Saturday, July 31, 2004

Karmic Nightmare

I need a good rant.

I spent the whole week at CSU with a bunch of teachers and artists. The course itself was interesting enough, focusing on integrating the arts into the academic curriculum.
Hey, I'm all about that. In fact, it's my claim to fame.

But the people!!
Most of them taught in the suburbs, and hardly any were high school teachers.
For five long days, I looked for a soulmate in sarcasm, a cohort in contention, a partner in puerile antics. All I could find was a bevy of bobble-heads.
Hour after hour I scanned the room for the rolling eye, the sneer, the smirk. Alas, I was a misfit amongst the hand raisers and notetakers. These were the teachers pets who became teachers, and I felt like the feral cat who somehow wandered in.

Monday's lunch secured my reputation as an anomaly in this educational equivalent to Stepford. Several teachers at my table were discussing content similarities in math and music, when one woman, (thin lips, horn-rimmed glasses and hair in a bun..REALLY) shared that, as a student, she would do extra math problems, beyond her homework assignments.
My first reaction, of course, was to blurt out, "Why would you admit to such a thing in public?"
With a stare that was meant to shut me up, she snipped,
" I always loved algebra."
To which I carelessly replied,
" I've always hated algebra. Who ever came up with the lame idea of mixing up numbers and letters anyway? Leave the alphabet to the writers."
Nobody laughed.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. One hundred people, nodding, writing, following directions.

I took lots of bathroom breaks and wandered the halls.
Dejavu...I smiled. Some things never change. Perhaps to complete the picture this week, I should take up smoking and find a cute guy to make-out with in the stairwell.

Finally, it was Friday.

Before I continue my story I need make an important distinction.
I am a proponent of the arts. I am a visual artist.
I am NOT a musician. I am NOT a dancer. I canNOT sing. I canNOT play an instument. I have NO desire to do any of these things. These activities are NOT fun for me.

So what was our culminating group activity? We had to count off, form groups, learn a song, make up a dance (which incorporated the use of silky scarves) to go with the song, which we would then perform in the lobby of the building, after parading, and singing, down the hallway.
It was a custom karmic nightmare designed just for me. If I didn't need the credit hours I would have been outta there.
The final performance could only be described as surreal (No, I take that could be described as ridiculous) There was a whole lot of very serious sashaying going on. These folks were into it.
Balding men and middle-aged women prancing, singing, and waving their scarves. I couldn't take it anymore. I started to laugh...out loud.
My levity rated me the bad-eye from about thirty different directions...then...lo...I spotted her. At last, a bad-attitude buddy!
Across the room, I saw Kristen, a visual arts teacher from Thomas Jefferson Middle School in full frontal grimace, shaking her head, dropping her scarf, bungling her steps, and... laughing out loud.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Music Issues

Now don't get me wrong, I love music.
I've got a load of CD's. Play them in my car when I cruise the Shoreway, back and forth ,from my job on the westside to my house on the eastside.
Couldn't play an instrument, though. if my life depended on it. I sing in my basement when I paint or do laundry, and dance in my kitchen when I make soup or pasta. (Something about that great big pot just gets me going) I tend to keep music, especially when I participate in it's creation, a personal, private part of my life.
So it was with great discomfort that I joined two dozen other teachers and artists on stage at Cleveland State Universities Music Building to dance and move and clap and sing. It wasn't fun...I was doing it for graduate credit hours, as a part of the Summer Institute Arts Program.
My mild dyslexia screws up my coordination of right and left, so I tend to throw off any group performance with unintentional comic malfunctioning. I really don't mind providing a humorous element to a production, but I think some of the people this afternoon were taking this group dancing thing a little too seriously, as evidenced by their looks of annoyance.
Today, I will be exploring my relationship with the theater. More a lesson in creativity than an opportunity to lose inhibitions that seem to serve me just fine .

Saturday, July 24, 2004

HELLO my name is SATAN

As I flipped through Scene Magazine's 2004 Music Awards issue I was not surprised to see Mike Campbell's face looking out at me as I turned to the Best Hard Rock listings. Mike plays with the Sign Offs, whom Scene describes as; "Punk-damaged rockers(they) could be on the verge of major-label activity". 
Several weeks ago, Mike called to tell me they were signing a deal with Columbia records. I'm so proud of him. 
 I want to share his story here,  because I know that some of the people who read my posts are teachers.
Some of you teachers are just beginning careers, and may have a student like Michael Campbell in your classroom one day.  If you do,  fasten your seatbelts, 'cuz boys and girls,  you are in for a wild and wonderful ride. 

The first time I saw the kid with the long dark hair, intense brown eyes and wicked smile, he was creating drama.  The hallway was full of students changing classes and Mike was standing by the lockers waving a yellow intend-to-suspend notice and ranting.
" Can you believe it ?  He wants to send me home for my shirt!  This f__ing shirt!  He says it's offensive.  Does anybody think it's offensive? He's offensive!"
I glanced at his T-shirt and started to laugh.  The shirt was all black with a white printed patch on the chest that looked like a name tag and read "HELLO my name is SATAN".  I silently agreed with the young prince of darkness. The shirt was not worth a student losing class time over, (especially in a school system struggling to keep kids in classes) when the only person who was offended by it was our rather religious principal. The suspension, however, did inspire a change in dress and behavior. From that point on, Mike began to dress to impress. He discovered that clothing could create controversy.  He began to acquire quite a collection of "offensive t-shirts" and eye catching punked-out clothing. He thrived on the attention.
The administrative altercations continued. One particularity pointed fashion discussion went something like this;

" What is your problem Mike? When I was in high school nobody came to school dressed like that."
"Oh! So I should come to school dressed like you did when you were in high school?"
" Yes! That would be great. "

The next morning the hallways at Max Hayes High School rocked with laughter as Michael strutted along in full Saturday Night Fever attire. Platform shoes, red satin shirt, and a polyester suit that demanded disco.

Mike's quest for controversy didn't end with his dedication to dress-code violation.  Teachers, students, even total strangers were potential adversaries for a verbal spar.  Not ironically, Mikes favorite position was devil's advocate. Whatever the consensus was, he would take the opposite stand.  Race, religion, sex...Any topic that could elicit an emotional response...Mike would throw it out for class discussion. Constantly baiting his teachers, he reveled in his ability to shake things up, and get people flustered. Needless to say, being kicked out of class was a fairly common occurrence.  His resultant hallway wanderings eventually led to our friendship.

One afternoon I was addressing my general art class when I caught a glimpse of Mike staring into the room as he walked in the hallway past my classroom door.  A few moments later he stuck his head inside the room and asked in a loud voice,
 "Has anyone in here said f-ck yet?"
 Although somewhat taken aback, yet not surprised, I managed to look non-pulsed as I smiled and said,
"Well, yes...I think someone did." 
Not quite what he expected, Mike seemed lost for words, so I added
 "C'mon in. Want to see what we're doing?"
He knew a few of the other students so he came in and sat with his friends as they worked on their sculptures. The next semester he signed up for my class.

Mike loves to talk, and it didn't take long to find out all about him.  He was part of a big family of foster children who had been adopted by a wonderful older couple. Not surprisingly, he had ADHD, but didn't take medicine for it. Most importantly though, he was a musician, he loved music. He'd been playing guitar for years, but he still practiced constantly. He had an electric one with some brand new amps. I told him I would love to hear him play. A few weeks later he got his mom to bring his speakers to school. He set them up in my class at the end of the day and played an amazing concert for me and some of the kids who were still hanging around after school.  That was his senior year.
Mike was scheduled to graduate in June, and passed all of his required classes, but he couldn't receive his diploma. He had not yet passed the math portion of the Ohio proficiency test.
Many students who don't pass the test  drop out or give up. Mike wasn't one of those students. He took a proficiency preparation class, got a math proficiency tutor, and for the next couple of years took that proficiency test each time it was administered. Each time he would be only one or two points away from passing. Last year he finally passed the test, and finally earned his diploma.

He stopped by  after school one day to take me out to lunch in Lakewood so we could catch up on each others lives. He's been so busy on the road with his band touring and seeing the world.  I am extremely proud of this persistent, demanding, funny, and talented  young man. I wish him continued success.

Thursday, July 22, 2004


It HAS been a long time since I sat down and posted anything. 
My excuse? I decided to devote some time to mental slacking. 

July is nearly over. Next week I start picking up a few graduate semester credits, and my head will be back into the education realm. But this  week was devoted to friends and foolishness.  I did have one observation regarding learning, albeit the thought was prompted by the Tuesday night trivia game played at Scorchers,  over several glasses of Guinness. ( By the way my brother David and I kicked some intellectual ass amongst that Bainbridge bar crowd) My observation? I have learned a LOT of useless crap in my lifetime.
It amazes me;  I can remember the names of extinct sea creatures, but not where I left my car keys. I can make a chronological list of hit songs from the seventies, but I forget to call my brother on his birthday.  Why is it, I can retain all kinds of irrelevant information, but not the stuff that is important to my daily living and relationships?

Enough thinking.
I shall return to my slackitudinal position...something absolutely non-intellectual. After all this is summer vacation....Hmmm, I wonder what's on TV this early in the morning?


Monday, July 12, 2004

"I have generally found that persons who had studied paintings least were the best judges of it."
William Hogarth (1761)

I spent a good part of this weekend looking at art in Cleveland Heights and Tremont...
There is often a good reason for serving wine at gallery openings.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Time Stands Still

Every student is aware of the phenomenon that occurs each mid-afternoon, in every classroom, in every school.

Time slows down.

The last half hour of each school day feels like a lifetime. Young eyes follow the second hand on the wall clock, hung, as if to taunt, just above the door to freedom. It sweeps past the numbers; one, two, three…yet the minute hand seems immobile.

I smiled as I read the account of the auction held at the 100 year old Shaw High School building in East Cleveland this weekend. The building will be torn down later this month to make room for a new school in 2006. A woman described how she stared at the clocks so much during her days as a student at the school in the sixties, she came back to purchase one as memento.

Even as a teacher, the clock above the classroom door still seems to hold a link to the everlasting. Every year there will be at least one class of what I will call, for the sake of being polite, "challenging" students. The challenge is to:
1. Keep them on task
2. Keep them from fighting
3. Keep them in their seats
4. Keep them relatively quiet
5. Keep my sanity.
These are the classes that I attempt to spin in a positive direction by calling them life-extenders. Each day, that forty minute period stretches into an eternity; and I watch the second hand sweep past the numbers, in never-ending circles, as the minute hand stays put.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004


Son Faces Charges in Death of Father.
The Plain Dealer headlines announced the holiday weekend murder of a man in Lorain, and the confession of his 15 year old son to the shooting. The rest of the article told little else but the neighbor's opinions that the deceased was an upstanding member of the community, and by all accounts a good father. Very religious.

Not surprisingly, the immediate family had no comment. What a nightmare for them to be going through.

Murder is a crime that can never, and will never be forgotten.
Everyone associated with the incident becomes a victim, in some way, for life.


A few years ago I took notice of a very intense young man as he walked past my classroom each day. Jimmy was tall and heavyset. Bigger than most of the other students in the building. He would hurry through the hallways, eyes cast down toward the tile floor, never a smile.
One day, shortly after the bell rang, signaling the end of the class period, he popped his head in my classroom door. He was looking for a girl named Christy. She turned to me and mouthed the words,"That's my boyfriend!" as she walked to were Jimmy was waiting. I didn't think much about the new romance until the next day at lunch, in the faculty lounge.

One of my colleagues had also noticed the schools newest couple, and mused aloud,
"I wonder if Christy's father knows about Jimmy?"

Everyone knew Christy's father. He was a tough Cleveland cop, occasionally arriving at the high school in his uniform to pick up his daughter after school. He was strict with his daughter, and had been known to bawl her out in public on report card pick up days for grades that were below his expectations.

"What about Jimmy?" I asked.
"Don't you know?" He seemed incredulous. "Jimmy killed his father...beat him to death."
"Yeah, a couple of years ago. He did some time in the D.H., but apparently he'd been abused...It was self defense."

Oh boy! Part of me wished I hadn't heard that.
From that day on I couln't look at the young man without hearing the phrase repeating like a scratched LP

"...killed his father...beat him to death...killed his father...beat him to death..."

Whether or not Christy's dad ever found out about Jimmy and/or his past I never knew. What I did know was this, Jimmy was becoming very devoted to Christy, and he began stopping by the art studio to visit with her when she stayed after class to work. Jimmy was one of the most polite boys I ever had the pleasure of meeting. He would always go out of his way to say hello, he would hold open doors, and he would always offer to help me carry books, bags, or boxes. The two of them remained a couple until after graduation. likable as the young man was, still, the voice of accusation would continue in my mind, and I would feel guilty that I could not control the persistent refrain.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Don't try to fix the students, fix ourselves first. The good teacher makes the poor student good and the good student superior. When our students fail, we, as teachers, too, have failed.

Marva Collins

On Raising Adolescents, and Keeping Your Sanity

I received a lovely letter this weekend, via e-mail, from a woman who has accepted the daunting job of parenting a teenager as she struggles on her own to provide a home for her nephew.

Throughout the years I have been asked many times for advice on raising adolescents, but normally these questions occur during the course of face to face conferences. This letter gave me the opportunity to put my answers into writing. I am going to include some of my response in today's post, since it reflects a bit of my philosophy when it comes to dealing with teens.

I applaud your dedication as you guide your nephew into adulthood, and I will do my best to answer your questions.

I must admit to having quite a bit of experience dealing with teenagers. I calculate that in more than two decades of teaching high school, I have had the pleasure of working with more than four thousand students. After all these years, I'm still amazed that I am regarded as having a semblance of sanity in circles that do not include members of my own family. My own children (ages 24, 15, and 12) will often refer to me as "that crazy lady". However, I do take into consideration that their point of reference is up-close and personal, since it is usually their actions that motivate my mania.

I will share with you several guidelines that I use in my daily interactions with students. I consider them to be essential to maintaining a good relationship with any young person.

First and foremost; try to remember yourself at that age.
What were you like? What did you do for fun? What made you laugh? What were the adults in your life like? Who did you want to be like when you grew up? Try to emulate your own positive role models. Also try to recall the things that made you angry; people who were ignorant, adults who were unfair, or annoying, or petty, or mean. If you recognize any of those behaviors in yourself, make the adjustment...Get rid of them. A person who has forgotten his childhood will find it impossible to connect with children.

Next, always remember the BIG picture. Things like hair, and clothes, and music aren't nearly as important as respect, good friends, a kind attitude, developing a love of learning, and a strong work ethic.

Know that grades do not always reflect learning. In fact real learning is RARELY assessed on a grading scale. Grades are usually only an indication of how many points were earned using an arbitrary method of evaluation.

Finally, as human beings, we've developed something called a sense of humor. It is a wondrous coping mechanism. It will help us through circumstances that are distasteful or embarrassing, disturbing or frustrating. Use it often. Find the fun in situations, or at least observe the funny. Life is short, and we were meant to enjoy it.

The rest of my response was of a more personal nature, and won't be included here.

Parenting is infinitely more difficult than teaching.
Throughout my career I have encountered kids who prompted a prayer of gratitude that I only had to put up with them for 40 minutes a day, and would never have to deal with them again upon completion of the term.

As parents we will have these relationships forever.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Good Friends, Bad Boys

The new skatepark behind the Rock Hall was full of boys on boards and wheels, each one trying to be way cooler than the next kid.

My dearest friend, Susan, and I took our twelve year old sons, Brian and Sean, downtown today to check it out. (In my new Celica...see earlier post.) It was a great spot. They practiced their stunts for a couple of hours, and begged us to bring them back. While the boys busied themselves on the ramps and rails, we caught up on the events of the last few days.

The best thing about best friends is, no matter how often we see each other, we never run out of conversation. Susan and I mostly talk about people; our friends, our families, our neighbors, men, our relationships, men, our frustrations, men,...things that annoy us.

I met Susan at St Louis Elementary School in Cleveland Heights, after we both received notes from the principal concerning our boys, during the very first week of kindergarten.
Her son Sean, and my son Brian, were sent to the office for a playground incident involving a much bigger boy, pushing, shoving, much mud, and washing each others hair in the restroom. They have remained partners in crime ever since.

Parents of 'good children' can never experience the close bonds that the parents of challenging children can. While they brag to each other about the straight "A's", flawless piano recitals, and brilliant science fair projects, we share tales of the last parent teacher conference, what scary substance, which used to be food, we discovered under a bed, and whose kid got the most detentions this week.

Oddly enough, the very first time we met at a parent/teacher night, we didn't click. I thought she was stand-offish, and she thought I was a snob. Shared tribulation stripped away pretense, allowing us to recognize each other as kindred spirits.

Thank goodness for bad boys.

A child miseducated is a child lost.

John F Kennedy

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Don't Those Kids Carry Guns?

The old Subaru is finally going to be put out to pasture. Living in the Rust Belt has taken it's toll on the hard-working Legacy wagon, currently nicknamed "Spot".

The loud roar of the muffler, a clicking from the right front axel, and my children's embarrassment to be seen by their friends in a "hoopdie", convinced me that it was time to let go. (That turbo-charged engine can still kick some ass on the Shoreway though.)

Shopping for cars is not at all like shopping for shoes, or clothes, where one can be impetuous or even frivolous. The car-buying process requires way too much discussion, and inevitably, the conversation turns to what I do for a living, as the salesmen size me up as a potential buyer.
Yesterday, one particularly baby-faced manager, upon hearing that I taught high school in the city, asked,
"Do you have metal detectors? Don't those kids carry guns?"
To which I replied, "Not often" and "Yes, occasionally."

As teachers, we are usually left out of that particular informational loop, unless a student is afraid someone might use the gun. I did an informal class survey once, asking the kids to give me an estimate on how many of their peers carried a gun to school on any given day. The consensus was two or three. A disturbing fact if one takes much time to ponder it, so we tend to concentrate on other things, like who has a hall pass, or who has a hat on in the building.

A number of years ago, I was teaching art at John F Kennedy High School on the city's south side. One winter morning, I walked around the classroom commenting on the progress of my students' drawings, when I noticed a heavy-set boy reach up under his flannel shirt to scratch his back. As he scratched, the shirt pulled away to reveal the black handle of a handgun poking out of the pocket of his jeans.
"What the...?" I blurted out, and without pausing to evaluate the situation, I said, "Give me that gun John."
Startled, he reached into his pocket, pulled the gun out and placed it into my outstretched hand.
"Oh great!" I fussed, "Now I have to send for security. What the heck were you thinking? I cannot believe you had the nerve to bring a gun into my classroom..."
On and on I ranted, while a student ran to get a security guard.
While my mouth was running full throttle my mind was screaming,
"MARYBETH, YOU ARE AN IDIOT!!! What if he wouldn't have handed it to you? He could have shot you!!! This is a gun in your hand!!!"

My mental self-flagellation was reiterated by security a short time later when I was in the main office filing an incident report.
"What the heck where you thinking! That kid could have shot you. You should have just quietly sent for security."
That morning my much practiced mother-tone-of-voice worked for me, another time, with a different kid...who knows?

As it turned out, John began carrying a gun to school, because he had been jumped several times at the bus stop while waiting for the RTA. It was meant to be the equalizer as he defended himself against a group of bullies. He was suspended for several weeks, returned to school briefly, and eventually dropped out.

And what lesson did I learn from the incident?

I am lucky.
Very, very, lucky.