Archive | December, 2011

Diary of a Third Generation Jets Fan

24 Dec

Last night my father informed me my uncle would be joining us for Christmas Eve dinner, as he travels back to Pennsylvania from the Jets-Giants game on Saturday Afternoon. We shared a moment of weighted silence before my pops said: “So let’s all hope that’s a happy dinner.” Now don’t get me wrong, I love my uncle. He is the model of what an uncle should be: fun-loving; easy-going; interested in what’s going on in my life, but not doting; and the first person to text me on NFL draft day. He doesn’t have any kids, and while it’s not like he has adopted me as his son, I do think he cherishes the fact that someone in the family has inherited from him the sickness of being a die-hard Jets fan. The moment of silence between my father and I wasn’t so much about my uncle, but about what he has come to represent in my family: a three-generation genetic deformity (and should my nephew be so “fortunate,” a fourth in the making) of this heart-weakening disease. The third generation? My grandmother. That’s right: my 90 year-old grandmother has taken on the habit of cursing out Brian Schottenheimer, and refusing to answer the phone during Jets games. My uncle Fritz has passed this burden along (I can’t imagine with any ill-will) to not only his brother, and his nephew, but also his own mother. That moment of silence wasn’t about “Will Fritz be in a funk and make Christmas dinner uncomfortable?” No, we are more than 10 years beyond that question. Now it is, “Will we all be so miserable that we lose our appetites and can’t talk about a damn thing besides why in the world the Jets didn’t roll Sanchez out on that final drive at third-and-nine, instead of letting him sit in the pocket to get crushed for a 7-yard loss.”

Every single woman I have ever been in any kind of relationship with has asked me the same question: “Why do you care so much?” Shit, some of my male friends who aren’t as intense about a sport team as I am about the Jets, look at me sideways when I can’t eat a meal the day after a brutal loss. I don’t know what to say to them. I don’t think you can ever describe to a person who doesn’t have that particular black hole in their soul that can only be filled by one thing, what it is like to have that thing in your life. Like an addict who can’t describe to a sober person what their fix gives them, or someone who truly has a soulmate cannot describe that feeling to their friends who bounce from one-night-stand to one-night-stand: it’s an often alienating feeling. I’m not saying I am an addict, or even saying the Jets are my soulmate: I am just saying there is a certain history there, a chronology of emotions and invested time and energy, a dedication that is rewarded and sometimes taken advantage of, and the roller coaster of emotions that comes from these things…that filling of a void, though what in the world that void is I cannot say. But the more I think of it, the more I think it is the history of it, the nostalgia.

I remember my first Jets games with two of my middle-school friends: the Jets were embarrassed by the Bills, and on the way out–and I mean everyone was filing out with a few minutes left on the clock–the PA announced, “The Jets fumble and the Bills recover the ball.” The whole stadium burst into laughter. I thought as we rode home, my friend’s father playing the post-game postmortem, “Now this is a sports team I can root for. They are a joke. I can just root for them and not take it too seriously.” Then in my Junior year of high school after about 5 or 6 years of developing a certain level of intensity, the Jets lost to Denver in the AFC Championship playoff game and something just changed. It was the tipping point. I was despondent for days. I began researching potential draft options (“I wonder if Champ Bailey will drop to the bottom of the first round!”) I bought Jets gear, Fritz and I discussed with a fervor the potential of the next season. We all know how that next season went. And it’s been that same cycle on-and-off ever since. Excitement, fear, anxiety, euphoria, disappointment, despondency, repeat. So if it hurts so much, so often, they ask “Why do you care so much?”

A friend of mine is a huge friend of Pearl Jam. When I teased him about it once, throwing up my arms and declaring with exasperation, “I just don’t get it!” He responded, “They are the one constant that has been there for me my whole life. Good or bad, they are there. I imagine it is something like you and the Jets.” I immediately knew what he meant.

For almost 20 years now the Jets have been the one constant in my life (along with my family, which in a perhaps perverse way I see as being closely related.) In high school, if I was down about some girl, or the fact that I had braces, or hadn’t gone through puberty yet? No big deal: Jets were there. In college, when I was stranded in Oregon in the middle of 150 straight days of rain, depressed, and tucked into the sheets 5 days a week: the Jets gave me the Monday Night Miracle, and I was on cloud-nine for a good month when I needed it most. The next winter, when I lived at home, and sat up nights drinking six pack and writing bad poetry, working at the Gap and going to Community College, floating in an abysmal abyss: the Jets. When I transferred to school in Pennsylvania, surrounded by Eagles and Steelers fans? Fuck you–Jets. And in the euphoric post-college days when I lived paycheck to paycheck with my lady, and all my friends lived in the same city, I could rely on someone to meet up and enjoy the Jets (I could even afford tickets once in a while!) Two years ago the Jets were in a playoff game with the Chargers. They were down in the third quarter, and a friend watching the game with me suggested: “Jets win we’re going to Atlantic City.” The influence of the Jets is so strong that not only did I say “sure,” but when the Jets came back and won a stunner to get into the AFC Championship, we hopped in the car, and 12 hours later I stumbled home 1,000 dollars richer. A thousand dollars and a Jets victory: the final-straw cost of probably blowing up my whole life as I knew it.

I moved into my own apartment for the first time in my life in the middle of last season. I was enough of an emotional wreck without the Jets and then the first two Sundays in my new, empty, lonely apartment, strewn with beer cans and dirty pots and pans went a little something like this: Week 13 blow-out loss to the Patriots, Week 14 embarrassment at home against the Dolphins. I thought I was going to explode. That’s not hyperbole. I literally thought on several train-trips to and from school that I might choke out the next person who clipped their goddamn nails on the train, or blasted mariachi music in my face, or tried to sell me anymore goddamn starburst. I think my students intentionally tried to avoid me for the first time in my teaching career. What an awful month. And then they stunned the Steelers at Heinz field. I swear to god that was a gift from above. A loss that week and I might have gotten on a Greyhound and ended up in a reactionary commune in the upper peninsula for the rest of my life.

It’s a year on. The most up-and-down year of my life to be sure. So many good things to be happy for, and so many frustrations. And the Jets? Well, they keep being what the Jets have been for me, my whole life. They win a couple games that convince me and Fritz and my dad that they are on the verge of playing Championship football, and then they get embarrassed by the Eagles. They get me excited with all their talk and pomposity, and then they don’t live up to it. So they are on the edge of the playoffs needing to win tomorrow, and maybe even next week just to get in. And of course the game has to be against the cross-town rivals.

I would like to be able to end this with some corny line about how win or lose the family will come together because that means so much more than the Jets. And perhaps that’s “true.” But it isn’t the truth. Fritz and I will swirl our forks around in the pasta all night if the Jets lose thinking about what could have been. But the truth is simpler, I think: I am a blessed man. I’ve hit some bumps in the road. The last two years have been a motherfucker. But the Jets never left me (even when they mistreated me) and my family never let me go (even when good reason said maybe they should have.) So when the Jets lose tomorrow I will turn off the TV, pop open a fresh one and say what I have been saying for 20 years: “With the group we have got?! You just wait until next year!”

Simply Havin a Wonderful Christmas Time

16 Dec

I have a lot of fuzzy memories about my time teaching in NYC’s juvenile detention centers.  Most of them involve serious fights, kids doing insane things, adults doing equally insane things and laughing my ass off at some of the insanity.  And I have great memories of a lot of dedicated teachers (not all of them) working perhaps the most thankless job in education.  But the clearest memory I have of my experience there was a project I worked on with a student who has become my greatest source of pride in my 5 years as a teacher.  

Early in December a friend and co-teacher of mine agreed to entertain my whimsy and bring his video camera in to the juvie to work with a student on a video he was excited about making: a fireside christmas episode about the holidays in jail.  For one week I worked with Darnell and my friend recording his musings on spending his second Christmas locked up.  He shared his own thoughts, but he also interviewed fellow students, staff, teachers, security, even the cook.  He toured the facilities (I will forever recall the image of christmas lights twinkling against the shatter proof glass windows, and a waving santa on one of the padlocked doors.)  I remember Darnell having to take a break during one of his editing sessions to just go look out of the window, into the yard, and to the sky beyond.  I remember his laugh, and his ridiculously contagious smile.  There is a moment when he is interviewing the math teacher (a wildly eccentric man) and he turns to the camera and winks and smiles–sharing an inside joke with both the videographer and myself, but also with the audience: the absurdity of this young man (in the very real predicament he is in) trying to pry happy holiday thoughts out of his peculiar 50 year-old math teacher.

Some of the highlights for me include his interviews with staff in which they sincerely told Darnell and his peers how impossible it was not to think of them when they enjoyed their own holidays.  There is a scene where a counselor frowns and shrugs “I am going to be right here with you.  Working a double.”  There is a great panoramic of Darnell touring the mess hall, strewn with tinsel and lights and commenting on how nice it all looks.  He repeats three times: “It..looks…nice.”  As he walks the halls, “Dominic The Donkey” plays.  His interview with the cook is one of the funniest moments of any film I have seen, all punctuated by Darnells hiccuping laughs.  It was an exasperating week.  We filmed most days all day, and spent several nights late into the darkest hours editing, Darnell even passing on his dinners.  When we completed it Darnell begged us to share the product with the whole facility.  We did.  When we returned from break there was a memo from the Deputy Director banning any recording devices from the facility.  

There was a moment when it was all done when Darnell had his arm around myself and the videographer and in the most heartfelt way possible said “I can’t believe I had to get locked up to have an experience.  Nobody ever did something like this for me.”  I have to admit, I was a bit exploitive: I selected Darnell to host the video because his charm was primed for the role.  But he was also my favorite student to work with both academically and socially.  That following January I stayed with Darnell much later than the State of New York Regents Board would have liked as he drudged through the English Regents exam (breaking at one point for dinner I had delivered.)  I stared at the ceiling as he wrote and wrote and wrote, and read and reread his answers several times, his dyslexia audible as he stumbled over word after word.  He passed the regents with a 75.  The next semester I was transferred from the facility in Brooklyn to one in the Bronx.  I saw Darnell occasionally after that when I came to tutor another student for his English Regents once a week.  We couldn’t stop talking about the power of his experience.  That May was the last time I saw Darnell or heard from him.  But I think about him and that week all the time.  This time of year I break out the DVD I have of Darnell’s Holiday Fireside Chat.  I watch it and as cliche as it sounds, I laugh and cry.  

Darnell’s story is not represented in the data that “education” experts pour over in an effort to “fix” schools and teachers and students.  It’s not a story that Mayor Bloomberg is likely to share when he advocates for placing 50 students in every classroom.  I can’t say it was a defining moment in Darnell’s education.  I wouldn’t know.  But it was a defining moment in mine.  And I have never felt the sincerity in the thanks he gave us the night we completed that project.  

Darnell, wherever you are this Christmas, I hope you are free and happy, and loving every minute of your life.  I am truly jealous of whoever is getting to share that addictive laughter.  I hope its your family.

Teaching Author Bias to the Kids

15 Dec

I teach in New York City at a transfer public high school.  The kids I work with are over-age, under-credited youth from 4 of the 5 boros (Staten Island still being considered a boro.)  This means I get a wildly diverse group of kids in terms of skill-set (some are there because schools have failed them, or they have failed schools and some are there because they are looking for an accelerated route to freedom…college or the work-world symbolizing freedom.)  They are also diverse in terms of interest (skateboarding, hip-hop, politics, manga, video games, alternative medication, one kid is even obsessed with panda bears).  They are diverse in personality, style, culture, and race (though a majority are Domincan or black.)  Today, a friend of mine from my predominantly upper-class white high school forwarded me a Forbes Magazine article, with the subject “Are these your kids?!”.  The article was titled: “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” A quick look at the author bio/pic and the article title gives you all the summary you need: it is about a successful middle-age white male giving advice to poor black kids about how to succeed.

Now, I am interested in this article in several reasons.  First of all that title!  How could you not be interested in reading when you look at dude’s picture next to that title.  Also, while my students are also incredibly diverse in terms of economic background, I have taught in NYC for five years, including in Juvenile Detention Centers for three (certainly I must have come across a few kids who were both poor and black.)  But what interested me most is that I have been studying author bias with my kids for the last week and I mean, if this isn’t a prime example….I read the article which made sweeping assumptions about urban kids (no mention of poor white rural kids, who suffer oftentimes greater set backs) and the whole time ALL I could think about is, what would my middle-class Dominican kids say to this?  What would the one upper-middle class Albanian kid who just dropped out of my school (his third) think about this?  What would a middle-class black kid who goes to these same city schools think about this?  What would a “poor black kid” have to say to Gene Marks.

Now to be fair, Marks does admit to some of the generalizations in his article, and is very candid about the “advantages” his own kids have had going to one of Suburban Philadlephia’s finest schools.  Some of the ideas in his article I even agree with:

I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed.  Still.  In 2011.  Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia.

It takes brains.  It takes hard work.  It takes a little luck.  And a little help from others.

But the majority of the points show a clear bias.  The article is about as “outsider journalism” as it gets.  Marks admits to his history: culturally different, as socially and economically disparate from his subject as could be.  But the assumptions he makes still stand: that “poor black kid” encapsulates an experience the same way “wealthy white kid does.”  That there is no social influence or advantage so great, or individual experience so insurmountable, that hard work cannot overcome it.  I would offer Marks, rather than sweeping generalizations, two concrete examples to challenge this bias.  Freddie and Winfred.

Freddie was a friend from high school whose father was a top executive at a phone company: absurdly wealthy, but also absurdly thoughtful, philosophical and filled with opportunity.  He sought out all of the advantages Marks recommends for the “poor black kids” in his article, like technological tools, accessible books, assistance from teachers and other adults.  He went to college for a year, and dropped out in an attempt to find himself.  Two years later he died from a drug overdose.  I cannot speak for the dead, but I have always believed the social pressures of his background combined with individual struggles were far more toxic for freddie than any drug he ingested.  I have never seen an article titled, “If I were a Rich White Kid,” but if I did I am sure if it had a cure-all prescription like Marks’ article, it would not have helped Freddie one bit.

Winfred, on the other hand, was the type of kid I imagine Marks had in mind when he wrote “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.”  Homeless, jumping between shelters at the age of Eighteen, bounced from school to school, and set about as far back from his social, economic, and racial background as a kid could get, Winfred epitomizes the archetype of Marks’ anti-fantasy.  Winfred–a rare student in his predicament–followed Marks’ issue almost as closely as one could.  He would often even miss school to go to Barnes and Noble to read.  Although he had no computer (or home in which to keep one) he accessed computers at the Public Library, and was one of the more thoughtful and savvy bloggers in my class…when he could make it.  Winfred, I am almost certain, is as close to a tormented genius as anyone I have ever met.  Last month, Winfred had to withdraw from the school (nice term for drop-out).  The obstacles were too great.  He couldn’t make it to school many days because he had appointments with probation officers, social workers, or just had to find a new shelter or money for housing.  When he was in school he was lost, and no matter how hard he tried teachers didn’t have enough time to catch up all the Winfred’s in the school.  He has personal demons, to be sure, and social pressures seemingly insurmountable.  A “poor black kid,” but so much more.  I’d love to see Marks write an article titled: “If I was Winfred.”

I still have not responded to my friend, who forwarded me this article.  His email was sarcastic (knowing his politics I think he must have found the tone and message ludicrous) but sending me the link shows a certain bias in his understanding: that perhaps these are my kids.  His bias, like Marks’ is not his fault, it’s a part of his history.  He has not taught my students: the “poor black” ones, or the many, many others.  And he has certainly never been one of my students.  I, of course, have my bias.  I teach all of my students, with their diverse background having my own: I am white, I am from the suburbs, I am blessed to have had parents who taught at a private school.  I teach my kids with a certain bias: the books I choose, the issues I choose to cover, the skills I believe to be most valuable are inherent in my own history and experience.  They are my values.  Shit, when I share this article with my students, some of them will yawn and go back to thinking about the new sneakers they can’t wait to buy, or how they will get to their job at Starbucks on time, or god-forbid, where they are going to sleep tonight.  I don’t blame Marks or ridicule him for the article.  I disagree with it because my biases tell me what he’s saying is absurd.  Charles Curtis, the former Senate Majority Leader once said: “Bias and Prejudice are attitudes to be kept in hand, not to be avoided.”

Hello world!

15 Dec

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