About midway through Stephen King’s new book, 11/22/63, I began to remember why I’d stopped reading his work. The first seven hundred pages would be gripping, and then there’d be a major letdown at the end, as if he became tired of the book and just wanted to finish the damn thing. I was so immersed in 11/22/63, devouring it, that I became wary that it wouldn’t amount to much by the end. But I needn’t have worried. The book is quite an achievement, filled with research and insight and tenderness. Even when I wasn’t reading the novel, I was gripped by it—thinking about the sixties, about how I would end this tale of time travel, about my own obsession with What Ifs. In a way, every line of fiction I’ve ever written is time travel, an effort to bring to life a different time and place, which is a satisfying endeavor when I can convince myself that my lies are real. Or realistic at least. 

My computer crashed last Sunday morning. I made an appointment at the Apple store’s genius bar, and they checked out the innards of my computer the same day. What a company. While I waited with head down, reading a Stephen King short story, “Riding the Bullet,” pressed in by the maddening crowds, I felt like a dinosaur with my quaint little book, turning actual pages with my actual finger, using the cover jacket as a bookmark. The tech guy said they couldn’t fix the computer without a part that would cost over a grand. I bought the computer about six years ago, he mentioned, as if I should be satisfied with the long run I’d gotten. I wasn’t so sure. But I walked out of there, gratified to learn that at least I could retrieve the data stored on that ancient computer, and confident that the book I’d brought with me would last several lifetimes.

Thanksgiving. I thought it would be an easy three-day week, but my chair came to my door during first period on Monday to inform me that another boy had died, this time from cystic fibrosis. It’s agonizing to see students walking around the halls crying and dazed. I didn’t know the young man, but from everything I’ve heard, he was a remarkable person, saddled with this deadly illness yet never complaining, approaching life head on. What lessons he imparted to his classmates and friends. I can already see a subtle change in the ones who knew him best, a certain resolve and awe settling in. 

In one early class on Monday, I asked if anyone wanted to talk. The ones who were most affected insisted that I go on with the normal lesson. So I did. That day and the next and the next. We talked about hypnosis, ran through a few hypnosis exercises, talked about and tried meditation. Those are usually high interest lessons, but they were weighed down this time with grief and sadness and wonder. 

Makes me question the worth of the academic material we wade through day in and day out, charging ahead so that transcripts will be stamped and sent, paving the way to the next hurdle. When emotions ease, I intend to pause, to give students a chance to talk about this week, to make that the lesson.

Week started on a low note, as we teachers continued our professional “development” during another late start. I don’t think anyone quite knows the target, the goal, the direction—mainly because the goal is redefined or renamed or abandoned each year. But ah, the week ended with true professional development. The National Council for Teachers of English held their annual conference in chilly downtown Chicago, and I got to present at two sessions. I’m proud to be part of an organization that truly values the efforts of teachers and recognizes that teachers can take care of their own professional development quite well on their own, thank you. All comes down to trust. You can find specifics about the conference at these blog sites, written by two good pals, Gary Anderson, co-presenter last week, and Russ Anderson:


I’m reading Stephen King’s latest book, 11/22/63, so I thought this addendum, on this day, would be most fitting. (Also, this week’s entry was skimpy, and I felt a need to shore that up.)  The main character, Jake Epping, travels back in time in an attempt to change the past, particularly to prevent the assassination of JFK, as you might gather from the title. I haven’t read a King novel in many years, and I’d forgotten how compelling he can be when describing ordinary life. It’s a great read. 

I’ve always been obsessed with small coincidences that turn into big moments, and this book has stoked that. Jake must constantly speculate on how his actions will influence the future, as in a “butterfly effect.” 

In real life, such thinking, if it were front and center, would drive us crazy, but last weekend at the conference, I indulged myself for a few minutes. I was walking down Wabash Avenue with two co-presenters and friends from St. Louis. The day before, the three of us, along with Gary, presented a talk on Writers Week, urging other teachers from around the country (and even a few there from Australia and Canada!) to try hosting their own week. It’s the best week of the school year, we said. It creates a sense of community. It’s inspiring. Some of the best writers at our school are as well known as the best athletes. No kidding. We spent over an hour sharing the riches. It’s like when you know you have a good thing, that moist chocolate cake from Portillo’s for example, and you want everyone else to know it too. Here was my butterfly thought: there are young people at home right now, around the country, who will one day be changed because of something we said during our presentation. Because two or three of those teachers from a roomful of about 80 will go back to their schools and one day start their own versions of Writers Week, and students will write drafts and polish their work and take to the stage, and voices will be heard that would not have ordinarily been heard. They’ll share stories about heartache and family and best friends and what it means to be—And now I must stop thinking about this before my head starts spinning.

As I was leaving school on Thursday, with a four-day weekend looming ahead (for students anyway), I expected the hallways to be deserted. What I witnessed instead was a vitality that astounded me. The speech team had a big tournament coming up, with organizers tapping away on their computers and contestants practicing in empty rooms, their voices echoing happily off walls. Dozens of kids on the newspaper staff were huddling and calling and moving type around on computer screens. Students from geography classes were hanging up colorful posters for extra credit. In the teacher cafeteria, the chess team was preparing for practice or maybe a weekend competition. At the concession stand, students were popping popcorn for some game that evening. I felt fortunate to be part of such vitality, even though I was merely passing through. There had been times when I’d worked the concession stand or attended a game or had my own students meeting after school or sat down for an interview for the newspaper or contributed an idea for a speech. So while I wasn’t directly involved in any of these activities as I left, I felt proud to be part of such a rich community. 

I’m certain I was keenly aware of all this energy because this week we mourned the passing of one our students. I didn’t know the young man at all, I don’t know the circumstances of his death, but it saddens me to think that he may not have ever felt a part of all the goodwill surrounding him. I don’t fault him or anyone else for this. We can all recall times when we didn’t feel as if we belonged, despite the best efforts of others welcoming us in. Sometimes it takes time, that’s all. And that’s the part that saddens me most, that he won’t have this allowance. He won’t ever fully discover that teachers and social workers and counselors and administrators care about students more than students will ever know. In fact, these people “in charge” are yearning to help. We may not always know what to do or what to say, but given a chance, we’ll muddle through and listen and be there. I wonder if students realize this. Here’s the irony: students probably realize this least when they’re suffering the most. I’m not discounting at all the role of friends and family during rough times, but on top of that is a rich resource of adults around every corner, waiting to lend a hand.

What better way to kick off Halloween week than with a lesson on ghosts! First, I asked students to rate their belief in the existence of ghosts. Next, we told a few ghost stories. Then I described several psychological explanations for ghosts. 1) Sensory deprivation. If no new stimulation is coming in, the brain will create its own, which explains why ghosts are often encountered in the dead of night. 2) Our belief system. Come on, we devote an entire day to ghoulish creatures. There’s a new show on TLC that reincarnates an old idea: speaking to the dead. If you watch carefully, every pronouncement made by the “medium” is phrased as a question, but we want to believe, which leads to the next explanation. 3) Expectations. If we walk into a haunted house, we’ll see ghosts. If we think the house is rat-infested, we’ll see whiskers. 4) Our brain is easily tricked. Just think about the hallucination of the vibration in your pocket. Nearly every student has experienced this. If I’d asked this question ten years ago, before the prevalence of cell phones, I would have been locked away. 5) Most students say they’d be more likely to believe in ghosts if they saw one with their own eyes, but it’s easy to fool our senses. There’s a remarkable little trick I conduct to show this, which involves a 2x6 board, a blindfold, and a little lifting. I should have had someone record this, so I could have included it here. I don’t want to give the trick away, but if you comment, I’ll respond. 

We also discussed how smell contributes to taste. Here’s a quick little demo you can try on Thanksgiving. Bring jelly beans for everyone. Have everyone put a few in hand. While plugging their nostrils, your guests should surreptitiously place a jelly bean in their mouths and try to guess the flavor. Then, after three or four chews, have them unplug for an explosion of taste. I suggested that we begin to eat all our meals like this! 

Turns out that women are able to detect smells better than males and that many more males suffer from color-blindness, which helps to explain more than a few marital spats. I love the scene from Lost in Translation, when Bill Murray rips open a package from his wife, and all these carpet samples fall out, representing their staid marriage. He doesn’t care about carpet samples. Could be that he simply can’t see much difference between one sample and another. Husbands, of course, need to pretend that they see the difference—and to care about that difference. 

We studied kinesthesia, our sense of body position, which doesn’t get much press and which surprises me. Proprioceptors in our joints, muscles, and skin tell us if we’re sitting or walking or gripping someone’s hand too tightly. Whenever you’re trying to carry several items to the car, you should be amazed anew by your keen sense of kinesthesia, by the fact that you don’t crumple the coffee cup or smash the cookie. We ran through a number of fun demonstrations to illustrate. Here’s a classic one you can try for yourself. If you had a childhood, you’ve probably already done this. Stand in a tight doorway. Push your arms against the jams as hard as you can for about 30 seconds. Move away from the door and allow your jelly arms to float up by themselves, which shows how your sense of kinesthesia is temporarily disrupted. 

And...we had another late start for teacher meetings that involved several acronyms, always a bad sign. There are good young people out there who are veering away from teaching because of all this acronym business, the top-down policies that force teachers to create data, devised by non-classroom folks who are more interested in numbers than in the messy process of genuine learning. No matter how hard one tries, there ain’t an acronym for the upheaval that is learning, which doesn't always have to be measured.

Haven’t written about books in a while. I have been reading of course. A brief rundown. 

1) Keith Richards autobiography, Life. I know he had help writing the book, but his voice rings clear. Lyrical and true. Quite amusing at times. I’ve always wondered how he can still be alive. He explains how, though it’s still hard to believe. He’s led quite a life. 

2) Frank Sinatra bio, The Voice. I’m almost done. My reading has slowed considerably because it’s difficult to root for the guy. While reading Richards, I found myself hoping he’d crawl out of this or that scrape. With Sinatra, the opposite compels me. He was concerned with his own success, period. Keith Richards lived a wild life, but a code of conduct emerges in his book: about music, friendship, love, family, and even drugs. The only code I detect with Sinatra is an alliance with the underdog, which meant mainly himself, even after he’d made it. 

3) Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst. This is a funny memoir, but I thought it would be more about the writing life, and in that way I was disappointed. But it’s a good read. To satisfy my curiosity about a writer’s life, I’ll turn next to Alexandra Styron’s book, Reading My Father, about William Styron. 

4) Tinkers by Paul Harding. Not a long book. But slow reading. Because it includes some beautiful sentences. 

5) Saul Bellow Letters. I haven’t read much of Bellow, but I’ve been dipping into his letters. He was an academic who identified with Chicago, which, from the neighborhood perspective where I grew up, seems unusual. This may sound sacrilegious—his name is evoked with the likes of Nelson Algren and Studs Terkel; his book, The Adventures of Augie March is the one book, one city selection—but I doubt that many Chicagoans would return the sentiment and identify with him. 

The writer Ralph Ellison stayed at one of Bellow’s farm houses in Tivoli, NY. In one extraordinary letter, Bellow offers precise instructions to Ellison on how to plant his vegetable garden!

6) John Steinbeck’s
Tortilla Flat. I love Steinbeck, but this is one quirky book. A few memorable characters, but they’re mainly reflections of each other. Some funny scenes with offbeat, charming characters who justify their scoundrel ways brilliantly. But the book as a whole doesn’t go anywhere. I started one of his other early books, Pastures of Heaven, which seems more classic Steinbeck. The introduction includes biographical information: as a young man, he helped haul wheelbarrows of concrete that was poured as foundation for Madison Square Garden. All those workers next to him had no idea. How many other “common” laborers are marching along with big ideas?