Thursday, September 27, 2007

iPods, Chinese fire drills and trucks



There I said it. I am Podless.

"Hello, my name is Richie and I am podless…"

Yes, podless.

I am sure Steve Jobs would roll his eyes to know that.

Podless. Podless. Podless. (Sort of cathartic to do that like a third-grader in a school yard.)

I am not podless by choice. My two children, of course, have them as well as just about everyone above three feet tall and below the age of 86 who resides on the planet. But alas, it is one of those if-only-Oprah-would-discover-me type purchases. I can't justify the cost. And quite frankly, I'm a bit fuzzy as to all the reasons I should have one (because if you can't wear it or eat it, I'm not sure I need it).

But for a brief moment I needed it, wanted it… coveted it.

I was sitting with my editor going over editor things and needed to check the accuracy of an infographic. Since my editor is above three feet tall and definitely under the 86-year-old range, I asked her, "Hey, do you have an iPod?"

"No," she said, with a hint of sadness in her voice.

"Oh," I said, thinking that perhaps she was experiencing the same if-only-Oprah-would-discover-me financial pinch.

"I'm sorry," I said mustering my most somber tone while making my best sad face (which btw needs a tad bit more work).

"I used to have one," she said somewhat wistfully.

"What happened?"

"It got run over."


"Yeah, a truck ran over it."

"No way… what happened?"

"Chinese fire drill."

"Uh, that's unfortunate."

Shortly after that, our artist walked in.

"I need an iPod," I told her. "She doesn't have one. It got run over by a truck."

"No way! Mine got run over too."

"Chinese fire drill?" my editor asked somewhat hopefully.

"Mom," the artist said. "Ran over my phone and my iPod."

"Truck?" I asked.

"Yeah, how'd you know?" she asked.

"Conspiracy theory," I said.

And with that, I thought, perhaps it was better not to covet the things we don't have.

Still, I was iPodless.

But it's OK. It'd probably just get run over any way…

…by a big truck

…during a Chinese fire drill

…on deadline.

It could happen.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Deadlines, Al Sharpton & Dress Codes

Glazed eyes. Frazzled nerves. Testy tempers. Ah, the horrors of deadline days. Advising student-produced publications is not for the weak, and honestly, I’m not sure it’s even for the strong. Perhaps, it’s strictly for maniacs… which offers an interesting transition into how Al Sharpton nearly became the head of a small Texas school district. (Geewillikers, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.)

The Scene… After school. 4:25 p.m. Fourth deadline day. I think I had just given my “Why Children Suck The Life Right Out of You” speech. If I didn’t, then I was sure thinking about it.

What Happened… We needed a few quotes from surrounding school districts about why those districts had gone to school uniforms. I got one of the new staffers to call a nearby district. Even though it wasn’t his story, he got a great quote. Our news editor was typing in the information. I was standing behind her reading over her shoulder as she typed… “We wanted to standardize our dress among our students and make them more cohesive…"

“Who did you talk to?” she asked.

“I think it was Al Sharpton,” he said.

"How do you spell that?" she asked as she started typing, "S…h…a…r…"

“Wait a minute,” I gasped. “That’s not right.”

“No, I think that’s what he said,” the staffer told me.

I yelled for our opinion editor who poked his head in from the other room, not sure if it was safe to enter.

“Al Sharpton,” I said. “Do you know who he is?”

“Isn’t he one of those black activists,” he asked.

“Yeah, isn’t he the rhyming one?” asked our entertainment editor.

“No, I think that’s Jesse Jackson,” the opinion editor said.

“They both rhyme,” someone else said.

“You see,” I said trying to get control of the situation. “You didn’t talk to Al Sharpton.”

“Well, I think that’s what he said,” the staffer told me.

“Well, that would be rather interesting," I said, "if he were superintendent, but he’s not. I think, you know, he’s probably been a little busy with the Jena Six thing.”

“Oh,” he said with sudden realization, “that’s where I must have heard the name. We must have talked about him in my AP government class.”

“That’s nice dear,” I said trying very hard to be positive. “I’m glad you were listening in that class, but Al Sharpton is still not the Red Oak superintendent– although that would be pretty interesting.”

“Yeah,” said the entertainment editor, “and what if Malcolm X were the principal?”

"Hey,” said the opinion editor, “and what if Jesse Jackson was the assistant principal?”

“And Don King could be the speech teacher…” the entertainment editor said.

I'm not sure how we went from black activists to Don King, but so it went…

“You need to call Red Oak back tomorrow and see who you really talked to,” I said, trying very hard not to think about the file in my bottom righthand drawer simply labeled, "Things That Will Get You Fired." (And, yes, I really do have such a file.)

And with that, it was time to call it a day, but I couldn't help but think it was probably one of the first times ol’ Al didn't make it in to print.

And, at least in this case, thank goodness for that.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Other Duties As Assigned…

As I sat outside in 90-degree or so heat (this is Texas remember) supervising my one hour and 45 minute Homecoming Float Duty, it just made me run through that mental list of “Things We Didn’t Go to College For” that bounces around the back of my brain from time to time. But with teachers flanking both sides of me sitting in those “Soccer Mom” folding chairs and grading papers, my friend the Spanish teacher glanced over my shoulder as I compiled my list and duly noted that a better title would be: “What they really mean when they say, ‘Other duties as assigned…’”

And, as usual she’s right, so there it is, and here we are with a list culled from years of experience, a number of teachers and from a variety of school districts.

Other duties as assigned…

• Playing yearbook "bingo" in order to sort through 1,000-plus books by teacher name and an assorted array of customized extras in order to distribute the book. Trust me on this one, you don't want to know the rules. There's never a winner.

• Stuffing tootsie rolls in empty rolls of toilet paper and wrapping them up for cheerleaders to throw to fans at football games.

• “Designing” receipts through all manner and forms of technology for items purchased for kids after misplacing the original receipts.

• Ascertaining whether “Lick Lamar” was too graphic to put on a lollipop when trying to come up with a theme for the Friday night football game against Arlington Lamar High School.

• Luring kangaroo mice with sunflower seeds and popping trashcans over them because we legally couldn’t set mouse traps or bait.

• Taking the temperature of vents throughout the school because no one in maintenance (located in a separate building, on a different street, with working temperature controls) actually believed the air blows at a frigid 53 degrees. Instead, the infamous “they” believed the teaching staff was comprised of menopausal, hormonally whacked-out females suffering from faulty temperature sensations.

• Chasing chickens (yes, real ones, not the wacky rubber ones) down the hallway after some end-of-the-year prankster put them in the girls’ bathroom.

• Arranging cookies on cocktail napkins for parents at the end of an assembly just so we could thieve a snickerdoodle or two.

• Rewriting about 100 statistics from the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test results on a blank sheet of paper during teacher in-service (staff development) to prove we can (a) find the data (b) accurately record the information and (c) waste all morning doing it.

• Trying to teach a computer class for six weeks without computers. Unless that was part of the “monitor and adjust” curriculum of Education 101.

• Being issued not red pens, whiteboard markers or paper clips but a yellow and black flashlight as the only piece of official equipment to cope with the anticipated power outages from low-bid construction crews hired to renovate the school. And, yes, of course, they were used.

• Painting [substitute your mascot’s name here] paws for a mile in preparation for the Homecoming Parade.

• Being assigned to the Noise Patrol to confiscate air horns and other noisemakers at graduation. Or, better yet, being pressed into duty as part of the Gum Squad–that’s G-U-M not G-U-N–to make would-be graduates spit out their chewy blobs before being allowed to bebop down the aisles to “Pomp and Circumstance.”

I swear all this is true…I couldn’t make this stuff up even if I tried. Sure would like to hear some of your stories. You can post them here or you can email me at

Sunday, September 16, 2007

No Child Left Behind & My Rather Large Behind

Three weeks into school and already I feel as pressed as a dried flower squashed and forgotten in one of those classic-looking books. (You know, the ones that adorn bookshelves, not necessarily for reading pleasure, but strictly for looks?) This whole pressed and squashed thing got me thinking about the similarities between the No Child Left Behind law and my rather large behind–which, by the way, I truly would like to leave behind.

Now, I hope this will be blessedly short and sweet because progress reports loom ominously on the horizon. For you non-educators and non-Texans, that means papers have to be graded and those grades duly recorded by law at the three-week mark. At this moment in my frazzled existence, neither the jolly red grading giant nor the ruby-red rubric fairy has yet to darken my classroom door with an offer of assistance. Sigh.

But before we tackle this behind-thing, here’s a big disclaimer… This is not a political rant and I am not a political pundit. Rather, it’s an observation of similarities and coincidences…

Point #1…Let me say that I have never read the 670 page 1.8-MB file that contains the law, but trust me, I don’t need to see it to know it’s huge–just like I don’t need to dust off the bathroom scale hidden in the back of my closet to weigh in on my back side.

Point #2…
Sadly, despite our most valiant efforts as teachers, realistically there is no way to save every school and every child. School administrators and politicos must have all attended the same seminar somewhere and heard the “Starfish” story, got teary-eyed and vowed to save each and every washed up urchin, thus sparking the birth of EUs (Educational Utopians). I must admit that I, too, have succumbed and spent hours tossing the creatures back in only to look up and realize that for every one returned safely another 10 washed back up. Which, in some twisted way, all oddly parallels the hours expended in my aerobics class. For every calorie I burn, I probably eat two more when I return home famished.

Point #3…Accountability is important in every facet of life. Education shouldn’t be an exception. Apparently accountability provides the cornerstone for the hundreds of pages devoted to this law. At the risk of sounding callous, don’t we need to factor in personal responsibility at some point? It’s easy to play the blame game and cry victim. I do the same thing. It’s those evil marketing ploys that make me grab the chocolate, shout supersize, gulp lattes and want more, more, more.

I swear sometimes I should just slap myself silly.

Point #4…Despite all the rumblings and grumblings, No Child Left Behind will be here awhile–as will my, ahem, wide load.

But let’s end this on a positive note, I’ve traveled frequently with kids, and never once left one behind. ;-)

So, it’s all good after all.

Unless, of course, I start beeping when I back up.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Maladjusted hamsters, face creams & rubber chickens

Call me crazy, but life needs just a tad bit more humor to it.

We spend much of our time scurrying like maladjusted hamsters in a cage–serious and intent on whatever task presents itself. I have the lines on my face to prove it, and trust me, no amount of Elizabeth Arden magic face cream at $150 a pop is ever going to fix that. Perhaps a trip to one of those fancy, schmancy nip and tuck doctors would do the trick, but hey, I’m a public school teacher, so that stands about as much of a chance of happening as stopping kids from gawking at a full-fledged brawl in the hall.

So enter the chicken. Yep, the yellow, rubber chicken.

Probably about eight years ago, I discovered (without the benefit of an educational grant or the Bill Gates foundation) that kids learn more if you humor them a bit. I wish I could say I conducted a scientific study, extrapolated this, surveyed a little bit of that, did the hokey, pokey and…

But I didn’t. (Ok, maybe the hokey, pokey once or twice, but we can always save that story for another day.) Instead, I was presenting something insightful–probably a lecture about photo composition–and needed to point at something on the screen. I grabbed the first thing handy which just happened to be a rubber chicken (a recent acquisition from a high school journalism workshop).

“No, she didn’t,” someone said from the back of the room.

I looked up. Smiles everywhere.

The next day the class remembered everything. It hit me then that throughout our lives we remember best those moments either wrapped around laughter and fun or those touched with sadness and pain.

Given the choice, shouldn’t we package those lessons–those "teachable moments" as we call them in educational jargon–in humor?

I vote humor.


In case you were wondering (and I know you were), in addition to being a rather excellent pointer, here are some other uses for a rubber chicken (all tried, true and tested by my students)…

•As a blinker…Ever travel with kids in rush hour traffic and no one will let the school’s humongous van into the next lane? Well, roll down that window and stick the rubber chicken out. Cars will part as if Moses himself was there. (Not sure if it’s because the other driver’s are laughing so hard, or they’re giving wide berth to that crazy driver.)

•As a scare tactic… Our rubber chicken also squawks. Give the chicken a squeeze to scare panhandlers and other undesirables away from the kids when you’re on school trips. Trust me, it works.

•As a clearance detector… If you’re spatially impaired and if driving through underground garages makes you wonder if that rental vehicle with the luggage rack will make the clearance without shaving off the top, well then, stick the rubber chicken out the sunroof or window. If the chicken whacks its head on the ceiling, you probably ought to turn around.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Climbing the Great Wall & Heads in the Freezer

Although I have never been out of the country, yesterday I sat atop the Great Wall of China and felt the exhilaration that comes from being 24 years old again.

You see, I live vicariously. While some parents live their lives through their children, I experience life through my former students. Not only do I revel in those experiences, I can honestly say I've learned more from my students than I have ever learned from any professional development session or teacher inservice.

Yesterday, I just happened to get an e-mail from one of my favorite former students, Jonathan Magee, and with it was a photograph of him sitting atop the Great Wall of China. What a thrill.

Of course, hearing from Jonathan sent me down a memory lane of former newspaper deadlines and threats of heads in the freezer, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with an advanced organizer (don't you love that teacher lingo?) to keep you focused on the topics at hand…

•Teachers say the darnest things
•Kids repeat the darnest things
•I am not Jeffrey Dahmer

When Jonathan was on newspaper staff, we had a particularly rough deadline. I was exasperated and teetering on the outward edges of my sanity when I shouted at the newspaper staff: “If you don’t get this paper done, I’m going to cut off your heads and put them in the freezer and you won’t like it, not one bit.”


A few smirks.

“Well, you won’t,” I said, slightly faltering, “like it.”

“Eewww,” one girl said. “That’s just nasty.”

“I think it’s illegal,” another said.

Sleep-deprived and stress-depraved, we all laughed, but from that point on, the staff was not rated by who was in the doghouse, but rather whose head was in the freezer. We even had levels. The higher up you were on the shelf, the more trouble you were in.

Jonathan was so enamored by the entire freezer motif that he actually wanted to shoot mug shots of all staff members, make cut-outs of their heads, fashion a makeshift facsimile of the inside of a freezer and move people’s heads around according to their standing on deadline.

I should have known the freezer thing would come back to haunt me, though. The school had a tradition during football season of honoring the top five seniors in class rank before a home game. The senior selected his or her most influential teacher who then accompanied the student out to the 50-yard line. The announcer would say something nice about the student and read something that the student wrote about the teacher.

Jonathan picked me so there we stood on the 50-yard line with the superintendent of schools standing on one side and a school board member standing on the other.

Throughout the stadium, the announcer’s voice boomed: “Jonathan says that, ‘Richie pushes everyone to do their work to the best of their abilities with an odd combination of friendly coercion and blunt threats of having their head put into a freezer. However….”

My students in the stands laughed; others gasped; Jonathan giggled. After catching a nervous glance from my superintendent, I assured him that he was welcome to come and inspect the freezer in the journalism room, that I hadn’t yet lopped off any heads nor had I stashed any in the freezer.

I dreaded the day when Jonathan graduated.

You see, I had him programmed into my speed dial. Jonathan was one of only two students who I have religiously and regularly baked a cheesecake for from scratch. Really and truly from scratch—not a box in sight. Call it the barter system. I bake you a cheesecake; you fix my computer. I bake you a cheesecake; you tell me why this software program went batty. I bake you a cheesecake; you tell me how to make the printer actually print. I bake you…well, you get the picture.

Jonathan went off to college and later went to study abroad. So much for speed dial. His current e-mail places him in Hong Kong working for the International Herald Tribune and doing—as always—exceptionally well.

While I’m happy for him, there still isn’t a school year that goes by that I don’t miss something about Jonathan. Here’s a short list of things I learned from Jonathan…

•It’s important not to take yourself so seriously. Take time to laugh at yourself.
•Never say anything you wouldn’t want to have repeated on a football field.
•You should probably stay away from sentences that mention any body parts.
• It’s good to occasionally feel that edge of panic and to depend on a kid. It develops a certain sense of empathy since children depend so much on adults.