Thursday, June 30, 2016

The First Day

In May 1993, I was hired to teach mathematics at Roosevelt High School in Fresno, California and three months later, found myself meeting my first class of students.  The First Day.  There is no getting around it, going over or under it, or bypassing it altogether.  Every teacher has to go through the first day of teaching.

I had some previous experience student teaching, teaching summer school and Sunday school, and substitute teaching.  All of these helped prepare me but they were not exactly the same as standing in front of my own students for the very first time.  So how does a new teacher do it?

The first thing I did was to prepare.  My major in college was mathematics and during my sophomore year I began to consider what I wanted to do with my degree.  Most fields I researched involved specializing in only one or two branches of math.  One of my professors told me that if I really loved mathematics I should consider a career in teaching because then I could discuss all sorts of math.  I decided that was a good idea and began to take the necessary coursework to earn a secondary teaching credential in mathematics.

After I was hired, I spent the summer in training.  I attended a weeklong institute in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  I did research on Roosevelt High School and its students.  I knew, based on demographics, that most of my students were from socio-economically disadvantaged families and that most of them were English Learner (EL) students.  I arranged a meeting with a linguistics professor for resources and strategies to teach EL students.

That summer, I also prepared the initial lessons I planned to teach.  I prepared an agenda and even a script for the first week (in case I forgot my name.)  I organized my classroom and bought the necessary supplies and was all set – except for one vital element.  That was whether or not to smile.

In my teacher training classes, in the textbooks on teaching, and in advice from veteran teachers, one consistent admonition was “Don’t smile until December.”
There were numerous warnings to new teachers against being too friendly with students if they wanted to be respected.  I could understand the reasoning behind the warning; however, if I followed their advice, I would not be me.  I would be taking on an unfamiliar persona.  In the end, I decided to be myself in the classroom and smile, trusting that all would be well.

I am glad that I did.  In the first place, teenagers are really interesting human beings. I would have been hard-pressed not to smile or laugh at the amusing things they say and do.  And secondly, teenagers can spot a fake right away.  That is what they do not respect.  It would be as much out of character for me to not smile as it is for some teachers to smile.  Teens know the difference.

I have applied what I learned about the First Day to other “firsts” in my life.  After all, First Days are part of the human condition. We all encounter them.   Some are pleasant and some are painful.  Some are anticipated while others are dreaded.  Many are unexpected.

So I prepare for life events as best as I can, “front-loading” information.  I still make an agenda as a guide (in case I forget my own name.)  I do research and listen to experts.  My parents taught me to always be myself and make sure that “myself” was a decent human being – a person that I would respect and love.  So that is my plan for every First Day.  Be myself and smile.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Martian Spy

I received the communication last night:  “Mission Terminated.  Return Immediately.”
Terminated!  Oh, no – not when… that is… Rats! The truth is I don’t want to leave.  They warned us about this in training – the perils of deep cover.  They warned us but they didn’t know the extent of it.  No one told us the delights of ear scratches and belly rubs, of morning walks and butt sniffing.  Ah, butt sniffing – one of the many olfactory pleasures known only to us dogs.  And what about bacon?  Does headquarters expect me to say goodbye to bacon?

Well, I’m not ready to come in from the cold.  I’ll just tell HQ that their transmission was garbled, that it went astray and I never received it.  The invasion isn’t scheduled until next year anyway.  In the meantime, I’ve got my disguise ready for the upcoming holiday.  I’ll just stay here and enjoy Independence Day.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Washington Street

Once I was out walking and whom did I meet,
But a man with a stick on Washington Street?
Now one stick’s okay but it’s sort of a bore.
He needs more people, at least seven more
To show off their sticks and carry them proudly,
Carry them gladly and carry them loudly.

Then I thought that those sticks just weren’t good enough.
Suppose they had guns – they would really look tough.
But why stop with guns as they marched to the beat.
They should have assault rifles on Washington Street.

Assault rifles, yes, a bazooka to start…
But they need so much more if they want to look smart.
I know!  They’ll tow a large cannon behind,
The glowing and blowing-up-everything kind.

As they march, they will need some support from the air
So I’ll make sure that bombers are flying up there.
And rockets and nuclear warheads – so sweet!
What a spectacle marching on Washington Street!

And as I beheld all the riot and noise,
I saw that it frightened the girls and the boys.
No one laughed, no one sang, no one clapped to the beat
Of the terrible fury on Washington Street.

I knew right away I must do something quick.
I ran up to the man who was swinging his stick.
“Oh, please, sir,” I asked, “what will you do
With your stick that you have accompanying you?”

“This stick?” asked the man.  “Why, I think it’s just right
In the length and the strength for making a kite.”

A kite!  Oh, how wonderful! That would be grand.
A much better site than the one I had planned.
And later that day as I walked through the crowds,
I saw the man’s kite soaring up to the clouds.

It shone like a star, with a movement so fleet!
And to think that I saw it on Washington Street.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Political Lemmings

In the recent “Brexit” referendum, Scotland had a majority vote to remain in the European union.  However, because Scotland is a part of Great Britain, it must participate in the exit.  That does not seem fair.  Perhaps Scotland should be allowed to secede from Great Britain in order to remain in the European Union.

Scotland’s situation is similar to what American voters are facing in the upcoming presidential election.  No matter what the outcome, a significant percentage of them will have a president for whom they did not vote.  It has been this way for the last several election cycles.  The United States is politically divided into two opposing ideologies.  Every election year, a slightly larger majority inflicts its will on a slightly smaller minority.  That is one of the consequences of a democracy – it can devolve into a de facto dictatorship.

However, this would not happen if majority party saw their victory as a responsibility to protect the interests of the minority.  This is the unwritten social compact of a well functioning democracy – that the rights of the minority, however small, are upheld to the same degree as that of the majority.  Furthermore, all of the privileges enjoyed by the majority are extended to the minority.

But in this, and in previous presidential elections, there is little evidence of the social compact being upheld.  Instead, those of the majority act as if their victory is a mandate to promote their own agenda, with little or no consideration to those of the minority.  People now rally around a candidate because they think he or she will give them what they want, with little regard to anyone else.  If they are the winners, they view the minority as the losers.  And, like Scotland, the losers are expected to accept defeat with good grace and get over it.  They lost and, like lemmings, they are all expected to leap off the cliff, whether or not it’s in their best interest.

So my question is this:  How may we ensure the social compact is honored whenever people in a democracy exercise their right to vote?

Friday, June 24, 2016

Anthony Trollope's Cause and Effect

I think the most heart-wrenching death of a literary character occurs in Anthony Trollope's novel The Last Chronicle of Barset.  It haunted me for days after I first read it and I spent many sleepless hours at night wondering why - why was I so disturbed by this death?  It was not violent or physically painful; in fact, it was a rather quiet death.  After analyzing my reaction, I concluded that I had not anticipated the law of cause and effect.  I was caught unaware by the logic of the death.  It happened the way it did because of choices the character made throughout the novel.  She caused the nature of her death.

Trollope is one of those authors who is kind to his readers.  He will break the "fourth wall" in a novel to assure us that all will end well for a particular character.  He does this so that his readers do not spend the whole time agonizing about a favorite character's fate.  I appreciate that.  I can get distracted worrying about characters and sometimes will even read the ending beforehand to make sure they are okay.

But sometimes a character cannot be okay in the end because of cause-and-effect.  In the case of this particular character, I wanted her to bear the consequences of her actions, but not to the point of death.  I would have preferred another ending for her but that would not have been true to the circumstances.  And Anthony Trollope is an honest writer.  He well understands the law of cause and effect and employs it skillfully in his novels.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Disturbing the Universe

Alfred and I walked along the beach, shoes discarded and trousers rolled.  We watched a pair of ragged claws scuttle across the sand.  Suddenly Alfred paused.
            “Wait,” he said.  “Do you hear it?”
            “Hear what?” I asked.
            “The mermaids!  They are singing to each other!”
            I listened, hearing nothing but the crash of the surf and the cries of the gulls.  I shrugged and shook my head.  He sighed and looked at his feet.
            “I did so hope they were singing to me but now I do not think they ever will.”
            I could see the bald spot in the middle of his head.  I watched his hands squeeze the universe into a ball – his arms and legs so thin.
            I walked out into the waves.  The wind blew the water around me white and black.  Combing my hair from my face, I turned to Alfred and began to sing.

Flash fiction prompt provided by