Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Ginger Files Year in Review

2008 is drawing to a close, providing us all with a chance to reflect on the year that has passed. And what a year it has been -- a crazy, history-making election; finally finding out our governor here in Illinois is a total thug; my mother apparently getting engaged to a man whose name I don't even know; and Britney Spears releasing a new album. Crazy! With that in mind, here's my list of my 10 favorite things from 2008:

10. My blog -- I started this blog in June mostly as a way to keep in touch with friends, particularly my best friend who had just moved to Ohio. It was initially a place to tell funny stories, review movies I'd seen, and generally "be Mel." Over the course of the past six months, it's become more as it's given me the opportunity to meet new people, spout off about my political opinions, and find a voice I never knew I had. I've been a slacker posting here lately mostly out of being busy at work and also just not being sure what to post about, but I'll always be here.

9. Show Tunes channel -- My digital cable includes many, many digital music channels which I never really took advantage of when I lived in my old apartment. When I moved, I suddenly "discovered" these channels, particularly the show tune channel which has become my best friend on Sunday mornings as I cook breakfast and my sis and I sip coffee at the kitchen table, discussing politics, our plans for the week, or the brilliance of Patti LuPone.

8. Phish -- My fall was rocked with the news that Phish was coming back. While I didn't get tickets to their spring shows (nor did I try because of work), I am hopeful that a journey back to Phish-land will be a part of my summer. A desperate attempt to reclaim my youth? Perhaps. But it's also a way to reconnect with old friends, including 4 scruffy guys from Vermont who shaped my 20's.

7. Cobie Callait's "Bubbly" -- I seriously love this song. Whenever I hear it, it never fails to put me in a happy mood. Whenever I hear it, I am immediately in my yard, gardening or mowing my lawn with my mp3 player strapped on. It's a great, mellow summer tune.

6. Netflix -- I joined Netflix again this year, and this time, it's stuck. I think what's made Netflix such a winner with me is the ability to watch things instantly on my computer. I've loved being able to go back and watch first and second season episodes of 30 Rock or "discovering" Weeds, which I've never seen because I don't subscribe to Showtime. Plus, it's nice to just come home to that red envelope and know there's something good inside.

5. Hamlet 2 -- Speaking of something good . . . . I haven't seen a ton of movies this year (I really only have time to go to the movies during the summer, so my last trip to the multiplex here in town was to see Tropic Thunder). Thanks to Netflix, though, I've been able to catch up and see movies I didn't get around to, including this great flick. It's hands-down my favorite movie of the year, and perhaps I'll get around to posting a full review later. Suffice it to say, that it's my kind of funny -- absurd, dark, and totally wrong yet totally hilarious.

4. My job -- I've posted a lot here about this. I am really lucky to have found a job that is so rewarding, so challenging, and even, I have to say, so fun. This year brought new challenges as I took over from my mentor in coaching speech and directing drama. (I actually took over in the fall of 2007). 2008 saw me taking my speech team into Regionals and emerging with 5 events qualifying for Sectionals, where one of my kids made it to finals but not to State. 2008 saw me directing my first musical -- Oklahoma! -- without the support of a huge staff to support me. I also fulfilled a dream I'd long had of staging The Matchmaker and hosting my own tournament (which was a huge success). It's a job that takes a lot out of me, but it's a job that gives a lot, too. And not just money.

3. My house -- I moved this year. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Yeah, I'm spending a lot more in rent which has hit my checkbook rather hard at times, but the happiness the house provides is worth the decreased cash flow. I'd lived in my previous apartment for almost 6 years and had grown used to my complaints about it -- it was drafty, it needed a lot of work that my landlord wasn't willing to put in or pay to have done, the kitchen was tiny, there was no yard, the neighbors were icky. I put up with it for a long time, and then . . . I just couldn't anymore. (And yes, a lot of it had to do with the appearance of a snake in my living room -- again.) Who knew that this house was out here waiting to provide me with space (I have a den -- and a garage -- and closets like crazy!) and a yard and a home that really feels like mine.

2. 30 Rock -- Nothing, NOTHING, makes me laugh like this show does. When I'm at my most stressed, Liz Lemon and the gang make it all go away, if only for 30 minutes.

1. Sasha and Malia Obama -- Barack and Michelle are hitting number one on most year-end lists, so I'm giving props to Sasha and Malia. Those kids freakin' rock. They seem to have the right balance of precocious and polite. My father always used to say that my sister and I were a reflection on him (and therefore that is why we were expected to behave ourselves and why he wasn't overly keen when I went through my ripped jeans phase), and so if I hold to that philosophy, Sasha and Malia are a reflection on the man we've chosen to be president. I think we're going to be okay. If he can turn out these charming little girls, imagine what he can do for us!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Season's Greetings

There's something about this time of year -- a magic, a feeling of specialness that manages to make even the darkest times seem not so grim. As people face tough economic times, today gives us all a chance to stop and look around and see what's important. Christmas isn't about the presents or the feast. It's about love and hope and joy.

Or something like that.

As I hinted earlier, my Christmas isn't panning out quite the way I'd planned. My mother decided about a week ago that she would rather spend Christmas elsewhere -- specifically with her new boyfriend who happens to be the father-in-law of our icky white trash cousin (daughter of my mother's sister). Yes, we were invited to said celebration, but my sis and I both agreed that we would rather have needles shoved into our eyeballs than spend Christmas with these people whom we've never held in very high esteem. This is the side of the family we've never really been all that proud to claim -- the cousin who has 4 children with 4 different fathers (and I think she was only married to two of them), who showed up at my grandmother's funeral in jeans and a sweatshirt, who more than once referred to me as a "snot" because I brought a book to a family picnic. (I should note that I was in this sort of odd place in the family where everyone was either significantly older than I or significantly younger than I and so I had no one with whom I could comfortably socialize at the age of 10.) Needless to say, this is just not the way I wanted to spend Christmas -- driving two hours away to spend Christmas with people I don't like or know outside of my mother, who becomes really fake and icky when she gets around those people.

And so my sis and I are spending a very low key Christmas just the two of us. We had a nice quiet breakfast this morning, opened presents, and are getting ready to prepare a delicious feast. Yeah, there's a part of me that's still a little depressed that my mother would rather spend a Christmas with these people than with her own children, but at least it takes a tremendous amount of stress off my shoulders and not have to worry about making everything perfect. I'll still TRY to make a perfect meal, but if it doesn't turn out that way, oh, well. It's just me and the sis.

So with that, the sis and I are going to settle in and watch our favorite Christmas movie (Christmas in Connecticut -- a little more obscure, but watch it and tell you the main character doesn't remind you a little of me!) before enjoying a delicious meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and cornbread casserole (an item so delicious that my mother called to get my recipe so she could make it for her "new family" as my sis has started calling them). Oh, and lots and lots of wine. :)

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

As those of you who live in the Midwest know (and those of you who don't have perhaps seen on the news), this part of the country has been pretty much ravaged by Jack Frost over the course of the past week. My last week of work for 2008 involved one late start (a two-hour delay following a night where we were slammed with freezing rain), two early dismissals (due to incoming nasty weather), and a snow day (starting our winter break a day early -- woo hoo!). Right now, my town is covered in a glistening layer of sparkling white, which is beautiful until you step outside and realize that a) it's FREAKING FREEZING and b) that glistening layer of sparkling white is created by a 1/2 inch thick layer of ice. It's all perfectly lovely until you have to go outside, which I have had to do a couple times over the past couple days.

Friday, as we dealt with the aftershocks of freezing rain and snow, I played the role of a curmudgeonly hermit. After receiving my 5:15am call cancelling school for the day, I slept until 10:00am and spent the rest of the day puttering around the house and watching television. Saturday, though, I had to go out. The house needed groceries, Christmas shopping needed to be done. I gloried in the fact that my new status as a garaged-house-dweller allowed me to get right into my car without needing to scrape or brush or deal with any of that. I just got in, started the car, and pulled right out. Woo hoo. I've perhaps mentioned before how much I love my neighborhood. It's a nice, quiet little street, tucked away, very little traffic. As great as that is most of the time, I realized this weekend that it's NOT so great in that snow plows typically don't find their way down quiet, tucked away little streets with very little traffic. I pulled out of my garage onto the street and found myself on a solid sheet of ice with next-to-no traction. I skidded and sputtered my way down the block before my tires finally decided to catch and let me drive.
I faced the roads which weren't overly bad once I got away from my street. I made my way to Target which was fairly busy and quickly found the exact presents I was looking for. I went across the street to the mall where I found more of what I was looking for. I finally braved Wal-Mart which was the madhouse you would assume it to be the Saturday before Christmas. The parking lot was packed -- the closest space was about as far away from the entrance as you could get. The store was packed full of the stupid people who tend to populate Wal-Mart -- the kind of people who stop to "visit" right in front of the wall of cheese and right in front of the particular kind of cheese you need, the particular kind of cheese that is the last item on your list before you can get the heck out of Dodge. And then you get out to the parking lot and realize you have NO IDEA where your car is, so you go up and down several rows of cars with a cart loaded with groceries over parking lots that seem to be filled with ice speed bumps that make steering said loaded cart virtually impossible. Once I actualy did find my car, I made for home as quickly as I could, deciding that I was done with the outside world for the day.
Today, temperatures hovered at or below zero -- and that's before the wind chill was factored into things. And there I was out and about once more. I had to go pay my water bill (Merry Christmas!) and pick up a new recycling tub to replace the tub that disappeared with the winds that ravaged the town Friday. I had to go to the post office to mail the Christmas cards I finally got around to writing this weekend. Of course on the Monday before Christmas they only had two clerks working. The line wasn't bad when I joined it to buy my stamps, but it was clear out the door by the time I left. I then had to make a return trip to Wal-Mart to buy a couple things I needed to do some baking this week.
And now -- done. I'm not going out into the world again this week if I can help it. There's more snow and ickiness on the way, and so I am going to hole up in my comfy little house, curl up with a book or some TCM movies, and ignore what's going on outside. Christmas is just me and the sis this year (my mother has decided spending Christmas with her new, um, boyfriend is preferable to spending it with her children), so it's going to be a nice, mellow week.
Ahhhhhh . . . hermits really know what they're doing!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Is There Rehab for Facebook?

It took me a long time, but I finally broke down and did it. I joined Facebook. I'd put it off, thinking I was too old to join since it was something all my students talked about. But I had a lot of people my age encouraging me to join, telling me how fun it was, how great it was to reconnect with long, lost friends, and so one chilly winter afternoon, I hopped online.

And I'm freakin' hooked!
At first, I admit I was a little spooked by how quickly I was "found." Within an hour or so of joining, I was inundated with "friend requests" from students past and present, former classmates, and colleagues. I made the decision to open my facebook up to my students since I also decided that I wouldn't be posting anything particularly incriminating (and those of you out there who DO have incriminating evidence, please don't post -- thanks!). I also realized it would be a good way to be get messages to my speech kids -- whether it's a "congratulations on kicking ass last weekend" or a "don't forget practice tomorrow." It's nice, too, to see what former students are up to, whether it's the high school sweethearts who are engaged to be married next June or the sports editor who now works for the Big 10 Network.
And of course there are all the "blasts from the past" who have popped up -- friends from high school long lost but often thought of. (I did a lousy job of keeping in touch with high school friends. It's kind of shameful, actually, considering what a "great friend" I supposedly am.) It's interesting to see who ended up where. In some cases, it's quite shocking (the girl who's working for the National Geographic Channel in DC -- who would have though it!?); in some, it's no surprise at all (the music junkie who works as a club dj).
And then there are all the little extras Facebook offers -- like bumperstickers and my current addiction, flair! I could spend HOURS (hell, I HAVE spent hours) scouring the site for cool flair to add to my corkboard. It's like back in junior high when I would cover my denim coat and backpack with buttons, only now I can seem to get whatever I want. I even found a "Sugarbaker Woman" button courtesy of 30 Rock.
So now, dear friends, I am off to check my status, prowl for some flair, and generally continue this shameful Facebook addiction. Wish me luck!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Speech This!

As some of you may know, today was D-Day in Ginger Land. Or I guess S-Day since today was the day of the speech meet I have been organizing for the past several weeks. My team and I played host to 12 different schools from all over West Central Illinois. Over the course of the past several days, my kids have really shown me again and again what great people they are. There were the girls who gave up every lunch period for two weeks to spend in my room designing and coloring posters for the event finals. (And I should probably mention that one of them isn't even ON the team) Our theme was "Just Off Broadway" (since our school is located just one block off Broadway), and so they turned every event into a Broadway show logo. Extemporaneous Speaking (known in the speech world as "extemp") became "Little Shop of Extemp" complete with a completely faithful rendition of Audrey II in the corner. Impromptu Speaking became "Phantom of the Impromptu." Some events just had their names done in the lettering of famous Broadway shows -- like "humorous interp" spelled out like Hairspray or "Prose" in the Rent lettering. I had a classroom full of kids last night after school setting up rooms, assembling schedules, stuffing envelopes. I had kids tonight doing dishes and picking up trash. They are just awesome, awesome kids, and their passion and devotion is a driving force in my own passion and devotion to my job. They make my job rock!

Running a speech meet is pretty tough work. I was prepared for some but not all of it. I didn't anticipate the constant questions (people cannot problem solve on their own!) or little issues to deal with. I felt bad neglecting my kids all day while I tabulated results from the rounds. I learned a lot and know what needs to be tweaked for next year.

Of course, I'm sure you're all dying to know how my kids did. Well, pretty darn well. We had a representative from our team in every single event finals (there are 13 total). Not every kid broke into finals, but some that hadn't yet this year did and were over the moon. (I had two girls come bursting into the tab room to tell me they'd both broken in Poetry Reading -- and I had to patiently remind them that I already knew since I was the one who tabbed the results and made the poster telling them they had broken.) Some of the "friends" you know from this blog had great days. Unfortunately, our buddy Emily was not one of them, but she did the best she'd ever done before, so we take our victories where we can.

Rachel (my Super AD) broke into finals in both of her events. While she did not win, she was very happy and received some 1st's and 2nd's in prelims to get her into finals, which thrilled her.

Jodi, my homeless student, also broke into finals -- a huge triumph for her. Her nerves seemed to get the best of her, and she placed 6th out of 6 in finals, but she is making progress and we'll whip those nerves into shape!

Katrina, my very sweet and humble superstar, placed first in her event -- and was shocked. She legitimately has no idea how talented she is.

Harper, my fiery co-captain senior feminist, struggled all week to get her DDA (Dramatic Duet Acting) partner Ethan to come to practice. She was close to "firing" him. I asked her to give him one more chance. They were tournament champions in their event today.

And then there's Marcel, my Belgian exchange student. He is very bright, speaks very good English that's heavily accented but understandable, struggles a little with comprehension, and has theatre experience from Belgium. He came to me earlier this fall and said he really wanted to join the team. When he looked over the events, he decided he really wanted to do Original Comedy (where participants write and perform their own comic monologue/performance). For our first tournament, he was not ready to perform and so I had him come with to watch the event and get a feel for what he was getting himself into. For the past couple weeks, he's been practicing his piece with me -- a very funny "outsider's look" at America. (His segment on his first encounter with Jello makes me nearly pee my pants with laughter every time!) He made his debut in the event today. He went in already guaranteed a medal since the low numbers made the event go straight to finals. Not only did Marcel medal, but he WON FIRST PLACE! One judge even complimented him on "keeping his accent." HA!

In the end, the kids chose not to make the team eligible for the "team sweeps" award because they thought it was ingracious as hosts to win our own tournament. They sort of changed their minds after the awards ceremony when I revealed to them that we WOULD have won first place -- beating two of the schools that we've always considered "untouchable." But they reasoned that they can still say they won; they just didn't get a trophy to gather dust in a trophy cabinet somewhere in the school.

So now my life returns back to normal -- although as I sit here in my living room I realize that I have done no Christmas shopping, no grocery shopping, no laundry in a week (and last week's clean laundry is still in the hamper), and no cleaning. Le sigh!!!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Just When We Think We've Escaped, They Pull Us Back In!

This is Rod Blagojevich. He's the governor of Illinois. He is a douchebag.
"Why, Mel!" some of you may exclaim. "What in the world could this man have done to ellicit such a response from you? Isn't he a Democrat?"
Well, let me tell you.
In the years since he's been elected governor, Blago has effectively set about to rip Illinois apart. It started practically from day one when he refused to relocate to Springfield, preferring to stay in Chicago. The problem with that is that Springfield is our capital. That's where our Congress is. Contrary to popular belief, Chicago is NOT our capital. His refusal to move would be akin to Barack Obama saying he would not be moving into the White House but would be running the government from a posh penthouse in New York City.
For the past 6 years, Blago has been at war with the Democratic Congress here in Illinois. The state enjoys a two billion dollar budget deficit. The result of that is that schools are struggling to keep above water financially, state parks have been closed down (including the Carl Sandburg Birthplace in Galesburg and sites at Bishop Hill), and major cuts have been made in spending -- including cuts in road work and snow removal. Illinois highways have been a mess the past couple weeks because the money isn't there to properly plow and salt these roadways.
As of a poll from a month or so ago, Blago is sitting on about a 16% approval rating -- lower than that of George W. Bush here in Illinois. (Have I mentioned Illinois is a blue state?)
And now, to top it all off, comes news that our governor apparently saw nothing wrong with "selling" Barack Obama's soon-to-be vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder. Just when Illinois is in the media and Chicago is being lauded as a great city and home to the future president, this has to happen to remind people just how down and dirty our pols can play it here in the Land of Lincoln.
Thanks a lot, Blags.
I'll say it one more time: DOUCHEBAG!

Friday, December 5, 2008

We Are Women . . . Where's Our Roar?

Regular readers of my little corner of the blogosphere may remember my stories about Emily, my little baby speech kid who is just struggling with the wealth of cultural knowledge she just doesn't possess. Yesterday, Emily prepped a speech with me that left me with a lot of concerns about our future.

Emily was given the following Marilyn Monroe quote from which to prep her speech: "I don't mind living in a man's world as long as I can be a woman in it." I love this quote because, to me, it talks about that dichotomy a lot of women face -- we are expected to be tough and competitive on the job but we want to retain our femininity. At least, that's how *I* interpret this quote.

Emily saw it much differently.

She stood up there and proceeded to give a speech about the dependence that men and women have on each other -- how men NEED women and women NEED men. She pointed out that women need men around to lift heavy things for them, and men need women to cook their meals. The more she spoke, the more I had to struggle to contain my own righteous indignation as well as my sudden need to burst into tears.

First of all, as a single, independent woman who does consider herself a feminist, I was horrified to hear this sexist propaganda escaping this girl's mouth. I don't need anyone to do my heavy lifting (okay, yeah, sometimes I do, but 90% of that time, that person is my SISTER) nor do I feel a great need to cook whenever I see a man. Would I like to have a relationship with a man that's not reminiscent of Will and Grace? Sure. Do I NEED such a relationship to feel happy and fulfilled with my life? Certainly not.

Secondly, it's depressing to think that this sort of thinking still exists in a world where women have made so many gains. In the same year where we saw Hillary Clinton nearly become the Democratic nominee for President and subsequently become Secretary of State, where we see women like Tina Fey making news for proving you can be smart and funny and a woman, we still have girls believing that they are nothing without men. It's this sort of co-dependent thinking that gets them pregnant at 15, that lets their boyfriends slap them around, that encourages them to make the sorts of bad choices that destroy their potential each and every day, the sort of bad choices I have to witness each and every day.

I find (a little) comfort in knowing girls like Emily are not the only girls out there, by reminding myself of the smart and indepdendent girls I work with every day. Girls like Rachel (the Super AD) whose face was bright red with anger by the time Emily was done speaking or Katrina who, despite being one of the most beautiful girls in the school, takes pride in the fact that she's never been kissed or Harper who was furious with me for not voting for Hillary because, as she said, "It's our chance!" For those girls AND the girls like Emily or Susannah (who is never seen without a boyfriend at her side as she walks down the halls), I feel the pressure of being the role model they need, showing them that women can do anything -- with or without a man. I want to encourage these girls to find their power and strength and to stand on that mountaintop or rooftop or just in front of a classroom and roar .

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Let's Save the Economy

See the embedded video below for a great new Funny or Die video about Prop 8.

Once I get through the planning of this speech tournament, I'll be back more frequently. I promise!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Weekend's End

It's been nice having four days off, but tomorrow it's back to the grindstone. As much as I love long weekends, they make going back to work just that much harder. It's not that I was super busy this weekend. I think I just got used to the laziness of the long weekend -- a weekend spent cooking, catching up on things stored on the DVR, enjoying a second Thanksgiving dinner prepared for me (and a small group of friends) by my friend George (who put my turkey to shame!), drinking a fair share of wine, having a rehearsal today for a show I'm working on next weekend*, and running errands. I'm tired, but I jump back into what is sure to be a busy week of teaching, speech practice, and preparing to host a speech tournament of my own in two weeks (not stressing out about that at all!!!).

  • Well, Christmas break is three weeks away!
  • * George's theatre company is doing a one-time performance of Love Letters as a benefit for a local educational foundation. We did this last year when we were working on the show Luv, and the company did Love Letters last February at another venue. For the show, I put together a slide show of complimentary images that underscore the show, which has been an exhausting project. I took the show I did last February (done when I was in the middle of speech season and directing a musical and so didn't have a ton of extra time) and enhanced it and added even more to the show. I'm incredibly proud of it and love how it provides this sort of visual score to the show. I can't wait to debut the new version of the slide show to an audience!

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!

I woke up this morning to a sight that still brings thrills but even more so this year. Over the night, it snowed. There's just something so lovely about looking out a window and seeing that gentle blanket of snow -- snow when it's still untouched by plow or shovel, when it's in its pure, fresh state. This was my first time seeing my backyard with such a blanket, and it's downright beautiful.

There's another reason I was excited to see the snow -- and no, it has nothing to do with snow days. To be honest, as a teacher, I sort of hate snow days, particularly this time of year. Yes, it's nice to get a sudden "lazy day" during this busy time of year, but I inevitably spent a good portion of that day thinking about how this unexpected day off will run roughshod over my lesson plans, how losing that day may prove costly to my goal of finishing Romeo and Juliet before Christmas, how my speech team can't afford to lose that day of practice. Snow days become stess days for me as I get back to work and struggle to get my plans back on track.

No, the reason why I was excited for this snow has to do with my car and my garage. You see, until this year, I'd never had a garage in which to park my car. I always parked in driveways or on the street and would inevitably wake up on mornings such as this and think, "Crap, I have to go scrape off the car!" I would spend 15, 20 minutes scraping and brushing and freezing as I tried to remove all the snow and ice off my car. But not this year. This year, I have a garage. While people around me will spend their Sunday mornings scarping, I'll just pop right into my cozy, clean car and happily drive off without a care in the world. Granted, when bigger snows come, I will have the new "joy" of shoveling my driveway, but I'll take that over the scraping anyday. (Well, check back with me in a couple weeks and maybe my story will be slightly different.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Let the Feasting Begin!

Tomorrow is one of my favorite days of the year. I love Thanksgiving. I love getting up on the early side and watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. I always get a little teary when the Rockettes show up because that was my dad's favorite part of the parade. Every time I see them move into the kick line, I can hear my dad's delighted exclamations (the man was a sucker for a good kick line) and I'm reminded how much I miss the old man. I love seeing the performances from Broadway shows.

At some point during the morning, I drive down to the convenience store and grab the Thanksgiving day paper and some donuts so that we can pore over the Black Friday sales and strategize where we might go the next day. (Yes, I DO brave the crowds. It's like the frickin' Super Bowl!! You just need to have a clear agenda and pursue that agenda with confidence and aggression)

Best of all, I love preparing the Thanksgiving feast. I love to cook. LOVE IT. I love the feeling of making a delicious meal and sharing it with others. Thanksgiving is the high holiday for people who love to cook. I've spent weeks pondering and planning the menu, taking requests, tweaking last year's menu here and there. My mashed potatoes are amazing. My sister loves this cornbread/cheese/corn casserole I make. I love my homemade mushroom stuffing. The only thing I wimp out on is dessert. I'm not sure I'm brave enough to tackle pie crust (I know it's a real art) and by the time I make everything else, I'm a little too tired to then move onto pies or cakes or whatever else. I let the nice folks at the Hy-Vee bakery handle dessert for me this year. Maybe at Christmas, when my cooking is a little less ambitious, I'll make a great dessert.

Of course, the real purpose of tomorrow is not about parades and shopping and cooking. It's about giving thanks. I think often about the pilgrims who inspired this holiday and what they had to endure as they set up their homes in this strange new land. Their courage and perserverence paved the way for countless generations of immigrants to come here and make this their home -- and eventually our home. I am descended from those first pilgrims (from John and Priscilla Alden) as well as Irish immigrants who fled famine and Swedish immigrants looking for a better life. I am thankful for their courage and sacrifice that ultimately gave me a pretty decent life. I'm thankful for the friends who sustain me with their love and humor. I'm thankful for a career that challenges and fulfills me and allows me to make the world a better place each day in my own small way. I'm thankful for the creative outlet theatre has provided. And I'm thankful for the chance to share my meaningless little ramblings with all of you.

Have a great Thanksgiving everyone!

Friday, November 21, 2008

"There Art Thou Happy"

While I've been busy getting back into the swing of speech season with my team, I've also been able to relax into my favorite unit of the year -- teaching Romeo and Juliet. Each year, I take classes full of reluctant freshmen by the hand and introduce them to the glory of the Bard. Just about every student enters the R&J unit with trepidation. Let's face it: the dude has a bad rep. Add to that the fact that I often have classes full of students who don't treasure reading and theatre the way I do, who don't, quite frankly, treasure learning the way I do. It can be a struggle as we start the unit.

Here's the thing that people sometimes don't realize but that I figured out right away the first year I taught R&J. Shakespeare is filthy! His plays are full of double entendres, dirty jokes, and scandalous goings-on. He wrote for his commoner audience -- the exact kind of audience a lot of my students would have been back in 1592. I realized that all the kids needed was to have the poetry translated for them and they would discover the Shakespeare I loved -- the naughty poet.

Examples of said naughtiness? Well, I'm glad you asked.

In the very first scene of R&J, the servants of the Capulet and Montague houses get into a huge fight in "downtown" Verona. The cause of this fight? As Abraham and Balthasar are walking by, Sampson bites his thumb. The kids are always confused by this. "Who cares if this dude is biting his thumb?" a student might ask. That's when I explain to them that biting your thumb at someone was the 16th Century equivalent of giving someone the middle finger today. The kids burst into laughter as suddenly the exchange that follows makes sense -- hilarious sense.

Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
I do bite my thumb, sir.
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
[Aside to GREGORY] Is the law of our side, if I sayay?
No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but Ibite my thumb, sir.

And they've now learned a great new insulting gesture!

We later get to the conversation between Benvolio and Romeo where we learn that Romeo is depressed. The kids seem to grasp right away that Romeo's depression stems from romantic problems, but together we dig deeper to discover the real cause of the lady's rejection of Romeo.

Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit
With Cupid's arrow; she hath Dian's wit;
And, in strong proof of chastity well arm'd,
From love's weak childish bow she lives unharm'd.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:
O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.
Then she hath sworn that she will still live chaste?
She hath, and in that sparing makes huge waste,
For beauty starved with her severity
Cuts beauty off from all posterity.
She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair,
To merit bliss by making me despair:
She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow
Do I live dead that live to tell it now.

The problem is that Romeo's lady has taken a vow of chastity. In other words, Romeo's not getting any. Again, once we work through this idea of the lady's chastity and the kids realize what such a vow means, they're once again highly entertained. "So basically, Romeo's horny?" one will ask and, cool teacher that I am, I just nod and say, "Yup."

On top of having the opportunity to hold a class of freshmen in the palm of my hand for 50 minutes each day that we read R&J as they wait eagerly to discover what new naughty gem awaits them in the pages of the play, I also get the joy of reading Shakespeare aloud every day. While I have students assume various roles, I always keep one or two good parts for myself. During the course of the unit, I get the thrill of playing just about every major character in the play -- Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, the Nurse, the Friar, Lord Capulet. And believe me, I give it my all. The kids were shocked yesterday when I played Lord Capulet and shifted from gracious party host to bullying uncle in the blink of an eye. (I did feel a bit sorry for the poor kid playing Tybalt who had to be on the receiving end of "my" fury) It's times like these when I stop and marvel, "Damn, they PAY me to do this."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Missive from Speechopolis

Fear not, dear readers, I am still out here in the middle of the corn toiling away. Although it's been a week since my last post, I'm okay. I've been fighting a bit of writer's bloc, at a loss of anything particlarly deep or profound or entertaining to put out there. In addition, I've just been super busy trying to manage my speech team.

When I took over as coach of the team 2 years ago, I inherited a relatively small team of about 10 kids. As assistant coach, I'd worked with the kids and felt like I had a pretty good handle on how to run a team on my own. Of course, I didn't take into account that I would not have an assistant. (My term as assistant coach was mostly an "apprentice" period to prepare me for taking over the team when the head coach retired. It was our clever scheme to make sure that the team would be passed onto me and not onto a new hire.) I also didn't take into account the fact that the team might grow. Last year, the team was about 15 kids strong. This year, we're up to 20. So the team has doubled in 2 years. And there's little old me spending a good 2-3 hours after school every night trying to groom those 20 kids into award-winning prose readers and dramatic interpreters and impromptu speakers and more. I'm exhausted! And the season is only 2 weeks old!!!
Of course, the young season has already provided its share of tears, drama, and laughter. I've already shared the story of Jodi, my homeless student, who debuts her piece this weekend, who cried when I told her the speech team would pay for her speech team t-shirt. There's Malik, one of the team's star seniors who had a slight breakdown at his debut last weekend, putting pressure on himself to top last season's success (which included being the only member of the team to break into finals at Sectionals). There's Matthew, one of our "newbies" who, in his own case of stage fright and worrying he would forget his memorized piece during performance, wrote it on his hands -- and then flashed his hands, covered in blue ink, to the judges. There's Emily, another "newbie" who is trying her hand at impromptu speaking. Emily's first speech that she practiced with me was roughly one minute long. For her second speech a day or two later, her topic was "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," a proverb she clearly had never heard before judging by the speech she delivered that involved her rambling about tame birds and wild birds and somehow devolved into a discussion of petting dogs and the need to wash your hands afterwards. Emily is very sweet and earnest but it's clear she's lacking in exposure to culture and vocabulary. (A more recent practice involved her relating the plot of a book she'd read for a book report where a young woman was raped and "was really not happy about it.") I've recommended she start keeping a journal where she writes down books and stories she's read, to start spending time on the internet reading about historical figures and sayings. I even recommended she spend some time on SparkNotes (which caused one of my juniors to gasp in horror) to learn about some more "literary" novels than the ones she's reading for her book reports. There's no way this kid could probably handle reading Anna Karenina, but she may be able to handle the SparkNotes for it -- and add some intellectual heft to her speeches that they might not otherwise have.
This Saturday, I'm taking all 20 kids to a tournament just outside Peoria. For some, it may be the start of a successful season. For others, it could be an ego-shattering experience. But through it all, I have to remain the rock and keep my own ego and competitive spirit in check -- something that's easier said than done, I know.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Kids Are Alright. (Well, at least the speech kids are)

As many of you know, in addition to being an English teacher and drama director, I'm also coach of my school's speech team. I love my extracurricular duties because it allows me to really connect with my kids in an entirely different way and really feel the difference I'm making in a more immediate way. My speech and drama kids are a terrific group of kids -- very funny and loyal. I jokingly call them my minions, but it's sort of sadly true. I have kids who just come into my room after school to hang out. They're pretty devoted to me -- and I'm pretty devoted to them.

The nice thing about my kids is, while they're a very tight group, they're also very open to newcomers. They're excited when new kids join the team and are so kind about helping them out, even if that new kid is technically their "competition" in a particular event. I'm really lucky that they're so supportive, and I've never felt luckier than I did today.

Backtrack about 2 weeks. I was in my classroom before school when a young woman walked in. Jodi was dressed in that sort of punk/emo/goth look that kids sport nowadays with the Nightmare Before Christmas t-shirt over a short skirt and striped tights and Chucks. She had been a student at our school before but had moved this year, only to come back. She told me that she wanted to join speech team, so I gave her a list of events and asked her what she thought she might like. She picked an event where I had an opening (and even already had a script cut and ready to go), took the script I gave her, signed up for practice times, and went on her merry way. Jodi came in for her practice today. A couple other kids were in the room waiting for their times to practice and so they sat and waited and listened while Jodi practiced her rather tough monologue, a cutting from Blackbird by David Harrower.

After her practice, Jodi asked me about this weekend's tournament -- what time we'd be leaving, when we'd be getting back, and what to bring. I said, "You're responsible for your own meals, so you'll need to bring some money for lunch or just pack a lunch."

Jodi's face fell as she said, "Oh. That might be a problem. You see, I'm homeless. I live at Starting Point." (Starting Point is the local homeless shelter)

Before I could even say a word, Rachel (whom you may remember as my super AD from The Matchmaker) jumped in and said, "Oh, don't worry. I always bring a TON of food*. We've got you covered. You won't need a thing!"

It was all I could do to stop myself from hugging Rachel, who can sometimes me a little blunt and a little lacking in tact and doesn't always think before she speaks. Had those words come from Katrina, who was also standing right there and whose father is a minister, I wouldn't have thought a thing about it since Katrina is probably one of the nicest people in the school. But for Rachel to show that kind of generosity . . . that kid's going to be all right. They're all going to be all right.

* Note: Rachel's statement BARELY qualifies as hyperbole. She packs for a speech tournament like she's going on a yearlong cruise around the world -- backpacks with multiple changes of clothes, food, blankets, games, etc. I had to give her the talk about how since we were taking a smaller bus this weekend, she was going to have to pack a little less thoroughly.

Monday, November 10, 2008

This post brought to you by the letter "M"

(With apologies to Sgt. Pepper):

It was 39 years ago today that Big Bird asked us to come and play . . .

On November 10, 1969, Sesame Street made its debut and changed the face of children's television and education itself. Generations of children have since grown up learning the alphabet , numbers , manners , and picking out the freaks in a crowd with the help of a happy band of furry, fuzzy Muppets. We've laughed along with the sneaky antics of Ernie, craved cookies along with Cookie Monster, and felt the power of unconditional love and friendship courtesy of Big Bird.

The initial goal of Sesame Street was to provide educational opportunities to inner city children who didn't have access to the sorts of opportunities that middle and upper class suburban children enjoyed. Sesame Street, while a friendly neighborhood, was clearly a bit "ghetto," giving inner city kids something with which they could relate more so than the cozy cottage where Mr. Rodgers lived. In addition, those children could see faces that looked like them. Sesame Street was populated with black, Hispanic, Native American, and white kids -- a rarity for television in 1969.

The show clearly exceeded its own goals, not only reaching its intended inner city kids but pretty much every kid in America. Within a few years, the Sesame Street characters were a dominant force in children's television. Brilliant marketing took the characters from our television sets and into our homes whether via books, Colorforms, dolls, Speak-n-Says, disco albums, and more. The characters went on tour. I had the extreme pleasure of seeing Cookie Monster live at Six Flags in the summer of 1976, and let me just say that you have not experienced the magic of "C is for Cookie" until you've seen it live! Of course, that excitement was nothing compared to what I experienced two years later when I saw the crew live . . .and on ice!

I've often thought that a lot can be revealed about a person by his/her choice of favorite Sesame Street characters. Cookie Monster fans clearly suffer from eating disorders. Big Bird fans are kindhearted but perhaps a bit naive. Ernie fans are mischevious. Fans of the Count have OCD. Those who prefer Grover are perhaps more imaginative and creative. And those who love Oscar, while a bit misanthropic, are intelligent and fiercely independent.

Of course, I am an Oscar fan. That grouch cracks my shit up!

So today, fellow Gen-X'ers and Y'ers and Millenials, take a moment to remember those kindly Muppets who taught us about the alphabet and how to count and, yes, how to recognize the freaks. Sure, we have crappy attention spans, but at least we can count!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Party's Over

I am either a genius or an idiot when it comes to scheduling. In September, I made the decision to have our fall play at school fall three days after Election Day. I have to admit I didn't think about the fact that Election Day would fall during Tech Week; I just looked at the dates that would work best in terms of avoiding scheduling conflicts for my music students who participate in IMEA (Illinois Music Educators Association) and the start of speech season. The date sort of chose itself. Who knew things would get so stressful?

I mean, I knew I'd be obsessed with the election. I'm a political junkie. OF COURSE I'd be obsessed with the election. I just don't usually suffer from such high levels of anxiety connected with the election.

I didn't account for the amount of stress this show would bring. With the last-minute casting changes, the squirrely freshmen, and other issues going on, this show seemed to carry more stress than usual. During tech week, we had to make yet another casting change. A senior who had a pretty small part (let's call him Zach) "decided" not to attend the first two days of tech week, and the last time I HAD seen him in rehearsal, he had no clue what his lines were. I consulted with my AD Rachel and gave her a choice: she could step in and play Zach's part since she knew the lines and the blocking pretty well (she stepped in and played the part the first night of tech that Zach missed) OR we could ask Will (whom you may remember as the person I'd tapped to be the understudy when Ethan was missing rehearsals left and right) to play the part. She chose to ask Will first and said she would do it if Will didn't want to. She said, "Will's a senior, so he should have the opportunity first." Will took the part and we all relaxed into that challenge being met.

Our first two tech rehearsals were pretty shaky. Lines were still a struggle, particularly for Ethan. After the second day, I had to kind of lay the smack down, which I hate to do. I'm usually a pretty supportive, nurturing director, so it's hard on me to get tough and "yell" at the kids, but I had to. And boy, did it make a difference. The third day of tech, the kids came in and suddenly the show was there -- lines were smoothed out, characters were there, I suddenly had a tremendous amount of optimism. It's hard to remember that sometimes, the kids do respond better to tougher love. As one of my students said to me after I delivered the "get it together" lecture, "Despite your harsh words, we know you still love us."

Now that the acting was taken care of, we suddenly started developing technical issues. (At this point, I should probably mention that the "drama department" at my school is essentially a one-person department. It's me and the kids that do everything. We have no tech director or anything like that. I design the set, the kids and I build it, light it, give it sound, etc. That has been probably the hardest transition for me coming from collegiate and community theatre where there's this huge support staff there to help take some of the burden off your shoulders.) On Monday, the boy who had volunteered to run the follow spot (let's call him Douche, no let's call him Greg) told me that he couldn't be at Friday night's performance because he had to go to football awards. I tried to impress upon him that a PERFORMANCE should take precedence over awards, but he steadfastly refused and actually was quite nasty about it. I told him that he would not be allowed to work on any more shows if he abandoned this one and he said that was fine. It actually ended up maybe being for the best because we found that we could not plug in the follow spot without blowing a fuse and losing our sound system. For about a half hour before tech rehearsal on Tuesday, we had no sound and I was in a slight panic, but we managed to get the fuse located and flipped and sound came back and I nearly collapsed in tears of relief.

So we were cruising along fine . . . until Thursday. We came into Thursday already at a disadvantage. It was parent/teacher conference night, so I had already told the kids I would have to be in and out of rehearsal because I had conferences scheduled. On top of that, the kids normally use my classroom and another teacher's classroom as dressing rooms (since we have no actual dressing room space). Since we were going to have parents in our classrooms, I felt like we had no choice but to run rehearsal without costumes since I couldn't have parents in my room (or the other teacher's room) with clothes lying all over. (I have one girl who can't quite seem to grasp the notion that maybe leaving her bra lying around isn't a good idea -- I had visions of parents walking into a room that looked like a tornado had hit it and there would be Cassie's bra right in the middle of it all.) We started the first scene and THAT'S when I remembered the anticipated absence slip I'd signed the day before for Julie, who has a very tiny part in the first scene. Rachel the Super AD was upstairs taking a Latin quiz. I was in the back of the auditorium without a script. Thinking she would be helping, Cassie came walking onstage saying what she remembered of Julie's few lines. Seeing Cassie playing the part made Ethan, Brian, and Will all start to laugh.

So the giggles had arrived.

They shook them off until the second scene. This scene takes place in the hat shop. We have a "house" flat that we are able to fly in and out for scenes like this. A house flat that's probably been flown in and out of scenes for close to 30 years. The door to the house is often sticky and hard to open. The boy who has to open the door towards the beginning of the scene sometimes has to hit it pretty hard to get it to open. Thursday, he hit the door, it opened, and then it proceeded to fall out of the flat, frame and all. My sound board operator (Michael) and I sped down the aisle and up onto the stage as another actor (Malik) tried to hold it up. (Malik is a tiny, thin boy -- it was like a toothpick trying to hold up a boulder). While the kids continued through the scene, Michael, Rachel, and I tried to figure out how to repair this door. Needless to say, this was a huge distraction, and the two freshmen in the scene took this as an opportunity to goof off.
The floodgates were open.
We had yet another set malfunction during the second act. By this point, the time had come for me to leave for conferences. I was distraught, knowing I was leaving a rehearsal that was completely off the rails. I thought about sending them all home, but I ultimately decided that they needed to at least run through the lines one last time before we opened the next night. The rumor is that Rachel and Michael practiced a lot of tough love -- going so far as telling them they couldn't leave until they at least did the curtain call without any mistakes.
I walked into Friday a little nervous. Could we shake off the craziness of Thursday (and the whole week) and put on a good show? My predecessor would be in the audience that night, the person who had mentored me and supported me and lobbied for me to be his successor. I couldn't bear the thought of him seeing a sloppy show. Theatre friends of mine were coming to see the show. I couldn't bear the thought of them seeing a sloppy show. Parents, the principal, the superintendent of schools . . . all there.
Of course, I'm sure you know how this story ends. The show was . . . . terrific. The kids came together and created a fabulous show, full of life and laughter. They remembered their lines (or covered well when they skipped stuff). They handled the physical humor with style. The people seemed to love it.
I told the kids during green room that doing The Matchmaker has long been a dream of mine. It's one of my favorite plays and even though my original dream had involved playing Dolly myself, directing it was dream enough. During green room that night, I thanked them for helping make my dream come true. And they really did.
And now . . . on to speech season!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

One Step Forward, One Step Back

Well, last night was a momentous night in American history. I can honestly say that I wasn't sure I would ever live to see the day when a non-white male would be elected president. Sure, I sat in my living room four years ago watching Obama's star-making convention speech and said, "That guy is going to be president," but there was this little voice inside that said, "Come on, Mel. Get real. This country will never elect a black guy president! We can't even seem to manage to elect an intelligent one!" But here I sit, four years later, still getting a little emotionally overwhelmed at the thought of President Obama. Damn. Doesn't that sound great? President Obama. (And hey, don't forget about Vice President Biden.) I was so immensely proud of this country for rising above bigotry and nastiness to elect a good, intelligent, decent man to be our leader, for writing a new chapter in our history books where race is concerned, for voting wisely and hopefully rather than stupidly and fearfully. I still believe that this country is a great nation, but we have become mired in complacency and arrogance to such an extent that our beauty is often obscured by ugliness.

Unfortunately, the battle for decency and acceptance still must wage on. One vote does not put an end to the ugliness of bigotry. On the same night that we, as a nation, elected a black man to the presidency, a portion of us also decided to deny basic civil rights to a large segment of the population. California voters approved Proposition 8 which bans gay marriage. (California, I thought so much better of you than that!) Arkansas voters voted to deny unmarried couples the ability to adopt a child, a law clearly targeted at gay couples. America's intolerance towards homosexuality is perhaps our next great frontier in fighting bigotry. The "us and them" mentality that laws like this promote is shameful and just as harmful and divisive as the Jim Crow laws of a century ago. Just because I won the "sexuality lottery," I get to marry, adopt, and enjoy privileges that seem so basic that I don't even think about them. Meanwhile, my gay friends are told to make do with civil unions and other options that are separate from my options yet not quite equal. It shocks me to my core that we have decided that we can legislate love and place some sort of value judgment on who our hearts choose to love.

And so the battle wages on to keep striving for that more perfect union. There's still more mountain to climb.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Yes, We Did

There's not a lot I can say right now as I watch John McCain make his concession speech. I've been crying for about 20 minutes now -- after a night spent getting teary off and on since about 7:00. Words fail me as I consider what tomorrow will bring. Since the convention, U2's "Beautiful Day" has been my "wake-up" track on my alarm clock, inspired by Obama using it as one of his campaign themes. Tomorrow is indeed going to be a beautiful day, and it'll be the first time in a long time where I can wake up secure in the knowledge that hope still lives and thrives in this nation, that wisdom and optimism can be our guide, and that light is starting to glow just ever so slightly at the end of this tunnel. I haven't felt this way since 1992 when I stood on the balcony of my campus apartment, Fleetwood Mac blaring from my stereo, and a glass of champagne in my hand. We did it. We really did it.

Election Day Stress Relief

Like many of you, I'm in a bit of a state of fear/stress/excitement/anxiety/joy -- whatever you want to call it. I woke up this morning with butterflies in my stomach. I walked into the voting booth with tears in my eyes. And I can't stop thinking today about what tonight will hold. Another teacher recommended checking out this site . I spent some time this morning playing around with this and it was a lot of fun and made me feel just a tiny bit less stressed. For total excitement, try the "All States for Obama" option and behold the glory of an entirely blue nation. :)

NOTE: According to my tinkering with the electoral map (starting with a fresh slate, not just building off CNN's projections), the electoral count is Obama 313, McCain 225. I'm eerily good at predicting the scores on Dancing with the Stars (although Brooke and Derek's perfect 30 sort of threw me for a loop last night), so maybe that talent extends to electoral maps!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Hail to Alma Mater (I think I've used this title before, but I just can't think of anything better other than to add this sort of meta disclaimer)

So this weekend was my 15th reunion from college. It seems so odd to think that it's been that long since I was in college. Sometimes, it seems like just yesterday. Other times, it seems like a lifetime ago. I often think about that bright-eyed, idealistic girl who received that diploma 15 years ago and wonder what she would think of the life she's living 15 years later. Would she be disappointed? Happy? I wonder if I did right by her -- and if she did right by me.

Homecoming is such a weird phenomenon -- a time steeped in nostalgia and revisionism. Suddenly, you find yourself having these long conversations with people that you barely spoke five words to in the course of the four years you shared the same home. That '93 beside your name is somehow this marker that assures your fellow Homecomers that you are safe, good, and worthy of attention. You find yourself reminiscing and missing things that you loathed when you were living it firsthand -- the classes and buildings you once dreaded are suddenly fond memories. You long to roam the halls and sit in classrooms you once shunned. The hours you spent slaving over term papers or tech week are now joyful little memories -- you laugh at how stressed those little things made you. The cafeteria is a mecca of fine cuisine even though fifteen years ago you spent hours giving in depth critiques of all the culinary crimes that transpired there. Looking back now, you realize you had it made. There was this place on campus where you could just walk in and your food was ready for you. All you had to do was eat it. No cooking, no dishes, no worries.

College is really a magical time, a beautiful transitional phase where you begin shouldering what seem like tremendous burdens and responsibilities but are really these little placebos to get you ready for the real thing. Think about it -- you get four years to read, write, learn about whatever suits your fancy, build wonderful friendships, and partake in one adventure after another. When else in your life do you get such freedom with such a limited amount of responsibility?

Often times at Homecoming, I get caught up in thinking about what I wish I had known then and wonder how it would have changed my life. I wonder what it would have been like had I chosen different classes, a different major. What if I had traveled abroad? What if I had gotten involved in different organizations? Would my college experience have been any richer? Could it have been any richer? In the end, I'm left with few regrets and just the occasional melancholy "what if?" I can live with that.

In the end, Homecoming carries with it a certain amount of reflection but its chief feature is celebratory. It's a time to pay tribute to the place that made you, to pay tribute to the people who helped shape and mold the person you are today -- whether it's professors or friends. It's a time to celebrate the opportunities that this place gave you, the doors it opened, the courage it gave you to go out into the world and try this crazy thing called living. It's a time to celebrate the friends who held your hair when you threw up after one too many shot of Jack Daniels, the friends who were still there to hold your hand as you faced grief, the friends who applauded and cheered for you when you found success, the friends who stood by your side as you faced life's trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows. Homecoming is a time to take stock and spend some time remembering who you are and embracing all those who took that journey with you. In the end, you realize that you were Home all along because those people and experiences have never left you -- and never will.

The Choice is Clear

Hey, Undecided Voters, let Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones help you make that decision the rest of the country made months ago.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Hero's Journey

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to meet a professional actor. We only chatted briefly as we waited in a buffet line, but during the course of the brief conversation, it came out that I was a high school drama teacher. This actor smiled and said, "That's the work of a real hero." I smiled and thanked him, but inside, I have to confess I sort of rolled my eyes. Here's this guy who has worked with actors like Matthew Broderick, Michael J. Fox, and Keanu Reeves telling me that I'M a hero for spending my days trying to convince a bunch of teenagers to remember to cheat out and not mumble? Whatever!

Lately, though, I've been thinking a lot about that comment. While I may not be ready to call myself a "hero," I have definitely gained an appreciation for just how many challenges I have to face every day. Here's just a glimpse into the battles I've faced just this week.


1. The day started with my principal coming to me to tell me that one of the actors in my show (let's call him Adam) was not eligible to be in the play. Adam had been struggling with his grades all semester long. Several "deals" had been cut with Adam to keep him in the play -- including attending extra tutoring sessions after school. Adam failed to do what he had been required to do, and so I was left with no choice but to do as the principal directed and remove Adam from the play. Have I mentioned that the show opens in about 10 days? I spent the morning scurrying around the building. My first conversation was with a freshman in the show (let's call him Brian) who has a very small part. I asked Brian if he would consider playing the much larger part Adam was vacating. He agreed. I then had to find another freshman who had auditioned for the play but was not cast (let's call him Chad). I asked Chad if he would be willing to take Brian's part (which he had wanted in the first place). I also informed both Brian and Chad that they had 10 days to learn their new parts. Brian is in my 7th hour class and he came in that day and said, "Man, I went from having 8 lines in this play to having 80. What are you doing to me??" I should note that Brian said this with a smile. At yesterday's rehearsal, Brian appeared onstage with a script in his hand the first time we ran through the scene. He then went backstage and ran lines with his leading lady while he was not needed onstage. When we ran the scene again, Brian walked onstage with NO SCRIPT and only called for line ONCE.

2. There's a young freshman girl in my play (let's call her Melanie). Melanie impressed me with her audition. She was young and sweet and fresh and seemed to have a cute, perky energy that matched how I envisioned the character. Ever since that initial audition, Melanie has never seemed to have that same energy onstage again. In fact, at times, she's seemed downright bored. I kept trying and trying to get her to show that energy I'd seen all those weeks ago, but it just wasn't happening. I was beginning to think I'd made a big mistake by gambling on an unknown freshman rather than casting one of the sophomores who'd auditioned (and auditioned well but all seemed just a little too smart and mature for the role). Monday's rehearsal was disrupted because about 90% of my cast was gone to a conference chorus festival (don't even get me started on that one!). I called Melanie and the girl who shares the scene with her that was causing so much trouble. (The other girl -- we'll call her Katrina -- is a junior and very talented and very frustrated with what she's not getting from her "partner" in this scene. Katrina is the kind of girl who will email me after a rehearsal just to pick my brain on her character's motivation and what she can be doing to breath more life into her part.) Melanie, Katrina, and I ran this scene over and over and over, and slowly but surely, Melanie came to life. Suddenly, we had a lively, fun scene. The change was immediately apparent to my AD, who when she saw the scene run today, came rushing back to me to say, "Melanie's got it!! She got it!!!"


1. I had to deal with the fallout from Adam's removal from the show. The kids were sad to see Adam go (he's a very popular and well-respected senior, a Drama Club officer), but every single one of them said the same thing, "Well, he did it to himself." I did have one student try to convince me to postpone the show -- until I pointed out that in addition to posters and programs and such already being printed, that the next available weekend for us to perform would be spring once we factor in speech contests (about 80% of my cast is on the speech team), winter break, and the spring musical.

2. One of the biggest ongoing problems I've had during this show is with another senior who has had a real attendance problem -- to school and to rehearsal. We'll call him Ethan. Ethan is a talented young man, but he has some issues onstage. He has a hard time relaxing, sometimes struggles to find his character's voice, and struggles to memorize lines. He's also chronically late to rehearsals because he chooses to use the 15 minutes between the end of the day and the start of rehearsal to drive to Dairy Queen and get a Mr. Misty. It's incredibly frustrating. The kids joke that we need to get a Drama Club t-shirt that says, "Has anyone seen Ethan?" because I start just about every rehearsal saying that. Tuesday was our 8th to the last rehearsal. Ethan was in class that day. We were waiting for him to arrive so that I could go through general announcements (I wanted to explain the Adam situation, remind them to turn in their t-shirt money, and go over a couple other things) We waited and waited -- still no Ethan. We tried calling his cell phone. No answer. Finally, another student went to the office to page him (thinking maybe he was in the building) only to learn that his mother had just called the office to tell them that Ethan had come home after school and gotten sick. Have I mentioned Ethan has the lead? And that we only had 8 rehearsals left? And the last time I'd seen Ethan in rehearsal, his lines were still a mess? Yeah . . . .


1. I was out of the building today to attend a workshop (perhaps more on that later). Since my workshop wasn't until 8:30, I went into school to get some things ready for the kids to have rehearsal tonight (there was a chance I could be late) and to remind my AD (let's call her Rachel)to start rehearsal without me. I also told her that if Ethan was not in school today, she was to find another boy who is in the show (we'll call him Will) and tell him to come to rehearsal tonight. (He's only in the 2nd act, and we were running Act I) I was able to get out of my workshop a little early and was in the auditorium moving some furniture around when the bell rang and in walked Will. "Rachel said you wanted me to come tonight." I put a script in Will's hand and said, "You're playing Ethan's part for today. You're now officially his understudy." I hate to say it, but Will did a pretty kick ass job even with the script in his hand. That boy may have just "bought" himself a big part in the spring musical. Hell, he may have "bought" himself the lead in this play if Ethan doesn't get his shit together!

Six rehearsals left. Whether this hero's journey has a happy ending or not lies entirely in the hands of about 20 high school kids. They haven't let me down yet, but that somehow doesn't stop the fear from rising in my throat every time I say, "We open next Friday."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Holy F&%$! We Are Stupid!

Watching this from last night's Daily Show led me to this conclusion. Do people seriously believe this stuff? That Obama will get elected and immediately pull out a turban? That his election would mean the end of America as we know it? Seriously??!!?? And those of you who claim you "don't know enough about Obama," read a freakin' book. He's written two of them. I'm about 3/4 of the way through Dreams from My Father and I feel like I know Obama pretty darn well. I understand his reluctance to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright, the man who reawakened his spirituality in a pretty profound manner. I know his family. (Those of you who've read the book -- didn't you just sob when you heard how ill Toot is?) I know this guy, and I am thrilled at the prospect of him being my president. Who would have thought this guy who had such a hard time motivating South Side housing project denizens to fight for better living conditions would someday be able to motivate millions of us to fight for change?

At least the stupidity is equal opportunity. I really don't care if McCain knows how to Twitter. I don't know how to Twitter either. I would like to think that my president has more important things to do than Twitter, watch YouTube, and blog. Leave the blogging to the rest of us. You go fix this country!

At least all this has led me to another positive to the election being so close. When it's over, all these morons can go back into their caves, scratching their heads, and watching According to Jim, and the rest of us can return to the delusion that this country is full of intelligent, reasonable people.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ready to Feel Old?

Today is Simon Le Bon's birthday.

He's 50.

Simon Le Bon is 50.

That's not right.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Change You Can, Like, Totally Believe In

This morning as I stood in front of my closets dealing with the daily agony of choosing what to wear, I came to an important decision. Tired of the same turtlenecks and skirts I've been wearing for years, I realized that the solution to my fashion ennui was right under my nose all along.

I need to run for Vice President!!

Apparently, in addition to getting to travel all over the country (well, at least to the Pro-American parts) inciting bigotry and fearmongering, you also get a $150,000 wardrobe budget to spend at Saks and Neiman Marcus. If you're criticized for such lavish expenditures, all you have to do is have your running mate claim need and you're good to go.

Now some of you out there might be saying, "Who needs a $150,000 wardrobe?" To you, I say, "Who are you?" Remember that a VP, in addition to being in charge of the US Senate (which I had no idea about either -- I guess I was a lousy political science major!), needs to look her best out there. No shopping on a budget. Pshaw! Leave that to first ladies . The VP is sharing the wealth in her own special way. Although I guess that since this is being paid for by the publicly-financed McCain campaign, it's actually spreading OUR wealth in her own special way.

My personal style as VP will be probably quite similar to my current personal style, just at a higher end. I'm keeping the turtlenecks. It'll give Tina Fey something iconic to wear when she's satirizing me on SNL and make it so people can tell her Mel impersonation apart from her Sarah Palin impersonation. (Well, that and the fact that I tend to speak proper English with all my consonants in place and am not given to folksy homilies about hockey moms and plumbers.) I just need to take my personal style and give it that VP spin that will show people that I deserve to be VP because I dress better than they do. I found the "look" shown here at Neiman Marcus and thought, "Hey, that would be the perfect VP Campaign Rally outfit for me!" It costs just under $4000. Never mind the fact that I've seen just about all of it at Target and could buy the whole look for probably just over $100. No, that's not what being VP is about. Any old Pro-American like me could budget and economize and shop at Target. I have to be a cut above. I have to spend that $4000 to show you all just how serious I am about savin' this great land of ours from the terrorists.

Yikes. Where did that come from? Perhaps this VP thing has some scary side effects I'm not ready for. Aw, hell, it's worth the loss of my intelligence if it means a $4000 outfit from Neiman Marcus. Joe the Plumber, save me a seat on the bus, my friend! I'm on my way just as soon as I load up my shopping cart with a couple more pairs of Jimmy Choos!

UPDATE: Holy cabooses! The incentives to run for VP just keep coming. Now I read in the New York Times that running for VP also brings you your own personal makeup artist that gets paid roughly $11,400 a week! Gosh knows I sure hate standing in front of the mirror every morning applying my own Cover Girl Lash Blast mascara. (Drew Barrymore is right -- that stuff really is great!!) Now, I can pay someone what it takes me months to bring home as a teacher to sit with me every day and apply the makeup for me. And somehow I suspect my days of Cover Girl and Maybelline would be sooooooo over. Seriously, dudes, sign me up!!! (And don't even get me started on the $5,000 hairdresser. Apparently, it takes WORK to rock the bun I've been trying to rock for so many years.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Who Let the Dogs Out?

So today was a pretty exciting day at work. It started out normally enough. I sat down in the teachers' lounge for my first hour prep period to begin working on a reading comprehension exercise for my English I class. About 20 minutes into the period, a voice comes over the school intercom announcing that the school was now on lockdown.

Yeah, lockdown.

For those of you not in the education game, what that means is that the dogs were on the way -- the drug dogs!

About once a year, the local police show up with a K-9 unit that sniffs its way through the school in a search for drugs. During this time, students are not permitted to leave the classroom while the dogs go up and down the hall sniffing lockers. Every other year this has happened, I've been in my classroom with students. Since it was my prep period, I was expected to assist in this whole thing. Within a couple minutes of the announcement, the police walked in with their dogs -- big, scary looking things (although they actually seemed quite sweet when they weren't on the hunt for drugs). I followed quietly along behind a police officer and his dog as the dog frantically sniffed his way down the hall where my classroom is. When a suspicious smell was discovered, the dog would just sit down. They don't bark! The police officer would then urge the dog up and take him down the row again (sometimes a couple times) to see if he would sit each time. If he didn't sit every time, another dog would be brought through to see if that dog sat. Once a locker was confirmed as suspect, a plastic tie was put through the lock so that it was not openable as well as through the locks of the locker on either side of the suspect locker. We had a book that listed every student and his/her locker number, so when a locker was "tagged" we would look up who used that locker. After the dogs were finished, the teachers were sent to round up the students with tagged lockers and bring them to the auditorium where they waited until they were taken individually to their lockers to submit to a search. I witnessed several locker searches and is it bad to say I was a little disappointed that nothing was found? I guess I wanted a little more excitement for this story (because as soon as the lockdown announcement was made, my first thought was, "Oh, good! Something to blog about!!")

While the lockers were being searched, the dogs moved out to the parking lot and sniffed cars. That led to the creation of yet another list of students whose cars had been "tagged." I was sent to fetch yet another student who I then accompanied out to the parking lot where her truck was about to be searched -- a truck belonging to her parents, frequently driven by her older brother -- an older brother she informed the police smokes pot. A search of her car produced a seed. To the best of my knowledge, that's all that was found. All I know for sure is that she did not return to her classes and her truck was towed from the parking lot later this morning.

As far as I know, this search turned up just that one seed. After over an hour of "lockdown" and five dogs and countless officers off the streets, the only discovery was a lone seed. No meth, no pills, no buds. Just a seed.

I think I'm just going to leave the story at that.

The whole thing reminded me of this skit from SNL this past weekend. So I'll actually just leave the story at that.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I'm a Real American -- Oh, Wait. I Guess Not.

Over the past several days, I've been asking myself a very important question: Am I pro-America or anti-America? I mean, apparently, according to Sarah Palin and Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann , this country is full of people who are NOT pro-America. I mean, I guess I'd always thought of myself as being pretty patriotic, but all this talk and accusations thrown at people I would consider as being pretty fond of this country got me to wondering if maybe I could be one of those villainous anti-America Americans.

Well, thank goodness Jon Stewart and the folks at The Daily Show came up with this quiz to help us all figure out just where we stand on this issue of such vital national importance.

Well, according to the math, I just might be pro-America after all. While I live in a larger town (35,000) and the average cup of coffee around here can get pretty pricey, there are no art house theatres here nor are there any streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. But once Jon moved into the second part of the quiz, it became clear that I am anti-America. I believe in the first amendment. I know what broccoli rabe is. Worst of all, I'm voting for Barack Obama.

Can you all ever forgive me? I guess I should be getting to work to pack up my belongings and head somewhere that will welcome an anti-America American like me. Where might that be? Russia? China? France? Canada? New York City?

While the above is meant largely as a joke (I'm not planning to move any time soon), it does bring up something that I think is cause for real concern amongst us all. The GOP seems to be adopting this "with us or against us" mentality that I find shocking. There's a culture war emerging as a result of this election -- pitting Americans against each other in an incredibly disturbing way. There's this idea that living in a small town or in certain parts of the country automatically create higher levels of patriotism -- and that those who live in cities don't care about the country. Why does where you live determine your patriotism? I've seen just as many flags and yellow ribbon bumper magnets in Chicago as I have in the small town where I teach. I've heard just as many people criticizing the government in that same small town as I have in the city.

What's going on here is the attempt to create this pathos of fear to terrorize people into voting for John McCain. While McCain himself has not seemed to engage in this as much as his running mate and his surrogates, the fact is that he's done nothing to shut it down. He's letting robocalls be made in his name, he's defending the "good people" who come to his rallies, and he's not telling his fembot running mate to shut the hell up and stop fearmongering. It's a cheap and dirty way to win an election, and if it works, we should all be ashamed for allowing it to happen.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

How We're Setting Our Schools Up to Fail

Whenever candidates start talking about education (which is, sadly, pretty rare), my ears perk up. As a teacher, I'm always interested in hearing what candidates have in mind for my profession, and I'm wary since the last time a candidate made education a priority, we were stuck with No Child Left Behind.

In theory, No Child Left Behind sounds beautiful. Who wouldn't want to make sure that our kids are being educated? What's my problem, then? Well, the real problem is that laws like NCLB are typically envisioned, created, and enacted by people with no teaching experience and who don't have a real understanding about how schools work, how teachers work, and how kids work. They tend to rely on measuring devices that those within the educational community recognize as being faulty or biased. They tend to carry an idealism that people in the profession know is most likely impossible. In the end, these types of laws tend to make impossible demands on people who are already working as hard as they can in an underfunded, underappreciated, overwhelmed profession.

Since its passage, NCLB has made the lives of teachers and students exceptionally more challenging. Put simply, NCLB requires students to go through a series of standardized tests throughout their educational career. Of those students, a certain percentage must meet or exceed a score which is considered acceptable. Each year, the percentage of students meeting those expectations must increase with the idea being that eventually, 100% of the students will meet those expectations.

In Illinois, high schools are evaluated on the basis of tests that all juniors take over the course of two days during the spring of their junior year. On day one, students take the Prairie State Acheivement Exam. On day two, they take the ACT. You read that correctly. In Illinois, part of what determines a school's "success" is the ACT, the same ACT you and I sweated over as we prayed for that magic score that would get us into the college of our choice. It was a rite of passage for the college bound student. It was tough. It was stressful. And now, it's taken by every single high school junior in the state of Illinois, whether they're college bound or not. It's a great idea to want every high school junior to be able to get a "passing" score on the ACT, but I think we all realize the impossibility of that -- particularly when you consider that we are talking about students with learning disabilities, students for whom English is not their first language (who take the test in English), and students who just aren't all that interested in going to college.

Another challenge with this testing situation is that, for the student, there are no incentives to do well. Even the college bound students go into it with sort of a shrug with plans to take the ACT again if they have to since this crack at it is free. I know many students who view this as their "practice run," figuring they'll retake it in the fall when it will "count." There is no grade attached to the test, so students feel no pressure to excel. For most of them, they just want the test to be over. While some students do understand that the test results affect the school, they either don't care, lacking the pride in their school to want their school to perform well, or they figure whatever repercussions come as a result of their low scores won't affect them since they'll be graduating in a year. (And yes, I have heard students say that.) Their worldview is so limited to that "it's all about me" philosophy that it's hard to convince them to look beyond that and consider the future. Of course, I'm not saying that all students are so selfishly motivated. There certainly are students who have the drive and self-incentive to do well, but the problem is that they are lumped in with the students who don't have that drive and those scores are the ones that can keep a school from meeting goals. Remember, that percentage has to keep going up until it reaches 100%, meaning that at some point, 100% of the kids taking the test have to care enough to do well. When it is ever possible to get 100% of a group of kids to do or agree with the same thing?
Remember, too, that it's a different group of kids taking the test every single year. As odd as this may sound to non-teachers, there are years when you have a particularly strong group of juniors only to be followed by a group that struggles more. I've found in my years of teaching that each class tends to have a definite personality. Right now at my school, we have a group of pretty apathetic seniors (who took the test last year), a group of pretty strong juniors (so high hopes for this year's testing!), a group of sophomores who are exceptionally low, and a group of freshmen who seem to be thugs. (We've had such an increase in fights this year -- almost all stemming from our freshmen and sophomores)
So a school fails to meet the goals -- what happens then? Well, initially, there is an increase in funding that comes with the stipulation that tutoring and other remediation be put into place to get those numbers up. At some point, though, when a school continues to fail, that money goes away and students get the option to go elsewhere for an education. Guess who's going to exercise that option to leave -- the students who excel. So we're taking these schools that are struggling (and it is rarely from a lack of effort on the part of the faculty) and stripping them of the students who could be instrumental in helping the school succeed. Do you think that school is going to have a chance in hell now of ever meeting those ridiculously unrealistic goals now?
I'm not saying here that there shouldn't be some sort of accountability for schools. I'm not saying we shouldn't be creating incentives for our schools to strive to make all of our students successful, but I also think we need to understand that the definition of success may be different for different students. It would be great if every student could get a 25 on the ACT, but it's not a realistic goal and it takes away the sense of pride and accomplishment that a special ed kid might feel in that hard fought for and earned 20.
I don't have the answers to helping our kids succeed. I do everything I can every single day to try to help my students become better readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers, but I also know that there are kids in my room who don't see the slightest bit of value in those skills I'm trying to sell them. I applauded Barack Obama's call Wednesday night for increased parental involvement in a child's education because I do think that is a huge factor in a child's success. I only have 49 minutes a day with my classes -- 49 minutes to share with them my passion for literature and to try to get them to wonder in the magic we get to share in when an author shares his/her creativity with us. If they go home, though, and spend 12+ hours with no access to books (you'd be shocked how many students tell me they live in houses with no books) and hearing messages that reading is stupid and pointless, whose message wins -- my 49-minute sales pitch or the 12+ hour immersion? Instead of no child being left behind, maybe we need to worry about making sure no family is left behind.