Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Into The Mystic

The news came to me, of all days, on Saint Patrick's Day. Bob was fiercely proud of his Irish heritage, in the most convivial way. A big bear of a man, he had a way of commanding a room if he needed to, or could stand in the background and wait. This came in handy as he wandered the world of public education. He wasn't a classroom teacher, but a network specialist: the guy who went from school to school making sure that all our kids had access to Al Gore's Internet. As the computer teacher, it was my pleasure to work with Bob for eighteen years.
Bob retired from the Oakland Unified School District at the end of last year. Bob retired from this material plane last week.
This is a shame on so many levels, but mostly for that ironic piece in which Bob was leaving his job as infrastructure specialist after all those years to follow his first love: sailing. Very few of the interactions I had with Bob did not include at least a brief discussion of his passion for the sea. Bob knew more about making computers talk to each other than anyone I know, but he wasn't really a network guy. He was a sailor.
He was known around the district for his frequent pleasure cruises, out on the bay, shepherding landlubbers he met out onto the water to feel the spray and smell the  breeze. There were plenty of district employees whose first experience on the waves came on Bob's boat. It was a different part of his public service. Not that he didn't have a devotion to the work he did with cables and wires and modems, but his bottom line was the kids.
I was often the recipient of awed praise from Bob on my ability to deal with students. He told me how much he admired the way I balanced attention to children with keeping the machines in my room running. It was very flattering, but I knew that he had a mission of his  own: keeping all those machines across the district connected to one another so the rest of us could do our jobs. Bob was a devoted employee of the district, and a union man, he served as shop steward and kept a busy leprechaun's agenda of keeping his managers on their toes.
And the sea under their feet.
Aloha, Bob. You sailed the seas and stomped on the Terra, and you made my life more amusing. You will be missed.

Monday, March 19, 2018

A Bargain

My union, the Oakland Education Association, would like me to know that we are currently experiencing a bargaining process. This news comes a little like being told by climate scientists that we are currently experiencing a global warming process. This seems to be a state of being, rather than an exception. Teachers seem to be collectively bargaining across this great land of ours. This great land of ours that currently sits somewhere toward the back of the pack when it comes to academic achievement worldwide. Teachers are paid, on average, fifty-six thousand dollars a year. I live in one of those rare spots on the map where salaries hover close to a more comfortable sixty-nine thousand dollars a year. Not that I make that, not even after twenty-one years of service. And while I live in a state that also boasts one of the highest costs of living, I can take solace in the fact that I don't live in Arizona.
Elizabeth Milich, who teaches at the Whispering Winds Academy, posted her pay stub on Facebook: showing that she makes a little more than thirty-five thousand dollars a year. Even more with the one hundred thirty-one dollar bump she received for taking professional development courses. Congratulations to her on the raise, but she wasn't looking for that shout out. She was pointing out just how ridiculous it is that a job that requires a college degree pays such a pittance. Lots of people like to thump their chests and laud teachers for doing the job they do for such paltry paychecks. Some of these same individuals will roll their eyes when they hear that teachers are asking for raises. Again.
Meanwhile, I sit by and watch the free agent market for professional athletes continue to generate multi-millionaires, some of whom received their college degrees while others have not. I understand, as an educated person, that this is a matter of comparing apples to oranges. I don't really want their job, and with a very few exceptions I believe they are happy pursuing their dreams. My dream is different. After spending more than two decades climbing the ladder, I can boast a living wage, along with job satisfactions and frustrations that make me wonder if I am on the right path from time to time.
Like the time when we are undergoing a bargaining process. Which makes me wonder, if teachers were to be armed, if that process might change.

Sunday, March 18, 2018


A couple of things that happened on March 14, 2018:
A teacher in Seaside, California accidentally fired a gun in his classroom. He was pointing the weapon at the ceiling at the time, and it was part of a public safety class, but three students were injured. Dennis Alexander, who is also a city councilman and a reserve police officer in Seaside, has been placed on administrative leave while school officials try and figure out just exactly what was going on. Hard to say exactly how far the investigation will go, since Mister Alexander also serves as Mayor Pro Tem. In these little towns, people end up having to do extra jobs. Like in Mayberry, where Otis the town drunk was also a sheriff's deputy. On a day when thousands of school kids walked out of their classes to draw attention to gun violence, this incident spikes the irony chart.
Meanwhile, across the country in Columbia, South Carolina Dylan Roof's younger sister Morgan was arrested for bringing guns onto the campus of her high school. If the name sounds familiar, Dylan Roof was the young man who walked into an historic black church in 2015 and killed nine members of the congregation there for bible study. Dylan has since been sentenced to death for his crimes. His little sister announced her intentions, more or less, on Snapchat the morning of March 14, announcing: “I hope it’s a trap and y’all get shot. We know it’s fixing to be nothing but black people walkin out anyway." Apparently the nut doesn't fall far from the crazy racist killer tree. South Carolina's governor, Henry McMaster, said that “potential tragedy was avoided” at Flora High on Wednesday. He also called on the state General Assembly to pass legislation requiring police officers to be present at every school. 
These were not the only things that happened on March 14. Thousands of peaceful demonstrations took place to remind us all of the tragedy of the murder of seventeen at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Students left school and walked out. In a Florida courtroom, the young man responsible for those deaths was being arraigned. 
His plea? 
Not guilty.
And, as the sage once wrote, so it goes. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Brief History Of Steve

Stephen Hawking died. About fifty years after he was supposed to. His passing brought to mind a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Discussion of how extraterrestrials may have found their way to our planet includes a discussion of Einstein's theories about space travel, leading one of the supervisors to suggest that "Einstein was probably one of them."
The same will be said about Stephen Hawking. He became, over the past half century, our go-to smart guy. He figured out black holes. Or started to, anyway. He discovered that something does come out of those voids, contrary to previously held beliefs. He got his own form of radiation named after him for that one.
In 1988, he published A Brief History of Time, and has sold more than ten million copies since. This makes it the best selling science book of all time. Over the years, Professor Hawking shared his thoughts, great big ones, on such matters as the nature of philosophy and the existence of the aforementioned extraterrestrials"One day, we might receive a signal from a planet like this," Hawking said, referring to the potentially habitable alien planet Gliese 832c. "But we should be wary of answering back. Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn't turn out so well."
Hawking was never exactly playful in his deliberations about the nature of the galaxy and our part in it, yet he maintained a position of hope for so many. When he was diagnosed with ALS in 1963, he was expected to live just another two years. Thanks in large part to the medical science he tossed over in favor of studying physics, he survived fifty- three more years than that, adding a human element to his story that might otherwise have been missing from the robotic sounds emanating from his voice box. 
Which takes me back to the early years of my marriage when my wife and I planned road trips, including one across the middle of America that had us travelling with only the works of Stephen Hawking, as read by the author. Now maybe we will find the time. Aloha, Professor Hawking. You didn't necessarily stomp on the Terra, but you helped us all understand our place in and around it better. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Beyond A Reasonable Doubt

Here is what I have ultimate respect for in our judicial system: Innocent until proven guilty. Whenever I have been called for jury duty, which has been about once a year for the past twenty years, inevitably I end up in that box where defending and prosecuting attorneys pepper the perspective juror (me) with questions. Inevitably, one or the other will land on the fact that I am a teacher and they ask if I am fair and impartial when it comes to handing out consequences on the playground. The answer has been, all those years, the same: I certainly try. That presumed innocence is the part with which I struggle. The shredded bulletin boards in the hallway where I have seen a third grade boy alone only moments before. The crying kindergartner holding her eye pointing at the second grader who has a history of not keeping his hands to himself. I want to bring blind justice to bear on these incidents, but I know in my heart that swift is often better than blind for a barrel full of reasons.
In response to the question: Fair? Yes. Impartial? Not always.
Which is what troubles me most deeply about the idea of "experts" being trained to carry guns in schools as depicted in the comic book of policy put forth by our "President." This came at the same instant that he began to drift away from his commitment to raising the age for buying guns from eighteen to twenty-one. That part of the legislation that would have limited access to guns was essentially replaced by the introduction of more guns. On the hips of "rigorously trained" educators. The "President" babbled on about how gun-free zones mean nothing because that's exactly where these bad guys go because they know they will meet little or no resistance. Leaving daycare facilities and churches as the next logical targets. Hopefully it will be just a few moments before the suggestion is made that care providers at both of these stops will be packing heat before the month is up.
Because the chances of getting it wrong is so very high. I know that I have sat kids on the bench when they just happened to have red paint on their hands. I know that the number of times that an "expert" at one of these schools has to get this wrong to prove the whole system false is once. Innocent bystanders in a school number in the hundreds. That is what makes them such attractive targets. I have an armful of students who tell me, upon being caught in the middle of a dust-up on the yard, "My mom told me I have to hit back." Exchange the verb "hit" for "shoot" and suddenly we discover the problem with this logic.
In courtrooms across the country, metal detectors and "airport-style-security" is in place to ensure the safety of all those involved in the judicial system. And yet, people are shot in courtrooms across the country. Most recently, a defendant in Utah leaped up to attack a witness in his trial. With a pen. An armed marshal in the room shot the defendant four times, ending the attack. And the trial. I admit, it sure makes that guy look guilty. I guess that will have to do for proof.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Message From Beyond

My wife brought me a treasure the other day. That was how she introduced it: A treasure. She led me by the hand into the living room where she picked up a piece of paper. It was a dense piece of single spaced type, littered with strike-throughs and attempts at correction. But not many.
It was a letter I had written to her thirty-six years ago. Back in the eighties. The early eighties. Bill Clinton was taking a break between his two terms as governor of Arkansas. The Falklands War raged on for several minutes. Chariots of Fire won Best Picture, forcing everyone to run around in slow motion to the strains of Vangelis. Commodore released their sixty-four bit home computer. I was using an electric typewriter to write papers for my college courses as well as the occasional letter to a friend.
That was the girl who had headed off on her own collegiate journey. She had sent me a typed letter, and I felt compelled to respond in kind. All these years later, there were so many sounds and phrases that rang through. The inside jokes. The attempts at wisdom deflected almost immediately by sarcasm. The lack of paragraph breaks. This was my voice.
Still, I couldn't help wondering how this scrap of our past had survived all these years. Was it sheer tenacity on the part of the paper on which hit had been typed? Was it a happy accident that it slipped into a folder with other more important documents? Or was it somehow a message from beyond that brought us back to that place, before the turn of the century was a discussion point? Were these silly ramblings a revelation of any sort?
Yes and no. I could hear my own desperation to connect in those pages. I would not have presumed that I was in love at that point, but I was busy scattering my feelings about this and that in a spray that permeated the entire letter. I wanted someone to know what was going on in my mind, if not my heart.
As we approach the twenty-fifth anniversary of our wedding, I understood the historical significance of all that mostly legible wordstream. It was a love letter that I hadn't been clever or brave enough to recognize or rationalize. It was a message that traveled across time to land in our living room to be read and reflected upon. Together.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

What's A Picture Worth?

It came back. Not expected. Not in the  least. Sunday morning brought a return to the league of kidney stones. It was a surprise because I had truly believed that I had conquered that ogre of a malady. I made this great life change where I gave up drinking Coca Cola because I was certain that was what was putting those pebbles where they did not belong.
The morning before, my wife and I were taking a walk around the neighborhood together and we passed by the nearest 7-11. Out front there was a big sign advertising their lunch special: A Big Gulp and a hot dog. The hot dog was all but obscured by the towering tumbler of cola. Beads of water dripping down the side, ice hanging on by surface tension at the rim. That brown elixir from my past was crying out to me. I was pretty sure that it wasn't Pepsi. The bubbles roiling up were too big for that. Not root beer or Dr. Pepper. This was the Real Thing. For a moment, I stood transfixed.
"What is it?" my wife turned around to see what was impeding my progress.
Slack-jawed, I pointed at the poster.
"I see," she commiserated.
For a moment we gazed at the obvious  focus of the advertisement.
"Do you miss it?" she knew the answer.
"Sure," I said as I started walking forward again, "But I sure don't miss kidney stones." We shared a knowing smile and wandered off into the day.
Less than twenty-four hours later, I was in the throes of the twist and shout that I knew all too well. It wasn't a shock, since I had been on this ride a few times before. The surprise came from the revelation that, after two years, taking Coke off my menu did not preclude me from experiencing all the suffering that kidney stones allow. Or maybe just standing there on the sidewalk, staring at the sign outside our neighborhood 7-11 was all it took to push me over the edge.
And into the abyss.
Or maybe having that history of stones put me in a category that I hadn't fully anticipated. Not that I am any sort of medical doctor, nor do I play one on TV. Which is why I suppose the notion that a picture can cause me to experience the wonder and splendor that one can have ironically with kidney stones.