Humor

Today is Records Keeping Day

Wednesday, January 8, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

I just get back from Christmas Vacation and walk in, when I see Dr. Galvin running down the hall swinging a broom over his head. Literally. Running down the hall swinging a broom. Later I learn that a bat got in the school. Later. But since I didn’t see the bat — the bat was having no part of this swinging broom thing — there was no ready explanation for Dr. Galvin.

Nor was there any ready explanation for Records Keeping Day. We’re having Records Keeping Day on a day in which there are no records to keep. It’s the day before second semester. We’ve turned in all our first semester records. There are no records yet to keep. I haven’t even seen a second semester student. Hell, I didn’t even see the bat.
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Professional Development

Saturday, December 28, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

I asked Andrew how he felt after yesterday’s professional development.

“It wasn’t epically soul crushing.” Andrew is a nice guy. This, it must be noted, was his idea of something good to say.

That said, we spent the entire day at a faculty meeting pondering the following question. “How does the ability to read complex texts relate to the student’s potential for college and career success?” Andrew keeps a list of the top ten “soul crushing” workshops he’s attended. It’s chilling to consider that this one didn’t make the list.

I usually write poetry at these things. It looks like I’m taking notes.

7:45 Roosevelt High

for ND

it’s been a dark dawn and at the last minute
Arianna grades the long student
reflections

she smells the stale ink
and something akin to her mother’s old
age home

her sweater smells of Tide
and chalk she rubbed off the board
she’s been beat for an hour and a witness

to nothing but D’s and lipstick
that smeared on her cuff
a yellow bus crunches low gear

and this is how she begins
nervous over her bell
shaped curve

and the next unit
which she promises
everyone will love

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The Unfairness of Life

Monday, December 16, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

Best quote of the day from a high school kid:

“I don’t know why she gave me an F. She got nothin’ to complain about. I never do nothin’ in that class.”

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The New Kid

Sunday, December 8, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

There’s a rule. Whatever goes on the very first form of the very first day, that’s what you’re stuck with all year long. Misspell your first name, and that’s who you are all year.

4th period and I have my really bright kids, my honors class. I’m in Room 205, but, right at the beginning of the year, the very first form of the year put me down as Room 206. That’s Bob Spire’s room, a nice guy, special ed., went to Northwestern. I know where my classroom is, and he knows where his special ed. room is, so the room number mess-up doesn’t make much difference.

Or at least it doesn’t make much difference to me and Spire.

Some kids care. Like today. This new kid transfers into Dr. Publius’ 4th period honors class. So they sent him to Spire’s special ed. room. As the new kid takes-in Spire’s special ed. room, what he presumes to be a super-smart class, he’s thinking that this is going to be a really long four years. Spire is having them do a worksheet, “They’re, Their, and There”. The class is getting excited about the new crayons.

Meanwhile, I’ve got some new special ed. kid working on Christopher Marlowe’s “Tragical History Of Dr. Faustus”.
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Red State

Thursday, October 24, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

All this talk about red states and blue states reminds me of one of my favorite historical quotes. When asked in 1860 about secession, old Judge Petigru responded that secession will never work for his home state, because “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”

Some things never change.

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Keeping Secrets

Wednesday, October 16, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

I’m sworn to secrecy on this, so I just had to tell everyone. Some secrets are just too good not to share.

So I ask a colleague about my old school, Metropolitan Middle. Her lover works there. She tells me that, thus far this year, they’ve had three principals. “The one they got now, and one who just walked off the job. The other one got fired.”

And I’m like, “Really? Fired? That school is gang infested, drug ridden, violent — what do you have to do to get fired from Metropolitan Middle?”

She swears me to secrecy. Then she tells me that the principal was paying a teacher to come to his office — and spank him.

I kept the secret for about fifteen minutes. I don’t know what more can be expected of me?

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Ann Richards

Saturday, August 24, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

I’ve never understood how the people of Texas could have elected George W. Bush over Ann Richards for governor back in the 90′s. Perhaps they got tired of her rancorous wit and wanted to have a simpleton instead. I remember Michael Moore made a film called “TV Nation” in which he went around to all 50 governors to see if he could get a hug. When he approached Ann Richards, she said, “Son, I just lost my re-election. I don’t have to hug you. Hell, I don’t even have to pretend that I like you anymore.” Then, to her everlasting credit, she gave him a hug.

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My First Girlfriend

Monday, July 8, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

The other day, all the teachers had to put security checks on our payroll accounts. So there’s ten questions. Your mother’s maiden name. Your high school. Like that. Then there’s, “What was your first girlfriend’s name?” Three of us are doing it together, so North says, “Sally.” And Art says, “My first girlfriend was Emily. What about you?”

“I called her Mama-san go boom-boom five dollar?”

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Where White People Come From

Saturday, June 1, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

My student teacher is answering questions, explaining where his people come from.

“I’m 100% European,” he says.

A young lady who’s black says, “You come from England or some such?”

“Oh, no, I mean you have to go back generations …”.

“Oh, I get it,” she says. “You mean your family comes from wherever it is white folks get kicked out of.”

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Run Did I

Friday, May 24, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

In the parking lot, maybe a half-hour before first period, just as I pull-up I see our crazed educational consultant pull-up in the parking lot. She has this way of hovering around the door, and, without so much as a “Good Morning”, just goes some onerous task she wants the teacher to complete. Our rule is that a minute of her time is an hour of our time. And it’s never a happy ending. Invariably a waste.

Like the other day she comes into my room during lunch, and promises, “This will only take five minutes.” She goes to my computer, fails to find this, fails to log onto that, and then freezes the screen for a bit. Finally, she manages to return my computer to its original state, and says, on her way out the door, “See, I told you this would only take five minutes.”

So this is all a long way of saying, first thing this morning, I see her in the parking lot, and go out of my way to avoid her. Instead of signing in at the front office first thing, I went to my room, taking as much time as I thought it would take for the consultant to sign-in and go to her office. Then I went to the office.

That’s when I hear the screams. In the distance, I see the consultant scurrying off like a rat with a ticket for the Titanic’s return voyage.

I go in the office. There’s this mother hollering at our crazed vice-principal. “You gave my son a three day suspension ’cause you say he sinks his pink into this girl on the bus yesterday. But everybody knows my boy is a butt fucking faggot! These charges are bogus. You gotta un-suspend his fudge packing ass, so I can punch-in work by eight.”

The vice-principal keeps mumbling incomprehensible ed. jargon. “ACT/SAT disambiguation data need we,” and such like she’s some crazed front office Yoda.

For my part, I think, ‘Student I know. Nice is he. Too bad this is. But out of here I need.’ So fast I sign-in, and unnoticed escape I make.

Over my shoulder, I see the vice-principal just walk away from this woman. In the hall right outside the office, she grabs Mrs. Hussein. (Hussein, it’s worth noting, is an observant Muslim.) The vice-principal tells Mrs. Hussein, “In the office talk to you a woman must.”

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A Parable about Publishing

Sunday, May 12, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Adapted 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.”

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The Millardians

Wednesday, April 24, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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.”

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I scorn to change my state with kings

Tuesday, April 16, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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.
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Bullet-Points

Friday, March 8, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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.”

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Perky

Sunday, February 24, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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.”
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Student Teachers

Wednesday, January 16, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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.
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When to Run and When to Hide

Tuesday, January 8, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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.

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Rules and Procedures

Saturday, December 8, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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.’
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Fuck Us! A Public School Teacher’s Rant

Saturday, December 1, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

By Publius

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.

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Good Golly, Miss Molly

Tuesday, November 20, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

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.

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The Good News about Public Schools

Thursday, November 8, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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

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Tomyko

Thursday, November 1, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

By Publius

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.

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After Martial

Monday, October 1, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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.

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Ghetto Hawk

Monday, July 16, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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.

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Cousins

Monday, July 9, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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.”

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Dr. Dog

Sunday, July 8, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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.

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2012 Autumn House Sentence of the Year Award

Saturday, June 30, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

“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

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Just a Short

Wednesday, May 16, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

by Publius

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.”

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A Mechanic Named Rusty

Sunday, April 1, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

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.

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Death and Taxes

Thursday, March 8, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

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.

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