25 January 2005


Finding a black-free outfit was almost embarassingly difficult. And now I look like I should be in an old navy catalogue, not at the front of the room sharpening my claws. In my mind, it's not an improvement.

Sixth period, the kids actually noticed and got all excited that I was only wearing browns, blues, and whites -- no black. Until one of them pointed out that the Talking Talons lanyard I keep my keys on has black on it. I ripped it off my belt and flung it across the room, which sent the entire class into hysterics. It was a good moment.


I don't know if I can handle team-teaching world geography, when even my team-teacher is almost offensively misinformed about so many things. For example: "You can't do ANYTHING in China! Even chewing gum is illegal there -- and you're guilty until proven innocent! Almost everything about China is backward." (While I'm speechless and clutching my heart in the back of the room, shocked. Speechless.)

And the kids are WAY worse. Am I going to feel like I'm having a heart attack every single morning for the rest of the year? Or will I eventually get over being personally injured by their staggering levels of cheerful ignorance and racism?

Luckily, I heard from another Grinnell alum who's dating one of TT's former students. She said, " I read my boyfriend the part of your plan about team-teaching geography and he started laughing so hard he almost cried, saying 'Yep, that sounds EXACTLY like Mr. K!'"

The boyfriend is okay, which gives me hope that TT's month-long unit entitled (and I may be paraphrasing slightly here) "I've been OBSESSED with aliens, specifically at Roswell, since I was a little kid, and now I'm going to do my damndest to convince you kids that ALIENS DID LAND IN ROSWELL IN 1947 before the month is over!" won't permanently scar too many of my students.



Me: I'm excited because the crazy-old-teacher-next-door and I are switching classes tomorrow!
Cam: Hmm.
Me: I hope he breaks their spirits!
Cam: You are a great teacher. There should be more teachers like you.
Me: Why is it that whenever I talk to you, I end up sounding so terrible? Like, oh I hope he crushes them, I hope they suffer!
Cam: I just bring out the best in you.
Me: Good thing I didn't stay in Iowa!
Cam: You would have been burning down schools by now.
Me: (laughing helplessly)
Cam: That's a nice cackle!

Me: My 6th period class has challenged me to not wear any black tomorrow. They say I wear black too much.
Cam: Maybe you should stop answering directly to Satan.
Me: Whoa! Baby steps, Cam, baby steps!



Lisa: (coming up behind me in the binders aisle of an office-supply store) Molly? ... Molly? ... Hey, Molly!
Me: What? Oh! I didn't see you!
Lisa: What movie is your head playing now?
Me: I feel like a bride planning her wedding!
Lisa: WHAT?
Me: Seriously. For me, thinking about binders is like thinking about marriage for other women. I dream of a magical future where all my problems are solved, and I have a whole bookshelf of binders, all neatly labeled, and in each one is the rough draft of a book **I've** written.
Lisa: That's weird.
Me: (dreamily) One day I'll have an office, just for me. And it will have bookshelves full of binders.....
Lisa: Well, when you get married, I'll give you a wedding binder, so you can have the best of both worlds.
Me: Who needs to get married when there's binders!


7th period.

Andy: His story is that he went to this laser tag place but this kid kept chasing him and so he hit him on the head with his gun!
Me: (teasing) You HIT a LITTLE KID? Jack!
Jack: (reasonably, with a shrug) It wasn't my fault. He kept kicking me repeatedly in the 'nads.

6th period.

New Girl: Ms. Backes, do you want a cookie?
Me: Um.... is it poisoned?
New Girl: No.
Me: Okay, thanks.
Angelique: She's only known you, like, a week! Why would she posion you?
Me: (knowingly) Oh.... what you're saying is that she'll want to poison me when she's known me a while.
Angelique: Right! I mean, no!

5th period.

Phillip: One embarassing story is that Brian pantsed me!
Brian: I went blind for ten seconds!!
Phillip: You looked at my butt!
Brian: It blinded me!

2nd period.

Me: ...so your assignment for the weekend is to come up with a thesis, based on the research you've already done, the quotes you've found, the aspects of this topic that interest you, and the arguments you think you can support with the evidence you have.
Dale: How long does it have to be?
Me: It's a thesis, just a thesis statement.
Class: ...
Dale: So.... uh....?
Me: Like a sentence or two.
Dale: Great! I'll do it in advisory on Monday!
Me: Hold up. Let me make something perfectly clear: this is the organizing element of a paper you'll be working on for a while. You need to put some thought into it.
Lizzil: Yeah... but still, it's only a sentence.
Me: Let me restate -- if it sucks, I'll make you re-do it.
Class: (whisper whisper)
Jax: Can you SAY that?
Me: I just did. Thus, I can say it.
Jax: I mean -- you just said sucks!!

20 January 2005

Okay, stop. Just for a moment. Ponder this question:

** When you're writing a paper, how do you know which parts of a source to quote and which parts to paraphrase? **

I'm trying to teach my gifted class to write a paper. Today was our last day in the library, at the end of which I collected their notes (2 pgs), their quotations (1 pg), and their references (3, at least one non-internet).

The most common thing I heard today was:
"Ms. Backes, I can't find any quotes."

Um, what?

Or, "Ms. Backes, can I quote this?" (pointing to a passage that says something like, "So-and-so was born in New York on May 6, 1890.")

I tried several times to explain how you pick good quotations, but it felt a lot like trying to teach someone how to drive stick-shift. I mean, you just know when to shift, right?

...luckily the world of Plans with all its wonderful friends and alumns was there for me, and helped me to clarify my thoughts. I'd share the brilliant handout I finally prepared for my class, but my email's down, so you'll just have to imagine its greatness.


I learned yesterday that this is the last year of gifted blocks, which means that IF I get to teach any gifted classes next year (not a sure thing, apparently), they'll be seventh grade only, and not tied to any history classes. This has its benefits and drawbacks, of course, but the balance in my head is sad. I had this dream of putting together my fantasy enriched class -- a scholastic dream team, if you will -- comprised of some of my sharpest seventh graders. Next year I won't have any 8th graders, apparently, and that makes me sad. Sometimes I feel that my 8th graders are the only ones keeping me sane.

...maybe I should ask to bump up to 8th grade. Then I could fail all the kids I don't want to deal with next year and take all the fun kids from this year. Why yes.... (insert evil Mr. Burns noise here)


In an email from my mother today:

"If the temperature doesn't start climbing above zero and if the sun doesn't make an appearance soon, Sylvia Plath will be reenacted in our kitchen..."

Mm hmm. At least I come by it honestly.

Adventures in Middle School


(variations on a theme)

Jules: (playing with a yo-yo) ....and I can walk the dog.... around the world....
Others: Ooooooooh!
Me: Wow, Jules, that's impressive.
Mr. King: That used to be really popular, yo-yoing.
Me: Yeah, back in the old days.
Jules: Yeah, like fourth grade!
Me: Oh! I was thinking the old days like the sixties!

Dale: Do you like my graph?
Me: Does it have a title?
Dale: Um.....
Me: Otherwise I have no frame of reference for what you're graphing.
Dale: Well, each bar is a subject...
Me: Yes, I see that. Subject 1, subject 2.... but what were you testing?
Dale: Um.... Here's hot, and here's cold.
Me: What. Were. You. Testing.
Dale: I forgot. I had a title, but I couldn't get it on the graph.
Me: Why don't you print one out and cut & paste it onto your graph.
Dale: (utterly perplexed) What?
Me: What.
Dale: How can I cut & paste AFTER I printed the title out?
Me: Okay. First you take a scissors. You CUT around the title that you printed out. Then you get some rubber cement or tape, and PASTE the title onto the paper.
Dale: (astonished) WOW, that's a great idea!
Me: See, cut and paste. That's where the phrase comes from. In the old days we actually had to use scissors and glue.
Dale: That was a long time ago, huh.
Me: NO!

Me: Okay, Feather, I brought you some of Natalie Goldberg's books, but you have to be careful because they're my own books, not the library's.
Feather: (opening the copy of Writing Down the Bones and reading) Molly Backes. Madison. Fall 1995. Is that you?
Me: Yes.
Feather: Why does it say "Fall 1995"?
Me: That's when I bought it.
Feather: You bought this book in 1995? That's like, SO LONG AGO! I was only.... three years old then!


Why it's never okay to listen to old KDIC tapes in my classroom (when students are around, at least):

(End Phil Ochs, "Pleasures of the Harbor")

Me: Yeah....
Kevin: Yeah, you probably should have had a six-pack....
Me: I'm going to have to have, like, a retroactive pitcher. Like.... tonight.
Kevin: Well, that's what the pub is for.
Me: Actually, right now. You know, do you just want to take over for the next forty-five minutes?
Kevin: Yeah --
Me: Maybe I'll just go --
Kevin: Yeah, you know, Bunny's is open...
Me: Rabbitt's....
Kevin: Rabbitt's.....
Me: (laughing)

(Cue Elliott Smith, "Between the Bars")


7th period.

Me: Did I tell you guys the parable of Point-of-View yesterday?
Class: No! Tell us!
Me: Okay. Well, when I was a freshman in college, I lived in a room maybe one third this size.
Ivy: Like, the bedroom was?
Me: Oh, no. It wasn't a fancy dorm like you see on TV. It was one room for our beds, dressers, desks, bookshelves....
Class: Oh my god! That's so small!
Me: Anyway... I lived in this tiny room with a roommate, who is now my best friend. But back then we didn't know one another. We were put together alphabetically. Her last name is Brown.
Jay: What's your last name?
Me: Backes.
Jay: Oh yeah! I, uh... forgot for a moment.

2nd period.

Jax: Ms. Backes, this is hard and I don't want to do this and does it really have to be due tomorrow?
Me: Jax? Shut up. You're smart and you can do it. Get to work.
Kristine: How come the word "Jax" is always followed by "shut up"?


7th period.

Me: Can we start complete sentences with the word 'because'?
Class: NO!
Me: Until when?
Class: College!
Me: Good. Get to work.
Jay: Can we start complete sentences with 'Well, because'?
Me: No.
Jay: I'm looking for loopholes here.
Me: That's not one.
Jay: Can we start a sentence with, 'I think so-and-so BECAUSE....'
Me: Yes.
Jay: Is that a loophole?
Me: Um... yes.
Jay: Awesome! I LOVE loopholes!!

5th period.

Tauscha: (running in) Ms. Backes Ms. Backes!
Me: Hey, Tash, what's up?
Tauscha: We took those tests today, you know? The reading ones?
Me: The NWEAs? Okay.
Tauscha: I scored on the EIGHTH GRADE LEVEL!
Me: Wow, Tash, that's great!
Tauscha: Guess why! Because I thought of you, the whole time! I tried to remember every single thing you told us all year, and that's how I got so good!
Me: Well.... I'm speechless, Tauscha! I'm so proud of you.
Tauscha: It's all thanks to you, Ms. Backes!


My gifted students are having a hard time distinguishing between "notes" and "quotations" for a paper they're writing about artists and writers in New Mexico.

So today I made samples of a page of notes, a page of quotes, and a page of references. To do so, I made up a bunch of imaginary research on Alison Brown, quoting references like "Influential Intersections," by Holly Peterson in the October 2004 issue of The Langan Leader, ed. Sally Conforti; and "Somewhere Between New York and Heaven: The Early Influences of Alison Brown," by Lucy Furr, in The Journal of Awesome People, Vol. 27, Issue 3, Feb 04, pgs 42-48......

With quotations like, "Taken from [Robert] Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, her answer to questions too small in scope was, inevitably, mu." (Peterson, 86)

Nothing like a bunch of weird inside jokes to make my day happy.



1st period.

TT: Mad cow disease has been spreading through Canada. Let's just hope it doesn't make it down to the US.
Dale: Why not?
TT: It would be terrible for the beef industry, not to mention the fact that people can get it.
Dale: (horrified) WHAT?
Karma: DUH, Dale.
TT: Does anyone remember what it's called when people catch it?
Jerrod: Mad people disease!
Me: I had that once......
Dale: Really? What happened?
Me: Grrrrr!
Dale: Aaaaaahh! Ms. Backes is a mad people!


7th period.

Darlene: Ms. Backes, may I ask the class a question?
Me: No.
Darlene: Please? It doesn't have any cuss words.
Me: No.
Darlene: Please? It's not bad.
Me: No.
Darlene: Okay. Who is the most considerate person you know?
Entire Class: NOT YOU!

6th period.

Ron: Ms. Backes, did you know that police officers have, like, the highest suicide rate?
Ray: Yeah, and then doctors!
Angelique: Yeah, because the pressure's so high.
Me: Well, I wouldn't be surprised. They're stressful jobs.
Cass: (slyly) Yeah... and third is dentists!

2nd period.

Emmy: Ms. Backes, who painted the Mona Lisa?
Me: Da Vinci. Why.
Emmy: See! I told you! Karma thought it was Edison.
Karma: Because he was gay.
Me: What? He wasn't gay. He invented the telephone.
Jill: I thought he invented the lightbulb.
Me: Whatever. He definitely didn't paint the Mona Lisa.
Karma: I thought Benjamin Franklin invented the telephone.
Me: No, Alexander Graham Bell did.
Jill: You just said Edison did.
Me: (patiently) No, Edison invented the lightbulb.
Jill: WHAT. You're contradicting yourself!
Me: All I'm saying is that Edison wasn't gay.
Karma: Yes he was!
Emmy: No, Da Vinci was.
Jill: Aaagh! This conversation makes no sense!

3rd period. Mr. Laney & I are walking down the hallway together.

Mr. Laney: ...and I have to bribe kids to learn grammar.
Me: Bribe, hmm? That's smart....
Mr. Laney: (to kid in hallway) Where's your pass?
Kid in hallway: Uh... in my pocket.
Mr. Laney: Let me see it.
Kid: (slowly backing away) Uh.....
Mr. Laney: Where are you supposed to be right now?
Kid: I don't know.
Me: Are you lost?
Kid: No, I have to go to the bathroom.
Mr. Laney: You need a pass.
Kid: It's in my pocket.
Mr. Laney: Really?
Kid: Uh.....
Mr. Laney: I'm gonna kick your ass, little brown kid!

12 January 2005

A little something for Katie's kids:

(ca. 1999, driving back to Grinnell with my father)

Him: ...blah blah blah blah meth meth blah.......
Me: BO-ring!
Him: I'm serious.
Me: You're on crack is what you are.
Him: Crack? You mean like crack cocaine? Do you know about the dangers of crack cocaine?
Me: (snort) What?
Him: You know, crack cocaine, a form of cocaine that you can smoke... crack cocaine is very dangerous.
Me: (suppressing giggles, wiggling my fingers in the air) Crack cocaine....
Him: Crack cocaine kills. You only have to smoke crack cocaine once to get addicted, and you could die.
Me: (giggling harder) Please stop.
Him: Crack cocaine is not a joke.
Me: (starting to lose it) Ha ha ha ha! Crack cocaine!
Him: I don't understand what's so funny about crack cocaine!
Me: (tears of laughter) Dad, please, you have to stop saying "crack cocaine!" I'm dying here!
Him: You would be dying, if you were smoking crack cocaine!

Adventures in Middle School


2nd period.

Brad: Why are you making us pick numbers? What is this for? Why do we have to pick numbers?
Me: Brad, chill.
Brad: I can't. I can't. I need to know why we're picking numbers.
Me: Just take a deep breath and relax.
Brad: No, no. You're going to trap us. How are you going to trap us. You're going to trick us into doing something awful.
Me: Am I the kind of person who would trick you into doing something awful?
Entire Class: YES!!
Me: (thinking) Oh, I guess that's true, actually. Sorry about that.
Dale: No you're not!
Me: You're right. I'm really not.


7th period.

Jack: (whispering) Ms. Backes wants to be in the If-You-Talk-I'll-Kill-You-Gang!
Me: Oh, I love that gang!
Jack: Aaaaaahh!


7th period.

Jay: Ms. Backes, I have to tell this story!
Me: Go for it.
Jay: Okay. When I was little, I was really scared of the gremlins, because I was watching a tape of my parents wedding, and I fell asleep, and when I woke up Gremlins was on TV and I thought they were at my parents wedding! I thought they were real!

1st period.

(The kids are mad at me because I put them in a seating chart. How dare I! The gifted kids! What nerve!)

Me: Here's a hint: "You" is ALWAYS second person. "I" is always first person....
Andrew: Or is it?
Me: What?
Andrew: (melodramatically sad) I don't even know who I am, without my friends to tell me about myself.
Me: Ask them at lunch.


7th period.

PA: Staff, this is just a reminder that there will be a staff meeting after school.
Me: BO-ring!
Jay: Are staff meetings totally awesome? Are they like a party?
Me: Um, no. They're lame. But sometimes we get food.
Jay: Do they give you shrimp?
Me: No.
Jay: Do they give you WINE?


6th period.

Tanner: How do you spell surfing?
Angelique: How do you spell DUH!

7th period.

Xander: Ms. Backes, did you know that only one in a billion people is as smart as I am?
Jay: Did you know that that's not true?

Me: In the next few weeks we're going to be talking about violence in the media and our society, and about community building.....
Darleen: Violence? I'm good at that!!


After school.

Me: (walking up to kids working in the hallway) What are you gangsters doing out here?
Andrew: (gasp!) That's not nice! We're going to give you ISS for that!
Me: Great!
Andrew: You'll just sit there in a room all day and grade papers.
Me: Awesome. I could use a day like that.
Andrew: Okay, you'll have to sit in a room all by yourself grading MEANINGLESS papers!
Me: Sounds like my life!
Andrew: (gasp!) My papers aren't meaningless!
Patty: Well....
Andrew: My papers are important! I'm the future! ......at least, that's what the commercial said....

1st period.

Me: (pointing to a poster about adverbs featuring a stick man running away from three long lines) He's running away from the lines.
Andrew: They show that he's going fast. Quickly. Running quickly, because it's an adverb, you know?
Me: He's running from the lines because he's scared. They go, RAWR!
Andrew: Lines don't go rawr, they go wooosh.
Me: They do if they have teeth.
Andrew: Ms. Backes, do you want me to draw teeth?
Me: (happily) Yes.


Andrew: (presenting the poster) The man is running quickly. Or maybe he's running... fearfully.
Stan: Question. Why do those lines have teeth on them?
Andrew: I don't know. I actually have no idea. No one does.
Lizzil: Why are they there, then?
Andrew: Ms. Backes told me to draw them.
Class: ...?
Me: The man is running away from them. They're chasing him. They go, rawr!
Jerrod: I like adverbs!


5th period, a couple of kids (punks-ass kids who I JUST got on my side!) fixed my pencil sharpener for me. It had been ripped off the wall when I was gone, probably by my 4th period class.

Funny thing, though, they put it on upside-down, so now it's a lefty-sharpener.

Watching kids try to deal with this was like a psychology experiment. Can the little monkeys still manipulate the tool if it's slightly changed?

6th period this girl completely freaked about it.

Rae: Your pencil sharpener is RACIST!
Me: What? No it isn't.
Rae: Yes it is!
Me: Why, because now it favors left-handers? That's not racism.
Rae: It's racist racist racist!!
Me: Really, it's not.

(10 minutes later)

Rae: Your pencil sharpener is RACIST!
Me: Rae. The only way it would be racist is if it only allowed people of a certain color to sharpen their pencils.
Rae: What-EVER!



It's one thing to ask the kids to take pity on you because you're sick. It's quite another to ask them to be nice to you because you can't stop slamming your fingers in the door and biting your cheek (three times, hard!) It's not just thoughtful concern. It's sheer unfiltered pity.

Accordingly, sometimes my students look at me with such kind looks, much like you'd look at your increasingly senile grandmother, while internally debating whether or not you should ask her if she still remembers how to take a shower by herself, or maybe she needs help holding a fork now. It kills me.

I get these pitying looks when I can't find something and am wandering around the room going "Where's my pen? Where's that paper? I JUST had that paper!" or when they patiently ask me the same question for the fourth or fifth time and I say, "Right! THAT question! I was going to answer that question for you!"

Or, like today, when I was reading Margaret Atwood's poem The Puppet of the Wolf and acting it out, primarily for my own amusement. ("And then the wolf -- her right hand -- eats the piglets on her left hand! Rawrr rawr mmm gobblrahh!")


The janitor who cleans my room reminds me of the house-elf who lives at Sirius Black's house: she wanders around, muttering weird things about people just loud enough so we can hear. To be honest, I'm a little afraid of her.


Ali: The midwest has tainted me.
Me: You mean enhanced.


You know, I kind of like it here. I kind of like these monsters. Maybe I'll stay awhile....