Month: July 2019

Moonday’s Menial Moments

Here we are at the end of July.   Early in the summer, I vowed that whenever we had a rainy day, I’d head into my classroom and try to get things set up for the new year.  This of course meant that we had a very sunny July.  You’re welcome. I think we had three rainy days, and two of them fell on weekends when I couldn’t get into my classroom. Sorry about that part.

So today, in spite of the sun and blue sky that said, “Ride your bike!” or “Bring a book to the beach!” I headed to school to spend a few hours getting ready.  No, this doesn’t mean that I did something meaningful like plan units or lessons. No, it doesn’t mean that I thought about the curricular calendar or met with colleagues. No, here is how I spent my three hours before heading to dishwasher duty.  First, I got out the black paint, wide brush, pallet and water cup. Then I “blackwashed” three large sheets of cardboard so I could hang up new quotes on my walls. I have some candidates, but I decided to leave these new ones blank (black) so that the kids can find the quotes they like.  That might sound lazy of me, I realize, but I’m going with the idea that I’m empowering students. I, of course, decided that a little white trim would be a nice touch. This also allowed me to use masking tape, more brushes, and more time.  

My painting finished, I decided to work on my welcome sign.  This is difficult when one doesn’t know the names of the students yet, but I decided to make the background anyway.  I’ve used the metaphor of a bee hive for the last two years.  I won’t get into the complex reasons for using the image.  The silly ones are easier to explain briefly:  Hive rhymes with Five, the grade I teach, and both words contain two of my initials.  This is why I headed down to the teachers’ room and got a very long sheet of yellow bulletin board paper.  This is why I carefully cut out a cardboard hexagon to use as a tracer. This is why I spent the next hour tracing a honeycomb pattern onto a very long piece of bulletin board paper, in the process, inhaling a great deal of Sharpie fumes. When I finished, I attached it to the wall next to my door and carefully affixed the welcoming message. 

At this point, I noticed that the paper on one of the bulletin boards in my room had not held up well from the spring.  There was a gash where someone used tape rather than a tack. We can’t have anyone thinking that the sky blue paper is a holdover from last year. The welcome sign is one thing, but the background paper on the boards?   I am not a bulletin board person, but when avoiding real thinking, I can make the most menial tasks seem urgent. I tore down the shabby old paper, found my roll of fadeless sky blue and commenced work. 

Here is how it went: Picked up roll of paper and stapler. Stepped up onto chair at one end of bulletin board. Stapled paper in one corner; unrolled paper slowly; stapled in intermediate spot; realized that with chair in current position I wouldn’t even reach halfway;  wished I had placed another chair in center and at other end; realized that to retrieve another chair or move current chair, I would have to step down and probably yank out staples; while pondering this problem, noticed another, a wave or bubble in the paper; realized that if I set down the roll to get the staple remover, the whole roll would unroll;  uttered some inappropriate oaths about teachers who had worked for 30 years and still didn’t know how to put up bulletin board paper; pulled out staple with fingernails; smoothed paper; re-stapled; stepped down; accidentally pulled out two staples; moved chair; stepped back up; continued across board; reached other end with paper to spare; put in staple (after making sure that paper was straight and smooth);  realized, while standing on chair, that scissors were all the way across room; realized that stepping down to get scissors, would mean rest of roll would unroll; worried that if miles of paper unrolled they might also pull out staples from already stapled sections; wished that someone would walk into room at that moment to hand me the scissors; fervently hoped that someone wouldn’t walk into room at this moment to observe my incompetence;  eventually propped unused portion of roll between two sets of books, allowing mad dash to table where scissors reside; arrived back just seconds after remaining roll fell, unrolled, and dramatically pulled out all but one staple; uttered a few more expletives; collected necessary supplies (staple remover, scissors, stapler); re-rolled sky blue paper; started over.

Last week I wrote that I relished the mindless tasks of my summer. Apparently there are exceptions.

Doing Dishes

Sometimes I feel a little guilty about how much free time I have in my summers.  For my wife, it’s the busiest time of the year, since she directs a summer learning program in a neighboring town.  My daughter has been living at home this year, and this summer, she took some “time off” from work to take two intensive classes, Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry.  So nobody at home wants to hear about my daily schedule that includes a bike ride along the coast, puttering in the yard, a little reading, some writing, and a walk with the dogs. I do work hard during the school year.  They’ll give me that. But they’re also thinking that my summer life is a bit too easy.

I try to counter the lazy image by getting up early to make the coffee and feed the dogs. I don’t think that counts for much, so when my wife came back from the first day of the summer session saying that their kitchen was really understaffed, I decided to volunteer.  I stroll in at noon to help with the serving and the dish washing. I think some of the people there think I’m a little odd. A few have asked when I’m going to start teaching at the program. The truth is, I’m finding the kitchen a satisfying work environment.  I enjoy being busy, but I’m an introvert and I’m a P in the Myers-Briggs continuum. The introvert part means that although I may like people, I also need time to be by myself.. The P means that while I CAN make decisions, it’s not achieved until I’ve sifted through LOTS of possibilities. Combine those two traits, and it means, I am not your prototypical teacher. I like the job, but it exhausts me.

Dish washing, on the other hand, is surprisingly energizing. 

First, there’s the equipment. How often in the outside world do you get to use one of those big springy hose attachments that pull down from a retractable roll on the wall.  Crazy fun. Then there’s the dishwasher itself, a big, rumbling, sudsy monster with a conveyor belt, blinking lights, and those floppy car wash curtains at the entrance and exit. Sure, it’s a temperamental beast, occasionally swallowing a bowl or cup, but that just makes for a little suspense.

Next, is the atmosphere in the dish room.  Clanging plates, rumbling washer, slippery floors, scurrying people. It’s really too noisy and busy for any socializing.  Introvert’s dream.  

Then there’s the routine, which with a team of workers becomes a cross between a dance and a relay race:  one person grabs the dirty dishes and loads them into the crates. The next person rinses them with that crazy-fun sink hose and feeds them to the beast.  The next person grabs the lava-hot plates as they exit the washer, stacks them on the cart, and hustles the now-empty crate back to the front window. Repeat. 

Sure,  there are decisions to make, but listen to how consequential they are. 

Q: When I’m in the dish room before the others, should I slide the crate into the dishwasher when it’s only three quarters full? 

A: Yeah, go for it.

Q: Is there time to stack the cups into piles of seven and place them in the big ice bucket, or should I just move the whole crate to the pile? 

A: It depends.

Q: When a kid forgets to dump his leftovers into the trash, should I spray him with the crazy-fun sink hose?

A: Probably not.

The beauty of these decisions is that there is really nothing riding on them.

Finally, there are the personal challenges.   Can I grab six plates in each hand, allowing me to achieve the ultimate goal of clearing an entire crate in one motion?  Personal best so far is a five-six last Tuesday. Can I sort a tray of mixed forks, spoons, and knives in under two minutes?  Not even close, but I am working on it. Can I rinse a crateful of dirty dishes with the crazy-fun sink hose without spraying myself?  Rarely.

I know there’s not much about this that sounds stimulating, important, or memorable, but for me, it’s mind-cleansing.

Today’s Wonderings

Today is the first day of writing camp.  I hadn’t been calling it writing camp when I told people what I’d be doing this summer, but I really like the name.  It feels like a summer thing to do. I went to camp every summer when I was a kid, and, for a time, I worked at a summer camp as an adult.  This isn’t sleep-away writers’ camp, mind you, or even day writer’s camp. It’s a virtual camp, but it still feels like a positive way to describe what I hope to do every day: wake up early, and write for fun.

Today’s welcoming entry focused on writing non-fiction.  Kate Messner wrote the initial entry. She’s both the camp director and counselor today.  She mentioned that teachers and writers often advise novice writers to “write about what you know.”  I’ve given that advice to students every year. Today’s revision of that advice, though, makes a lot of sense.  Kate said, “What do you wonder about?” She described several examples of how her writing projects grew out of her wonderings, like wondering about the animals that lived under the snow in winter or wondering about the beetle that emitted some noxious spray in Charles Darwin’s mouth.  Both of these led to published books. She suggested that we write a list of our wonderings. I’m going to do that first and then see if I can write a bit more about at least one of the items.

This morning’s wonderings:

  • What kind of snake did I accidentally grab while I was weeding last week?
  • How do you tell the difference between a moth and a butterfly?
  • Is there a brain chemistry connection between people who become addicted to drugs and people who attempt or complete suicide?
  • Might I publish a book someday?
  • What led John Laurens, a child of privilege in South Carolina, to become an ardent abolitionist in the 1770s?
  • Why do we sometimes have days when a whole series of crazy coincidences arise?
  • Why are some people more prone to procrastination than others?
  • What is the feature of Comic Sans that makes it a writing stimulant (prosodisiac)?
  • Why is there a rabbit population explosion in my neighborhood this year?
  • How is it that some nice people actually like Trump?
  • Do most great athletes have an obsessive personality?

Yesterday, while I was mowing the lawn, I narrowly missed mowing a moth…or a butterfly.  Instinctively I reached for my phone to take a picture of the fortunate creature, but I didn’t have my phone in my pocket.  I turned off the mower and went in to retrieve my phone, hoping that I wouldn’t be too late when I returned to the scene. The creature obliged my photo needs, posing patiently in the mulch.

Later, I wanted to show off my photo.  “Wanna see the butterfly I almost mowed over?”  I handed my phone to my daughter.

“Nice, but I think it might be a moth.”

I shrugged.  “Whatever, but it’s beautiful, don’t you think?”

I said this, but I confess that my heart sank a few millimeters at the moth comment, especially when it was echoed by our friend, Chelsea.

Now I’m wondering a few things.  First, why was I disappointed by the kind of lepidoptera I’d captured?  Second, how do you actually tell these creatures apart?

John Doe

I don’t know that I’ll be able to answer the first question.  Is it simply the name? Butterfly is fun to say. Its anagram is flutter by. It conjures all of these positive images of metamorphosis, sunshine, summer, flowers, and fleeting beauty.  Moth, on the other hand, is just a boring word. For me it also carries the images of high-strung nighttime creatures bouncing off screens, loitering around lamps or chewing on sweaters.  But, if this was a moth, then maybe I should adjust my prejudices.  

I decided to do a bit of investigating. From ScienceBob I learned that butterflies most often rest with their wings folded, while moths are less demure (He didn’t say that part).  Also, butterflies have longer antennae, while moths’ are shorter and furrier. Butterflies tend to prefer daylight, while moths are generally nocturnal. This information was only moderately helpful.  My John Doe (or UFO) was out during the daytime with wings spread boldly. A contradiction. His antennae were short-ish. It’s such a relative term, right?  

I continued my research. Everyday Mysteries informed me that the antennae provided the best indicator.  The butterfly’s antennae were usually club-shaped, with a long shaft and bulb at the end. I revisited my photo, and wished I’d gotten a better frontal shot.  These antennae did not appear to have bulbs at the end.  

Everyday Mysteries was kind enough to provide further links at the end of the article. When I clicked to “Butterflies and Moths of North America,”  whom should I find as one of the featured creatures, but Promethea Silkmoth, a dead ringer for my friend. This was exciting. Not only did I have that moment of recognition (It’s him!), but I also liked the name.  This was no ordinary moth. This was Promethea Silkmoth. I also learned that I should have exclaimed, “It’s her!” The female has reddish brown wings with tan spots. The male has black wings.

Promethea Silkmoth (as seen on http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org)

My wondering temporarily satisfied, I ceased my research for the day.  I’ve always said that I have a fascination with butterflies, and for a variety of reasons, but I shall now enlarge the scope of my preoccupation.  Thank you, Promethea Silkmoth. I’m glad you knew to rest in the mulch instead of the grass.

The Verdict: Rejected

No one really likes rejection.  Just ask the New York Knicks. But today I got rejected, and I’m not all that blue about it…I think. 

Last fall I got invited to jury duty.  I know, I’m popular. In fact, I’m so sought-after that it’s actually rather a ho-hum occurrence for me.  Ever since the courts around here located me about 25 years ago, I receive invitations on a very predictable schedule.  It’s generally smack dab in the middle of the school year, and I generally request that it be rescheduled for a later date, such as summer.

That’s what I did this past fall.  I notified our judiciary system that while I was flattered by the invitation, I would be much obliged if I could postpone until July, when I would be free of obligations and looking for a way to pass the time, assist in the carriage of justice, and perhaps find some juicy writing material. 

I received a prompt response.  “How would July 2, fit in your social calendar, sir?  We appreciate your demonstration of good citizenship, and by the way, should you find yourself on a jury, you may not write about it in your fabulously humorous (if stunningly unpopular) blog.  That’s against the law.”

Duly noted. 

So today, I strode into the jury room, prepared to do my part to preserve democracy.  You’re welcome. I was pleased to see the improvements to our surroundings. The uncomfortable folding chairs had been replaced by seats that more closely resembled those in an auditorium.  Those seats had been reoriented, and now faced a much larger TV monitor than the one I tried unsuccessfully to ignore three years ago. I must say, it has been very satisfying to see the upgrades over the years.  The “How to be a Jury Member” video was riveting this time. Was it the vivid LG display or incredible special effects? Hard to say.  

Unlike several previous visits, this time, I made the A-list of potential jurors.  A select group of 24 “first round picks” who got to head to the third floor for our auditions.  I felt both honored and humbled by this preferential treatment. I will admit to a few butterflies, but I’ve heard that even the most decorated jurors feel a little jittery, particularly when considering that they hold in their hands the fate of our society and democratic way of life .

Once in the courtroom, we were briefed on the case, hearing the charges, and a list of names associated with the case.  I would love to tell you all about this, but, as you read above, I am bound by the rules of our constitution. Let me just say this.  It involved a crime. The State of Connecticut said he (not his real name) did it. He (still not his real name) said he didn’t. We also learned that the trial would not begin in a month that ended in Y or T.  This surprised me, since I had been assured that my gift to our country would not involve me having to prepare sub plans. 

Following this appetizer, we were escorted to the green room, or spa, as I like to call it.  The temperature was 30 below zero, but fortunately there were two carafes on the conference table with lukewarm or room temperature water, whichever we preferred.  We waited our turns, and as each contestant was called to the courtroom, I assessed his or her chances, using my special “profiling radar,” which allowed me to assess someone’s integrity and potential biases based on their shoes, hair, and the way they had said “Here,” when they were first called on in the jury room.   It’s a gift.

Brief aside:  I was hoping that the judge hadn’t deducted too many points during that initial roll call.  We were asked to stand and say “Here,” when our name was called by the court clerk. I was the only one of the 24 who forgot to say “Here,” when I stood.  Ironic for a teacher, I know, but it was partly because I’m more of a visual learner than an auditory learner. Had the clerk provided a handout with these instructions or written them on the whiteboard, I would very likely have performed better.   Plus, I was concentrating on standing up in a confident and unbiased manner, and I simply forgot to indicate my presence orally. Furthermore, the clerk’s decoding or phonemic awareness was pretty suspect as he attempted to pronounce my name. But back to the story.

This sizing-up was done, of course, with a complete poker face as I pretended to read my novel.  When I was finally called for my big moment, I knocked the icicles off of my nose and skated toward the entrance to the courtroom.  The judge reminded me that being a teacher, while noble and clearly more important to society than all other jobs besides judges, did not excuse me from serving on a jury.  I assured him that I understood, though of course, my students and their parents would not be so understanding.  

The prosecutor then began her questioning.  I knew that I had to get through this portion of the audition in order to make it to the talent portion of the competition, so I took her questions very seriously.  She noted that my request for July was no doubt made because I presumed that the trial itself would happen during a month that ended in Y or T. She apologized for foiling that plan, but offered no explanation.  She then asked about my class. The number of students that I had. How many times I had had fewer than 20 students in my class, what the number threshold was for creating a new class, and a variety of other questions that showed definitively that she had once been  a student in a classroom where asking irrelevant questions at inopportune moments was like a sport. Did she think that I would forget to give her homework if she asked more of these questions? The defense attorney actually objected to her class-size questions. And the judge overruled him.  That is true.  

Finally, she started asking questions that had to do with crimes and victims and law enforcement and lawyers.  I am not sure which ones I got wrong. They never tell you! I know I was right about the number of students in my class.  But then, in a matter of minutes, it was all over. When it was the defense attorney’s turn, he declined to ask any questions, saying that the prosecutor had asked all of the ones that he was going to ask.  “And I had my hand up the whole time!” he whined to the judge. No, actually, that isn’t true. I imagined it. In fact, he was very mature about it. He smiled. I was asked to leave and wait in the hall while they deliberated.  The bailiff directed me to a bench in the hallway. I didn’t even get to sit down before they called me back to the room.  

“Sir, you’ve been excused.  We thank you for your time.”

“That’s it?  No ‘Talent Segment’?  Don’t you wanna see how I can detect integrity just by looking at someone’s shoes or listening to how they say ‘Here?’”

“No, Sir, we’d really just like you to leave.  And by the way, we noted that you needed prompting on the “Here” thing.  How is that possible for a teacher?!”

I slunk from the room.  Someone else would have to preserve the American way.  I await my next opportunity…in exactly three years.