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That Was Interesting

Sunday, 28 Oct 2018, 17:07 UTC

It was Friday. We were studying how to solve systems of equations with three variables by substitution. And we had finished the lesson 10 minutes early. I was bushed. (I had been sick earlier in the week and was still fighting it off. My voice had barely lasted.)

I stopped writing at the document camera and looked at the students.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m tired!”

There was a murmuring of agreement and consent for the statement that they suspected was coming next.

“Let’s call it quits,” I declared. “It’s Friday, after all. And the lesson’s done. I give you back ten minutes.”

They all immediately took out their phones. A still silence descended on the room.  I turned on the lights.

One of the students was still looking at the board. He had been following closely during the whole lesson — quite a feat, since there was a lot of … algebra… involved.

“That was fun,” he said.

“It was fun?” I asked. “Hey that’s great.”

He quickly walked it back.

“Well, not fun fun,” he said. “It was interesting.”

Good enough for me.

Being Mean

Sunday, 28 Oct 2018, 16:08 UTC

I was disappointed with all the zeros in my grade book — a lot of homework never turned in. So I stood in front of the class and gave them a lecture.

“Don’t ask me, ‘Mister, how can I improve my grade?’” I said, “when you can see as well as I can that you’re missing assignments. Turn in the homework, and your grades will improve. It’s as simple as that. I assign work at most twice a week!”

“And I can promise you,” I added, “that if you don’t do the homework problems, you won’t do well on the quizzes and tests.”

One of the students smirked. I looked at her and cocked my head in a “what” kind of way. Her smirk broadened into a smile, and she slowly shook her head.

“What?” I asked.

“You’re not being mean,” she said.

“I can be mean,” I said. “Let me show you…”

So I walked to the middle of the room and stood still. 

“Listen!” I said loudly. “Do your homework!”

She shook her head. “That’s still not mean.”

Welcome to Leave

Sunday, 21 Oct 2018, 10:23 UTC

Usually at this time of year, our rain barrels are just beginning to fill up — replenishing from the brutality of summer. But this year they’ve been full for many weeks. That’s when the rains started.

The Farmers’ Market: Poor Ben. He is the director/manager of the Sunset Valley Farmers’ Market. They have had dismal, rainy weather every Saturday for weeks and weeks. Not good for turnout. Indeed, the weather forecast for yesterday had been sufficiently grim that they cancelled the music, which is one of the features that make the market a destination. The other feature is the playscape. In the usual heat of summer, kids can play on massive foam blocks in the relatively cool shade of Live Oak trees, and even on gray days like the ones we’ve had, the playscape is mobbed.

The Swollen River: As I drove north on Mopac (for the first time in several months, since my work commute mercifully no longer goes that way), I crossed over the river. The hike and bike trails are closed, because they’ve had the highland lake flood control dams dumping flood water into the river as fast as downstream communities can accommodate. The water level was high. The national press is showing pictures of the flood control gates wide opened. My far-away mother is apoplectic that we will be washed away. From the highway bridge, the current was visibly swift. And the water was a chocolate-milk brown. There were no boats on the water.

Persimmons: One of the fruit on our Japanese Persimmons ripened a few weeks ago. It was well ahead of the others, because it was high up and could get light longer as the afternoon sun passed behind the roof. It was soft and luscious red while the lower-down fruit were hard and yellow-orange. One afternoon I went out to pick it only to find that the birds or squirrels had beat me to it (probably earlier that very day). Since then, there has been no sun whatsoever, and with the rain, we haven’t ventured out into the yard to check on the remaining fruit — until today. I walked across the wet, squishy yard to the Persimmon tree with now-orange-red fruit making the limbs sag with their weight. But they are still hard and as a test proved too astringent to eat yet. Not enough sun. Too much rain. Who knows who will get them first: us or the squirrels and birds.

I never thought I would long for the day when a rain would stop. It has always been welcome, here. But right now, it’s welcome to leave for a while.

Organizing the Notebooks

Sunday, 21 Oct 2018, 01:58 UTC

Class was over. The students were leaving the room. I had been standing by the door. So I was walking the other way. 

One of the students was standing at the baskets containing their composition notebooks. She was muttering under her breath, which didn’t register with me at first, but then I looked at the baskets.

Now, I must tell you something about these baskets. They are old metal wire locker room baskets that the Fair and Industrious Trudy scrounged from somewhere. And they are large enough to hold the notebooks we use for notes and glueable and foldable inserts. But they are small enough that when the students leave quickly (which they always do), the notebooks end up in a disorganized heap, flowing over the top of the baskets. At the end of the day, I need to reorganized those six baskets so that the notebooks will be neatly arrayed for each period the next day.

On this day, that student who was muttering as she stood by the baskets evidently had had enough of the disorganized heap. She didn’t say anything to me, and I almost didn’t notice it. The notebooks in the Period 2 basket were not in the usual disorganized heap. They were neatly arrayed, ready for the next day.

I turned and looked at her as she made her way to the door. 

“Did you organize the notebooks!?” I asked in disbelief.

“The mess drives me crazy.”

Me, too. Organizing the baskets can take… a couple minutes.

As a new teacher I have discovered this: in the aggregate, minutes that slip away are precious. Saving a few here and there repeatedly throughout the day is one of the attributes of an efficient teacher. I am not adept at this. This student saved me one minute that I could devote to grading papers.

“That’s awesome. Thanks!” I said as she walked out into the hall.

On Acorns

Sunday, 07 Oct 2018, 20:43 UTC

The Burr Oak across the street is laden with huge acorns. Quercus Macrocarpa. But they are still a bit green. It will take good timing to get a few before they drop. Last year not one of them on the ground was any good. So I’ve got my eyes on that tree.

And the acorns are dropping from the Chinkapin Oak around the corner. Quercus Muehlenbergii. Might as well be microcarpa, because the acorns are tiny little things, although what they lack in size they make up for in color — a kind of purplish-brown. I gathered and planted two dozen — they all passed the float/sink test. 

Acorns make me happy, even when the worms get them, or the squirrels gnaw on the sprouts, and even when they don’t germinate at all. Because they just don’t care about all the hub and all the bub… or if they do, they sure don’t show it. 

A Long Friday

Sunday, 07 Oct 2018, 18:54 UTC

It was a long day. Full-periods working on function transformations with the kids. A pep rally after classes before the kids began filing out of the school. Some after-school tutoring to a student who has been working hard to keep up and to understand. Grabbing something to eat before heading to the football stadium for the Friday night game agains out cross-town rivals.

The fair and industrious Trudy drove there after work. The bleachers were full, and I didn’t notice her text. She found the principal, and I saw the two of them scanning the crowd. Trudy had asked her, “Have you seen my husband?” after they hugged. I stood up and waved my arms. 

The associate principal saw me waving, and thinking I was trying to get help, he shouted to see what was wrong. (The admin staff works the stadium during football games, and not much goes unnoticed by them.) I gave him a smile and a thumbs-up to let him know that all was well, by which time Trudy had joined me. I handed her a blue cowbell to cheer the team.

At the half, the Eagles were ahead. After halftime, Trudy and I looked at each other. “Now?” we silently asked. And we got up to leave, because there was still a 30 minute drive home. And because we were both tired.

An hour later, horizontal on the bed, my feet hurt, as they often do these days. I drifted off to sleep wondering if they would still be sore when I woke up. They were, although two cups of coffee helped. But then, two cups of coffee on any Saturday usually can make most things better.

Here’s to Monday!

Lausbub

Sunday, 30 Sep 2018, 19:50 UTC

“You’re a silly goose,” someone in the back of the room chimed in when another student answered a question I had asked.

“Hey, silly goose: that’s what I used to call my son when he was young,” I said.

They looked at me. I stood there for a second, weighing whether or not I could afford the diversion from the algebra. I decided I could. (It was Friday, after all.)

“You know what else I used to call him?”

They dwell on every word about my family and my life, as if they’re gathering rare evidence that, yes teachers are human beings, after all.

Lausbub,” I said in a good German accent. “You are a lausbub!” 

One of the boys in the back said it out loud: “Laus boop!”

So I proceeded to explain how it was that I came by that expression, how my mother used to use it on us, and how she in turn picked it up when she was studying in Germany.

“Germany?”

I explained how she was an exchange student, and in her family the parents would call the young children lausbubs when they were being rascals. And then I taught my algebra students a bit of German.

“Here’s how you say it,” I said. I explained that German has a formal and an informal “you” just like Spanish, and that you use the informal with children so that was what we were going to do.

“Repeat after me… You: Du…

And they repeated it.

“You are: Du bist…

And they repeated it.

“You are a lausbub! Du bist ein Lausbub! 

They loved it, and the boy in the back did it with a darned good German accent, too.

Why Are You Here?

Sunday, 30 Sep 2018, 15:22 UTC

1. The Question

The room was dark. There were equations and graphs projected on the screen at the front. The students were just beginning to get settled back down from the fire drill.

“Mister,” one of the students asked, “why are you here?”

I forget why she asked that. 

“Why am I here?”

“Mister,” the boy behind her added, “high school students are jerks. Why do you want to teach us.”

I was beginning to get their drift.

“And mister,” a third student said. “Why did you give up a seven digit salary.”

“Ok,” I said. “Let’s be clear. It wasn’t seven digits.”

I did not elaborate. They did not ask further. I stood there and looked out in the dark room with them looking back at me, waiting for me to say something else.

I looked at the equations and graphs and then back at them, and then I shrugged, smiled and threw my hands in the air.

“Oh well,” I said. “It’s Friday!”

And in this way I began to explain why I am there.

2. The Answer

I told them about visiting a friend in college years ago. How I recklessly and pseudo-boastfully told him and his wife and some of their friends that I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after I got out of school — how I was thinking of the Peace Corps. 

They didn’t know what the Peace Corps is. I explained. And then I stopped and looked at my students.

“But I didn’t join the Peace Corps after all,” I said. “I got a job at NASA and later in tech. And at some point I began wondering what it was going to be like when to be 95 on my death bed wondering why I never joined the Peace Corps.”

That made them laugh — not the prospect of joining but rather the notion of being 95 and the notion of being on your death bed. But they laughed quietly, because they understood what I was saying, and because they wanted to know what came next.

I talked about meaning. How I wanted to have a job with real meaning. My explanation continued for a while, circling through tiny Walkerville, Michigan (which one of the students knows!) and my grandparents and how it’s so wonderful to work around young people. But eventually I stopped and said, “So here I am.”

A few of the students clapped.

“No… no…,” I said. “No clapping.”

I turned back toward the screen with the equations and the graphs.

“So. Where were we?”

It was a good Friday.

On Working Like Gardeners

Sunday, 23 Sep 2018, 11:55 UTC

There are critters here. Lurking in the dark, scurrying in the undergrowth, peering into the gloom from their surveilling perches in trees. In the long-decaying wood piles stacked at the periphery. In the loam and mould of the compost piles. Owls. Lizards. Snakes. Bees. Wasps. Beetles. This is a place for them.

Nothing needs to happen here other than the passing of days, the shining of the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, sometimes falling rain, and critters finding a home. We dedicate this place to that.

The hub and the bub pass by this postage stamp in suburbia. But the wood piles up. Leaves decompose. Giant Stag Beetles live out their long lives. In some small way, this is a still point of the turning world, a slice of stillness in the midst of chaos.

We do not claim to be gardeners in the usual sense. Borers hollow out the zucchinis. The tomatoes are taken by the birds. Squirrels steal the apples before they ripen. The cucumber blossoms don’t bear fruit. Still… we try to work like gardeners. In the stillness. In the quiet. In the sufficiency of our days

Beetlebomb

Sunday, 23 Sep 2018, 11:06 UTC

As Trudy tossed and turned in the pre-dawn hours of the morning, as Charlie wandered around the house dazed and confused, as Miss Izzy tried unsuccessfully to sneak outside to bark at the night creatures, as BBC played on the radio, I was repeatedly falling back asleep. Because… well my wheels are weary.

After the sun had risen and Trudy had made coffee, I pulled myself out of bed.  I slipped into my sandals, looked out onto the backyard and announced, “There’s only one thing I’m going to do in the yard today.” (Only one thing, because there are many first-year teacher things to do today, before next week begins.)

I got the pitch fork from the garage, and I went to consolidate our two compost piles into one, both of them having cooked down over the summer to about half their original 3 foot height.

I pitched the decay from one pile into the other, periodically slapping at the fire ants nipping at my toes. We’ve had a lot of rain, lately, and the pile was wonderfully moist, and frankly mostly finished. Still, I tossed fork-load after fork-load onto the other pile… and then stopped. There was something in the original pile.

I bent over and picked up three Giant Stag Beetle grubs. 

I have mentioned these before. The larvae look exactly like a june bug grub but larger — much larger. If you’re not comfortable with bugs and critters, these are the stuff of nightmares: wet-looking, soft, curled up, with wiggling legs and nasty looking mandibles. They fill the palm of your hand.

I set the grubs on a board and I walked to the screen door. Trudy was in our almost-finished kitchen/dining room putting away dishes in the almost-finished cabinets. 

“Hey Trudy?”

“Hey David?”

“Come look at this.” 

She walked to the door and looked out. 

“Wow!” she said.

Trudy is a cheerleader of critters and bugs, and it’s been a few years since we saw evidence of these. So it was indeed a moment to celebrate: we had not just one grub, but three. She went to get her camera and came out to document the occasion.

Meanwhile, I returned to pitching loads of leaves, but progress was slow. With every fork-load, I found two or three more grubs.

As Trudy walked back into the house, I announced, “We have at least a dozen!” Minutes later, it was two dozen. And then it was more than three.

It was a veritable beetle bomb!