Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Only an English teacher would read this

Last night I wrote about missing my students' stories now that I'm not teaching any more. There's a flip side though: the things I don't miss. And what I don't miss most is grading. I don't miss reading stacks of papers written by students who don't listen in class, don't read my handouts, don't take the time required to write and then revise .... and who pulled the same shit the past 12 years of school so they can't write one sentence that makes sense.

Think I'm kidding? I'm not.*

Somebody shared this website on Facebook a few months ago when I was in the middle of a typical quarter: Shit My Students Write. I read through seven pages of it before I realized I already had the same kind of writing to read, and it was sitting in stacks on my dining room table. I didn't need to read the funny typos and misunderstandings other teachers get in their students' papers, because I got paid practically nothing for reading and grading my own students' papers. I could put up my own damn website.

Don't believe me? Think the teachers on that website are exaggerating? I don't blame you if you do, which is why I feel the need to validate what you read there.

Here, posted entirely without permission, are a few first sentences from a stack of ad analysis papers I received from one class during one quarter. And let me preface this list by saying that these are not first drafts, and I gave strict orders to the entire class to read the first sentence of their papers aloud before they turned them in to me and make sure it was perfect.
  • An engineer who had no previous experience created Skky Vodka in 1992.
  • The capo and the tuner, two devices both known to the average guitar player as essential item need to play.
  • While looking through the Women Health Magazine I seen that bathing suits were on sale for ten dollars per piece.
  • Celebrities have a great affect when it comes to selling product weather there are there owns are someone else.
  • In our society today women are so disturbed by the way there menstrual cycle makes them feel. I am a woman and I can tell you from personal experience that they are some of the most grueling pains you could ever imagine.
  • Every women know what is is like to get their period. 
This list is representative of about 75% of the papers I read. And these are just the first sentences. There were more sentences in each paper. Many more. 

I once asked an entire class -- around 25 students -- if they had read the papers they just turned into me. Almost all of them said no. They wrote the papers and then didn't even read them once to see if they needed to make any corrections. They came into class thinking I would mark every error on their papers, and then they'd just change the things I marked and they'd get an A. Ha! Ha! Ha!

Writing is hard work. It really is, and I'm the first to whine about it. My students were not stupid. Somebody failed them. And I failed a significant number of them myself, but not in the same way. I hated that because I wanted them to succeed -- but often more than they wanted to themselves.

Nope, I do not miss grading papers. Yes, it was a big part of my job. It's too damn bad somebody didn't start doing it sooner.

Don't even get me started on No Child Left Behind. Could George Bush pass my class? I doubt it. I really fucking doubt it. 

* This is not about the students who do work hard and who do love to learn. Those students were often frustrated too.

I leave you with this spoken word poem by Taylor Mali titled "What Teachers Make." I promise I'll write about vaginas soon.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Only an English teacher

After I found out I wouldn't be teaching at the university this semester, I wondered if I would miss it. Teaching becomes an identity, although I identify more strongly as a writer and an editor.

Almost daily on Facebook a former colleague will post a sentence from a student paper that a typical Japanese sixth-grader would be ashamed to turn in. Or someone will post that the stack of papers is only four feet high now, and she only has six hours of grading left to do.

At those times, I do not miss teaching. I don't miss wading through papers that I'll spend more time grading than the students spent writing. I don't miss trying to make sense of a jumble of random words, and then trying to figure out how I can give positive feedback that will turn that shit into gold.

But I do miss my students. I miss the classroom interaction -- watching a light bulb come on now and then, learning from them as they learn from me, creating a safe place where a classroom full of strangers will become friends. I miss their stories.

Many months ago, I wrote the post below. I didn't publish it then because I didn't want to violate any of my students' confidentiality. I changed details and left enough vagueness I don't think it could have happened, but I wanted to be sure.

Now, so many months later, I don't even remember the names of some of these students, although I do remember their stories.

This is one thing I miss about teaching: learning my students' stories. And sometimes watching them succeed in spite of their struggles outside the classroom. Tomorrow, just to keep the balance, I'll post something I don't miss.

A Facebook friend shared this video tonight. I have heard every excuse in that video just this quarter. I was even accused of punishing a student because his 30-something uncle died of AIDS. Of course it wasn't because he missed 3 out of 4 weeks of class and didn't turn in any assignments.

The only difference is that I don't get the opportunity to respond as succinctly as the teacher in the video. Sometimes teaching is the most frustrating profession I can imagine. It can really fucking suck. And sometimes ... sometimes it simply breaks my heart.

I was hanging out on Facebook tonight, avoiding the stacks of papers I will have to read tomorrow because I didn't do it tonight. I may even have to sit out my weekly karaoke night to get ready for two days of conferences Thursday and Friday. Back-to-back, ten-minute conferences with each of my students for two days. I actually enjoy the one-on-one time with them. We get a lot done. But it's draining, and I'm already crispy.

Early this quarter, some of the students in one of my classes asked for a free-writing assignment. I don't think that's ever happened. They said they wanted to try to write something that would disturb me, because I had told them they couldn't disturb me by swearing in some of their informal writing.

 I said, "OK, I'll give you your assignment," and the next week I scheduled a "disturb Reticula" free-write for both classes. Let them take their best shot.

A few of them read their pieces aloud in class, but not as many as usual. More of them wanted me to wait until after class to read what they wrote.

One kid was sure he disturbed me with his graphic description of a father being brutally murdered in front of his young daughter, and then her subsequent rape and murder. He didn't though, this kid who carries a Bible with him to class every day. I told him he'd have to try harder than that, and we laughed.

One girl wrote about being shy in person, but leading a double life as a web-cam porn star. At the end she wrote "JUST KIDDING!" and a smiley face. She's not shy, so I believe her. I think she will be one of the few who get an A this quarter. (Note from the future: She did and she came in and danced around my office.)

But one girl wrote about how she was raped when she was 14 and she hasn't been happy since--not even for a second. She's tried everything: booze, dope, eating disorders, serial therapy, fast cars, sports, dares .... She's 19, and she thinks she'll never be happy again. I wish I knew the answer. I hope she's wrong. No JK. No smiley face. Not fiction.

Another girl wrote about her experience getting an abortion. She described the cold white walls, bloody pieces in garbage bags, drills and other tools, and holding a nurse's hand. And she wrote that she went alone and didn't tell her boyfriend she was pregnant, because she didn't want to share him. No JK. No smiley face. I don't know if it's fiction or truth.

One girl said she gets angry with people who stare at her because she's only 19 and she has a 5-year-old son. But she wrote that she was raped and she doesn't believe in abortion, so she's doing the best she can. No JK. No smiley face. Not fiction.

I guess that throw-away assignment foreshadowed the rest of the quarter, because the stories kept coming. I don't want to violate their confidences, but here are a few general snips of the stories I've heard since.
  • One girl was in a car accident that left her with a heart condition and other health problems. She wrote that she wishes I could have known her before she was so damaged. She's 19.
  • One young man wrote about losing his eye in a car accident and surviving a two-week coma. He wishes people would just ask about it instead of avoiding looking at him or talking to him.
  • One girl wrote about her grandmother's recent suicide, and how angry she is.
  • One boy said his mother started drinking heavily a few months ago. He goes to school full time and works full time. The rest of the time he keeps a vigil for his mom, waiting for her to come home drunk or making sure she doesn't leave drunk and drive. He falls asleep in class.
  • One young man wrote how much he loved his girlfriend of four years and how they had planned their future together. The next week she broke up with him. And the next week his 25-year-old brother had a stroke and underwent an unsuccessful heart surgery. He may spend the rest of his life in a nursing home instead of going home to his wife and two small children. The student will be deployed as soon as he graduates.
  • An older student came to my office to tell me she'd been in jail for several days for beating the pedophile who molested her 4-year-old grandson. (Note: I wrote about that here.)

I'm only there to teach them academic writing, but how do we write without revealing ourselves? I can't. They won't ever be real writers unless they can, so many of them start with me.

I could be a different teacher. Some of my colleagues don't assign any personal writing at all. They don't want to know about their students' personal lives, and that's fine. We aren't paid to be mothers or therapists or friends. Sometimes I wish I could do that too. Of course, I could do that ...... but no. I teach them writing, and I hear their stories. I don't know how to do one without the other.
But sometimes their stories are so heavy, and even though I don't carry that weight for them, I listen. I care. And I still have to grade their work -- some will pass and some will fail. No matter how rough their lives are, I still have to wield my red pen as if I didn't know anything about them at all.

Halfway through week 8 of 10, and I am a little bit crispy. We all are. College is hard work. Living is hard work. I wish my kids didn't have to learn that so young.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Just one box of Junior Mints, please

Photo taken at a local Kroger.

I was reaching for a box of Junior Mints the other day when I noticed the price underneath. New low price? I thought. Bonus! 

But wait. They've always been 10 for $10 before. They've raised the price, not lowered it. What the fuck, Kroger? Do you think I don't know the cost of my Junior Mints? 

Then I realized the sign only implies the price is lower. What the price sign really says is that they've changed the price, and they want me to believe it's still a low price.

It's a tricky world out there. Words matter.

I bought one box instead of 10. Better for my ass anyway.

(And aren't you glad your ass is behind you so you don't have to look down at it all the time? Imagine if your ass were in front. How disturbing is that idea?)

Friday, October 12, 2012

The tenuous thread of life

At my writer's group Tuesday I wrote most of a post about the killing spree I went on over the weekend -- if you can call killing a second mouse and later an injured chicken a killing spree. It was titled "Reticulated Reaper," and there even may have been some funny bits about giving a mouse a cookie and the frustration of setting a trap with feta cheese only to have it snap and spray the cheese down my shirt.

Killing the mouse wasn't a big deal. I'd already killed one a couple of days before, just like I promised I would in this post. Little Bunny Foo Foo got nothing on me.

Killing the chicken was a bigger job, and sadder because it was one of Chicken Grrrl's hens. It had been attacked by a big dog that somehow got into their fenced yard. Killing it was a merciful act.

Tonight neither story seems funny, interesting or appropriate to tell. I'm weary of death, and stunned by how easy it is for life to slip away.

I spent the evening at a memorial service for a 34-year-old man who committed suicide last week. I've known his family for over two decades, and I can't imagine ..... I just can't imagine.  I don't want to imagine such a thing. All I want to do is get my kids over here and cook them a big dinner and hold on to them as tight as I can. As if I could prevent anything like this from ever happening to them just by loving them enough.

But that would imply that somehow suicide could be prevented by cooking big dinners and loving enough, and that just isn't true. This young man's family loved and supported him as much as any family could. He was cherished by many people -- friends, family, the kids he mentored. He was loved. And he was a computer whiz, a fine musician, an athlete. His smile lit up a room. Everybody liked him. I know I did.  He was practically perfect. And he had medical care too.

I'm not going to tell his whole story here, because it's not really mine to tell. But I do want to say something about the possible reason for his infrequent, but debilitating, bouts of depression.

Because the first question most people ask when such a bright, talented, well loved person commits suicide is why? Why would someone like him do something like this -- to himself, to his family, to his friends, to the people who found his broken body? This is not something he would do. He wasn't that kind of person.

And yet he did.

Nobody can really know why, but one possible answer is that his depression was a result of his difficult birth. He almost died during the first couple of days of his life because his birth was so traumatic. And there's a strong possibility that the trauma of being born set him up for the depressions that plagued him until he just couldn't take the pain any more. His doctors warned his parents about the possibility of depression 34 years ago after his birth. And they were right.

A few weeks ago I was doing some freelance work for an internationally known lactation consultant. If there's anything about birth and breastfeeding she doesn't know, it hasn't been discovered. She's written several textbooks on such topics.

She told me that one body of research shows a correlation between how a person commits suicide and the type of trauma he or she suffered at birth. For example, someone  who suffered forceps trauma during birth would be more likely to choose a mechanical method for suicide. Someone who experienced cord strangulation might be more likely to choose suffocation.

That's not to say people who suffer birth traumas are more likely to commit suicide. The correlation was found among people who had already committed suicide, and it can't be used as a predictor of who will commit suicide. Lots of people who suffer from depression don't commit suicide, so even if birth trauma can predict depression, it doesn't necessarily lead to suicide.

What those studies do show though is that we humans are tough, resilient and sometimes we survive tremendous odds. And we're also so fragile. So very very fragile. From the time we leave our mothers' vaginae, we are all terribly complicated and tenuous survivors of conception.

Tonight a young man's father stood before more than 400 people, played his guitar and sang three heartbreaking songs in honor of his son. In honor of the many times they sang together, their voices blending in harmony that only comes from a bond that close. I don't know how he did it. His usually booming voice was quieter than I've ever heard it, but it didn't break. Not really. He sang every word. I don't think I would even have been on my feet.

But we are resilient creatures, and he sang his love for his son. He sang for his son in appreciation of the years of joy his son had given him. He sang because sometimes just singing a song, just putting one chord in front of another, is what keeps us on our feet.

I'm not trying to answer the question everybody asks -- why? -- because I don't really know. Nobody knows. There are things we must not be meant to understand. The bottom line is that a much loved young man decided he couldn't stand to live another day.

I wish so very much he had been able to live just one more minute, and then another. But I can't judge how much pain another person can bear. I can't judge why. That's a question each of us can only answer for ourselves.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The weight of a mouse

I'm going to kill him. If not tonight, then tomorrow night. Or the next night. I'm patient. I can't say for sure when it will happen, but I will spill blood break his neck. I gave him every opportunity to leave and the fucker won't go .... so now he will die.

 That's right. I'm talking to you, you little gray bastard. You're going to die.

One morning a couple of weeks ago I zombie-walked into the kitchen just in time to see that little piece of shit up there scurry along the baseboard and duck in under the dishwasher. I shuddered, but I didn't scream. I talk to myself a lot, so I said, "Fuck me, there's a fucking mouse in my fucking kitchen. Fucking fucker."

It was a warm enough day so I did the humane thing: I opened the door to the porch and left it open so the little fucker could go back outside where he belongs.

I thought it worked. I didn't see any sign of him -- no sprinkles of little turds or torn open bags. Good, I thought. He took the opportunity and left. 

Nope. Either he didn't leave or he came back (I can see daylight between the door jam and the kitchen door. Mice can get in through very small cracks.)

I was at my computer the day before yesterday when I heard a mad rustling sound. I live by myself .... if I wasn't rustling, then somebody else was. I tiptoed into the kitchen and determined the rustling was happening in the plastic grocery bags I keep stored between the refrigerator and the stove.

I gave the stove a sharp tap with my foot. Usually that's enough to make a mouse freeze. Not this little bastard.

If anything his rustling grew louder and more desperate. Shit, I thought. (Yes, I even swear in my own head.) Now what do I do? He might be trapped in a plastic bag so he can't get out. Which is good. Except if I pull out the bags, I might pull him out too, and he might get out of the bag and bite me. And then if I don't somehow catch his dirty little ass and he gets away, I'll have to get shots in my stomach with a 2-foot-long needle every day for a month just in case the little fucker has rabies ...... Damn it. I wonder if it's too early for a glass of wine ..... Yes .... OK, but if he's caught in a plastic bag, that's not my fault. And if he dies, then all I have to do is throw out the plastic bag .... Only how will I know if he's dead in there? What if I pull the bags out too soon and he's just weak and he somehow gets a second wind and bites me .....

 And then another thought struck me: What if that perverted little fucker is engaging in an act of erotic suffocation in there? Eeeuuuwwww. I just do not roll that way. I mean, what if he had his little mouse dick in his hand right now and as his furry face turned blue he was ... What a disgusting creature! ..... And yet ....  Fuck. There's nothing I can do about this now.

I accepted my own helplessness as it concerned Mickey Mouse and decided to fix myself some breakfast. The rustling continued the whole time I sauteed red pepper and mushrooms ... mixed them with eggs and topped it all with Havarti cheese.

The idea that I was cooking my breakfast next to a perverted rodent almost made me lose my appetite, but common sense prevailed. This standoff could last for hours. A good breakfast can't be overrated in a situation such as this.

By the time I got out of the shower an hour or so later, the rustling had stopped. And then, frankly, I forgot about it.

On purpose. I'm not a fucking idiot. But I couldn't do anything about a mouse caught in a plastic bag, right? So I figured he either got out or he was going to die in there. I'd just deal with it if I started to smell mammal decomposition. It's a distinctive enough smell -- especially in a kitchen.

I can report that so far, so good. No decomp in the kitchen, although I bought some Vick's vapor rub just in case.

No, I don't think that little fucker died in a plastic bag because something much worse happened last night after I got home from karaoke. Much worse.

Using only a small LED flashlight so as not to arouse suspicion, I tiptoed to the free-standing cupboard I use for a pantry to sneak just one Lay's potato chip from the bag Chicken Grrrl brought over for us to eat while we drink Black Box white wine when we're rehearsed for a big private party we're playing on Saturday. Then and only then.

See, I promised Chicken Grrrl I wouldn't eat those chips unless we were eating them together. I know. It was stupid. It was futile. I was only going to eat one chip though. She wouldn't miss one chip, right?

Do not fucking judge me!

As I reached to the back of the shelf for the chip bag I noticed something that should not have been there. It was this.

The fucking evidence.

"No!" I cried. "No, you did not nibble a dark chocolate Reese's peanut butter cup and just leave it there for me to find. You heartless, sadistic asshole bastard of a mouse, you."

I was beside myself. First because I had no idea there was a dark chocolate Reese's peanut butter cup in my pantry. In my ongoing effort to curb my chocolate addiction, I haven't been buying much chocolate. In fact, I'm down to the Kroger value brand chocolate morsels from the bottom of the pantry ... That's how low I've stooped.

And yet, right under my nose was a dark chocolate Reese's peanut butter cup and that little fucking bastard nibbled it and then left it on the front of the shelf where I would find it. This could not be a mistake. He didn't even finish it! He just ruined it and left it there.

It was like he flipped me a little mouse bird.

Game on, you little asshole.

But that's not all. The second reason I was in a bind was because I couldn't possibly put those chips back into the pantry. The thin barrier of a Lay's potato chip bag would be nothing to a stealthy bandit like this mouse. Look what he did to a foil wrapping!

No, only one thing would do: I had to eat the chips. All of them. I had to pour a glass of Black Box chardonnay and eat the fucking Lay's potato chips.

The little fucker made me break my promise to Chicken Grrl. I ate every chip and licked the salt off the inside of the bag. And it's that fucking mouse's fault.

Game on, you little gray fucker.

I think we've established that I'm not afraid to kill. I've killed much bigger prey and cooked and eaten it too. Not that I intend to cook and eat a mouse. This isn't Survivor, although I have a post in the works about that too.

No, this murder will be simply for the necessity of killing. I have to save my chocolate and my integrity.

I'm no stranger to mouse murder. One time when I was in high school I killed a mouse with a red plastic baseball bat and threw its lifeless carcass into the front yard of the trailer where I was babysitting. I wrote a poem about it .... I should post that tomorrow. 

So I stopped by the hardware store and bought 4 traps. Not the live traps -- we've established I can't really deal with a living mouse who probably has some weird, disgusting sexual asphyxiation perversion and, worse yet, who disrespected the dark chocolate.

I spread the little plastic cheese slice on the trap last night with peanut butter and left it out in the kitchen. As I carefully set it down on the floor so as not to snap the trap shut on my finger (which would hurt like a son of a bitch), I called out, "Here's some nice all-natural peanut butter, you little bastard. Come and get it."

Here, mousy, mousy....

I went to bed secure in the knowledge that I'd be putting a mouse in the dumpster this morning.

When I came down this morning .... Nothing. Well, not nothing. Just the trap with the peanut butter and no dead mouse with a broken neck.

Duh. If the mouse didn't finish the dark chocolate Reese's peanut butter cup, that probably means he doesn't like peanut butter that much.

Or that he's dead in a plastic bag and decomp hasn't reached critical odification.

Or he slipped back outside and is wanking off to rodent snuff porn.

Or the little fucker outsmarted me and the next thing I find will be a half-nibbled cheap chocolate morsel in plain sight somewhere in the kitchen .....

To be continued ......