Friday, August 22, 2014

What I did on my summer vacation

How was your summer?  I asked for about the 92nd time today.  We'd staggered the kids' arrivals back to school, with freshmen coming on Monday, sophomores on Tuesday, and juniors and seniors on Wednesday.

The older kids always came in taller and skinnier than they'd left.

"Aight," said Shawn, "Boring," said Katie, and "Too short," said Brianna, smiling at me.

I smiled back.  And I know you're so happy to be back at school.  You look happy.  I just know you want to do some Algebra.

"Stop," said Katie.  "I hate math."

You love math, I said.  Don't lie.

Shawn smiled then.  "You right," she said.  "Algebra II.  Bring it.  Anything's better than the last couple months."

I stepped out and began to wander in and out of classrooms.  I do that a lot during the first few days of school; it's one of the first things they teach you in administrator school: be highly visible.  Everybody likes to know somebody's in charge.  The freshmen were adorable: so scared.  You need to enjoy these weeks, when they're scared, because the minute they settle in, they start smelling themselves and you spend more time on them than anybody else.  I hit a senior class. They're my favorite because I can still see the fourteen-year-olds they used to be.

They were working alone at computers, so I wandered in and out of the rows, asking them questions about their work and asking them how their summer was.

"Fantastic," said Christopher.  "I played ball all summer."  Christopher was a star basketball player on Varsity.

"You know what I did?" said Kendall.  "I went hunting."

Wait, I said.  Did you say hunting?


Like deer?  Are you telling me you shot Bambi?

"Nah," he said.  "Rabbits.  And a squirrel."

For the first time today, I was speechless.  You shot a squirrel, I repeated.  Did you cook it?

"Nope," Kendall said.  "It wouldn't die.  I shot it twice, too, but it just kept running.  We cooked the rabbits, though.  I was with my uncle and he was teaching me how to live off the land.  He said it's how they survived when they didn't have any money and I wanted to learn how."

Huh, I said.  You cooked at ate rabbits.  I don't think I've ever met anybody who's ever done that.

"I went to Navy Pier," said Christopher.

"Yes," Kendall broke in.  "I ate rabbits."

Where did you hunt these rabbits? I asked.

"I don't know, somewhere in the suburbs."

It was the second time he'd left me speechless.

"I was up at Navy Pier for a basketball camp," said Christopher again.  He named some Bulls player whose name I didn't recognize.  I'd stopped following basketball after Jordan retired.  To tell the truth, I can probably only name about three current NBA players: Lebron, D-Rose, and  Joakim Noah.  I like him because I really like his hair.  "He was there to help us kids play ball, and when he asked for a volunteer, I popped up."

How'd you do?

"I kept hitting air and he told me to use the backboard. I was so terrible but it was awesome."

Kendall broke in, "We roasted the rabbits.  With carrots and potatoes.  They were really good."

Carrots?  I said, chuckling, then realized he wasn't being ironic.

Christopher broke in again: "Oh.  And? I met Bill Cartwright."  Now, Bill Cartwright I knew.  He'd played for the Bulls back when we were good.  That's a team where I could name every player.  Christopher pulled out his phone and showed me a picture.  "He was at Ms. Biscuit.  Prater says he knew him but I think he's lying."

I wandered into a Spanish class.  They had a sub because we've been having a hard time finding a decent teacher.  I had high hopes, though.  "Yo, where's Miss G?" asked Kiara.

I shrugged.  She took another job.  She wanted to be closer to home, to the baby.

"And Miss P?"  This line of questioning begins every school year.  There's a high teacher turnover rate in the city.  Lots of people begin their careers here, gain experience, and then shift out to a job in the suburbs where the pay is higher and they're less like to get mugged.

She took another job too, I said.  Kiara looked like she wanted to cry.  It's not that she didn't love all of you, I added.  She just needed to do what was right for herself.  I've been here for a long time, but someday I might move on too if life took me somewhere new.

"You best not," said Kiara.

Not right now.  Right now, this school is close to my house, I love you guys, and I love my job.

"Wait," said Brianna.  "You live close?  Where?  Party at Miss B's!"

I've missed you guys, I said.  School is so boring in the summertime without you here.

"I missed you too," said Kiara.  "I mean it."

I made it back to the main office just as William walked in.  William is one of our recent grads.  Last year he got a freshman girl pregnant so he comes back up to school every so often to see her.  Even so, I hadn't seen him in months, so I gave him a huge hug immediately.

"Can I talk to you?" he said.

We went back into my office and he started telling me about his summer job and the babies and how he changed his mind and decided to go to college.  "I want to do better," he said.

That's wonderful, I replied.  What changed?

"Do you remember on the news this summer?  That shooting at the night club?  That was my brother."

Your actual brother or your play brother? I asked.

"My real brother.  Same Mama and Daddy.  My whole brother.  My only brother."

I'd never seen such a look on his face in all the years I'd known him.  See, the thing about William is he's a guy who always laughs.  He likes to rhyme and he's a quick thinker, and so he's always got a group of laughing people around him.  What happened? I asked.

"He got in a fight," he said.  "He won that fight, and when the guy knew he couldn't beat him, he went and he got a gun and he shot him.  He shot him.  He shot my brother."

I'm so sorry, I said.  You were close?  But they were.  I knew they were, because I remembered now how many times he'd told me about his older brother.

"It's funny," he answered instead.  "You hear about the murders in Chicago, and it's sad, and it's awful, but for the most part you can ignore it.  You can keep your head down and go to work and try not to let it get you.  But sometimes it just hits too close."

I nodded.  We'd lost a student at our school last year, and over the last three years at least five of our kids had been shot in the leg, one by cops.  He was running away from a crime scene and must have looked guilty.  You know how many gun injuries are in the leg?  A lot, especially when the shooter is inexperienced. The kick from the gun makes the bullet go down.

"It's the kind of thing that you have to ignore until you can't," he said.  "I've been crying all summer."

How's your mom? I asked softly.

He smiled.  "She's fine.  She's strong.  And I'm fine too.  And now I've got my transcripts and I'm going to enroll in Kennedy King and I'm going to take care of my kids and I'm going to do better."  He looked up then.  "What's wrong?  Smile.  You need to smile.  You can't be looking at me like that.  I'm okay.  We're all okay."

Sure, I said.  Sure.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Three Kings

"I asked for everything.  XBox One, PS4, iPod, iPad, everything."

Right, I said.  And what did you put on your regular list?  You know, for your relatives who don't have a million dollars?

He shook his head.  "I don't think about that.  If I thought about who couldn't afford things, Christmas wouldn't be any fun.  All I do is build my list, ask for what I really want, and if I get it, I'm happy.  And if I don't get it, I'm still happy.  Because it's still presents."   

Triston was on intervention.  He had to come to my office every day so I could make sure he was in school. 

"Listen to him," said Jose.  Jose had an attendance problem too, but ever since I started promising him free candy at the end of every perfect week, he'd been there every single day.  

"What?" said Triston.  "I like nice stuff."  He flipped to his sheet in my book and put a sticker in today's square.

Jose laughed.  "You only like that stuff because you don't have to work for it.  I've got a job. Spoiled."

Listen to you, I said.  I'm sure you like presents too.  What did you ask for?

"Nothing," said Jose.  "I work for what I have."

You don't celebrate Christmas?  How about Three Kings?

"Both," he said.  "We celebrate both."

"What's Three Kings?" said Triston.

"It's like ..." Jose paused a moment.  "You know how you don't get everything you want for Christmas?  You get it on Three Kings."

I laughed, and I made him explain how it was because of the gifts of the Magi and it was a big holiday in Mexico.

"Oh yeah," Jose said.  "Los Reyes Magos.  And Baby Jesus.  But really, it's the presents you don't get."

Triston thought hard for a moment.  "Oh," he said.  "I just made the connection.  We still have Three Kings here.  Except they call it Tax Day.  Refund!  Presents!  What? What?"

Go to class, I said.  You Maniacs.

They both grabbed a Reese's.  I always kept candy on my desk because I'm not above bribing children to do the right thing.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Room of One's Own: For Your Wonder Walls

from the busy mockingbird

The internet feeds my soul, because there is such easy access to working artists across the world.  I've taken about three good photographs in my entire life, which is possibly why I'm so drawn to some of these artists.  So, I thought I'd collect a few here and share them with the world.

Interesting.  I just pulled up all of the artists I want to share and realized something: they're all women.

First is Mica Angelica Hendricks, or the Busy Mockingbird.  Hendricks is an illustrator with a four-year-old daughter, and when her daughter insisted that Hendricks share her art one day, a partnership was born that is just stunning.  Mom draws faces, and her daughter fills in the rest.  Mom then takes the drawing and colors it in.  The result is surrealistic art that Dali would have envied.

Next is Maja Daniels, and her series of photographs entitled Monette & Mady.  While living in Paris, Daniels happened upon a pair of identical twins who dressed the same every day.  I want to know everything about them.

Julia Kozerski is a young woman whose photographs are almost completely focused around self-portraiture. Kozerski's series Changing Room is a chronicle of her weight loss through a series of photos in mirrors.  Start there, and then move on to Half, the series that just gutted me.  A weight loss success story looks a lot different when all the clothes come off.  Go ahead, click it, and then cry with me.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Remember Remember the 5th of November

I always think of my Uncle Teddy on Guy Fawkes Day.

My Uncle Ted was a bona-fide hero, but I never thought about that when he was around because he was always too busy making us laugh.  They called him Beady-Eyed Baader, because he often saw the enemy planes coming before the radar picked them up.  No kidding.  He tell his wingman there was a bogey on their two o'clock and seconds later, the radar would beep.

Uncle Ted receiving a medal.
Nobody in the family has seen this photo before.
I just found it.  On the internet.

Uncle Teddy saw combat in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, but that was never what he talked about. More often, his stories were about things like how they learned not to use heat-seeking missles around camels or the time the guy in his squadron discovered that methane gas was still gas and that it wasn't a good idea to light your farts on fire.  All your hair will burn right off, even your eyebrows.  When I was a child, I spent hours imagining the logistics of that escapade.

I'm pretty sure that was his intention in telling it to me.  To be sure, Uncle Teddy loved a tall tale.

My Dad's birthday is on January 1st, and at midnight on New Year's Eve every year, the phone would ring and it would be Uncle Teddy.  In about thirty seconds, my Dad would burst into peals of laughter and wouldn't stop until he hung up the phone.  "What did he tell you?" I'd always ask, but my Dad would shake his head.  "I can't repeat it, honey."  (That only made me want to know even more.)

Uncle Ted is the guy on the right.  He always looked like he was about to laugh.
I just found this photo after searching a little while on the internet.
(I can't wait to show my Dad.)

And then there's my favorite story.  When he was a young man, he was stationed in Stratford with his family.  One foggy November evening, he left the base for home (in a 1950 Ford, my Dad is always careful to note) and he came across the bridge.

Then: BOOM!

He was so startled he drove himself straight into a ditch.  "What the...?" he yelled into the darkness.  (I'm sure he added more colorful invective, but when he told this story to a fourteen-year-old me, he edited a bit.)

More firecrackers went off.  Out of nowhere, a gang of young men appeared wearing masks and carrying torches.  He had no idea what was going on that November fifth (See Gunpowder, treason, and plot if you don't know about Guy Fawkes either).

A typical Guy Fawkes Day mask

"Oy, Yank!"  they shouted as they ran through the fog.  "It's Guy Fawkes Day!"

That's why I always remember my Uncle Ted on the fifth of November.  Because, as he said, only he could survive three Pacific wars only to get blown off the road by drunk Englishmen.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Add It Up

"Well, you know, some part of this is they don't have their priorities intact," he said.  "They're spending moey on iPhones when they need to be buying calculators."

I looked at him, considered a moment, and instead walked away.  

I've learned not to engage.  I always thought to myself that if a guy like that saw what I saw every day, there's no way that he could think like that, but no. He works here.  He interacts daily with our children and our parents and he still believes in his rhetoric.

Yes, our children have cell phones.  They have to.

Once I was observing a math class that wasn't going very well.  The teacher was in his first year, and he had some real characters in the room.  One of the boys, Chuy, sat in the back row and took his cell phone out in the middle of the lesson.  I waited for the teacher to react.  He didn't see because he was busy coaxing a couple of girls in the front of the room who were talking through his lesson to try the next problem.  "I don't get this!" they were telling him.  "You don't know how to teach."  

And still Chuy texted.  In fact, he leaned over, showed his friend his screen, and started laughing.

I try not to discipline students in a teacher's classroom because that undercuts their authority, but this was too much.  I  stood in front of Chuy's desk and held out my hand.

"Aw, no!" he said.  "I didn't mean to.  I'll put it away, I swear."  Chuy liked to come and talk to me over his lunch breaks, and it was clear that he thought I'd let this one slide because he was one of my favorites.

Still, I held out my hand.  Even my favorites had to give up their cell phones.  Especially them.

But he wasn't ready to give up.  He looked down at his desk, saw his math work, and looked up. "I was just using the calculator.  See?"  He pointed to his math, but the screen flashed in the motion.  He wasn't.  He'd been texting jokes, and a goofy picture was on the screen.

I waited, my hand out.  Eventually he handed me the phone, I sat back down, and the teacher continued the lesson.

After school that day, when Chuy walked in, I was ready for him.  His grades were up on my screen, and I was counting the Fs.  

"I know," he said.  

Do you? I asked.

"I've already gone and got my work.  It's a long weekend, and I'll get it all done, I promise."

It was a long weekend, but we had a policy of not returning phones to anyone but parents.  His mother would have to come up to school for a discussion.

He pulled his books out of his bookbag and started showing me what he had done.  "I swear.  I'm going to do it.  I just ... I can't go home without that phone.  Not this weekend.  Not this one.  It's too long, and I need it."  He sent me a sidelong look.  "And also, I use my phone for a calculator.  So if you don't give it to me, I can't do my Math."

Stop playing, I scolded.

He straightened up.   "I'm serious now.  I can't go home.  Don't make me leave this building without that phone.  I'll have no protection on the streets."

Now, this is the kind of time when you look at a kid and you can see it in their eyes that they're not bullshitting.  Chuy needed that phone, and he was scared to go home without it.  He wouldn't explain why, either, just repeated that he needed it.

So, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I decided to give the kid a break.  I pulled his phone out of my desk drawer (it was rubberbanded to keep the battery on), and put it on the desk.  I need some promises, I said.


So I made him promise that he'd talk to his Math teacher before leaving to get his missing assignments, that he'd spend the weekend doing them, and that he'd check in with me on Monday to discuss his progress. "This is your life," I told him.  "You're running out of time to turn this around."  We'd been talking all week about applying to colleges and how important his junior year was.

"I know.  I promise.  I swear."  

"Do you pinky swear?" I asked, and stuck out my pinky.  The toughest kids in the world know what it is to pinky swear and won't do it unless they mean it.  

Chuy stuck out his pinky, and we linked.  I handed him back his phone, and he bounded out of my office.  "Peace out!" He yelled, just before slamming the door.

The next day, Chuy was shot and killed by somebody who lived on the other side of 47th Street.  He'd been walking home from the store because his mother needed something for Thanksgiving dinner and he went to buy it for her.  He had his phone on him when he died, thank God.  I'd have never forgiven myself if he hadn't.

So yes.  I can understand why a parent would choose to buy a phone before buying a calculator. 

Calculators can't dial 911.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

In Defense of Kim (No, Really)

Tonight I ran to the Walgreens and the line was ridiculously long, so it was almost impossible to miss this magazine cover (I snapped the photo with my phone, so forgive the poor quality.):

Please consider this my open letter to Star Magazine.

Dear Star,

I understand that celebrities are your raison d'etre.  I also understand that you need to sell magazines every week, and Kardashians sell.  I get that.  I do.


When I was an undergraduate and didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up, I took a class in journalism.  We talked about libel and slander and how it's more difficult to prove when you're famous, because when you're a public figure, you must open yourself up to criticism simply by virtue of being famous.  We looked at all kinds of case studies and somewhere in the course of all of this study, I walked away with one thing: all a publication needs to do to defend itself is to prove an absence of malice.

We didn't intend harm by publishing this, they say, and so you can't sue us.  And so it goes.

But here's the thing:  this magazine cover is an act of pure malice.  There is intent to harm here.  You are making fun of the figure of a woman who is growing a tiny human inside of her.  That tiny human requires nutrients, and when it gets those nutrients, it will grow.  And as she grows, her mother's only job is to keep her healthy.  That sometimes means getting fatter than you ever thought you'd be.

But when a magazine cover focuses on the expectant mother's weight gain, and the mother is as image conscious as our Kim, what do you think the result will be?

She will:
a) Brush it off because she's used to this by now and knows you are all a bunch of weasels.
b) Stew over this throughout the pregnancy and react with a crash diet that makes similar headlines over her fantastic post-pregnancy shape.  And then, while her daughter is growing, raise her with unrealistic expectations of body image.
c) Internalize this hurt that you're surely causing and start dieting.  Dieting, while growing a tiny human inside of her.  Gosh, your little headline is starting to have huge ramifications, isn't it?

I'm hoping for the first one, that she's come to the conclusion that you're rodent-adjacent, and will come out of this stronger than she went in.  That's certainly true of many women I've known who've become mothers.  But Kim?  Kim isn't known for her good choices.

Especially when it comes to her clothing.  Make fun of those ugly pants she was photographed in a few weeks ago, because god knows she needs to burn them, but leave her weight alone.

Because here's the other thing: every time you create this unrealistic expectation in celebrity culture, you are creating the same expectation in the women who read your magazine.  And let's face it: they're aren't the brightest bulbs to begin with if they think there's much truth behind your lurid headlines.  These women reproduce, and you've just given them a very skewed picture of what it means to grow a tiny human inside of you.

Stop.  Just stop.  Because there's a fresh place in hell just waiting for the likes of you.

Yr. mt. obd. & hmbl. svt.,

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


"What are you looking at?"

I nearly jumped out of my chair at that.  I'd been alone in my office late in the day and had just finished my last report when I began browsing the headlines.  And I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for a good headline.  This one read "Boy Charged With Killing Baby is 1000% Not Guilty."  I mean, would you leave that news story unread?

So of course I was reading it and Marcus, as he is wont to do, walked silently in my office and was staring at my computer screen before he announced his presence.

No, I said.  Just no.  You can't walk in my office and scare the bejeesus out of me, Marcus.  Go back out that door and knock.

"But you know I'm here," he said.  "What's the point?"

The point is it's polite.  You can't scare people.

"You was scared?"

Knock, Marcus.  Knock.  And I gave him my best teacher look.  Just because I'm not in the classroom anymore doesn't mean that they don't still know it when I mean it.

So he did, because he enjoys it just a little too much when I scold him.  Then he came back and made himself at home. "We good?" he asked.

Yes, I said.  But only kind of.  You need to knock every time.

"I really scared you?"

You were silent, and you walked up behind me when I thought I was alone.  What do you think you did?

"I didn't think I was silent.  I really scared you?  You're scary."  He laughed.

Now, when kids at my school announce that I'm scary, it doesn't mean that they think I'm a monster.  It means they think I'm scared and I'd better get over it.  The last thing I am is scary, I said.  I just don't like silent people who walk in without knocking.

"So what are you looking at?" he asked again, and I showed him the article about the kid who shot the baby who was 1000% not guilty.  "Oh, yeah, I heard about that one.  They shot the baby in front of the father."

No, I said.  I knew exactly which one he meant, because everybody was talking about it, but this one was in Georgia.  The one in Chicago was where they were changing the diaper in the car and they did a driveby to get the dad but hit the baby instead.  Georgia was the mom and the baby in a stroller.

But he was fixated on Chicago.  "So they was after the dad and not the baby?  That's not so bad."

I just looked at him.

"It's not.  They didn't mean to hit the baby.  That's different than aiming for the baby and shooting it."

And I supposed he was right.  I mean, if you discount everything about precious lives and sweet-smelling feet and toothless smiles lost, there was a difference.  A driveby is different than deliberately aiming for the baby and shooting him in the face.  It's a long time since I thought to myself that anywhere was worse than Chicago for violence, but we may have found a winner.  Georgia.  Who knew?

But Marcus was still thinking.  "Did the dad die in that one and the baby lived?  That's messed up.  They should shoot that dad.  He should have died, not the baby."

Then again, perhaps not.  I couldn't make him walk outside and knock again for that one, though.  Some things you just can't redo.