Friday, April 30, 2010

Day -29

I've mentioned before how the Big Cheese at The March sits in her chair all day watching video feed and very rarely gets out in the building. Every morning she makes an announcement about sending all kids home who are out of uniform, but strangely the same kids are out of uniform every goddamn day and nobody ever gets sent home. She also always announces that kids running the halls all day will be suspended immediately, but the same kids do that too.

This morning during the announcement--which we all know by heart--I was standing outside my room with Mr. E when the IST and "acting" administrator for the sixth grade rolled up. "Instead of sitting your $100,000 per year ass in that chair all day why don't you stand at the front door when the kids come in and deny entry to the ones out of uniform? Everyone in the building knows you are lying about sending them home for running the halls, that's why the same fools keep doing it!"

So the teachers aren't the only ones frustrated by the BS flowing steadily out of the principal's office this year. Meanwhile, the kids grow more and more unmanageable by the day. I had to break up a sixth grader choking another sixth grader out in the hallway yesterday--the victim was red-faced and his eyes had rolled up in his head by the time I got the attacker restrained. Kids are getting fellated in the stairwells, an 8th grader called Ms. T a "cum catcher" and he said he was going to "slap the mole off her face" and she called him a "n*****" and said his parents and grandparents were "n******s" too, and large groups more than a dozen strong of kids were running wild on our floor all day, turning out the lights and pulling alarms and banging on walls and ripping down displays. A burly teen I've never seen before burst into my room today, told me my kids stunk like feet, and then threatened to knife me when I grabbed him and manhandled him out the door.

I don't know where the hall monitors and school police are, but I know where the Big Cheese is: locked in her office, rolling up a fat paycheck and counting the days to June 16th.

6.5 weeks to go. Hopefully I don't have a nervous breakdown in the meantime.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Day -30

There was an announcement just before first period today that all staff were required to visit the professional development center during their planning periods for "mandatory training."

"Mandatory training" (which ate more than 45 minutes of our already-limited grading and planning time) was run by two 23 or 24-year-old HR cats who gave a textbook presentation about how to create plans to modify undesirable child behavior in positive ways.

They showed a clip from Family Guy to illustrate behavior. Stewie did something amusing, and his mother reacted. "See how he tries to get a response? Your kids are like Stewie." Brilliant. They said when students wish to avoid work, that we should create a plan for them which allows them to avoid work, but on our terms, so we can eventually modify their behavior in positive ways.

Mr. E, the completely mild-mannered and unflappable teacher in the room next to mine, summed it up nicely: "I'm tired of these 24-year-old fuckwads who couldn't last ten seconds in my classroom coming up in here and telling me how to manage behavior after I been doing it 14 years."

It is funny to be lectured on classroom management by HR specialists. The kids would fucking eat them for breakfast.


OK, so maybe the action sequences are a bit too much Raiders of The Lost Ark: The Temple Of Doom, but who cares? I adored it, every second. Keep making them, please!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Day -31

The increasingly out-of-control behavior at The March has finally caught the attention of the administrators. The teachers--myself included--have been at wit's end for several weeks, doing all sorts of elaborate tricks just to keep the kids from hurting each other. The City schools are rowdy enough on good days. For a month we've had nothing but awful days.

Last week 16 sixth graders were suspended for a melee in the hall. Our Fearless Leader has been bragging all year about her low suspension rate, but now she's realizing the cost of threatening kids all year with suspension but never actually doing it. The kids learn that they can do whatever the fuck they want without consequences. Calling parents only goes so far, and detention only goes so far. Some kids need to be put out before their parents will answer the phone or show up for a conference. And when Mom or Dad or Gramma has to miss work to come in and sign a re-instatement form, we can get a working phone number again and show video of what the children have been up to in school to their parents or guardians.

Today was horrible. The kids ran amuck in the cafeteria and the entire sixth and seventh grade were held for an hour detention (with a few exceptions, who were let go on recommendations from the staff). More suspensions were doled out. Some of my worst head-cases got three days, which means I might be able to teach something tomorrow.

Probably not.

I had an interview for a middle school job at a small alternative/charter school across Clifton Park from the March. They want me back for a second interview and to teach a lesson in front of a group of seventh graders. Saturday I have an interview at the Book, which is being renovated, re-organized with new management and leadership, and turned into a School for the Arts. Good Lord, why am I tempted to go back there? That place was batshit insane! But my former sixth graders on the West Side will be 8th graders next year--I might know many of the kids, and I miss a lot of them. I've also got other irons in the fire. The dream job is a school in Hampden, about a quarter mile from my house. It would be demanding, with long hours, but I like their approach, the leadership has been quite stable for several years running, and my wife's organization does a lot of work with them. I just want to nail down a slot before the job fair. I don't want any chance of being cast to the winds again like I was last fall. One never knows into what shit hole one may end up thrown. Like my current slot in a school built on a razed cemetery and named after a funeral home.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Day -32

I'm tired of fighting with the kids just to get through a lesson each day, so I'm gradually removing the lesson part from each class. I can't teach them. The most they'll abide is reading a text and answering questions about it, with perhaps a bit of prior knowledge or context instruction before we read to make sure they understand what's going on. I could teach them a lesson on how to eat candy and then ask them to practice and they still wouldn't follow directions at this point.

The kids call my classroom "dead" because it's not sufficiently off the chain. I hear them talking in the halls about how "dead" Mr. G's class is, and how they gonna take it "live." A "live" classroom is one where kids are out of their chairs and moving around at will, things are being thrown, and there are kids on the counter and on top of desks. Last period I experienced a bit of a "live" classroom near the end when I stepped into the hall to talk to a parent for 30 seconds and they went ballistic. I had to go in there with guns blazing and then an administrator joined in. "You got a parent up in here and you still don't know how to act. Mr. G hold them 30 minutes after school for me. I wish more of your parents would come in here and see how you act."

Detention music today? Chet Baker. The kids actually were grooving on it for a while, though Liberace told me it made his stomach feel sad.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Philip Roth simply cranks out high-quality high-interest novels. I devoured this one in a couple afternoons spent soaking in the tub. Marcus Messner is a bright young man brought up by his hard-working parents who run their own kosher butcher shop in Newark, NJ. Marcus learns the value of education at a young age because he decides he doesn't care to spend the rest of his life yanking vicera out of chicken carcasses. But he never belittles the achievements or the efforts of his parents, whom he dearly loves, until at age 18 his father goes a bit paranoid, worrying constantly that Marcus is going to die in an accident or knock up a girl and get VD.

His father's hectoring drives Marcus to leave Newark and go to a conservative and traditional college in Ohio, where Jews are a tiny minority. All Marcus wants to do is study and to be valedictorian, but a sexual encounter with a crazy chick, an appendectomy, and long-distance meddling via a fraternity leader by his parents lead to a series of small catastrophes which completely derail Marcus' plans. The results are funny, but terribly tragic too.

Indignation portrays small-town American at the height of the Cold War, where families whose sons were spared the calamity of WW2 now find their own children dying in Korea. The Soviets are exploding bombs and everyone is on edge, yet life goes on, jangly and sweet, nonetheless. I dug it.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Jack Vance's Demon Princes novels are without a doubt formulaic. In each Kirth Gersen goes after a different member of the gangster crew which destroyed his home world. In each book there is a criminal mastermind whose identity is concealed until nearly the end, when Gerson has a revelation of some sort and ends up getting his revenge.

The Face is the penultimate book of the five-part series. Though its plot is a bit like a late Dune novel (Financial Shenanigans of Dune, or Duncan Idaho, Corporate Raider) Vance manages to maintain interest with his imaginative and wholly original prose. My biggest complaint about these books versus Vance's exquisite Dying Earth novels is that Kirth Gersen is nowhere near as interesting as Cugel: the villains are more interesting characters than the hero. The final confrontation in The Face is, however, a great deal of fun, and though the resolution is completely ridiculous, Kirth demonstrates heretofor undetected depths by displaying a bit of sympathy for his quarry's audacious plans.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Day #125

Johns Hopkins University has been selected as the external partner to manage the March next year. Their task is to pull it out of its downward spiral. Today we were swarmed by observers from JHU who took notes and did inventories of equipment. They were trying to inventory my laptop and printer and LCD projector and my bookcases. I said "Excuse me, but I purhcased those things. They belong to me. I am taking them with me when I leave."

A new young man joined my homeroom and first period class. He is a smart-mouthed punk with no regard whatsoever for any authority outside the Bloods. He reminds me of kids at the Book. I don't need any more jerks transferring in, but kids who are put out of other schools all year end up at the March, just as all kinds of nasty sluice ends up in the killing floor grate. Mmmm, scrapple.

I am dead-dog beat, but instead of chilling to start the weekend I'm preparing to host four Taikoza drummers for the weekend. And, tonight Move Like Seamus is playing at Mick O'Shea's. No rest until 3am! Or Brooklyn, or something.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Day #123

Poliakova is one of my favorite kids at the March. She is a holy terror at a young age: manipulative, deceitful, eye-rolling, and accomplished at sass-back to an unparalleled degree. I suspect however that she is gifted at more than simply arranging beat-downs of fellow students via her gang connections, and so for much of this year I've bent over backwards to give Poliakova extra attention and work. This strategy bore fruit for a while, but in the middle of the third quarter she slipped off the deep end and her behavior became more and more outlandish, violent, and bizarre. Her grade in my class dropped from an 88% to a 63%, and she was moved from the second-highest class in sixth grade to the lowest achieving class (which I'm also privileged to teach). This is the class where the hopeless behavior head cases end up, where the flashers and pyros and vandals are, where the special ed kids who are emotionally disturbed but academically capable of mainstreaming end up. The administrators had hoped to scare Poliakova straight by putting her there. Instead she started acting up worse.

Much of her deterioration stems from a reunion with her mom, who just was released after a couple years spent up the river for dealing. Poliakova was living with an aunt who had some control over things; Mom seems less capable of reining in her baby girl, or less interested. Other sixth graders tell me Mom smokes weed right in front of Poliakova, and that a steady stream of man friends rolls in and out the house.

So Poliakova got suspended for running halls when she was supposed to be in the cafeteria, said suspension scheduled to start tomorrow. As she was leaving my second period class I said "Go straight to Art. You know if you run halls with your crew and you show up late he is not going to let you in and you will get jacked up. DO NOT come back here and ask me for a pass. Understand?"

Poliakova rolled her eyes, sucked her teeth, and stamped her foot before getting all up in my grill. "I know how to walk from your class to Mr. T's room, Gawd!"

20 minutes later she starts banging on my window during planning time. "Can you write me a pass, please?" she asks, using her sickeningly false and unctious I need something from you voice. Because she's been continuously disappointing to me for a month despite my best efforts, I told her something I really hate to tell a child: "I am done with you. I'm not calling your house when you misbehave any more because I no longer care what you do. I'm not helping you out when you're in a jam. I'm not going to intervene when I know you're about to get beat down by 8th graders anymore. I'm not extending myself. There are other kids who give a damn here. They get my time. You? You need to make a choice about what path you're going down. You could still turn things around and end up in a premier City-wide high school. Or you can fail sixth grade and end up just another bum with an attitude." And I shut my door in her face.

An hour later Poliakova got jacked up by an administrator for running the halls. Then she tried to take a swing at the administrator, and Ms. G don't play. Ms. G was attacked by a 7th grader last year and she beat the girl senseless. Then that student's mom came into school and took a poke at Ms. G and Ms. G knocked the mom around for good measure. So Poliakova was getting the worse end of things right outside my door last period. A terrible sight.

Did I feel like an ass? Yes. But I'm at my wit's end. I need to focus on the handful of kids I can still help.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Day #122

We're going to start reading a short biography of Barack Obama in class this week. I'm kind of giving up on teaching new skills, but I'm hoping to engage the kids in writing and small projects the rest of the way out. I have a feeling, however, that the kids won't give a shit about anything we come up with. They cussed out the social studies teacher for daring to give work after spring break. They are starting to give me shit in the same measure. Tough! The fourth quarter just started. We will work.

Some of the shine is off Mr. Obama; my students were awe-struck by him last year, but the sixth graders this time out think he's a square. He ain't sportin' "fly" tennies or "bling." He got no neck tats, and he don't wear rosaries in red or blue. We'll read the book any way, and do work, and hopefully I can get the kids interested in some stuff about the wider world along the way. If not, we'll plunge back into the Bluford series, and pick up with "Until We Meet Again."

Waiting for a phone interview with the principal at a small transformation school with a high-school and middle-school opening. Not sure his organization--which focuses on teaching technical skills and trades--is my bag, but I need to find something or else I'll end up at some random shit-hole again next year. I wish ACCE would call me and schedule an interview. I've been waiting for weeks!

Today my first period class was so rowdy and loud they couldn't hear me blowing the whistle, banging on the desk, or shouting, so I drew a thought balloon on the chalkboard which said "I'm angry!" inside, and then I stood next to it. Suddenly the kids started shushing each other and saying "he's angry!" and things got quiet. Funny what they notice.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


I like the dark, mysterious films. I think Bergman is da shit, and Herzog. Hundstage is right up my alley, as is Spirit of the Beehive. David Lynch m'amuse beaucoup.

But watching Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, I kept thinking: this is the greatest, most pleasurable film ever made, with the possible exception of Demy's other masterpiece, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. There's a frenetic exuberance to Michel Legrand's songs which swept me away--when the twins have their first jazzy number with those big hats and all the pastel colors all the stress of school faded away and I was completely charmed. I love the gleeful corniness, how it reminds one that the civilization known for iconic intellectuals like Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre is also adept at irresistible light confections. And just when you think it's impossible for things to get better, Gene Kelly shows up, dancing in a cross walk and scatting in French.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Day #120

The kids are indifferent to learning and school work, but they were excited about the new LG phone Pat got me after she lost hers, borrowed mine, and lost my charger. They were also excited that I bought a new pair of Merrils, because they "be tired of them ashy boots" I wore every day.

Because the standardized tests are off for a while I've been doing independent reading time again, allowing the kids to pick either a book or a magazine to read for points. All they have to do is read--no questions, no journal responses, no nothing--just read, for 20 minutes, and I give them points. More than half of them throw these points out the window talking or staring off into space. Whatever. The ten percent of my kids who take advantage not only get the points, but they've read five or six novels ahead in the Bluford series. Some of them are reading the Donors Choose books I got earlier in the year, which is encouraging. Walter Dean Myers and Judy Blume are big.

Most of my magazines are not read, but they are, however, showing signs of substantial wear. Especially magazines with cologne or perfume ads. The kids rip these out and rub them all over themselves. They also like to take ads of scantily-clad adults out and fold them up and put them in their pockets. Mags like In Style and Women's Health and Men's Health which I got for a few bucks via Amazon deals are quickly torn up. Some inventive deviant drew large phalli entering a woman doing yoga poses. Oh, the tittering!

I had some plans to do student projects about Hawaii and Indonesia and Kenya and the Luo before reading a bio of Obama written for sixth graders. Now I'm thinking I'll scale back those plans and perhaps just teach them the context--the behavior in the building is so ridiculous right now I don't think I can try anything fun or special without totally derailing my classes. Everyone is hunkering down and just trying to endure the last quarter. I hate to waste time, however. These kids do enough of that.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Day #119

Following a string of 90-degree days the higher-ups at the March decided to turn on the AC in the building. It makes sense, given we're one of the few schools to have this luxury. But because the HVAC system is so old and decrepit in our school, when the heat is on the rooms boil at a consistent 85 degrees, and when the AC is on the rooms freeze in the mid-fifties. There are no regulators anywhere, and there is not a classroom in the building with windows that actually open, so the students and staff swelter and shiver. And once it's on, the AC is on until November. They can't turn it off without bringing in a five-man crew from Central Office. It's like Terry Gilliam's Brazil, with Bob DeNiro in the ducts and pipes.

I wore a very light shirt to work and brought no jacket to school yesterday, and I froze to death along with the kids, who were attempting to climb entirely into their short-sleeved uniform shirts. They looked like turtles with tufts of curly black hair sticking out their colors. Mr. E, the math teacher next door, had on his leather bombadier's coat and a fur hat. He kept teasing me about my thin button-down. I could see his breath.

Teaching and learning continues to be a problem. The kids aren't interested. I can get them to read and answer questions about the reading, but they won't give me a chance to show them new skills. Because we spent so much time this year on reading comprehension and literary analysis skills, they badly need writing and grammar, usage, mechanics work in order to move to 7th grade. The climate in the building (and I'm talking the literal climate, not the metaphorical) is not aiding in this endeavor. 25 kids in a classroom continuously moaning about the cold and complaining and swearing is not conducive to learning. And reminding them to wear a long-sleeve shirt under their uniforms in Spring just doesn't seem right. For once I'd rather be in a school without AC again.

At least the violence seems to have diminished again. We're back to stupid horse-play rather than face-kicking.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Day #117

Oh, man, this week has been WAR, constant WAR. The kids are suffering from the heat (three 90-plus days in a row) and from hay fever (record pollen counts already) and they continue to labor under the misapprehension that school is over after Spring Break. This week has been about re-establishing the rules and classroom procedures and making sure we still know how to act.


But today we reached a pretty good detente. I fought hard battles with last period in particular all week, but a few well-placed phone calls and a couple surprise parent visits made quite a difference. We had a big blow-up in there today but I quickly reined them in: good thing, too, because right after peace descended so did a surprise inspection by Headquarters big wigs. They came in and took notes about my room and about my objective, my lesson plan, and what they observed in the class. Things went well apparently, but I got no feedback, just a couple of cards saying "Thank you for letting us observe your class today."

Tomorrow is Friday, which isn't really a big deal this week, because Saturday is Cha's annual fund-raiser, so I'll be working on Saturday at Taste The Arts. This year it's at the American Visionary Art Museum instead of at Center Stage, so I'm a bit stoked about that. I dig the AVAM.


I saw the film version of The Piano Teacher several years back. At a time when I was watching nothing but disturbing, bleak films, The Piano Teacher stood out as a particularly treacherous mind-fuck.

So now I get around to reading the novel by Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek. I'd never have guessed from the film that the novel would be so hilarious. Yes, much of the storyline from the book is the same as the film, but Jelinek has a jaunty and whimsical way with metaphor and an eye for the ridiculous which makes the book a breezy read despite its subject matter. It's a lot like reading Boll or Hrabal or Kafka, whose themes were dark and whose characters were twisted, but who managed great humor at the same time.

I would recommend this novel. The mother is one of the great spirit devourers in literature. She's right out of Gormenghast Castle.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Day #115

3rd quarter ends tomorrow. The year is 75% done! Sweet. There are 7.5 brutal, long weeks between now and Memorial Day, and then half of June finishes things off. In my brief experience in the City, this is the hardest part of the year. The annual tests are done, Spring Break is over, and the kids are done with school, they are done with teachers, and they are done with following directions. They want to do what they were doing today, talking about dick and pussy non-stop. I got boys saying "My thing keeps popping up Mr. Godfrey. Can I go to the bathroom?" I got girls telling each other that it's ok to "do it in the butt" cuz you're still a virgin. In the halls kids are flashing each other and daring each other to touch things.

I was dirty-minded when I was in sixth grade, but I was far less specific, and likely less knowledgeable. These kids have videos on their phones of stuff I didn't see in still images until 8th or 9th grade. The internets are for porn!

Saturday, April 03, 2010


It took me a while to get into Hempel's book. The early stories in the collection jangle and jar with the zap of Zen koans. I found them too spare, too sudden, and I re-read a lot out of frustrated puzzlement. Then the frustration became admiration and I dug this crazy world of depressives, obsessed artists, survivors of shattered relationships. Images and settings and particulars recur: dogs, beaches, cemeteries, road trips, changes of scenery, rednecks, booze. And speaking of dogs: if you love them or love dog people, then you will love several stories in this collection. I adored one in particular about people who raise seeing eye-dogs from puppyhood to one year, only to give them up for training and new masters with greater needs. A tear-jerker indeed. Great, distinctive stories.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


I really dug this short film, which is nothing more than an artfully spliced assemblage of burned, warped, faded, ripped, and otherwise deteriorated or damaged decades-old films set to music. Bill Morrison manages to artfully edit everything so that there are sequences of footage with the same sort of damage, or with similar subject matter, which run for a few minutes before moving on. I don't know how to describe it, but Decasia is beautiful and disturbing. The Philip Glass on a bad psilocybin trip score by Michael Gordon really adds to the effect.

Animators and digital effects afficionados will love the glamorous and amazing natural special effects time has wrought on these old reels. There are dramatic flourishes, apocalyptic sequences, and spiritually evocative movements caused simply by the decay of film stock. Powerful and interesting, but not for everyone.

Spring Break

So now the relaxation can begin. Last weekend we cleaned and prepped for a party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our first date, and then Sunday we spent cleaning and eating the leftovers. Thanks to everyone who came--quite a turnout, new friends and old!

Tuesday we drove through a monsoon to NYC, and sat in rush hour traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel. The purpose? So Cha could be at JFK airport to fetch her mom and dad, just back from 3 weeks in the Philippines. I wish we'd planned things out better so we could have done something in NYC, but we had a really nice dinner with John and Leesha at a Belgian joint called BXL. The food and beer were authentic, and there were actually Belgian people on staff.

BTW, I love Belgium.

So now it's chill time for the second half of Spring Break. I wish I wasn't dreaming of work every night: terrible, disconcerting dreams that my LCD projector got stolen, that all my kids moved away and I had to start over with new classes in April, that I get transferred to a new school with no warning, etc. You know, the kind of stuff that actually happens in Baltimore schools....