I Was Called to the Principal's Office #1

It is no secret that I am a teacher…..I have kept my mouth closed all these years about what really goes on in your child’s school. But enough is enough.

After an increasingly heated email exchange with a co-worker, (not a supervisor, a file collector) who repeatedly kept asking me for “x” report ( for a subject/class I did not teach), and I politely but firmly reminded her that I was , in fact , teaching “y”, had always taught “y”, that someone else taught “x”…..the door to my classroom was kicked open with a loud bang!, and the principal’s “goon” (an xtra large jr principal, formerly a coach, used as “the enforcer”) stomped in to my classroom and said to me, ”Upstairs in the principal’s office. NOW!”  (What about the students, you ask? Well, they were just left to sit there, unsupervised.)

So together we walked down the halls and up the stairs and down some more halls, and into the principal’s office. We walked together, not speaking. I stood in the doorway to the principal’s office. The principal was sitting behind her desk; she glared at me, and motioned for me to come in. I stepped in, as did the goon, and stood in front of her desk. Like the naughty little child that I was not. (It goes without saying that I am not a rule breaker sort of employee: I follow all the rules, do all my paperwork, turn everything in on time, and am unfailingly polite, regardless of how I feel. That's just how my momma raised me.) I wasn't entirely sure what this was all about, bc the previous email interchange with the coworker, during which I had been unceasingly polite, was now only a distant memory, along with everyone else I had spoken to via email that day, about various reports and tasks, and was but a small blip on my mental radar screen. 

“Why are you refusing to give Ms.C the “x” report?” the principal asked me.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. ”Yes, I know, she seems very upset, but I have been trying to explain to her that---“

The principal shook her head dismissively, willing me to speak faster. She was impatient for this “problem” to be resolved or at least, go away.

At this point I was babbling nervously. “….when she asked me for the “z” report last week, I gave it to her, but today she asked me for the “x” report, and I don’t teach “x”, and I have told her this, and I am just not sure what to do, I did turn my own report in on time, she doesn't seem to get that what she is asking for is something that someone else has, I have tried explaining this to her, but I just don’t know what to do, she doesn't seem to be listening, I’m here to help but……blah,blah,blah…..”

“THAT IS F-NG BULLSHIT!” the principal screamed at me, and stood up, looming over me as she yelled it, and slammed her fist down on her desk, all at the same time.

This got everyone’s attention; even the goon, who had appeared to be dozing while standing next to the principal’s desk, for even he startled, opened his eyes, and blinked.

I started backing slowly out of the office, all the while making what I refer to as my “calming face” (eyes wide open, fake calm half-smile, pitching my voice higher and smoother- I used this manner when speaking to rabid dogs, crazy people, unhinged criminals,  and distressed children), and continuing to babble, ”Hmmm, well, I’ll do my best, gotta go now, this is all just a big mistake I think, I’ll talk to Ms C again and see what we can do….blah, blah, blah….” And left. I still wasn't sure if: a)the principal knew what I was, in fact, teaching, b)if the principal knew whether I had, in fact, turned in my “z” report the few days prior, or, c)that Ms. C was mistaken, whatever she was claiming. It was clear to me that no one was interested in getting to the facts, problem-solving, or even listening to what I had to say."And don't talking to your teacher friends about this!" the principal hollered at me as I took off down the hall, speed-walking back to my class.

A few days after that incident, spurred by I-don’t-know-what other “problems” caused by various members of my work team, the principal called a meeting of our entire department, again in her office, this time after school. Once again, she sent the goon to round us up. (Bc, you know, its not like we are professional employees or anything, and would attend a meeting simply by being asked.) We stood, lined up in  a low row around the interior of her office, each of us looking at the other, trying to figure out what was going on. No one knew. The principal started in on a long, rambling speech about “cooperation” and after a few minutes, during which people started to wonder what this had to do with anything, the principal concluded with a rousing,” I mean, come on…..department S!” After this, we all filed out. Several people muttered, “now what was that all about?” No one ever found out.

Three months later, every single member of our department left. Took jobs at other schools. Word had gotten around about how I’d been screamed at and physically threatened – for nothing. 


Rituals of Summer

I just finished teaching Ray Bradbury's novel Dandelion Wine to my sophomore English II students. The story of a 12 year old boy experiencing a quintessentially ideal summer in 1928, DL is a charming book, full of memorable characters and incidents. This was the first time I had re-read it since my initial perusal, when I was around 13 or 14 years old myself. The novel wears well upon a second reading; it is beautifully written, full of joyous passages and rich symbolism, yet remains an extremely accessible book for both adults and teens. I was surprised how many passages from the story I remembered from that first experience of it, 30+ years ago. The magical opening sequence, the Time Machine, the Happiness Machine, the inexplicable horror of the Ravine, the simple joy of exploring one's world - all are recalled here. I think I have been forever shaped by the way the main character, Douglass, keeps a journal of all the new experiences he notices for the first time, savoring his yellow wooden Ticonderoga pencil as he writes. It was a fun book to explore with my students, and I enjoyed sharing their reactions to the pure simple joyfulness of Douglass' childhood and summer experiences.
In this novel, the main characters celebrate summer in several deliberate ways : the father and his sons go into the forest and pick berries, the boy saves up and buys himself a new pair of sneakers, the grandparents make dandelion wine, or as they refer to it, "summer distilled". All of which got me to thinking, what are the memories I treasure of summers past? What are the ways that I celebrate summer?
As a child growing up in the late 60's and early 70's, summers often began for me with Girl Scout day camp, which ran through the month of June. Growing up in suburbia on the very edge of rolling pastureland dotted with trees and creeks, there was always some farm not too far away where the local scout council would lease a meadow to build campfires, where we would gather 'round and sing songs, practice crafts, cooking, knot-making, and other important skills. This little camp ended when the really hot weather came, which was and still is always around the beginning of July. My family was fortunate enough to be able to afford a several weeks-long annual trip to the Rockies, where we camped and hiked and tried not to think about the sweltering heat that builds up each year in Texas during August and September.
As a young child, my mother wasn't a big one for taking us swimming or for encouraging any sports - hey, this was the 1960's ! the whole youth soccer movement for boys and girls was still 20 years into the future - and I was perennially embarrassed by my lack of swimming skills. I often attended a summer sleep-over camp located in the piney woods of east Texas, which was a fun time of canoeing, archery, and horse-back riding. Swimming lessons were also de rigour, but I dreaded them as I was invariably the oldest student in the beginner level class. Each year I took the class and then promptly forgot what I had learned. As I grew older, several girlfriends and I began walking to a nearby pool at a local park on a near daily basis. We didn't really exercise at this pool or develop our swimming skills; instead, we checked out cute boys and slathered ourselves with Coppertone and slow-cooked ourselves on the cement as we lay for 30 minutes on one side, then turned and baked for another 30 minutes on the other side, before repeating the whole process. I was also blessed with a good childhood friend whose parents owned a lake house, and I often spent weekends and holidays with her family, water-skiing in endless loops around that lake. By this point my swimming skills had progressed to the point that I could at least dog-paddle out to the skis at the end of the ski rope, and tread water long enough for the boat to swing by and pick me up, if I wiped out while crossing the wake. I especially remember skiing in the late summer evenings, for as the sun went down the water grew smoother, almost like glass, and slicing through it on a pair of skis was the closest experience I ever came to flying. It was magical.
By far the most indelible summer memories for me involved the ritual of daily bike riding, often for miles, far out in to the countryside. My best friend Monica would show up most days around 8 am,while it was still fairly cool outside - I always knew when she arrived in the driveway back of the house, waiting for me on her bike, because my dogs would start barking hysterically at her presence. She never knocked on the door or came into the house. Once the dogs started barking, out I would skip to join her on our daily rides that took us, soaring on our bicycles, wind in our ears, past the concrete streets and wide lawns of suburbia, crossing a few major roads as went, into the farmlands and fields beyond. As summer progressed, we rode a little further each day, finding and "adopting" a stable where we fed apples to the horses, or a deep shady creek bed that had a rope swing fixed over it and which tempted us off our bikes for a bit. We often ended each ride, once the sun was high in the sky, at a local Dairy Queen, where our scrounged quarters bought us enough food to fuel all that exercise. Afternoons were spent reading comic books at the local 7-11. My legs grew strong and well defined, thanks to the Dr Scholls exercise shoes that we wore everywhere, even while riding our bikes. I remember that we loved our bikes so much that we gave them names : mine was called Laticlavious Excalibur Land Rover II. It was supposed to suggest a fine stallion, from days of the middle ages, and I was therefore the knight who rode out into the world on just such a steed. (Interesting to note: in another book I taught earlier this spring, Beryl Markham's West With the Night, she names her first horse Pegasus, and I know just how she felt. My bicycle was my winged mythical beast, transporting me to worlds imaginary and real. On it I felt powerful, magical, resplendent.)
My young adult life was filled with travel and work, and I often thought of those simple childhood pleasures with nostalgia and longing. It wasn't until I had children of my own that I began to intentionally re-create as many of them as I could, for my own children.
Blessed with two sons, sports have always played an important role in our summer pastimes. I started the boys with swimming lessons from the time they were toddlers, (not wanting them to be embarrassed and traumatized over lack of swimming skills, as I was) , and we progressed on up through soccer to Little League baseball teams. As they grew older, I sent my children to a local boy scout day camp, then later to the same summer camp I attended, near Tyler in east Texas. My family vacations now take the form of trips to the North Carolina beaches, instead of trips to the Rocky Mountains, but either place successfully provides a break from the inferno-like heat that settles in on us towards summer's end. Health problems prevented me from recreating the joyous summer bike rides; as much as I would have liked to share that experience with my children, numerous kidney problems and the resultant surgeries simply meant I spent many summers either in the hospital or at home recovering from one operation or another, and my kidneys just couldn't take the strain (heat, exercise, dehydration = recipe for disaster to me now) like I used to as a child.
I have other ways of celebrating summer, as well, however, other rituals I routinely perform. Yesterday , hubster and I were at the grocery store, and hubster purchased the first box of this summer's "pop-ice" ( also known as flav-r-pops, or whatever : they go by various names, but are essentially those plastic sleeves of hideously colored juice that you freeze, then cut the end off the plastic sleeve and squeeze the flattened tube of icy sugar water out onto your tongue, turning it electric blue or red or green.) I also love to visit the local farmer's market for fresh produce, esp corn, tomatoes, berries, okra, greens, and peaches, and have made a habit of doing so, no matter where I have lived. When I lived in the mid-Atlantic area, there was silver queen corn to roast and Chesapeake Bay crabs to catch and cook. My children have had fun smashing them on spread out newspapers with hammers for as long as they can remember. We eat them each year when we go back east, and I can never get enough. There are daily pleasures of working in the garden, cooking out on the grill, staying up all night reading books, early morning walks, trips to various favorite local haunts that I don't have time to visit during the school year. From time to time I dabble with painting as a hobby, have always dedicated a part of my home to a little studio, and enjoy having enough free time to pursue that past-time, too.
But by far the sweetest summer ritual is the one that I savor the most : sleeping in. Turning the alarm clock off, and knowing full well that I don't have to turn it on again, until late August. That is the sweetest gift of all.


Supporting the Arts in North Texas

I know that to most people, the terms "arts" and "north Texas" seem like contradictory statements, and yet I have long held that it is precisely BECAUSE we live in the middle of God-forsaken nowhere that the arts are more important than ever to denizens of these little towns on the prarie. We need to drag ourselves, kicking and screaming some days, to a higher plane of existence, the one where the ancient Greeks suggested catharsis would occur if one was properly stimulated and inspired by art. I am happy to say this year I got to truly experience just such a thrill - several times over. Most major metropolitan areas celebrate the start of each new season of artistic performances in the fall....here ( perhaps due to the fact that autumn exists on the calendar in name only) we tend to experience our cultural season in the spring, and the offerings come fast and furious, often creating a devil's dilemma : which event shall I attend?
It is with a renewed sense of joy each year that I get to spend a few pleasant hours at the Ft Worth Opera Festival. I have been going to operas of various sorts since a young teen (read "My Knight at the Opera" in this blog, May 2008) .The experience of attending the opera is made more fun for me by the frequent arrival of an out of town friend whom I refer to as "the Johnny Appleseed of Opera", for he spreads his enthusasm, knowledge and love of this genre wherever he goes. It is infectuous. He manages to bring together a vibrant salon of family, friends old and new, music professionals and artists into a Moveable Feast of shared artistic joie de vivre, so one doesn't merely attend a performance with him, one participates in an event peopled by others who share their ideas and enthusiasms over food and drink in a day long celebration of friendship, music, and frivolity.
In previous years, I have cautiously avoided anything new or advant guarde and have stuck to the traditional classic style operas made famous in days of yore. The costumes, composers, story lines and melodies were all safely familiar and enjoyable, much as one watches a classic movie repeatedly, precisely because one knows that Rick will let Ilsa leave with Viktor Laslo on that last plane out of Casablanca, and will walk off into the mist with Inspector Renault. What is plesantly safe is enjoyable but rarely expands one's horizons. This year, however, at my friend Johnny Appleseed's urging, I ventured out of my comfy zone and into unchartered water. "Here be Monsters", the edge of the map reads, and thus begins one's journey into unknown lands.
It was an excting trip, as I attended Ft Worth Opera Festival's production of "Dead Man Walking", an opera in the modern style. (Modern characters, music, topics.) I cried through several purse-size packets of tissues and enjoyed myself thoroughly - catharsis was acheived. I must confess that I was a bit leary, at first, not being too excited about the movie by the same name. Sure, it's an important topic; Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn did respectable jobs in their roles. The movie chose to emphasize the issue of the death penalty itself, and its relative ethical or legal merits. Ok, important stuff, needs to be discussed, but .......snoozer. So off I went to see the opera built on the same story-line, fully expecting to get in a really good 2 hour nap. Wrong ! The opera version of "Dead Man Walking", written by Jake Heggie , takes the same basic story premise but shifts the emphasis. Instead of focusing on the issue of the death penalty, the opera storyline delves more into the characters of Sister Helen Prejean and the convicted murderer, Joe. Perhaps because operas tend to have long ( singing) passages of characters exploring their thoughts and feelings, this version of the story explores more deeply the relationship between the two main characters. It skips right over the whole "is the death penalty warranted " political issue and goes right to the heart of the story, which is : Can a human being who has committed an evil act be forgiven? What does it mean to seek redemption? Is it possible for humans to forgive another for atrocities ? Without being saccharine or tritely religious, this was a deeply spiritual work of art, as it explored the topics of sin vs redemption, trying to find the worth of all humans, even the most despised, how does one help someone who is flawed or evil, what is one's role in humanity ? Other reviews will comment on the singers' execution of their operatic skills.....as a neophyte music critic, I leave that to the professionals. What I would like to share with the world is the idea that this version of the story "Dead Man Walking" was a truly moving, profound, arts experience, brought to life via the creative vision that Ft Worth Opera director Darren Woods shows in everything he does. I am lucky to have been dragged, kicking and screaming, and to have experienced it.

Along with the many fine opera, theater, symphony and other artistic performances available for the sampling this spring in north Texas, we have many "arts and craft" festivals where various folk trot out their wares for show and for sale. 75% of the stuff that one sees at these venues is wretched, miserably hideous (entire poster sized pictures made of thread, glued down into pseudo "native " designs; whirly doodads and gimcracks that get your attention as colorful wheels spin on the breeze, but serve no real purpose; t-shirts with various ugly sayings on them; odd clothing, tankards, figurines and weapons left over from the Renaissance Festival; kitschy gadgets, bought today in the heat of passion, forgotten tomorrow to lie unwanted in some body's garage sale). The remaining few booths have some odds and ends of worthwhile stuff - I tend to favor jewelry-makers, potters, and caramel corn poppers. It is with much anticipation that I managed to swing by the Cottonwood Art Festival in Richardson a few weekends back - so many of these venues have been rained out this year ( as Roseanne Rosanna Danna would say, "It's lak my daddy always said.....it's always sumpin.") and swoop in to my painter friend Bonnie Seibert's booth to snag a painting. Hubster, in a fit of generosity, gave me a signed (blank amount) check made out to Bonnie and told me I could select my own Mother's Day Gift from her collection - really, this is the best way to handle these matters. I was deliriously happy, and got exactly what I wanted. I arrived early for the best selection and chose a painting from what Bonnie calls her "imaginary Paris in the 1920's" series. My mom, who is often my companion at these events, purchased a little girl standing in some flowers in a meadow- very Marna Towteeish of her. We are fortunate, in these harsh economic times, to have jobs that, while they will never make us rich, will never make us poor, either, and so I feel it is incumbent on me to do what I can to support the arts and various artists. I am quite happy to do this duty, as often as possible.


Heretic's Daughter, Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

This historical novel, based on legends handed down by members of the author's own family, revisits people and events of the Salem Witch trials . This time around, the story of a woman accused of witchcraft is told from the point of view of her children, specifically one of her daughters. The material is familiar to anyone who has read or taught Miller's play The Crucible, and some of the characters, real historical individuals, overlap. There is very little that is new or earth-shattering here, however, the novel is interesting and well-written. The author researched her material well and one gets a broader sense of the period, the townspeople, the times, the issues. This book could make a nice companion piece to teaching American colonial history or Miller's play.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
One of the most charming and fun books I have read in awhile; I have been busy recommending it to all I know. In spite of the difficult to say title ( try saying it 5 times fast ), GLPPPS was a welcome respite from the serious tomes that have occupied my reading list of late. Basic storyline involves small island off the coast of France during WW2, cast of lovable eccentric characters, Nazis and resistance to them, and an unlikely love story. What's not to like about that ? This story is well-written, creative, not cliche-filled, and impossible to put down. Many friends have recommend books to me of late that they thought I would enjoy, but which turned out to be pure drivel, so badly written I could not make it through the first paragraph. This is not one of those books.