Thursday, November 29, 2007


In the midst of all the reports and test scores I have examined over the last few weeks, the best evidence that reading and writing skills are slipping away from my students is right in front of me. To me, since the Thanksgiving break, the steep decline in skills and attention is palpable. This is the time of year when everyone’s energy is flagging. We all hate each other at school, and wish we could be left alone. No one wants to answer in class, be tested on anything, read books, or complete assignments. I do not want to grade papers or reread books for teaching. We all need a huge television set, a soft couch, and all our food brought to us courtesy of our favorite restaurant. It is holiday burnout.

My seniors are frantically putting finishing touches on their application essays. Some of them have had me read three and four drafts. It is the most important piece of writing they have done, and therefore many of them are well into the writing process. Others are beginning their efforts on only the first draft. The heartbreaking thing is when I have read several drafts and the student is still way off the mark. I try to be encouraging, but time is so short. Many of them resist the urge to write about themselves; they think it is narcissistic. I try to explain that this is what the colleges expect because they want to know more about them as potential students. In fact, as they write, they need to be cognizant of that: every story or experience must somehow add to their profile as potential students.

Today, they took an essay test on the first fifteen cantos of Dante’s Inferno. This is a test I postponed before the Thanksgiving break due to all the events and schedule interruptions. The problem is that today was not really a better day for them. Many of them were up late working on the college essay. They were desperate to use their books and notes to write the exam, but I told them no. They had to do this one like the AP exam—forty minutes with a blank piece of paper. I felt bad about that, but they need the practice. It is that constant dilemma between the way real writers write, and the way students must write for the AP exam.

When we were reviewing yesterday, I could tell many of them had not read the work. So I had one of those frustrating teacher experiences: I feel bad for them because there is so much pressure on them at this moment, but I was also disappointed that more people are not embracing the reading.

In all of my classes right now, I am forcing the issue of engaging the text, often going sentence by sentence through a book to examine the writer’s style. When I do this, some kids benefit from it; others are bored because they have read ahead and have already finished the book. I am pulled in multiple directions—we need to read faster, we need to read slower, we need to read less, we need to read more. I am spinning in space.

Maybe I am being cranky, but I feel assaulted. And this siege mentality has led me to doubt my students, made preparing for class a chore, and the worst, made my brain numb. I am too poor to pay attention this week, and I border on the “I don’t care” mindset. Looking around my classroom, I see I am not the only one who feels this way.

We need to get back to the basics—the life of the mind. It is always about reading, questioning, thinking, testing those ideas in argument, and engaging ourselves in the process. It is not about test scores, or grade point averages, or college acceptances. Hopefully, those things will work out on their own if we continue to engage ourselves in intellectual exploration. We need focused effort and self-discipline.

Right now, everything feels daunting and difficult. We just have to push through.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.
Edna St. Vincent Millay

I first met Matthew when I was a young teacher at a small Catholic elementary school on the west side of Los Angeles and he was a newly elected member of the student council of which I was the moderator. Our relationship did not last long. Matthew was a practical joker, a mischievous kid whose escapades, by today’s standards, would seem rather tame. I do not remember what he did to get himself kicked off the council; he might have placed a younger student in the bathroom trashcan. In any case, he did not last through the fall under my supervision, and that was that. He spent the remainder of his eighth grade days off my radar. We passed each other in the halls with barely a nod.

Two years later, the local Catholic high school hired me to teach English. I would be reunited with most of my former students because my old school sent nearly all its graduates to this particular institution. When I arrived on campus, one of the first people I saw was Matthew. He did not say hello, and I prayed he would not be in my class. I was not looking forward to the awkwardness.

We started school, and I quickly discovered that Matthew was in my colleague’s tenth grade English class. Even though I dodged one bullet, I found many more challenging students waiting for me. Every day, I had a journal topic on the board when my students came in so that they would get in the habit of immediately writing in their notebooks. We would then share our responses. Pat, the other tenth grade teacher, came into my room often during those days, and we brainstormed for topics, considering current events, news reports, and things we heard on the radio commuting to campus.

The day before Thanksgiving, I asked my students to write about their views on God. I first asked them to explain if they believed in God, not a certainty even though this was a Catholic school. Then I asked them to explain where they felt the presence of God, a higher being, or spirituality, and how this helped them cope with day-to-day challenges. Pat liked the topic and borrowed it for her class. The students wrote, we shared, and off we went for the long weekend.

On Sunday, I came home to find my answering machine blinking. The secretary from the school was on the line. In a small, quiet voice, she apologized for interrupting my weekend, but I should prepare myself for Monday. It seems that Matthew had been involved in a car crash and was dead. We could expect major disruptions first thing Monday morning. We should meet our homeroom classes and accompany them to the church on campus for a special memorial service.

I was shocked and numb. The kid was only in tenth grade. I did not know what to expect on Monday, and I was struggling with my own feelings. I did not particularly care for Matthew, so I felt guilty. He was not in my class, and I had never technically been his teacher. I felt a bit distanced from the situation as well. I knew he came from a large family and had several brothers who had attended the school before he did. I thought he might be the youngest.

The next morning, all hell broke loose. I was not prepared for what I saw that day. Students were sobbing, collapsed in the hallways. The teachers were literally carrying them to the church. Once inside, the wails and moans increased. I did not realize how popular Matthew was. He was on the football team, and had recently been promoted to varsity, even though he was only a sophomore. A priest tried to offer words of condolence to the students, speaking about Matthew going to “that big football field in the sky.”

Students were allowed to go home after the service, but almost all of them stayed around school, hugging each other and crying. It did not matter, male or female, people just sobbed and clung to each other. I went up to my classroom and sat there with all the windows open and the lights off. The cold, crisp air from the ocean seven blocks away felt like it blew right through me. I let it swirl my papers off my desk and scatter them all over the classroom.

The week went downhill from there. First came the rumors and stories of the accident. Matthew had gone to the snow in the mountains north of Los Angeles with his girlfriend and three other friends, two of whom were brothers. They were traveling down a narrow highway, coming back from a good day when a drunk driver crossed the line and hit them head on. Their SUV rolled over several times, and Matthew was ejected. One of the brothers was driving, and had been badly injured in the chest by the steering wheel. Matthew’s girlfriend was injured, and possibly thrown from the vehicle as well, depending on who told the story. In any case, Matthew was killed instantly. There were stories circulating that his girlfriend crawled to him and held him in her arms while he died. It took paramedics a considerable amount of time to reach the rural accident scene.

The next wave of stories that hit involved the aftermath of the accident. We heard that Matthew’s father and brother drove the eighty or more miles to the high desert to get to the hospital. They did not know how badly Matthew was hurt. When they arrived, he was dead, and they had to identify the body. Then, they drove back to Los Angeles. I wondered what that drive had been like, all those miles back home.

The family decided to have two funerals, one for the school, and one for family and friends. They also decided to donate Matthew’s eyes for transplant. His casket would be open for viewing at a local funeral home, and the students would have specific hours they could go to see him.

We tried to resume classes. Many students did not come to school, or if they did, they did not attend classes. I just let the students ask questions. They wanted to know what would be done with Matthew’s body at the local funeral home. Did he feel pain? What did it mean to be “killed instantly?” Did it really happen that quickly? I was completely out of my league. I did not know these things, yet I felt like I should. It did not matter that I was only an English teacher. My students wanted to know.

One evening, I stayed at the school late. My wife was busy at her school with a parent meeting or some event, and I did not want to go home to an empty house. Often, the staff of the cafeteria left food for the faculty in the small kitchen off the main faculty room. I went there, found nothing, and wound up sitting in the dark in the faculty room thinking about Matthew. The science teacher came in and sat with me, and I asked him some of the questions the students were asking me in class. He patiently explained the embalming process, how organs are harvested, and other intricacies of the funeral industry. I remember his voice in the dark room, the hum of the furnace, the way he told me, fatigue evident in his voice, like he was telling a time-worn story. He saved me. The next day, I retold the story word for word to my students.

One of the days that week, the students came tumbling into the building, shouting and crying. My nerves were frayed and jagged at this point. When I got them settled down, they told me a heartbreaking story. It seems that Matthew’s father told them that when they went to see Matthew at the funeral home, they could put mementos, notes, cards, and letters in the casket with him. As the week progressed, slips of paper, blueberry muffins wrapped in cellophane (Matthew’s favorite), and small remembrances filled the spaces next to the body. As some of the students were gathered around the open casket and crying, they noticed a small drop of clear fluid fall down the side of the corpse’s face. Matthew was crying with them. He could hear them. “Isn’t this what it meant?” they demanded to know.

I found myself explaining that when they removed Matthew’s corneas, fluid was present. It was probably this fluid that they saw on his cheek. I gently tried to explain that the dead do not hear us, and if they did, it would not be the way we hear each other when we are alive. “He knows and understands your grief, but he no longer inhabits that body. He is not there.” They were not satisfied with that answer.

I attended both funerals. The church was packed each time, and most people attended twice like I did. At one point, Matthew’s father read from his journal. It was the entry made the day before Thanksgiving. “Of course I believe in God,” Matthew wrote. “And I know that one day I will be with him in heaven.” I remembered the day Pat and I came up with the topic. We just wanted to fill the time, to get the students writing, to finish the day and go on the long holiday weekend.

The graveside service was scheduled for the next day. The administration wanted the faculty to drive students to the cemetery and make sure everyone got back to campus when the service was over. I had a small hatchback at the time, but I took three large football players with me. As we drove to the cemetery, I noticed that one had a blueberry muffin on his lap. “Breakfast?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I kept forgetting to bring it to the funeral home to put it in the casket with Matt. I thought I could slip it in with the flowers today.”

When we arrived at the cemetery, everyone gathered around for one last goodbye. Someone produced a guitar and the students sang. Matthew’s girlfriend was there, battered and torn. She collapsed on the coffin and cried.

When the time came to leave, the students would not go. I tried to collect my group, but they refused, saying they would remain at the cemetery and find another way home.

Back at school, the rest of the year became a challenge. I continued to ask my students to write journal entries, but no matter what the prompt was, the students always brought it back to Matthew.

One student in my class was a boy named Enrique. He was Matthew’s best friend. After the death, he became sullen and withdrawn. His girlfriend was also my student, and I could tell Enrique’s worsening moods were troubling her as well. Enrique began to miss school frequently, and when he was present, he was checked out, staring out the window, and refusing to participate in class.

After school one day, Enrique’s girlfriend, Lisa, came to see me. “You have to do something about Enrique,” she said. “I’m afraid he is going to hurt himself.” I promised to talk to him.

I had Enrique come to see me late one afternoon after weight training. We were the only ones in the building. “Look,” I began, “Matthew is gone. You have to let him go.” I did not get much further into the conversation when he exploded. He did not think I had the right to say those things to him. He accused me of not understanding what he was going through. He stood up and threw his chair across the room. He was a big, muscular lineman on the football team, and for a moment, I thought he would come at me. Instead, he stormed out of my classroom, and I did not see him again for at least a week.

Class became torture. I felt responsible for Enrique’s absence, and when he was there, he glared angrily at me. I was the focus of his rage. Others in the class wrote of their dreams with Matthew. Enrique would leave the room, or sit there, crying quietly. Lisa looked equally miserable.

Some time around Easter, the dam broke. I gave my students a journal topic, something weak like “Write about your life as a windshield wiper on your mom’s car.” Stupid. Enrique was there. The students wrote in silence for a while, and when I thought they had finished, I asked for volunteers. Enrique’s hand went up. It was the first time he had volunteered since before Matthew died. I called on him.

“Last night, I finally had a dream with Matthew,” he started. He looked around the room at the other students, many of whom were holding their collective breath. “You all have had dreams with him,” he said. “I kept wondering why he did not appear to me.” He looked down at his notebook and continued reading. “He was sitting at the lunch tables outside under the trees eating one of those round pizzas. I could not believe he was there. He laughed and then threw his pizza at me and ran. I chased him down and tackled him. I pinned him down on the grass and he was laughing his head off. I told him I loved him and he said, ‘I know.’ Then he just disappeared.”

Enrique’s voice caught, and for a moment he did not know where to go or what to do. I looked around the room. Everyone, including the boys, was crying.

I decided, for a number of reasons, to leave the school at the end of the year. It had been a tough year, with challenges in the classroom and in my personal life. I felt scraped up and raw.

As the last day of school approached, I prepared my classes for final exams. One day, as I was teaching, I looked up to see Enrique come in the back door of my classroom, go to my desk, and leave something. He waved at me as he left. When the class was over, I went back to my desk and found a picture of Matthew and Enrique in their football uniforms, taken at the start of football season back in August. They both looked mean and tough, and Matthew wore the number 90, the year that he died. I turned the picture over and read the back: “Dear Mr. Martin, well I guess I won’t be seeing you around anymore. I just want to thank you and hope you become a famous writer. I’ll buy all your books. By the way, I really enjoy your stories. Maybe someday you could write something about me and Matt. Excuse me, Matt and I. Love, Enrique #61. P.M.S. Good luck!”
Enrique, I finally wrote something about you and Matt. I tell your story every year to my students, and your photograph is framed on my desk at home. We always wonder what happened to you. I tell them you’d be about 32 years old now, probably with your own children, a wife, and hopefully, a good life.

A few years ago, I went back to see Matt’s grave. I noticed that his family used his last journal entry as his epitaph on the stone. I knelt down next to it, and discovered four small, round stones placed carefully in the margin of his granite gravestone. On each was painted one word: We. Still. Miss. You. Someone remembers, even now.

I think of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. “To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died, / who neither listen nor speak; / Who do not drink their tea, though they always said / Tea was such a comfort…/ Your tea is cold now. / You drink it standing up, / And leave the house.”

In the end, we all must let go of what we have lost.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Technology of Failure and Success

In a recent Doonesbury cartoon strip, Garry Trudeau made his statement about technology in education. Two characters are in a college classroom. The professor is conducting class. One of the students is typing furiously on his laptop when the other instant messages him that the professor has asked him a question. “About what?” he asks, without breaking off his typing. The other student has no idea, having only heard the laptop student’s name called. He decides to ignore the professor and pretend he did not hear her.

“She just asked you again, man,” his buddy messages back. “Four major greenhouse gases.”

“Stall her while I Google it,” laptop replies.

In a few seconds, the computer brings up the answer and the tension passes.

“If this keeps up, I’ll never get through my email,” laptop thinks.

In the last few weeks, I have seen the best and worst of technology in the classroom. My seniors have started to lose focus. They are finishing applications and admissions materials, including their student essays. Fatigue has set in, and with the holidays approaching, many of them are not thinking of school. We have also had some high profile events in the last week that have further distracted them. So I am desperately trying to keep them on point as we make our way through Dante’s Inferno.

Many of my students, this year, use laptop or notebook computers during class to, allegedly, take notes. Most of them do take notes, or at least appear to be taking notes. When I am talking, or writing something on the board, they are typing on the computer. When I pause for questions or clarifications, they pause and stare at me expectantly. Occasionally, one of these students might quickly look something up on the Internet. There is a wireless connection they tap into in the neighborhood. Often, they will offer the information to the class, or read it to me to clarify a date or point in the discussion. I appreciate this because it is what the technology is made for: to put information at our fingertips.

There are two students in my senior class who I am sure are deep into cyberspace every day during my class. If I ask them to read a passage, they will do so, and then return to wherever they were on the computer. I have noticed that their grades have dipped slightly this year. But here is the deal: one of the students was a class disruptor last year; now, he is less trouble. I actually prefer that he lose himself in cyberspace and allow me to teach without inhibitions. Last year, he taped me with his cell phone and posted the footage on youtube; this year, he is no longer interested in what I have to say. Better for me.

In this case, the use of technology in my classroom has failed, but he is keeping himself amused and off my radar. Several teachers have brought this up at meetings—evidently, he does the same thing in their classes as well. The faculty has asked for new rules to cover this distraction. I did not say anything to support this, as I feel that students benefit from using technology in the classroom, and in the two cases where they are using the computer as a distraction, I am pleased not to have to deal with them.

In addition to this situation, I have witnessed something else happen in the last few weeks that I find encouraging. My tenth and eleventh grade students have been assigned class presentations on different magazines. They must read several issues of the publication, prepare a ten minute report detailing the history, current masthead, kinds of articles with an in-depth analysis of one or two pieces, submission policy, and possible importance to American culture of the selected magazine. Then, on a scheduled day, they literally teach the class.

The reports have been a tremendous success. Students get to know magazines and journals. They receive a crash course in journalism and American culture. At the end, many of them decided to subscribe or at least buy the magazine again to further their reading.

The real success of these reports, however, is that the students use Microsoft Power Point and other technology to teach the class. They have made good use of my new computer projection equipment, and the presentations zip along with interesting graphics and visual displays. I find students who are not terribly organized writers becoming very organized in their visual presentations. I think it has something to do with the individual screens and pages for each step of the presentation. It forces an organizational structure on them. In any case, I am so proud of them. They are demonstrating what I think is a prevailing job skill for this century: the ability to find, categorize, organize and present information.

In an article in The New York Times entitled “New Class(room) War: Teacher vs. Technology” (November 7, 2007), writer Samuel G. Freedman discusses this issue of students using or abusing technology in the classroom setting. Cell phones and laptops are now part of the classroom mix in every college, and some high schools and middle schools across the country. Yet many teachers have a problem with situations like the one in my senior class.

He cites the example of Professor Ali Nazemi of Roanoke College, who staged an elaborate subterfuge in his classroom recently when he pretended to confiscate a cell phone from a student and smash it with a hammer. The other students were mortified. “There are certain lines you shouldn’t cross,” the professor said. “If you start tolerating this stuff, it becomes the norm. The more you give, the more they take. These devices become an indisposable sort of thing for the students. And nothing should be indisposable. Multitasking is good, but I want them to do more tasking in my class.”

The article takes a decidedly negative view of technology in the classroom, dividing students who use computers and cell phones into two groups—“those who want to use technology to grow smarter” and “those who want to use it to get dumber.”

“All the advances schools and colleges have made to supposedly enhance learning,” Freedman writes, “supplying students with laptops, equipping computer labs, creating wireless networks—have instead enabled distraction. Perhaps attendance records should include a new category: present but otherwise engaged.”

The student defense against these charges is also clear. Teachers who lecture are boring; there is no interaction; students can just read the book and get the same material, or go online to get background and other notes. The classroom should be a place where students are engaged and active, even, some kids say, entertained.

“One of the great condemnations in education jargon these days, after all, is the ‘teacher-centered lesson,’” Freedman responds. He quotes Professor Michael Bugeja, director of the journalism school at Iowa State University. “The fact is, we’re not here to entertain,” says Bugeja. “We’re here to stimulate the life of the mind…Education requires contemplation…It requires critical thinking. What we may be doing now is training a generation of air-traffic controllers rather than scholars. And I do know I’m going to lose.”

Freedman closes his article with the question most of my colleagues asked at the recent faculty meeting: “What teacher or professor can possibly police a room full of determined goof-offs while also delivering an engaging lesson?”

Technology will not go away. We are being shortsighted if we think we can legislate it out of our classrooms, or control its use. Computers, cell phones, PDA devices, projectors, DVD players, have all changed education, and the way teachers conduct classes. It is better to embrace the change than fight against it. Most of our students have grown up with this technology. It is second, or even first nature to them. The use of technology in the classroom offers far more opportunities than problems. I have always noticed students who have “checked out” of my lesson; they are drawing in their notebooks or staring off into space. I move down the aisle and gently urge them back on task. If it keeps up, I call them in to discuss the situation one-on-one. The next step is to involve the parents. I cannot stop it. I can only encourage the student to remain focused, and present opportunities where a student is graded on how closely he has paid attention to class.

And for that one student in my senior class, his lack of attention will be his loss. He has demonstrated a lack of maturity in several areas over the years, and I have strongly urged him many times to grow up and embrace his responsibilities. Maybe that is a lesson he will not learn until college. For now, it is to the benefit of my other students that he is lost in cyberspace. Far be it for me to call him back, once again, to reality.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Open Letter To Parents

Dear Parents,

The English Department teachers have come to the following conclusion: our students are not reading enough.

These days, it is not uncommon for students to spend hours in front of a computer. Yes, they might be reading online, but it is not the same as reading books. Numerous studies have demonstrated that students who read voraciously have higher test scores in vocabulary and reading comprehension. They also tend to be better writers. There is a direct correlation between student success on future-determining tests like the SAT and the ACT and how much a student reads, both in school and for fun.

In class, every day, teachers are assigning reading, allowing periods of class reading called SSR, or sustained, silent reading, and encouraging a culture of reading by modeling the behavior for students. We read a variety of texts, look up unfamiliar words, and practice critical and analytical thinking skills in writing and discussion of the books read for class. But we need to do more, and to do that, we need your help.

I need you to create a culture of reading in your homes. Some of you do this already, but we need to increase the effort. We need each household to shut down, for thirty to sixty minutes every evening, and have every family member read. If fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters—or even grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins—could devote one hour each night to reading, an entire culture of reading will spring up. Turn off the television, the computers, the cell phones, and just read. Possibly, every one could read the same book and discuss it at the dinner table. Newspapers, magazines, and books are all possible reading selections for this family reading time. This is reading for enjoyment, so allow each family member to read what he or she likes.

Take your son or daughter to the bookstore and let them browse. Let them make their own selections, and do not worry if they are not selecting classic literature. Any reading will help. The library might also be a regular stop for the family to select books. Again, I know that many families support their children’s reading already, but we are looking to increase our commitment.

If you need suggestions for reading material, let me direct you to a few websites for booklists: (LA Public Library booklists for kids) (LA Public Library booklists for young adults) (Amer. Library Association booklists for all ages)

We believe that this enhanced reading, in the classroom and at home, will also affect other subject areas such as history, science, problem solving in mathematics, and ultimately, lead to higher test scores on the SAT in multiple areas and disciplines.

Any effort you can give to this endeavor will be greatly appreciated. I know in this fast-paced society, our time is a precious commodity. We are committed to giving our students the best possible opportunities to excel in the classroom now and in the future in college. Working together, we can introduce an enhanced culture of reading and encourage the life of the mind in our children.

Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into your child’s education.

Paul L. Martin

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Things They Carried

Veterans’ Day, 2007

The burden carried by the characters of Tim O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried extends beyond the physical items of necessity listed in the first chapter. It is clear these men carry psychic baggage as well. O’Brien expresses many of these psychic, emotional, and spiritual issues through recurring motifs that run through the chapters. One of these motifs is the idea of death, dying, killing or being killed.

There are five deaths in the novel that O’Brien returns to time and again: Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, Kiowa, Linda, and the slim Vietcong soldier. The latter, O’Brien himself killed with a grenade. Lavender, Lemon and Kiowa die as a result of combat. Lavender is shot in the head; Lemon steps on a landmine; and Kiowa dies in the field of human excrement after taking shrapnel from an artillery shell. Linda is the only non-Vietnam casualty; she is O’Brien’s fourth grade schoolmate who dies of brain cancer.

Lavender’s death is more the lieutenant’s burden to carry. Jimmy Cross blames himself for Lavender’s death because he was preoccupied with thinking of his girl back home. He feels that because of his negligence, his man died. In this motif, O’Brien is a witness to the destruction this guilt causes for Cross. Years later, when Cross visits O’Brien, he still has not freed himself from the guilt over Lavender’s death. “At one point,” O’Brien writes, “I remember, we paused over a snapshot of Ted Lavender, and after a while, Jimmy rubbed his eyes and said he’d never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death.”

It is clear from the chapter entitled “Love,” that O’Brien cannot help Cross with his guilt. There is some indication that Cross cannot get passed his guilt because he has no outlet to work through his burden, as O’Brien is able to do with his writing. “ ‘You writer types,’ [Cross] said, ‘you’ve got long memories.’”

The thing that seems to stick with Cross is that Martha, the girl he was preoccupied with when Lavender is killed, never was his girlfriend and did not love him. When he encounters her years later, she does not reciprocate his love, nor does she even feign interest. She merely wishes him well, replacing the picture of her he burned in his foxhole in Vietnam after Lavender’s death. So his mental preoccupation was a waste of time, and it cost a man his life.

The chapter closes on a poignant note. Cross tells O’Brien, “Don’t mention anything about…” He trails off, never speaking the unspeakable guilt he feels, and O’Brien promises he won’t. It is clear that Cross has lost his psychic battle with guilt over Ted Lavender’s death. O’Brien, as witness to this lost battle, realizes that some things must be carried forever, that one can never be free from the obligations of the dead.

Curt Lemon is blown up, his body parts left hanging in a tree. He is playing a game with another soldier, a game of toss with a smoke grenade, when he accidentally steps on a landmine. O’Brien speaks of him stepping into the light, and then the blast sucks him up into the trees. Just like that he is gone. What bothers O’Brien is that Curt Lemon is just a kid. He did not understand war, had indeed only been there a short while. This idea of innocents exposed to the horrors of war recurs throughout the novel. But he speaks of Curt Lemon’s death as a senseless act, something that exists as more image than reality in his brain after all of these years. In this way, some deaths defy explanation or rhyme or reason. They exist as these moments of blinding light, and we are left with unrecognizable pieces of flesh hanging in trees.

In the story of Kiowa’s death, we find a combination of the senselessness of war with the guilt that must be carried by others. Once again, it is Jimmy Cross who feels responsible for Kiowa’s death. Tactically, they make a mistake; they set up in a field that under heavy rain and artillery bombardment, quickly turns into an excrement-crusted quicksand. When he is injured by a falling mortar, Kiowa is unable to free himself from the muck and drowns. The soldiers search for his body the next morning. Kiowa is the one who sleeps with the New Testament for a pillow, yet his Christianity meant nothing in war. He is still dead.

When they find his body, they must work to free it from the waste. They find that he probably died from his mortar wounds. But there is the possibility the field of human waste finished him off, that he drowned in the bog. Norman Bowker sums of the lesson: “ ‘Nobody’s fault,’ he said. ‘Everybody’s.’”

O’Brien’s guilt over the man he kills comes from questions his daughter asks him about the war. He feels the sting years later when he returns to the country with her to re-examine his past. When she asks the question, “Did you kill anyone in the war?” O’Brien wants to tell her no, but that would not be the truth. He remembers one man he killed, a slim soldier. He killed him with a grenade. Even though he knows that in war, it is killed or be killed, the enormity of taking another life is still with him. It is made clear in other chapters that he considers himself a coward for going to war instead of fleeing to Canada. In his confusing and convoluted thinking, killing this man is part of his cowardice, even though he has no choice.

“I did not hate the young man,” he writes. “I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty.” After he throws the grenade, he feels like he wants to warn the man. “It was not a matter of live or die. There was no real peril. Almost certainly the young man would have passed by. And it will always be that way.”

Actions are forever. We carry them forward from those fateful nights when we are forced to make choices. In O’Brien’s case, a simple question from a child sends him back.

The final death is actually the first one O’Brien witnesses in his life. Linda, a girl in his fourth grade class, dies of a brain tumor. This is the girl he took out on his first date. He writes that he loved her with a pure and intense love. It is she whom he sees in his dreams. She speaks to him and tells him to stop crying.

“But this too is true; stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive.” He goes on to mention the others. “They’re all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.”

Linda is the only dead person who dialogues with him. Her words are beautifully metaphoric. She speaks of being dead like being a library book that no one is reading. It is just there, on the shelf, waiting. In the end, Linda tells him, being dead is not so bad. “I mean, when you’re dead, you just have to be yourself,” she says.

In his dreams, O’Brien is ice skating on a frozen pond at night with Linda. He realizes that all of these stories are a way of coping with what happened to him in Vietnam. One gets the sense that O’Brien is hanging on by a thread, and that this writing in The Things They Carried, saves his life.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Grades, Grades, Grades

I finished compiling my first quarter grades at 3:30 PM today. I wish I could say I am relieved. Instead, I am facing six or seven other things I need to do immediately that have been let go in all the last minute grading and calculating. I already have three new sets of papers waiting for me for the two-day old second quarter. Add to that the dozens of students who are beseeching me for their quarter grades.

It is amazing to me that some of these people I barely see in my classes. They have shown no interest in coming to my office hours during the last nine weeks. They take little interest in class. They barely mumble a hello when they enter my classroom. Yet, two days after the quarter ends, they come to see me three separate times outside of the class meeting to ask if I have the quarter grades prepared. And they are worried. Why were they not worried during the nine weeks of the quarter?

Many of these students want to use my class to balance their overall grade point average when they have blown their grades in other classes. Therefore, they argue and beg for the B+ instead of the B- to counter the D they received in math. I told several of them today that my class is not the great equalizer.

I also warn them that I do not award grades. I simply write down the grade they have earned. Inevitably, they thank me when they hear the grade. They should thank themselves.

This quarter marked the first time my school has used the Blackbaud software program for school management. This program allows us to keep all student records in a single database. Therefore, we can enter our grades directly into the system from our desktop computers in the classroom instead of writing the grades onto grade sheets and submitting them to the registrar for her to input into the computer. There were several glitches, as could be expected. At one point today, all the grades entered so far were erased, so anyone who logged on yesterday, or last week, had to reenter all that material one more time. Any time new software is piloted, there are problems. It cannot be avoided.

In the middle of all of this grading, I had to teach five classes, and accompany my students to an anti-bullying assembly that could have been a cure for insomnia. The presenter was a magician, former engineer with a headphone microphone and an amateur comedian’s timing whose basic message was “Don’t bully,” or maybe “Just say no to bullying.” The students were restless and the whole thing made me sleepy. I do not think it will be a successful deterrent against bullying. These kinds of assemblies rarely are all that effective.

So tonight I am trying to get caught up on my reading and planning for teaching. Tomorrow, it is back to the grind of grading the three new sets of papers and pushing the students forward in the curriculum. Oh, and we have a department meeting at lunch. Will the fun never end? That is the thing with teaching. The job continues on and on; I can never finish with grading papers, finally and completely. Only when I retire, I guess.

Meanwhile, we are all looking forward to the three-day weekend. The time change and a slightly cooler temperature have made everyone, students and teachers, feel the fatigue more. It is a struggle to stay focused in class for all of us. I started on part of Dante’s Inferno today in class and wound up discussing the screenwriters’ strike. I do not know how I went from point A to B, except that Dante is a cinematic writer. Go figure.

Hopefully, we can all find the strength to carry on the life of the mind and assault the ever-more dangerous learning curve. I hear for Christmas, we are all getting As.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

End of the Quarter Blues

Where is B.B. King when we need him?

Friday marked the end of the first quarter of the 2007-2008 school year. The students are exhausted and suffering from burn out. They giggle uncontrollably in the hallways, scream and shout, cry for no reason, behave erratically, jump on each other, become talking heads in class, fail to do their homework, find themselves unable to concentrate and the most frustrating, exhibit more than usual irresponsibility.

The teachers are also exhausted. Colds, flu, and just general mental fatigue plague us causing absenteeism and the dreaded need for those of us who are present to substitute teach for the sick ones. We find ourselves suppressing the need to laugh hysterically at nothing, or sob uncontrollably for no apparent reason. We cannot concentrate and deadlines are looming. There are too many meetings and conferences stacked up against doctors’ appointments, car servicing appointments, family obligations, and a hundred other things that must be done all right now.

So how long until Thanksgiving?

This weekend, I find myself mired in grading papers. I am a little behind. The first set I did Friday night was from September. Yes, that’s right—early September. I want desperately to give my students immediate feedback on their writing. Giving papers back nearly two months after completion is not my idea of immediate.

I teach four different grade levels in English: nine through twelve. I see the ninth grade six times a week. I see the eleventh grade ten times a week. Tenth and twelfth see me five days a week. I teach all these grade levels literature, writing and grammar skills, vocabulary skills, and test-taking skills, including SAT and Advanced Placement test preparation. I have a full time job simply preparing to teach.

During the school day, I usually have two class periods devoted to preparation. On Thursdays, I have only one. The problem is with concentration. I teach every day from 8:30 AM until 12 noon straight through with only a fifteen minute nutrition break. Every day, except Thursday, I have from 12 to 12:50 PM free. I have yard supervision at lunch (12:50-1:25 PM) on Mondays and Wednesdays. I teach a class every day from 1:30-2:15 PM. Monday through Friday, I have the last period of the day, 2:15-3:05 PM free for preparation. Mondays and Wednesdays, I have office hours from 3:10-3:40 PM. So my preparation minutes come in drips and drops. I am usually correcting papers, reading memos, reading or rereading texts to teach, all while eating my lunch. I could easily skip breakfast and lunch and never miss it as I do not have much of an appetite, but this is not a good idea if one is diabetic. Coffee is my best friend.

To people who do not teach, this all might sound like a busy day. It is so much more. Imagine having to give a speech with interaction and questioning from the audience, for a minimum of five hours every day. Every speech must be different, yet extremely detailed. While you are giving the speeches, you must be cognizant of every move of your audience members. They are dependent on you for permission to leave the room for the bathroom, or to take care of a number of personal things. You must hold the attention, or completely involve in the discussion, every audience member. Periodically, you have a break between speeches to do at least two detailed tasks, mostly involving concentrated reading for layers of meaning. Meanwhile, at any moment, your boss can call you into her office for a discussion about something that happened several days ago, and that may have a profound effect on something that will occur several days in the future. You are expected to remember all the details as well as the dates. People are also emailing you with specific requests. Some may also drop in unexpectedly for a conference. At this point, the chaotic picture should be clear.

Teaching is demanding. It takes everything you have and more.

So I am behind on my grading. I have three sets of essays, about 18 in each set on average, and one set of vocabulary quizzes—a spelling test, really, which makes for easy grading. I finished the early September set Friday night, or actually Saturday morning at 3:30 AM. I finished another set of essays from mid-October and the vocabulary quizzes this morning at 1:30 AM. I will try to finish the remaining two sets of essays from late October today into early tomorrow morning. School resumes Monday and final quarter grades are due.

Why do I work so late into the night? I am a night person. I like working into the morning hours because the phone does not ring, and my concentration is undisturbed. The downside is that I am not a morning person, and my first class is 8:30 AM. Now you know why coffee is my best friend.

In addition to the grading I have yet to do, I am behind on my lesson planning. I have a semester overview that I can follow, but the day-to-day planning is where I need to focus my attention as soon as the grading is done. Usually, I must choose between grading papers in a timely manner and preparing for class. I would rather be prepared for class and give papers back later than be caught standing in front of restless teenagers with nothing for them to do. Preparation involves drafting assignments and tests, reading or rereading texts and background information, updating notes, preparing slides or audio visual materials, and planning activities. My friends are surprised to learn that I reread much of the literature I teach every year. There are some works, like Shakespeare’s plays, that I have been through so many times that I remember the text. Over the years, I have accumulated excellent background notes and resources for his work as well. But other works I need to refresh every year. So rereading is essential and necessary. I wish I had a photographic memory, but I do not.

I am also an avid reader on my own—books, newspapers (at least three dailies), magazines, and Internet sites. I have this blog to write for, at least once a week (my own requirement).

The other major activity that takes up time at work is the student magazine. I edit and publish a student magazine once per quarter, or whenever I have the time. I am not paid extra for this; it is something I feel makes kids want to write better. If they know their work will be published, they are very willing to work on drafts of their writing and perfect it. I am a big believer in publication as a teaching tool for writing. Seeing a response in the school community to what they write has a profound impact on my students.

So at the end of every quarter comes the logjam. I find there is no way to avoid it. We just have to muddle through and finish it off. Then, we can start all over again for the second quarter.

For the second quarter, I will make the following resolutions: I will return papers sooner; I will read more new books to look for potential texts for the coming years; I will make better use of every minute of the day.

The reality? During the second quarter I will be writing teacher recommendations for my college-bound seniors. I will be teaching Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Inherit the Wind, Dante’s Inferno, Skellig, The Things They Carried, The Great Gatsby, the poetry of William Blake, The Kite Runner, and Death of a Salesman. I will grade essays, multiple essays, from each of the four classes. There will also be quizzes, homework to check, class work to proctor, and all manner of personal disasters and crisis.

The challenge never ends.