Usually when I wake up in the morning I sit on the floor and meditate. I will chant, “I am great! I am great! I am great!” for five minutes or until I get bored. Then I go out and be great. After a while I noticed that I was losing my edge so I upped my chant to: “I am the greatest!”, which felt like more pressure but pushed me back into greatness for most of the day. One time I got experimental and chanted: “Kill the system! Kill the system!” because I am a radical revolutionary teacher and feel that innovation often follows rebellion. But on that day I ended up screaming at my third period that the world was a mean horrible place filled with loneliness and heartache, and that they should all drop out and become hobos–then I went to a bar at lunch and didn’t come back, which got me into some trouble. So I stick to my original chant now.
Two Right Feet
What invigorates me? Wonder. Like last Thursday I found a pool of blood under a desk in my classroom and I wondered: Who lost his (or her) blood? And does he know that he lost it? I dipped my finger in it and wrote my daily agenda on the white board in blood. Then I covered my hands and face with streaks of blood and told the class that I had murdered a student because she had stopped wondering about the world. “I was doing her favor,” I told them. “Once you’ve lost your sense of wonder you are dead.”
Of course I was making a joke in order to make an important point, but I heard later that a Freshman forgot her pad and had an accident, so it really wasn’t the teachable moment I had thought.
Embrace the Ick
We were reading Beowulf and the kids were slumping in their seats. I bellowed and spat the epic poetry with all of the Viking force I could muster, but the lines formed a lot of saliva due to the strong alliteration and the kids scooted their desks to the back of the class and covered their faces with hands and notebooks. I took this as a sign that we needed a break and said: “Instead of reading Beowulf, lets PLAY Beowulf!”
“Beowulf” the game is wildly popular in my class. It’s a version of reverse tag where a single “Grendel” gets a 20-second head-start out the door before the rest of us–“Beowulf’s Army”–hunt him down. Sometimes the hunt for Grendel takes us through several classrooms and restroom stalls and administrative offices (and often on-campus security has become inadvertently caught up in the game), but it is a great way to invigorate a boring lesson. I try not to have other rules, but last week our Grendel ran home, made herself lunch and took a nap for the rest of the day. So now we have a rule about that.
The kids elected me to be “Grendel” so I took off, scaled a gutter pipe and laid down on top of the roof off my own classroom. Then I waited for ten minutes, but weirdly, nobody left the classroom to come search for me. I crawled to the edge of the roof and peered through my own windows. All of my students were just chilling and playing on their phones–they had forgotten about the game!
I whispered to myself: “I am a pointless, ridiculous monster, crouched in the shadows, stinking of men, murdered children, martyred cows….” That is what Grendel would have said.
Then I asked myself: “What would Grendel do if Beowulf’s Army never left the great meeting hall?” Answer: He would wait for darkness and then attack! But since I had no darkness I settled for the element of surprise. The passing bell rang and just as the kids were exiting the classroom I leapt from the rooftop to land in front of them, intending to yell: “I will destroy you Hrothgar!” But sadly I landed awkwardly, rolled an ankle and couldn’t yell–just a whimper: “Pity the miserable wretch, Grendel!” I said, as the kids stepped over me.
Re-springing Your Step
Something weird happened today. I was lecturing about Homer’s Odyssey and the kids were not exactly riveted, but the class was quiet when suddenly I heard a beeping sound. “Beep!” Like when you press a button on a computer and it goes “Beep!” Of course everyone had their phones out so I didn’t think anything, but then Dylan raised his hand and said, “Did you hear that Mr. Newhart?” I told him that I did, that I heard everything because I have bionic hearing (not true, just something I tell the kids to keep them in line) and he said, “Good.” then the whole class sat up straight and looked alert for the first time all year.
“Ahh! So you want to hear about Halithersis, the reader of birds who prophesizes a bloody massacre in Book 2?” I said. They didn’t move. I said: “Perhaps you think that bird prophecy is not real, but I have been trained and I can read the future in the flight of birds!” Again ,they didn’t move, which struck me as odd. I think they believed that I have special powers. I strolled over to the window, pointed at a group of seagulls picking at potato chip wrappers and empty milk cartons in the courtyard and said: “Those birds are planning an attack of the school!” I said. “They are going to eat your hearts out!”
Then I looked down and saw that Melissa was crying. I asked what was wrong and Mark said, “You are scaring her, Mr. Newhart.”
“I am?” I said. “Wow!”
Anyway, usually kids don’t believe anything I say so it felt great that somebody was moved.
But it was weird.
Tomorrow I go back to school so today I will play. No use getting my panties in a bunch and trying to plan every little detail because experience has taught me that planning never works out. Planning is a waste of time. Planning is dangerous. For example, I once knew a teacher, very respected old man who spent every waking hour planning for his retirement–where he would go, what he would do, how much money he would need. He was so busy planning that he forgot to live his life and exactly three years after he retired he contracted cancer and died. Now of course you can’t plan for that, but I often wonder what he would have done differently had he know what would happen to him. Maybe he would have spent a little less time on his calculator and a little more time telling me people that he loved them. Maybe instead of planning incessantly, he would do things: sleep more, make love to his wife, get drunk with his friends, walk across America. That’s why I never plan and I never know what I’m doing until the moment the bell rings. Then voila! I just start talking and the ideas flow. Some ideas are good, many of them are pretty bad, I admit. For example, one idea that didn’t work out was I told everyone to do a research report on a regular person–find out everything you can about that person using whatever resources were available to you– , which I thought was a pretty inspired assignment at the time, but I forgot to mention that they should ask permission from their subject before sifting through their trash, hacking their email accounts or publicizing their browsing histories, and so a few good folks got into a lot of trouble with their wives or the community. So people are still mad at me about that. But again, if I had tried to plan for every eventuality I would never have come up with that brilliant assignment in the moment, and the truth is that it did turn out to be an effective learning experience about the limits of privacy for many of us, so there you go.
I have a student teacher this semester. She is very beautiful, which tends to distract the kids, specifically the freshman boys. I spoke to her yesterday and warned her that she needed to present herself as the teacher-adult and that this might mean making herself less attractive or even a little dumpy. English teacher women are supposed to be a little dumpy, a little crazy, a little married to their jobs and I told her that she doesn’t want to give the impression that she has a life outside of teaching. I recommended that she gain a little weight, get a moo-moo or house dress and trade out her contacts for wire-rimmed glasses.
Bimberly (not her real name) wasn’t that happy with me and she didn’t want to take my advice. She said she wanted to look professional and that she felt it was completely unnecessary to dump herself down. I said that “professional” means “appropriate” and you can’t be hot AND appropriate in a high school setting. The exception would be men who are not expected to mother the kids. Men can look good and still appear professional. Look at me, I said. I stay fit, get monthly manicures, wear collared shirts–though I always button that top button!
She did not seem convinced. Or happy about hearing the truth. Bimberly, I can tell, is going to have to learn things the hard way. But that’s okay because school is for learning. She can do it the easy way or she can do it the hard way. The choice is hers.
Yesterday we entertained numerous friends of K–none of whom are educators– for New Years, and found that we had nothing in common to talk about. Michael S. told several stories about fighting in Vietnam during the late 60’s, how he lost his leg, how he coped with losing said leg and overcame severe depression and other stuff I can’t remember because I tuned out; Stewart R. had just returned from a humanitarian mission in Brazil where he was negotiating the release of child hostages from guerrillas in the jungle and we were all supposed to be riveted by that, but I took the opportunity to retreat to the bathroom with my Iphone and set a new Critter Crunch record. Peter G. told a long boring story about riding a bus with Merry Pranksters and his involvement with Tim O’Leary and Bucky Fuller—whoever they are. I could not contribute anything to these conversations because my life is consumed with solving actual educational problems in the here and now. I tried to interject stories from the school trenches–you know, the fight over homework, the funny spellings on their essays, the theory behind my progressive tardy policy that really has changed the culture in my classes, but people just kind of nodded, took a swig of beer and continued chittering about their own lives. Finally I got drunk, finished off the pie in the fridge (K got angry about that) and pretended to fall asleep in the recliner until they left. Can’t wait to get away from these boobs and back to class!
This year I resolve to be a better teacher than I was the year before. This is the fourth year in a row that I have made this resolution and I must admit that it is getting difficult to continuously improve myself. When somebody with my level of experience and raw talent commits to bettering himself in the classroom he is modeling a formula for excellence that students can emulate. For example, last year I gave zero detentions, suspended zero students and eliminated all disciplinary action. This year I resolve to pass 100% of my students by giving special extra credit to unmotivated or severely untalented kids. This will of course improve our school’s graduation rate, which in turn raises our school’s academic performance. I used to think that I needed to fail a few random stragglers to let the class know that I meant business, but I have since realized that a failing student is a returning student and that is not good for anyone. No need to beat a dead horse!
Today is Christmas! And Happy New Years! Something…something…something brings something cheer! Oh happy Christmas….I always forget the words to that song because we are not allowed to talk about Christmas at school. Why? Because Christmas is religion and religion is God and in the school there is no God. God is not allowed in school because God is anti education. God does not want you to learn things, especially scientific things but really anything other than his wish for you to praise him constantly, which is wrong. So sorry, God, but I’m going to have to send you home so that our children can learn!
Personally, I think God should be allowed to come to school because then He or She–we have to be careful today that we don’t assume that we live under the dominion of a male God…He could be a She or an It or a combination of the three…a Sheit…
But if God, whomever Sheit is, was allowed to come to school and learn about his creation, about Evolution and Chemistry and Math and, of course, poetry–where incidentally he would learn just how angry people are at him–he might improve himself.
Now some of you might be saying: How could God improve himself? He is a perfect being. He already know everything there is to know about Geography and Biology, and He or She can do an infinite number of pullups in PE. All true. But I for one would like to talk to God about some of the inconsistencies in his writing—some of the places where he says one thing and then a few pages later–says the complete opposite thing. Do the animals come to Noah two by two or seven by seven, for example? Frankly I find the whole seven story far-fetched, but that is exactly the kind of thing that we sort out in the rough draft.
School is not just for humans. God or Gods can make life better for humans and for themselves by updating their understanding of the world. That is why I strongly advocate for the presence of God in school.