Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Education of a Teacher

This fall has found me finding a renewed passion for my profession. Not that my passion had necessarily waned significantly, but I often feel it dim as I struggle with discipline issues, various student dramas, long hours with a pay that doesn't necessarily reflect the many hours put in, and occasional boredom with the subject matter. The past several weeks, though, have given me some time for reflection and to really think about why I do what I do and even how I do what I do.

The path to this renewal and reflection began with my agreement to accept a student teacher this fall. I'd often refused to take a student teacher in the past, feeling that I was still too new at my job to really be effective in mentoring someone. What could I possibly teach a young teacher when I felt like I still had so much to learn myself? When I was approached last spring about the possibility of hosting a student teacher, I finally felt like I was comfortable enough in my professional skin to pull this off. I've been doing this for ten years now. Certainly that was enough time, right?

While the actual mentoring process has been a fascinating experience (bringing back such memories of my own time as a student teacher), the process has also helped me find a new love for my job. The thing is that, once I handed over my students to another, I missed my kids. I missed standing up there and talking to them and trying to guide them through the intricacies of writing, reading, and speaking. I found myself yearning to make lesson plans and grade essays. I've taken back two of my classes this week, and the renewed vigor is exhilarating.

Because someone else was essentially doing my job all day, I found myself with a lot of downtime. I do not do downtime well. At first, it was actually great. I was able to get a ton of other work done -- work for the fall play, speech cuttings, lesson planning (I am planned through the end of the semester in all my courses . . . yeah . . . I know!). Eventually, though, I found myself at the end of my to-do list. Planning through the end of the school year seemed a bit excessive (albeit tempting). I could only surf so much Internet before boredom set in. Finally, another teacher handed me a copy of a book that really left me aching to return to the classroom.

The book was called The Education of a Teacher. It was written by a former colleague, Susan Van Kirk. Sue was my department chair my first year of teaching and was a patient, kind, intelligent mentor as I faced the trials of that first year. One of the reasons why it's making the rounds at my school is that it is about our high school. Sue taught at our high school for over 30 years. Her book tells stories of her experiences first as a young teacher in the late 1960s and early 70s through her retirement and move to teaching college level education courses at a local college. While some of the stories are unique experiences to this particular school (such as the school board's decision in the early 1980's to essentially gut the school for renovations -- while classes were still going on in the building), many are universal, whether it is dealing with the sudden death of a student or fighting censorship at the hands of bullying parents. Many of the stories are quite moving. More than once I found myself fighting tears as I lived vicariously through Sue and faced the same losses and grief that she did. Other stories, though, are full of wit and joy and serve as reminders of the very human faces that teachers encounter.

While the book helped me pass my time, it also made my ache to return to the classroom even greater. Sue's book is about more than the classroom; it's about the opportunity teachers have to be counselors and friends at times when students need them the most. I've come to terms with the fact that I am often a bit of a surrogate mom for many of my students, giving them advice and compassion when both seem completely absent. I've spent many long hours after school talking kids through traumas, both academic and personal. I've mediated, cajoled, supported, and led kids through many difficult times. Sue's book was a reminder of that relationship, of that responsibility teachers have. It all comes back to that idea of being a role model and showing students what adult life can be. I realized that I was missing out on the opportunity to forge those bonds with new classes of students and would be returning to desks filled with virtual strangers that I would now have to work double time to connect with. Sue's book made me realize that I AM a teacher and that there is absolutely nothing on this earth that I would rather be. Well, outside of Mrs. Jon Hamm, that is, but that's another kind of book altogether.
I urge my readers (all ten of you!) to go out and get a copy of this book. It's available through a variety of online booksellers including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For teachers, this book will reaffirm your love of your craft. For non-teachers, it will provide a glimpse into the life of this profession. For anyone, it will move, entertain, and inspire you in a truly profound way.


I've been busy with work and life and all that jazz lately, so I've not been very good about posting. I have a couple things brewing in the noggin, so look forward to something soon.

In the meantime, it appears that I missed a bit of a milestone for The Ginger Files. According to the ol' ticker off to the side here, I've had 10,000 visits to my website since I started it in June 2008. Wow. Thanks. Granted, I know that probably 9,900 of those visits are from my best friend Danielle, but I'm still honored that some of you have been so loyal. I promise to reward it with some good posts soon!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What Alternative Do I Have?

Once upon a time, I was an obsessive music fan. I had a CD collection with easily more than 1000 discs (probably closer to 2ooo, to be honest). I read Rolling Stone and Spin obsessively to discover what was new, who was out there, what I needed to get my hands on. I worked to compile a music collection that was reflective not just of my tastes but of the very genesis of music itself. I owned CDs by artists I didn't particularly like (Neil Young, for example) because I recognized that his importance to music as a whole outweighed my own personal tastes. At the same time, I attended concerts on a pretty regular basis -- taking as many opportunities as I could to bask in the beauty of live music and experiencing a wide range of artists.

Those days are, sadly, long over. Over the course of the past decade or so, I slowly dismantled my CD collection, selling large chunks of it off to clear space and get some extra cash. I rarely if ever go to concerts anymore outside of the occasional Phish show. (I can't even remember the last non-Phish show I attended.) As I settled into my 30's, my priorities changed. No longer crashing in Mom's basement, I actually had financial obligations -- rent, utilities, car payments, insurance, groceries -- that ate up all that lovely disposable income I'd had when Mom was taking care of all those expenses for me. Suddenly, the new Beastie Boys CD or catching the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their latest tour wasn't nearly as important as, say, electricity. With a full-time job, taking off at a moment's notice to catch a show hours away became a lot more difficult, too, especially when I have to wake up for work before the sun the next morning.

Age became a factor, too. Here in the penthouse of my 30's, I realize that I just don't have the energy (or sometimes even the will) to try the sorts of things I did in my 20's. Dancing my ass off for hours at Lollapalooza? Camping out to buy the new Nirvana CD? Staying up all night to drive home from an Oasis concert in Chicago? "Easy!" cried my 20-year-old self. "Easy," cautions my 30-year old self. I reached a point where I realized I didn't want to be the creepy old lady jamming out to the band and making all the kids uncomfortable. And as music changed and evolved, it just became more and more difficult to keep up with what was new and cool, especially when so much of the music considered cool was so stomach-churning to me.

There is this part of me that mourns, though, the loss of my indie cred. I recently started subscribing to Rolling Stone again (sadly, I did this for the political coverage rather than the music culture that had me subscribing for nearly 20 years). A couple nights ago, I was perusing a recent issue (with Roger Waters on the cover -- hey! I know that guy!). I popped to the back page where the music charts are listed. As I scanned down the list of albums topping the Billboard charts, I grew more and more disheartened to see so few names I recognized. Of the ones I DID recognize, I could only name a song or two by a small minority of them. It was even more grim when I looked over at the college charts that had once served as my CD shopping list. Who the heck are these people?? (I will admit to being intrigued by a band called Someone Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin. I think I might have to check those kids out.)

Of course, with today's technology, I could easily get back into the music world. Kids today have it so easy! I can remember driving an hour or more to find cool little indie record stores to buy the cool new underground music that I could not find at the local Musicland. (Hey, guys, remember Musicland??) I can remember staying up late to watch MTV's 120 Minutes, often taking notes so I could remember the next morning what awesome band I had discovered the night before. (I saw the MTV debut of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Yes, my mind was blown!) Now, all I'd have to do is pop online and check out a iTunes or a bevy of sites that could lead me right where I wanted. As argued in the first installment of what promises to be an excellent series on 90's music at The AV Club called "Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?" , there is no underground anymore. It's all out there and above ground if you know where to look for it online.

So why am I not jumping into this pool of music? Maybe I'm lazy. Maybe I'm too settled in with the music I discovered 20 years ago and still love. Maybe it's just that I don't have all that time and disposable income to really tackle it all with the same passion and fervor of yesteryear. It all seems so overwhelming. And it probably doesn't help that the couple of times I have dipped my toe back in the water, I've felt like I was swimming in rancid water rather than the sweet waters of my youth. Sometimes, the music seems like carbon copies of stuff I used to listen to -- why listen to a pale imitation of The Clash when I can just pull out my old copy of London Calling and listen to the real thing?

Rock music, especially the music that meant to much to me back then, was music of and for the young. Sure, I still listen to Jane's Addiction and U2 and all those bands of my youth. I'm not saying that older people can't listen to rock music. But the music of those bands from our youth belong to us and hold meaning for us just as the music of today belongs to and holds meaning for the youth of today. I can't co-opt their youth. And why would I when I can revel in mine? As great as I'm sure Arcade Fire or Never Shout Never are, give me The Pixies anyday because they knew what it was like . . . in 1989.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Another Facebook in the Crowd

A miraculous thing happened Saturday afternoon. I found myself with several hours of free time at my disposal and $10 in my pocket. Knowing such an occurrence will be uncommonly rare as I head into the meat of drama and speech seasons, I quickly hopped in the car with my sis and headed to the multiplex to see The Social Network, a movie both of us had been dying to see since catching the amazing trailer a couple months ago. (That haunting version of Radiohead's "Creep" sold me within seconds. The sis was hooked when Justin Timberlake popped on screen) As the critical buzz around the movie increased, my NEED to see the movie grew.

In case you've been hanging out in a cave, The Social Network is the story of the founding of Facebook. The film posits that the online addiction shared by millions of us worldwide was fraught with betrayal and chicanery and that the whole thing really boiled down to one socially awkward nerd wanting to get back at the girl who dumped him. In the process, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) becomes a superstar, billionaire, and pariah all at the same time. He seems to steal the kernel of an idea from Facebook from the wealthy, successful, studly Winklevoss twins (both played here, courtesy of some amazing technical wizardry, by Arnie Hammer). He gets his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), to put up an initial investment of $1000 to start his fledgling site and makes Saverin CFO of their company, then called "THE Facebook." Eventually, Saverin is pushed out of the company in a scheme seemingly orchestrated by programming superstud Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), better known as the man behind Napster, but which seems to be driven more by Zuckerberg's jealousy that Saverin was invited to join an exclusive club at Harvard. Lawsuits erupt as the Winklevosses and Saverin go after Zuckerberg and Facebook, and yet Zuckerberg remains a detached, passive aggressive loner at the center of it all. Zuckerberg seems desperate for friendship and companionship, and yet he continually betrays those who seem most likely to give him what he wants. As Saverin tells him during one of their confrontations, "I was your only friend!" Despite all of his success, we are left at the end with a Zuckerberg who is clearly lonely. The final image of him sitting at his laptop and hitting the refresh button over and over again manages to be both funny and sad -- a haunting end to an exceptional film.

What I find, perhaps, most exciting about The Social Network is that breaks so many rules of what seems to constitute a "successful" film nowadays and yet it dominated the box office and was critically lauded all weekend. Here is a movie that doesn't feature a tremendous amount of action (not a single explosion in two hours!) and no big stars (outside of Timberlake who isn't really known for being a movie star). It is a movie dominated by dialogue and a protagonist who is largely unlikable. (More than once, I found myself wishing someone would punch Zuckerberg in the face.) It is a movie about intellectual creation and betrayal. I can't help but wonder if the film were about, say, Google or ebay instead of Facebook, would people be so anxious to see it? Has our Facebook addiction compelled so many to see a movie that is so out of their wheelhouse? Maybe, maybe not.

The thing is, regardless of the actual subject matter, The Social Network is a pretty tremendous film. It helps that the script was written by Aaron Sorkin, a writer who is a master of intelligent dialogue. The opening conversation between Zuckerberg and the girl who inspires his quest for achievement (played by soon-to-be superstar Rooney Mara . . . aka the future Lisbeth Salander . . .aka the actual GIRL of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is a stunning achievement in dialogue -- quick, witty, intelligent. It's the kind of dialogue that made The West Wing one of the greatest television shows perhaps of all time. The only thing that was shocking for Sorkin lovers was that the whole conversation took place while sitting rather than roaming hallways. As the credits played after the opening scene, I turned to my sis and whispered, "I love Aaron Sorkin." His scripts never pander and always expect his audience to be literate, intelligent, and able to keep up with his often breakneck pace. I'm not sure there's another writer out there who could have given this story life with such intelligence and sincerity. I hope Sorkin has cleared off some space for the Oscar he's sure to win for Best Adapted Screenplay in February.

Sorkin's script benefits, too, from falling into the hands of the brilliant David Fincher, who, along with Christopher Nolan, is my favorite director out there. Fincher has this way of caressing a script, bringing out the grit and heart to any story. While this film may seem a departure for fans of Fincher's early work like Seven and Fight Club, it seems to be keeping in line with his more recent forays into quieter fare like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Fincher is a master of bringing complicated characters to the screen. He always seems keenly aware of the fact that both light and dark exist in each of us, with Fight Club being the most literal example of that thesis. Zuckerberg is both likable and loathable, sometimes all at the same time. You laugh and admire him for his disdainful attitude during depositions while still thinking to yourself, "What a dick!" Fincher is also a master of brilliant composition, and his technical wizardry is steeped in such realism that it seems completely organic and never a case of trick camera work. My sis was shocked when I told her that the Winklevoss twins were one actor -- a testament to Fincher's mastery at pulling those shots off without drawing attention to them.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who left the theater feeling at least a modicum of guilt over my Facebook addiction. Was I unwittingly feeding the beast of Zuckerberg's ego by spending so much time checking statuses and playing Farmville? Did my entertainment come at the expense of decent people like Saverin who were screwed over by Zuckerberg's quest for success? The unfortunate thing is that Facebook has become such a part of the fabric of our lives that walking away now seems nearly impossible. Where Zuckerberg succeeded (and someone like Sean Parker failed) is in tapping in to our most primal needs -- for friendship and connection to others -- and putting all of that just a mouse click away. Dick or not, the guy is a genius of the human psyche even if his own psyche seems so very damaged.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Hooray for Culture

When I took over the reigns of Drama Club a few years ago, one of the goals I had was to try to get the kids out to see as much theatre as I could. We are lucky in that we live in an area with access to a lot of live theatre thanks to three area colleges and an active community theatre group. Over the course of the past three or so years, my students have had access to a wide variety of theatre experiences -- from modern comedies like Moonlight and Magnolias to 20th century classics like The Crucible to legendary classics like Hamlet. For a lot of these kids, their participation in a Drama Club "outing" is their first exposure to live theatre outside of what we create here at school. To this day, I have students who saw Hamlet as freshmen and talk about it with such reverence and love.

Last night, my students had the opportunity to see a local college production of The Learned Ladies by Moliere. I'm a huge fan of Moliere (I almost love him as much as Shakespeare) and was excited to see the show since The Learned Ladies is a Moliere show I've not gotten to see before. A couple of my Drama Club kids were psyched because they took my Drama class last fall and had loved reading The Miser. There were several new members of Drama Club going with us, which always excites me since it means new experiences. (My older kids are old pros at the theatre outings. They border on jaded sometimes!)

In all, about 20 of us descended on the college last night. Within minutes of the lights going out and the show starting, though, I have to admit I was a little nervous. The show went for a highly stylized reproduction of the traditional 17th Century French style in costumes, makeup, and even movement. I wasn't sure how my kids, especially my newer kids, would respond to what can seem very artificial and lacking in sincerity. As the first act progressed, though, I began to relax as I heard the kids around me laughing ... and laughing in all the right places! At intermission, their excitement was palpable. One senior girl came up to me and said that this was "almost as good as Shakespeare." A sophomore girl told me she couldn't wait to get online and post a status on Facebook about how "epic" the show was. A junior boy declared the as being the ultimate "nerd show" and meant it lovingly. I honestly could not have been prouder of my kids. They were so well-behaved, so responsive, and so appreciative. It was lovely to pop on Facebook and see all the statuses imploring people to go see the show. After the show, the cast had a brief question and answer session, and a couple of my kids commented and participated in a really positive, intelligent way. (I will say, though, they were probably more excited when I raised my hand to ask a question -- asking the cast which character they thought was Moliere's "surrogate". I heard one student whisper that my question would be "epic." I guess that's their new word . . . "epic.")

A colleague of mine once told me that an unofficial part of our job is to be role models to our students of how their lives COULD be -- that they could escape their backgrounds that are sometimes filled with poverty and limited access to culture, that they could live lives of intellect and creativity. It's a mission I have held close to my heart ever since that conversation, which is why I strive to get my Drama Club kids into theatres so that they experience Shakespeare, Moliere, Miller, and more and get the opportunity to glimpse new ideas and ways of life. The fact that roughly 20 students walked out of that theatre last night with a newfound love of Moliere warms my heart in ways I can't possibly even express. As I look ahead to a year where the local college seasons include Euripedes, Chekhov, Hellman, Shepard, Ionesco, and more, I can't wait to take more kids and show them the wide world of theatre that lies out there for them.