Sunday, June 29, 2008

Don't Hate the Playa, Hate the Game

Dear readers (if you were ever out there)... I'm back.

I realize it's been over a week since I posted something, but I've been on vacation. As in, my summer vacation-- that reprieve that teachers get, much to the brooding, sometimes snarling resentment of the rest of the adult population (i.e. those with normal jobs).

In many ways, I get where this resentment is coming from. After all, we technically do not have to work at all during the summer (even though I do). This is in addition to the week vacations in December, February (if you work in New England), and April. So, yeah, for the shlubs who "suffer fifty weeks a year for the sake of a two week vacation" (to quote Biff Loman from Death of a Salesman), just knowing that teachers get all that time off might sting a little.

But don't resent teachers for their summer vacations, if only for two reasons:

(1) It's not as if this "summer off" phenomenon should come as a shock to you. You went to school yourself, right? You knew the deal with the summer vacations, right?

Some jobs are sort of secretive-- the ice cream scientist, say, or the mini-golf architect. And when you hear about them, you might think, "Hey, that's a cool job. Why didn't I ever know about that?" Well, suffice to say, teaching is not mini-golf architecture. It's not a secret profession. In fact, it's actually of the few jobs that everyone knows about.

You knew we got the time off. Not only that, you could have become a teacher yourself. If you regret your chosen career, that's OK. But don't resent me.

(2) You think we didn't earn this time off? Name another job that requires that you run five meetings every single day-- and that's not even the half of it. I don't know any teachers who leave their jobs at their job. Instead, they work into the night, into the weekends. Sometimes, teachers have so much work that they actually have to take a sick day in order to stay home and get work done. It's twisted, but it happens.

Teaching is, to put it lightly, an impossibly demanding job. I think we earned our time off, to re-charge our batteries.

Reminds me of a joke:

Q: "What are the three best things about being a teacher?"
A: "June, July, and August."

OK, I don't believe that. I'd count working with students and affecting the future and using your mind as the top three. But June, July, and August are definitely in the top seven.

Besides, this isn't some crazy plan teachers negotiated. Schools have been closed during the summer since-- well, I don't know, but a long time. We're just playing by the rules we've been given. You can resent the game all you want-- but keep the players out of it.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sox Education: Reflections on Teaching and the 2004 Red Sox

Well, it's on: about a week ago, I "threw my hat in the ring" (whatever that means) and applied to become the Connecticut Governor of Red Sox Nation.

It's all part of a promotion put on by the Red Sox: they already have a president and vice-president for Red Sox Nation (the official name for the Red Sox fanbase), and now they want to pick "Governors" for the six New England states. All interested fans could apply online.

I have no idea what my chances are, but to promote my candidacy, I thought I'd post something I started writing last summer. In this piece, I compare my own experineces as a high school teacher with the Red Sox World Series victory of 2004-- or, more accurately, the World Series victory plus the near-meltdown of the team that preceded it. Because, the way I see it, you really need to have both.

Even if you're not a Red Sox fan, keep reading. I tried to make this user-friendly, so even a non-fan wouldn't get lost in terminology. Besides, the Red Sox saga is really a metaphor for my own experineces as a first-year teacher. (Come to think of it, can't baseball be used as a metaphor for pretty much anything?)


"Another column about the 2004 Red Sox?"


"I mean, after the 2007 series, hasn't the topic of 2004 sort of been played out?"

Answers: Yes. Yes. And not on your life, bud.

After all, only a complete Ebeneezer (or a Yankee fan) would tire of this ultimate "against all odds" saga. Besides, this might be the only column that relates the 2004 Red Sox to teaching, so bear with me, non-believers.

First, an image: my wife's Uncle Peter, lying in his casket at his wake, a Red Sox baseball hat on his chest. His entire life, all seventy-plus years of it, he was a Red Sox fan. And he died never having seen his favorite team win a World Series.

Before 2004, the Sox had not won a World Series since 1918. Eighty-six years. A lifetime-- or more, for many fans. Even devout members of Red Sox Nation-- Boston's ever-loyal, vaguely masochistic fanbase-- doubted if they would ever see the Sox would ever win another World Series.

Not that the Sox didn't have some very good chances over those eighty-six years, not that they didn't come close, but somehow they just couldn't seal the deal. And on October 17, 2004, the Red Sox and their fans were three outs away from watching yet another opportunity for greatness slip through their fingers.

I'm talking about Game Four of the seven-game American League Championship Series. Red Sox vs. Yankees. The winning team goes on to the World Series. And it looks like that team's going to be the Yankees. They just needed to get three more outs.

The Red Sox had entered ALCS five days before, on October 12, full of swagger and fire. This was going to be their year. But they ended up dropping Game One. Next day, they lost Game Two. Then came Game Three, on October 16th, which they didn't just lose-- they got decimated, 19-8.

The Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein later called it a "colossal defeat." The Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy said that in Game Three the Yankees "stripped the Red Sox of all dignity." Pretty much every reporter covering the series made it a point to remind the Fenway Faithful that no team in baseball history had ever been down 3-0 in a postseason series and came back to win. (And some reporters took considerable glee in doing so.)

For a Sox fan, Game Three was the pits. And I'm not using a colloquialism there; I mean it was like being in a pit-- a deep, dark, seemingly inescapable pit. The rockiest of rock bottoms. A nadir. The belly of the whale.

Then came the next night, October 17th. It's Game Four, bottom of the ninth, about 11:30 pm, and the Sox are trailing 4-3. They have only one half inning to keep the series alive. At-bat: Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar, facing Mariano Rivera, quite possibly the best reliever in baseball at the time. (How good is Rivera? Put it this way: at home games, he exits the bullpen to Metallica's "Enter Sandman"-- because he can.)

After eighty-six years, the members of Red Sox Nation almost got used to the taste of defeat, embarrassment, disillusionment. They resigned themselves, almost, to permanant residency in the belly of the whale. But this was different: it wasn't just that they weren't going to the World Series. It's that they weren't going to the World Series because they got swept. In the ALCS. By the Yankees. Can you imagine a more crushing blow?

(Well, I suppose they could have lost Game Seven of the ALCS in extra innings, thanks largely to a boneheaded managerial decision, which is what happened in 2003. Or I suppose they could have blown the actual World Series, after a routine ground ball plopped through the first baseman's legs, which is what happened in 1986. But you have to admit: getting swept by the Yanks is pretty devastating.)

Then, a flicker of hope, as Fenway Park becomes the site of the first half of a minor miracle: Millar draws a walk of Rivera. As soon as Millar reaches first, Red Sox manager Terry Francona immediately pinch-runs Dave Roberts. Legend has it that, on his way out of the dugout, Francona gives Roberts a wink. Roberts knows what that means: he has to steal second.

Unfortunately, everyone else knows it, too, especially Mariano Rivera. Stealing second with the most accomplished reliever in baseball on the mound can't be easy, but somehow, somehow, Roberts does it. He gets there safely-- the second half of the minor miracle. (Am I going overboard with this "minor miracle" stuff? OK, a little... but only a little. That's what's so great about this story. You don't have to milk it for drama. The drama spills over on its own!)

Roberts got himself in scoring position, but it takes a Bill Mueller single to get him home and tie the game at 4-4—a score that would remain for the next two hours. Finally, at 1:30 am, David “Big Papi” Ortiz clobbers a walk-off homerun in the twelfth. Final score: 6-4, Sox.

At that point, Fenway completely comes unglued. From the way the players and fans were celebrating, you almost would have thought they had won the World Series already. In fact, all they had done was prevent the sweep. All they did was force a Game Five. But it was a start.

Clocking in at five hours and two minutes, Game Four was the longest game in ALCS history—until Game Five, a grueling fourteen-inning battle that went five hours and forty-nine minutes. But the end result was the same: a Red Sox win thanks to the bat of David Ortiz. After being down three games, the Sox forced a Game Six.

Two famous visuals from Game Six represent—for me, anyway—the mindset of both teams. The first visual is the bloody sock of Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who had a “so-crazy-it-just-might-work” operation on his ankle (something involving sutures and a tendon and a jerry-rigged sheath) that allowed Schilling to take the ball.

Big Schill gutted out six solid innings—an amazing performance, and one that you know had to come at considerable personal cost. (I mean, the ankle was dripping blood, for crying out loud! How could that not hurt?)

Now juxtapose the Schilling visual with the other famous picture from Game Six, of Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez, running down the first baseline, literally slapping the glove of Sox reliever Bronson Arroyo to prevent getting tagged. That’s right: “slapping.” Like a five-year-old girl. (No offense, of course, to five-year-old girls.)

So, on one side, you have the stigmata sock, representing the grit and heroism of not just Schilling but the whole Red Sox team. On the other, you have the poor sportsmanship and desperation of the A-Rod sissy-slap. That pretty much says it all.

(To be fair, maybe I’m being too hard on A-Rod. Maybe the Yankees’ collective frustration at their inability to win just one more game was getting to all of them, and A-Rod only put a face to it—a pouty, weasel-y face.)

Remember in Rocky IV, near the end of the climactic fight, when Rocky gets Ivan Drago with a punch that draws blood? And then Rocky’s manager Duke yells to him, “You cut him! You hurt him! You see? You see? He's not a machine, he's a man!”? At that point, the audience knew the tide had turned.*

Well, Game Six was the game when the Red Sox finally “cut the Russian.” No, they hadn’t won the series yet, but it set up the final victory. You knew, you just knew, the good guys would finally prevail. (I know the “good guy’ stuff sounds biased, but… come on: even the Yanks themselves had to sense they were the bad guys in this scenario, right?)

And the tide did indeed turn in Game Seven, a lopsided affair that saw the Yankees go down, unceremoniously, 10-3. No team, remember, had ever lost the first three games of the ALCS and then came back to win it all… until 2004, that is. And the cherry on top: the Sox did it in Yankee Stadium.

Oh, yeah… the Red Sox ended up sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals—the team with the best record in baseball—in the World Series.

So why am I re-hashing all of this, four years later? To me, the story of the Red Sox 2004 postseason is not just about victory and curse-reversing. It’s about adversity and darkness. It’s not just about a team clawing its way out of a pit; it’s about the pit itself.

Say if the Red Sox weren’t down those three games? Say if they didn’t lose Game Three by eleven runs? Sure, Red Sox fans at the time would have savored any victory over the Yankees… but snatching these particular victories from the jaws of certain defeat made them a thousand times sweeter.

Don't believe me? Then compare the ALCS against the Yankees to the World Series against the Cardinals, who offered virtually no resistance as they went down in four straight games. No pit, no adversity, no whale belly, no seemingly unconquerable obstacle... and consequently, no compelling story.

Sox fans have endless stream of words to describe the feeling of finally winning a World Series after eighty-six years: unforgettable, historic, redemptive. But when describing the actual 2004 World Series itself, one word keeps coming up: "anti-climactic."

Still don't believe me? Consider this: the Florida Marlins were established in 1993. In the first decade of their existence, the Marlins won two World Series, in 1997 and 2003. But, outside of their core fans, who really cares? Where's the struggle, the tenacity? How can you care when it comes so easily?

And closer to home: the Red Sox's 2007 season and postseason, let's face it, didn't have anywhere near the drama of 2004. Not to sound unappreciative-- they are the reigning World Champs, after all!-- but for most of the season they were in first place. Hard to get a story out of that, you know?

Recently, I saw a Red Sox TV spot about the New England Sports Network (NESN) that went something like this: "In 2004, we had no idea. In 2007, we kinda did." As fans, we applaud the players' accomplishments and thank them for giving Boston another World Series title... but in this case, we kinda knew.

So again: why am I talking about this now? What does this have to do with teaching? Hold on. Almost there.

Remember my thesis from a few paragraphs ago: Red Sox fans can appreciate the 2004 victory so powerfully precisely because they knew "colossal defeat." Philosophers call it the "dialectic": you know good by knowing evil. You need darkness to see light. You need to comprehend defeat before you can truly appreciate victory. And sometimes, you need to hate something first in order to love it.

And for me, that "something" was teaching high school. It's strange to say that now, because teaching has done so much for me. I've met so many great people, learned so many great things, had so many great opportunities. But after during that first first year, I wanted to walk away, try my hand at something else.

I just couldn't take it. I don't think I was clinically depressed or anything like that, but I was definitely miserable--as if my life was one long Game Three. I so desperately wanted to quit.

I didn't. I stuck it out. And I'm so damn proud of myself for sticking it out. And thankful, too, because if I bailed on teaching, I would have missed out on everything-- all the students, all the friendships, all the insights, all the learning and laughter, all of it. I know how close I was to leaving, and that makes me love it more.

I swore I wouldn't give any teacherly advice on this blog, and I won't, except to say this: to all the first-year teachers out there, don't worry if you're hating your job right about now. In fact, I can only hope that you hate it now as much did then. Strange as it sounds, someday you'll look back and realize that surviving that hate helped make you a good teacher. That hate you're feeling now, your time in the belly of the whale, could save you someday. Trust me on this.

* Incidentally, the Rocky IV reference is a veiled shout-out to my friend Bill Simmons, who is not only quite possibly the biggest Red Sox fan the universe has ever spawned, not only the most famous writer I know personally, but also someone who has always championed my own writing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Last night, my high school held its graduation ceremony. As a teacher, I've always considered graduation the best night of the whole year, that one night when hundreds of people in a community come together to celebrate its young people-- a group that, let's face it, doesn't often get celebrated.

With that in mind, I thought I'd reprint an article that I wrote-- whoa!-- two years ago. The specific students mentioned herein have now finished their sophomore years of college (man, who feels ancient now?), but I still feel the sentiments in this piece remain timeless. The article originally appeared in the Hartford Courant's Northeast Magazine, on June 18, 2006, under the headline, "Adolescent Defiance... of Stereotypes". Here it is...

"What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"—commonly attributed to Plato (427-347 B.C.)

Glastonbury High School senior Nancy Tong had a problem: “How,” she asked herself, “could I make a person into a chair?”

But, as the Costume Designer for Glastonbury High’s “Beauty and the Beast,” that was her charge: to transform ordinary high schoolers into not only chairs but anthropomorphized napkins and plates and clocks and candles. When she agreed to be the show’s Costume Designer (a job that usually went to an adult), Nancy knew it would be a lot of work—but she couldn’t have anticipated just how much work. This particular production boasted a cast of eighty-six people, all of whom needed at least two costumes (some even had three).

Such a massive undertaking meant spending countless hours online researching 18th century attire. It meant driving around to different rental places in search of Gaston and Cogsworth costumes; when she couldn’t find them anywhere else, it meant making them herself. It meant devoting six to seven hours every day (more on the weekends) to measuring and snipping and sewing and adhering. And just how much of a toll did this take on her? “Sometimes,” Nancy admits, “I looked forward to doing homework.”

Nancy didn’t get paid for her troubles. She didn’t get college credit. And as someone who toiled behind the scenes, she didn’t even get a curtain call. But she did get something: “The first dress rehearsal, I remember standing in front of the whole cast after their vocal warm-up, and when I began to talk to them, I started crying,” she remembers. “It was an uncontrolled kind of happiness and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment.”

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”-- Hesiod, 8th Century B.C.

“I often ask groups of adults or students what inherent traits or characteristics the expression ("boys will be boys") implies. The answers typically are astonishingly negative: Boys are messy, immature and selfish; hormone-driven and insensitive; irresponsible and trouble-making; rebellious, rude, aggressive and disrespectful - - even violent, predatory and animal-like.”-- Deborah Roffman, “What Does 'Boys Will Be Boys' Really Mean?,” Washington Post (February 5, 2006)

“I like helping in the community,” says Greg Fisher, a member of the South Windsor High School Class of 2006. And as the Bobcats’ goalkeeper, he also enjoys soccer. So it made sense that he decided to combine these two interests by creating Preschool Soccer Fun, a month-long instructional program for three- and four-year-olds.

Since 2003, Greg and his teammates have been teaching children fundamentals of the game—all for the low, low price of a can of corn or a bar of soap. Instead of money, Greg only asks parents for donations to the South Windsor Food Bank.

The first year, when he was only a sophomore, Greg threw himself into setting up the program—everything from researching age-appropriate activities to handing out flyers at the town pool fell on his shoulders. His hard work paid off, with fifty preschoolers signing up in 2003, and it continues to pay off: seventy-five players registered in 2005. (Greg even needed to put some kids on a waiting list.) Of course, he couldn’t coach so many kids on his own; he needed help—and he got it. Last fall, about twenty to twenty-five South Windsor students agreed to assist with the Preschool Soccer Fun program. “I was overwhelmed with the response,” Greg says of his classmates. “All the high school players I asked enthusiastically agreed to help.”

"A generation, numbering in the millions, has gone so far in decay that it acts without thought of social responsibility... The Lost Generation is even now rotting before our eyes." – a 1936 Harper’s Monthly article by George Leighton and Richard Hellman (as quoted by Mike Males in “Generation Gap: For Adults, ‘Today’s Youth’ Is Always the Worst,” Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1999)

As a member of the Connecticut Youth Forum and the Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America, Bulkeley High's Jasmine Levy knows the importance of keeping busy—and she wants to pass on that lesson to her peers. Since 2004, Jasmine and about forty other Greater Hartford teens have been working with Hartford's Institute for Community Research (ICR) to stamp out "teen hustling" in the city. The project has been completely student-initiated and student-led: the teens themselves identified the problem of "hustling" (which they define as the illegal selling of anything, from bootleg CDs to drugs) and then researched ways to combat it.

Over the past two years, the ICR youth researchers have conducted workshops for elementary and middle schools students on the dangers of hustling, and in 2005, they organized a youth rally on the topic at the State Capitol. Most recently, in March 2006, they unveiled their most ambitious endeavor yet: a pilot youth employment center, located at Weaver High School, called Project OBJECT (Our Business is Jobs Employing Connecticut Teens). Proceeding from the idea that students who have jobs won’t need to hustle to make money, the ICR teens have equipped the Weaver center with an employee database and a website listing job openings (, to help students find employment opportunities in their communities.

And yet, this service hopes to do more than give a few kids some short-term bucks: as Jasmine Levy puts it, “people who work when they’re younger are more likely to have jobs when they’re older.” With that idea in mind, Jasmine, who will go to the University of Hartford in the fall on a full scholarship, has taken the initiative to bring Project OBJECT to Bulkeley; her coworkers also hope to start a job service at Hartford High.

“Teenage rebellion is nothing new… But it is the degree of their outspokenness, their refusal to play by the rules, their utter disrespect for authority that prompts you to shake your head and think, ‘I could never have gotten away with that when I was their age’… Sadly, the virtues of courtesy, tact, and diplomacy are on the endangered species list.” – Eric Chester, author of Getting Them to Give a Damn: Getting Your Front Line to Care about Your Bottom Line (2005)

Every generation believes the next one will hasten in Armageddon. Generation Y, Generation Me, Generation Whatever, the Entitlement Generation—no mater how you label the current crop of teenagers, the descriptors remain constant: lazy, disrespectful, uninspired, lacking direction and motivation. (And don’t forget the piercings. Oh, the piercings!)

This graduation season, as you enjoy your finger rolls and melon cubes, remember kids like Nancy, Greg, Jasmine, and all of the IRC’s youth researchers . And then consider another quotation, this one from The Who, a group of blokes who liked to talk about their generation: “The kids,” they famously said, “they’re alright. The kids are alright.”

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fantabulous Fathers

I would “do” baths.

When my twin boys were infants, baths were my thing. Sure, Mommy dressed, fed, entertained, educated, enlightened, distracted, protected, and potty-trained, but when it came to shampoo—Daddy was all over that.

Unfortunately, the boys didn’t seem to get this. More often than not, after the bathing process, my attempts to towel them off were met with “I want Mommy to do it!” I just couldn’t close the deal.

Still feeling a lingering tinge of “unsung hero” after experiences like that, I thought I’d use this space to commemorate great dads from television, movies, music, and literature:

*The Dad in Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band”: As my wife says, “That guy is the antithesis of the father in (Harry Chapin’s) ‘Cats in the Cradle.’”

*Tom Bradford (Eight is Enough): I can actually picture the script: Tom sits in den, reading newspaper. Child comes to door: “Hey, dad. Got a minute?” Tom, putting down paper: “Sure, (child’s name). Have a seat.” How many times per episode do you think an exchange like that happened? Ten, twenty times? Writing for that show must have been the easiest gig in town.

* Ned Flanders (The Simpsons): Sure, he’s played for an chump, and the show satirizes his uber-Christian values, but honestly, is there a better dad in Springfield than Ned Flanders? No wonder Bart chose Flanders in The Simpsons Movie. Howdy-diddily-doo, neighbor!

*Mr. Drummond (Diff’rent Strokes): Obviously, he was a nice guy: a “man of means,” he adopted two boyz from the ‘hood who had “nothing but the jeans.” But any dad who didn’t spank Arnold, even after the 8,000th time he used that annoying “Whachoo talkin’ ‘bout?” line, must be a bona fide saint.

* Odysseus (The Odyssey): Try, for a moment, to overlook the fact that Odysseus was away on business a lot (i.e. for nineteen years) and that he shacked up with different ladies during his absence, while his wife Penelope dutifully and steadfastly spurned the advances of the suitors. Forget that for a moment, and focus on how, at the end of the epic, Odysseus and his son Telemachus not only team up to slaughter all the suitors but also force the girlfriends of the suitors to clean all the blood and guts off the furniture, before they execute them too. That’s some nice father-son bonding right there.

*Jor-El (from Superman): He put his son in a spaceship and sent him to Earth, where he had powers he never could have had on his own home planet. Really, at its core, Jor-El’s story is a metaphor for all parents who want to see their kids have a better life than they had. Of course, Jor-El’s planet of Krypton eventually exploded. That’s where the metaphor breaks down a little.

*George Jetson (The Jetsons): Jane swiped his wallet, Rosie the robot-maid gave him sass, and Astro the dog entangled him on that weird treadmill-thing—and he still got up everyday to sell Spacely Sprockets!

* Edward Bloom (Big Fish): I almost didn’t want to include this example, because Ed and his son Will had a strained relationship throughout most of the movie. But by the end, Will realizes what a great man his father is and passes on his father’s stories to his own son. The movie truly celebrates fathers and sons—and the late Matthew McGrory (the big giant guy). Matt, we hardly knew ya!

*Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird): There are good fathers. There are great fathers. Then there’s Atticus Finch. Yeah, he lets his kids call him by his first name, which is kinda weird. And yeah, he gets his son a bee-bee gun. But he teaches his kids such important life lessons about equality and courage and humility. A few years ago, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the Number One Movie Hero of all time. To me, his heroics as a lawyer are secondary to his heroics as a father.

Happy Father’s Day, everyone. And to all the dads out there, take heart: I bet even Superman’s dad had trouble with baths some days.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thorny Rhymes

They're called slant rhymes, or half rhymes, or near rhymes, or maybe even just crappy rhymes. Whatever you call them, they're rhymes that are almost there, but not quite. Or, to put it in verse: "a slant rhyme is one that you just about had,/ but when you threw the ball to home, you somehow missed the tag." (See, ""had" and "tag" don't quite rhyme. Get it?)

Many great poets have employed the slant rhyme technique, from William Butler Yeats to Emily Dickinson to the inimitable Bret Michaels of the 80s hair-band Poison-- whose ballad "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" has one of the most egregious... er, notable examples:

Every rose has its thorn
Just like every night has its dawn
Just like every cowboy sings his sad, sad song
Every rose has its thorn

Those madcap creative geniuses behind Poison might be able to dupe the casual listener into believing that the words "thorn," "dawn," and "song" rhyme, but we know better. In fact, none of them rhyme. As in not a one.

(Note: Earlier in the 80s, The Thompson Twins tried to pull a similar sleight of hand in their song "Hold Me Now," which contains these lyrics: "Look at our life now, we're tattered and torn/ We fuss and we'll fight and delight in the tears that we cry until dawn." No, "torn" and "dawn" don't rhyme, but as my wife said, "They're British, so they can get away with it." Ah, those wacky Brits.)

The following are other pop-culture examples of what I'm christening "thorny rhymes" (after our sponsors at Poison):

(1) Semisonic, "Closing Time":

Gather all your jackets
Move it to the exits

Great tune, and a valiant attempt at rhyming, but only a guy closing out a bar and slurring his words could make "jackets" and "exits" rhyme. (Maybe that's what they were going for?)

(2) Men at Work, "Down Under"

I met a strange lady, she made me nervous
She took me in and gave me breakfast


I said, "Do you speak my language?"
She just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.

Sorry, mates, but "nervous" and "breakfast" don't rhyme, nor do "language" and "sandwich." But I'll forgive them because (1) they're Australian, which makes them even cooler than the British; (2) their album Business as Usual was the first record I ever bought; and (3) they introduced "Vegemite" into the pop-culture lexicon.

(3) Bon Jovi, "Wanted Dead or Alive"

Hey, I love JBJ, and this is arguably their best tune, but in this case, I think the Cowboys from New Jersey were on the run from the Rhyming Posse. First, consider the anthemic, but nonetheless unrhyming, chorus:

I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride
I'm wanted dead or alive

And let's not overlook the first verse, which also gives rhyming a bad name:

It's all the same, only the names have changed
Every day, it seems we're wasting away
A lonely place, where the faces are so cold
You drive all night just to get back home

Obviously, "cold" and "home" aren't even in the same arena. But what about "changed"? Is it supposed to rhyme with "same" or with "away"?

While we're on the subject, here's another Bon Jovi mis-rhyme that is actually quite clever, from the song "Always":

I'll be there till the stars don't shine,
Till the heavens burst, and the words don't rhyme

See, in this case, the words don't rhyme... and, as he promised, he's still with the girl! A brilliant marriage of form and content! Jovi rules!!

(4) INXS, "Devil Inside"

I can't even give sample lyrics, because that would mean quoting the whole song. Honestly, except for "bells" and "hell," there's not one actual rhyme in the whole tune. Part of me even wonders if the lyrics are supposed to rhyme. And yet, they're so close ("Here come the man, look in his eye/ Fed on nothing, but full of pride/ Look at them go, look at them kick,/ Makes you wonder how the other half lives") that I think they were legitimately trying to rhyme, but it didn't quite pan out for them.

Possibly, they were suffering from rhyme fatigue after writing the song "Mediate." (Remember that one? Every word in the song ends with the "ate" sound? "Hallucinate, desegregate, mediate, alleviate, try not to hate"...)

(5) Steve Miller Band, "Take the Money and Run"

Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas
You know he knows just exactly what the facts is
He ain't gonna let those two escape justice
He makes his livin' off other people's taxes

This stretch might even be better than "Every Rose has Its Thorn," because the rhymes here are so absurdly beyond slanted: "Texas," "justice," and "taxes"? And while you could that "facts is" does rhyme with "taxes," it's grammatically incorrect: in the context of the sentence, shouldn't it be "facts are"?

Personally, I think Stevie knows the rhymes are ridiculous and that he's wink-winking his way through the lyrics. After all, he's a joker, a smoker, a midnight-toker.

And there you have it: an initial smattering of thorny rhymes. If you have any additional examples, please let me know.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Social Life of a Teacher

For teachers, summer promises many things: beach and bocce and barbecues and just plain barbs-- cracks, that is, from people who complain about how "easy" teachers have it.

Yes, summer vacation is a nice perk, but take it from me: we earn it. We absolutely do. Especially the younger teachers, who can't enjoy a normal social life for ten months out of the year.

Don't think so? Well, consider Exhibit A.

The following are a series of telephone conversations between two men in their early twenties: Jenkins, who is a first-year teacher, and his friend, who has a normal job. Watch as the friend gets more and more exasperated with Jenkins’ increasing lameness.

Monday Night

Friend: “Hey, a bunch of us are going to Harry’s Place tonight, watch some of the game. You in?"

Jenkins: “Oh, sounds great, but I can’t. I’m beat..”

Friend (good-naturedly): “Are you kidding me? You’ll sleep when you’re dead. Come on out, just for an hour or two. There’s this girl from my office I want you to meet.”

Jenkins: “It’s tempting… but really, I got so much to do. The quarter’s almost over, and I still got these essays I have to correct and get back to juniors, because I want to give them an opportunity to re-write them.”

Friend: “OK, man. Maybe some other time? All right, talk to you later.”

Tuesday Night

Friend: “Catch up on your beauty sleep last night? Good, because tonight I got something right up your alley. There’s this great 80s cover band that’s playing downtown tonight— everything from Big Country to Kajagoogoo to Men Without Hats. They start at 10:00. What do you say?”

Jenkins: “10:00? Are you kidding me? There’s no way. You know how early I get up in the morning?”

Friend: “Hey, you think I don’t work? I have to get up early too, you know.”

Jenkins: “I get up at about 5:30 to get to school at 7:10.”

Friend (after a long pause): “Yeah, you’re right. That’s freakin’ early, dude.”

Wednesday Night

Friend: “I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen tonight, and you will say, ‘That sounds great,’ or else the friendship is over. Got it?”

Jenkins (unenthused): “Got it…”

Friend: “A bunch of us are going out to Stoney O’s in an hour to shoot some stick. You are going to join us. You will have a good time. You will rejoin the human race. And tomorrow morning, you will call in sick.”

Jenkins: “Call in sick? Do you have any idea how much work is involved in that?”

Friend: “What’s the big deal? You get up, you call in sick… that’s all you have to do.”

Jenkins: “No, that’s all you have to do. With Mr. Jenkins, it’s a little different. See, Mr. Jenkins can’t just be sick; he has to prepare to be sick. He has to write up lesson plans for the sub, which probably takes about an hour. And the whole time he’s doing it, he’s realizing that it’s probably easier just to drag his sorry butt into school.”

Friend: “Fine, so come out tonight, and drag yourself into school tomorrow!”

Jenkins: “You don’t get it: I can’t go out tonight. I have all these papers I need to—”

Friend: “Papers! I’m sick of papers! You know what? I didn’t want to have to tell you this, but the truth is, we’re not going to play pool tonight. We’re having an intervention for you, because you’re, like, addicted to work.”

Jenkins: “Look, I’d love to go out, but I have to get these essays back to them by Friday, so they can re-write them over the weekend, so I’ll be able to re-read them again on Monday, before the grades are due on Tuesday.”

Friend: “Just listen to yourself for a minute. You don’t ‘have’ to get them back. They don’t ‘have’ to re-write them. You’re heaping all this work on yourself.”

Jenkins (realizing his friend has a good point): “Look, what do you want me to do?”

Friend: “What do I want you to do? Two words: teach gym.”

Thursday Night

Friend: “Hey, I created a little dialogue. Want to hear it.”

Jenkins: “Sure.”

Friend: “So, it’s a conversation between Faithful Sidekick and someone called Shell.”

Jenkins: “Shell?”

Friend: “Yeah, as in Shell-of-His-Former-Self. So Faithful Sidekick says, ‘Hey, man. You want to go out tonight. We haven’t seen you in a bit.’ And Shell, naturally, says, ‘Boy-oh-boy, that sounds swell, but you know I need to finish reading Romeo and Juliet tonight because I want to give them a quiz on it tomorrow. And it’s really important that we finish the play tomorrow, so I can squeeze in a test on Monday, before the grades close on Tuesday. Of course, I can’t give them tomorrow’s quiz without handing back the quiz we took last Friday, so that means I have to correct last week’s quiz before I create this week’s quiz. And this is on top of all the other essays I have to correct for the fifth time, because, after all, I have to let the kids walk all over me, even at the expense of my personal health and social life.’ (pause) How’d I do?”

Jenkins: “Well, it’s Macbeth, not Romeo and Juliet… but other than that…”

(Friend hangs up without saying goodbye.)

Friday Night

Jenkins: “All right, I am ready!”

Friend: “You’re ready, huh?”

Jenkins: “Oh, I’m ready, Freddy! I admit, when I got home, I was dead tired, but I realized I can’t let this job take over my life. So I took a power nap. And now I am refreshed and ready and willing to rock this town, baby!”

Friend: “Uh, yeah… I don’t know what to say, man… I’m actually kind of beat myself…I’m thinking about staying in tonight-- you know, chill”

Jenkins: “You’re… beat? On a Friday night?”

Friend: “Hey, I went out every night this week. I need to crash.”

Jenkins: “Well, what about everyone else? What about Joey? Dave? Wheels? How about Eddie?”

Friend: “Well, let’s see… Joey is going out tonight with the girl I wanted to set you up with on Monday. Dave's going away for the weekend. Wheels is working at the restaurant tonight. And Eddie? Dude, Eddie went away to law school, like, four months ago!”

Jenkins: “He did? Man, I really have been out of the loop…”

Friend: “Sorry, buddy, but I’m going to take a raincheck tonight. Maybe tomorrow?”

Jenkins: “Oh, yeah, sure. Talk to you tomorrow…”

(Jenkins hangs up the phone and looks around his empty apartment. Next to him on the couch is his unzipped, overflowing book bag; he can see the Macbeth quizzes sticking out, beckoning him. He resists. It’s Friday night; he can’t correct quizzes on a Friday night. He just can’t.
Jenkins picks up the phone again… but who is there to call? He glances once more at the book bag. Angry at first the world and then himself, Jenkins yanks the quizzes out of the bag. He picks up a pen and takes the first paper off the pile. Slowly, dejectedly, he starts reading

The End

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Reviewing a Review

Over a month ago, a short story I wrote called “My Brother Picks Cans” was published in an online literary journal called JMWW. I’ve been working on this story for a while now—and by “a while,” I mean seventeen years (no kidding: the initial idea for the story started sprouting in Summer 1991)—so, yeah, I was kind of excited that someone finally decided to publish the darn thing.

Funny thing about getting things published: someone else might actually read it. Last week, I found a review of my story, on a blog called, conveniently enough, “Short Story Reader” (which you can find at I thought I would do a review of the review.

Incidentally, if you would like to read the story—which is about brothers, nickel deposits, and Roger Maris--you can check it out at (Yes! Score with the brilliantly subtle plug!)

Before I review the review, I should mention that the writer behind “Short Story Reader” (who lists his occupation as “editor” in his profile) describes his blog as one “about good stories on the Web,” which I took as a good sign. (Not such a good sign if his blog was for “the most crap-tastic fiction on the Web.") On an unrelated but nevertheless fascinating note: Short Story Reader Man seems to maintain another blog called “My Week in Hair,” which he apparently writes under the pseudonym “Big Hair.” (“Each week,” promises the blogger, “Big Hair answers your hair questions and shares an incident involving his hair, your hair, or the hair of the person next to you.”)

In any case, Short Story Reader Man starts off the review with the following:

“Okay, so let's talk about story subgenres. You know, like stories about marriages going bad, stories about moms dying, stories about first times. This is a brother story. And I think I'm probably a sucker for such pieces. I'm remembering a story in Marshall Boswell's The Trouble with Girls and another story in Ryan Harty's Tell Me Your Saddest Arizona. Brother stories, and I liked both--in fact, thought that in each case the story was one of the best in the collection. And here's another good brother story. This doesn't quite match the level of Boswell or Harty, but it's well done.”

OK, so I’m not Boswell or Harty, whoever they are. But at least I can be mentioned in the same paragraph as them, right? And, hey, he still described the story as “good” and “well done.” I’ll take it. Let’s move on.

“Maybe I just wish I had a brother or wish I had a sibling who was closer to me. Or maybe such stories remind me of being young. I don't know. What I do know is how Dursin managed to get me interested in his story before any of the other stories in the latest JMWW.”

This section kind of bummed me out, to be honest-- not personally, but for Short Story Reader Man. What happened between him and his sibling? (And did their falling out in any way involve hair?) Come on, guys—work it out!

I guess the “Dursin managed to get me interested in his story before any of the other stories in the latest JMWW” is a compliment…. Unless, of course, he hated everything else in the issue. Then it’s like Simon Cowell saying to Amanda Overmeyer, “Well, that performance was certainly better than last week’s… which was absolutely horrific!” (Master of “damning with faint praise,” that bloke.)

Moving on with the review...

“It was a series of declarative sentences, fairly simple. No sparks, no odd phrases that made me think, what's up? Or maybe the opening did make me think, what's up. What's up with picking cans and why is that so important that people would notice? The story goes from there, giving readers a pretty good entry into the life of these two brothers.”

I get what he’s saying here. It’s true: I do write fairly simple sentences. Personally, I think unless you’re F. Scott Fitzgerald or Toni Morrison, you should avoid the needlessly long, expansive sentences that roll out before the reader like a vast and embattled ocean, racing in reverse past the very brink of eternity. But that’s just me.

“This isn't a story that's going to knock your socks off or anything, but it is nice, and it sounds, for the most part, 'real'-- you know, genuine. And sometimes, that's better than all the pyrotechnics a writer might be able to muster. You can read the story for yourself here.”

Well, sort of a Cowell-esque way to end it there, with the one-two punch of "not going to knock your socks off" followed by the crushing “nice” comment. I mean, "nice"? Who wants anything you wrote to be caleld "nice"? Can we go back to the beginning, when you called it “good” and “well done”?

On the plus side, he did say it was “real” and “genuine,” which is something all writers (who aren’t going for fantasy) want to achieve.

In the end, I thought my first review was a positive one. Short Story Reader obviously thought the story was worthy enough to include on his blog, and in the end, he gave “My Brother Picks Cans” three stars (hopefully out of four and not four hundred). I think I’ll give the same to his review. (He was this close to getting four stars… but then the “nice” comment…)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Honestly... "Trenches"? Come on!

So yesterday I was talking about how entitling this blog "Teacher Trenches" is an ironic nod (to whom, I'm not sure... do I even have any readers yet?), since I think teaching high school is actually pretty gratifying and not at all what I assume life in a trench would be like. But since I don't really know for sure, I decided to do some preliminary research about the Allied forces who gutted it out in trenches during World War I. Here's what I found...

As I suspected, the whole "in the trenches" metaphor is not only rather extreme but also unfair to those who, you know, fought in actual trenches. For one thing, in addition to fighting the enemy, soldiers also had to fight the animals, the ones that made their homes in the trenches—frogs and beetles and, especially, rats, millions of them, some the size of small dogs, that would spread infection and contaminate food and eat out the soldiers’ eyes as they slept.

Next, walking around in cold and muddy water all the time often led to “trenchfoot,” a fungal infection that sometimes required amputation—a frightening possibility, but I bet most soldiers were sufficiently distracted by the lice that caused their whole body to itch to concentrate just on their feet.

Finally, soldiers in the trenches had to contend with the disgusting, overwhelming smell, of poisonous gas and overflowing latrines and body odor and cigarette smoke and rotting corpses of fallen comrades barely buried in makeshift graves. And did I mention, on top of all this, they're also getting shot at?

Man, cafeteria duty doesn't look so bad now, does it?

So, yeah... when you compare the metaphorical trenches of education with the actual trenches of war, the metaphorical ones end up looking rather swell. At the very least, a high school teacher's risk of trenchfoot, statistically speaking, is probably pretty low.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

So, what's all this "trenches" stuff about?

The "Teacher Trenches" title is a reference to a conversation I had with another teacher during my first week on the job.

I don't know her name, not even sure I remember what she looks like. In fact, all I remember from our one conversation, as we walked into the parking lot (well, she's walking, I'm trudging forlornly) were six words: "So you’re in the trenches now."

It was my third day on the job as a high school teacher when I heard the "in the trenches" metaphor for the first time. I pretty much haven't stopped hearing it since.

From journalists to pundits to bloggers to teachers themselves-- everyone seemingly wants to equate education with life "in the trenches." Listening to these folks, you'd think I was grading essays on the Western Front.

I'm definitely wink-winking when I called this blog/shameless act of self-promotion “Teacher Trenches.” Personally, I don't equate teaching with life in the trenches. In fact, when I actually have time to step back from it all, I think teaching is one of the most noble, most gratifying jobs out there. I've inspired people, and they've inspired me right back. And that's what this site is, mainly: products of all the times that teaching has somehow fired my muse. A lot of stuff on this site has to do with teaching and the students I teach. Other pieces have nothing to do with teaching or teens, but I've included here because... well, who's going to stop me? (Hey, I think I'm liking this blog stuff!)

Incidentally, I do have the mandatory heart-warming postscript to my “you’re in the trenches now” story: A few months after my parking-lot conversation with Mystery Woman, I was talking on the phone to my friend Annie about my struggles with high school teaching. At some point, I told her about the “trenches” line. “I don’t want to be in the trenches!” I whimpered. “People get killed in the trenches!”

Then she said something that turned the whole metaphor around for me: “Yeah, but the trenches are where the war is won.”

Now, literally, I don’t know if that statement is at all true. Maybe real wars aren’t won in the trenches. But figuratively, metaphorically, I'm going with it.