Wednesday, June 11, 2008

#12: New York Times: Kids left without any hope of jobs

This is yet another relevant report. I see these kids all the time when I'm subbing -- they haven't yet dropped out, but their situation is as hopeless as those who have, as this article makes clear.

New York Times Op-Ed Columnist
Published: June 10, 2008

When the dismal unemployment numbers were released on Friday (at the same time that oil prices were surging to record highs), I thought about the young people at the bottom of the employment ladder.

Below the bottom, actually.

A shudder went through the markets when the Labor Department reported that the official jobless rate had jumped one-half a percentage point in May to 5.5 percent — the sharpest spike in 22 years.

The young people I’m talking about wouldn’t have noticed. These are the teenagers and young adults — roughly 16 to 24 years old — who are not in school and basically have no hope of finding work. The bureaucrats compiling the official unemployment rate don’t even bother counting these young people. They are no one’s constituency. They might as well not exist.

Except that they do exist. There are four million or more of these so-called disconnected youths across the country. They hang out on street corners in cities large and small — and increasingly in suburban and rural areas.

If you ask how they survive from day to day, the most likely response is: “I hustle,” which could mean anything from giving haircuts in a basement to washing a neighbor’s car to running the occasional errand.

Or it could mean petty thievery or drug dealing or prostitution or worse.

This is the flip side of the American dream. The United States economy, which has trouble producing enough jobs to keep the middle class intact, has left these youngsters all-but-completely behind.

“These kids are being challenged in ways that my generation was not,” said David Jones, the president of the Community Service Society of New York, which tries to develop ways to connect these young men and women with employment opportunities, or get them back into school.

It is extremely difficult because, for the most part, the jobs are not there and the educational establishment is having a hard enough time teaching the kids who are still in school.

“Schools have not made much of an effort to bring this population back in,” said Mr. Jones. “Once you fall out of the system, you’re basically on no one’s programmatic radar screen.”

So these kids drift. Some are drawn to gangs. A disproportionate number become involved in crime. It is a tragic story, and very few people are paying attention.

The economic policies of the past few decades have favored the wealthy and the well-connected to a degree that has been breathtaking to behold. The Nation magazine has devoted its current issue to the Gilded Age-type inequality that has been the result.

Just a little bit of help to the millions of youngsters trying to get their first tentative foothold in that economy should not be too much to ask.

It’s not as if these kids don’t want to work. Many of them search and search until they finally become discouraged. The summer job market, which has long been an important first step in preparing teenagers for the world of work, is shaping up this year as the weakest in more than half a century, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

Now, with the overall economy deteriorating, the situation for poorly educated young people will only grow worse. As Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies, told The Times recently:

“When you get into a recession, kids always get hit the hardest. Kids always go to the back of the hiring queue. Now, they find themselves with a lot of other people in line ahead of them.”

As the ranks of these youngsters grow, so does their potential to become a destabilizing factor in the society.

More important, the U.S. needs the untapped talent (and the potential buying power) in this large pool of young people, just as it needs the talents of the many other Americans of all ages whose energy, intelligence and creativity are wasted in an economic system that is not geared toward providing jobs for everyone who wants to work.

America needs to dream bigger, and in this election year, job creation should be issue No. 1. If I were running for president, I would pull together the smartest minds I could find from government, the corporate world, the labor movement, academia, the nonprofits and ordinary working men and women to see what could be done to spark the creation of decent jobs on a scale that would bring the U.S. as close as possible to full employment.

We’ve maxed out the credit cards, floated mindlessly in stock market bubbles, refinanced mortgages to death — now’s the time to figure out how to put all Americans to work.

#11: Why Kids Need a Good Night's Sleep

This is another crucial report that I'm inserting here, in between my regular blogs:

Healthy Living
Why Kids Need a Good Night's Sleep
By Joseph McCaffrey, MD, FACS

It doesn't take a fancy study to realize there's an epidemic of childhood obesity in this country -- a drive past any school yard offers proof enough. The question is what we do about it? A new study offers some suggestions.

Researchers in Massachusetts evaluated infants three times between the ages of six months and two years.1 At each visit, they recorded the amount of time the child slept and the amount of time they spent watching TV.

At three years of age, they evaluated the children for obesity, measuring body weight and height, as well as skin fold thicknesses. The findings are noteworthy.

Infants who slept less than 12 hours were almost twice as likely to be overweight at age 3 (12% vs. 7%). If the low-sleep children also watched more than 2 hours of television a day, their risk of obesity rose to 17%.

Many factors contribute to the rise of obesity in America. Of course diet and exercise are important, but research increasingly points to other issues as well.

Previous studies have shown an association between short sleeping hours and obesity in older children and adolescents.2 This study shows that association begins even in infancy.

Experts debate about the mechanism by which sleep affects weight. Some researchers propose that being awake longer simply gives a child more time to eat. Another possibility is that decreased sleep leads to decreased activity while awake. Others wonder if certain studies in adults apply to children as well. These studies show that lack of sleep has an adverse effect on hormones that influence appetite.3-4

Whatever the cause, more and more evidence demonstrates the importance of adequate sleep for people of any age. Make getting adequate sleep a priority -- both for yourself and for any children under your care.


1.Taveras, E et al. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008;162(4):305-311.
2.Seicean A et al. Sleep Breath. 2007;11(4):285-293.
3.Spiegel K, et al. Ann Intern Med. 2004;141(11):846-850.
4.Taheri S et al. PLoS Med. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062. 2004;1(3):e62.

[Ed. Note: Joseph F. McCaffrey, MD, FACS is a board-certified surgeon with extensive experience in alternative medicine, including certification as a HeartMath Trainer. His areas of expertise include mind-body interaction and cognitive restructuring. Dr. McCaffrey strives to help people attain their optimum level of vitality through attention to all aspects of wellness. For more info, see:

Saturday, June 7, 2008

#10: Journal Notes on Subbing Assignment for 30 November 2007

Note: As it turned out, I had a number of assignments between 28 November and 10 December 2007 at this same "Mrs. X" school. Unless you are checking in daily to read the blogs, it'll probably make more sense if you start with 28 November and read them backwards -- i.e., in the order in which I wrote them.


As of November 28th, my next subbing assignment was in woodshop at this same school on the afternoon of November 30th. The following day, however, the 29th, yet another half-day assignment would appear in math for 8am on the morning of November 30th. I immediately accepted that assignment as well. That meant I would be subbing for two different teachers in the same school, on the same day.

When I arrived at the school that Friday morning, I found Mrs. X functioning as a hall monitor, supervising noisy mobs of students. "Hello," I said, as I passed her on the way to the front office.

She seemed surprised to see me there so early. She also seemed on the chilly side but when she told me she was fighting off a flu, I figured she was just distracted and tired. "So who are you today?" she asked.

I replied that I was math's so-and-so for the morning and then woodshop's so-and-so for the afternoon. It crossed my mind that I should perhaps re-consider clarifying my spiritual stance as a continuation of our discussion of November 28th, but she seemed
out-of-it and I again decided to let it go. I had a subbing classroom to get to. She had her own duties. To shoehorn an awkward discussion into 2 or 3 fleeting moments felt artificial and too pressured.

The math teacher I was subbing for doubled as an athletic coach and "floated" as a teacher. His first hour, pre-Algebra, was in the English teacher's room next door to where I had subbed two days earlier with Mrs. X. Since Mrs. X had told me that I could use the bottled water in the sideroom between the two classrooms, I got a bottle first thing and poured it into my mug (I didn't want to misuse this "perk" but assumed the school provided it). Unfortunately, I made no xerox of the lesson plans for that hour and took no notes. I have a vague memory that it was a textbook assignment and that I simply walked up and down the rows.

Second hour, I had no class and no classroom so I went to the library. I have not yet mentioned this gem. I had discovered it two days earlier and was enchanted by it. One entered it on one level -- and one could stay on that level and walk around the entire
circumference, past tall bookcases, comfortable armchairs, tables carved of lovely wood, and computers and library staff along the rear. But one could also enter and immediately descend to a lower level, to a "sunken room." Again there were bookcases and lovely, round, wooden tables. One table even hosted a festively decorated Christmas tree. The dual levels made the room utterly charming and intimate.

I introduced myself to several of the assistant librarians and told them what a wonderful library they had. They knew that, of course, and we laughed appreciatively. One told me that, according to rumor, the room had originally been designed to be the school's swimming pool, but someone had changed the plans at the last moment and turned it into this stunning little library. The rumor may or may not have been true but it did make a kind of crazy sense. It was a great place in which to hang out, "swimming" through stacks of books.

A few younger students drifted in and asked my advice on science fantasy books (I think my dragon-loving reputation had preceded me). I was happy to help and pleased to see that the library had a fairly good collection (including all the Harry Potter books). A few teachers also stopped by and introduced themselves.

This was the first school in which I had spent more than a single day -- it was the luck of the draw, of course, but it really made a difference. Some teachers probably knew I referred to students as "young earthlings." The students who asked my advice on science fantasy must have heard that I believed in dragons. For that hour, I briefly felt at home and it was nice.

Third hour was a study hall, or "focus" class, held in a trailer reached by an outside walkway. I got there early, which was good because no one had turned on the heat and it was quite cold inside. After figuring out the heating controls, I wrote my name on the board but didn't bother with my usual introduction -- some had heard of me, others not. Some were interested enough to ask a few questions, others could have cared less. It was a Friday, after all -- many students are sullen and tired by Friday. They just want to get to the weekend. Personally, I was glad when the period ended. I felt no "spark" except from a few of the more serious boys.

Fourth hour was another pre-Algebra class, a shared class with a woman math teacher. She was wonderful -- very savvy and great with the kids.

When I was in highschool,for what it's worth, I got straight A's in all my math courses -- algebra I & II, geometry, solid geometry, and trig. I remember especially loving trig, working like a maniac to solve problems, and feeling a mad rush of joy when I succeeded. I have taken that maniacal compulsiveness -- and joy -- with me into many other endeavors in my life, which have had nothing to do with trigonometry. Yet it began with trig, and I honor that.

As a sub in math on 30 November 2007, it was good to be reminded of that. However, fifty years have passed since I took all those math courses and it was sobering to watch the "real" math teacher working with her students, knowing I now have absolutely nothing to give those students. I don't even remember, for example, how trig differs from geometry. I have forgotten the simplest basics. It was embarrassing and sad.

I told myself not to accept any more math assignments. Math isn't a subject in which one can show students a video. One needs to remember some basics. But those basics have fled from my mind. I have nothing further to offer.

I was grateful when that class ended and I was no longer the math so-and-so. I made my way to another part of the sprawling building where I would now be the woodshop so-and-so. It was ironic, really. I had once excelled in math but had then forgotten all the basics and was worthless in a math class.

On the other hand, I have never in my life taken a single course in woodshop -- I am very clumsy in the sensate world and clueless about the skills required in woodshop. Yet those students were willing to open up and engage in dialogue with me. They were a real handful, I must say -- and there were definitely times when I thought I was truly losing control and would have to call the office for help. And yet that afternoon stands out as a few hours of richly rewarding encounters with "young earthlings."


When my morning math assignment ended, I wound my way through the corridors to my afternoon woodshop assignment. When I walked into the empty room, it seemed like a Hollywood set to me -- big tables and chairs, machinery and cables floating above, more machinery connected to the tables, and all of it totally alien to a retired humanities professor like me. I had no idea what any of it meant. I remembered that the course's teacher had told me two days earlier that the machinery was off-limits when the regular teacher was absent, but I was still awed by the reality of what lay before me. It seemed quite daunting.

This was a half-day assignment -- that meant only three classes. The first students arrived only moments later. I introduced myself along the lines I have already explained in earlier posts. Then I turned on the video of a "Home Improvement" episode. I had thought this was a video about restoring old houses. Since I live in a c.1910 house, I was looking forward to this. But I soon realized that the video was a "sit com" with little relevance to any actual house.

I took roll as the video played. Two guys at a front table seemed interested in the video, even though everyone had already seen it many times before. The rest of the class seemed totally bored.

I tried to engage the bored ones. One student, with soft, gentle features, had shoulder-length hair partially hidden in a hoodie. This student reminded me of a friend from years ago -- a girl -- and I unthinkingly referred to the student as "her." There was raucous laughter, not from the student, who seemed surprisingly detached and mellow, but from the others. I was mortified by my error and scrambled to set things right. Yet the student himself seemed fine. I'm probably not the first sub who mistook him for a girl -- but I still felt awful. These kids are at an age when such things matter. I didn't want to contribute to some lasting trauma -- life is difficult enough as it is. Yet "she" seemed amazingly cool with it all, and I took my cue from him/her and kept things as low-key as I could.

In the next class, after my usual introduction, one serious young man questioned my data on dragons. I explained that dragon-lore appears in countless cross-cultural contexts, which leads me to suspect that dragons, in some part of the human psyche, DO exist. If not, why do we keep encountering them from China to Europe? I added that I'm not pushing dragons, per se. Instead, I'm advocating for an openness to the denizens of our own psyches, for that is where our magic lies.

He looked at me and commented quietly, "I like the way you think."

I should mention that the woodshop classroom had two doors. One of them led out into a hallway with a drinking fountain and bathrooms. The other led to a generic hallway some distance away from any amenities. Since students kept asking for passes to the bathroom, and since I didn't want to negatively impact their bladders in future years, I let them go, but soon discovered that the door to the closest hallway would automatically lock them out, once they passed through. Each student would then have to pound on the heavy door to get back in. This became disruptive for everyone.

So I scrounged about in the trash barrel and found a piece of wood I could jam under the door. This would allow them free access. I took the wood and went outside into the hall where I could install it. When I returned to the room, all my students had vanished. "Help, help!" I called dramatically. "Aliens have abducted my earthlings!" I wandered about, pretending to be distraught. "Help! Who took my earthlings? Help, help!"

I checked one of the back rooms where student projects were stored. No one was there. Then I went to the next backroom where supplies of wood were kept. One by one, the shamefaced students emerged. I could only laugh -- they were really funny. And they'd meant no harm.

In that same middle class, some of the guys turned on another guy and activated a hose above the tables. I heard a loud SWOOOSH of air and shouted at everyone. I have no idea what the hose was for -- maybe to clear away sawdust from various projects -- but I knew it could be dangerous if aimed directly at a student and I was furious as I shouted. Those holding the hose immediately disengaged it, but I made careful note of a red danger button on a far wall, in case I needed to push it to summon instant help.

That's the first time in subbing that I faced the fact that I could be physically outmatched by my students. That was an odd sensation, quickly dismissed. I refuse to be afraid of my own students. If and when I am, it's time to quit subbing. Until then, they -- and I - are exactly where we are supposed to be and everything is unfolding as it is meant to. Period.

In each of the first two classes, there had been one female student, but each had kept a low profile and blended in with the males. In the last class, however, all were males and all were rowdy. But they were also great kids. One slender guy, a Latino, was introduced to me as "gay." I was horrified -- were his classmates actually "outing" him to a total stranger -- and a sub to boot?! I felt awful -- what must he be feeling?! In my day, such an "outing" was unheard of. Even today, as too many movies indicate, it's horrendous and traumatic. But the guy --whom I'll call Miguel -- seemed totally okay with what was happening. "He doesn't understand English," one kid explained. So then I felt terrible all over again -- Miguel probably had no idea what was happening. I decided the best thing I could do was to ignore the "outing" and just keep going. So I did my usual introduction about dragons, ghosts, and so forth.

"What do you think about Area 51?" one youngster asked.

Oi weh, I thought to myself. Like I really need this. In a woodworkingshop, yet. But I have this "thing" about answering honestly -- and, as it happens, I do know some interesting facts about Area 51. A scientist I knew in the 1980's who had been in whatever the CIA used to be called before it was the CIA (OSA?) told me he had definitely seen evidence of aliens in Area 51; the evidence had been covered up by the government. One of my 40-something graduate students told me she grew up near Area 51 because her scientist-father worked there and he too insisted there was a coverup going on.

So I told my woodshop students about this as a way of supporting my own convictions about what is being concealed at Area 51.

"Area 51?" Miguel asked.

"He doesn't understand English," one of the others said. "He just transferred here."

I looked at Miguel, who looked bewildered, and I sighed. OK, I thought, here goes. So I pantomimed a spaceship circling through space and crashing on earth. I put my hands on both sides of my head, miming antennae, and making eerie "Twilight Zone" sounds. Then I broke away, becoming an American soldier with a gun. I sang a few bars of "Star Spangled Banner" and then aimed my gun at the alien. "E-eeeeeeee-E," I barked, waving my imaginary machine gun back and forth. Then I again became the antennae-alien, and I died.

"Area 51," I said with a meaningful shrug. Miguel looked entirely too "with it" and I suddenly realized he knew a lot more English than he -- or the others -- wanted me to know. I walked away, joining a few others who were watching the video.

After about 15 minutes, I rejoined the larger group. "What kind of music do you like?" they asked.

I sighed, but answered honestly, knowing they wouldn't understand. "I love Baroque music -- Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, people like that. I also like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Buffy Ste. Marie, even the Beatles."

Miguel started moving towards me, dancing in an eerie, sultry, vaguely threatening manner. Trained as a dancer in my teens, I reacted without thinking, snapping my fingers, moving towards him, making my moves, and humming "California Dreaming" -- Da, daun-da-DA, daun-daun-daun-DA-da, daun-da-da..."

The others looked surprised as he met me, mirroring my moves. No one expected we'd dance, not even me, but it happened so naturally.

Then we broke the mood, laughing, and everyone sat down together at one of the empty work tables. "Do you like Morning Wood?' Miguel asked in perfectly accented English. I knew then what I'd suspected -- they'd all been playing me.

"What's 'Morning Wood'?" I asked.

They all laughed in the same half-guilty way in which the "Lakeshore" students had laughed in an earlier subbing assignment.

"So tell me," I insisted, "what's Morning Wood?" I actually liked the poetry of the phrase. "Is there also a Noontime Wood, an Afternoon Wood, a Twilight Wood -- maybe even a Midnight Wood?"

They were off again into gales of laughter. This told me the phrase was a euphemism for something, probably sexual, unless it too was gang-related.

"Is it a gang name?" I asked point-blank. The uproarious laughter told me it was not. OK, so it was sexual. But I couldn't figure out what it meant. Irritated, I made it clear that I had no desire to continue a conversation that was so one-sided and we dropped it.

Out of the ensuing silence, someone asked me about witches. We'd already discussed dragons and ghosts, so discussing witches seemed part of the larger dimension. Before I could reply, Miguel asked about the *Crucible.* I was astounded. How on earth did this Latino kid in a small rural town in Michigan know about the *Crucible*?

"Do you mean Arthur Miller's play?" I asked.

He nodded.

"OK," I said, "that's not really about witches. It was Miller's way of exposing the toxic dangers of McCarthyism. He used the Salem witch trials as an analogy for what was going on in his own time."

I hesitated, then plunged in further. "I played Mary Warren in an off-Broadway production of *Crucible*," I told them, "and Tituba in a Grand Rapids Civic Theatre production." I raised one arm, playing Tituba, reciting her lines as best as I could recall after 48 years. "And de debil he come to me, an' he say, Tituba, if you serve me, I put you high in de sky an' give you pretty red dress to wear. An' I say, no, debil, no, but he keep telling me he put me high in de sky an' I must do this for him. I must do this."

In college, back in the late 50's, one of my roommates, Barbara Chin, was a Chinese student from Jamaica. When I played Tituba a few years later, I used Barbara's accent and was quite convincing as a slave woman from that region. I never lost the accent. Miguel and the rest of the woodworking class stared at me and seemed quite impressed by my sudden transformation into a slave woman. I enjoyed that moment, I must say .

The afternoon was nearly at an end and everyone was gathering up their book bags and preparing to leave. Then, out of nowhere, one burly young fellow looked straight at me and demanded to know if I accepted Jesus Christ as my lord and savior.

To me, the very idea seemed preposterous. It's anti-feminist and anti-human. It would be nice to have a "savior" to save this country from blind, greedy Republicans, but I don't think that's one of Jesus' gigs. But I had to respond -- it's that *geas*-thing. "I respect Jesus deeply," I replied gently. "I consider him a beloved friend. But I'm a strong, resilient woman. What would I need with a 'lord and savior'?!"

The burly fellow looked straight at me. "Then you're going TO HELL," he declared. With perfect timing, the final bell rang at just that instant and he and the other students scattered.

I watched them go and could only laugh. It really was just too funny. I'm going to hell because I don't accept my Friend in some phony-baloney role both He and I know is a total farce? Like He'd allow that?! Gimme a break.

I wrote up a few notes for the regular teacher and then dug through the trash basket for discarded pieces of wood. I was still enthralled with the smell of fresh wood in that room, and to collect discarded pieces of "trash" was an extra bonus. One never knows when one might need a small piece of wood for something-or-other. And I'm a scavenger from way back. Truly, there's a something mystical about wood. The "morning wood" breath of life is in it still.

Monday, June 2, 2008

#9: Journal Notes on Subbing Assignment for 28 November 2007

After being with those delightful special-ed students for a half-day on Tuesday, November 27th (see entry below), I checked the sub website around 9:30pm that night to look for future assignments. To my surprise, there was another special-ed opening the very next day, this time at a highschool about ten minutes away from me. It was a day-long assignment, 8am-2:55pm. Inspired by my experience earlier that day, I immediately accepted it.

The next morning, 28 November 2007, I got my directions mixed up and first went to the middle school. The staff sent me to the highschool up the road, but I could not find a faculty parking lot. Some subs "case the joint" a day or two ahead of time so they know what to expect, but that takes extra time and gas-money that many of us cannot afford. Finally, I parked where I could but, as so often happens, the nearest door was locked. I could see students wandering the halls inside but no one heard my knocks until one of the regular teachers spotted me and let me in. She was very friendly, took me to the main office, and wished me a pleasant day.

I apologized to the office staff for being late, explaining that I'd parked and first gone to the middle school. No one had a problem with that. They had me sign in and when another woman entered the office, they explained that she was my regular teacher's para-professional aide, who would be there to help me all day. I will call her Mrs. X. They sent me off with her, winding through corridors until we finally reached "our" room. Mrs. X seemed a pleasant, warm, friendly woman -- I tagged her as a soccer mom type, which is to say, an extrovert, greatly invested in her children. I wasn't far wrong. She has an attractive blond daughter in the highschool who is involved in many student activities; I think she may have had a second daughter too but I didn't meet her.

Mrs. X had her own desk in the classroom, located front and center. The regular teacher's desk was way off to the far side, in a corner. This seemed a little odd to me but I figured it was a mutual decision on the part of the women. I went to the desk in the far corner and looked over the lesson assignments. I learned then why I was there -- the regular teacher had fallen ill the day before and was still sick. She wrote that Mrs. X would be able to tell me if the previous day's lesson plans needed to be carried over to the current day, or if we could start fresh. "If the kids need to finish yesterday's lesson plans," she wrote, "please have them finish before beginning today's plans." That seemed fair to me, which meant I would be relying greatly upon Mrs. X's input, but I had no problem with that. She knew the students and knew what had happened the day before.

The first class, senior English, was supposed to work on Macbeth projects, which were due the following day. I first introduced myself, calling them "young earthlings," then explaining that I'm an old earthling who enjoys interacting with young ones after many years of teaching students the ages of their parents or grandparents. I pointed out that they need to be pretty much the best educated generation we've ever produced so they can help fix problems caused by the poor choices made by my generation and the boomers behind us. I wrote my last name on the board with "Dr." as my title and then added that I'm a retired professor who taught graduate students in S. California for 9 years. I told them that my Ph.D. is in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, which means I know a lot about world religions, rituals, mythology, fairy tales, and neat things like dragons, ghosts, witches, wizards, grails, and Harry Potter.

That was my standard introduction at the time. It gave them a sense of who I am, which is sometimes helpful, sometimes not. This time, it was apparently helpful, as I learned when the English teacher in the room next door stopped by to welcome me later on. She said, "They came to my room all excited after your class and told me you'd called them 'earthlings.' They really liked that!" We laughed and I thanked her for letting me know. (I would be subbing for her early the following week.)

My introduction tends to elicit similar questions, regardless of what school I am in. "Do you believe in dragons?" is quite common. I reply that I do indeed believe in them and consider them among my best friends -- not that I actually SEE dragons, I am careful to point out, but I do "believe" they're there, perched on the roof of my house, for example, or flying around between my trees, protecting my land. If disbelieving students persist with more questions, I point out that cross-culturally, there are too many fairytales and legends about dragons -- in some part of the psyche, or on what is known as "the imaginal plane," they must be "real."

Another common question is "Do you believe in ghosts?" Answering that one has to be kept more carefully nuanced because it impacts deeper belief systems about death itself. My usual answer runs something like this: "You have to understand that I myself have never seen or even felt a ghost, but many indigenous peoples see the ghosts of their ancestors and I see no reason to doubt them. I also have friends who are quite psychic and frequently see ghosts. I have no reason to doubt them either, so I do think that probably ghosts exist. I have a friend (Richard Senate) in California, in fact, who actually takes people on tours of local haunted buildings -- including a theatre in Ventura where I used to run the lighting. However, I study such phenomena as a scholar, not a 'believer'."

(Note: quite unexpectedly, one of the young ladies later told me about a well-known ghost that haunts that school's own theatre and was accepted as quite natural by an earlier drama teacher.)

Sometimes I am asked if I know any witches -- not if I AM one, but do I *know* any. That's a curious distinction, especially considering later events at that school. Students intuitively seemed to "get" that someone like me probably *would* know such folk, but not that I'm one of them. And having lived in Southern California for 26 years, yes, of course, I've known witches. Several have even been insightful graduate students of mine. Also, I used to attend solstice and equinox rituals in Topanga Canyon with a group of Unitarian women from Ventura who had connections with a coven down there. It was a great coven, very welcoming of sisters who follow other paths. In their spiral dance, for example, they raised marvelous cones of energy, or so they all said and felt. I, alas, not being psychically gifted, didn't feel a darn thing. But the others obviously felt it, even some of the Unitarians (a group of which, by the way, I am not a member -- I had simply done some goddess workshops for them and become friends with them). So, yes, I know and respect witches.

Sometimes I am asked if I am married. That's an easy one -- no nuances needed. "No," I reply. "I'm one of the lucky ones." I enjoy the reaction that gets -- some of the girls' heads actually shoot straight upwards in disbelief. They look startled, but then they're also smiling, as if they love it that someone dares to say that. Depending upon the age group, I explain that many of my friends have gone through devastating divorces, which is why I think myself lucky. "I was very much in love with a few guys when I was younger," I explain. "But they were Peter Pans -- I mean, they were never going to grow up. Peter Pan doesn't marry Wendy -- he just leaves her with a bunch of Lost Boys. I knew early on that I deserved better than that. So, yes, I'm lucky not to have married."

Another frequent question is "How old are you?" I'm not sure why that's of interest to "young earthlings" but I never hesitate to tell them my actual age -- 67 back in 2007, and now 68, as of early January 2008. The young need "age-touchstones" like that. It creates a psychic ladder between us and gives a friendly feeling to a number that otherwise might seem utterly alien and scary.

Twice (so far) I have been asked if I can do magic spells. Both times I have dissolved into laughter. "Yes," I finally reply. "Back in the 1960's I cast several magic spells to win the heart of a guy named Roger. But they didn't work so I'm obviously no good at magic spells!" And I continue laughing because it really was a good joke on me -- and now the students join in as well. Both times I got the sense that they were relieved by my answer.

There are fine lines here -- and boundaries that need to be respected. These young earthlings are full of questions and they're not getting enough answers in today's culture. If I pretend to be some woo-woo person with magic abilities, I would be cheating them. ARE there people with such abilities? Certainly there are. There is too much scholarly evidence about shamanic traditions, etc to deny this. Am I one of them? Absolutely not. But because I have been trained to hold the boundaries and give credence to what too many continue to scorn as "irrational," I, and many like me, can make important bridges for these kids. They deserve to know this.

There is one final question that seems to come up a lot, for reasons I cannot fathom: "Have you ever smoked pot?" Is pot still that common in their world? I have no idea. But when I'm asked a question in a classroom setting, it's as if I have a *geas* upon me to answer honestly. I could be wrong, but for me, that's what it means to be a teacher. "Yes," I reply, "but only once. I can't stand its smell. It's awful. But in my 20's when I lived in New York City, I was in love with an actor named Roger and he was into pot. I refused to try it because it stank to high heaven but one night he came over and said he had a really special kind of pot from Hawaii and I just had to try it. So I said ok. I was sitting at my upright piano, fooling around with chords. Roger lit a joint and handed it to me. Well, it burned my nose and it was awful. He said I needed to inhale it and he tried to teach me how to do that. But it just stank too much and I refused. I didn't want to breathe it in. I never got high from it and couldn't understand why Roger liked it. So that's my only experience with smoking pot. Needless to say, I don't recommend it -- or any other drug. I don't think our bodies like them."

Anyway, I have gotten ahead of myself. Let me return to that first hour: after my introduction, Mrs. X took over. She ran a tight ship and I was grateful not to have to keep shouting to keep the students focused on the task at hand. At times, I walked up and down the rows in case I could help anyone, but mostly I spent my time familiarizing myself with relevant textbooks on the teacher's desk.

The second class, 9th grade English, was a combined class with the students of the regular teacher's husband, who also taught there. Mrs. X would be elsewhere for that hour so I accompanied my students to a nearby classroom. There, the assignment was to watch a portion of a gripping film, *Black Like Me.* The teacher made excellent points about racism and the students seemed quite engaged with the film. (The school, I should point out, was a racial mix of white and Hispanic students with only a few African-Americans.) I sat near the back of the room and made myself useful by taking charge of turning the overhead lights off and on before and after the film, something I happen to enjoy doing.

The third hour was what used to be called "Study Hall," but now goes by many names. Here, it was called "Focus." Students were supposed to be working on their homework from other classes. If they had none, they could read a book or newspaper. Several had an art project due the following day and they were anxious about completing it in time. The project involved weaving brightly colored yarn into mandalic patterns. Some were quite lovely with beautiful, subtle color choices. Others were a bit garish but the students were happy with them and I praised their work. The art project demanded adherence to several rules but one student told me she couldn't follow the rules because they violated what she wanted to do. I supported her choices -- when a student is that determined, she really needs to be given her head and encouraged to run with her ideas. She would have done it anyway, with or without me, but, as it happens, I agreed with her.

Mrs X wasn't there during this third period so I had more interaction with the students. Some of the questions I have outlined above came up during this hour.

Fourth hour, Junior English, students watched the conclusion of *The Most Dangerous Game* and then turned in worksheets based on it. After that, they were to take turns reading O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi." They read somewhat better than students in other schools where I had recently subbed but we only got through about 6 pages before the bell rang. I happen to love O. Henry's short story and tried to add some of my own comments but no one was interested, so I dropped it.

First, fourth, and sixth hour (see below) classes were all special-ed. I saw no difference between these students and regular ones. Unless Mrs. X was in control, all seemed equally unfocused and noisy. Here, the size of these classes was about 20, which definitely seemed too large if they were supposed to be given "special" attention. I still haven't figured out how it is determined which students belong in regular classes, and which in special education.

I am again getting ahead of myself, however. Lunch was followed by "Conference," which is also called "Prep" in other schools. It is, in other words, "free time" in which to prepare the rest of the day's lessons. Mrs. X was elsewhere for part of this time but then she returned with a lunch tray from the cafeteria. I had my own tempeh sandwich, as usual. She showed me a sideroom where there was a sink and refrigerator, shared with the English teacher next door. She told me I was welcome to use the bottled water in that room, which I appreciated since I tend to get dehydrated while subbing -- it does take a good deal of energy.

Then we settled down to our lunches. She asked where I lived and I explained that I have a lovely Sears house built c. 1910. It turned out that Mrs. X also loves old homes and knew of several Sears houses in her town as well. We chatted pleasantly about old houses, gardens, and many other issues. I was enjoying the conversation -- it's always nice to find a kindred soul who shares one's appreciation of things like old houses.

In one of the preceding classes, by the way, after I had introduced myself and explained about my doctorate, one of the students had asked about the California graduate school in which I had taught after getting my degree. I had given a generic response without naming the school. Then I moved onto something else. But now Mrs. X expressed interest, wondering where I had taught. So I explained, naming the institute and briefly outlining the courses I had taught. She asked about my own degree then. Technically, it's in Religious Studies but that means a lot of different things to non-academics. I mentioned my own areas of expertise -- history of religions, comparative mythology, Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American traditions, folklore, fairy tales, rituals.

"Are you a Christian?" she asked.

I should have seen that coming but didn't. It's really not a question one asks of someone with a degree from a major secular university. We aren't theologians. We study the history of religions, whether worldwide or indigenous. As professional scholars, our own "beliefs" have little relevance. One of my doctoral committee members, for example, is a well known Indologist. The fact that he is also a Presbyterian who even serves on courts determining heresy matters is not relevant to his role as an Indologist.

Part of my training, however, as noted above, is to answer questions in a classroom setting as honestly as I can. I do this with students, regardless of their ages, and I felt I needed to do the same with this para-professional. The smartest answer was simply to say "Yes." Instead, I gave her honesty: "I study the history of religions," I began. "That means I know a lot about what happens behind the scenes in many religions. I respect all of them but I'm too aware of the political reasons behind various translations and interpretations of scripture, for example, as well as other theological problems and disputes. So I cannot claim to be a 'believer' when I know too well what has been concealed from people down the ages. So, no, I am not a Christian, although I respect Christians."

At that point the bell rang and sixth hour sophomore English students flooded into the room. I wanted to explain to Mrs. X about my own predeliction for indigenous, earth-based traditions as well as for various compassionate Buddhist traditions, but there was no time. I let it go.

Sixth hour was the same assignment as fourth hour. Students worked on their *The Most Dangerous Game* worksheets and we never got to O. Henry. In between 6th and 7th hour, I walked through the halls to fill my mug with water. I always seem to be thirsty when I'm subbing and I didn't want to use up too much of the water Mrs. X had offered me in the sideroom. I passed the friendly teacher who had let me into the school that morning. "How is everything going?" she asked.

"Fine," I said. "The students are great."

"How's your teacher's aide?"

"She seems fine too -- she has a good sense of the kids and keeps them under control."

The woman gave me an odd look. "She's the wife of a school board member," she said quietly. "Be careful."

I felt a chill go through me. I know from past experience that I'm not always the best judge of character. What I had seen as a harmless soccer mom might have been wildly wrong. Reality spun around me and turned everything upside down. I thanked the woman, deeply valuing her warning. I realized from the look on her face that she herself had been a target of bias and prejudice -- her words had come from hard experience.

But what to do? In the spirit of continuing our earlier discussion, should I offer a brief explanation to Mrs. X about my own spiritual beliefs? But I doubted they would make any sense to her. She was a Christian. Christians don't have a good track record when it comes to listening to views not in sync with their own. And what IS a Christian anyway? Many "Christians" believe the Catholic Church is Satan's Whore. Many Catholics see upstart Protestant (i.e., "Christian") sects, heretics all, as a bad joke. When I was growing up Catholic in the '40's and '50's, it was considered a sin even to *enter* a Protestant church.

No wonder I resonate with earth-based traditions, none of which has a word for "religion." The closest they have are words that can only be translated as "way" or "path" -- akin to the Tao -- in other words, a "pathway," walked moment to moment, in harmony with deeper spiritual realities. It is a path. It is never turned into a WMD.

I decided to let it go. Hopefully, the rapport we had established over disscussing old houses would temper her prejudices. If not, so be it.

Since then, of course, I have often thought about my response to her question, "Are you a Christian?" One of my former doctoral advisees tells me that such a question is in and of itself already toxic and the only safe response is "yes." Otherwise, one puts oneself too much at risk. I know she's right but it still sticks in my craw. So, should I ever be asked this again, here is my most carefully considered response:

"I consider Jesus a dear friend - and his mother as well, but -- and no offense -- most 'Christians' are bigoted, arrogant, and narrow-minded. They are surely causing Jesus much sorrow because of the way they have perverted his message. So, call me a 'Jesus-lover,' but, thank god, I'm no 'Christian' -- and, hopefully, neither are you!"

Anyway, to return to November 28th, there was still one more class to go, 7th hour, a "regular" class of mixed grades. This was a drama class and Mrs. X had told me hours earlier that these were very high-strung, melodramatic students. The week before they had reduced one sub to tears -- that sub had walked out, leaving Mrs. X to pick up the pieces.

I was actually looking forward to this class. Drama is my "thing" -- I have acted in off-Broadway productions, run lights for drama, ballet, and children's theatre as a way of supporting my graduate studies, and even won an award for a three act musical, buddhasong, I wrote in graduate school. I knew I would like these high-strung kids.

The assignment, unfortunately, was to show them a DVD of *On the Town* with Frank Sinatra. They had seen part of it the preceding day. Now they were to finish it. It turns out that this entire class had been to NYC a few months earlier on a class trip with their regular teacher (whom I was beginning to like more and more, especially after I saw photos of her with these kids -- they obviously adored one another). Someone had donated the DVD to the class -- I thought it was their teacher, but she later told me it was someone else. She, personally, had no emotional investment in the DVD and was in no way hurt that her students hadn't liked it. In the beginning, however, thinking the DVD was their teacher's gift, I went out of my way to defend it. Discussing the film in terms of "film history," I asked them, "What if you're at audition in Hollywood and you're asked to do a take-off or 'riff' on one of the sailors' roles in this film, just to give the director an idea of your range and creativity? You may think the movie is really corney but it's earned a place in the history of cinema. Show some respect -- make it work for you!" So I'd tried but, honestly, it was a hard sell, even for me.

Mrs. X, by the way, was an aide in another classroom during this 7th period. She did not reappear until near the very end. I was on my own. And, I have to say, I'm no Sinatra fan. He was before my time and I have never understood his so-called charm. I felt the film was dated and dull -- and so, obviously, did the 7th hour students. The noise levels rose and kept on rising.

Finally, I turned off the DVD and tried to get the kids to create characters for a skit. They loved the idea. One guy said he wanted to play a gangster. A girl played his best friend. Another guy played a Hispanic drug dealer. Unfortunately, no one really got into character enough to "find" a storyline, but they got a lot of laughs from their classmates. After about five minutes, they were out of material and I sent the actors back to their desks.

"Would you like to hear about the origins of Hindu sacred theatre?" I asked.

I heard groans and verbal protests against listening to "history."

"It's not history", I said, "it's story -- mythology. Once upon a time, there was a goddess named Vak...." This is the myth of the ancient Hindu goddess Vak, whose name continues to resonate in our words, vocal, voice, vois, vox, evoke, vocation, etc. This perked them up -- "story" is always going to grip highstrung, high-spirited drama people -- especially a story about the origins of theatre itself. And this is a great story with gods, demons, sibling rivalry, a huge serpent, lethal poisons.......

I didn't realize that we were only moments away from the end of the class. Mrs. X entered the room and seemed surprised that I was obviously enjoying the students, not at all frantic or ready to flee, and the students seemed interested in what I had to say.

"Once upon a time, the goddess Vak lived in secret at the bottom of the Great Ocean," I began anew.

Alas, the closing bell rang and that was that.

The students scattered while I wrote up a few notes for the regular teacher. Mrs. X's daughter turned up and I learned they were going to an event in Kalamazoo over the weekend, but snow was forecast, so I wished them well and a safe return.

Sometime later, while I was gathering up my things (including a big box of handpuppets I'd brought since I had no idea what kind of special-ed students I might be faced with), one of the boys returned, the 16 year old son of a contractor/landscaper. He just wanted to talk about "things," nothing in particular, but he mentioned how much he wanted a job. Since I enjoy networking, and knew of a landscaper looking for good help, I mentioned this and he was interested. It turned out that my contact needed someone fulltime, not a student, but maybe something will come of it one day. One never knows.

Final notes: when I said goodby to Mrs. X that day, I told her I'd be back on Friday, the 30th, for I had already committed myself to a 1/2 day woodshop class that afternoon. As subs, we are dependent upon always-shifting availabilities. We can check the sub-website every five minutes and find nothing. And then, suddenly, something appears. That afternoon woodshop class had opened up November 27th, just after 9am. This means I had accepted it even before leaving for the delightful special-ed students the day before.

Before I left the building after the drama class, I first sought out the woodworking teacher just to be sure I wasn't way out of line in accepting the assignment (I had e-mailed him after first accepting it but he hadn't responded yet). He was a lovely guy, taking off an afternoon to take his highschool daughter to a doctor. He told me that the law forbids students to work with equipment unless their regular teacher is there so he would have me play a "Home Improvement" video for his classes. I was relieved -- I am a menace around machinery. Besides really liking him (he's won statewide awards for many years for his students' excellent work), I also was entranced by the smell of fresh-cut wood in his shop. I hadn't smelled that in years -- it reminded me of my maternal grandfather's basement workshop, a place I had loved as a child, watching him work -- it was intoxicating. I could hardly wait to sub in the woodworking classes on Friday.

I went to the front office to sign out, chatted briefly with the secretary, and was soon on my way. Overall, despite a lingering worry over Mrs X's inappropriate question, it had been an interesting, demanding, and worthwhile day.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

#8: Journal Notes on Subbing Assignment for 27 November 2007

I am not someone who enjoys shopping. I expect my favored stores to carry the products I need without forcing me to venture out into the alien turf of strange stores. When I moved to Michigan five years ago, after living in Southen California for 26 years, I found that what I missed most was neither the Pacific (it was amazing to live near but
Lake Michigan has always been my first love) nor the weather (I never got used to that much sun). What I missed most -- and still miss -- are the stores. For a wide supply of organic and other interesting foods, for example, I had Trader Joe's and Lassens. For fresh produce, I could find Farmers Markets (mostly organic) 7 days a week within a 20 miles radius (my favorite was in Ventura where sometimes a guy brought in fresh organic dates from the California deserts). For clothing, there was Santa Barbara's Tienda Ho -- just to walk in was to find oneself in a magical place, part Morocco, part India (that's where I bought silk patchwork tunics and scarves in all kinds of colors -- including the purple "swag" ones I mention in my entry for 11/9/07). For plants and fabulous Christmas tree trimmings, there was Ventura's Green Thumb. For great sales on unusual picture frames and matts, there was Aaron Brothers. For New Age books, oracle decks, rocks, votives, statues, and jewelry, there was Journey Home. For all my other needs, I had a short list of favored stores and rarely deviated from them.

In fairness, Michigan does have a few of my favored stores -- Pier One, Joann's, Michael's, and World Market. I have also found some new favorites, including two nurseries in Kalamazoo (Wedels and Romence Gardens) and my friend Mo's lovely Wren's Nest in Dowagiac. But for food, this place is very backward. Most large grocery stores carry little in the way of organic produce except the inevitable bags of carrots, celery, and greens (hopefully, without e. coli or other pathogens) from a region of California too close to runoff from huge industrial livestock farms. A few stores also have bags of kiwis, avacados, and potatoes; during the winter months this year, one major grocery chain, Meijer's, actually started carrying organic pears, which was a real treat. I often ask stores to provide more organic choices and always get strange looks. If one is too vocal about organics, many locals assume one is a tree-hugging, non-church-going, hippie-democrat weirdo. It's like being stuck in the 1950's.

I mention all this because in the week following Thanksgiving I knew heavy snows would soon be coming, which means I might be snowbound for weeks on end (it costs too much to have my long driveway plowed out every day or two after all the "lake effect" snow we get). I needed to get in two months worth of canned organic soups, diced tomatoes, bags of dried figs and apricots, organic soy (non-GMO) veggie burgers, a few dozen eggs from free-range chickens, and other staples. There is a large, upscale, pricey health food store in Kalamazoo about an hour away. There is also a smaller health food store in another direction only 35 minutes away. When I saw a subbing assignment in a Middle School near the 35 minute one, I grabbed it. I could earn some money AND get my supplies. Win-win.

It was my first half-day assignment, from 11:31am-2:42pm, and it was in Special Education, an area I had avoided since I have no expertise in it. But other subs had told me no special training was needed -- just patience with the kids. So I thought I would try it and see how it went.

The assignment was for November 27th, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. The regular teacher was still there when I arrived -- she was warm and friendly as she explained her lesson plans and showed me colorful little plastic computer-calculators programmed with math assignments. I couldn't figure out how to make the gizmos work. "Don't worry," she smiled. "They all know how and help each other if anyone has a problem. They're really great kids." Then she left.

I took a deep breath and awaited my very first "special ed" class. The students arrived a moment later. My first surprise was that there were only two (both male). My second was that they were so gentle and curious.

This was a 7th grade English class and the boys' assignment was to write about the differences between our Thanksgiving celebration and the Pilgrims'. The boys mentioned some major differences in food, clothing, and housing. No Pilgrim watched football on TV nor did they spend the following day going Christmas shopping at the mall.

I added that the Pilgrims provided almost none of the food -- instead, they were the desperate recipients of food brought by kindly Native Americans. There were no frozen turkeys, fish, or hams -- any game had been freshly hunted, killed, dressed, and prepared only hours before. Nuts and cranberries had been gathered by hand. Nor was it an individual family gathering, as ours often are -- it involved the whole colony. Without the help of those hospitable Indians, many, if not all, in that small colony probably would not have survived. (Writing this, I am struck by the shift in focus: today, we think of Thanksgiving as a time to give thanks to a generous Creator -- but at that original feast, the most immediate focus must have been an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the native peoples who brought food to those frightened, weary strangers. Those native peoples, not the white man's God, were the ones deserving all the thanks. They were "have's," sharing their knowledge and bounty with "have-nots." How did we lose sight of the fact that it wasn't the white man's God who was responsible for the first Thanksgiving -- it was the red man's kindness. If only we had kept that focus, we would be a wiser, humbler, more humane nation today.)

The two boys started writing then. I helped with spelling and kept encouraging them. They were enjoying what they were doing and it showed. Twenty students was the average size of classes I had been with up until then. I honestly wasn't seeing that these two boys were any "slower" than most of the students in those larger classes! These two were certainly much more responsive. So just who were the ones in need of "special education"?

I have since subbed in quite a few "special ed" classes in a variety of schools and I'm seeing the same range of abilities there as in regular, mainstream classes. Maybe I'm missing some telltale diagnostic symtom but in general, and with a few notable exceptions, the "special ed" students are not only better motivated but also kinder to one another.

The class ended after 53 minutes and I said goodby to the boys. I could have happily spent the rest of the afternoon with them -- they were just the dearest little guys.

I then had a 25 minute lunch period followed by a 40 minute "prep" hour. I ate a tempeh sandwich I had made that morning and then spent the rest of the time wandering around the large classroom -- it had a homey, intimate feeling about it. There were small round tables scattered about, each with three or four chairs. There was a huge framed color photograph of a medieval Mediterreanean coastal town that took my breath away. I kept staring at it. I could almost have stepped into it, it seemed so real. I had asked the boys about it -- from its prominent position next to the blackboard, I assumed their teacher had often spoken about it, but the boys didn't know where it was. The room even had its own private bathroom and water dispenser -- what luxury!

I should mention that this was not an especially affluent area but it was a racially mixed and well educated one. There is a small, private Christian university there, which probably employs many of its people. I would need more information before I could argue that the presence of that university is a stronger factor in the education of the town's children than wealth. But it does make me wonder why major universities could not open branch campuses in those African-American communities where I had been subbing earlier in the month. Could part of the solution possibly be that simple? Probably not, but it might be worth a look.

Like many teachers, this one had posted her favorite "Sayings" around the room. One listed "Twenty Ways to Maintain a Healthy Level of Insanity." I loved it and regret that I didn't write them down. They were both humorous and sensible.

Another one, a quote from Albert Camus, I did write down:

In the midst of winter,
I finally learned
that there was in me
an invincible summer.

I resonate with that because I have been learning something similar from my subbing experiences.

At 1:48pm the last class of the day arrived for 6th grade math -- 5 students, one girl, 4 boys. Again, they were remarkable children. They helped one another -- the girl especially mothered the boys, who seemed younger than she. They quickly finished their math assignments and then turned to the room's computers, playing video games designed to increase hand-eye coordination. I watched them playing a game in which they had to thread a car through traffic jams -- any one of those children could have beaten me hands down.

The class ended at 2:36 pm and I said goodby to the five. Then I wrote their teacher a note telling her how much I had enjoyed her "gentle and curious" children. "If you ever need a sub again," I added, "please keep me in mind." Of course, I'll bet all her subs seek return engagements because her students are such a joy.

I turned off the lights, locked the door, signed out in the front office, and left the school. A mile away, as planned, I stocked up on all my organics at the local grocery, giving thanks in my own way for all the bounty, and then headed for home, feeling unusually relaxed and peaceful.

What would I do if I were in charge of this country? I would put *all* children into "special ed" classes of no more than 5-8 students (do-able as birth rates come down). I would establish small, specialized college-level schools within small towns across the country. To pay for nurturing such a sane educational system, I would close down all major military-industrial operations and shift the massive amounts of freed-up money not only to education but also to restoring our crumbling infrastructure and creating huge wind/solar/geothermal energy resources. Finally, I would give everyone a guaranteed, livable, annual income. Martin Luther King's various writings show brilliantly how and why this should be done (see, for example, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., pages 247-248; 409-410; 615-617). I know the devil's in the details but it's time we start taking such ideas seriously -- for far too long, our nation's bounty has been misdirected to the grasping hands of the super rich, the super "have's." Unfortunately, most of them have shown themselves psychologically and ethically incapable of being responsible stewards of such bounty.

Thornton Wilder's Dolly Levi has it right. In his play, The Matchmaker (from which the film, Hello, Dolly was taken), she says to the rich, meanspirited merchant, Horace Vandergelder, "Horace, money's like manure -- it's not worth shit unless it's s-p-r-e-a-d around, helping young things grow."

It's time to start spreading it around, nurturing the precious, creative, life-giving "young thing" growth within each of us.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

#7: Journal Notes on Subbing Assignment for 19 November 2007

This 8th grade English Language Arts assignment was for a different school but in the same city as my very first assignment on October 30, 2007. The regular teacher and some of her colleagues were visiting grocery stores that day to solicit turkeys and hams for Thanksgiving baskets for local families. This was an annual event and the teachers enjoyed being part of it (the school was primarily African-American; she was white -- and like many teachers of both races there, deeply committed to her work with these children and their families). From time to time, they would be bringing the food back to a central collection point in the school. This meant that the regular teacher would be dropping in and out of her classroom, so we had a chance to talk beforehand as well as to connect throughout the day. I liked her -- she was young, brisk, down to earth, no-nonsense.

Her large classroom was pleasant and airy. Well chosen "Sayings" were posted on the walls and there were lots of books arranged in tall shelves, especially at the back of the room. She showed me around the room and explained where the textbooks were. I was to put them out on each desk before class and return them at the end of the day. I wondered how students did their homework if they couldn't take their books home. I have since learned that many schools now keep textbooks as their own property. Assignments, if any, are worksheets xeroxed from the books. I thought of the boxes of books I have from my own school days -- books I still treasure for the memories they evoke. That's been lost to these kids.

An unfortunate side effect is that the kids take no pride in such "communal property" -- they doodle in the books, scribble four-letter words in them, break their spines, drop them on the floor, and kick them under their desks. The books are actually handsomely produced -- huge, quite heavy (my arms ache from holding them), well-illustrated, and printed on expensive, heavyweight, glossy paper. Each one represents a considerable investment. Yet in school after school, I see them being trashed -- it doesn't matter which course -- science, English, geography -- you name it. Frankly, I think that if publishers made books smaller, lighter (and thus easier to carry in a backpack), and costing a mere fraction of what they do now, kids, schools, and books would all be better off. Students deserve to have their own personal, affordable textbooks. Great production values are praiseworthy, but not if no one's appreciating them. Publishers of expensive, overly elaborate, too-heavy books are out of touch with today's realities.

Besides major items like books, I'm also attentive to the "little things" in a classroom. Most classrooms have a box or two of kleenex around (it's always flu season in Michigan) and usually an antibacterial liquid or gel dispenser. Here, there was no anti-biotic and only a roll of rough toilet paper on the teacher's desk. Her chair was a plain orange plastic one -- no wheels, no swivel, no padded seat, nothing. I didn't mind (I usually don't sit much when I sub) but I knew I was in a school that was poorly funded -- and in a blighted area that deserves so much better.

Usually, I have found that teachers either teach several subjects or else different age groups, which means there is variety in assignments throughout the day. Here, each class was identical (except for the last class, where students were to read silently with no input from me). The day's theme was friendship. Students were to begin by reading a Robert Frost poem aloud. Then they were to continue reading aloud from an excerpt from Maya Angelou's *Caged Bird* about the friendship between a child and an older woman who understood how gifted the child was. Finally, they were to write down answers to five questions based on the readings.

The Robert Frost poem was the first hurdle. It involves a farmer hoeing his field when he hears a neighbor ride by on a horse. The neighbor slows down to talk and the farmer, although he has tons of work to do, willingly sets down his hoe and crosses the field to chat with his friend. Neither man has any regrets about his choice.

Well, "hoe" means one thing to me but quite another thing to today's black youngsters. It's not as if I hadn't seen this coming. A few breaths before the boy who was reading came to the fated word, my inner alarm bells went off. I hoped the mood Frost had created would carry us through but knew there might be trouble. And there was. The room erupted in bedlam, everyone giggling and getting rowdy. It took time to get them settled again.

Eventually, once they calmed down, I was able to tell them a little about Maya Angelou, a woman I greatly admire. Then I turned to the next student and asked him to begin reading. He sat at his desk, hunched over, and read in a barely audible voice. I stopped him -- "No, you need to stand up, honey, and speak loudly. We need to hear you."

He lurched uncomfortably to his feet but his voice was as soft as before. There was no expression, nothing. I stopped him again and briefly demonstrated what I was looking for. It did no good. So I let him finish and turned to the next student.

It was excruciating, both for them and for me. I found the lack of expression most disturbing because it indicated they were only reading words, not thoughts. A few knew how to read with at least a hint of feeling but most read like automatons. Their only desire was to get it over with so they could sit down again. Some refused to stand at all. They sat where they were, mumbling the words while their classmates acted up around them, making so much noise that the reader couldn't have been heard anyway.

And these were 8th graders. I have heard poor readers before but nothing like this. What's going to happen to these kids, I kept wondering to myself.

[Note: for more data on this issue, see below for a May 12, 2008 report from ScienceDaily as well as Hope Clark's February 2008 essay on the crucial importance of reading to children.]

The next class was even worse. I had to shout so much during that hour that the pressure in my head caused a nosebleed! That's never happened before! I went off to one side, fumbled for my kleenex, and desperately fought to stem the flow. Somehow I managed and no one noticed, but I was quite worried because my body had never before reacted to the stress of subbing like that.

By the 4th hour, I was reading them the Frost poem myself and there wasn't a single titter. On my lips, apparently, the word triggered nothing unusual. The youngsters were quieter that hour too, which was a great relief, but by the time they returned for 6th hour (for silent reading), they had turned into demons. One of the boys even regaled the others with a brief rap about me -- it's a good thing I didn't understand the lingo because, from the boys' nervous laughter (and complaints addressed to them from some of the girls, who objected to the rap's content), I don't think the words referring to me were very "nice." By then, honestly, I no longer cared.

I kept walking around the room during that 6th hour, trying to keep everyone focused on their silent reading. One boy called to me, "Miss, can you help me with a foreign word?" I went to him and asked what the word was. "I don't know how to say it," he said. "Something like la-ki-shorah." I asked him to write it down and he did, forming the letters carefully.

"Lakeshore," I said. "You've written 'Lakeshore.'" The boy and the males around him broke into loud, guilty laughter. "It's just lakeshore," I said, bewildered. Had they never heard the term before? How could I best define something so obvious? "It's a beach along a lake, a lakeshore -- you know, where people build cottages, have picnics, or go for a walk along Lake Michigan. What on earth is so darn funny about that? Drive fifteen minutes from here and you'll see *miles* of lakeshore!"

The boys were laughing even louder. Several girls turned around and glared at them. Then one of the girls looked at me and I think she was as irritated with me as with the boys. "Miss," she said tersely, "it's a gang name." She turned back and faced the front of the room. That took me aback. I briefly chewed out those hopelessly childish males. "Grow up," I concluded scornfully, and walked away. (I later mentioned the "Lakeshore Incident" to their teacher, along with Frost's "hoe." She was startled and said she'd make sure such things never happened again.)

When their teacher came in from time to time, the room would grow quiet. She would scold them for all the noise they had been making before they saw her, but within moments of her departure, the room would be as unruly as before. I chalked it up to my own introverted personality and inexperience with this age group, but I've since been told by many regular teachers that it has nothing to do with that -- it's just how they treat subs.

Many of these schools have so many other serious problems that they simply don't have the energy to teach students how to behave around subs. Of course, subs could always send students to detention, but I have only done that two or three times over the past seven months and only when I was really at my wits' end. I don't see that detention helps kids. OK, so they eventually get expelled for a day or two, maybe even a week -- but how does that help? They need to be IN school, learning, not pissing away their educational opportunities. How does detention solve anything? It makes no sense to me.

There have to be better answers and many of them need to start with parents who, unfortunately, often have little or no parenting skills. Why then did they have children if they were unwilling or unable to commit themselves to a very difficult, often tedious, exasperating, maddening task? I find that hard to understand.

I, for example, knew by the time I was twenty that I would have very poor parenting skills to offer a child. I'm not patient enough. I'm an introvert. I need a lot of space and time for myself. I need quiet and a relatively germ-free environment since I catch colds easily and just as easily sink into melodramatic misery. I become a Greta Garbo: "I vant to be alone!" Children tend not to understand parameters like that until they're at least fifty. Since I could never wait that long, my offspring would be constantly pushing my buttons and we would all become nervous wrecks. Or worse.

From what I have observed, a great many human beings are exactly like me. We simply do not make good parents. We are on this planet for other reasons. We should therefore NOT take the kind of chances that might wind up making us parents. Period. I knew that early on. This is proven by the fact that despite all my extraordinary precautions, the few times in my 20's when I thought I was pregnant felt like a genuine death sentence. Fortunately, either I wasn't pregnant or else extreme stress caused an early miscarriage. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't still be here today.

After all this, it might surprise readers to know that I'm actually quite good with kids because it's easy for me to morph into one of them (subs, of course, aren't paid to do that, so I have to shoe-horn myself into various expected adult roles). They and I both do "magical thinking." I love dragons, for example. So do they. Yet I still need my space. I'd probably be a wonderful aunt, but my three younger siblings, for their own reasons, never had children. Our line dies with us, which is fine with me -- and, presumably, with them. By now, I think most humans know deep down that there are too many of us on this planet. We are exhausting Mother Earth. We have been far too reckless with our seed. We need to be wiser, for the sake of all.

Thus, what I find difficult to grasp is why others exactly like me wind up having so many kids. I cannot fathom why they would let themselves -- to say nothing of their poor kids -- in for such a lengthy, painful karmic mess. The most disheartening thing I have heard from a regular teacher in the past seven months came from a woman on one of my return visits this spring to the school near the nuclear reactor (see #4: Notes for November 9, 2007). She said that several of her senior girls had recently told her that they intended to be pregnant before Graduation Day. "Why?" I asked her, deeply shocked. She replied tiredly that getting Welfare was how they planned to support themselves after they left school.

I could only groan. Twelve years of public school education and nothing -- nothing! -- has inspired them to dream anything bigger than that?! Their parents and our wretched test-driven educational system have tragically failed these young women and the men who'll father their babies. Our leaders have squandered our wealth on a "war of choice" and left too many of our young with empty futures. This isn't education. It's madness.

To judge by what I experienced during that November 19, 2007 assignment, most parents today can't be bothered to read to their kids. If any pregnant teenagers are reading this, at the barest minimum, people, READ to your kids. Discuss meanings and implications with them. Try to nourish bigger dreams for them than were nourished for you -- and perhaps discover more of your own along the way. Stint on other things if you simply can't cope, but at least READ to them. Otherwise, they're doomed and, trust me, they'll haunt you down through the ages and you'll have major regrets. It's not worth it.

Anyway, back to that day's 8th graders: for my own sanity, I tried simply to enjoy them. One on one, they're very engaging, creative, funny kids (I did have trouble understanding the black dialect but black teachers have told me they have the same problem). Enjoying them was no help, however -- they just got worse. So I resorted to being very stern, which did help, but only a little, and at too high a price. Truly, it's exhausting to act so stern. I'm not Sister Euphemia, a 6' tall, stern Dominican nun who taught highschool Latin when I was a student in the mid-late 50's. For each hour I have to act stern, I think my face winds up with another five years worth of wrinkles and my heart just wants to give up. Subs aren't paid much above minimum wage -- less when you factor in gas prices to get to a school and back. It's not worth it.

Over all, it was a terrible day. Dragging myself through the same dull assignment, hour after hour, made me think the day would never end. I felt trapped in a time-loop. The closecall with the nosebleed also continued to nag at me -- my body could hardly have given me a clearer signal. She did not like being in that place at all.

I finally wrote in my notes:
Do NOT come here for 8th grade again. Very out of control.

Months later, in the spring of 2008, I relented, curious to know if it would be easier now that I have had more experience with a wider number of schools. To change the dynamic, I even envisioned rearranging the classroom from standard-desks-in-rows to desks in a large circle. I thought that might work really well and I was eager to see if I was right. So at the beginning of May, I signed up for a 2-day assignment for the same teacher but, oddly, had to cancel it due to unexpected out-of-town company. A few weeks later, I accepted a one-day assignment for her, but wound up feverish with an exhausting flu, so again had to cancel. I think my body really did not wish to re-visit those 8th grade students.

For them, the school year is over now and they'll be 9th graders by autumn. That means they'll be bussed to one of an assortment of area highschools. My idea of desks in a circle and everyone clearly projecting their words as they read will have to wait for another group.

Monday, May 26, 2008

#6: Children Better Prepared For School If Their Parents Read Aloud To Them

Today I am going to pause in posting my personal Subbing/Grubbing notes in order to address an issue of enormous importance: the value of reading to children.

FIRST, I am including a May 12, 2008 report from *Science Daily.* Here is the link to the online article (the page includes related links to other articles involving children reading, the value of talking to themselves, etc):

And here is the brief article:

Children Better Prepared For School If Their Parents
Read Aloud To Them

ScienceDaily (May 12, 2008) — Young children whose parents read aloud to them have better language and literacy skills when they go to school, according to a review published online ahead of print in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Children who have been read aloud to are also more likely to develop a love of reading, which can be even more important than the head start in language and literacy. And the advantages they gain persist, with children who start out as poor readers in their first year of school likely to remain so.

In addition, describing pictures in the book, explaining the meaning of the story, and encouraging the child to talk about what has been read to them and to ask questions can improve their understanding of the world and their social skills.

The review brings together a wide range of published research on the benefits of reading aloud to children. It also includes evidence that middle class parents are more likely to read to their children than poorer families.

The authors explain that the style of reading has more impact on children's early language and literacy development than the frequency of reading aloud. Middle class parents tend to use a more interactive style, making connections to the child's own experience or real world, explaining new words and the motivations of the characters, while working class parents tend to focus more on labelling and describing pictures. These differences in reading styles can impact on children's development of language and literacy-related skills.

The Reach Out and Read programme in Boston has improved the language skills of children in low income families by increasing the proportion of parents reading to their children.

The programme provides books and advice to the parents about the importance of reading aloud. Parents who have been given books were four times more likely to say they had looked at books with their children or that looking at books was one of their child's favourite activities, and twice as likely to read aloud to their children at least three times a week.

Adapted from materials provided by BMJ-British Medical Journal, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.


SECOND, following that thought-provoking report from ScienceDaily, I am posting (with her permission) Hope Clark's gentle, sensible essay on reading to children from February 3, 2008, "Passing It Forward":

Volume 8, Issue 5
February 3, 2008
Editor: C. Hope Clark
Web Site:
FFW Small Markets is an opt-in letter here at your leisure.


We are what we read. Our children become what they read. The
world is so enrapt in online bulleted and graphic material
today, however, that reading text is becoming old-fashioned.
A world of instant gratification, as created by electronics,
makes it hard for young people to sit down over the course
of a few days and (gasp) sit still to read an entire book.
As adults, we are remiss and a major part of the problem.
For instance, have you read the books your child is reading?
Ever considered reading them and having discussions about
plot, character and societal impact of the story? Ever thought
about him reading aloud to you - you reading aloud to him?

When a child sees how excitedly an adult reads, he wants to
emulate. When adults recite passages, story twists and settings
of intriguing books, the child respects reading. Because the
adult loves the written word, the child wants to love it.

Read this piece from a UK online publication titled The
Telegraph, about children, books and the love of reading.

Teaching our children to love stories begins with surrounding
them with good stories. This article lists 100 books for each
of three age groups, and labels them as must-reads.

Do you remember being read to? If you do, bless your heart.
I bet you have warm memories of the stories, the voice, the
individual attention of someone telling you a story. You
probably remember those stories into your adulthood. The
Velveteen Rabbit, Where the Wild Things Are, Yertle the
Turtle and Winnie-the-Pooh. You know the tales.

But childhood reading shouldn't end with bedtime stories for
toddlers. Sharing stories should continue into the older years.
Even if you do not read to your teen, at least know what he
is reading and be able to discuss it with him. Quote passages,
even if it's gore from Stephen King's Pet Cemetery.

Not only does reading create memories, but it exercises the
mind. It empowers a child to write. It provides fodder for
his everyday life, his conversations into adulthood, his
credibility as an intelligent human being, his job and his
personal life.

I read to my husband when we drive, sit on the back porch,
or have a drink on the sofa late in the afternoon. Sometimes
it's the news, and at other times it's my fiction. When
we dated, I read poetry over the phone. It's amazing how
reading the Book of Solomon from the Old Testament can spark
a relationship with a beau.

Get back to reading. Show a child how glorious the worlds
are between cardboard covers.

Hope Clark


With these two articles as background, I will soon follow (in a post that will appear above this one) with my Journal Notes for the 19 November 2007 subbing assignment, for that is where I came to understand firsthand how desperately impaired many of our children are when it comes to reading.