Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Big 5-1

Once you get past, oh say, 21, birthdays stop being special occasions in the traditional sense. They become, in some cases, things that elicit dread or even denial. For me, the worst birthday I ever had came not when I hit thirty or forty or even fifty. It was 31. Don't ask why unless you want a blank stare in response. I have glided through all the big 0 birthdays so far, but when I turned 31, it took me weeks to recover from the depression. Maybe I'm just slow on the uptake. 

This year, I hit the big 5-1. That's a year that usually doesn't have a big in front of it, but it really deserved the moniker because of how special other people made it for me. And by other people, I mainly mean my students, though the first card and gift I got were from my parents, of course.

Sometimes a kid will figure out from my user name for practically everything (trainguy917) that my birthday is September 17 and they'll wish me a happy birthday or even occasionally get me a card. But not since 2005, a school year that I refer to as my Golden Era (that's a whole other post), has my birthday been such an Occasion. And it lasted the whole day.

It started when I walked into my room to be greeted by streamers, balloons, and the entire Student Council singing happy birthday to me. Keep in mind that this group only meets in my room--I'm not their advisor, though several of them are my students. I was sung to three more times, once each by my two lunch bunches and once by a lovely young lady who just sang to me because she's a sweetheart.

Speaking of lunch bunches, they got me a toy train, a build-it-yourself wooden train locomotive, a teacher survival kit full of delicious goodies, and two unbelievably decadent homemade cookie cakes. There were even party hats and noisemakers.

And throughout the day, it seemed like literally every one of my students, as well as several teachers and even students who weren't mine, wished me a happy birthday. And to top all that off, the greetings on Facebook were nonstop. Add to this texts from the three people who have come as close as I have ever gotten to actually having daughters, along with my siblings, and it was awfully close to the greatest birthday I ever had.

I guess that if there is a lesson to be learned from all this, it's that we're never too old for magic to happen in our lives. And nine times out of ten that magic occurs because we're surrounded with the right people.

So who knows; maybe I'm in the midst of my Golden Era version 2.0.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Week of Firsts

You may not be able to tell it from where you are, but I'm typing this on Friday instead of my normal rollout time of Saturday morning. I'll be busy doing something important with some friends tomorrow--and by important, I mean superhero related. But that's another post. For this week, the topic is firsts.

I've been teaching in the same school for about 18 years now, so I thought I'd pretty much run out of new things that could happen to me. This week proved me wrong. I've had three new things happen to me just in the last two days. I have to think that's a record.

The first came Thursday morning and it involved the police. No, I wasn't arrested. Sorry. That probably would've made a more entertaining story. But anyway, I was driving to work and I was in a bit of a hurry because I needed to get to school early to get into the horseshoe before they closed it off for our annual 9/11 ceremony. As I was crossing the Fifth Street Bridge (anyone who is familiar with Parkersburg at all knows this bridge--it's the main artery from Southside to downtown) when I passed a woman lying on the sidewalk. She was sprawled out and didn't appear to be moving, though I couldn't tell in the short time I could see her. I pulled into the Tim Horton's lot at the foot of the bridge and called 911. By the time I got out of the lot and was ready to drive back to check on her, the police were already on their way onto the bridge, so I proceeded to work, albeit later than I planned. I found out later from our Prevention Resource Officer that she had indeed been having some sort of medical emergency and was transported to the hospital.

The second thing was much more positive, though it came out of a negative thing. I got an email from a student apologizing for the bad behavior of another student, despite the fact that she had nothing to do with it. She said she just felt so badly for what the other student had done that she had wanted to give me a hug.  I literally can't think of another time that one student apologized for the behavior of another student. It brightened what had been a dark afternoon.

A reenactment of me after chasing skippers
And finally, I did something today that you hear about in stories and see in teen movies, but I never thought I'd actually do--I chased students who were attempting to skip school. Literally ran after them. Of course, they're young and had a tremendous head start, so the only one I caught was the girl who decided against running and came back. But I gave it my all! Who knew teaching was a cardiovascular workout? Well, I guess phys ed teachers did. But the only time your heart should race as an English teacher is when you're reading a particularly moving poem.

Being a writer, I can't help but think that these events are going to end up in a book someday. People ask where my ideas come from and I have to wonder how boring their lives are that they aren't surrounded by them.

So, to end, a quotation from the great philosopher Rosanne Rosannadanna, "It just goes to show you it's always something."

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why I Encourage Kids To Eat Lunch In My Room

Me after lunch in the teachers' lounge

I went to a professional development event several years back. I don't remember how long ago, where it was, or the name of the presenter. All I remember of her personally is that she was a woman. There's no significance to her being female; that's just the extent of my memory of her as a person. What I do remember was one piece of advice she gave and it turned out to be all wrong.

I was a newish teacher, so it had to be several years back--I'm well into my 18th year at my school--and hadn't fully formed all of my attitudes and philosophies, so when she said that we shouldn't be eating lunch with our students, I took her to heart. I started eating in the teachers' lounge, like she said, so I could spend part of my day with people my age. I did that for most of that year and discovered a couple things.

First, people my age are old. They spend a large part of their time talking about what creaks, what sticks, what doesn't work, what won't stop working, and the medications they're taking for all of the above maladies. It made me feel old too.

Second, there are some teachers who really don't like kids. Not all of them, and not even most of them, but it seems like the most talkative ones. When they weren't complaining about their heating pad not being big enough to hit all the achy spots, they were waxing rhapsodic about how they'd love to boot this kid out or tell that kid off. I often came into lunch happy and went out of lunch cranky and ready to take on the next kid who looked at me cross-eyed.

So I decided to do what my hero, Dan Daniel, did--eat in my room surrounded by a bunch of students. We played music, we talked, we laughed, we shared food, and mostly we enjoyed ourselves. Magically, I found myself energized for the second half of the day and feeling positive about my students. From this, I discovered two things.

First, young people are young. I didn't say the discoveries were ground-breaking. But by surrounding myself with young people during a time when we didn't have to be teacher and students but could let our hair down a little and just get to know each other, I felt younger too. I didn't find myself fixating on my achy knee or my sore back.

Second, young people, or at least the young people who tend to gravitate toward me, are too busy being their own somewhat geeky selves to worry much about being angry with anyone else. We talk about books and movies and music and TV shows and spend almost no time complaining about teachers, students, administrators, or pretty much anything or anyone.

And, as a bonus, I've gotten some interesting characters for my writing. Maybe someday, when they come across one of my books in the bargain bin at Wal Mart (or a 99-cent special on Amazon) and pick it up, they'll recognize themselves with a smile.

Kids from my lunch bunch a couple years ago. We brought covered dishes and had Thanksgiving dinner together. It's one of my favorite memories as a teacher. These folks are scattered all over, but they're still in my heart. They're more friends than former students, and that wouldn't be true if I ate lunch in the lounge.

Monday, September 1, 2014

New Excerpt from KISSES AND LIES

It's been a crazy weekend. This is normally out on Saturday, but I just didn't get it done. Sorry to anyone out there who looks for my blog each weekend.

I thought I would showcase another excerpt from the second of my novels, Kisses and Lies. One of the things I enjoyed about writing this book is that for about the first 2/3 of it, the chapters alternate between my protagonist's narration and a third person narrative from the point of view of a young man named Happy Hillman, who decides to strike out on his own with help from his parents. The only condition--a condition that is Happy's, not his parents'--is that he the money they give him is his inheritance and they no longer have to treat him as their child. Happy makes his way to New York City and finds out that life on his own is not quite what he'd hoped it would be. This scene is his first encounter with the harsh realities of city life.

The rest of the trip had gone by uneventfully. The car had run flawlessly. He’d done some research and knew where he was going to stay, though the neighborhood was a bit scarier than it seemed online. Finding a parking space about half a block down on 42nd Street, he locked the doors and walked quickly to the entrance of what had been described on a website as a historic hotel, but he could only describe it as a flophouse. The sign, which doubled as an ad for a popular cola, was badly chipped and dented, from what appeared to be ricocheting bullets. A knot formed in his stomach and he very nearly turned around, but he steeled himself to walk in. He was tired, he told himself. It wouldn’t be so bad inside and things would look better after a good night’s rest.
He was mistaken. It did look so bad inside. Maybe worse. The dozen steps up from the open entryway to the front doors looked to have been white once, though that was a guess, as they were hidden under decades of city grime, along with occasional dark semi-circular blotches, undoubtedly from vomit and/or urine. At the top landing were two doors that had, a long time ago, been clear glass. Below the handle on the left door was a hand-written sign declaring that no visitors were allowed. Painted on the wall just inside was an arrow above the word “Office.” To the right of that was a large sign painted in white letters on a red background. It said, “Fire Command Center in Office.” He had no idea what that meant, nor did he think he wanted to.
At the front desk, with an overwhelming sense of panic, he found his money was not stashed in his inside jacket pocket as he remembered. Thinking about it for a few seconds, he remembered deciding his jacket was not a safe permanent hiding place. He could absently leave it hanging on the back of a seat or it could be accidentally taken. So he had taken a few hundred out and locked the rest safely in the glove box of his car. He would take it out when he went out to get his luggage.
Paying for the week, he was given a key—an actual key, not a key card. It was attached on a ring to a credit card sized laminated tag with his room number hand written on it in permanent marker. His room was on the second floor at the top of the landing, beside the non-functioning ice machine and the empty, unplugged vending machines. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about people waking him up by coming to the machines in the night. But upon entering his room, he realized that people waking him at night was not likely to be an issue. He found it unimaginable that he would ever fall asleep. All the run-down roach motels he’d seen in movies could not prepare him for the gut-turning reality that was room 201. The only thing more startling than the peeling, yellowed wallpaper; the sagging bed (complete with a threadbare spread covered with cigarette burns); and carpet that was once who-knows-what color, but was now somewhere between brown and black; was the nostril-blistering stench, which seemed most likely to come from two parts urine, one part cigarettes, and at least a part or two of alcohol-laden vomit. He tried to breathe through his mouth, but was alarmed to find that this coated his tongue with the almost literally palpable odor, so he decided smelling his new home was less objectionable than tasting it.

Afraid to leave his luggage in the car too long, he went back downstairs and out to where he parked. His mind was awash with fear. How was he going to live, let alone make it on his own here? The hotel alone might kill him with rat or flea bites or some exotic disease on the floor or bed. If he somehow managed to survive the microbes, what were the chances he wouldn’t catch a stray bullet or get killed by a mugger? His face flushed with shame. In his befuddled contemplation, he realized he must have passed his car, as he had just crossed to the next block. He scanned down the street to where he felt certain he had parked. Wasn’t it right behind the rusting old heap with the flat tire and broken back window? Had he turned the wrong way when he exited the building? He didn’t think so, but he had to check, so he ran down the street to the same point in the opposite block. Nothing. He went another block. Still not there. So he ran back and went another block in the way he had initially gone. A hot lump grew so rapidly in the pit of his stomach that he half expected to look down to find the contents gushing out his navel and burning through his shirt. Pulling out his wallet, he counted out the money he had left. Ninety dollars. He had been in the city exactly long enough to check into a hotel and his car, along with almost $25,000, had been stolen.