Month: October 2014

from School Daze

I raise my eyes and survey the group upon that first crescendo, and know I’ve got them.  Establishing the narrator’s sense of intellectual superiority using my classic raised eyebrow, pursed tone, pinched articulation: simple. But the transition from this to homicidal maniac can be tricky. It’s delicate, nuanced, and I’ve marked the spots where each speck of volume increase, each push in word pace, each quaver indicative of mania ratchets up a notch. That first moment when the narrator betrays his homicidal obsession, quite early in the story, sets up the rest of my performance. And I’ve nailed it.

The staccato sentence construction of that second paragraph eases the interpretation: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.” I’d underline the words to stress, offering my audience a sense of the approach to murder he calls “with what dissimulation” in the next paragraph. Then, boom! I raise my voice level and pace and simultaneously begin to extend the stressed words. The creepy effect: “I think it was his eeyyyyee! yyeessss, it was thiiiisssss! He had the eye of a vuuuuuulture –a paaaaale blue eye, with a fiiiilm over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –veeeerrrry gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye foreevvvver.”

I’m moving into the key part of the narrative, that section in which he stalks his victim, nightly visitations which end without incident, so that it seems nothing will come of this decision. My classroom’s so quiet by now that I can lower my voice as though whispering in the night, and here I slow the pace, so that the suspense extends. It’s a critical juncture in the story as he talks about opening the view on his lantern to scope out the man’s room:

“I resolved to open a little–a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it–you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily–until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider shot from the crevice and fell upon the vulture eye.

It was open–wide, wide open–and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness–all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow–”

Just then, an electronic crackling and microphone fumbling ploof-ploof overrides this performance. The Principal’s disembodied voice follows, repeating his pre-Halloween reminder:  It has come to my attention that some students are confused about what costumes may be allowed, based upon the school dress code. To be clear, costumes must follow the dress code. No hats. No masks. None of the “3 B’s”–yes I mean boobs, butts, and bellies. And skirts or shorts must not be shorter than your fingertips. That is all.

And the mood created in the first ten minutes of class deflates entirely.

Nothing encapsulates the experience that is teaching better than Halloween at The Regional*. The creative planning for relevancy: check. The administrative challenges, and blunders: check. The teenaged inventiveness, and rebellion: check. The impediments to the process of education: check. The finger-pointing and laying of blame: check.

Oh yes, Halloween has it all.

For the English teacher immersed in the Romantic Era exactly at that moment in the year, Halloween seems a cosmic melding of students’ real lives and curriculum. If American lit, it’s Poe Day. A chance to read “The Tell-Tale Heart” and develop a concrete list of its Romantic elements. Perfect.

Or bring in Mary Shelley. Or a film of any Romantic Era critters. Dracula. Werewolves. Headless Horsemen. I don’t know what a Math teacher does with Halloween (They have Pi Day, after all!) but this is English teacher heaven. That intersection of such a recognizable day to particulars in a cultural movement, perfection as a teachable moment precisely because the familiar elements are steeped in sheer fun.

So I loved planning my Halloween lesson. If time and energy permitted, I’d even create a costume for that day, to enhance the experience. Students would always ask in the days leading up to Halloween, “You gonna dress up, Miss?” Of course, keeping them wondering, part of the fun. And teenagers’ struggles with Will I go trick-or-treating? and Should I dress up? allow a delightful glimpse into the children they were, and the inventive people they’ve become through their costuming designs. Of course some buy those packaged Superman or Snow White or Nemo get-ups, but I look forward to the clever homemade outfits, especially if kids team up for a group theme. A set of bowling pins. A milk carton (complete with a missing child profile). A pound of butter (or four separate sticks). The Power Rangers. The Seven Dwarves. A cereal box, or school bus, or taxi cab. Amusing, just watching the hall parade between classes.

And those push-the-envelope choices? The reports precede their arrival. Jonathan’s a cheerleader! Have you seen Vince yet? He’s a cross-dresser! Jimmy decided to come as RuPaul: Oh my God he looks just like him–uh, her!! Hysterical! Virtually all the transgender options are young men, often placing balloons in strategic locations, stumbling about for a day in fish-net stockings and spike heels, displaying extraordinarily deep (and sometimes hairy) decolletage, applying detailed eyeliners and lipsticks in deep jewel tones. Just this side of indecent, these youngsters set Halloween as the day to display their willingness to take a social risk, tacitly broadening peer views of “normal” while pushing administrative buttons. These are the costumes generally sent home (during Homeroom if manned by a vigilant teacher). If not, these are the grandstanders, creating a wild, raucous ripple throughout the day.

Those costumes, and the ingestion of massive amounts of sugar (the worst years were the ones that included Pixy Stix, straw-filled yardstick length infusions of solid sugar rush) fevered an energy not conducive to school. Parties (of course, a banned activity, not a lesson plan) somehow sprang up, creating monstrous creatures so hyped on glucose they could not function in a classroom setting. Adding to the distraction of wild costuming and sugar IVs, the school newspaper and yearbook and video club sent roving cameras out to record the best dressed for posterity–and as Student Council sponsored the costumes as a “Spirit Week” contest, to record the winners as well. All of this must be navigated successfully for a teacher to accomplish a lesson plan.

That, and of course the sporadic announcements as the Principal’s disembodied voice wafts from the loudspeakers announcing one of three things, beginning with this pre-Halloween reminder:

It has come to my attention that some students are confused about what costumes may be allowed, based upon the school dress code. To be clear, costumes must follow the dress code. No hats. No masks. None of the “3 B’s”–yes I mean boobs, butts, and bellies. And skirts or shorts must not be shorter than your fingertips. That is all.

Or in a rather exasperated tone halfway through first period:

If you are wearing a hat or any obscene costume, expect to be sent home. Teachers, inspect your students’ costumes right now, and send any inappropriate students to the Assistant Principal’s Office asap. (This, by the way, would be said as though a word “asap”, not as the acronym A-S-A-P.)

Or in a downright snippy tersity around lunchtime:

Teachers, this is a reminder that PARTIES ARE PROHIBITED IN THE CLASSROOM. And do NOT feed candy to your students!

Usually faculty meetings post-Halloween (or pre-Halloween if the Principal thought ahead, and some do) expended a great deal of time exhausting the dangers and results of feeding students too much candy, the disruption to the school day created especially with inappropriate costumes, and eventually fell into a tedious finger-pointing of those teachers who just don’t follow the rules. Two such categories exist: the truly nefarious teachers hosting “ghost story festivals” or other euphemisms for a party; and the simply disrespectful ones who failed to notice the nuance in costuming that should send the wearer to the AP office for dismissal. Generally this unravelled when a particularly rigid teacher criticized those LBGT cross-dresser costumes that appear annually. She’d label them “beyond bad taste, downright immoral.” That judgment sparked mayhem from many camps.

So my Halloween lessons struggled to achieve their initial intention. Reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” aloud requires 32 minutes, focused, intense, with a fairly modulated raising of volume to achieve the desired effect of the man’s traipse into a manic state by its end. Originally I selected this length story so that I’d have 10-15 minutes after the reading to spark the Romantic elements discussion and get that immediacy of understanding that launches the entire Romantic Unit.

But my students were often the most clever costume designers, and the photo-shoots that seeped into my room as the bell rang–a few times we’d even get a “drop-by” photographer interrupting the reading in progress–delayed the reading just enough that I couldn’t accomplish the full lesson. Those announcements tended to hit right around the moment I was building the emotions about THE EYE and his nightly lantern viewings. Broke the mood a bit, stopping right then to listen to our leader. As a veteran of Halloween days and the many other disruptions constant at that school, I could usually fall back into the narrative and reel my students marginally back into the mood. But if those socially conscious students who felt their freedom of expression had been limited were present? I’ll never forget Steve’s disillusion when he was made to remove his dress, not because it broke any rules, but simply because the Principal thought he “shouldn’t wear a dress.” His resentment bubbled up with that PA chat; he needed to discuss the issues then and there. “The Tell-Tale Heart” fell by the wayside completely.

Most teachers came to dread Halloween. The drag on a fruitful teaching day never seemed justifiable, even to those of us who found such delight in that costume parade. The dissent sparked among colleagues, the disappointed civil liberties of students, the absurd posturing into which administrators were pushed: just not worth the price of admission . . .

*Every incident and person described in Becoming Mrs. L is real and accurate, according to this writer’s best recollection of each event. In order to protect their identities, the names of all schools, staff and students have been changed, including the author’s. Becoming Mrs. L is not about one specific place or time or person or incident, but about the real challenges every teacher meets in the course of a career.

Discussion Topic: Several chapters in Becoming Mrs. L describe all those distractions that inhibit a teacher’s ability to accomplish a lesson plan. Interruptions occur in “School Daze” from a Principal’s constant PA announcements and the many school groups using the day to promote school spirit or to raise funds. But teachers know at anytime unannounced visitors may drop by, or the classroom phone may ring, or  the office may request a student for dismissal or an appointment or discipline. A teacher’s program is not seen as sacrosanct, but something to be interrupted at any time, for any reason.

How can we as teachers change this pervasive school climate so that our well-planned lessons actually happen?


A Low Country Mother

at Spring Lake lagoon in 2012

at Spring Lake lagoon in 2012

Another hot and sunny August of slipping into the water to stay cool. The trick on any Low Country summer day, balancing mommy time in the water with a watchful eye on the kids. It’s a skill cultivated over years of sultry humid hours spent escaping the heat without closeting oneself away. Water becomes a comfortable compromise, a place where mommies can cool off while the kiddies play.

Danger lurks. Moms know one eye, always, remains on the kids. In case they get into trouble in the water. Or a stranger gets too close. Or some predatory animal skirts nearby. So many ways a child can be taken away. The wise mother shakes off this sense of doom. Overprotection, after all, has its own hazards. A child that never finds independence, never learns to make decisions. Never swims on its own. Only the smallest babies merit the highest alert level.

Suddenly, she freezes, this mother. Her babies remain where she left them, safe and snug, but danger approaches. Two dogs and a stranger are treading far too close, nearing their haven at an alarming pace. Mom slips through the water, stealthy, ready to protect her babies from harm, hoping these intruders will move in another direction. They don’t. They close in, so close she fears for her babies’ lives.

A blistering rage courses through her brain. She acts without thinking, sprinting out of the water, putting herself between them and her babies, hissing “get away from them” in her most aggressive growl. They do not move. In fact, one of them plops down even closer to her babies than before, and begins kicking at them. Her path is clear, requiring no plan. She leaps, grabs the offending foot, and chomps down hard enough to scare them all away.

Once they run off, she checks her nest, then settles back into the water, a little closer for awhile, just to be cautious.

The nightmare begins later that day.

First, more intruders invade her space, so many that she finds she cannot protect her nest. She sees them open up what she carefully constructed in June. She had created the perfect mud floor. Covering this, a combination of mud and load upon load of giant cordgrass carried to the spot over several days. She’d dug out a beautiful cone into which she’d laid almost 60 eggs two months ago, and made a haven for her hatchlings, who were due in just a few days. She was almost there when this hell descended. They went into her nest, and even though she tried to run them off, they did not scare. She found that after chasing the first intruders away, she didn’t have the energy to pursue this new group for long before she had to retreat into the water and rest.

When she came back out a few hours later to check on the nest, they were still there, and pushed her away again. By the next day, she was so tired that they managed to loop a rope around her, and pull her out of the lagoon altogether. Her nest a few feet off the bank had been dug into; she could see some of the eggs as they carried her past.

She had failed. She had lived in this lagoon for more than ten years, but this one bite spelled her doom. There would be no hatchlings, ever. Nor would this valiant mother live to breed next year. Those gator eggs, however, will foster some very plump raccoons this Low Country August. And mom will perhaps grace some Low Country table. And a lovely handbag.

When the storied Island Packet reported this incident August 15, 2013, it quoted Critter Management, who disposed of the eight-foot, one-inch female alligator. Asked about her nest of 40 to 60 eggs left untended, they replied, “We’ve been told to let nature take its course.”

One has to wonder, told by whom? And how do we allow nature to take its course so conveniently here, when we’re unwilling to allow Mama Gator to do so by protecting her young earlier?

In 1973 the Endangered Species Act named the American alligator to its endangered list. Its population had been decimated, hunted to near-extinction by the 1960’s to provide that distinctive skin for shoes and belts and purses and suitcases. Ironically, the very breeding behaviors exhibited by the mother on Hilton Head Plantation that August day allowed her species to make an historic comeback. They were removed from the endangered list in 1987, and can now be in current euphemism “harvested” for their meat and skin. Critter Management’s “we’ve been told” implies a complex latticework of rules determining what alligator lives, and what alligator, suddenly a nuisance, enjoys “harvesting”.

On the one hand we have a human portrayed as victim, this poor lady who does not live in the neighborhood, walking a friend’s dog as a favor. We’re offered that most human of motives, “It was such a nice day.” So of course she chose to walk them around the lagoon bank, rather than use the miles and miles of beautiful walking paths a safer distance away.

That any South Carolina resident should understand alligators inhabit lagoons, not mentioned. That said native should know alligators build nests three to ten feet from lagoon banks, not important. That this kind neighbor should understand that from June to September in South Carolina a mother alligator will be guarding said nests, just not news. The fact that such a creche of baby alligators will bond and stay together for three years, beneath notice. Alligators may sell newspapers, but they don’t buy many.

Rather, we hear about a traumatized woman with “pencil-eraser sized” puncture wounds suffering a course of antibiotics–not as just desserts for her own behavior, but as justification for that alligator’s demise. Her gain: a front-page story in the local newspaper, complete with photo-op, and later a bit on CNN.

That alligator, though? The one who was where she belonged, doing what she was born to do? The one who had lived there for a decade, without incident? She who was cruelly hounded until exhaustion allowed her capture and execution? This brave mom lost her life, and the lives of the 40 to 60 babies she tried to protect. Who can she call to remove the invasive species that endangers her kind? Who speaks for these Low Country mothers?

One Daffodil

Freedom Tower view from Central Park

Freedom Tower view from Central Park

No gardens bloomed in Bay Head this spring.
Surviving structures instead display an empty swathe of sand and debris.
Crepe myrtle and lavender and boxwoods and cherry trees,
Lynchpins that held the dunes in place, vanished.
Chunks of errant concrete, broken glass, twisted metal
Garnish blackened roots and brown brush.
A place rubbish came to die.
And yet, a fragment of yellow, a slender green stem, pushes from that rubble.
One daffodil, alive and well.
One bulb that somehow came to rest, took root, found nourishment.

South of Bay Head most of Mantoloking disappeared,
Steel beams holding a bridge buckled.
In Seaside, the iconic latticed iron rollercoaster
Twisted, snapped, swept away in minutes.
Gone. All gone.

Mayhem can be shockingly democratic.
We, fraught with fear
Of disease
Of death
Of deprivation
Live our lives fixated upon

Our reliance and attention
So misdirected.
The tensile strength underpinning a house
Or bridge
Or Twin Towers

It lacks the mettle of one daffodil.

There it sits, the sole survivor.
One fragile flower, sprung from the rubble of Sandy.

As if to offer the ghost of a memory,
A whisper of what was.

What can be again.

©Elizabeth Robin 2013