No Offense? Sorry, I’m Offended

These days I let most things go by that I used to stop and argue about, but a few things can still wind me up. At the top of the list is the way people sometimes say “No offense…” in order to escape the consequences of a supremely offensive remark.

What got me started on this was a little sidebar in the current issue of Newsweek. The story involves a few drunken Serbs holding forth in a suffocating cafe in New Belgrade. The conversation as recorded is basically in praise of Radovan Karadžić, the Serbian nationalist leader who was arrested last week after 13 years on the run from the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.

Remarks around the table consist mostly of that special blend of bullying, bigotry and noxious self-pity that is business as usual for Karadžić supporters. I skimmed over most of it because I’ve heard it all before, but then my eye caught something that I couldn’t ignore.

A drinker known as Misko, speaking nostalgically of Karadžić, says to his American interviewer, “One educated Serb is more precious than a million educated Americans. No offense…”

No offense? NO OFFENSE? Sorry, Misko, you crossed a line there. Actually you crossed a million lines, one for every American you slandered with your self-aggrandizing delusion. Do you expect to get away with it just by asking that we not be offended? Put another way, how much better than you, who neither forgive nor forget anything, do you need to have us be?

An Evening at the Beach

Old Orchard BeachOn Saturday, we drove down to Old Orchard Beach, a place we visit every five to ten years. Geographically, it isn’t far away, but it inhabits a different reality. The town is an old-time summer resort destination of the honky-tonk variety—complete with sleazy amusement park and vendors selling things like death metal band T-shirts and tattoos. Years ago, “the pier” was a destination in itself, with a performance venue that attracted all the stars of the Big Band era. A fire, however, took care of most of the pier. What remains of it is tacky, crowded and generally depressing. Most of the summer businesses are run by people who work at Old Orchard in the summer and in a warm climate in the winter. In the past, many of them were Lebanese and Syrian, but I have no idea of the ethnic groups involved these days.

In recent years, year-round residents finally wearied of the town’s seamy reputation and have managed to corral the vice industries. Gone from the midway, for example, are the topless joints, the biker bars and the women willing, for a modest consideration, to make a boy into a man.

In the past, the hotels, motels and rental cabins of the town were filled all summer long with visitors from Quebec and New Brunswick, and you still hear a lot of French on the street. We ate beach pizza served to us by a Russian waitress, took a walk on the beach (seven miles of perfect sand!) and strolled through the amusement park.

Against her better judgment, Marge rode with Elizabeth and me on the roller coaster. Marge is a woman who does not enjoy carnival rides. She regretted her decision and began screaming almost from the moment our car began to climb. I used to like carnival rides in small doses and had expected to enjoy the ride a lot more than I did. As a matter of pride, I do want to stress that I didn’t scream or lose my pizza, but I was dizzy by the end of the ride. It just wasn’t much fun, and the damn tickets cost more than $4.00 each! It will probably prove to have been the last carnival ride of my life.

Elizabeth, who has always had the stomach of an astronaut when it comes to such things, was pretty disgusted with both of us. And only partly because she had bought the tickets.

In the past my association with the town was that I worked there as a bank teller during the summer of 1966, between my sophomore and junior years of college. The pace at the bank was frenetic. The days were long and the pay was low, but the job was the first “white collar” experience of my life.

I tried to be serious and professional at all times and had some modest success at it. Inside my conservately tailored suit and carefully knotted tie, however, I was a 20-year-old guy. Thus it was that on the day a young woman in a convertible wearing only the top of a bikini, presented a check at the drive-through window, I smiled (suavely, no doubt) and cashed that check.

When the check was returned to the bank as worthless a few days later, I learned that there were three things about it to which I had been temporarily blinded by the view from the high vantage of the drive-through window:

  • The “check” was a photocopy
  • The amount was payable in New Zealand dollars
  • The words “Not Negotiable” appeared prominently on the front

For the rest of the summer a teller named Linda covered the drive-through, and the office manager made a lame remark about New Zealand every time he saw me.

Tornado Watch

airborne tornadoTornadoes are extremely, make that extraordinarily, rare here in Maine, so when the NWS announced a watch yesterday I didn’t think the storm would really hit us. It turns out I was right, although we got some torrential rains. Parts of New Hampshire weren’t so lucky.

In retrospect, I’m surprised to have regained my former cavalier attitude toward severe weather events, particularly tornadoes. I’m surprised because I have lived in Oklahoma, in that part of the country that calls itself “Tornado Alley.”

When we moved there I didn’t know what tornado watches and warnings were. I had never seen a tornado and never thought about what being caught in a tornado would be like. We had only been in Tulsa a few months when all that changed. In a nutshell, I learned the following in about half an hour:

Tornadoes are to weather more or less what Machiavellianism is to politics or the fictitious Borg (“Resistance is futile”) to the equally fictitious Federation of Planets. As for Machiavelli, on the subject of permanently defeating recalcitrant rivals he wrote, “If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.” Similarly, if a tornado hits you or even comes close, you will not want to tangle with one again.

Luckily for us, the tornado that taught me all that was airborne, like the one shown in the picture, and so it passed over our house without doing any damage to us. When the funnel first became visible in the sky, our neighbors went out into the street to watch it and, presumably, to plan their strategies. I went out, too, and learned from them that there are basically two choices: you can hide, or you can run. There are rules that apply to each.

In a house built on a concrete slab, like the one we were renting, the place to hide is the bathtub. Barring a direct hit on the tub, you are likely to survive even a tornado’s total demolition of the house. The downside of the idea is that a one-bathroom house provides safe hiding only for one. You choose hiding, by the way, only if the storm is unlikely to hit you, or if you have no time to run. As a first-timer, I briefly considered hunkering down in the tub with a bottle of bourbon, resigned to my fate. By the time I’d formulated this plan, however, the funnel had moved on. Tornadoes are fast.

That’s why if you run (drive, actually) from a tornado the idea is to travel beside the storm, rather than trying to head directly away from it. You just don’t want to race a tornado. The idea is get out of its path because in a normal car on a normal road, you will not be able to outrun the funnel.

Hmmmmm, this turned out a lot longer than I expected. I haven’t thought about these things for years, but now that I’ve been reminded I think I’ll pay more attention to the next tornado watch that comes my way.

Standing in the Penumbra of Celebrity

Portland Sea Dogs TicketI’ve written before about The Grateful Dads, the quartet in which I sing lead. Once every summer we sing the National Anthem at a Sea Dogs game. The Sea Dogs, our local AA baseball team, are affiliated with the Boston Red Sox and part and parcel of the almost mystical fan alliance known as Red Sox Nation.

We’ve been singing for the Sea Dogs for about 10 years. The best part of it has always been the chance to sing through the ballpark’s astonishing sound system. It’s the only time four guys, at least these particular four guys, can make that much sound. And since it’s the National Anthem, we get, by definition, a standing ovation every time.

Big PapiLast night, however, was different from all our other experiences with the Sea Dogs. You need to know by way of background that Red Sox superstar David “Big Papi” Ortiz has been out of the game with a wrist injury for several weeks. As part of his rehabilitation plan, and just before returning to the active roster of the Red Sox, he has been appearing with Red Sox affiliates. Last night he suited up in a Sea Dogs uniform as “designated hitter.” According to local news broadcasts after the game, there were people in the stands who had paid as much as $600 apiece for tickets to the sold-out game. They were there to see Big Papi in their hometown.

The enthusiasm, some might say the fanaticism, of Red Sox Nation fans is something that often catches baseball fans from other parts of the country by surprise. And so it was last night.

When we went onto the field to sing, we saw that every seat in the park was filled. The excitement was infectious. When we were done singing, a cheer went up from the crowd such as we had never heard before. I didn’t think too much about it as we left the field, of course, because I knew the cheer was for Big Papi, not for us four old farts in blue blazers.

But then something we had never experienced before began to happen. As we moved toward our seats for the game, people began to smile at us and praise us. More than a few actually reached out and touched our sleeves as we walked past. When the game was over and we were leaving the park, the whole thing started again. Somehow, in that super-charged atmosphere, Big Papi’s celebrity made everyone a star. It was more than a little unsettling, but also a lot of fun.

If it happened all the time, however, it could certainly be hazardous and might do for the soul what a diet of Mountain Dew and Twinkies would do for the body. Big Papi seems to be at ease with celebrity, but there is skill and self-discipline involved that many celebs just can’t muster or maintain. I had a good time last night, but I woke up this morning just a little more sympathetic to those who are destroyed by their own success.

The Sunny Side of Surveillance

NOTICE: “Sigh,” as Charlie Brown would say. Here we go again with another disclaimer. It’s just a darn shame that we live in a world where a piece like this one has to be labeled explicitly as satire. Two weeks ago, I might not have bothered, but I saw what happened to the New Yorker when they tried unlabeled satire in these days of toxic and patronizing earnestness from people who ought to know better. So, what follows is satire, folks. It’s a joke. It does not represent my actual beliefs. It is intended to mock, lampoon and otherwise disparage radically undemocratic, yet widely held, views of national security and entrepreneurial opportunism.

I have to admit it. When talk of large scale federal government surveillance of nearly all U.S. citizens first began to be discussed, I had doubts. I spoke darkly about “implications.” I wondered aloud what secret agenda the government was supporting by gathering so much information. And how stupid is that, wondering aloud about surveillance?

Finally, I began to embrace the idea. I mean, if our government believes it’s necessary for national security to tap my phone, intercept my e-mails and track my movements, who am I to question it? I’m a real American, not some terrorist-loving liberal, and I understand that our freedoms are safest when the government manages them for us. Smart people in Washington, D.C., have spent a lot of time thinking about this stuff, and I’m not about to second-guess them with my own selfish and naive whining about “privacy” or “civil rights.”

No, I say that America is still the land of opportunity. That means that what’s good for government is good for marketing. Anyway, the new corporate vision is “total transparency.” I can’t think of anything that supports total transparency more than total surveillance.

It’s my duty as a citizen to do some creative thinking, rather than unpatriotically sulking and otherwise acting as if I have something to hide. The day will soon be here when we’ll all be carrying our cellphones and RFID chip passports all the time. Furthermore, businesses and institutions that maintain records about us (banks, schools, employers, anyone who processes credit cards) will be turning over all the information they gather for government scrutiny. The data streaming 24/7 from all these sources can be our ticket to a future brighter than most of us can readily imagine.

With these thoughts in mind, I’m unveiling today four ideas for new products and services that total surveillance will make possible. Here’s a glimpse of what your total surveillance future will look like!

1. TravelSmart™ Highway SignHelping the weary traveler…

Target Market: State and Local Highway Departments

You are lost!Description: Governmental entities that build and maintain highways have always provided signs to guide and assist travelers. A lot of tax dollars are tied up in this service, but until now only one-message-serves-all signs have been available. The need for improvement is obvious. As a traveler you are not well-served if, for example, you are driving to Pleasantville and the only road signs you encounter speak of Placidville.

The illustration shows how much more helpful a TravelSmart™ sign will be. It’s highly personalized message informs you that you have taken a wrong turn and offers helpful suggestions to get you back on the correct route.

2. MyRegistrar™ GPA CoinCharting your educational investment…

Target Market: Parents of college students

GPA coinDescription: Form and function combine beautifully in the MyRegistrar™ GPA Coin.

Worn as a medallion (as shown) or carried in your pocket like a coin, the device provides gentle reminders of how expensive it is to send a child to college. Capitalizing on the total surveillance responsibility of colleges and universities to record student performance daily, the GPA coin offers constant updates on exactly how your child is doing in school. No longer will you have to wait until the end of a semester to learn that your child attended too many “keggers” and not enough classes.

For a modest monthly fee, you can gain the information you need to protect your college investment and to save your child from many of the mistakes you probably made yourself.

3. iMemorial™ Interactive HeadstoneS/he’s not dead, s/he’s just away…

Target Market: Bereaved family and friends

interactive tombstone

Description: The iMemorial™ combines durability, functionality and good taste. The display, constructed of I Can’t Believe It Isn’t Granite® and virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the stone, is divided into two areas. The top half contains a traditional rendering of the name and dates of the departed. The bottom half displays a personalized visitor’s message based on ID information derived from the visitor’s passport RFID.

It’s the next best thing to having your loved one back!

4. Safe Harbor™ Motel SignHelping you to love the one you’re with…

Target Market: Hotel and motel operators catering to short-term guests

motel signThe picture says it all! If you’re on the road a lot, you know firsthand how awkward it can be when you’ve stayed at a motel with a different parter but given the same name. Now, thanks to the RFIDs in your passports and the motel’s own data stream, you need never fear such embarrassment again.

Safe Harbor™ technology takes the worry out of cheating. Best of all, you don’t have to say anything to your partner (who may be just as unsure as you about the names you used last time). Your motel’s sign displays a welcome that tells you what your name is tonight. Vive l’amour!

Leaving New York

I’ve finally calmed down enough to write this story. On July 1st we drove down to NYC to help Elizabeth pack up her stuff and move back to New England. The trip was a pretty typical New York horror story, and an expensive one at that, although the drive down to the city was uneventful. We spent the evening of the 1st helping with packing and cleaning. So far, so good.

The next morning, which was actually Elizabeth’s birthday, she and I went to pick up the U-Haul truck. The first surprise was the cost. The online reservation said $770 (outrageous enough in itself). This turned out to mean $900 at checkout. But there was nothing to be done. We needed the truck. It was too late to get one elsewhere.

Since Elizabeth was the one renting the truck, the people at the rental place needed to see her drive it off their lot. I followed her back to her apartment and parked my car. It was only 9:30 a.m. and we were ready to start loading the truck. I figured we’d be headed north by 1:30, 2:00 at the latest.

And indeed, the truck was just about loaded at 1:30, when a parking spot opened up right in front of Elizabeth’s apartment. I went to get the car while Marge stood in the parking space trying to convince other drivers not to take it.

After about five minutes, I was back. I couldn’t find the car. I had been so sure I’d parked just around the corner, but I suddenly wasn’t so sure. Elizabeth came with me and we took another look around the neighborhood. Nothing.

By then I was pretty sure once again that I’d parked where I thought I had. Suddenly Elizabeth remembered that her landlord had warned her about a spot around the corner that was the location of a pretty much secret crosswalk. She and I walked to the spot, and I suddenly knew that was where I had parked. The “crosswalk” was “marked” by a depression in the curb on the other side of the street! I wish I were making this up, but I’m not.

“You’ve been towed,” Elizabeth said. Great.

I can’t do justice to the part of this story that pertains to getting the car back because Marge took care of that. It took nearly three hours and cost $300. At the hands of the NYPD, Marge was subjected to rudeness, indifference, veiled threats, bullying and meanness of spirit (apparently for its own sake). It’s not so much that the behavior of New York’s “finest” was unprofessional as that it was subhuman.

For the five years that Elizabeth lived in NYC, I was willing to suspend judgment on the worst stereotypes of New Yorkers. The folks at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, however, did their best to prove the stereotypes too kind and forgiving. Of course, they don’t care what I think. It will, however, be a long, long time before I visit NYC again for any reason, and I will never drive there again. The old rule applies here: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

The upshot of our being mugged and shaken down by the NYPD, of course, is that we didn’t actually head north until about 4:00. Rush hour traffic in New York has to be seen to be appreciated. Frankly, Boston drivers are considerably more aggressive than anything I ever saw in New York. But for temper tantrums and raw hatred of everyone else on the road coupled with an odd personal insecurity that just seems to make them angrier, New York drivers have no rival.

In fact, I once asked Elizabeth, who has driven a lot in both cities, what the difference was between Boston drivers and New York drivers. She thought for a minute and said this: “Boston drivers want to defeat you; they give you the finger and yell ‘F*ck you!’. New York drivers hate you, but they’re a little conflicted about it. They give you the finger and yell ‘F*ck you, awright?’ They need that little bit of affirmation, but no, it’s not all right.”

Anyway, as we left NYC, Elizabeth was at the wheel of my Maxima, leading the way out of the city. I was driving the UHaul behind her, sometimes having to follow her so closely that I couldn’t even see her brake lights. It was terrifying and exhausting.

As soon as we reached Co-op City, traffic began to slow down ominously. From there, it took two and a half hours to get to New Haven. Three hours after that, we reached the Massachusetts state line. Distance covered to this point: 140 miles. Time elapsed: six hours.

We finally got back to Portland at about 1:00 a.m. Total travel time: nine hours. Average speed for the entire trip: 34 mph. It was the longest time the drive from NYC to Portland ever took us. In the two weeks or so since that God-awful drive, I’ve come to a few conclusions, foremost of which is that if Elizabeth ever decides to live in NYC again she’s on her own. Dad already gave.

You Can Run But You Can’t Hide

From poverty, that is. Throughout most of my adult life, I’ve had to rediscover periodically the extent to which people who have had no direct connection to poverty simply don’t get it.

Over the weekend, I spent a lot of time with an old friend who had, comparatively speaking, a privileged upbringing. I was telling him about the long multi-generational climb out of poverty that my family has worked through, but I felt that my point remained somehow elusive. Part of my story is that I have enough formal education that people often think I come from money. Finally I showed my friend the photo that accompanies a post about my experience in grad school with a book that forced me to take a hard look at where my father came from. The people in the picture are, left to right, my father, my aunt Thelma, my grandmother, my aunt Toni and my aunt Mary.

The house is the background is the place where my father grew up and where my grandparents lived until my grandfather died in 1967. During my childhood years, the house got a coat of paint and an indoor toilet. Otherwise, the place remained as it had been, right down to the slate sink in the kitchen and the braided rug my grandmother had made from scraps of fabric.

When he saw the picture, my friend grew quiet for a few minutes as he apparently considered things about me that he hadn’t known before. The implications are important. For example, I’ve never felt at home around the wealthy because they mostly bore me to madness. I don’t play golf. I don’t belong to a country club. I don’t go jetting off to Biarritz. Instead, I do my own yardwork and most home repairs. I’m a passable cook, and I always have time to talk to people. For many years, I changed the oil in my car. I often iron my own shirts. In short, I am, as my mother used to say, a person of the common clay.

Last December, just before Christmas, I joined a pickup quartet of carolers hired to sing at a holiday party hosted by some very, very wealthy folks in Scarborough. We were given only the address of the place, and the host and hostess did not introduce themselves to us. We never learned their names and were paid through a booking agent. They were apparently wary of being contacted by the likes of us.

Years ago, I probably would have been annoyed by this, but last December I found I didn’t care at all. The host gave us a quick tour of the public areas of the house, including his six-car garage, but his purpose seemed to be to demonstrate his wealth. The hostess dithered over us for a few minutes and then began to take the evening’s catering crew to task about something or other. Her purpose seemed to be to assert the privilege and power to which she felt entitled because of her social standing.

Now, I’m about the same age as the hostess, and in answering her questions about the quartet I spoke to her as an equal. After a minute or two of this, I noticed affronted regality building up in her eyes. I cut the conversation short because I didn’t want to listen to anything she might have to say to me about it.

Did I understand with whom I was dealing? No, lady. You didn’t give a name.

The invited guests, even those in their 20s, were cut from the same cloth as the host and hostess. All of them were at ease having servants around and never, ever spoke to or made eye contact with any of us lowly singers and servers.

I spent a fair amount of time talking to the servants. I stayed in school longer than most of them, but they are still my people.

I suspect that a lot of this dawned on my friend for the first time when he looked at that photo of my father.

Two Kinds of Musical Minds

I’ll confess it up front. This post will bore most people to the point of unconsciousness, because it’s about music at a pretty technical level. Those who are not bored will, I think, have one of two immediate responses—either “What a cool idea!” or “What a load of BS!”

Ever since I wrote the “Lenny” post, I’ve been thinking about how it is that classical musicians and jazz musicians, even when they play the same instruments, have trouble talking to each other about music and for the most part just don’t “get” each other. My own orientation is toward jazz, even though I haven’t thought of myself as a jazz player for decades.

When I was in high school, three of my friends and I put together a jazz quartet. I played alto sax. We all had connections with working jazz musicians in the area and were happily absorbing their view of and orientation to music. Jazz (except for so-called “free jazz” which I don’t don’t enjoy and spend no time thinking about) is organized around chord progressions. There are lots of conventions about how this organization happens, and even a few more or less set-in-stone rules. Except for big bands which work from carefully written arrangements, most jazz bands use what are called “lead sheets.” Here’s a picture of part of a typical lead sheet that might be given to the keyboard player.

sample of a lead sheet

It’s a simple thing and looks pretty much like the music folk guitarists work from, except that it’s likely to contain chords that folk musicians don’t play. It contains the melody and symbols that represent the chords that are supposed to accompany the melody, and it’s a pretty good conceptual representation of a jazz tune. Of course, there’s a huge store of shared knowledge that underlies the use of lead sheets.

Lead sheets are almost always written in the treble clef. In the example here, the single flat in the key signature suggests that the tune is written in the key of either F major or D minor. The first chord (G minor) might be used in either key, but the song move to the the C7 chord and then to F major. There’s the key, “one down,” i.e., one flat—F major.

How the keyboard player actually plays the chords is left to that player’s discretion, so long as the rules and conventions are obeyed. The G minor chord is G-B♭-D. As the chord is used in the example lead sheet, jazz conventions would permit (almost insist) that the the so-called seventh of the chord (F) be added. Its also possible that the ninth of the chord (A) would be added as a “color tone.”

In a jazz piano style more or less created by Bud Powell something like 60 years ago, for example, the chord would be played as F-A-B♭-D, with no G in it at all! The bass player would probably pick up the G, and whatever instrument is playing the melody has the G covered anyway.

Anyway, a lead sheet is a pretty good conceptual representation of a jazz tune because, like a jazz tune, it “hangs” from the melody. The actual bass line doesn’t appear. Lead sheets were my musical orientation when I arrived at the University of Connecticut to major in music as a bassoonist and was first introduced to what is called “figured bass.”

Figured bass notation is very old, and it looks like the sample shown below. There is also a huge store of shared knowledge involved here, but it’s almost completely different from the the knowledge underlying a lead sheet.

sample of figured bass notation

Conceptually, figured bass is pretty much the opposite of a lead sheet. For one thing, it’s written in bass clef. It specifies the exact notes to be played in the the bass line, and it describes the chords, without naming them, through the numbers written below the notes. In the sample here, the key signature is two flats, and the first note is G. The numbers 5-3 below the note specify that the chord is in so-called “root” position, so that the notation describes a G chord.

The bottom note is G, the second note is a third higher (but flatted because of the key signature). The third note of the chord is a fifth higher than the first. This yields G-B♭-D, the same notes as in the Gm chord at the beginning of the sample lead sheet.

For the second chord, we find the note B♭ with the number 6 beneath it. This is shorthand that a “continuo” player would be expected to decipher. It means that the top note in the chord is a sixth higher than the bass note, a G. So, the second chord in the piece is also a Gm chord, but it is to be played in the note order B♭-D-G.

For the third chord, the note is D. The numbers below describe what is called a 7th chord in root position. The ♯ symbol is another bit of shorthand and indicates that the second note of the chord is to be raised a half-step. In its entirety, the chord is realized as D-F♯-A-C. The lead sheet would describe this as D7, and Bud Powell might have played F♯-B-C-E, a D7 with no D in it anywhere!

In a nutshell, figured bass notation sits on the bassline, and the melody doesn’t appear at all. This reflects a mindset so alien to the jazz sensibility that it should be no surprise that classical musicians and jazz players really, really don’t speak the same language.


And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed.
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

—Langston Hughes

Lenny BreauI was about 20 years late in “discovering” Lenny Breau. Lenny was born in 1941, just five years before me, in Auburn, a small city about 30 miles from Portland where I was born. He lived in Maine until 1957, when his family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Lenny was murdered in 1984, when he was living in Los Angeles. Somewhere along the way he became the finest jazz guitarist I’ve ever heard.

I first learned about Lenny in the late 1970’s, but for some reason my ears just weren’t open to him. A few years ago, I was searching online for an mp3 of the The Jamies’ 1950’s hit Summertime, Summertime. One of the “hits” my search turned up was Lenny playing the Gershwin Summertime. I played it over and over and finally tracked down and purchased the CD that it came from.

Summertime is a song I learned to play nearly 50 years ago, and I thought I knew it. I stopped playing it years ago because it had become such a cliché. Listening to Lenny, however, I felt as if I had never heard the song before. If Lenny were alive now, he’d be 67—still playing way out ahead of everybody else, still taking old standards and finding things in them that no one ever heard before, and doing it every single night.

I wish I’d gotten to know you, Lenny. You probably couldn’t have turned me into a genius like you, but I’d have made a hell of a fan.

What Did You Learn in School Today?

NOTE: I ask all of you who work or have worked in the field of education to read this post all the way to the end if you start to read it at all. You won’t know where I’m headed with this until the last paragraph. The story I’m about to tell is about me and my own experience in trying to do a job for which I had astonishingly little aptitude. It’s not about education or America’s public schools in general.

The worst year of my life was the school year 1974-75, the year I spent as a high school English teacher. I’m not sure anyone has ever lived who was less suited to high school teaching than I. I wonder about a few things to this day:

  • How I ever thought teaching high school was a good idea for me;
  • How anyone, having talked to me about high school, could have hired me as a teacher;
  • How I ever made it through that long, long year; and
  • How, 20 years later, I could have thought I might try to go back for more—although that’s a story for another day.

The fundamental problem, which should have been obvious to me from the beginning, was that I had hated high school as a student. Hated it, and not just a little. I hated it with stomach-churning resentment so strong that just entering the building would sometimes make me physically ill.

Nonetheless I somehow thought that on the other side of the desk, my outlook and attitude would change. I was an intern (what used to be called a “student teacher”) during my last semester of college in the spring of 1968. Student teaching was a lot of work, but it was pretty much a given that, having completed it, you would end up with an A for 12 college credits. I ended up with a C for those 12 credits. So much for the old GPA. In truth, the C was probably a gift.

If I hadn’t figured out any other way that I was barking up the wrong tree that whole semester, I might have known on the day I stood at the window with the school’s principal as we looked out on the student smoking area. My generation had gone wild during the years I was in college. The generation of our parents wasn’t prepared to accept or even acknowledge the extent of the change that had occurred. So, when I saw one kid pass a wad of bills to another kid who passed back a brown paper package, I knew I was witnessing a drug deal. I turned to the principal and asked him what the school was doing about its obvious drug problem.

The principal was incensed and huffily told me that there were no drugs in his high school, thank you very much. Right, I thought. I later learned that by 1971 that school (with the same principal) was videotaping these transactions so that parents could be called in to watch. There was really no other way to get parents’ attention, because in those days parental instinct went along these lines: “You’re accusing my kid of using drugs? I’ll have your damn job for this!”

I daresay that if the principal remembered me at all by that time he was settling down parents by showing them videotapes (“So, Mr. Smith, why do you think that lunch bag is worth $40?”) it was only to recall that I had been insolent and insubordinate. Hell, I probably had been.

What always wound me up about high schools is their nearly obsessive devotion to conventional thought, expression and behavior. Such devotion, I think, is the reason why school administrators so often get it wrong when dealing with students who behave unconventionally. Hardly a year goes by, for example, without media picking up a story about students who have been expelled for what they’ve written in a student newspaper (e.g., support for gay student rights) or said in class (e.g., opposition to a war) or worn to school (e.g., armbands for whatever cause). Sometimes the same brand of idiocy gets a teacher fired for teaching. Anna Quindlen tells such a story in the current issue of Newsweek.

By the time I ended up teaching high school in the fall of 1974, I had done four years in the military and completed an M.A. The job was there, and I really had nothing else to do with myself. I figured it couldn’t be any more unpleasant than the military, but I hadn’t figured on the squirmy relentlessness of the kids. I also hadn’t figured on the cynical sloth of the English department chairman, the bullying stupidity of one assistant principal, the exhausted resignation of the other, and the flat-footed authoritarianism of the principal (a career changer who, when under pressure, seemed to think he was still a cop).

Certain moments of irony weren’t lost on me, however, despite my unhappiness. I was, for example, required to teach The Catcher in the Rye, a book of which the mere possession 10 or 12 years before had netted me a finger-pointing lecture on morality.

The short version of the story of my year as a teacher is that five minutes into home room on the first day, I knew I had made a horrific mistake. I white-knuckled it through the remaining 179 days of the school year, and left without regret when it was over. By way of specifics, I got through the year by drinking too much, taking too many “sick and tired” days, doing the minimum possible amount of work, and whining like a two-year-old.

What has stayed with me from that year, however, is a small collection of good stories and a bottomless admiration for those who teach well.