Friday, January 30, 2009

Today's gripe

My doctor has a sense of humor. I go to see him every year or two, just to make sure I'm not at Death's door, or to complain about my aching back, and he always asks, "What the hell are you doing here?" Then he looks at my chart and has himself a good laugh.

"You first came to me with a back problem in 1980," he said with a chuckle earlier this week. "And you had an MRI in 1988 – you must have been the first person on the East Coast to have one. "And now you're back here already complaining that it still hurts. Maybe you should give it some time."
Hardy har har.

So, he sends me for an x-ray and another MRI. He called me yesterday with the results.
"I've got good news for you and bad news," he said, trying to keep a straight face, I'm sure.
"The good news is that you're not going to die from this. The bad news is that you're going to be miserable until you do."
Yuk yuk yuk.
He said I should learn to live with the pain and avoid surgery, at least for now.
"Hey, this will give you something to be grumpy about," he suggested.
Ho ho ho.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Weird history

For many years, I have relied upon Earle Forrest's files when doing historical research. Forrest worked at this newspaper from 1920 to 1962, all the while meticulously clipping stories and putting them in manila envelopes. Four filing cabinets are filled with many hundreds of these envelopes, organized alphabetically by subject. Forrest was a tireless chronicler of local history and that of the Old West, and his files are a treasure.

All you need to do to find something interesting is to open a drawer, reach in and pull out an envelope at random, as I did yesterday. Neatly typewritten in the left hand corner of the envelope was, "Flying Saucers Found in Washington County."
The caption under the above photo that appeared in The Reporter on April 17, 1950, read: "Shown above is a peculiar, many-sided kite-like object found early Saturday near Donaldson Crossroads. The object, which has alternating sides covered with a reflecting silver coat, spins in the air and dangles a small flashlight below so that the light will be reflected. It was found in the rear yard of a home owned by George Sepelak. Shown holding the object are Arthur B. Day, Strabane, and Mrs. Sepelak."

The headline on the article accompanying the photo read, "Flying Saucer Kite Lands In This County." How the reporter and editor of this newspaper suspected that the object might be from outer space is mystifying, given that it was adorned with a U.S. Army Signal Corps number, other numbers and initials written in pencil, a two-cell battery and a bulb.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Whine, whine, whine

C: I think your paper is a sham. The only people that buy, I repeat *BUY* your newspaper are busybodies that are less concerned about the news in whole and more worried about who’s doing what to who so they can gossip on Sunday to the other busybodies. People that are not savvy with technology and cannot read all the *CURRENT* local, worldwide news on the internet or have it text messaged to their cell phones. Your paper is nostalgia and nothing else. You should run a whole paper dedicated to only statewide police reports and court hearings. Your paper has mostly copied AP reports from yesterday’s aired news that is outdated and boring at best. I think even the current busybodies know that your organization is a poorly run, lazily operated any how. When was the last time that your paper reported something prior to a police reporting or hand feed information? Where are the investigative reporters of the past in your organization? I could do your job very, very easily. - T.

A: Perhaps you should consider reading newspapers on a regular basis. Doing so might make you literate and able to more effectively communicate in the English language.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 14

In June, Alice and I packed our things into a U-Haul truck and, towing the Pontiac, moved to Florida. We found a nice house to rent in Lighthouse Point, with a catch: We had to move out and into my parents' house every time the owner came from New York on vacation.

Alice found work as a fashion artist in Miami, but I had no such luck. I interviewed for a teaching position in Dade County, but the interviewer cut me short. They were looking for chemistry and math teachers. "No offense intended, " she told me, "but you English teachers are a dime a dozen."

I applied for all kinds of jobs, at theaters, furniture stores, warehouses. I answered an ad for a clerk in a liquor store. The manager asked me about my draft status, as all of them did, and I told him I was 1-A. "Look, kid, I want to hire someone who's going to be around next week."

In the fall, when the bill to renew the military draft was stalled in Congress, I found a part-time job in the circulation department of the Fort Lauderdale News. From there, I jumped to the Sun-Sentinel as a copy boy, and then became an intern reporter. But I was all the while thinking about teaching. In June, I went north for an interview at a school in Frederick, Md., and another in this area. While here, I stopped in at the Observer-Reporter for an interview as well. Alice and I were tired of Florida and wanted to live somewhere besides someone else's house.

I did not get a teaching job but did take a position as sports writer at this paper. And I never left. Back then, when teachers were always the lowest paid white-collar workers, I figured my financial future was brighter as a journalist. The joke was on me. In mid career, I envied teachers my age who were making far more money and building pensions and planning early retirement. But I never envied their work.

From time to time, opportunities arise for me to stand in front of a classroom full of kids. I have taught Junior Achievement classes in economics, instructed elementary students in Russian language and culture at Citizens Library, and I've enjoyed talking about journalism to classes of middle and high school students in many area districts. It's great when you can jump in and teach for a couple of hours and then go back to doing something much less demanding, like editing a newspaper.

I do not regret the course I took, because I doubt that I would have had the strength to face a classroom of kids every day. Thanks to those who can, those good teachers who inspired me, and inspired my children, and continue to do that every day.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 13

As the term went on, I felt more comfortable with my slow class than with the bright one. And if I could offer more to kids who struggled with academics, maybe I should be teaching ones who had severe problems – those in special education classes. A master's degree in special education seemed like a reasonable goal. But there was a problem: What graduate school would accept me?

My grade-point average was miserable, and my scores on the Graduate Record Exam even worse. I wasn't quite myself the day of the exam. I had been partying Friday night and overslept, waking around 7:45 a.m. Saturday morning. The exam started at 9 a.m., more than 30 miles away at the University of Pittsburgh. I threw on some clothes and jumped in the car and made it to the examination room at 8:55, but I hadn't even brushed my teeth or combed my hair, and I had to stumble through the 4-hour test without so much as a cup of coffee.

Syracuse University was the first to reject me, quickly and tersely. In the end, only the University of Idaho was willing. Apparently so desperate for grad students, they never even asked for my GREs or my transcript. But Moscow, Idaho, seemed so far way, not just from Washington, Pa., but from all of civilization.

May had arrived, and I would soon leave my classes to Miss Tygart to finish out the year. Maybe she could coax some effort from these seniors sliding through spring. "Can you stay a little longer?" some of the kids asked. "Why?" I asked. "Just to watch you blow off your assignments and sleep through class? I'm graduating. I'm otta here."

But I still had no idea what to do. Inquiring about teaching positions at another local district, I was told not to bother to apply unless I could coach a sport. The only sports I had been any good at were hockey and lacrosse, and although they are popular now, no school in this area had one of those teams in 1971.

Some of my students did not deserve to pass, but I was pretty sure they would. A bunch of losers graduated that spring, and I was the first of them.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Whine, whine, whine

C: EXCUSE ME!! January 20th was a monumental day in our country's history. Your front page gave a huge spread to a STEELER SHOPPER and a single wide column article to our next president. Obama's inauguration had nothing to do with being Democrat or Republican.--it was all about being an American. I do believe that your priorities should have been re-thought. And yes, I am a Steeler fan! - E.S.

A: The big difference between newspapers and television is that television reports the news live, and newspapers give it to you the next day. The paper you receive on the morning of, say, Jan. 20, was put together on Jan. 19. That's why the inauguration of Obama was reported in today's newspaper, not yesterday's.

We do, of course, publish an online edition, which does report live news, as we did throughout the day yesterday.

Save us from Macbeth

The Associated Press offered this news item today:

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) - Tragedy nearly struck a group of Florida actors when authorities say a loaded gun was accidentally used during a dress rehearsal...

Hmmm. The actors were so bad that the only way they could stage a tragedy was with real bullets.

Student Teacher, Part 12

For every little success experienced in the classroom, there were two failures. For every pupil inspired, another was alienated, and still another discouraged. Perhaps it was because I was young and still a student, filled with a student's ideas of how things should be taught and learned, and not a grownup experienced in what methods work and which ones don't. At any rate, the kids I could not reach are the ones I remember most often.

Of course, there was Russell Karp. I may have been able to push him to the margins, to reduce his disruptive influence on the class, to tone down his antisocial behavior, but I could not reach or teach him.

A new kid started in my first class in March. Distressingly thin and always looking as if he'd not slept the night before, he spoke in slurred monosyllables, if at all. The seat of his corduroy jeans was flat, almost as if his backside had been surgically removed. No matter what commotion was going on in the classroom, he sat expressionless, staring at a fixed point. On the rare occasions that we had eye contact, I detected no one at home. After his first week at school, I began to suspect drug use. I decided to bring it to the attention of the principal the next time I saw him behaving in a strange manner, but I never saw him again. He was absent one day, then another, and then he was gone, almost as unnoticed as when he arrived.

So many of my students could not be interested, in anything. I remember a girl with brown, straight hair and a pale complexion, plain and ordinary in every way, dressed so as not to be noticed, speechless, emotionless and completely devoid of any self-esteem. Had she looked bored, I might have known where to start, but she looked nothing. I thought she needed extra attention, but when I gave it to her, she seemed mortified.

Toward the end of the term, I asked Miss Tygart what was up with the girl. "Cindy?" she asked, squinting as if to recall her face. "Cindy is 'present.' Perhaps her time will come later in life."
What sort of a life could there be without youth?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 11

Whatever the seniors in my English classes were listening to back in 1971, it wasn't the Beatles. I plugged in the phonograph and held up the White Album. No recognition.
"Certainly, you've heard 'Rocky Raccoon,' " I said.
No comprehension.
Placing the needle on the record, I sat behind my desk and watched them listen.

Now somewhere in the black mountain hills of Dakota
There lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon
And one day his woman ran off with another guy
Hit young Rocky in the eye Rocky didn't like that
He said I'm gonna get that boy
So one day he walked into town
Booked himself a room in the local saloon.

Rocky Raccoon checked into his room
Only to find Gideon's bible
Rocky had come equipped with a gun
To shoot off the legs of his rival

His rival it seems had broken his dreams
By stealing the girl of his fancy.
Her name was Magil and she called herself Lil
But everyone knew her as Nancy.

Now she and her man who called himself Dan
Were in the next room at the hoe down
Rocky burst in and grinning a grin
He said Danny boy this is a showdown

But Daniel was hot-he drew first and shot
And Rocky collapsed in the corner.

Now the doctor came in stinking of gin
And proceeded to lie on the table
He said Rocky you met your match
And Rocky said, Doc it's only a scratch
And I'll be better I'll be better doc as soon as I am able.

Now Rocky Raccoon he fell back in his room
Only to find Gideon's bible
A Gideon checked out and he left it no doubt
To help with good Rocky's revival.

Smirks. Titters.
"I thought we were supposed to be studying poetry," one of the girls said.
"Shut up, raccoon face!" one of the boys answered.
"All right, settle down!" I shouted. "This is a song, but is it also poetry? If this is a poem, is it a lyric poem or a narrative poem?"

And so they were led through a lesson in poetic construction, using an amusing ditty chock-full of literary devices. Beyond the introductory seven lines, "Rocky Raccoon" falls into the most standard of poetic forms. The rhyme scheme is A,A,B,C,C,B in the quatrains, of which there are five, with two couplets. Aside from a couple of deviations for musical effect, the meter is as rigid as in any Wordsworth effort: alternating dactylic trimeters and tetrameters.

Is "Rocky Raccoon" a good poem? Of course not. But it went down easier than "The Waterfall of the Eglantine." And before long, I had them all writing about their cars and the prom and "Mannix" in iambic pentameter.

Today's gripe

It's getting to be a regular thing...
I come in here at 8:30 a.m., and on the police scanner I hear the dispatcher telling police they've received a call from parents about a teenager who refuses to go to school.

I'm not kidding you. How can this possibly be a police matter?
What's next? I can hear it now:
"Please respond to 123 Maple Street, where a female, age 9, is refusing to eat her lima beans..."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 10

Now about that writing assignment…
You have to understand that this was 1971. The Red Guard had rampaged through China, severing ties to the past and destroying all that was traditional, and a much milder version of that was happening in America. We were the Baby Boomers who stood proudly on our side of the Generation Gap, thumbing our noses at our conformist parents and what they held sacred. They had God, country and family values; we had drugs, free love and communes. They had the classics; we had self-expression.

In my art courses in college, we learned nothing about drawing, or anatomy, or painting and sculpture technique. We were just told to create, and that whatever we expressed was good. We did learn silkscreen printing, however, which came in handy for printing anti-war posters and clenched fists of T-shirts.

So, maybe you can understand why, instead of instructing my classes to write an analysis of their favorite epic poem, for example, I told them to just express themselves. Write whatever you want, I said, as long as it is original, and three pages, double-spaced.

One girl in my dull class of smart kids had shown enthusiasm and talent for writing, but I was disappointed by her submission. "Mannix" was a popular TV show at the time, and she had written a screenplay for an episode.
"Why couldn't you come up with your own characters, rather than borrowing ones from television?" I asked her after class. "Try to be more imaginative."
She was hurt by the criticism, but not discouraged. "I'm going to Hollywood, and I'm going to write scripts, and this is the way it's done," she said defiantly.
Her script was good, probably just as good as anything else on "Mannix" at the time, and probably way better than some of the stuff churned out for TV today. For all I know, she probably went to Hollywood and made it big.

One of the flirts in the front row of my slow class surprised me. Knowing full well that she could get away with it, she wrote an essay on the etymology and usage, historical and contemporary, of a particular word in the English language, a vulgar Anglo-Saxon epithet… oh, we're all adults here, right? She wrote an essay all about the word fuck.

It's just as well that my adviser, Miss Tygart, never offered to help me read their papers.

Shhhh. Editor asleep

C: I have become aware over the years that little geography is being taught in the schools. I came to that conclusion through simple conversations with students who have no idea of locations within our nation of states, rivers, cities within states, etc.
However - that's a great big old mistake.
The beautiful Hot Shot photo submitted by the Oliverios who, while traveling through New England, took a sightseeing cruise off the coast of Portland, Maine, and saw this fisherman pulling in his catch from the Pacific Ocean. When did they move Maine to the Pacific side, and how come no one told me??? - L.M.

A: Zzzzzz. Huh? Oh, you and your details...

Sometimes, it's hard to get angry over a mistake this outrageously stupid.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Whine, whine, whine

C: You need to expand the business section and have at least a weekly listing of ALL stocks and mutual funds. - G.M.

A: Hey, Rip VanWinkle, wake up! Sometime after you fell asleep, way back in the mid 1990s, we dropped our Sunday stock listings of complete NYSE and mutual-fund transactions. I think I can count the complaints we've received about that on my toes, the reason being that this information is old and useless to almost all investors.
Criminy! Even the Wall Street Journal stopped publishing complete listings.

We do publish daily quotations, including the top 500 NYSE stocks; that's much more than the Post-Gazette does daily. The P-G still published 6 pages of stock agate on Sundays, however, which is a phenomenal waste of newsprint.

In order to survive, newspapers must do what they do best and give up the things – like printed stock transactions – that the Internet does much better. We do offer our readers complete stock and mutual-fund information on our Web site, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 9

Leafing through the 12th-grade English book, and the section on British poetry, my heart sank. The poets represented gave me chills. I moaned their names: Alexander Pope (oh no!); Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Lord, have mercy on us); William Wordsworth (that's him on the right, need I say more?).

Who had compiled this torturous text, anyway? Here was an anthology of the most blithering, boring and incomprehensible poetry ever to come out of quill pens. If my kids had so much trouble with "Great Expectations," how could they stay awake through even six stanzas of William Blake?

Stalling, I gave my classes a writing assignment. I tracked down Miss Tygart and asked her, "Is it OK to supplement the unit on poetry with some additional material?"
"What sort of poetry do you have in mind?" she responded.
"I'm thinking of Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats, perhaps some contemporary British poets."
"Well, I suppose that would be acceptable, as long as this material doesn't stray from traditional metric and rhyme schemes."

I had a plan. I came in early every day and kept the mimeograph machine in the teacher's lounge humming. The kids could carry their English textbooks to class, for the sake of appearance, but I'd provide them with all the poetry they'd need to read. And they wouldn't have to read it all; they could listen to it, on a phonograph. The "contemporary British poets" I had in mind did indeed write in rhyme and meter, but their work was not printed in anthologies but rather on vinyl.
I was thinking of The Beatles.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 8

"OK, imagine that all of you in this class are on a school trip, a really big school trip to a place far enough away that you have to fly," I told my kids when we were finally done with "Great Expectations."
"You're flying over the ocean, and something goes wrong and the plane has to crash land on an uninhabited tropical island, and the pilots – the only adults with you – are killed, but all of you survive. No one will be coming to rescue you, because world war has broken out. It's just you kids, no one else, on this island. How do you think it would go?"

The discussion that followed was lively, even raucous, at least in the "slow" class. The smart class was more restrained, less impulsive, more inclined to consider the inconveniences of such a situation.
And then I told them that this was what their next book – "Lord of the Flies," by William Golding – was about, except that all the marooned kids are boys. Then I made them read the first chapter in class.
"It gets even better," I told them before the bell. "I guarantee that you will love reading this book."

They did, for the most part. There is no easier book to force into the heads of teenagers than "Lord of the Flies," especially if you can get them to recognize the similarities between what is happening on the island and what is happening in their school, and maybe even in their country.
Toward the end of the unit, I had Russell Karp leading the class in a chorus of "Kill the pig! Spill his blood!" Hearing this commotion, the principal called me out into the hall and asked me what the hell was going on.

"Lord of the Flies" was fun, and made teaching seem not so bad after all. But the next and final unit of the year seemed sure to throw my internship into reverse: British poetry.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 7

Russell Karp knew better than to swear, or to get physical. He wasn't stupid. Had he been determined, a rebel with a cause, it would have been one thing, but the boy had no ambition or motivation other than the pleasure of watching his classmates and his teachers – and his student teacher – squirm with anxiety and fear.
It was something about the flush in his cheeks, the depth of his eyes, that betrayed hostility, a seething anger. Yet he often played the class clown.

I rushed my classes through "Great Expectations," intent on getting through with it as quickly as possible regardless of whether the kids had read it or not. Better material lay ahead. And all the time, Russell competed with me for the attention of the class.

As a diversion, I asked my students to do some creative writing. "If you could be doing something else right this minute besides sitting in this classroom listening to me, what would you wish to be doing, and where?" I gave them 15 minutes to write; Russell laid his pen down after five minutes and thumbed through an issue of Hot Rod magazine.
"Who would like to read his or her essay?" I asked.
Russell waved his arm and began to read: "If I could be someplace else this minute, I would be sitting in my car across the street from this school, watching this place burn to the ground."

Every night, I would complain to my wife about Mr. Trouble, and in the teacher's lounge I quietly sought advice. The football coach, who also taught driver's ed, was always there during my free period. He listened to my griping with knowing nods and shrugs of his shoulders. "Ignore him," he said.
"Ignore him?"
"Just ignore the bastard," Coach insisted. He wants your attention, so don't give it to him until he behaves."

I was highly skeptical of this advice but tried it anyway. I pushed Russell Karp to the margins, looked through him and beyond him, made other students the center of attention. His influence on the rest of the class began to fade, and although he was still Trouble, things were better. Eventually, I would be able to turn back to him, give him a different kind of attention, even share a joke. But it was never easy, an I never understood the anger in those eyes.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 6

As my second class flowed in from the hall, I gazed out the window and saw Miss Tygart, bundled in overcoat and head scarf, slowly making her way across the slushy parking lot toward her car. Abandoned, I did my best to look like someone comfortable while in command.

Midway through taking attendance, control began to slip away.
"Karp?" I read from the ledger.
No answer.
"Mr. Karp?" I repeated. "Russell Karp?"
Giggling. Snorting. Heads turning toward the center of the room where sat a tall, muscular boy, with a vicious grin. The previous day, I had assigned him the name Trouble.
"Oh, yeah, here!" he said. "But I'd rather not be!"
Guffaws all around.
The lesson on Chapter 6 began badly and deteriorated from there. These were the not-so-bright kids, and few of them had even read the Cliffs Notes, let alone the book. Writing some of the names of characters on the blackboard, I detected mischief and quickly turned to see some paper missile flying across the room. Feeling desperate, I tried to conjure up some image of teachers from my own schooling who had captured my elusive attention, and an idea occurred to me. These kittens needed to be captivated by a ball on a string. I had to make myself a diversion.

So, when I began to summarize the chapter, necessary because no one had read it, I walked around the room, pausing every so often at someone's desk, perhaps grabbing someone's notebook or one of their books and examining it as I spoke, picking up the waste can and moving it, behaving in a confusing manner inconsistent with front-of-the-room teaching. This, I knew, would only work until the kittens became bored and began chasing and tumbling again, but it got me through to the end of the period.

But what about tomorrow? And the next day? What could I possibly do to get these kids interested in their schoolwork? How could I handle the truly defiant students, like Russell Karp? As it would turn out, getting them interested would be much easier then dealing with Mr. Trouble.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 5

Next day, after taking attendance of the first class – the smart ones – I noticed something missing.
"Has anyone seen Miss Tygart?" I asked, attempting to mask my anxiety.
Scanning the innocent, wondering faces, I detected a few smirks. Someone snorted. A giggle rose and burst like a bathtub bubble.

On my own, I plunged ahead into Chapter 6. Brown-noser and Perfect may have actually read the chapter. Most others had probably just scanned the Cliffs Notes. Most of my questions were answered by deadly silence, punctuated by the metronomic tick of the clock above the blackboard. Toward the end of the period, my patience began to wear thin.
"Look, you're being asked to read only one chapter a night," I said. (Groans. Rolling eyes.) "You people are in for a big surprise when you get to college. Some book like this, you'll have maybe three days to read it." (Contagious yawning.)

The merciful bell rang, and in the clamor for the door I shouted "Chapter 7!" at them in complete futility.

With a free period between my classes, I made my way through the rapids of the crowded hall to the teachers' lounge for coffee and a smoke. I'd hoped to see Miss Tygart there and to get some reassurance that she'd be in my next class, the more unruly of the two, but she wasn't. In fact, for the next three months, I would rarely see her again. Occasionally, I would glimpse her in the teachers' lounge, sitting in a corner away from the smokers, eyes closed, slowly rubbing her temples. She would monitor only a handful of my classes for the rest of the semester.

"She's practicing for retirement," the shop teacher told me with a chuckle one day as we sipped lukewarm coffee from white disposable cups stuffed into brown plastic holders. "She's got one foot out the door."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 4

The din of the high school hallway subsided, the last student in closed the door and melted into her chair, and suddenly I had my first view of a class from the front. A jury of 28 awaited the opening arguments.
This was different than the view from the back, where I sat the previous day watching Miss Tygart conduct the two classes, the first composed of the smartest kids, the second much slower, but both taught at the same speed with the same materials. That first day, I was regarded with furtive glances and giggles from the girls, and totally ignored by the boys. Each time Miss Tygart slowly and painfully swiveled on her good hip and turned to write something on the board, I watched the boys punch one another in their arms or swat each other on the back of the head, and the girls pass notes and sticks of gum.

The view from the back was of behavior; the view from the front was of personality. Taking attendance, I began to learn their names, but I learned much more from eye contact, posture, dress, and demeanor, and in just a few seconds I had most of them pegged. Going down the rows I thought I could capture each personality in a single word: Sneak, Brown-noser, Cheerleader, Bully, Bullied, Slut, Spaceman, Brain, Dreamer, Smoker, Jock, Prude, Trouble, Pet, Lonely, Princess...

On that first day, I felt somewhat protected. When I turned to write on the board, Miss Tygart had my back. "Keep your hands to yourself, William!" she interjected sharply.

I had spent most of the previous night reading the first six chapters of "Great Expectations," so as to stay at least a few pages ahead of the students. But it quickly became obvious that the only people in the room, in either class, who had read Chapter 5 were Miss Tygart and her student teacher.
"So when the convicts are captured, one of them tells the police a lie, that he had stolen the food when Pip had actually brought it to him," I told my class. "Why did the convict lie?"
No response. The mouth-breathers stared at me as if I had been speaking Icelandic.

This was going to be even harder than I thought.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 3

Early in February 1971, driving to the high school for my first day as a student teacher, I worried about a number of things: Was teaching really what I wanted to do with the rest of my life? Did I know enough to teach English literature to kids only four years younger than I? Was Miss Tygart some sort of vixen hungry for a student teacher to seduce? I worried, too, about the cost of commuting in my gas-guzzling Pontiac, which would burn a gallon of fuel to school and another gallon back.

The high school was low and long and made of yellow brick, its windows decorated with faded construction-paper snowflakes. Inside, the foyer smelled of floor wax, mimeograph ink and a slight hint of vomit. One of the secretaries walked me down the hall toward Miss Tygart's homeroom, past closed classroom doors from behind which came the noise of slamming books, barking teachers and the screech of chalk on blackboard. I put my hand on the knob and looked through the window into an unoccupied room save a solitary figure seated in a dark corner, partially obscured by the American flag.

"Excuse me. Miss Tygart?" I inquired.
Startled, the figure reached for a heavy wooden cane and struggling to her feet, stepped out of the shadow with slow, twisted steps, as if one leg was considerably shorter than the other, and with the trace of a grimace clouding her face. She was a diminutive woman with thick glasses and short, wavy hair just beginning to gray. She wore a no-nonsense white blouse and a long woolen skirt that ended between her knees and her corrective brown Oxfords, and no suggestion of jewelry or makeup.
"I'm sorry, I have a free period and I was just resting my eyes," she said in a quiet, formal voice. "Bit of a migraine, I'm afraid."
"Oh, please, sit back down," I offered. "I'll pull up a chair."

We discussed some of the details of my internship, and then I asked her about the coursework.
"We're reading 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens now," she explained. "Surely you've read it. The children are a bit unenthusiastic, as usual, but perhaps you'll be able to inspire them better than I."
"Ah, yes, 'Great Expectations,' " I said, as if recalling fond memories of the novel, which I had not read. "I'm a little rusty with that one and will have to reread some of it."
"Oh, I'll lead the discussion today, and you can take over for me tomorrow. You'll have the whole evening to refresh."

Sweat began to form on my back and the palms of my hands. I thought: "Great Expectations" is what, 550 pages? Maybe I should just get up now and run out the door. It's not as if she can catch me.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Complaints and comments

I received a phone message yesterday from a subscriber angered by "front-page photos every day" of weeping Palestinians. Her point was this: Israel is being hit by rockets constantly, and we don't publish photos of weeping Israelis climbing out of the rubble; and if these Palestinians in Gaza are harboring these terrorists, then they deserve what they're getting.

A: First of all, almost all the death and destruction is happening in a small area of Gaza. Sure, rockets are being fired into Israel, but they go all over the place and usually don't hit anything or kill anybody. Yesterday, a house was hit, but no one was injured. It would be pretty difficult for a war photographer to guess where one of these rockets might strike in that they can reach about half of the country. And why would a war photographer be in Israel when all the fighting is in Gaza?

Secondly, there are about 15,000 Hamas militants in Gaza. They've taken over Gaza, and the residents there - 1.5 million of them - have little to say about it. Many of them support other factions in Palestinian politics, and many of them want nothing to do with politics or war at all. Most of them are innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire between Israel and crazy Hamas, fighting a proxy war for Iran.
There is a terrible human cost to war. Sorry, but it's our job to tell that part of the story too.

Student Teacher, Part 2

The requirements for Pennsylvania Teacher Certification were a certain number of specific education courses, most of which I had taken, and a semester of student teaching. I hadn't really considered being certified, but my professor gave me the hard sell. He must have had a quota to fill, or perhaps he did not want to renege on a promise to an area high school. Whatever the reason, he played the Fuller Brush man to my naïve housewife.

"No job can be as satisfying as enriching young minds," he said, scooting his desk chair toward me so that our knees nearly touched. He was still wearing a 1950s haircut and nerdy, metal-rimmed glasses. He never unbuttoned his suit coat, which had chalk dust on the elbows. His face was fixed in a permanent smile.
"You'll find student teaching surprisingly easy, and fun!" he said, grasping my forearm, just to be sure I didn't bolt from the room.
"I don't know, " I hesitated, thinking about being forced to dress like an adult and get a haircut. But I said, "Teaching two classes a day, five days a week sounds like a heavy load, along with all the other courses I have to take here, and my part-time job."
"Oh don't worry about that," he laughed. "You're just assisting your mentor teacher. You'll probably be just observing her most of the time. She'll handle all the paperwork and the testing and the disciplinary problems, if any."
"What sort of disciplinary problems?" I asked.
"Oh nothing serious, of course. These aren't city schools, they're country schools! Kids being late because of farm work, that sort of thing," he lied.
"Well, I really…"
"Great!" the professor said, jumping to his feet. Then it's settled. I'm sure Miss Tygart will be very pleased that you will be assisting her. I'll call her immediately. She's a lovely woman, Miss Tygart," he said with a knowing wink. "I can see that you two are going to get along just fine."
"Yeah, well, you know I'm, like, married," I said in a bit of a huff.
"Ha-ha-ha, well, she isn't!" he exclaimed, as he brushed me out of his office.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 1

We were just kids when we married in the spring of 1970, I being 21 and Alice, only 20. My parents had suggested that we wait until I finished college, but we were too anxious and impulsive to listen to reason.

After our one-night honeymoon at the Pittsburgh Hilton, we moved into an apartment on East Wheeling Street, and on Monday morning, Alice returned to her job as a fashion artist at Horne's department store, and I to my part-time work as a salesman at Reichart's Furniture Warehouse. Our combined weekly gross income was not even $100, and so our housekeeping was based on frugality. Our meals were designed not with taste or nutrition in mind but rather cost. We ate Tater Tots and Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks a lot, as well as hot dogs and baked beans, tomato soup and crackers, and the very cheapest cuts of meat – fatty pork and "breakfast steaks."

Shortly after classes resumed in September, the angst began to set in. What was I to do come graduation? The Vietnam War raged and the military draft loomed, following me around like a dark cloud above my head. What would I do come May if not the Army? I had some interest in art and the theater, neither of which would pay the grocery bills. Graduate school was a consideration, but my grades through college had been atrocious, and I was sure no decent school would accept me.

Christmas, our first away from our families, was bittersweet; finding a tree and decorating it in our own style, establishing tradition for our own future family, was romantic and energizing; being away from our parents, brothers and sisters on Christmas morning for the first time ended our childhood completely and forever. We roasted what turned out to be a pathetic excuse for a turkey. The money for the turkey the tree and some gifts came from selling my guitar.

When the diversion of Christmastime had passed, it was time again to consider the future. Maybe the war would end, we hoped. Maybe I should think of a career, I gulped.
So in January, I visited the office of one of my professors, who had suggested the benefits of teaching in the public schools. Confronting every day a classroom full of surly, disinterested children was a scary thought, but not nearly as scary as the Viet Cong.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A new story

In the early days of January, 38 years ago, I found myself confronted with making a career choice, deciding what to do for the rest of my life. I hadn't a clue what to do.

Many people my age were thinking about not what was best for themselves, or how much money they could earn, but what good they could do for society. We were under the impression that we were somehow different from our parents, and that we could change the world. We were young and dumb. Some of us never got over being dumb.

At the time, I had no interest in journalism; instead, I chose a more familiar path, through an environment I had trudged the previous 17 years.
Our next story follows that path. As with the previous serials, I have an idea how this one starts and where it ends, but I don't know how long it will take to get there. Because all of this this happened 38 years ago, I can't possibly recall conversations verbatim, but I will do my best to reconstruct them based on what exists in my faulty memory. What happened is real, but names of most characters are changed so as to prevent embarrassment to any of them still walking this Earth.

We'll call this one "Student Teacher."
It starts Monday.