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.