity in the U.S., (for a foreigner, it’d be your residential address, phone number and most importantly, your social security card) you’ll be reminded of filing your tax returns annually.
The tax return manuals are certainly my guaranteed new-year presents from the U.S. government.
How can I forget about this cumbersome documentation? Chatham University’s international affair officer made it clear: all international students, regardless of being employed or not, must file the Form 8843.
8843—it sounds like an inmate’s identity number. To some extent, I do feel myself, as one of the F-1 students in the U.S., am bounded by the paperwork of the Department of the Treasury. Form 8843 is a statement for exempt individuals and individuals with a medical condition. On the form, the subtitle reads: For use by alien individuals only. I don’t like the term, alien. But I guess the U.S. Federal Government sees us foreign visitors no different from the outer space invaders. 8843 actually can make a case number for the X-Files, too.
I filed Form 8843 last year, so it’s just routine, I thought. But this year, instead of filing it on paper, the international affair officer taught us to file the form through an online software. I find the process taking more time than by the traditional method.
How reliable is this tax return software? Can you really depend on the machine to take care of your personal accounting? I mean, the information you provide on the computer is not simply your name and phone number, but your annual assets, your money!
Since the day I spent money in the U.S., I’ve realized I must pay tax on every transaction. So a paperback at the Barnes & Noble is labeled US$15, the total cost is always more than the price tag. Why can’t the price tag show a tax-included price? So I won’t be overly elated when I see a cheap price but, in fact, it’s not cheap when I pay at the cashier. In China, I’d have to pay what it is priced on the item. If a bowl of noodle costs ten yuan (approximately US$1.5), I’ll only pay ten yuan. No tips, no tax, no frills. The price has included the tax.
In America, it’s so different. Customers can learn clearly the breakdown of the cost; the governments, federal and local, try to make their revenues transparent by requesting every eligible taxpayer to fill out tax forms on which list, if not hundreds, but dozens of questions. Some of these questions are interrelated and involved with some twists-and-turns calculation. No wonder an accountant is such a desirable occupation in the U.S.
As long as you have lived in America, taxes will follow you all your life. Even though you’re dead, the governments will chase your soul. I remember when I first filled PA-40 tax returns, in the column of filling status, there’s one option which reads D for Deceased. I didn’t know and wondered. Can’t the government just let the dead rest in peace? Later I learned the departed’s family is the preparer of the form. As they say, nothing is certain but death and taxes.
Brittany has been sent to the re-education camps. That’s what we’re calling professional development these days. It seems that some people have objected to the way the state is running the schools, the state test, dozens of standardized tests, class sizes, one free period every other day. And on and on. These folks, in the immortal words of Cool Hand Luke, “need to get their minds right.”
And Brittany really does need re-education. She teaches right down the hall from me. She is sweet, smart, pretty, from California, 22, so of course her name is Brittany. She teaches math. More importantly, she is a non-tenured, non-union, first year Teach For America teacher. Thus does she merit nine classes, 279 students. Unfortunately for her, she’s expressed some feelings about this. Hence, re-education.
Her core problem is that Dr. Asoka cheated too well on the last state test. The requirement for passing the state test is that the school have a 10% gain over last year. (Jesus help the school that scores a 91%.) Dr. Asoka was so frustrated that he just said, “Fuck all”, and wrote the answers on the board. The problem is that he drove up the school’s Algebra score so high that the only choice was to promote Asoka to an administrative slot, and give all his classes to … well, hence Brittany’s need for re-education.
I couldn’t come up with any actual reason why I shouldn’t go to the faculty meeting. I’m healthy, of sound mind, and have no pressing engagements.
The only serious agenda, at least at my table, was why Mr. Gates has a bra hanging in a tree just outside his classroom’s window. It’s just out of reach, and, for that reason, will remain there for the life of the tree. We ask, and he just responds, “Don’t ask.” Thus are we forced to turn to the meeting’s actual agenda.
The meeting’s topic is “The High Quality Learning Environment.” We’re told that we must address the question, “What does learning look like?”
Each table is to discuss, and put on a chart, various aspects of “The High Quality Learning Environment”. Scintillating topics such as Teacher Interaction With Students, Expectations Of Learning, and Regulation Of Instruction. My gang drew Topic #4, The Planning, Managing And Measuring Of Transitions. We have twenty minutes until we are to share.
Mr. North suggests we begin by joining hands and singing “Kumbaya.” My immediate response is, ‘Well, I’m senior teacher at this table, so my teaching environment from here on is pretty much summarized by simply saying, Fuck All. You folks are going to have to …’. My buddies give me that “Oh, hell no!” thing, and elect me group spokesman.
Our next response is some minutes of numbed silence. Then Sullivan asks, “What, in the name of Sweet Jesus, is a managed transition?”
‘I think it’s something like foreplay. I think we should discuss the planning, managing and measuring of foreplay.’ At which point everyone ignores me, their leader. We’re to outline our response to # 4 on a large sheet of paper, and present this, in ten minutes now, to our colleagues. So respond we do.
The paper is three feet long. Our actual responses look a little measly –
have an agenda
remind kids of the time
remember to remind kids to work
Since I’m to do the presenting in like seconds now, my first question is, ‘What is sequential symmetry?’
Gates says, “It means do the first thing first, the second thing second, the third thing, and make sure the second thing is harder than the first, the third harder than the second, and like that. Sequential symmetry is the latest in teacher jargon.”
‘We actually have a term for this? We don’t have a term for when some wanker leaves one square of toilet paper on the old roll, and thinks this relieves him of his duty to go get a whole new roll. But we get sequential symmetry?’ But mostly I’m worried that I’m expected to present a chart full of mostly nothing.
So I say to Sullivan, ‘We need like, you know, words or something. I don’t mean words that mean anything, just teacher words. Like sequential symmetry. People are expecting me to say, you know, words. I’m the spokesman for # 4. Wait. I got it — put this on the chart. Anticipatory preparation in advance of intermediate assessment and articulation. That sounds transitional, right? Anticipatory preparation in advance of intermediate assessment and articulation? Yea. Put it up on the chart.’
Sullivan refuses to have her name associated with any of this.
When finally I hear, “Number Four. The Planning, Managing And Measuring Of Transitions.”
‘That’s, ah, that’s us. Me. OK, planning, managing and measuring transitions. First, the teacher needs an agenda.’ Which garners me blank stares from the entire faculty. Then I say, ‘Second, an instructor needs sequential symmetry.’ More blank stares. At which point I forget how Gates just explained sequential symmetry. So I add, ‘Sequential symmetry is defined as an anticipatory preparation in advance of intermediate assessment and articulation.’ I quickly finish, without elaboration, the last two points.
I’d like to say everybody laughed. My buddies laughed. Sullivan almost peed. But folks just stared. Some of the young teachers took notes.
The meeting went on to # 5, The Performance And Assessment Of Non-Verbal Duties.
I’ve got a bit of free time between classes, such as it is …
Speaking of Publius, I think he’s a devout follower of Thomas Merton, who once said, “In this era, it is no longer necessary to parody. it’s sufficient to simply quote.”
University of California Press just sent me a Class A Rejection. Since I was a horny bachelor for forty years, and a barely-published writer for even longer, I’ve developed all manner of theory about rejection. A Class A is an actual missive from some living being. A Class B is the rejection slip with a note at the bottom. Class C is, of course, just the rejection note. In any case, I got a Class A for the University Of California Press. I hate when publishers tell me how they find my work, to quote UC, “an appealing submission but…”. The Utne Reader once was interested in republishing my “Ghetto Hawk”. The editor wrote to tell me how it was under consideration until the very last editor’s meeting. I feel like the guy who came in 4th in the Olympics, who lost the race by 1/2934857393023875630283 of a second.
by Michael Simms
Recently I heard someone say that when he stopped drinking, his life changed so quickly it was like being “rocketed into a new dimension”, and I remembered when I got sober a number of years ago, I had the same experience. During the first two years of sobriety, my health, my friendships, and my family relationships were transformed beyond recognition. But now, my life is not like taking a rocketship at all; instead, it’s more like riding a donkey. Slowly, steadily, reliably, the donkey and I are moving down the road. Sometimes, though, for no reason I can see, the donkey stops and refuses to go any further. My tendency at that point is to get off the donkey and beat the hell out of it — teach it a lesson. But that never works: all I get is a mean donkey that bites me in the ass the first chance it gets. What I need to do, of course, is to get off the donkey and wait for it to start moving again. Stretch my legs. Maybe have a picnic in the meadow beside the road. To borrow a phrase from the poet Tony Hoagland, I need to work on my “donkey wisdom”.
submitted by Eva Simms
“A Swedish moose that is believed to have become intoxicated from eating fermented apples was discovered entangled and hanging over the branches of a homeowner’s apple tree, oblivious to its fate.”
from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
submitted by John Samuel Tieman
Charley, a new retiree-greeter at Wal-Mart, just couldn’t seem to get to work on time. Every day he was 5, 10, 15 minutes late. But he was a good worker, really tidy, clean-shaven, sharp-minded and a real credit to the company and obviously demonstrating their “Older Person Friendly” policies.
One day the boss called him into the office for a talk.
“Charley, I have to tell you, I like your work ethic, you do a bang-up job when you finally get here; but your being late so often is quite bothersome.”
“Yes, I know boss, and I am working on it.”
“Well good, you are a team player. That’s what I like to hear.”
“Yes sir, I understand your concern and I’ll try harder.”
Seeming puzzled, the manager went on to comment, “It’s odd though your coming in late. I know you’re retired from the Armed Forces. What did they say to you there if you showed up in the morning so late and so often?”
The old man looked down at the floor, then smiled.
He chuckled quietly, then said with a grin, “They usually saluted and said, ‘Good morning, Admiral, may I get your coffee, sir?’”
by John Samuel Tieman
It was really interesting being backstage, as it were, at a working circus. The gathering audience is getting ready to play. The circus folks are getting ready to go to work. It’s a bit tense, actually. It’s not play to them. The folks are warming up their acts, which means also warming up the animals, ponies and little dogs and such.
We’re not in The Big Tent, but in the hospitality tent alongside it. Our by-invite-only audience is made up of various folks, legislators, dignitaries. First, there’s five performers from the classical guitar society. Then I begin to read.
That’s when I notice that, just outside the hospitality tent where I’m reading, behind the seated audience and slightly out of sight to them, is the rest of my audience. Uninvited folks who stop to listen. Two clowns, a Shetland pony, and three little dogs standing on their hind legs.
First, I projected to the pony. Later, I schmoozed with the dignitaries.
So this morning, the assistant principal takes me aside like we’re plotting an overthrow of the government. She actually clears out a room of the library, locks the door behind us. She jokes about what folks might think, B.C.I., as my students would say, booty call implications for those of us of a certain age. I’m thinking either she wants sex or I’m fired or both. Or maybe she’s got the code for launching The Bomb. In any case, I say a “Hail Mary”, for real. Finally, when the room is cleared out, the doors locked, she takes me by the arm and breaks the news.
She wants me to teach college credit English. That’s the Ultra Magic Classified Decoder Ring Secret Handshake News. That’s it. Three sections of Advanced Placement English.
It’s funny. I once got a “Secret” clearance in the army, and there was less drama than getting these three classes. This woman does this. It’s really crazy. Getting the classes is nice — they’re generally the smart, motivated kids — but the way the assistant principal did it, well, as we used to say in the army, “I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.”
But wait, there’s more –
I go to move some books from another class. I say to Bellermine, ‘You know what just happened to me?’ And he says, “Yea, I hear you’re teaching A. P. English.” He’s not even in my department, and he knows. I go over to the Social Studies Department, and start to tell them the story — and they know. All this drama, I’m ready for a heart transplant, all this over something everyone already knows.
Of course, now that they moved me over to teach these three classes, there’s nobody to teach three sections of what I was to teach, American Literature. But, hey, it’s just literature …
There’s only one advantage to this job. I love the fact that, when I want good material, all I have to do is look up from my desk.
by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
If you walked into my kitchen right now you’d see the cartoon I snipped from a December 2006 New Yorker posted on a cupboard door beside one of Snoopy typing away on the roof of his doghouse, and a photograph of our now not-so-new new president signing something into law.
In the New Yorker cartoon a “suit” with a briefcase stands with his shoulders somewhat slumped and a puzzled, slightly grouchy look on his face. He’s staring at the gabby snail addressing him from the sidewalk below. The caption reads: “I’m your spirit animal.”
This cartoon (along with some knowing laughter) seems like a good place to begin a short saga of writing life which Snail has guided, occasionally stepping aside for Raven or Butterfly.
Indeed I have, in the world of ten thousand poems, put together many manuscripts—both chapbooks and full-length collections—beginning with my Master’s thesis Fireweed, an early effort with a few good poems in it and many earnest but flawed attempts at poems. (I confess: Some years ago I did sneak into the college library and remove Fireweed from the shelf permanently—the kind of heist I’ve heard other poets admit to as well, especially after a glass of wine.) My next manuscript was called Confronting the Angel, a title I soon jettisoned when I was advised that angels were “out” (this was the early eighties) then reclaimed—but jettisoned again when angels were suddenly “in” once more, materializing (or so it seemed) on poetry book covers everywhere.
The new decade brought a reworked sequence of sixty plus pages called Words in Earthquake Country. I felt especially sympathetic to this title and its inherent metaphor—it felt kindred too because in real-time I live within sixty miles of several major California faults. Words was also abandoned then reclaimed again (briefly) after my experience of the Loma Prieta earthquake and my inability for a few hours to check on the welfare of my children a hundred miles away. (For weeks afterward I felt like I was seasick, walking on liquid earth. Twenty-one years later I still remember vividly the sound the quake made—the roar of a train bearing down on us.)
Loma Prieta, 1989
upwind upriver glass
shook my son into the arms
of his sister and news
telephoned their feet
they stood fast there
bold as headlines
cracked bloodlines in plaster
incisions in concrete
some true things collapsed
a bridge in our minds
snapped and fear
furrowed like headlights
in the belly of the bay
hands and knees crawled
but the way was
flashlit the way was after
and shrines of dead
Fast forward a few more years: to Water Signs, another collection and title that hung on, making a few publisher rounds even as it outlived itself, until the poems in it morphed drastically and thus cried out for more change. The transformation occurred; the new version was called Eden Street; like all Edenic stories, this one too was short-lived.
So many false starts in this world of ten thousand poems!—Many tries at chapbooks too, titles like Glassworks, Attar, Face in the Glass, Archipelagos of Old Age, among the few I can remember. Most went the way of all those others I filed in the bright blue twenty-gallon recycling cans beneath the pink crepe myrtle in my yard.
Each time I unloosed and tossed yet another stack of poetic history in, I bowed to the loquacious snail at my feet.
by John Samuel Tieman
I’ve been asked to write a poem for Circus Flora. Flora is the eponymous African elephant, now in retirement. Here’s my first try:
Tanka For Flora
Now in retirement
Flora contemplates her life –
the circus — the kids –
she recalls Africa and
knows somewhere — somewhere out there –
An assignment like this brings out the playful side of writers. When I told my friend Arnie Schnegel about it, he immediately sent me these two delightful poems:
Flora, the elephant,
Is quite the dancer.
In her tutu she looks
Circus Flora has gone
Now she can wear
Naming the Elephant
Why didn’t they
Name you Mary?
And when Phoebe Cirio, my love, saw Arnie’s poems, she came up with this one, the best of the lot:
There once was an elephant named Flora
Who liked to dance the hora
Away she did go
No longer with the show
But we do still adore her