Bring It!

It’s happening again.  Yes.  Again.  As a matter of fact, it will happen this, of all days, Friday.  I will wake up before the dawn, reacquaint myself with near-forgotten rituals such as doing my hair and putting on my make-up, leave my house as the neighborhood sleeps, cruise through my commute, unlock my classroom, and welcome students.  Yes.  It’s the first day of school.  And I say, “Bring it.”

After a taxing, trying 2012-2013 school year during which I experienced a mystery illness that left me weak, sore, and anemic; burn-out; and a strong desire to sleep– so much so that I would pass out at my desk on my prep period only to come home and pass out again.  I trained a student in each class to call the school secretary just in case I had to run out of the room for an “emergency”, and one day I had to run out of a meeting because of an “emergency” (as one student said, “You drove all the way to work just to vomit?  That sucks.”)  My response to my very good students, who I was very lucky to have during this time, slowly deteriorated to, “Me-no care-oh” (translated: “I don’t care what you do, just turn it in.”).  Doctor’s appointments and going home sick impeded my ability to be a good advisor to my book club and my Academic Decathlon team.  The kids had to rearrange their schedules and find other teachers who could take over for the day.  Once again, the AcaDec materials weren’t ordered correctly (cough, cough, district office, cough, cough), and we didn’t get our materials until late October.  Competition is in January. I questioned myself.  I knew I was not the teacher or advisor I could be, but I couldn’t muster the energy to be that person.

My questioning deepened after I attended a Common Core Conference in Monterey and the keynote speaker, Kate Kinsella, chastised teachers who had pictures of the Eiffel Tower and posters of kittens dangling by a paw from a tree that say, “Hang in there!”.  There is no place in the classroom for these non-academic distractors!  My co-workers gasped, glancing my way.  In lieu of the Eiffel Tower, there is a big poster of Central Park over my desk, next to my Kandinsky poster, over my Warhol Marilyn Monroe -inspired rubber ducky picture.  There are no posters of kittens, but there is one of a silly-looking frog that says, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”  This doesn’t take into account all of the rubber ducks that line my desk and cupboards, the student art, my travel postcards, and the cutouts of Toy Story characters that had been on a Kleenex box.  One of my TA’s cut them out once it was empty and made me a collage.  My room was clear, undeniable evidence that I was not A Serious Teacher.  Fortunately, Kinsella also alienated every other teacher in the room by telling us to do our “damn jobs” and implored Social Studies teachers to actually teach kids something.  However, once made, the wound was slow to heal.

It was a challenging year.  Too tired to be creative or care too much, I stopped blogging.  There was nothing really to say except express my own uncertainty.  I turned to my books and novels.  I read and read and read.  There just didn’t seem to be enough words that I could gobble up.  I did not want to write or create.  My book clubs with my friends were the  life lines that kept me afloat.  They forced me to not recede to wherever it was that I could possibly go.  My husband, stymied by the fact that I requested white bread, made me endless bowls of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.  During my two-week spring break, I broke tradition and stayed home.

Slowly, the universe shifted.  I learned that I would be teaching AP Literature the 2013-2014 school year.  The fact that I was chosen to teach it was a boost to my self-esteem as an educator, but I was still plagued with doubt.  I still smarted from Kinsella’s implication that I am not a Serious Teacher and considered ways to make my classroom more “academic”– befitting of an AP teacher.

The universe, it seemed, wasn’t done with me yet.  One day I sat reading my students’ personal statements, allowing me to glimpse into their real lives and thoughts.  One student wrote about her two inspiring teachers: her Spanish teacher and…. me.  She wrote about how much I encouraged her and challenged her, and blah, blah, blah.  “Is she trying to butter me up and get an “A”?” I asked myself.  The next line proved that she was not: “In Ms. L’s room she has a poster of Central Park over her desk.  I look at it everyday.  This inspires me to do well and be successful in life so I can go visit wonderful, magical places in the world like Central Park.”  With tears welled up in my eyes, I decided that Kate Kinsella could suck it.  My student, on the other hand, earned her “A”. And a hug.

As I was leaving on the last of school, I glanced in the mailroom.  There, on the floor, was a delivery from the US Academic Decathlon.  My materials for this upcoming year arrived– early.

After a positive end to the school year, gaining back my health and energy, much collaboration for cross-curricular teaching with a history teacher, much fun in Ireland, the UK, and Michigan, much learning at the AP training, and planning a curriculum that includes short stories, poetry, Like Water for Chocolate, Oedipus The King, Death of a Salesman, Othello, Pride and Prejudice, Their Eyes Were Watching God, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, and John Trimble’s Writing With Style:A Conversation on the Art of Writing, I am ready for this school year.

The Sad State of the One Star Review

I have been warned many a time by many a friend that Amazon reader reviews should be taken with a grain of salt.  I suspect this is good advice.  These reviewers are unknown to me and their credentials suspect, even if their screen name is “Professorofeverything”, “books4life”, or “LiteraryWizard”.  Who knows who these people are, their backgrounds, beliefs, and everything else they bring to their readings of a text?  However, there is an industry of Joe Schmoes parcelling out advice for the Amazon Vine program– high-rated reviewers selected by Amazon and who receive benefits from said company– to the community who make up GoodReads.  Obviously, there are those who are taking this with more than a sprinkling of salt.

But like the explorers before me, I use the stars as my guide, and it is with some star snobbery on my part that books that garner only three and a half give me pause.  Are these books that I really want to read?  Those that couldn’t muster an average of a four-star review?  At this point I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and puff away at my pipe to determine if these reviews written by strangers to myself about a book I have yet to read are valid.  Some questions that I think about as I read are: how well does the reviewer know the subject or the author’s work?  How balanced is the reviewer’s tone?  What biases does the reviewer reveal?  Like Sherlock, I also look for the telling details such as the smudge of jelly on the reviewer’s tie that discredits everything he has previously said.  Jelly smudges in writing include words that are not capitalized, like “I”; or words that are in all-cap; or rampant misspellings; or the use of “gonna”, “wanna”, or “I seen”.  Poor use of grammar undermines the message, no matter how balanced it is.  The last thing I look for is the prevalence of the one-star review.

Finding a one-star review worth its salt is a particular (and peculiar) quest of mine.  Mostly it reveals that I need a new hobby.  It is easy to give a book a five-star review, but it takes a certain amount of bravura to award it with only one.  This means the reviewer better have solid evidence as to why the book is THAT bad, why it doesn’t even deserve a “mercy” two star rating.  Giving a book a one-star means that the book is not worth being read; the book is worthy of being ostracized. It draws a hard line.  While the five-star review is superlative, the one-star is dogmatic: “Do not read this!” it warns.

However, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what the one-star is for, and it seems that they should be peer-reviewed before they are instantly published to the web.  If a one-star review fell under any of the following categories, it would would be kicked back to the reviewer for revision:

1.  It’s a complaint about the Kindle edition.  If it didn’t download fast enough, cost more than the paperback, or was full of grammatical errors, learn the lesson, drop the technology, and move back to reading paper books.  The author who slaved over the writing of the book should not be punished for something outside of his or her realm.

2.  It’s a complaint about the UPS driver.  Contact UPS.

3.  Misuse of literary terms.  I have read reviews of non-fiction texts where the reviewers complained of there being too many facts, too many characters, a non-linear story line, and all of this makes the plot really hard to understand.

4.  You’re rooting for who?  Reviewers who complain that a book made Hitler or Trujillo “look bad” or that Abraham Lincoln “deserved to be shot” should have their reviews kicked back with a nice note suggesting “soul-searching”.

5. Inability to determine good writing.  One reviewer of Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain suggested that Stegner learn how to write.  He then posted an example of the passage he found difficult: “The train was rocking through the wide open country before Elsa was able to put off the misery of leaving and reach out for the freedom and release that were hers now.”  This is the first line of the novel.  It went downhill from there.

6. Inability to determine context of writing.  One review of Osa Johnson’s I Married Adventure decried how Osa and her husband, Martin, treated animals in the wild; they didn’t use today’s standards.  The Johnson’s traveled the globe in the first part of the 20th century.  Today’s standards weren’t invented yet.

6a. Using evidence against a writer without first determining its validity.  This most recently came up when I read Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.  There are 17 one-star reviews of that book– which surprised me because it’s Bill Bryson.  Who picks a fight with Bill Bryson?!  But when the topic is language, specifically, the English language, people can get a bit truculent.  It also doesn’t help that the book was published in 1990, and the information is more than 20 years old.  Some of what we know about language has changed or expanded since then.  But instead of reviewing all of Bryson’s work, which is cited, reviewers picked at his credibility through the use of small examples.  One criticized his etymology of the word “petroleum”, which he said that “petra” is a Latin root and “oleum” a Greek suffix.  The reader took offense and stated that it is in fact the reverse!  Therefore because of this and other mistakes like it , Bryson’s work should not be taken seriously, and definitely not as a work of scholarship at all. However, if one looks up the etymology in the dictionary (and the internet provides many dictionaries to choose from), one learns that “petra” is Latin, and so is “oleum” (a half point for the reviewer).  But upon further study, one finds that “ole” is a Greek root for oil. Bryson’s point was that words are created by making Latin and Greek hybrids.  Maybe he should have used the term “hypercorrection” as an example instead.

What I think bothers me the most about one-star reviews is how close to life they are.  We have all received such reviews in our lives, and they’re based on spurious reasons.  They’re unfair, and mostly (unless we’re major screw-ups) we earn them through no fault of our own.  It’s hard to deal with someone who misunderstands you, willfully or otherwise, and does not seek to understand.  Or one who could be corrected, but lets the rating still stand.  Or one judges us using different criteria (“Yes, she gave a knock-out presentation, but did you see the bags under her eyes?!”).  Like authors on Amazon, we cannot do much about what other people say about us.  Some reviews can be changed; our merits shine through and our reviewer sees the light.  But for those who dig in their heels, there’s no budging them.  It’s not necessarily the Amazon reviews that we should take with a grain of salt, but it’s the one-star reviews about ourselves.

Fighting The (Good?) Fight

My blood is still boiling.  My breath seethes. I may look like I am smiling, but really my teeth are on edge. For over a week, the conversation– that began innocently enough– has run an endless loop in my brain.  With each new loop comes a swift kick to my butt.  I had had a rebuttal, but I didn’t give it.  Now it jabs, bobs, and weaves in my mind, waiting to be let loose on my opponent.  It screams for justice, for victory, for the declaration of “I AM RIGHT!”.

What was this conversation that got my panties in a bunch?  That has had me on edge all week?  Alright, I’ll tell you.  It will be a relief to declare my evidence– so unwillfully withheld and stewing in my cranium: “Of course Charles Dickens had class consciousness!  His dad was sent to a debtor’s prison, and he was pulled out of school to work in a factory to pay off his dad’s debt!  Dickens would have to be a complete knucklehead to NOT have class consciousness!  AND it was this experience that drove him to be rich and successful!  Jane Austen lived a life of relative comfort and wanted for nothing!  It’s not like there was an Occupy Steventon or Occupy Bath when she was growing up!”

Whew!  That was like cutting open an infected wound and letting all of the puss slide out.  Oh, the relief!  And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is what my friends and I argue about.

Why didn’t I give my rebuttal when I had the chance?  A variety of factors: I haven’t thought of Dicken’s childhood in a very long time and didn’t have that information right at the tip of my tongue; I was exhausted and recovering from a headache; the conversation moved quickly; I think associatively, and my rebuttal at the time was, “Comparing Austen to Dickens is like comparing Dickinson to Whitman: both lived during the Civil War, but one wrote about it and the other didn’t.  Should we fault Dickinson for not writing about soldiers and battles?  She wrote about private stuff and her home life, as did Austen.”  I think, also, I felt a bit personally on the defensive.  In defending Austen for not being class-conscious, I was defending myself for liking her novels and gleefully watching Downton Abbey.  So the class structure was awful in England.  People were butlers and second lady’s maids.  There were rich people and middling rich people.  It’s how it was. Should I not watch Gone With The Wind because it has slaves?  Should I not watch Dead Poets’ Society because the prep school didn’t admit girls?

How did Dickens get in the mix?  I was agreeing to the fact that Austen is not very class-conscious in regards to the lower class, but was for people who were just below her station, at her station, or above her station.  However, her way of life didn’t really call on her to be aware of those far beneath her.  My friend retorted, “Dickens did, and he lived at that same time.  This is just as bad as saying the Founding Fathers didn’t know that slavery was bad.  They knew.”  You can imagine how that got steam coming out of my ears.  This is why I wish I had said what I wanted to about Dickens.  It would have nipped that line  of thought in the bud.

But I am serious when I say that I’ve been stewing over this for a week.  It has become my internal soundtrack.  All it does is make me mad.  And frustrated. Why is it so important that I get the last word on this one? Why have I been unable to let it go? Why do I have to rehash all of this all of the time?  I have tried to end the discussion in my head, letting myself know that I can take quiet joy in the fact that I am right and that she doesn’t know that much about Dickens’s life if she’s going to make that hasty comparison.  I have killed many negative conversations in my head before, because, really, there’s nothing that can be done about them.  The conversation is done and over with.  To go back and say, “Um, Dickens grew up in poverty…” makes me petty, holding onto something that has fallen off everyone else’s radar.  This conversation, however, will not die.

Part of the reason I think it remains on life-support is that my friend is very intelligent and confident.  I constantly feel like I need to prove myself. She is also very quick with a retort, while I need time to process my information, to weigh the validity and veracity of my response. She has passed start and collected her $200 a few times while I’m still on St. James Place.  I kind of feel like a dunce.  The thing is, I don’t think she realizes she does this.  I also think that she probably doesn’t see me as a dunce, but it’s how I feel.  My little nugget about Dickens is my redemption, my “Get-Out-Of-Jail Free” card, but unlike that card, Dickens’s childhood will not get played.

From Student To Teacher

The dusty bookcases reached the ceiling; stacked and double-stacked spine-worn books shared the shelves with photographs spanning three generations of the head of the department’s family.  I studied each item to avoid looking at him.  Female students were known to throw themselves at him for his stratospheric intellect and piercing eyes.  I was not going to be one of those girls, even though I wanted to be.  I was in his office to discuss an up-coming essay for his Dickens course. It was more like Dickens triage as the essay needed to be twenty pages, was due in two weeks, and I still didn’t have a topic.
Rubbing his face with his hands, he groaned, “God, Amy, what are you trying to do? Kill me?”. That was one point toward not being one of those girls. I fixated on a photo of his kids and smiled sheepishly, and wondered if my professors ever talked about their shared triage moments:  Whitman triage, Stein triage, Dickinson triage, Coleridge triage.  We bounced around some ideas related to Great Expectations when he picked up a sheet off of his desk and studied it.

He pierced me with his eyes, and I could not look away. I picked at a cuticle instead, managing to rip off a good chunk of skin.  Blood pooled immediately.  Lacking a Kleenex , I sucked it away. I didn’t even want to imagine the picture I made.  “Are you okay?” he asked. Still sucking, I nodded.  Did I hit an artery? He waved the sheet in front of me demanding, “Why don’t I see your name on the list of TAs?”. I stopped sucking.  TAs were Teaching Assistants–a misnomer for graduate students who were the teacher of record of their own College Composition course.  After taking the required coursework, applying and interviewing for the job, they planned and created their own syllabus, chose the texts, created the lessons, and taught freshman undergrads.  I hadn’t planned on pursuing a position.  I had decided to get a Master’s degree in English on a whim– mostly because I didn’t want to enter the “real world” yet and had always wanted on.  What I was going to do with my degree was still an unanswered question.  Plus, I didn’t think I was a student of that caliber and thought such a possibility was a long shot.  I kept those thoughts to myself and replied that I hadn’t taken the coursework.  He furrowed his brows together and frowned, “Well, get on it!”

I left his office a bit stunned at this unexpected vote of confidence.  He had expected to see my name on that list.  I hadn’t envisioned it there. Why he zeroed in on me was confusing– I didn’t really do anything particularly outstanding in his class beyond raising my hand and answering questions.  However, I am a big believer in following the advice of one who should know, so I researched what I needed to do to become one and enrolled in the necessary courses the following term.  If he thought I could do it, then maybe I should give it a shot.

Up until this point I had only taken lit courses, and the idea of studying composition was a bit of a snooze.  But I was introduced to the power of writing: how it helps us obtain and construct knowledge, its role in education and empowering students, it’s politics.  Through our studies we analyzed the role of the teacher in the classroom–what made an effective teacher and how can one better teach the art of writing.  It was downright fascinating, and those classes quickly became my favorites.  This knowledge was useful, pragmatic and had practical applications.  Designing my own coursework with challenging ideas that questioned the modern world, what we know, and how we know it, challenged and excited me.  If I had my own class, these ideas could be shared, thought about and discussed.

Even though I performed well in those classes, I still wasn’t sure if I would get the job.  My confidence lagged, and when I got the interview, I wasn’t very enthusiastic.  The professors were probably humoring me.  I slouched, gave short answers, and really just wanted to run out of there so I could stop wasting their time.  One of the professors on the hiring panel (the interview was with me and five professors), commented on my lack of energy afterwards.  Did I get a lobotomy right before the interview?  Where did my normal self go?  She was baffled, but despite my poor interview, they hired me anyway.
To say I was scared shitless my first day of teaching is an understatement.  My hand shook terribly as I took roll.  My students were only a mere five years younger than I.  Could I really teach them?  Would they learn anything?  Would they take me seriously?  Each day my heart pounded at the start of class.  I waited for one of my students to stand up and cry, “You’re an imposter!  I can’t believe I’m paying good money for this!”  They never did, and I was offered to teach each semester until I graduated.  The department also gave me a more challenging class of remedial English.  The experience gave me confidence and maturity.The words of encouragement my professor gave me that day in his office changed my life.  I had always thought of entering the teaching profession, but I never really thought of it as a reality.  He most likely doesn’t remember this conversation, but I certainly do.  It was a life-changing moment: His words and expectations made me a teacher.

Being Positive Means Being Positive

The announcements section just confounded me.  What was there to announce?   “Hey, kids, you’re in class!”?  Our study skills calendar– a transparency that we use to begin every class with that lists the standards, objective, ESLRs, homework and agenda– also had this little space for anything that I might feel compelled to announce. I felt awkward leaving it blank– it was like I was admitting to not having anything exciting to say, and it was just all homework, standards, homework, standards all day, everyday.

Finally I decided to put positive affirmations there.  Everyday the announcement was some positive quote or choice tidbit.  For example, I often put that we should only focus on what’s happening this instant, because we can’t do anything about what happened during the passing period and we can’t do anything about the immediate future.  Or everyday is a new day and it allows us to start over.  Or if someone is mean to you, it’s a reflection of their unhappiness and how miserable they are, and not a reflection of  you.  Everyday at the beginning of each class I doled out my little nugget.

Slowly, the affirmations began to take on a life of their own.  Somedays, they were for me instead of the kids.  If I felt like ripping someone’s head off, I wrote an affirmation about kindness and patience. Since I was preaching this message, I would have to act it.  The kids picked up on it, too.  If the day’s affirmation was about remaining calm and keeping composure, one student would ask, “That’s for you isn’t it?”  I nodded.  “Yeah, I could tell. You’re really on edge right now.”  If I forgot to write one, they would ask, “Do you not love us anymore, Ms. L.?”

Sometimes they had an unexpected effect.  One day, struggling for something new and short to state, I wrote, “You are significant and special.”  After announcing how significant and special I thought they all were, I asked, “What are you?!”  I fully expected to hear a loud Marine-style reply, “SIGNIFICANT AND SPECIAL! (SIR!)”  Had they done that, what happened next wouldn’t have happened.  Instead they mumbled, mumbled, groaned.  I zeroed on a kid, “John, what are you?”  He stared at me.  I repeated my question.  He sighed, “Significant and special.”  I grinned, “Yes, you are!  Aurora, what are you?”  I went around the room and basically demanded that each of them tell me that they are significant and special.  One boy’s jaw worked as he shook his head no.  “Justin, you are significant and special.  Now, tell it to me.”  His voice cracked when he finally told me.  I got a little angry at that point. Why did I have a cute, charming, talented, intelligent boy on the verge of tears and thinking he was not significant or special?  Why were the people in his life letting him down?  Why does he have to just hear it from me when I put in the announcements section on a whim?

The affirmation announcements continued the entire term, and I imagined that they all thought it was hokey. Then I read one quiet boy’s reflection of the class.  He wrote that in my class he learned that everyday was a new day to prosper and do well.  He could always do his best everyday, and if he messed up, there was always a new moment to make amends and become a better person.  He also liked reading Othello outside.  He was the only one who wrote about the daily affirmations, but they meant something to him. It is amazing how the smallest and most trivial of things (me not wanting a blank announcement) can turn into so much.