Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lisa and the magic house

Today was the funeral of the father of a dear friend, even though we rarely communicate, Mark Montemayor. I had a chance to talk with him briefly right after the service, and he told me, with pride and pain, how his Dad had come to every single one of his concerts when he was the band teacher at GHHS. Then through the resultant tears from that memory, he recalled that his Dad also never missed one of his concerts from when he was in school and learning.  If you have ever been to a beginner music recital or school concert, you know what parental love and loyalty that signifies.

Had the service been an Evangelical or atheist one, we could all have heard about his life and works, because even if the pastor or other such does not know about the dearly departed and cannot speak in honor, others generally do and often random people from the mourners are invited.  I spoke at Johnny Johnson's service.

This, though, was a Roman Catholic Funeral Mass, complete with parishioners there for a quick homily and host.  It was a beautiful service, but the standard requirements for a Mass had to be observed. That leaves little time for sharing by the loved ones. I would have enjoyed that, certainly better than I enjoyed having to be the only one in the row who did not go to the front to partake of the snacks.  It's always a little bit awkward; one woman asked me about my reticence, and I just said, Methodist.  She kindly told me it would be ok if I went to receive a blessing.

Here's where I switch from talking about Mark and back to Lisa, remember the title of the blog?  If you love the Church, you might want to stop reading.

When I lived in Spokane, I had a friend named Lisa. She hung out with some of my graduate school buddies and me. She also knew all the best watering holes in Spokane.  She took me as a sort of aged wing-woman. I was ten years older.

Lisa was also a lay minister for St. Aloysius Church in charge of administering holy communion.  She did the wine.  St Al's parishioners were predominantly older, old-school Catholics, who'd been trained for communion at a time when only the priests drank during communion; therefore, most of the contents of the chalice were still there at the end of the service.

Okay non-Catholics, stay with me here; the contents of that chalice (not from the palace) cannot simply be poured back into the bottle.  To prepare for communion, the wine and the bread are placed in a tabernacle and blessed (or something, I don't really know).  Once the wine and the bread come out of the little house, they are no longer wine and bread.  They are now the body and the blood of Christ.  Having been raised Protestant, I had assumed this was symbolic.  Anyway, whoever ministers the chalice, must finish off the contents. In a Parish like St. Al's, where the majority of the celebrants do not partake, most of it is left.

One day, Lisa asked me for help/advice.  That quarter at school, she had an eight am Shakespeare class, and she was constantly falling asleep in it.  She really liked the class and the prof, so this was a real problem, besides needing to pass.  This seemed to be a simple problem; I reminded her that she was consuming up to three cups of wine every morning when she finished off the leftovers from communion.

Shocked, she said, "That's not wine! That's the blood of Christ! That can't be it."

"Well, Lisa, I don't know what to tell you."

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The awkward altar call

Never take a long car trip with a good friend if you want to keep that friend, or, conversely, if you want to know if your friendship will last, take a long car trip.  15 years after high school, I ran into an old friend and decided to help her drive her car to college in the midwest.  That story has to wait.  A coincidental event is more important.  During a conversation, she mentioned my best friend from high school, Jeff, and told me he lived in San Francisco, "his element," she said.  I understood that was code for "Jeff's gay."

It all made sense.  Jeff's birthday is June 12th, mine is the 11th.  We met for years to celebrate together on his birthday and he always brought another friend with him.  I once asked him to marry me in a letter.  He graciously ignored the proposal.  I was disappointed, but figured I had over-stepped the bounds of our friendship.  I loved Jeff, probably from the moment he came to Juanita High and we met.  He is the only person I ever kept up correspondence with faithfully.  I always meant to write people, but I always did write Jeff.

Anyway, I called Jeff and shamelessly invited myself to visit him in SF.  He offered to let me stay with him while I visited.  I immediately made reservations.  Almost the instant I hung up, the phone rang again; it was Jeff.  "Before you make reservations, Pat, I just thought you should know I'm gay and I live with my lover."  

I got to visit Jeff and Oscar only a handful of times, during summers and at New Year's.  One summer, he told me he was busy during June and I should wait until later to come.  I had not been unable to reach him throughout July.  In August, I was out in the yard tending roses and pulling weeds, when I suddenly decided to call Jeff as the summer was waning and I had not made my semi-yearly visit yet.   

As luck would have it, Jeff had been waiting for a different phone call and he answered right away.  He sounded terrible.  "What's wrong, Jeff?" "Oh, HIV infection." 

I offered to fly down immediately, but he said there was nothing I could do.  He sounded so tired, so weak; we talked only a short while, and as the conversation slowed I said, "I love you Jeff." "I love you too, Pat."

Jeff died the next day.  When Oscar told me, I dropped the phone and dissolved into sobs just like the ones I'm having to pause for now.  Since 1972 Jeff has been with me every day.  I miss him incredibly.  

Oscar, Bill Clumpner, and I attended Jeff's cremation.  Oscar had been arguing with Jeff's sister about who would keep the ashes.  She wanted all of them and Oscar wanted to take them to Golden Gate Bridge where Jeff liked to walk.  We took the ashes with us to the park. Screw her, we thought.  We'd only let her have part of the ashes, and throw some off the bridge.  When we got to the bridge we realized that Jeff did not believe in an afterlife, so the eternal location of his ashes did not matter; our memories of Jeff mattered.  We left him in the trunk and shared a brief relieving chuckle about it, then walked out to the center of the span for a silent moment with Jeff.

Back home in Seattle, Jeff's sister planned his service.  Old friends of Jeff flew in and we all met the night before at one of Jeff's favorite watering holes and did what Jeff would have wanted; we all got blitzed.  All of Jeff's lifelong, true friends were there.  Oscar was not there.  Jeff's sister invited him, but he was not allowed to say who he was to Jeff.

The next day at the service, the preacher from his sister's church gave a eulogy in which he described a loving, caring, generous man. Hah. Jeff was a crank, a curmudgeon, who loved humiliating people. (Right Joe Pfeiffer?)  He would jokingly say, "Hi, I's yo new neighbor," yet defend equal rights.  He both loved and hated Justice Scalea.  He was complex, the smartest person you could hope to meet, and gave great hugs, but he was decidedly not anything the preacher described.

Then, in the middle of a memorial service for a gay atheist log cabin Republican, there was an altar call.  Jeff would have left.  I would have but I rode with someone else.

Jeff's family either did not know Jeff or wanted to deny him.  

Jeff left a will with several insurance policies, some made out to his sister, some to Oscar.  He left out one car.  She demanded that.  Oscar didn't drive, but was damned if he'd relent.  He decided to let her drive down to the bay area and get it if she wanted it.  Pretty sure that didn't happen.  Just in case there was any problem with his will or other provisions, Jeff had assembled an impressive stamp collection worth many thousands and gave them to Oscar.  Like I said, a smart man.

I still think of Jeff every day and I miss him terribly.  Sadly, I lost track of Oscar.  Do you have any idea how many Oscar Lopezes live in the bay area?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lesson from an old blog for an old blogger

I just told my class the story of Brian at the MDA camp (see blog March 18, 2011).

It always makes me cry, but in retelling it, I realized what lesson I learned from that experience that helps me in my teaching.

When that goofy kid from Boise redeemed himself so magnificently by holding Brian all night, I learned that any kid, no matter how difficult he or she is, can, at any moment, bust out with some random act of kindness, some amazingly insightful or profound statement, or even a small glimpse of something wonderful inside. I really try to have every day be a fresh start for kids, even though today I was accused of exactly the opposite.

Oh well, I will not stop trying to be a good teacher to everyone, even though I know it's not really possible.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A random act of kindness in a math class

Recently I have jumped ship from grading endless bad essays and begun teaching math. That's right, math. I loooooooove math. Now you know the depth of my insanity.

Anyway, back to the random act. Occasionally, I end up solving a math problem at the same time the students are solving it, for example, if I assign a problem as an "exit ticket" (or as Jake called them today, "get out of jail" card.

Yesterday I assigned a semi-complex geometry problem for an exit ticket, and in response to the groaning and remarks of "it doesn't work," "how do you do that" etc., picked up my handy-dandy mechanical pencil and began to solve it. This prompted several students to vigorously attack the problem and all of a sudden it was a race. Others just shook their heads at it.

Pencil flying, barely legible numbers forming, the solution flowed down the graphite rod and I said, with perhaps a little too much triumph, "Got it." Immediately one of my sharpest students, a freshman boy accelerated into geometry, said, "Me too." He is really sharp, so I figured he had solved it before I had and said so. He, showing just the briefest glimmer of a dimpled smile said, "I'd guess we solved it at the same time, Ms. Kurz."

How sweet is that? I'm certain he'd had the answer before I did. Maybe it's a small thing, and maybe no one else is as starved for approbation as I am to pickup how kind his comment was. Perhaps it's an immense thing. After all, anyone's ego is such a fragile thing, and freshmen boys tend to be prickly, self-conscious balls of thin, crystalline psyche.

Speaking of ego, it was a boost to mine as well. Somehow I have managed a classroom atmosphere that works for at least one kid; at least one kid can smile at me as we both share the rush of confidence that comes from solving a complex math problem, at least one kid knows I care about my students and can care about me enough to fib a little in order to make a connection to me with a random act of kindness.

People say often, "You really made my day." I mean it; he made my day. He gave me a huge shot of happiness, he lofted some warm fuzzies my way. I caught them. I feel good. I hope everyone can be the recipient of such a kindness. Be careful, it might be a tiny comment. You have to listen, be alert: random kindness is out there.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dumbing down reaches new heights

I suppose it's declasse to start a blog with a link, except, of course, what kinds of rules are there, really, in the blogosphere. Nyah.

Go ahead, click on it and read it. I'll wait.

When did the dumbing down actually start? Surely I do not have to explain what I mean. We all know that an American college degree does not represent the same level of learning as Oxford or Cambridge. Four year universities have begun offering remedial classes because too many high school graduates haven't the skills to successfully manage freshman level courses. To wit, while I was in graduate school at EWU, not only did we teach English 100 for those not ready for 101, but we had English 99 to prepare students for 100 and English 98, essentially a learning lab, to prepare the truly unprepared. This was not a community college accepting GED candidates. Matriculating students had to write an entrance essay exam. We graduate students read them and placed incoming freshmen accordingly. One young woman was placed in my English 99 section. She was outraged, and justifiably so-- she had received an A+ in honors English in high school.

The problem therefore must start before college. Is it solely the responsibility of high school teachers? As a high school teacher myself I think not. Because I do not despise freshmen (actually, I quite like them) I have always taught freshman level classes. Some enter high school with about a 4th grade ability to write, and yet they believe themselves capable of major research papers. Why? Because they've already done so in middle school. I have never seen any of these magnum opuses, but if they exist, they must have been so magnificent as to have completely exhausted their creators, because no student of mine has ever repeated such a performance once they get to 9th grade.

There, we've found the problem; it's the middle school concept. In grades 6, 7, and 8, there appears to be no need to actually learn anything or even turn in any work. (If you're a proud teacher of rigor in younger grades, I am NOT referring to you; I know you exist. You must be terribly frustrated that some of your peers engage in promotion without cause.) Case in point. Many of my happy little freshmen, having blissfully ignored the syllabus which specifically delineated grading standards including any and every chance for extra credit, right before grade reporting time will mince up to me and ask, “What can I do for extra credit?” I answer honestly, which does not satisfy them, because the answer does not suit them. “But I have a bad grade!” they continue. I agree with them of course, and explain that the time to worry about a bad grade is during the entire time that grade is being earned, mot at the last minute. They seem stunned. Apparently, this strategy works fairly consistently with many teachers in the earlier grades.

Ok, so middle school might be part of the problem, but I don't think it's the whole problem. There's a recent documentary film about bullying. It's certainly not a recent phenomenon that the Poindexters of the world are frequently the ones bullied. Although they've never been the only ones, it used to be that people knew it was wrong. Now, even though we have seen great successes by the Poindexter class, re: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, etc, smart kids are still bullied relentlessly. I speak from the WASP perspective, but I read and hear reports from non-white communities that it is even worse, especially among African-Americans. Being smart is “acting white.” Hip-hop and rap rarely praise intellectual ability of any kind. One of my Native American Students, a Spokane from the rez dropped my English 101 class at Spokane Community College because of the taunting he received from other tribal members; they called him an apple (red on the outside and white on the inside).

Back when I was first getting my teaching certificate, an instructor at Whitworth in Spokane, teaching a class in exceptional education, made a statement I marveled at.

“Some children don't learn to read in first grade, and they move on to second grade, but they still don't learn to read so they go on to third grade without yet knowing how to read...”

I raised my hand, “Why?”

“Because we have to,” she answered.

“Why?” I tried again.

“We have to. They'll feel bad if they're held back.”

“Don't you think they'll feel bad being the only ones in class who can't read?” I posited. “Kids aren't dense,” I added, “They all know who can and cannot read. Kids who are behind are still behind regardless of what grade they're in.” She dismissed me, of course, then asked me to stay after class, both to convince me of her point justifying social promotion, and the beliefs of the entire educational system, it seems, and to punish me for contradicting her in class.

Above the copy machines at my school is emblazoned our three Rs, one of which is Rigor. Occasionally at a faculty meeting of one sort or another, someone tries to get at a definition or an agreement of some sort of what Rigor might look like at our school. The discussion always fizzles out. Who among us can enforce rigor? It's damned hard! To include rigor in school, think about it, think about it in first grade, second grade, middle school, university. If a student wants to progress and has to actually produce work to progress, maybe he will.

I know what you're thinking. You think I'm calling all these kids lazy. You'll say, some of them are simply not ready for such tough love. Exactly. Shakespeare said, in the words of Hamlet, “The readiness is all.” Readiness should be our sole criterion for promotion. Kindergarten teachers all over the country know when a child is ready to read or solve math. LISTEN TO THEM! No more Sarah Palins, please.

The entire quote from Hamlet Act V Scene ii is “We defy augury; there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”

I really think we should insist on rigor. “If it be not now, yet it will come.

Friday, March 18, 2011

MDA summer camp

I used to volunteer for things, like MDA summer camp. I only had the opportunity to do this for two summers in Eastern Washington before moving back to Western Wash. and losing my MDA contacts. I was reminded of that life-changing experience today at lunch. Apparently one of our seniors, Camille Brown, is involved with MDA summer camp this year for her senior project.

Medical science has vastly improved things for kids with MD, but various forms of it are still torturous death sentences with life expectancy to the early 20s at best. For many, the greatest span of their few years will be spent in a wheelchair. If you can be part of bringing some joy to a person afflicted with a dystrophic disorder, I believe you will make the world a better place. It’s not world peace, it’s not even helping stem poverty, but if there’s any such thing as karma or kismet or the Golden Rule, the balance sheet of good works could always use more on the happy side.

My experience at MDA summer camp was my first encounter with anyone suffering from MD. I had been at Camp Fire summer camps both as camper and counselor for over 20 years, so I knew the value of summer camp for any kid. As an older adult, I was not eligible to be a counselor; I was part of the support staff. The counselors were young people who were vetted. They had to be older than 16 and have references supporting their dependability. Some counselors were assigned 1 to 1, some 1 to 4, depending on the severity of the campers’ disability. Spokane MDA used Camp Four Echoes on Lake Coeur d’Alene, so there was boating and swimming and crafts and sports and games—the usual camp stuff. The campers left on a Saturday, but staff did not leave until Sunday. That day was important. As cool as it is to watch severely handicapped kids having fun in the sun, laughing and playing just like any other kid, underneath, right under your skin, is the realization that next summer, some of the campers will not be there. Not because they don’t want to or can’t afford it or the family is going to Disneyland instead, but because they will be dead. Sunday is the day the staff can release the emotions they’ve all had pent up. The grief. The despair. The unnamed, elusive, indescribable feelings. We cried together. We hugged.

The fall planning meeting for the following year’s summer camp always begins with the bad news. Who has died. That was sad, but there was good news to offset it; an Idaho corporation was paying to have some kids flown up to camp from Boise. This was the first time any MD camper from that area would be able to come. We were all very excited. There were two glitches. We would not be able to vet the counselors, and there was no flight back to Boise on Sunday. The staff would still have campers around on that all important day of emotional discharge and bonding. We all agreed it was bad, but the benefit of giving those kids from Boise a camping experience out-weighed the needs of the staff.

Not being able to vet the counselors turned out to be a disaster. Many of them were not even 16. Several were so unreliable and irresponsible, they’d leave a handicapped kid alone near or even in the water. Several times we narrowly averted disaster. It’s not efficient when the people supposed to be watching over others need watching over themselves. One boy in particular was so useless, we tried to have him sent home. In addition to the regular emotional turmoil we added anger and rage at the immaturity of this one counselor. It was aggravating in the extreme to think we had to have him around on our Sunday.

When Saturday night came and we were left with the Boise kids and the lame-o counselors from there, we decided to make it a movie night and rent R-rated movies. We picked up 3 movies, popped a bunch of popcorn and started to settle in.

One of the campers from Boise enjoying their first summer camp was a boy named Brian. Brian’s wheelchair did not fit him right. He had open sores from the rubbing. We had discussed Brian’s chair problems, and were told that his parents were not able to afford a new chair, nor were they willing to jump through the red tape hoops to get MDA to pay for one. Brian had to suffer. He’d had fun at camp, despite the pain from his chair. He was thrilled to be sitting down to R movies; they all were. Why not? So what if they were 12, 13, 14, they were sentenced to life in the prison of their own bodies. They can hear the F-word, see some sex and violence.

As we were settling down to our movies, a miracle happened. The 14 year-old counselor we were all pissed at picked Brian up and took him into his lap. It took about 45 minutes of wiggling, adjusting and fidgeting to get Brian comfortable, without any pain from his sores. Then, for 6 hours, that irresponsible, useless, aggravating kid held Brian without moving or complaining. That was Brian’s last summer camp.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Prayers for Marcus Walker

Oh Marcus,
You were the best of men, truly the finest human beings can be. I wish I could send you prayers. I wish I could have sent you prayers while you struggled with cancer. I wish I could have sent you prayers at any time that I knew you.

Couldn't though. Just can't.

I hate it when people I love and respect want to pray for me, or expect me to offer my prayers. Always have hated it.

It's always dicey discussing religion. When I was 13, I felt my life sucked. I had decided to be Jewish, not that I told anyone, (I think I told Marcus- not then, I didn't know him, I mean I told him the story, sheesh). Shortly before I summoned up the courage to commit suicide, I stumbled into circumstances that led me to believe in the whole Christian fundamentalist schtick, forgiveness, to live is Christ, to die is gain, blah, blah, blah. By the time I was in high school, I had become an irritant to people like my best friend Jeff, future atheists. He used to quote the book of Jeremiah when I came near, "Mountains, fall on me." He was quite the raconteur.

Anyway, my reading of the Bible differed from other fundamentalists and most other Christians. The book of Matthew includes the Sermon on the Mount wherein Jesus tells the multitudes exactly how to pray. He dictates what we call the Lord's Prayer. Read it. It's here: (I was going to wait for you to go get a Bible or Google it, but I'm impatient, so I Googled it for you and pasted it here.)

“This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.'"

There is nothing in that passage to indicate that God is a vending machine or a genie in a bottle. Daily bread, forgiveness, not sinning.

No protection from accidents.

No winning football games.

No success on tests.

No special help for a contest or achievement.

No relief from pain.

No cure for cancer.

I'm so sorry, Marcus.

I never prayed for you.

I'm not going to pray for you now.

If there's a Heaven, if there's any truth in Christian lore:

you're with God and happy.