21 July 2008

In this area...

But you know, they don't really care if you go a block or two that way.

19 July 2008

Stay in School, or I Will Kick Your Ass

I know that most of the readers of this blog are grownups. Most of you even have college degrees. Good job! Go, you! You deserve a cookie.

If you have already graduated from high school, this blog post is not for you.

If, however, you are one of the approximately 400 students I taught in New Mexico, or you're a kid whose overbearing parent or grandparent or teacher sent this link to you, or you're a high schooler of any kind, or you're seriously considering dropping out of high school for any reason, or -- well, you know what I mean -- this blog post is for you.

This morning I responded to two separate emails from two separate former students asking about whether or not they should stay in school. You GUYS!! You're killing me! Of course you should stay in school! Even Mr. T knows that.

Look, you guys. I know that high school sucks. Of course it does. It sucks for everyone. Anyone who tells you that high school will be the best years of your life is either mis-remembering high school entirely or just completely deranged. High school is NOT the best years of your life, but it IS practice for the best years of your life.

You don't need me to tell you all the statistics about how high school dropouts make so much less money than graduates (and over a lifetime, a MILLION DOLLARS less than the average college graduate) or how high school dropouts make up a disproportionate percentage of America's prison and death row inmates or how high school dropouts are far more likely to apply for public aid and assistance. You can google all those facts yourself, and you probably should. I imagine, though, that the idea of making a million dollars more over the course of your lifetime seems pretty abstract in the face of the concrete suckiness of your day to day high school life. Right?

Here's the thing: high school sucks because you're learning big giant important life lessons, and it's always completely uncomfortable to learn big giant important life lessons. We humans are kind of dumb, and we only learn big giant important life lessons when the universe hits us over the head repeatedly with a giant metaphorical stick. In other words, humans have to SUFFER to learn. That's how we're made. When you were really little, and your mom told you not to put your hand on a hot stove, did you say, "Okay, Mom! Thanks for the heads up! I will take the wisdom you've earned from life and apply it to my own!" or did you go, "Don't what? Hmm, what would happen if I put my hand here? OWWWWW mother of god that hurts oh my lord the agony aaaaahhhhh!!"

Mmm-hmm, and which one made a bigger impression on you?

I hate to say it, you guys, but high school is an awful lot like life. Think of it as the bootcamp of adulthood. It sucks because you're encountering all these crappy aspects of life for the first time, and you're trying to negotiate your way through by trial and error. You're putting your hand on that hot stove every single day, and it freaking hurts. The good news is that all of the lessons you're learning now will help you later in life. I swear.

One of the most important things you'll learn in high school is sheer perseverance. SO much of your future success will depend on your ability to keep showing up, even in the face of major trials and difficulties and bad hair days and stupid people up in your face all the time and headaches and all the other mundane awful things of every day life. High school teaches you to keep on trucking, no matter how bad things get. Woody Allen said "Ninety percent of success is just showing up." Thomas Edison said "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." You see? Good things only come to those who work steadily, every single day, at making their dreams come true. Oddly enough, high school will make you better at this.

Another crucial life lesson you'll learn in high school is how to get along with people you hate. I know you're surrounded by small minded, stupid, annoying, ridiculous people. I know they drive you crazy. Unfortunately, you're going to have to work with them for the rest of your life. I have only worked ONE job in my entire adult life that didn't have at least one completely obnoxious co-worker I had to deal with -- and that's because I was only working with one other person. I hate to tell you, but we live in a group-work society, and high school is your training ground for how to deal with people that make you want to stab your eyes out with a pencil.

Finally, high school will help you to learn how to make the most out of your life. Believe me, the next sixty-odd years will be full of people and situations you don't want to deal with, busy work that makes you crazy, boring tedious repetitive tasks (just ask anyone without a dishwasher), financial and emotional and time constraints, regardless of who or what you are. The good news is that within that framework of all the stuff you have to do and all the limits you have on you, you get to choose what your life will be. I'm serious. Whether you end up working three jobs to support the seventeen children you managed to acquire or living in a mansion with a butler and six ferrets, you will get to choose whether you're happy or sad, whether you're a victim or a hero, whether your life is full of loneliness and tears or love and laughter, YOU GET TO CHOOSE. When I was in high school, my best friend used to remind me (constantly), "You know, Abraham Lincoln said that most folks are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be!" and I would say "Shut the hell up, Matt, I am full of angst and rage and you don't understand my pain!" and then I would punch him in the face. But eventually, and to my chagrin, I learned that he (and Abe Lincoln) was right. You're going to be as happy as you make up your mind to be, whether you're sitting in Algebra or touring the circuit as a professional rodeo clown. Living through high school is excellent practice.

Finally, in response to those of you who have emailed me complaining that your high school is awful and your teachers are morons and the whole experience is just making you DUMBER: look, I sympathize. I had a high school English teacher who didn't know the difference between the words "resume" and "résumé" and it made me want to call the presses and run a major exposé in all the papers about the idiots who were teaching in our schools. And I actually went to a pretty good school. And really, as a teacher, I know for a fact that some of your teachers probably are dumb, because I know that I've had a colleague or two over the years who's shocked me with their ignorance. But I also know that MOST of your teachers are a lot smarter than you think they are, and even dumb people can occasionally teach you something of worth. If you feel like you're not being challenged by the school, then take the reins into your own hands and challenge yourself. Take the hardest classes you can find. Push yourself to get straight As in all of them. Learn a new language. Teach yourself how to draw. Write a book. Read every single one of the 100 Best Novels. Invent something. Take up cross country running, or knitting, or fencing. Learn how to cook and bake and make your own yogurt. Find ways to help out people who are worse off than you. Challenge yourself.

And hang in there.

Ms. Backes

14 July 2008

What I Love, A List*

Walking to work in the morning through the moving shadows and leafy light. An endless supply of lemonade in my refrigerator. A cup of hot tea while the rain splats against the windows outside. Fireworks from a city roof, 360 degrees. Grinnellians. Watching the mice poke their noses through the bars of their cage. An unexpected gift, a necklace hanging from a tree. Postcards. Sitting in a green back yard as the sky turns tangerine and lavender and deep blue and the fireflies bob among the bushes and the flowers. Tiny Italian lights. Floyds. Trusting myself (hard-earned and a long time coming). Reconnecting with people from the distant past. That moment in the morning between sleep and waking, when it seems anything could happen. The Chicago Public Library. Reaching out for a hand to hold and finding that a hundred people have been holding you up all along. Free artwork. Our newly working doorbell, and all the possibilities it offers. Dinner with teachers. Finding new people who feel like old friends. Strolling to the pooch park to pet other people's pooches. Weekends in Wisconsin. Walking all over this city. Secret doorways in vine-covered walls. Ice cream, anytime. A brand new bottle of expensive shampoo. Talking to my neighbors. Discovering wonderful new books, and rediscovering old ones. Freshly clean laundry. Houseplants I dragged all the way from New Mexico. Votes of confidence when you need them the most. Cold junior mints and hot coffee, together. Opening the window and yelling down to the people on the sidewalk below. A quilt from my mother, thirty years old. Lots of things.


10 July 2008

What Writers Can Learn from Wall-E

All about that adorable little robot and what he has to teach storytellers over at Cooler By The Lake.

09 July 2008

The Dreaded Passive Voice, and How A Friendship Was Nearly Destroyed by It

Reader, I'm sorry I've been neglecting you. I'm up to my waist in questions of emotional logic and over-parented characters (don't even ask) and character arcs and plot twists. In other words: BO-ring! Instead of putting you to sleep with descriptions of my incredibly exciting days (I work! Every day! And I write! Every day! Sometimes I drink tea instead of coffee! It's madness!!), I thought I'd repost a story I wrote last spring, which originally appeared on the StoryStudio Chicago blog, Cooler By The Lake.

The Dreaded Passive Voice,
and How A Friendship Was Nearly Destroyed By It

This spring, the Bad Habits met up in Barbados for Sister Nadia’s wedding. The four of us – Sister Alison, Sister Mary, Sister Nadia, and I – lived together our senior year of college, in a house we called “The Funnery Nunnery.”

The Funnery Nunnery

We became known as the Fun Nuns, and then (after we beat everyone in town at darts) the Bad Habits.

Sister Mary Mary, Sister Mary Nadia, and Sister Mary Alison,
with honorary Fun Nun Sister Mary Dan

Sister Nadia is from Barbados, and in college we used to joke about her wedding, complaining about how we’d all be forced to travel to Barbados for it, and what a terrible burden that would be. Little did we imagine that the day would come when the Fun Nuns would indeed reunite on the beach.

Our first night

It was the first time we’d been together in six years. Sister Nadia, now living in Ethiopia, had only been back to the States once since we graduated. Sister Mary, Sister Ali, and I all live in different cities, and don’t usually get to see each other more than once or twice a year. But here we all were, happily ensconced in a Beach House. While Nadia stayed with her parents, Mary, Ali, and I worked in secret to make a scrapbook for her, The Tale of the Fun Nuns, to let Sister Nadia know that though she was leaving the convent, she’d always be our sister. I spent the days before I left gathering pictures, making photocopies, and spending WAY too much money on markers, stickers, and paper. In the Beach House, the girls and I gathered around the kitchen table, mere feet from the ocean, cutting and gluing and decorating and chatting to the soundtrack of Bajan Radio. It was bliss…

The Beach House

…until the very last day, the day we had to write the text for our lovely, hilarious history of the Fun Nuns. We had thirty or so pages of pictures and stickers and glitter with little scrolls on each page for the text to complete the fairy tale motif. We knew roughly what each page would say, but we hadn’t written the exact words yet. When we started writing, to my utter HORROR, Sisters Mary and Ali wanted to write the ENTIRE book in PASSIVE VOICE.

Needless to say, I kind of freaked out.

They read the draft aloud. “Beer was drunk… hygiene was maintained… mountains were climbed… friends were made with critters great and small… thoughts were thunk…”

“Thoughts were THUNK?” I asked. “That’s not even ENGLISH.”

“It’s cute!” they said.

“It’s passive voice! It’s terrible! No no no. Write it in active voice!” (In my defense, I was an English teacher for years, where I picked up a nasty little habit of demanding changes in sloppy writing. I know, I know, it’s obnoxious, but come on! Before they give you a license to teach English, you have to sign an affidavit swearing your loyalty to the active voice.)

“We don’t know how,” they said.

“This is the story of the Fun Nuns,” I said. “So: they drank beer, they brushed their teeth, they climbed mountains, they made friends with critters.”

“That sounds dumb,” the Sisters complained. “We like it our way.”

Beer was drunk

“Girls,” I said, “Nadia’s mother was already making fun of us for being terribly stupid despite our fancy university educations.” (This is true. The problem was that a dressmaker was making the bridesmaids’ dresses before she actually met the bridesmaids, which meant that the girls needed to send their dress measurements months ahead of time. Seeing as how most women of my generation acquire clothing by going to the store and picking out something that’s already made and already fits, the girls had no experience taking their dress measurements. One of them sent a measurement from the nape of her neck to the front of her belly button, with a note that said, “But I can’t imagine what you’d need this number for.” The mothers laughed for DAYS.)

“This is a book that Nadia will show people all over the world. We don’t want them to think that we’re ignorant Americans who don’t know any better than to use the passive voice.”

“You are really blowing this out of proportion,” they said.

Things were getting awfully tense at the Beach House. These were my best girlfriends in the world. I didn’t want to make them mad, but I honestly couldn’t drop it. “Everyone knows that passive voice is a crutch for shady people who don’t want to take ownership of their own actions. That’s not us! I mean, beer was drunk and thoughts were thunk? WE drank that beer, damn it! WE thunk those thoughts. WE incorrectly conjugated those verbs! They were crazy times! We don’t need to be embarrassed about our actions! We don’t need to hide behind the passive voice! If the book is in passive voice, then it’s like the world was happening to the Fun Nuns. But this is our story! We went out into the world! The mountains weren’t just climbed by anyone – WE climbed those mountains! The critters shouldn’t be the subject of this sentence, we should!”

We drank that beer!

I tried to pull our honorary Fun Nun, Brother Carlos, into the argument, but since English was his second or third language, it was a losing proposition. He and I got into a tangled discussion of voice while trying to find a common ground between his good English and my bad Spanish. Pretty soon, I felt everyone in the room glaring at me like I was completely off the hook. Brother Carlos asked nicely, “This is very important to you, yes? But the other way sounds good too.”

Brother Carlos stays out of it

Finally we reached a compromise. Sisters Ali and Mary could have a section of passive voice inside the text, as long as the entire story wasn’t in passive voice. Sister Molly could have her active voice at the beginning and ending of the story, and flip quickly past the passive voice pages. And Brother Carlos could have the left-over glitter dumped all over him (but that’s another story).

Of course the book turned out beautifully, and of course Sister Nadia loved it, and of course we all got a little weepy when we read through it together.

Sister Nadia and The Tale of the Fun Nuns

“Still,” I said that night, “if I ever get married, you girls had better skip the passive voice section.”

“If it will make you happy,” they said, “an active voice book will be made for you by us.”

05 July 2008

Teacher’s Pet

Zeke was a bad dog. The first time I saw him, he was streaking across a campus quad, ears flying in the wind, leash dragging behind him, while his owner followed on a bike, screaming his name. “Zeke! ZEKE! Bad dog!” He lived across the street from me my last year of college, and I watched him, surreptitiously, from my porch. Sometimes I stopped on my way home to pet him. My dog had died the year before and my mom had gotten herself a new dog, but the dog your family gets when you are 21 and in school is not the same as the one they get when you are ten and lonely. I patted Zeke on the head, gingerly, because his dull brown fur was sticky and dusted with dandruff. He had amber eyes and a stump for a tail and an extreme arthritic limp that didn’t prevent him from running away every chance he got. It became routine: Zeke ran away and his owner chased him on his bike, screaming and cursing. “Bad, bad dog!”

Sometimes I saw the man go after Zeke with a stick, yelling and hitting him. Once I tried to talk to him about it, asking if it was really necessary to hit the dog. “Oh yes,” he said. “He is a very bad dog. How else will he learn?” Politeness and fear trapped me in silence, and I shrugged unhappily. “In this country, you treat your dogs better than people,” he said. “In my country, dogs are for working.”

I told myself it was a cultural difference and not my place to interfere. Still, I flinched whenever I saw the man hitting Zeke. Even if he was a bad dog.

Eventually I graduated, moved across town, and began student teaching in a seventh grade classroom. The ten year difference between them and me felt like nothing. Trent Kidder sat in the last row of my last class of the day, and he was a problem from the first. “Oh, Trent Kidder,” the other teachers said knowingly. “He’s a bad kid.”

The other teachers told me that I needed to be harsh with Trent, to show him who was boss. They told me never to smile. They told me to send him to the principal right off the bat, to establish my dominance. I followed their advice, but Trent just got worse and worse. After school every day I went back to campus where I attended methods classes and wrote research papers and thought about how to tone Trent down and spice up my lessons so the rest of my students would care about class.

One Thursday afternoon in early September, the man showed up at my door with Zeke. It was an emergency, he said. He had to go out of town for the weekend and there wasn’t anyone else. Could I please take the dog, just until Sunday night?

“I’m sorry,” I said. I couldn’t do it; my landlord had a very strict policy against dogs.

“Please,” the man said. “You’re the only one.”

I looked down. Zeke was wearing an ill-fitting red harness that cut under his legs and across his neck. He looked uncomfortable. “Oh, all right. Just until Sunday.”

When he was gone, I looked at Zeke. “I guess you’re stuck with me, buddy.” Zeke wagged his stump.

In my family, we’d always left the dog food out all day, and the dogs would eat when they were hungry. I put out a bowl of food for Zeke and he gobbled it as if he didn’t know when he’d see his next meal. Taken aback, I filled his bowl again, and he immediately finished it. “Hey,” I said. “I’ll feed you every day. I promise.” I washed him and brushed him but my family was not impressed. “What a dirty old dog,” they said. “He’s so old! He probably won’t live through the weekend.”

“He’s not dirty,” I said.

On Sunday, I waited for Zeke’s owner. I read a book, and Zeke slept at my feet. The minutes ticked by. I read another book. The man didn’t come. Finally at ten o’clock he called me and said he wasn’t going to make it. He was in Atlanta. “What am I supposed to do?” I demanded. “I can’t keep him!” The man begged me. Just one week. Please. Next Sunday. He promised.

What could I do? I said fine and hung up. Zeke wagged his stump and went back to sleep.

I spent the week sneaking around, trying to keep him hidden. I left him in the basement during the day and took him to campus with me when I could, letting him curl up at my feet in the curriculum library after everyone else had gone home for the night. He panicked when I left, and broke out of every kind of barrier I could make. When I was home, he stayed close to me, winding himself between my legs as I walked through the house and sneaking under the covers at night, like he thought I would leave if he let me out of his sight.

His owner called again Sunday night. From New York this time. No, he couldn’t come get him. Maybe next week.

I took Zeke to the vet and got him glucosamine, and he stopped limping. I brushed him every day and fed him eggs to make his coat soft and shiny brown. I talked to the people who knew his owner, followed a trail through his past to learn as much as I could about him. In the last year, the man had already left Zeke with three other families.

The next week, he didn’t come back, and he didn’t call.

My mother the social worker said Zeke reminded her of the foster children she’d worked with over the years. She put him in her car to take him on a play date and said he looked like a foster kid, resigned to the fact that she would leave him again, that no one wanted to be his forever family.

After six weeks, we got an envelope in the mail with Zeke’s medical records and a note from one of Zeke’s previous foster homes. Congratulations on your new dog! the note said. “I thought you were dog-sitting him,” my mother said.

I looked down at Zeke, who stood leaning against my legs. He wagged his stump at me. “I guess not.”

A few weeks after that, a friend of mine yelled at him as a joke. “Bad dog!” he yelled, and Zeke cowered in fear, whimpering. I nearly kicked my friend out of the house. “Don’t you ever yell at my dog again.” I knelt down with Zeke and wrapped my arms around him, shushing him. “You’re safe,” I told him. “You’ll always be safe with me. I promise you.”

I fed him every day and though he always ate with relish, he lost that haunted look that said he didn’t know when he’d get his next meal. Our family vet helped perfect his glucosamine dosage until his limp disappeared altogether. I walked him every day and let him sleep next to me with his head on the pillow at night. Night after night I watched him fall asleep, marveling that an animal who had been abused and neglected could ever feel safe enough to fall asleep with someone watching.

Zeke became a very good dog.

Little kids could hit him on the head and he’d just stand there, smiling his doggy smile and wagging his stump. I took him to visit my elderly relatives and saw decades drop from their faces as they stroked his soft ears. He was my co-pilot, my hiking buddy, my muse, my partner in crime, my entertainment when I was bored, my relief after a long day at school. My best friend.

Trent, on the other hand, got worse and worse. He interrupted my class at every opportunity, and started to rally the other kids to his cause, until I worried about mutiny. One day I watched him running around the field at lunch, and thought of the first time I saw Zeke, of his unfettered glee as he flew across the quad. The advice of the other teachers suddenly reminded me of what the man had told me about Zeke. “How else will he learn?” I thought about the light that came into Zeke’s eyes, slowly, after months of care and love. Hitting him with a stick made him bad. Treating him with gentle care made him good.

So I forgot the advice of the veteran teachers and followed a hunch instead. Rather than showing Trent who was boss by punishing him, I waited until a day when he was less obnoxious than usual and pounced. “You did such a great job today!” I told him. “You’re a leader in the class, and the other kids look up to you.”

I saw a tiny light appear in Trent’s eyes. “Really?”

“Absolutely,” I said, and smiled at him.

By the end of the semester, Trent was a model student – but only in my class. The other teachers still complained about him and asked me what my secret was. “I just told him he was a good person, and he bloomed.” Maybe that’s all any of us needs, really: someone to pat us on the back and tell us we’re doing a good job.

Nine months after he left, the man reappeared and tried to reclaim Zeke, acting as if that was the plan all along. Though I’m the least confrontational person in the world, I stood my ground, refusing to give the dog back, then threatening to file a restraining order when he didn’t leave me alone. I was only 23, but I was discovering my inner Mama Bear, the part of me that would fight to protect my charges at any cost.

For the next five years, I kept a picture of Zeke on my desk at school to remind me to focus not on punishing the worst in kids, but on bringing out their best. Zeke taught me how to use laughter and kindness to make my classroom a safe place for students, where they could grow into the best versions of themselves. The kids loved to hear stories about him, and instead of giving me the usual mugs and trinkets that teachers get, they gave me tennis balls and bones for Zeke. In class, we diagrammed sentences about him chasing squirrels and eating cheese. They came back from the high school to visit me and asked about him before anything else.

Zeke was a wonderful dog. I promised him I’d take care of him for as long as he lived, and when his time here was up, the vet came to our house and I lay on the floor with my head on the pillow of his dog bed, stroking his soft ears and whispering to him. “You’re a good dog,” I told him. “You’re my best dog.” The whole family gathered around us, crying and petting him, but in the end it was just me and my best dog with our faces together, and I watched him close his eyes for the last time, knowing that he was perfectly safe and perfectly loved.

A few weeks after Zeke died, Trent Kidder graduated from high school. I heard that he grew up to be a serious, studious young man who argued passionately for his beliefs. I thought about him a lot during Zeke’s last days. As a teacher, I often wished I could keep my students safe, as I kept Zeke, for their entire lives. Still, a year is better than nothing, and I’m grateful to the dog who taught me spend what little time I get with students teaching them that they’re good people, they’re safe, and they’re loved.

04 July 2008

Happy Fourth of July!

That was terrible! Horrendous! I'm offended! I'm appalled!