When It Gets Hot People Get Shot: One (and more) Reasons This Charter School Teacher is Supporting the Chicago Strike

12 Sep

I decided to take the summer off blogging for several reasons, not the least of which is that I spent my summer hours thinking about education far too much, as I worked to develop a brand new English Department, and the culture of a brand new school…in between attempts to catch a big fish.  I was out of Brooklyn for much of the summer, away from internet and the mindset that trends me towards blogging: that is the mindset of work and educational philosophy.  When I was back I was hard at work applying that philosophy to something mildly bigger than my menial blog: the development of a brand new charter school targeting students I have taught throughout my career (over-age-under-credit young men and women involved in court systems and/or group and foster housing.)  It is a feat that is going to continue to require tons of hours.  It is also, as I mentioned, mildly more important than this blog.  Throughout the summer, both while I was fishing up north, and working on curriculum and planning in Brooklyn, the heat became deadly from June through Labor Day Weekend.  Not like people having sun stroke deadly, but the kind of deadly that kids refer to when they shrug and share the age old adage: “When it gets hot, people get shot.”  The same week school started for my students, a young man was shot right down the block from me, while attending a house party.  He died on his way to the hospital.  Alan Shulman’s fantastic article in the link, which mentions some of the victim’s intellectual pursuits, and improvement in school in the months leading to his murder is a potent afterthought to the conversation I had with my principal during the first few days: “that damn well could have been one of ours.”

There is a rising sentiment, as I have lamented time and again in posts prior, among the American public that teachers are whiny babies.  That they don’t appreciate the summers off, complain about uninvolved parents, unmotivated kids; while they bitch about weak administrators and glad-handing politicians and lean on strong unions to skate by and under-educate our youth, particularly the ones who live in neighborhoods like mine.  Anytime public sentiment leans so strongly in one direction on nearly any issue, there is almost always a truth to the bluster.  Where there is smoke there is fire, so the saying goes.  As a teacher who supported his union and paid union dues for 5 years, I can attest that some teachers surely do espouse some of these beliefs from time-to-time in moments of frustration.  A small few even fit the caricature.  They tend to be black sheep.  Outcast even by other teachers as poisonous, they typically bounce from long-term replacement job to long-term replacement job, speaking the sound and fury of fools that exist in any industry.  A good few of them are certainly lining the pickets in Chicago, but from my experience working with good union-represented teachers in a city not unlike Chicago, I can guarantee they are outnumbered ten-fold, by people of moderate tempers, with high aspirations for their students, troubled by the disrespect the kids are being showed by politicians who surely have no idea what it is like to sit in a room with 35 students or more, facing a myriad of challenges that the politicians themselves have been historically unable to fix for these young people: decrepit living environments, hunger, single-parent homes, gang pressure, needing a new damn pair of sneakers, abuse, long rides to school, adults around their community giving up on them way too soon.  And now we ask the few people who have not given up to just deal with bigger class sizes; with being judged by results on unfair and often meaningless tests that cannot possibly reflect what goes on in the bubble of a classroom.  The vast majority of these “union thugs,” get up and go to work and say, “today I choose to believe in educating these kids despite all the crap people are saying about me, because it’s what is right.”  And people just tell them: “Damn right you will, so stop complaining and get on with it you laborer, you! Oh AND DO IT IN ROOMS WITHOUT AIR CONDITIONING.”

I know, I know.  Of all the complaints the teachers have this seems like the most trivial (even if the simplest for Rahm and Co to acquiese) but it is a symbol and more.  The reality, as I discussed with my father over the weekend, is the VAST majority of the people clamoring for these teachers to shaddup and get back to work, have NO idea what the inside of an urban public school is like, particularly an average, or below average performing school.  It’s not just like your children’s school, only the teachers suck, so the kids don’t learn.  Schools do not exist in a bubble.  And for schools who educate at-risk and troubled youth, it is a constant battle to keep the pressures of the outside world from bursting any bubble that may exist.  You cannot turn off a child’s reality just by having him walk through a door (and a metal detector.)

The very people who sit on the board of my school–well-meaning and decent people, who made it their MISSION and charter to serve and help fund a school for the most challenging population in Brooklyn (kids who are behind in credit, court-involved, and living in group or foster homes, or homeless shelters) sat in awe, with jaws dropped, as my principal shared some stories of the struggles our students bring with them to school everyday: extreme hunger, poverty, fear, violence, uncertainty and distrust.  The idea of educating students in despair is so much prettier than the reality of what it requires.  The reality, despite the fact that it doesn’t mold to the agenda of many politicians, pundits, and citizens, is that poverty and urban decay (and all the ugly conditions attached) are not excuses liberals conjure up to blame for poor education, nor are they overblown issues.  This is a truth that these students–and the teachers who serve them–have to contend with every single day.  And when the schools that are supposed to provide children with an equal opportunity at success as their suburban and rural counterparts–and even as their peers in elite schools in their own city–are overcrowded, and underfunded, something as small as an airconditioner seems like a gesture that one would make without blinking.  With classes exceeding 35 students, and behavior management issuses, and overworked teachers, it seems an equity-minded politician would buy those airconditioners out of pocket.

I tend to doubt it, but maybe Rahm Emmanuel and the rest of the anti-teaccher crowd would happily agree to have their children attend a school for a year where class sizes exceed 35 students; where many or most students are hungry, desperate for a change of clothes, and struggling against the pressures of poverty, single-parent families, gang violence, street violence, disease, and drugs; where teachers are stressed by evaluations, not happy to be creative and supported to do better; and where administrators are handcuffed to enact change by politicians who still don’t seem to see the importance of a balanced and equally supportive education system.  I imagine if he would do that, send his kids to one of those schools for a year, and could still look his constiuency in their eyes and say, “These schools dont need more support and funding; the teachers should work for a barely-livable wage, and be evaluated by how well the students do under their ONE YEAR of tutelage, regardless of their inherent realities; oh, and the overcrowded classrooms definitely dont need air conditioners,” then perhaps he could work equal amounts of wizardry and convince the teachers to believe in that fantasy, and get back to work, as well.  More likely, his kids would come home unhappy, undereducated, drenced in sweat, and trembling in fear, with a new swagger, and a different dialect, proclaiming: “Yo, Dad, that school is hot.  And when it gets hot, people get shot.”


This is Only a Test

21 Jun

I have spent a good amount of time in my life these last six years trying to explain (or justify) why I work with the students I chose to teach, long ago.  As well as why I love it.  I tell people I am from Jersey City (only partially true) and act as if I was lucky to have worked it all out.  I pretend my obligation is to kids “like me” as if I can sympathize.  It isn’t true entirely.  I had every reasonable opportunity in life.  I was born in the city, but moved to the suburbs.  I was born to wonderful parents.  Was raised in what anyone would describe as an idyllic setting.  I could teach anyone, and be just as ok as I probably am.  But I chose six years ago to teach in schools for the “left behinds.” Why?

 If I gave you the rundown of every kid who makes me proud, it would take up hours of your time.  I estimate having taught 1500-2000 kids in my career, and the vast majority (51% at least) have made me proud (if for only a fleeting moment, for some) in one way or another.  But I don’t do stats, I deal with individuals, so here goes:

I met Nate when he was a “new fish.”  First year in our school.  Way too old, and way to under-credited: unofficially, I believe 17 with 10 credits (by age17, most students in NYC have 30+).  He will probably be pissed when he reads this—as he reads most of my posts—but homeboy CANNOT WRITE.  He was seriously deficient in writing (despite being EXTREMELY intelligent in many other areas.) I Tried to work with him, tried alternative methods, tried to push him off on other teachers.  Nothing played.  He failed two English Regents in a row.  I got tired of it.  I don’t like seeing a kid I have grown to really and truly love fail a test that I have an answer for.

No piece of dramatic literature in the past 20 years has received more critical “shitting upon” than Suzan Lori Parks’ phenomenal “Top Dog, Underdog.”  No play should be more prominently urged upon NYC high school students of literature than Suzan Lori Parks’ “Top Dog, Underdog.”  I don’t say this because I heap presumptions about students’ empathy with the play.  I say it because I have yet to see a student who couldn’t illuminate in writing what it was about this play that touched them (in a good or bad way) and that is what literature should do.  I worked for one LONG afternoon with Nate, talking him through his thinking as he wrote about this play (which he read in my class LAST YEAR.)  I instructed him to translate the ideas and the content of what he had written into the essay he wrote for his State Test.  And he did so in a way that made me say: “Holy crap, I think someone gets what literature is all about!”  It is sad but true, this isn’t the norm in city high schools…not at all.

Memory is a freight train: I remember sitting on a friend’s patio, drinking brews. I remember sitting on a pew, watching a slideshow of the same friend’s life at his memorial service.  I remember life isn’t always fair. I remember hating the fact that I cannot do anything to change that.  I remember realizing I could at least dedicate my time to trying.  I remember I have been blessed in so many ways.  I have done a really great job at not remembering the rest.  This is what we do.

It’s not guilt or a bleeding heart or anything else that makes me say this: it’s having been a survivor of some real tough times, and having decided that I wouldn’t want to let anyone else have a life that’s tougher than it needs to be. That brings me to this: there is so much greatness ahead for the students I have taught, and for the students I will teach.  Not because I taught them or because I will continue to do so.  Not because they will meet standards and do well on state-administered tests.  But because we all have a way of surviving.  All of us.  Don’t care where you were born or whom you were born to.  Don’t care what you did wrong in your time, or who did wrong to you.  The one bittersweet blessing about living a life in which we get tested: we get used to being tested again, and again…and again.  And we learn the fallacy of our bullshit when we say: “It’s just me against the world.”  There is always someone out there who can help you pass that test.  Someone who can ignore his own interests and worries for a while and say: “You need to cross that river? I got you.”

My bro, I am so proud of you, buddy.  You took the challenge upon you to man up and kill that test, and you did it.  I love you, kid.  Pause…

A Man Must Have a Code

4 Jun

In game one of the NBA Western Conference finals, the TNT cameras caught a clip of Spurs coach Greg Popovitch, heated, tie loosened, gripping the side of his clip board as he shouted “Nobody said this was going to be easy.  I want to see you guys get ‘NASTY;.”  The Spurs who had been sputtering, went on a tear, played gritty, gutsy basketball and won the game.  The post-game interview, and ensuing commentary from Shaq, Kenny Smith, and Sir Charles Barkley made it clear that the “running commentary” on the game was going to take a very certain direction: Popovitch is a monster of a leader, who willed his players to win. The man is a genius.  Good leaders push their pupils, and challenge them to show up big.  They do so, not through threats or fear, but through inspiration.  They say things like “I want US to get nasty!” and they mean it with the kind of conviction that forces good people to say “Yeah, me too.”

A little over five years ago, when I was offered a job in public education, the woman who offered it to me was the woman who first brought public schools into juvenile incarceration settings.  She believed in what she did, and she surrounded herself with smart people.  The school wasn’t perfect (I don’t know many that are) but given the circumstances, the fact that it was spread throughout three lock-up facilities, and 4 non-secure detention sites, with a staff of over 100 teachers, it functioned very well.  In each site (more or less) there was a strong leader with a clear vision.  Teachers knew what was expected of them, and through weekly professional development programs, they were given tremendous support.  Riots went on around us, unfortunately neglect by the agency in charge of housing and caring for the students was rampant (that organization has since rescinded power) and the kids were not intrinsically interested in school, for the most part–who could blame them.  But as educators we knew what was expected of us, and did our job.  Not everybody loved our leader, but we believed in her.  And when she retired, she was replaced by a man with an entirely different philosophy, who was equally direct in his expectations.  Some balked at his more formal style, but if you interviewed the teachers from that year of transition, I highly doubt more than a small handful would complain about who he was and how he went about his business.  He was a man who wanted kids to get the best education possible.  He let his teachers know his philosophy on how he best saw fit to ensure that would happen.  And he listened to reasonable responses.  He was a Jets fan, so he knew about patience, and lived by the motto “try, try again.”

The climate in the DOE has changed since I began, and people will argue endlessly about wether that is a good thing.  The Andrea Peysers of the world, will argue that the impeccably prudent mayor, and his equally flawless cronies are finally getting rid of the bad apples.  Diane Ravitch would say Peyser and her ilk are teacher-haters, who oversimplify a complicated profession they don’t understand and threaten the future of public education by writing articles favoring the politicians who favor them in return.  The truth likely lies somewhere in between.  But what cannot be disputed is this: good teachers are leaving public education in droves.  And good, strong, experienced leaders who would inspire the hordes of young inexperienced teachers are fleeing in equal mass.  If the current sentiment and narrative regarding public school teachers persists, we won’t have any more “lazy, union-protected creeps” anymore.  They will get rid of the handful of them (disproportionately discussed in today’s media and general dialogue.)  But we will lose a hell of a lot more strong, experienced teachers who just don’t want to deal with the politics anymore.  Good educators are going to look elsewhere to practice their craft.  We are going to want to work places where the teaching is actually about the kids.  Not about the adults who claim to be the ones who really care about the kids.  In the end this may be what many influential people want.  The bursting of the Public School bubble, may be The Education Mayor’s Legacy, after all.  The man who came to power promising sweeping reform in the city’s schools may be winding the clock on the most severe reform of all.  It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if New York City was the first to implement a city-wide voucher program.  In fact, I expect it to happen during my teaching career.  By that time, I will no longer be in the system.  Many teachers, far better than me, will be long gone, too.  And many strong leaders will have been ushered into retirement, or will have fled to Charter Schools in Long Island, and who could blame them?  People get tired of being hunted, or being driven by fear.  It doesn’t make them better teachers, and in the end, the people who got into this job for the right reasons (working hard to educate kids who need and deserve it) are going to look for alternative options to find a place where they can do that without the restrictions of politics.  The mediocre will settle and stay.  The very teachers politicians and pundits would like to drive away are going to be the ones who remain.  The talented ones, the ones who care more about doing a damn good job than they do about being “protected” are going to go somewhere they can perform.  There will be an exodus, and it has already begun.

When I took my new position at a transfer school, serving students who had failed out of traditional schools for any array of reasons, I took the job because of the students and the people whom I would be teaching with, one of whom is a former mentor who recruited me to the school.  I went because I saw potential to continue pursuing the aspect of education that motivates me every day: working in radical and unique ways with kids who had trouble adapting to the traditional model of public education.  I took the job based on ideals and a connection to students.  I met my future leader in passing in the hallways.  He offered me the job based on resume and recommendation.  He had never seen me teach, he hadn’t seen me interact with students.  He never asked me my educational philosophy, and never saw student work that I would consider exemplary.  In other words, he didn’t understand my approach, and my ideals as a teacher.  And I was equally ignorant of his leadership style and educational philosophy.  This is a mistake new teachers make: they take a job without being fully informed because they want to teach, and a school is a school.  New teachers, if you take one piece of advice from this blog it should be this: once you close your door and start teaching, that is all that matters, you and the students in the classroom.  If you take a second piece of advice, it should be this: find out what your potential Principal, and future co-teachers think about education.  Find a place where the people have a clear vision that you want to be a part of.  Without that teamwork and camaraderie it is going to be a daunting, if not damning, task.

I’ve tried–under the influence of good parenting, and a sound education–to lead a life guided by principles and ideals.  People may have different opinions and attitude towards those principles and ideals, and may have a different impression of how well I have lived up to them, but I think even my harshest critics would tell you that I take the gravity of my job seriously, and I would sacrifice just about everything aside from my loved ones, and my health, to make sure I am doing the work justice.  In one of my favorite scenes from The Wire, detective Bunk is meeting the ruthless but principled thug, Omar, for the first time (since they attended high school together years prior.)  Omar discusses the “rules” of the street, similar to the rules of “the law,” in which certain principles dictate man’s actions.  Bunk, opines “A man must have a code,” after Omar insists he has no problem snitching on another character, because he would never pull his gun on somebody who isn’t in the game.  In short, I think the beauty of this line is in the universality of it: from high-ranking politicians, to teachers, to students, to bartenders, to the guys selling fake Gucci products on Canal St., we all live by our codes.  Mine is simple: give the kids what they need, because that is why we are all here.  Lately it feels like I am being forced to compromise.

Like good basketball players, and like any people who are talented at what they do, good teachers get “nasty.”  The push their students to get their hands in the dirt.  A lot of them say and do things differently than the status quo.  One of the best teachers I had in high school was a science teacher who had a “flair” with language, and who was known to disappear to his car at lunch and chain-smoke cigarettes.  He was quirky, but he had a code.  If you were prepared to work hard and better yourself as a student of science–and life in general, for that matter–he would bend over backwards to help you get there.  He was unorthodox in his approach, but nobody who met the man would challenge this fact: he was a darn good science teacher.  He cared more about the kids getting the best science education possible than he did about covering his behind and being “just good enough.”  He probably wouldn’t have lasted a minute in today’s public school system, and that’s the real shame.

A man must have a code: and one of mine has always been that Charters and Vouchers will be a giant leap in the direction of segregating schools along class divides.  It will take an urgent matter and make it dire: charter schools will be the last nail in the coffin of students like mine.  I’m starting to wonder if that isn’t totally false.  I am beginning to wonder if public school isn’t a potential solution to many of society’s problems (the wealth divide, broken homes, street violence.)  I’m starting to believe that maybe it actually is one of the problems.  And maybe the solution is to stop standardizing schools.  Perhaps something radical is necessary.

When I met the man who will be my Principal next year, I noticed right away that the way he spoke about the “talking heads” topics of career and college readiness, and closing the achievement gap was just…different.  He wasn’t using buzz words and key phrases because that’s what was expected of him.  He had a vision, and he believed in it.  If you get the kids in the building, and you give them something different, things can change.  Why does it have to be done in a traditional public school, under the umbrella of people who haven’t been able to fix the problems yet.  He spoke about going into jails, and group homes, and getting these kids enrolled.  He said he wanted teachers that will not only have their students as friends on Facebook, but hound them every morning to get their behinds to school.  He began to dispel the myths about Charter schools that many teachers have.  This wasn’t going to be a school for kids who would easily succeed anywhere.  This was going to be a different type of school, the type of school that couldn’t exist in the political spectrum of our city’s public schools.  The kind of place my current school was supposed to be, before we lost track of ourselves, before the politics dragged it down into the mud.  The kind of place I get excited about.

“I want to send a group of teachers and students to Paris.”  That was the line that cemented it for me, the words that made it clear as day that I was making the right decision.  “Most of these kids, the only time they have been out of Brooklyn, they were in a secure facility upstate.  We have to send them to Paris.”  Any leader who knows that the best chance a desperate student population has is to both literally, and metaphorically “go to Paris,” is the kind of man I want to work for.  I don’t care who is cutting the checks, whether I am protected by tenure and a union, or whether that dirty “Charter” word is attached.  I want to work for someone who calls a timeout, and says “Guys, we have to get ‘Nasty’!”  And then I want to go out there and do it.

Snoop Sitting

22 May

Underneath the rare New York City stars, with a cold drink on the warmest night of the year I sat with her. And my dog sat nearby staring out at whatever it was that had his attention at the moment. There was a lazy breeze. You could see the path lamps in the park forest. It was as quiet as I can ever remember my neighborhood on a weekend night. I had a secret that I couldn’t tell her. As bad as I wanted to, I couldn’t. Sometimes it can feel like our whole lives are about secrets.

In thirty years of living, working with, learning from, and teaching people; trying to maintain relationships with friends, family, and loved ones I have learned one thing for certain: all of us have something(s) that define who we are and that only we know about. It’s the human condition.

I sat in the park on Saturday morning. A woman had set up several picnic tables for a first birthday party. There was a huge “1” balloon waving in the slow breeze. A man in a sleeveless t shirt slept on a bench in the same area. His hands were over his eyes shielding the sun. A few children ran circles around the swings. Birds called out. It was the most beautiful morning I could remember. Two men began a chess match. The paper was full of garbage. I sighed and closed my eyes and when I opened them I glanced over the park: I wanted to remember all of this. Forever.

When you work in my profession (and as much as some politicians would like to just classify it as a job, it is a PROFESSION) you learn fast that if you want to do this right, you’ve got to dedicate your life to it. It has to be what drives you if you want to be fair. It has to be even more than a profession. It has to become a vision. I didn’t know that coming in to it. I have been blessed to figure it out by observing others. One of whom is a beautiful, intelligent woman.

My dog, Snoop, is sitting on the end of the couch. He is starting out of the rain-soaked window onto the damp trees and street. He is looking out at the world. He knows nothing about the world. I want to tell him just how much I love him and need him. But I would be speaking in a language he would never understand. He’d never know just how I feel or how much it comforts me to watch him stare curiously at the rain soaked window.

Teaching is like this: you see someone who needs to know something. You try to tell them, but you have to try incredibly hard to tell them in a way they can understand. It doesn’t make sense to explain Shakespeare to a reluctant reader using Terry Eagleton. You’ve got to explain the big bang by lighting a match. The thing is, we are constantly teaching whether it is our profession or not. We spend our lives teaching others about ourselves. Learning who we are.

One of my closest friends asked me last week to write a post about her. That’s what this was supposed to be. But I am selfish, and I am in love and so it’s turned into something different entirely. Snoop shifts on the couch as I write, and he looks at me in a way that says, “Tell me.” I am trying.

The other day I was having a rough day. I asked my friend about her newborn daughter. She sent me a picture. This was no regular baby. This was the most beautiful chubby cheeked smile in the world. And the eyes! They really spoke to something. Something about the beauty of life. Something I can’t put into words.

After sitting in the park for a while on Saturday I went on a little adventure. I went somewhere and did something that is a secret. That I wouldn’t want anyone to know about just yet. But I never felt so right about something in my entire life. I felt the way the woman felt setting up her child’s first birthday. The way the man felt resting in the sun, hands shading eyes. The way that beautiful baby in Boston looks out at the world with the most curious eyes, unable to know just how blessed she truly is. I felt entirely certain in my uncertainty. I felt like I finally loved who I had become, who I was, secrets, pleasures, disappointments and all. I felt ready.

We make mistakes. Over and over we do. I have made to many to count. But we also (should) try our hardest. We have to figure out just why there is anything more important than sitting on a roof with the woman we love, looking at the stars, our dog nearby. We have to find out that perhaps there isn’t a damn thing more important.

Snoop puts his chin on my lap. He looks up towards me tho I can’t quite see his eyes. He wants to know what’s up.

When I watched the mother sit back and look over the birthday setup she had put together in the park, I couldn’t help but smile. There will be a one year old being showered with adoration this week. There is a beautiful baby in Boston being raised by beautiful people. There is a man just trying to relax in the park. His hands are shading the sun from his eyes. So many wonderful people I know are doing wonderful things. The beautiful baby keeps blinking.

I am in love. Only one person in the world knows it for a fact: but on Saturday I chose to ignore the secrets of my past. I chose to decide my best possible future. And then I put a couple dollars down on a horse. I made a gamble I didn’t care about, because I knew I had already made a sure bet on the one thing I care about most.

Happy first birthday. Happy nap in the park. Good luck on the game of chess . Be safe around the swings. Happy, happy, happy life with two beautiful parents. Happy blinking eyes. Happy New York City stars. Happy life. I cannot wait to share it with you. No more secrets.

And Know They Love You

9 May

Im starting to get to that age where phone calls from family members at early hours of the morning give me a gut response of worry. It’s 645 am and my mom is calling. This can’t be good. I imagine this is the way parents feel about early morning phone calls for about 15 years of the children’s teen/college/post-collegiate years. At least I imagine this was the case for my parents. I put them through a lot more grief in my time than they ever gave me and for that I can be forever thankful. As a teacher you get reminded time and time again that not every kid can say that.

I had a miserable nightmare again early this morning, only this one didn’t have the tragic-humor element of cloned puppies. It was more personal, more foreboding, and literally shook me out of my sleep at 5 am. I wandered out to my couch where my dog came and attended to me with a head on my lap and “Dude lets go for a walk” look in his eye. So we went for a walk. But I couldn’t get back to sleep so I worked on some lesson plans and watched Matt Lauer talk about whatever Matt Lauer was talking about today. A little after 630 my phone rang and it was my parents number. In the headspace I was in I didn’t like this. But I picked up my phone and it was my mother on the other end. She sounded happy. I exhaled.

My mother is a brilliant “Information Scientist” or Librarians as we once called them. Her work in inquiry research in HS curriculum is impressive. This isn’t just a proud son stoking his mothers ego before mothers day. In a couple weeks she will be meeting in California with the fifteen most noted researchers, who research how kids research. She’s kind of a big deal, especially in Sweden. She is working on her second book detailing the work her library does with inquiry research at the HS level (One in conjunction with the English Department, one collaboration with the Science department at her school.) Recently she has helped my students with their own inquiry research projects and the progress she was able to make with them in two days made weeks of lessons I have taught seem utterly useless in comparison. Their writing since she started working with them has gone from average to impressive in a period of a couple weeks. They actually know how to evaluate and find good sources, cite properly, and incorporate great research into their own style of writing. It has been fun to watch. These are the things that excite teachers. Nerdy of course. But if you think I am being geeky about this you should see how excited she gets. One student still mentions how “hardcore my mom was when she barked on her, ‘I don’t know why you are staring up at the ceiling. I’m over here.'” Yeah my moms a gangster, too.

This morning my mom was calling to ask for a favor. Well not really a favor, payback. I owe her–among a million other things in my life, including my very life itself–a few bucks. She wants me to earn it by helping her out with her current book, by helping her shape the lesson plans with the Common Core Standards included. What a sucker, I would have done that for free! Its funny, how sometimes we give gifts by taking them. An opportunity to work professionally with someone I love and respect so much is a gift for me. But on the flip side I am sure when I said absolutely to her request, my mom mistakenly thought I was being selfless, doing something for her. Good moms are silly that way.

I have been reminded this week–I am reminded, as I said, too often–that even more so than teachers, parents leave a legacy on their kids. This sounds dumb, and obvious of course. But I am also reminded that a lot of people need to be reminded of this as well. Kids, parents, teachers, everyone. And I am certainly in no position to tell anyone how to parent (it would be, more or less the equivalent of a lifelong politician who has never taught a day in his life presuming he could evaluate teachers….
/scrubs Internet history
//looks over shoulders for any cameras.) That is not what I mean to say here. What I mean to say is it’s too damn easy to forget, as adults who have no choice but to have an impact on kids that the reward of doing our job isn’t ours to enjoy. It’s theirs. I think good teachers get this. I think good parents get it. I know in their capacity as both, my parents sure have. That’s an incredible gift to give if you think about it. There’s nothing more selfless than saying, the reward for all of my toils and troubles is YOURS to enjoy, not mine. I’m pretty sure there was a long haired, bearded Jewish guy who lived a couple thousand years ago and got a whole book written about that kind of gift. Good teachers do the same, but they get paid, and get to spend their summers rolling around in their rooms filled with jewelry and coins of gold. Good parents do this and don’t get paid shit for it, in fact they pay A LOT to do it. And they pay a lot more than just money. I know it’s a cliche but in terms of jobs that are hard to do very well, there can’t be any harder than being a parent. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard.

In the week that builds up to mothers day, the only thing that will be more persistent than bad commercials and ugly flowers will be my own thoughts of the many different mothers I have known in my life. In 30 years I have been blessed to know: a wonderful mother who worked hard her whole life on top of that unbelievably tough job of being a mother; two dedicated grandmothers who raised large families despite coming from next to nothing; aunts, who like my mother and grandmothers toiled endlessly to raise wonderful families with the tradition of their heritage and the hope of their time; mothers of friends who have taken me in as their own; co-workers who are tremendous mothers; student-mothers who sacrifice the traditional selfishness of teenage years to provide their own kids a life as good or better than theirs; teacher-mothers; and friends who are now becoming mothers. And it has been my gift to know them, and their children’s (even greater) gift to just have such wonderful parents. Maybe a better book contribution would be if I collected all their mothering “lesson plans” and shared them with the world. (Sorry Ma, but it might be a bigger seller than our current project!)

Eight years ago this month I graduated college (Wow that’s nuts.) On a five bajillion degree day in late may, I sat on the university football field, and listened to Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors, tell 100 yards worth of tired, hot, clueless young men and women the few tips he had for them as they prepared for the big bad world. I only remember one: sometimes it is too damn easy to forget, in the midst of a wonderful moment with family (or friends) to take a step back and just say, “This is nice. Isn’t this nice?!” Whether it is at a holiday dinner, walking along in the park, driving in a cramped car to my grandmothers, or listening to my father and I curse voraciously at another Jets blunder, I have been blessed to have a mother who has been saying this since long before Kurt Vonnegut recommended it to her son. Another gift she gave me.

There’s something else Vonnegut once said–er, wrote. He never mentioned it at the graduation, but he did write, many years before a wonderful baptismal for newborn humans: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” I wonder if this would have been equally sound advice for young Americans headed out into the world to begin their own lives, careers and families. That is a legacy worth passing on.

My mother was born with blue baby syndrome, an infant heart disease I don’t pretend to know anything about, but I do know this: if she was born 10 years earlier, before some major advances in medical research, she wouldn’t have lived to be a year, let alone 30 (I think she’s like 31 now.) However many years later, she has become an expert in research herself, both the traditional and the metaphysical. Being a mom is the hardest type of research in the world, after all.

The one thing I have learned about research, through teaching research, and through learning how to teach research better is this: everything we say, no matter how ingenious or innovative, is built on something we already know. I imagine parenting, like everything else is the same: we take prior knowledge, we question, we build something new. We would be fools to do something else. But with parenting, as with all other inquiry, and research, if we are working with shit information it’s going to be hard to produce something new and great. If our life texts don’t provide information to us babies on how to be kind, it’s asking a whole lot of us to figure it out ourselves.

My school’s CBO hosted a wonderful event today. They had a nice quiet lunch after school for the young mothers at our school (one reason many young women attend my school is the access to day care and a social work program to support teen mothers.) For once, I was hard pressed to be cynical, sarcastic, or otherwise flippant as I enjoyed my lukewarm pasta with some of my students and their adorably cute kids. In this room I was (for once) not the person with the most knowledge.

The same way my mother (and all the other mom-figures in my life) have given me the most selfless gift of motherhood, I wish I could give my own students (and future children something similar.) Which is why even though she hasn’t written it yet (and doesn’t even know she has been optioned to write it) I am giving all my past present and future students my mothers third and greatest book: Inquiring Moms Need To Know all about how to survive even the most crazy son.

And then I am going to give a gift of my own, because as much as I love her my mom is still crazy as hell. There will be a follow-up, Inquiring Sons Need to Know, all about how to survive even the craziest mom. All I ask in return is that every student receiving a gratuity copy listen to my parents’ wedding song, “Teach the Children,” and abide by the lyrics.

“And you, of tender years can’t know the fears that your elders grew by. And so please help them with your youth they seek the truth before they can die. Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you they would cry. So just look at them and sigh. And know they love you.”

I love you ma. Sorry for all the crap I gave you when I was young angry and confused. Words or a dumb blog entry will never be thanks enough. Hopefully the best thanks I can give is to do what you and Pete promised to do almost 40 years ago, and have done ever since: Teach the children well. Their parents hell (will) slowly go by.

/Sorry for the curses, ma
//Sorry to everyone else for the journal entry. But give your moms a hug. No matter what they’re teaching you something.

Honey, Can We Talk About the Statistics Kids?

2 May

With a heavy rain falling, and deep in a lengthy sleep, I had a wonderfully vivid dream last night.  Anyone who knows me well, knows I don’t like talking about dreams.  I find other peoples’ dream stories are often long-winded and boring, and I imagine they should feel the same about mine.  So I will keep it simple.  In real life I have a wonderful dog, Snoop.  People who have spent any time with him will attest–he is very unique (right now he has spent the last five minutes sniffing one of my boots, intently.  He may well do this all night.)  In my dream I had managed to clone Snoop.  There was no explanation for how it happened, it just did.  At first this was very cool.  I now had two duplicate copies of the world’s most cool, and unique dog.  Well, I am sure you can see where this is going.  It became very uncool, very fast.  One of the snoops stopped eating, and wasn’t energetic anymore.  He was tremendously sick.  This was incredibly distressing because I didn’t know if this was the original Snoop, which I obviously had a stronger attachment to, or the clone of Snoop.  And I really couldn’t convince myself it mattered.  If I had the ability to (hypothetically) create an infinite number of Snoops, what did I care about the individual Snoops, or should I?  And of course, NOBODY else cared about the Snoops as individuals, they were only fascinated that there were Dupe Snoops.  They could no longer see them as separate entities.  What they cared about was how had I created the clone of Snoop.  They could no longer see the dogs as the dogs, but only the dogs as clones.  As you can imagine, this was a full blown nightmare by the time I woke up.  I had gone from having one dog with a wonderful, unique personality, to two dogs with no personality whatsoever, beyond being a part of the cloned pair.  My Snoop had become the pet version of the most photographed barn in America.  He had ceased to exist as Snoop, at all.

Numbers and Statistics have always interested me.  But not in a way that great sports events, or delicious food, or riding my bicycle along a secluded country road interests me.  Not in a, “Man this is great, and I want to know what it is about this that makes me feel so great and alive,” interest.  More like the interest I have in the way those phenomenally out-there subway preachers, who see absolutely no problem screaming about how we are all going to burn in a fiery pit while I am just trying to commute to work in the morning.  The “I don’t get this, and I never will, but I wish I did,” kind of interest.  I was a crap student in high school math.  I got a C- in the only college math course I took, “Math For Poets” (I shit you not.)  I can barely balance my checking account, and I pretty much know one thing about mathematical equations: the pythagorean theorem (though I don’t know what it is used for.)  I am ok with this.  I had a 300 point discrepancy on my verbal and math SAT, and I probably knew more about math when I was 17 than I do now.  It used to bother me, but the older I get, the more I get a very clear handle on what it is about my learning style, my interests, and my abilities that make me suck at math.  If I am not creating something that has intellectual and artistic value to ME, I’m not interested in it enough to invest the time and energy to learn it.  Straight up.  I don’t pretend to justify this or defend it.  It may be a weakness–I don’t know really–but it is the way I have approached my own education my whole life.  I would spend hours writing short stories for a creative writing course in college.  Stay up for days and nights at a time crafting and redrafting.  But ask me to get around to just about any of the work for that Literary Theory course?  Simple answer: “It’s an essay I don’t give a shit about and will never care about again, that will be read by my professor, and then get lost in my desk, to never be read for eternity.  No thanks.”  It is for this very reason I wrote a half-assed thesis on the political poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Half way into it, I realized I wanted to analyze the political writings of this guy about as much as I wanted to graph parabolas.  What the fuck for?

Look I am not putting down people who geek out over numbers.  I have some friends who have done real well with their lives because they are damn good with numbers.  I have friends who understand numbers in ways that make them more intelligent about sports than I am, and certainly more intelligent about money.  Shit, some of them are even more creative than I will ever be, only they work in numerical figures and not language.  I get it.  But for me, there has always been a distinct and mutually exclusive relationship between numbers and art/creativity.  I could never succeed at math, because to feel success in my life, I have always had to believe I was creating something meaningful and beautiful.  I can’t recall ever having done that with numbers.

Glenn Loury, a Brown University Economist, who HAS created some tremendous work with numbers, has been a part of a positive trend in American academia with regards to numbers: most intelligent people it seems, over the course of the past twenty years or so, have begun urging that we use statistics not to define people, but to show how people are defined.  This is typified in the statement you hear so many people make (almost always in regard to poor, urban, youth):  We don’t want to see you become a statistic!  In this meaning of the word, we mean statistics of young men (and women) dying, being incarcerated, dropping out, becoming an economic drain on society.  Those kinds of statistics, it has been nobly decided are bad.  Loury and others have rightly pointed out that young people become such statistics when they are statistically pigeon-holed to begin with.  When they are offered subpar educations because the numerics of their income dictate they will attend poorer performing schools with less funding, and less qualified teachers and school leaders.  Or because you grow up in a neighborhood with historically high statistics in crime, you will be confronted by a greater police presence, and in turn a higher statistical likelihood of arrest, begetting a higher statistical likelihood of imprisonment, begetting a higher statistical likelihood of a life lived in a cycle of incarceration.  This isn’t theory.  Take a look at the recidivism rates for NYC juveniles.  When we formulate decisions on statistics, when we refuse to address the issues that drive the data, but rather focus on what to do with the data to inform our reaction, we create nothing new and meaningful and beautiful.  We create more numbers.  And more often than not we create numbers we don’t like.  Loury and others are right to decry this trend.  But what of the one corner of the political spectrum where the philosophy is antithetical to this argument?  What about the one realm of American society, where we are trying to take young people–particulary in urban areas–and actually make them statistics?  In America’s schools there is a push (particularly by the “best and brightest”) to turn our kids into numbers.

If you work in a school–particularly a school in a city–the term “data-driven instruction” has surely become such a common part of your lexicon now that you wake up in your sleep blurting it out.  If you sit in department meetings with people from “outside”, or you interview for a position at a new school or a promotion within your own; if you attend a professional development; if you meet with a superintendent to discuss your curriculum and pedagogy, you are FAR more likely to hear the question: “How do you use data to drive your instruction?” than you EVER are to hear the question, “Tell me about a student you have worked with whose accomplishments make you particularly proud.”  I have been asked the first question no fewer than a dozen times in the last two months.  I have never been asked the second question in five years as a teacher.  Something tells me the Glen Loury’s of the world would see this as a problem.  When we have begun to measure our students as measurements in statistical analysis for our own individual growth to the point that we no longer value their individual creations–except as they can be statistically measured–we have set them down the path of being measured as data their whole lives.  Today, they are numbers that measure my awesomeness–or not awesomeness as a teacher–and tomorrow numbers on a roll-call.  When we stop valuing their individual creations we have begun to create the urban youth version of the most photographed barn in America.  We cease to see the individual.

I met Lemmy almost two years ago.  He was the kind of kid I came to my new school to work with: he was basically just like the kids I had taught in the detention centers (had even had his own run-ins with the law) but here he was out in the free world.  I could expect him to attend regularly, especially if I could make a connection with him (along with some of his other teachers) and this is a kid I could make a difference with.  The suppressed “make a difference in the world!” teacher in me was happy.  Lemmy was an average student with average attendance (which at my school is about 60%.)  He came to school high the average amount of days for students that first year (every day.)  But he was funny, and smooth, and behind the gang facade he had the intelligence about him that I knew I could work with.  And that I knew teachers who had an even better touch than me could excel with.  Lemmy got friendly with girl who came to school every day.  Lemmy started coming to school every day.  Lemmy stopped hanging out with his friends getting high every day before school.  Lemmy met his girl, they had breakfast, they came on time, they stayed late.  Lemmy and his girl started working with a video and art program after school, under the guidance of a great mentor and teacher.  Lemmy started seeking me out every day.  Sometimes to work on writing, sometimes to talk about his love of bacon, sometimes to edit video projects in my room and shoot the breeze.  Lemmy is about to graduate, which if you ask ANYBODY who knew Lemmy three years ago if that was a realistic possibility, they would have laughed and said, “We talking about the same Lemmy?”  But Lemmy presents a problem for leaders at my school and schools like mine.  Lemmy–his story, his individuality–makes him what the data-driven monotheists would call an outlier.  There is no statistics or data to describe Lemmy’s transformation.  There isn’t a rubric to measure the impact of having a girlfriend who cares about school.  There is no flawless or objective measurement for the impact of mentors and teachers who committed themselves against odds and reason to a kid left for the statical dung heap.  Indeed outside of the only statistical measurement that almost everyone would agree on–the fairly obvious correlation between Lemmy’s attendance and academic success–and the subjective measurements that individual teachers could measure and track (based of course on individual bias) there is no way to chart the progress Lemmy has made.  And furthermore, there is no way to use his very unique and personal anecdote to inform one’s instructional approach to any other student.  Lemmy is an outlier, who succeeded for reasons particular to his outlier status.  I would submit that Lemmy isn’t actually an outlier, but rather every student is an outlier.  It is extraordinarily difficult to quantify in numbers what happens when different forces come together to create something beautiful and new.  It is impossible to take that quantification and apply it to a completely different experiment.  The education of each student is a new and unique experiment.  We are snowflakes.

Using data (or numerical measurements of students’ results on similar tasks over time) to see what strengths and weaknesses we have as teachers, actually isn’t the worst idea, in theory.  But it would require some proven practice, and to be truly meaningful would be best done in collaboration and not in isolation.  Where it becomes problematic is when we try to use the measurements of success or lack thereof to translate from one student or group of students to another.  And it becomes more dangerous when we begin to have conversations of how we can duplicate a successful approach, whether it is a specific classroom, or indeed an entire school, with a whole different population.  When we cease to look at the individuals to inform approach, because it is easier to look at the numbers.  When we say, I like what we have here, and I want to recreate it.  When we begin to clone.

Call me crazy, but I don’t know how to measure in numbers, and how to chart artifacts that show a person’s growth in the things I value most in education: intellectual curiosity, creation, personal growth, self-satisfaction.  These are statistical outliers.  Plato knew of no measure for them and neither do I.  But I know it when I see it, and I know that try as I might to magically recreate that explosion of brilliance and transmute it from one student to the next, I will never succeed.  Each unit of data refuses to be data, presenting instead a unique and untransferable code of problems, promise, delights and frustrations.  I would hate to come to a point in my career where Lemmy’s position on an excel chart under the “Common Core Stanard E11-12.1” cell means more to me than a discussion about the wonderful “Bacon Candy” his girl gave him for christmas.  At that point I will walk away.  It would indeed be spiritual surrender as a teacher to no longer be able to ask what Murray asks about the most photographed barn in America, every time we meet a new student:

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said.  “What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns,          how was it similar to other barns?”

The Soundtrack of Our Lives (a Journal Entry)

19 Apr

Kids ask me for college advice all the time. Should I go? What is it like? Is it ok if I don’t give a shit about college? Is it true my life is doomed if I don’t go to a great college? Which college should I go to so I can become a….?

A little over 12 years ago, two weeks of my–as yet young–life were consumed by one of the greatest experiences and journeys I have ever known. One of the greatest journeys I suspect I ever will know. It’s hard to describe to some of my students who have never been, or may never go to a traditional four year college, what that experience is like for an 18 year-old who is made to believe that attending and finishing college is his one and only goal for the time being: that his life will be defined by those four years. I suspect for students who attend the particular school I did, during this day-in-age, that sentiment is only amplified. I suspect that the feeling I had setting out on the aforementioned journey–traveling across the vast landscape of our country to attend my first year of college 3,000 miles away–has only intensified for students now. Yet the more that college education is hyped-up, I feel it is at at the same time becoming economically devalued. But shh, let’s don’t tell them that.

It was a fifteen-passenger van we rented in Maine, in the last days of July. We emptied out the seats, except for one row for the non-driver/non-navigator to nap on as we drove. And then we piled in all the belongings we thought we needed (I was headed to Oregon along with one of my best friends who had found the same “ideal” college as I.) And we were to entrust our rite-of-passage to a man I will forever respect and love: my good buddy Dan’s father. I remember pulling out of that driveway in Maine: the excitement and anxiety, both for the drive and for the four-year adventure ahead of us, and life beyond. For the life I was told for many years before hand would begin in that moment. We had democratically chosen Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” as the appropriate song to play while we hit the highway. And I remember vividly pulling onto Rte 1 in Maine, the three of us hooting and hollering as Willie belted “My fine love is making music with my friends. Feels so good to be on that road again!” I also remember about 4 hours later, settling into the New Hampshire border with the excitement dying down. Probably all three of us were ruminating for a bit on just how much our lives were about to change: the two passengers headed towards that mythical four years of who-knows-what, the wizened driver about to ship his youngest son off as he would have look forward to an empty nest for the first time in his life.

We settled into that trip nicely, a repetition of those excited highs and nervous lows, and many other emotions over the two weeks. And as we did, I found myself, stretched out in the back seat–where I had plastered images of beautiful women from maxim magazine on the windows out of boredom–requesting the same song, time and again. It was the song that came on after Willie’s “On The Road Again,” which became our routine song every time we began the car for a drive. In New Hampshire: “Hey Dan, how about ‘Pancho and Lefty’.” In Moosejaw, Saskatechewan: “Hey Dan, let’s play ‘Pancho and Lefty’.” And damn near everywhere in between, the same thing: “Would you guys mind playing, ‘Pancho and Lefty’ one more time?!??”

I didn’t think much about it at the time. Throughout my life there have always been those songs or albums I couldn’t stop replaying for a spell (“Bat Outta Hell,” Nevermind, Workingman’s Dead, Ready to Die.) I didn’t think about it much, it’s just music I liked at that particular point in my life, sheesh! But on this trip I was constant with it. As we moved closer to my final destination of the elysian fields of “College,” I asked for it more and more. During a driving rain and lightning storm that woke us from our tented sleep in a meadow in Michigan, I woke in the back of the van as Dan and his father drank lead-colored coffee in a truck stop, middle of nowhere. As soon as they were back in the van: “Hey, fellas, how bout ‘Pancho and Lefty’? Same story as we drove through a hail-storm in North Dakota that put infant-fist size dents in the roof. All of us hooting and hollering again. Same story as we drove along the most beautiful and serene stretch of road abreast the Salmon River in Idaho. Or moments after Dan and I were photographed in a pose that will forever symbolize our friendship to me. Behind our backs Dan’s father had captured the two of us looking over beautiful lake Olympia in Banff National Park, Canada. We are both pointing forward into some unknown but beautiful abyss of a landscape, arms around each other. Moments later, back in the van, I begged for ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ yet again. Pulling into our first hotel of the trip–a four-star joint in Ottawa, where the valet attendant looked at our empty tuna cans and plastered Maxim ladies with something more than a “hairy eyeball” I am almost certain we were playing “P and L” yet again, at my request.

I could write a whole series of blogs on those two weeks, and I may well do so some day. But in my excited memory-state I’ve overwritten about it already for this post. What I wanted to get to was this: in the final stretches of that long journey, playing “P and L” for the last time, I recall Dan’s father, something of a madman, himself, demanding to know what the hell was my deal with that song. I said something along the lines of “I don’t know, I guess I just like it.” He wouldn’t take that for an answer. But I had nothing better. He kept insisting there must be something more, and as I unpacked the van, in the beautiful Oregon August I tried to analyze what it was. I recall it well, unpacking in a daze as I thought and thought about that. I have tried to analyze it so long since. I began my college career, and later moved on from that school and to another one where I found other friends with an equal fascination in the same song. We sang it in barrooms and basements at all hours of the night and morning, after any numbers of beers. We played it on the eve of our graduation, all of us weeping sentimentally. I walked away the next day with that much coveted college diploma, and not a single prospect of a job.

The soundtracks have progressed in the years since. And, of course, I have finally found a job, or two or three. I found a career I thought I always wanted, and found out I didn’t want it at all. I switched to a career I never thought I would have (teaching) and fell right into the footsteps of my family: making it more than just a career; making it my life. And through it all there have been songs and albums that seem to captivate me for weeks, months at a time.

Senior year of college and a few years after I couldn’t stop listening to Bob Seger and the goddamn Silver Bullet Band. Along with lyrics from ‘Pancho and Lefty’ I would text lyrics from Seger’s Greatest Hits to my buddies at 2 am on a Thursday night. For a while it was Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlamegne,” or all of CSNY’s Deja Vù. A while back it was Angel from Montgomery” (the John Prine version, of course.) There was the Marvin Gaye Here, My Dear phase about a year and a half ago. A good few years back it was “The Weight” by the band. That was during an impossibly “happy time,” when an unbelievably upbeat and yet hard-to-understand song seemed just right. It was in those post-collegiate years of bliss when life seems right and you think you know who you are and what you want, and all your friends are close enough to see regularly. And we would play it often, and loud. I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I read that Levon Helm is, sadly, in the last stage of terminal throat cancer. I played the songs again, and I remembered.

At the same time, I cannot currently stop listening to Paul Simon’s epic album, Graceland. It’s gotten me back to thinking about that question Dan’s father asked me about so many years ago. That question to which my answer was simply unsatisfactory. There HAS to be more to it: what is it about that song? Or that album? Why do I get so hung up on a “soundtrack”?

I think sometimes when we look for an answer we look for something difficult. I see this in my students. I felt it, and have known it in myself ever since–well–since college, I suppose. It just doesn’t feel right, for those of us who embrace challenges and expect complexity in life, that some answers are simple. One of the students I love working with most, is constantly hung-up on tasks that I expect others to be hung-up on, but I am perplexed when he is. This is a kid who reads James Gee and Plato for fucking fun! And he will get hung up on a question I pose about something which should have a million simple answers. He will kill himself trying to find the one “impossible” answer rather than providing one of the many possible “simple” ones right before him. This is what we do to ourselves. We want the answers to be complex, because we want to have earned it.

I don’t mean for this to be anti-climactic, but if you know the lyrics of “Pancho and Lefty” (or listened to them on the link above) then it may be quite clear to you exactly why that song would have meant so much to me during a two week road trip, as me and my good friend made our way out into that promised-land/bogeyland that was college. It is a song about two underdog friends against the world, about keeping one’s promise to keep his arms around his homeboy and point forward into that unknown landscape. If you know the other songs and albums I mentioned and know what my life has been like over the years since college (that life that I was promised would be perfect as long as I had a diploma, or two, or three) then you probably understood what I could not, for all my insistence on finding the hard answer. In each moment, as I look back, I can see what it is about each song, each album, that captivates me. They were addictive and important simply because they spoke to me at that moment. And while, sure, I may come back to them again and again throughout my life, “Juicy” will never mean to me what it did when I was an angry 14 year old skater-kid. And even when I do return to it on a jukebox or come across it on the radio, its meaning for me will be what it was more-or-less exactly when I was that 14 year old skater-kid.

The college dream is something I wouldn’t want to devalue. I would never tell my kids “you don’t need college,” although for some of them I don’t believe they necessarily do. But I would also never lie to them: my greatest memories of college are not related to writing my senior thesis paper, or cramming for an exam.; they are memories of late-nights with good friends, set to very particular soundtracks. And the dreamlife I was promised a college-degree would bring? Well the dreamiest parts of it (so far) are also memories that were not earned by having attended a great college. They are memories of growing up and changing, and they are almost always set to a song or album I remember distinctly. And for the worst parts, I can say the same. We keep saying, as educators, “we need to teach our kids to be ‘college-ready.'” And I do more-or-less believe that. I want every single student I know to be prepared for college if he want that, and a life beyond high school, regardless. But maybe we should stop doing it by making the poor bastards rewrite an essay they hated writing in the first place about a book they barely read. Maybe we should give them headphones instead.

Somewhere in the second track (and title song) of Paul Simon’s Graceland, the keen listener will come across the moment that I am certain typifies exactly what it is about this album that has me so enamored right now. Just a few moments after singing possibly the most desperate/heartbreaking lines of the album (“She comes back to tell me she is gone. As if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed. As if I never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead”) Paul Simon gives us this great offering:

There is a girl in New York City, calls herself the human trampoline. Sometimes when I am falling, flying, or tumbling and trembling I say, “Oh, so this is what she means!” She means we are bouncing into Graceland.

The album is filled with these moments, where on top of confusion, or despair, or struggle, there is a huge and sudden blast of hope, even if it is three damn words, like “Bouncing into Graceland.” I know and I get what college means for a kid where I grew up. I know damn well what more it means to my own students, now. But I also know at 17 or 18 you have so many years of falling, flying, tumbling, and trembling before you bounce into Graceland. I am on 12 years and counting, my own damn self. For once in my life I am looking an album in the eye as I listen to it on repeat over …and… over. And I can confidently answer that question my friend’s father asked 12 years ago. I know exactly what it is about these songs that has me captivated. It is the promise and hopefulness sandwiched around dubiousness and insecurity and uncertainty about life. It’s where my life has been since I closed the backdoors of that 15 passenger van so many years ago, and shit, well before that. The next time a student asks me for advice about college I am going to shrug. I still don’t know. I will hand him a copy of Graceland. Let him figure it out himself. With a good enough soundtrack, I suppose this is what we do.