Four Reasons Why Jeff Bliss is Totally Wrong

Jeff Bliss is the young man who has recently made a name (or at least an image, with all that long blond hair) for himself by berating his teacher after she told him to leave the classroom.

If you’ve seen the video of the “mic-droppingly epic speech” of this high school student giving his teacher the what-for, then I know what you’re thinking: “Wrong? No way! That kid is totally RIGHT! This is everything wrong with our public education system! Test prep, packets, and lazy teachers! He called them all out!”

Fair enough. The content of the speech isn’t totally wrong. In fact, assuming the allegations are accurate, the class sounds intellectually stultifying, to say the least. And Mr. Bliss has a certain natural presence, a je ne sais quoi, a refreshing lack of profanity—in short, a talent—for public speaking. And I understand where he’s coming from. That self-righteous indignation, that breathtaking certainty in the revolutionary validity of his own words–I get it. I get it and I did it. I railed against the system, against “bad” teachers, against every injustice that came to my attention. That injustices usually came to my attention when they inconvenienced me in some way was, at the time, beneath my notice.

Fortunately for me, my mother, who believed that I was intelligent, talented, and worthy of a good education, also had an incredibly well-honed bullshit meter when it came to my teen angst. It is thanks entirely to her good advice, which I sometimes actually took, that I managed to stay out of the “dumping ground” classrooms—you know the ones I mean—and squeeze into the types of classes where my arrogance was, by and large, no match for the creativity and intelligence of my teachers.

I have a strong suspicion that Mr. Bliss has not managed to avoid the dumping ground. Everything in the video suggests this is exactly where he finds himself. It’s in the teacher’s voice, the reaction (or lack thereof) of the other students to his rant, and in the accusations he makes about the nature of the curriculum: He’s in the classroom where students go when they have been deemed “unteachable.” Every public school has at least one such room, and Mr. Bliss is exactly right: such rooms should not exist.

That said, Mr. Bliss, you’re going about this all wrong. Here’s why:

1. It doesn’t matter who or what is at fault. In the end, the only person you’re hurting here is you.

This was my mother’s favorite point, except she called it “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” I heard this phrase so many times when I was a teenager that I was almost tempted to actually cut off my nose just to get her to stop saying it. Of course, mostly what I hated was that she was right. Railing against your teacher will get you exactly nowhere. If you think your teacher doesn’t care, she probably doesn’t. Thus, shouting at her that she should care is worse than a waste of your breath—it’s going to get you in trouble, and no one in the administration is going to care that you are right and she is wrong. More importantly, no college admissions officer or future employer is going to be sympathetic to your plea that the reason you have a 1.5 GPA is because your teachers were all horrible people.

In other words, you can fight this all you want. You can be 100% right. You can refuse to do any work, to open any book (or packet), to get a decent grade until everything in the system is fixed to your satisfaction. Guess what? You will literally hurt no one but yourself in this process.

Let me put this another way: there are people, lots of people, people with PhDs even, people who are brilliant and clever and hard-working and passionate, who have dedicated their lives to trying to make it so that no student ever has to sit in a room and be bored. And those brilliant, clever, passionate people have not managed to fix the system. Maybe someday they will. Maybe they won’t. In the meantime, you are bored and you are pissed. Get over it. If you don’t want to be bored, do something. If you don’t want to be pissed, take a few deep breaths and then do something. And by “do something,” I don’t mean yell at your teacher and then storm out of the room. I mean DO SOMETHING. Read a book. Read 100 books. Practice chords on a guitar. Work on your poetry. Work on getting a date for Friday night. Whatever you do, remember this: nobody but you has the power to make you not bored and not pissed. It is entirely in your control. The sooner you learn that, the better you will feel and the more effective you will be.

2. Talent is not rare.

Many of the comments on the original YouTube video say something to the effect of, “This kid has nothing to worry about. With that kind of talent, he’s going to be just fine.” I beg to differ.

We’re sometimes led to believe that talent is rare, and that rare talent is all a person really needs to get ahead. It’s a delicious thought that has led many of us, my high school self included, to avoid working hard to hone an actual skill and, instead, cast about madly for the magical sport, artistic media, or musical instrument at which we are so incredibly talented that work is not required and fame will find us.

This, sadly, is not how it ever happens, no matter how often it may seem that it is. Behind every musician, every professional athlete, every writer, every scientist, every famous person you’ve ever heard of, is a history of long, hard work—work that was often boring, monotonous, and thankless. It may not have been conventional, may not have taken place inside a classroom, and may not be immediately obvious beneath the veneer of ennui that said artist or athlete has carefully constructed, but I promise you, it happened. Practice and hour after hour after hour of work happened before success hit.

To get a sense of the commonness of talent, all you have to do is look at the number of people playing a college sport compared to the number of professional athletes. Take football: every single player who has gotten as far as college football is talented. Of those talented players, fewer than two percent—two percent!—will go pro. And that’s just the talented players who made it as far as college ball—imagine the numbers who play in high school who are “talented.” Add to that the numbers of children and teenagers who are talented at some other sport, or in art or music or writing or math or science, and you’ve got essentially, I don’t know, billions of talented people on the planet.

Which leads me to my next point:

3. Potential is worth nothing.

I know that you believe you have potential. I can hear it in your voice. And you are positive that this potential means something.

Sadly, no one has ever made a difference in the world on the basis of “having a lot of potential.” You know who had a lot of potential? Every convicted felon serving life in prison. Every lazy, horrible teacher. Every member of every lousy garage band that ever played in a shitty bar. In short, every baby ever born has potential. Really.

So you, sitting in high school, know that you have potential, and that the school is wasting it. You are “the future of this country,” for heaven’s sake! You know that if only you had teachers who cared, a curriculum that made sense, administrators who knew their ass from their elbows, your potential would flourish, well-nurtured in a sea of caring and highly involved people.


Wrong. Your potential will flourish when you decide to turn your potential into something that actually matters: Achievement. No one can do it for you, and waiting for someone to help you is a waste of your time. Does that have to be conventional school achievement? No. But it will make your life a hell of a lot easier if your achievements include being able to show a modicum of success in high school. Especially since:

4. Intelligence entitles you to nothing.

Surely the fact that you’re smart entitles you to at least a tiny feeling of superiority, right? If your teacher had half a brain, she obviously wouldn’t be sitting in there. Ditto most of the other kids. Clearly, the fact that you’re stuck here proves only that somewhere, someone made a terrible mistake—if they knew how smart you are, they never would have let this happen.

Well… no. First of all, like talent and potential, intelligence alone doesn’t mean much. Those who happen to score above average on IQ tests would love to believe that this actually matters in some gigantic (or even in some small) way, but it doesn’t. Most psychologists, maybe most people, would disagree with me here, but I don’t actually believe that intelligence exists separately from behavior. If a person makes stupid decisions (and I would define that as “decisions that hurt himself and no one else”), then that person is not very intelligent. Or, if he is, that intelligence is meaningless. Once that person starts making smart decisions (i.e. decisions that benefit himself and the people around him), he is intelligent. Ergo, if you want the world to treat you as though you are an intelligent person, then start making smart decisions.

Secondly, a person isn’t entitled to a good education because he or she is intelligent. A person is entitled to a good education because he or she exists. But being entitled guarantees (here’s the word again) nothing. If you’re not getting that thing, then being “entitled” to it isn’t going to magically make it happen. Therefore, if you feel entitled to a good education, then you are simply going to have to go out and get well-educated. I wish as much as you do that going to school and sitting down and waiting for someone to take an interest would do the trick. However, in this case, it doesn’t seem to be working. In truth, that’s really never how it works. Excellent teachers don’t stand in front of the room and pour information into your head. Excellent teachers find ways of getting you to pour information into your own head.

If you don’t have an excellent teacher, you’re going to have to take this bull by the horns, skip the middle man, do some damn hard work, and get that information into your head. The fact that you have potential, talent, intelligence, and the right to a decent education will mean nothing—and I mean nothing—when you are faced with the whole big wide world outside of high school.

So hop to it, young man! You have a lot of work to do. You have a whole world to save, an entire future to fix. It’s not going to happen just because you have half a million hits on your YouTube video.

Because here’s one thing that is true: when you’re one of the ones who has a little extra talent, a little extra intelligence, a little je ne sais quoi, and the ability to see past the crap, that means you have more of a responsibility to work hard and make a difference, not less.


Winners and Losers, or: Sports are Good (!)

As I’ve been watching the Olympics this year, I’ve been struck by three realizations:

Getty images

Getty Images

1. Athletes like tattoos.
2. Flag-themed nailpolish is trending.
3. Competition is a beautiful thing.

The first two observations aren’t very earth-shattering. However, the third one made my 16-year-old self die of shock. I never had much, if any, affection for sports when I was a kid. I was the ‘easy out’ on the recess kickball court. I was the kid who swung like an idiot for the badminton birdie, only to miss it by four feet. I was the kid who sunk the basketball into the other team’s net. You get the picture.

So, in the blazing tradition of all teenagers everywhere, I dismissed that at which I sucked. English class? No problem. Gym class? Genuinely terrifying. Therefore, English must be valuable, and gym must be a waste of time. Right? During high school orientation, the athletic director introduced himself by saying, “Welcome to high school and the other half of your education: Athletics.” I think my derisive snort is still echoing in the auditorium.

(I may or may not have been something of a pain in the ass when I was fourteen.)

Meanwhile, in an Olympic-level contortion of cognitive dissonance, I happily went out for swimming in the winter and track & field in the spring (though, granted, I was only interested in track because the hottest guys in school were on the team). While I was mocking sports as activities fit only for meatheads, I was also participating in them. I didn’t go out for team sports, but that was largely because you had to try outto be on those teams. By contrast, anyone willing to wander around in a bathing suit could swim, and anyone willing to wear teeny tiny yellow shorts in front of all the hot boys could run track.

Me on the high school track. I didn’t have any tattoos or fun nail art, but I DID have pink hair.

Sign me up!

It never ceases to amaze me how glad I am that I played those sports in high school. I wasn’t very good, and I didn’t always take it that seriously, but I did experience the thrill of seeing my times improve, and I did learn skills that I’d never have even been exposed to in the classroom–for instance, how to laugh it off when you attempt the high jump and end up landing on your head on the track, having jumped in the wrong direction.

One thing that always strikes me during the Olympics is that losing is harder than winning. All the athletes have dedicated, at the very least, large portions of their lives to an event that happens once every four years. In many, if not most, cases, their families have sacrificed a lot to give them the chance. If they blow it, they let down their team, their family, and their country. And millions of people watch it happen.

And yet, even though many of them do blow it, they all keep on trucking. Yes, it’s hard to win gold in Women’s Gymnastics. But how much harder is it to fall off the damn balance beam and then get back on it and finish the routine? Holy crap. Or to fall off your bike in the middle of a road race and then get back on it, literally bleeding from the elbow, and keep riding? These aren’t just dream-crushing mistakes; they’re frakking embarrassing.

Worse, perhaps, is that it doesn’t take a huge mistake to lose. Sometimes you are at your personal best, and the people around you are simply… better. Maybe they worked harder or smarter, or maybe they’re just better.

Some people don’t like competition because contests can only have one winner, which means everyone else has to lose. I used to agree with that sentiment. I’d cry when someone fell off the balance beam, no matter which team they were on, and hate the winner just a little bit because they’d won on the back of everyone else’s loss.I don’t feel that way anymore. Yes, my heart went out to the Russians last night. But that doesn’t mean I begrudge the American’s the win. They were better, and they won. And today is a new day. The loss only ruins someone’s life if they let it. But the attempt–that’s where the beauty lies.

Now, when I look back on high school and “the other half of my education: athletics,” I’m still not willing to concede that sports are 50% of education. But I am willing to concede that they are a legitimate–nay, an important–part of education. That they are a good use of taxpayer dollars, that they benefit a huge percentage of teenagers, and that they are important even, or perhaps especially, because someone has to “lose.”

Oh, I’ve also learned that, just because someone is good at something I can’t do, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a meathead.

Messing with Texas

I submit to you that the hardest challenge a writer will ever undertake is to use her words to change your mind about something. It’s child’s play to reaffirm ideas you already hold dear, it’s easy to strengthen ideas you’re already prone to, and it’s only moderately difficult to help you articulate something you believe but struggle to explain.

But to actually change your mind… that’s tough. Especially on a blog–how many of us even read blogs, or anything else, unless we’re already likely to agree with them? News articles with reliable, objective, new information might be the exception, except that journalists are continually thrown over for pundits, making such articles hard to find. And anyway, why read something objective and informative when you could read something with a little information and a lot of opinion that supports what you already think? I’m as guilty of this as the next person–it’s really easy for me to watch The Daily Show and call myself educated; it’s much more difficult to read the “World” section of the New York Times–which is to say nothing of how much I drag my feet to read, say, The Wall Street Journal. Bleh.

Jezebel is so much easier to stomach.

But the whole point of education is to learn something new–and not just learn it, but apply it. It’s not enough to know that “The God Particle” is just a nickname for the Higgs-Boson. In order to really be educated, I have to look beyond the headline and read a lot of difficult and dry scientific stuff–as close to a primary source as I can manage, not just an op-ed piece–to begin to understand just what the Higgs-Boson actually is. Then I have to call up that information every time I read about what the Higgs-Boson means regarding, say, religion, so that I can judge the new information against the old and decided for myself if I agree, disagree, or want to withhold opinion.

That is education. Not just the memorization of facts (though this is an important element as well, no matter how dull it seems), not just the understanding of those facts (again, still an important part), not even just the application of those facts to, say, a theory or principle, but the analysis of ideas–this is what critical thinking, and, thus, education, is.

As adults, it is up to us whether or not we pursue education. We can either read about Syria or we can read about the Kardashians. Or we can read about Syria, but only from the perspective of people who are likely to say something we like. Or we can read about how much better it would be if we were reading about Syria instead of reading about the Kardashians.

No matter what we do, it’s our choice. We’re not in school anymore, and we have every right to choose not to better ourselves.

We also have the right to choose for our own children. If I don’t want my child to be exposed to ideas with which I may not agree, whether those ideas seem too liberal for me or too conservative, I can keep her out of school. I can homeschool her or send her to a private school. I still have to pay my taxes to the public school, of course, because it’s not a free public education if the only people paying for it are those who are using it, but my child never has to darken the door of the facility. In fact, I’m well within my rights to prevent my kid from ever once being exposed to a piece of information or a line of thinking to which I have not already given my stamp of approval. (Well… sort of. But anyway, that’s a different conversation.)

I hope it goes without saying, though, that I don’t have the right to choose that for someone else’s child.

The truth is that free public education is a radical idea. We the people have all come together and said, “We want children–all children–to be taught to think for themselves,” and we want that education to be free, high-quality, identity-affirming, and nurturing. We want to pay for it even if we don’t have children ourselves. Even if we can’t stand our neighbors, we want to contribute to their children’s education.

Because we hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.

In fact, the idea is so radical that I’ve suspected for some time that many people don’t actually believe it. They’ll pay it lip service, but when it comes down to the dollars and cents, they’d rather scream about teacher’s unions, illegal immigration, and school vouchers–in other words, issues that are so divisive, so complex, and, ultimately, so dry (if you really read the full-text primary sources on the subjects) that they muddy the waters and everyone forgets we’re all together here–we do have a common goal, and the road map for getting there is clearly marked.

That is, it’s clearly marked if we all agree that our founding fathers were right that everyone is equal and everyone should be educated as such.

Texas GOP crush your head!

I would actually get it if someone stood up and said, “You know what? I don’t agree with our founding fathers. We shouldn’t educate everyone equally, because everyone isn’t equal. The founding fathers didn’t know we’d be unable to close our borders. Christian, English-speaking Americans are equal, but everyone else is unwelcome, and we don’t want to educate them unless they want to become Christian, English-speaking Americans.”

I wouldn’t agree with them–I’d don my critical thinking cap and decide that these people were xenophobic, racist elitists–but I would at least have a little respect for the fact that they stood up and told the truth as they saw it. After all, I have respect for people who stand up and say, “You know what? I think the founding fathers had no idea that someday there would be AK-47s, and when it comes to gun control, I think we need to deviate from the road map now that these things exist.”

But what I don’t have any respect for, and what I find quite terrifying, is people who stand up and say, “Our founding fathers believed that only Christian, English-speaking Americans should be educated, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re an amoral, godless liberal who is launching an assault on America.”

Oh, I guess it’s not really terrifying that they stand up and say it. That’s common sense–if you want people to agree with you, throw around words like “founding fathers” and “morality” and “God.” What’s terrifying is that so many people buy it.

In fact, they buy it so much that the Texas GOP has now literally ratified, as their 2012 platform, their support for removing critical thinking from the curriculum. Here’s their actual language:

“We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

They also believe that “the current multicultural curriculum is divisive” and they “support school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded.” They also want to make it illegal for non-citizens to go to school.

In other words, if you aren’t a Christian, English-speaking (white) American, they don’t want you to be educated. Even if you are a Christian, English-speaking (white) American, they don’t want you to be educated–unless “education” means “being told things you already know and believe.”

They’ve since come out and claimed that they opposed “the teaching of critical thinking skills” by accident, but I don’t buy it. Why? Because critical thinking is by definition the “challenging of fixed beliefs.” In the sense that teaching a child to think for himself–which is to say, teaching a child–means teaching him not to believe everything he’s told by an authority figure, yes, education undermines parental authority. Yes it does. It also undermines the authority of the church, the authority of the government, and the authority of the teacher.

Because when child learns to think for himself, he learns not to believe everything he’s told. She learns not to believe everything she reads. In order to learn this, she has to learn to question her elders–not overthrow them, not disobey them, but question them.

And if you think the founding fathers would have been against this, you should really read up on your history.

In case you don’t want to take my word for all of this, here are some links:

Texas 2012 GOP Platform

Washington Post Article/Blog

Huffington Post

The Nail Polish Issue

pale pink polishE has a friend whose mom is a hippie. She teaches environmental science, doesn’t own a cell phone, and I’m pretty sure I heard her say that she doesn’t eat gluten, meat, or dairy. Somehow she manages to make patchwork skirts look good. In short, she’s a little intimidating.

She’s also a very nice woman, and I love her daughter, but when they came over for a play date last week, I wasn’t sure what we’d talk about. (When she said ‘no thanks’ to a cupcake, and I knew I was out of my league.) And then she turned to me and asked, “Where do you come down on the nail polish issue?” [UPDATE below]

Well, as it happens, I’ve given a lot of thought to nail polish lately. And, even though I was sure my new friend was going to be horrified, I admitted to her that we’d recently taken E out for a mani/pedi.

By “we,” I mean my sister and I, and it was a one-time, celebratory event for my sister’s birthday. Originally, I thought we were just going for pedicures, but when my sister walked into the salon and, grinning from ear to ear, proudly said, “We’re here for mani/pedis,” I didn’t have the heart to correct her. So, with a little guidance from me, E picked out a pale lavender for her toes and a sweet baby pink for her fingers. Then she spent the next three days telling everyone she saw that she’d been in a “water chair.”

The thing about E is that we indulge her in girl culture. She often wears dresses and skirts, as per her wishes. She has three (THREE!) pairs of sparkly shoes, one of them being official Wizard of Oz ruby slippers. Nearly everything in her room that isn’t pink is purple, and most of it sparkles. She even has three or four pairs of fairy wings and several official Disney Princess dresses. That many, if not most, of these things are second-hand is lost on her–so all that’s left is the indulgence part.

I love that she has all this stuff because… well, partly because I wanted it so badly when I was a kid, and I never got it. I also grew up thinking of “girl stuff” as, in many ways, sub-par. The princess culture, for all its inherent issues, certainly does not suffer from confidence issues. I love that E celebrates girl stuff. That she loves sparkles and pink and purple, that she wants to know how to braid hair, that she prances around in ballet shoes and tulle and wings and wands, that she wants to be like Mommy and paint her nails.

But I also hate it. I worry that, instead of being celebratory, all of this crap will end up weighing her down. That, instead of being fun and innocent and brimming with imagination, it will end up strangling her with a skewed and unhealthy understanding of “femininity” as a shallow, sparkling mess of huge boobs and tiny waists–a world in which all the glitter and color is intended only to snag a man and feel superior to other women. That E, whose brain is so quick and whose potential seems limitless, will internalize the vapid expressions on the faces of the Disney Princesses and actually take their story lines to heart.

Nail polish somehow symbolizes all that is great and problematic about girlhood. On the one hand, it’s harmless–just a little spot of color, not permanent–an activity a girl can share with mom, and a privilege that is largely girls-only. Or at least girl-centric.

On the other hand, nail polish also represents the hyper-sexualization of young girls. The toddler beauty-pageant insanity of fake tans and bleached hair. The acceptance of the idea that girls and women can and should slather their fingers with paint and then take pains to keep it from chipping–it’s hard to join in on healthy kid activities like digging, gluing, and painting when one is worried about one’s nails.

In the end, what I decided, and what I told E’s friend’s mom, is that nail polish is OK with me as long as it’s an activity E and I do together because it’s fun for its own sake. The second I hear her say, “I can’t play that, because I don’t want to ruin my nails,” or ask another girl why she doesn’t have nail polish, or in any way behave in a way that suggests that the nail polish itself has become the point, we stop doing it.

And wouldn’t you know–my new friend looked at me and said, “I completely agree.”

It’s not a perfect solution, I suppose, but how many perfect solutions are there? I hope that E doesn’t equate femininity only with bright colors and frivolity, but I don’t want her to eschew these things simply on the basis that they are feminine, either.

Anyway, it’s probably moot. The other day she told me, “I love sparkles because girls love sparkles. But boys don’t love sparkles.” Then she contemplated her sparkly shoes for a moment and amended her thought: “Well, some boys don’t.”

I guess, if she already knows that some boys like sparkles, she’ll also pick up that some girls don’t. And be perfectly OK with it.

*UPDATE: I realized, belatedly, that this might make it seem as though she were grilling me, but she wasn’t. The question was very relevant because our girls are both in the same preschool, where an intense nail polish trend is currently gripping the Star Room.

Dear New Teacher,

Dear New Teacher,

I made mistakes that still keep me up at night. But I also built a classroom library. Isn’t it beautiful? I dismissed it at the time because it was easy and fun. Now I realize how cool it is.

I have a teensy, weensy bit of bad news for you: This year is probably going to suck. You’re going to work very, very hard, lose sleep, care so much, and still be convinced that a potted plant would teach them more than you can.

Here is a short list of the mistakes you will almost certainly make:

-Forget to make copies of an assignment in time to give it to students before the due date. Or forget the assignment entirely.
-Answer a student question TOTALLY incorrectly, and be corrected by a student in front of the class.
-Lose important papers.
-Give a student the benefit of the doubt even though you KNOW she is lying.
-Choose the wrong moment to be a hard ass.
-Write a bad test.
-Confuse your students and then yourself.
-Plan WAY too little for one day, and spend a very uncomfortable 20 minutes waiting for the bell to ring.

You’ll do lots of great things, too, but you’ll dismiss those things, or fail to realize how great they are. You’ll be wearing goggles that allow you only to see your shortcomings, and there will be many of those.

The good news is that the first year ends. You will learn from it. You’ll start your second year with a much better sense of self, and you’ll be much less worried about things like whether or not you’ve got chalk on your butt. You’ll stop feeling like an imposter. You’ll let fewer things slide, and have more days that go smoothly. More and more, you’ll feel that you don’t have enough time to teach them everything you want to teach them. The period will end and you will think, “Wow, that went fast.”

You’ll reach someone. You’ll take things less personally. You’ll work hard, but more efficiently, and you’ll enjoy the work more.

By your third year (and I know that sounds like it’s a million, billion years from now, but it’s not. It’ll be here so fast it’ll make your head spin), you’ll have a few lesson plans you love. You’ll have moments you feel proud of, and students whose lives you’ve improved, if only by a small margin. You’ll be more pragmatic about the students who’ve slipped through your grasp, and, while you’ll keep stretching yourself to reach those difficult students, you’ll recognize that they do have to meet you halfway, and that you can’t force them. You’ll know when you’re being lied to, and feel more confident about how to deal with it. You’ll be a hard ass when you need to be, and you’ll be forgiving when you can. You’ll begin to know what kind of teacher you are. By now, you’ll have a reputation among the students. Don’t worry–they’re quite perceptive. If you’ve been working hard, and if you like them, and if you are passionate about your subject, you’ll have a good reputation. That reputation will help you. Students will conform to you more quickly, and test your boundaries less often.

You’ll suddenly realize that you haven’t worried about whether or not your butt was covered in chalk for weeks. When a student asks you a question to which you don’t know the answer, you’ll simply say, “I don’t know,” and then you’ll find out.

You’ll ask the class a question, and be comfortable letting the silence stretch for longer than 5 seconds.

You won’t be scared of your students anymore.

You won’t hate Sunday nights anymore.

You’ll love summer, but you’ll also look forward to September, because a fresh slate is now more exciting than it is terrifying.

You will remember that first class, and you’ll remember the students who were sacrificed on the altar of your first year. You’ll remember the student whose face fell when you made an ill-timed and overly harsh joke. You’ll remember the student who showed signs of needing real help, the one who might’ve had an eating disorder or whose parents might have been neglecting him. You’ll wish you’d gone to the counselors, and you’ll wonder how that student is doing now.

And you’ll remember that student when one of your new ones comes to you with a problem. You’ll stay on top of that problem. You’ll follow up. No matter the outcome, you’ll know that you took action.

You’ll be organized, and aware, and you’ll love your job.

Because nothing worth having is easy to get, and being a good teacher is very, very worth all the pain it takes to get there.

Good luck, New Teacher. You’re gonna need it!



But If You HAD to Pick…

sequin overload

Seriously, if you HAD to pick. (Thank you,, for making my DAY with this picture.)

G and I were browsing through some music blogs the other day, looking for a good resource for new music, (Remember when you were 20 and amazing new bands just came to you through osmosis? I miss that.) when we stumbled upon what can only be described as the most inane blog interview of all time. Here’s a smattering of the questions: What’s the worst lie you’ve ever told? What was the last time you laughed until you cried? If you were stranded on a desert island, and you could only have one CD, which one would you pick?

Yes, that last one was actually included.

And the answer managed to be even worse: A mix tape.

How the hell am I supposed to judge this woman properly if she won’t give a real answer?

Everyone knows that the only reason to ask the desert island question is to judge someone’s worth, intelligence, personality, and level of coolness based on their answer. This is why it is a favorite pastime of seventh graders everywhere.

When I was in seventh grade, the game went like this:

If you could be stuck on a desert island with one guy from our class, who would you pick?
If you could be stuck on a desert island with one of the Kids in the Hall guys, who would you pick?
If you had to be stuck on a desert island with one of the New Kids on the Block , who would you pick?

See, it works both ways–you can pick the best from a group of great choices, or the least awful from a group of bad choices. (For the record, I was in seventh grade in 1994, when Kurt Cobain was the Most Amazing Man Alive and boy bands were the height of bad taste. As a third grader,  I would possibly have committed murder for the chance to be stuck on a desert island with one of the New Kids Joey.)

We only deviated from our favorite topic (boys with whom we might choose to be stranded) once a year, when the much-anticipated Seventeen Magazine Prom Issue hit news stands (and by news stands, of course I mean grocery store check-out lines). We’d paw through that issue at least a dozen times, asking the same devastatingly important question:

“If you had to pick one of the dresses on this page, or go to prom naked, which would it be?”

Oh my gods, that was a great game. I could still play that game.


I wonder if there’s an app for that?

The thing is, the only real way to lose the “if you had to pick” game is to refuse to pick. Will you be judged based on your choice? Of course. Does it matter? Hell no.

I mean, every one of the Kids in the Hall guys has merit. The New Kids are all equally cute and/or annoying, depending on your point of view. You could make a solid argument for any one of them. But what you can’t do is take Donny, but give him Joey’s hair and Jonathan’s personality. That’s not how the game works. You have to pick just one.

Without rules, there’s no order in the universe. If you answer “Which CD would you take with you on a desert island” with “a mix tape,” you contribute to the disintegration of civilization.


Out of curiosity, I asked E the same questions from the blog interview, just to see how she’d fare. And because, if I don’t prepare her for seventh grade, who will?

Here is her interview:

Q: What is the worst lie you ever told?
A: Cocoa-pah. [She thinks this is a lie because she’s saying a word that isn’t a real word. She thinks it is a hilarious joke for the same reason.]

Q: What was the last time you laughed until you cried?
A: When I told a funny joke.

Q: If you could only listen to one song [she has no idea what a CD is] for the whole entire rest of your life, which one would it be?
A: My favorite.

Nicely played, E. Nicely played.

Banishing Writer’s Block

The following post was published on my now-defunct first blog, Loose Leaf Writing, on June 3, 2010:

Feeling very full of myself for having spent 10 uninterrupted minutes on task.

This morning, I’ve already gone to the bathroom, bought a coffee, eaten a bagel, gone to the bathroom again, gone to the vending machine, decided against the vending machine, and returned to the vending machine to buy the Swedish Fish after all. I’m about to make my third trip to the bathroom to clean the Fish residue out of my teeth.

I’ve set myself the arbitrary goal of finishing my current chapter today. So far I’ve written a page and a half, but that doesn’t even count because I started the morning by deleting a page and a half. So after two hours of “writing,” all I’ve managed to do is spend money, consume calories, and end up back where I started this morning.

No writer I’ve ever known can claim to have a 100% foolproof method of warding off writer’s block, but, this morning aside, I have developed a few strategies over the years that do actually work. At least some of the time:

 1. Change your medium.
If you’ve been typing at your desk, write in a notebook. If you’ve been writing in a notebook, try typing at your desk. Better yet, instead of using either of these practical methods, grab a bunch of scrap paper out of your recycling bin (envelopes work great) and write on it. The smaller and more easily lost the piece of scrap paper, the more likely you’ll write eloquent sentences that you’ll never be able to reproduce after said paper is, in fact, lost.

 2. Change your location.
Move from your desk to the sofa. Or better yet, to your bed. If you are lucky, you’ll fall asleep while writing. This can result in one of two happy outcomes: You might keep writing as you fall asleep. There’s no telling what genius is hiding in your subconscious that might spill out on paper as you drift off. Or, you might have a lovely dream about your current writing project. Or, even better, a whole new project might come to you. This leads directly into:

 3. Change your project.
You know how you always have the most momentum and inspiration when you first begin a new story? This is the reason I have the first ten pages of at least 20 novels saved on my hard drive. It’s also a great solution to writer’s block. Sure, you’re not going to end up with a publishable piece if you keep it up, but on the other hand, it can help you avoid all those exhausting trips to the bathroom.

And finally:

4. Go for a walk.
Don’t take a pen or paper with you. Don’t take a phone. Don’t take a camera. Walk away from any and all possible writing implements or recording devices. I guarantee that the second you do, inspiration will strike. At this point, you may pick up a stick and write in the mud, or charge into the nearest store and demand a pen. Or build a fire and send smoke signals home. If you’re lucky, the person transcribing your message will write it in crayon on an old credit card bill which they will then throw away. That’s how you’ll know for sure that what you’ve written is brilliant.

You think you understand language. Then you have a kid.

Red Eye

She freaks when I say “eyes peeled,” but is perfectly comfortable putting THIS in the world.

When she was 2-and-a-half, I told E to “keep her eyes peeled.” She responded by bursting into tears. It seems she didn’t want to peel her eyes.

These days, she understands figurative language a bit better. At four, she can already tell when G is being sarcastic. He’ll say, “Honey, please ask me ‘why’ a few more times. I haven’t heard it enough yet today.”

She’ll respond by squinting up at him and saying, “Daddy, is that a joke?”

Unfortunately, now that she’s figured out that things don’t always mean exactly what they seem to mean, she’s got a lot of questions. Especially about music. Music that I used to enjoy.

“Mommy, how did her heart break?”
“Mommy, did he really lose his head?”
“Mommy, what’s a virgin?”

OK, I made that last one up. I am cagey enough to avoid Madonna. Though, that might only be due to the fact that my mom was cornered into telling us about sex when my sister and I started singing “Papa Don’t Preach” in places like the grocery store and the school playground.

The two land mines that are the most embarrassing are also currently the most common:

1. When she asks me what a word means–a word that I’ve just used–and I don’t know.

Examples include irony, death, attitude, money, country, electricity, and year.

It’s not actually that I don’t know what these words mean. (With the exception of “electricity,” I do.) It’s that I have absolutely no idea how to explain them to her in a way she finds satisfactory. She’s relentless. If I can’t provide her with an easy-to-read pictographic flow chart of the exact definition and its etymology, and do so using only words that are already in her vocabulary, she’s never. done. asking. questions.

You try explaining what a year is to a person who has no concept of “yesterday” or “one minute.”

“A year is… a long time.”
“How long?”
“Longer than a week.”
“What’s a week?”
“It’s… wait. Let me back up. You remember Christmas, right?”
“And you remember that it was a long time ago?”
“Well, that was about six months ago. So that’s half a year. Christmas was half a year ago, so in another half a year, it will be Christmas again.”
“What’s ‘half?'”

2. When she asks me why I just said something, and I don’t even remember saying it, let alone have an answer for why I said it or what I could possibly have meant by it.

It’s not that I don’t want to listen to her. I do. But she never, ever stops talking. Not unless she’s eating or sleeping. And sometimes not even then. So sometimes–for instance, when we’re barreling down the interstate in bumper-to-bumper 80 mph Jersey traffic–I listen with half an ear.

“Mommy, I think I have a booboo on my finger. I need a band-aid.”
“OK, honey. I’ll get you one in a minute.”
“You will?”
“I will what?”
“Get me one in a minute?”
“Get you a what, honey?”
“A band-aid.”
“I don’t have any band-aids.”
“Then why did you say that?”
“Say what?”
“That you would get me a band-aid in a minute.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Oh. Umm…”

They say the teen years are worse, but I find it hard to believe that anything could be more exhausting than an illiterate, clever four-year-old.

What do you think?

The Beat Post

Jack Kerouac

Kerouac in a characteristic mood. Photo by Tom Palumbo.

We writers are hard on the people who love us and who make the mistake of trying to live with us.

We work all the time and when we are working we exist on some other plane, unreachable by phone or fax. Even when we aren’t technically working, we continue to inhabit the world we have created on paper. Because all art is some form of self-portrait, those we love inevitably find that the lives they thought were being privately lived are actually fodder for our imaginations and have turned up, sometimes with hardly a veneer of disguise, on our pages.

And that’s when things are going well.

When things aren’t going well—say, for instance, we spend a day (or several days or a month) staring at a blank screen, or we receive (another) rejection letter, or we make the mistake of doing the math and realizing that we earn about a penny an hour (if that)—well, then our loved ones have to scrape us off the floor, tell us that we are geniuses, that we are not wasting our time and that we will find a way to feed everyone in the house this month.

We respond to their kindness by making them swear that we are neither ego maniacs nor self-centered asses.

That they are able to swear to this without laughing or killing us is proof that they love us despite our flaws.

Of course, some writers are worse than others. Many authors, once they are making an actual living and can quit their other three jobs, get up and go to their office every day. They write for six hours and then go pick up their kids at school. They make dinner and, presumably, pay the mortgage.

But then there are the real offenders. The writers who don’t apologize for their distraction, or for their BP-oil-spill-sized egos. Or for the fact that they patently and proudly refuse to write anything remotely marketable or, in some cases, even readable.

To me, the most quintessential example of this kind of writer, at least of modern American authors, is Jack Kerouac, who famously typed On the Road on one long, homemade scroll. According to legend, he wrote non-stop for three weeks while living with his second wife, Joan Haverty, in Manhattan.

I can just picture the scene, can’t you? There he is, playing with his tracing paper, painstakingly cutting it and taping it back together like the world’s first scrapbooker, all while taking himself very seriously and refusing to take any pleasure from his crafty pursuit. Then, just when his poor wife thinks that maybe he is done with the insanity and they can go for a nice walk in the park, he sits himself in the corner at his typewriter, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, and starts a typing frenzy that, as far as she is concerned, may never end.

Imagine the smell that emanated from that corner of the apartment by the end of those three weeks. The ungodly mess of cigarette ash, butts, apple cores, coffee mugs, chicken bones, and dead skin cells that must have littered the floor around him. At least, that is what it would have looked like at the end of those three weeks if I had been his wife. Minus the chicken bones, of course, because I would not have cooked for him and I doubt seriously he would have managed it for himself.

But maybe Joan Haverty both cooked and cleaned. Maybe she reminded him go to the bathroom and maybe, if she was very skillful, managed to get him in and out of the shower once or twice during that time.

I like to think that she had an affair with the grocer or the mailman while he was lost in his self-imposed, self-consumed insanity, but then I’ve always been optimistic.

Regardless of how she got through those three weeks, by the end of it, she must have been breathing an enormous sigh of relief. No matter how bohemian she was, no matter how much she believed in her husband’s literary genius, as he finally sat up, rubbed his eyes, and said, “I’m finished,” I can’t believe that she thought anything other than, “Thank God, now maybe he can sell this damn thing and then we can move to a place with a cross breeze.”

But no. After that three week marathon, which itself came after years and years of planning and working, it took him another nine years to perfect his manuscript and finally sell it.

How much money Kerouac made from On the Road during his lifetime, I do not know. I do know that by the time it was finally published, Joan Haverty had wisely left him (while pregnant with his child, whom, incidentally, he refused to acknowledge as his until a paternity test proved it nine years later). When that damn scroll was sold in 2001 for almost 2.5 million dollars, his kid should have received every penny. Sadly, she was much like her father and had died five years previously.  His estate is still being contested. Such is life, I suppose.

To hear most people tell it, Jack Kerouac is a great American hero who wrote a beautiful book that is true art and that influenced literature forevermore. But if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city and a wife to raise an artist. The difference is that someday the child will grow up.

So I raise my coffee mug to Joan Haverty, of whose personality and hopes and dreams I know nothing because they were not the subject of Kerouac’s fascination.

And I raise it to anyone who has ever loved a writer.

Though, to be honest, I hope you have something stronger than coffee in your mug.

(This post was originally published on my first blog, Loose Leaf Writing, which has entered the retirement phase of its life cycle.)