I’m still rifling through filing cabinets, recycling, seeing the bottom of each drawer finally, and finding treasures along the way. One of the best: a file marked “letters” that includes notes and cards I’ve received over the years from students. I’ve only read a few—they’re quite touching—but I intend to spend my first day of summer vacation on my deck under the sun reading the rest. If this sounds like an old man thing to do, so be it.
This week we had a talent show/ slash / show-and-tell session, which was inspiring. I have classes full of talented and driven students, devoted to their music, their art, their families, their volunteer work, and much more. We’ve spent a whole school year together, and I feel as if we’ve just scratched the surface. There’s so much more to their lives than I see in 50 minutes. I try to find ways during the year to allow those talents to flourish in my class, but I see how much more I can do.
Each day I awarded prizes to the students who took the greatest risks or put forth the greatest effort, and the prizes, of course, consisted of found items from my filing cabinets. My Freud action figure was the first prize to go! (Believe it or not, I have an extra that I’ll keep.)
Here’s a close-up of one of the prizes, a cover of a literary magazine my students created during my mustachioed days.
In fact, I found several photos of me with the old mustache, which makes me feel not only old but a little foolish that I’d kept it for decades. (When I finally came how one day shaven, after a family golf outing in which a cousin wore a skirt for 18 holes in exchange for me shaving, my one daughter tore out of the house screaming, “Noooo.” She’d never seen me without. And when I visited my parents that weekend, they didn’t even notice. They never said a word.) When I showed the photos to students, they laughed a little too hard. I suppose some things should remain buried.
1. The Coldest Night. Robert Olmstead. This guy can write. The novel includes tender scenes of love and harrowing scenes of war, and both are gripping. The interplay between the two won’t be resolved to every reader’s satisfaction, but I loved this book.
2. The Devil All the Time. Donald Ray Pollock. I’d never heard of this guy, but I was a judge for the Society of Midland Authors contest, and this book was one of the finalists. He writes like Flannery O’Connor on steroids. If you like her work, you’ll love this, but the book is not for the faint of heart. Brutal scenes and not exactly redemptive, but I couldn’t put it down.
3. The Paris Wife. Paula McLain. This was the winner of the contest mentioned above. It’s about Hemingway’s first wife, packed with research and rendered beautifully. This book will draw you in and will be especially satisfying if you’re familiar with some of Hemingway’s writing, especially the stories.
4. The Temple of Air. Patricia Ann McNair. This was another finalist in the contest. Strong quirky characters and brisk plots that intertwine. I love this book. It’s smart and funny and moving. McNair is a local author who teaches at Columbia College. You can hear her speak at Printers Row in Chicago during the weekend of June 9th and 10th. If you’ve never been to Printers Row, you need to go this year.
5. Send Me Work. Katherine Karlin. If we had picked one more finalist for the contest, this would have been the one. If you like Alice Munro, you’ll like this collection of short stories, which is intelligent and bold and original.
6. We Need to Talk about Kevin. Lionel Shriver. I’m not quite finished with this one, but it is gripping and disturbing, written from the point of view of a mother chronicling the life of her son after he’s committed mass murder at his high school. The entire book is epistolary—the mom’s letters to her ex-husband. The writing is superb, and the details are intricate. Hard to imagine any writer spending so much time thinking about this subject matter, and I applaud Shriver for not shying away from the most intimate details about guilt and shame and responsibility.
People keep asking me how many days I have left, as if I have a terminal medical condition. They seem disappointed when I don’t have an answer. I don’t count. I’ve never counted. Now that we have three weeks to go with a day off for Memorial Day, the number comes easily of course, but in a few days, if someone asks, I will have to pause again to calculate. It’s not like I’m striving to drink the most from each moment, though that does happen occasionally. And I do try to enjoy every sandwich, as the late singer Warren Zevon advised when interviewed about his terminal condition.
The next question that invariably arises: what are you going to do after you retire? I shrug because I have never been much of a planner. I wouldn’t call myself spontaneous and certainly not adventurous, but I’m averse to mapping out nearly any kind of destination, which is why I don’t budget and why I hate outlines and why I don’t pay attention in meetings. But I need to dredge up a better answer because people must think I’m pathetic. I can finally pursue my dream of going to medical school. I’m going to be a movie star… a rock star. I’ve told people that I wouldn’t mind delivering potato chips to stores. I’d get to drive around in one of those trucks without a driver door and banter with customers who smile when they see all those bags of chips—and the product is light and won’t strain my back. You can tell I’ve given this some thought! I feel compelled to try something entirely different from teaching. Suggestions are welcome.
Another crazy week of AP testing and low attendance. One student sent a Tweet during a break in one of the tests and potentially voided the scores of our entire school, and this after hundreds of hours of classroom time and early morning study sessions. The AP gods decided not to nullify the entire slate. Who was more relieved? The multitudes or the Tweeter?
I spent every free minute cleaning out filing cabinets. I may not be a planner, but I am a collector. And 31 years of files provides its own history lesson.
First there were mimeograph machines, which seemed ancient even in 1981. But the fragrance of that ink!
Then my documents went straight from my snazzy electric typewriter with the light touch to the photocopier. No personal computers yet. I can’t quite remember what that was like, other than we used to be much more careful when typing.
With the advent of personal computers came dot-matrix printers. While mimeographs provided pungency, these newfangled printers offered a satisfying rhythm, which shook desks with their urgency. But no one misses dot-matrix, especially lining up the holes at the end of the perforated sheets to the pronged rollers, which caused some cussing. And the quality was a step down from the typewriter.
Not much has changed since laser printers appeared in the 90s, except for speed. A ten-page document back then might take about three minutes to print.
My found collection of computer disks offered a similar history. Personal computers began with ugly 4” by 4” floppy disks, which magically spun when they worked, which occurred about fifty percent of the time. I remember making a big show of crushing and shoe-grinding one of these disks at the beginning of each semester to remind students not to store their only copy on those pieces of crap. Next came 2 x 2 disks that were sturdier and somewhat more reliable, followed by thick zip disks that really did zip along. Now, everything will be stored in some ether cloud that I don’t quite understand and that will come with its own hurtles, I’m sure. The cloud is down?
As you may have surmised. I both love and hate technology, and nothing better exemplifies that than the cell phone. While cleaning, I came across my first phone, which I’d brought in to show. But that phone could only make and receive calls. That’s a throwback I’d welcome. We teachers must constantly battle the “smart” phones for attention, and this doesn’t seem like a fair fight.
Other items found: notes on napkins, which seems cliché but it’s true; plastic overlays for the overhead projector; a few handwritten tests; old versions of tests that I never intended to use again because I’d revised them; paperclips that had rusted the corners of papers.
What kind of warped security did I achieve by keeping all this stuff?
On Monday afternoon, students took the Big AP Psych Test. Last year students traveled by bus to a neighboring junior college that has better testing facilities, but this year we improvised and held the test at our own school, so I got to witness the panic. In my first two classes, we devoured bagels and reviewed, then crammed more in just before they all entered the testing area, which turned out to be fortuitous—and then I had to let go, not unlike a parent seeing a child off at the door of kindergarten on the first day. Nothing I could do anymore. They were on their own.
In the meantime, I cleaned my desk, stole glances at the clock, and felt compelled to burst into one of the testing rooms to tear a test from someone’s hands to peek. This was mostly a selfish impulse. I wanted to make sure I had prepared them well. And it turns out I probably did. As they were streaming out, most were relieved. The multiple choice questions, which make up two thirds of the test, were easy, they said. The written section was trickier, and though they couldn’t offer details because of the sacred pledge they’d taken, they confirmed that I had not guessed correctly on the questions, though some of my guesses helped overall.
Of course, there was one term on the free response part that no one knew, not even we teachers, as we discovered once the questions became public later in the week. Every year this happens. My theory: the psych test is not as rigorous as chem or physics or any of the others, so to boost self-esteem (or test-esteem?), the committee throws in a term that will tighten the gut, like the bullied kid who rears up to throw in a little bullying of his own. On Friday, I attended a local psych conference for teachers, who echoed the same reactions about the ease of the first part and the challenge of the second—and none of them knew the rogue term either, which was prospective memory, by the way. Students around the country were collectively scratching their heads over that one.
On Tuesday, we didn’t collapse, we didn’t flee the school, we didn’t curse the AP gods—not too much at least. Most of them were a little tired. Of testing. Of psychology. Of me perhaps. We spent most of our time regrouping, finding our footing. Some of them couldn’t afford to relax too much because more AP tests were hurtling their way. Nine more days of testing still awaited them.
Here’s the big challenge now. How do I keep them engaged now that our goal is behind us? We have four weeks left before break!
For starters, we watched Ron Howard’s masterful movie, A Beautiful Mind, about John Nash’s descent into and recovery from schizophrenia. The movie takes several liberties but a literal depiction of his suffering, which included mainly auditory hallucinations, would have been tough to show. So the voices become imaginary characters instead. Next week I aim to have a day or two of high level discussion about the movie, and though they’re tired, I have great faith they will have something worthwhile to say. Otherwise, the clock will loom large.
Next Monday afternoon, my psychology students finally will take their AP exam. As you might imagine, we had a grueling week of preparations. Not just in my class. I saw bleary-eyed students arriving at 6:30 a.m. for review sessions with teachers in government and econ and history. And this is just what I witnessed. I’m sure there were students on the other end of the building cramming for bio, chem, calc, Spanish, and more. Plenty of study sessions broke out after school, too. When all the tests end in two weeks, a collective fatigue, which I already feel, will set in.
This evening I had dinner with my daughter and her two college roommates. I mentioned the flurry of AP preparations, and having gone through the flurry themselves two years ago, they shook their heads and talked about how little the tests mattered. I’ve heard other high school graduates echo these same sentiments.
While a big part of me agrees and views the tests as a public relations tool for high schools and profit for the test makers, I can’t help admiring the work ethic of these young people who are genuine in their aspirations, not only to get ahead, which seems refreshingly quaint, but also to enrich their lives. I’m proud of them and glad for the opportunity to play a tiny role in their success. And even if the bulk of the content is forgotten in a month or two, their arduous efforts will serve them well at every turn.
Inspired by good friend and colleague Gina Enk, who has successfully predicted two AP test prompts, I made a few guesses on the likelihood of certain concepts appearing on the free response portion of the test. I don’t have a crystal ball and don’t have any inside glimpse, but I’m a competitive jerk, and I can’t wait to find out if my guesses pan out.