Friday, April 30, 2010

News of the Week

Here's a vagabond dispatch from the front lines of public education:

Earlier this week, some sixth graders told a counselor that a few kids were calling people "dirty Jews." It was a teachable moment, so here's how she approached it:

"Is there anything wrong with being Jewish?" she asked the group.

They assured her there was not.

"Then why would you use it as a negative?" she wanted to know.

They were stumped.

"What about Muslim, or Christian, or any other religion-- anything wrong with them?"

No, no, and no.

"What other names do people call each other?" she wondered.

Gay was number one.

"Well, is there anything wrong with being gay?"

The consensus was no.

Wow. Most kids think it's okay to be gay-- or at least they say so-- and whether they actually believe it, or just think that's the "right" answer, things have changed a lot in the last few years.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Power of Poetry

Poem in Your Pocket Day was a big hit. This is the third year that I've made time in my class for all of my students to choose a poem in advance and then carry it with them. When the actual day arrives, we have an informal poetry reading in English, and I allow the conversation to go vagabond-- taking us where it will, from Langston Hughes to Shel Silverstein to Emily Dickinson, from Jabberwocky to The Raven and back around to some of their favorites that we've read together. It helps that I offer lollipops to all who are willing to read their chosen poems and explain why they carry those with them. Today, every single kid volunteered; that's a first.

Lots of adults in the building and especially the other teachers on my team also support the activity: carrying poems themselves, asking kids what they've chosen, and using any spare minutes to share poetry. No doubt that's a big part of why the kids were so into it. Also, since it's the third year we've celebrated PiYPD, most of the students in our school have been involved in this day before, and a fair number of seventh and eighth graders had poems in their pockets, too. Even so, I have a hunch there's a little more to its success than any of that.

Four years ago, before I had heard of this literary holiday, I did a mini-version of Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project. My students chose a poem and practiced reading it, then I video-recorded their performances along with them telling why they had chosen that piece. It's been a while since I revisited that footage, but I dug out the DVD to see if it would be relevant today. I was surprised at how good it was; I honestly didn't remember what a wonderful job they did-- so earnest and sweet in both delivery and rationale-- and I wanted to take credit for it, but really? A better explanation is probably that poetry is just awesome.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Two boys were taken from the care of their mother because she was abusive and neglectful. No one could locate their father, despite the fact that he was in the US Army, so they were put into foster care. Eventually Dad and his new wife were found, and they were given custody of the brothers, but only as foster parents, because he had forfeited his parental rights several years earlier.

These kids are a challenge; they have some serious issues: educational, emotional, social. The younger is in sixth grade. He's super-cute, but when you meet him, you can tell that his cognitive development is clearly delayed. He is not without an impressive talent, though. The thing that really stands out about him is his stealing. Nothing is safe: he'll take anything from anyone, but he especially likes keys and lighters. It's so bad that his stepmother, his "udder mudder," as he calls her, cut the pockets out of all of his pants. Even so, he swiped some money from the PE teachers' office, then he hid the fourteen singles in an empty drawer of an unused desk in the same room, using it like a bank and spending them one at a time.

His dad and stepmother are moving soon; true to the vagabond life of a military man, they've been posted to another state. They've decided to take the older boy with them, but the younger one... he's too much trouble. They don't want him, so they're dropping their petition for custody and leaving him here to become a ward of the state.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Vagabonds Aside for a Minute

A friend of my sister's and his family are moving to our town, and they contacted me to ask about schools. I wrestled with what to say to them before I passed their inquiry on to my sister-in-law, who is both a teacher and a parent. I have some very definite ideas about the schools in our district, but I am not a parent, and I find that what I say is not always what people want to hear.

When I say "people" I really mean white people. Most of them look at the test scores and conclude that the schools which are less ethnically, racially, and economically diverse are somehow better because they have higher aggregate scores. What they don't consider is that all of our schools are equally funded and staffed and have the same programs for exceptional students. In addition, white kids across the county score equally well on the tests, so if that's the yardstick, it doesn't matter where their child goes.

In the meantime, they may be depriving their children of living and working in a diverse environment, an experience that, in my opinion, will be more valuable to them than any of the lessons they may receive in our classrooms, which, by the way, are pretty much the same quality in any school in the system.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Who Will Sing All Our Tomorrows?

Still brooding over the busywork remark, I am nothing if not reflective. It stings because it's true. Hm. Feels like a turning point in my class. We've spent the year sharpening our writing tools, practicing with them on neatly-wrapped assignments, ready made by me. When is it time to test them out for real, and how can I provide that opportunity? I wish I had someone to ask. Despite what I have already planned, I know in my vagabond's bones that the end of the year will be a messy departure from what's already been done, but there will be writing.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ars Parasitica

We pulled a couple of ticks off the dog this morning. She's almost seven, and these were only the second and third ticks ever. We don't even use flea and tick medication: since such pests have never been an issue, we prefer to spare our pets those toxins.

As rare an occasion as it is, it's very disturbing to realize that you've been sharing close quarters with a blood-sucking parasite. Questions persist-- Where did it come from? Is it just a bad year for ticks? Will there be more? Phantom ticks crawl on you-- every vagabond itch or twinge is probably another one trying to bury its mandibles in your flesh for a blood meal.

I have the two villains imprisoned in a couple of zipper lock snack bags, and I must admit to being at once repelled and fascinated by them. One is fully engorged, a disgusting drop of dark beige. The other is shiny auburn, lean and hungry-- it roams restlessly in its clear plastic prison, diligently testing the corners for some escape. The fat one helplessly waves its legs when disturbed, but otherwise lies motionless.

Eventually they will die in those bags. It is no more than their nature which draws them to us, and I am hesitant to destroy them for that, but who wants two more parasites on the loose?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cuttin' Grass

It's part of the community garden agreement that each gardener must work two clean-up days over the course of the season. They are scheduled by plot number, and our first one was today. It was with apprehension that I unlocked the gate at a little after nine this morning in search of Alison, the head gardener. It was silly to be nervous, but I wasn't sure what to expect, and vagabond butterflies fluttered in my stomach. My assigned duty turned out to be mowing the common areas and grassy strips in between the gardens.

It's been over eleven years since I last mowed; at our place the landscaping is included in the residents fee. Before that, mowing was my job, and I always liked it, so with the first tug on the engine rope, I began to relax. Back and forth in the neatest of rows I pushed the roaring machine, the results of my labor fair and clear to all who passed. The grass was pretty overgrown in some places, but that only made it more gratifying to walk in the emerald path, newly-shorn. Forty-five minutes later I returned the mower to the shed, my obligation gladly fulfilled.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Armed and Dangerous

I have a student who is outspokenly conservative in his political views. We live in a fairly liberal area, and so this student often finds himself in debates with his peers. A competitive person, he seems to thrive on the conflict, and I get the sense that sometimes he makes purposely outrageous remarks to see what will happen.

Today he tried to engage me in a little argumentative discussion concerning the second amendment. Usually, I try to keep my own opinion as elusive as a vagabond in a train yard, but it doesn't always work out that way.

"I think it should be legal to carry a sidearm," he started. "I want to carry one."

"Okay," I said.

"What about you?" he asked. "Would you carry one?"

"Probably not," I told him.


"I think it's dangerous," I answered.

"How can it be dangerous for you to have a gun to protect yourself?" he wanted to know.

"Well, I wouldn't be the only one who was armed," I said. "Think about the way some people act when they're mad."

"Emilio!" He named a kid with a terrible temper who's been in several fights.

"Okay," I said, "now imagine Emilio with a loaded weapon strapped to his side." He was silent. I shrugged. "Just something to think about, right?"

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I write from a desk in the middle of a jumble of  sixty cardboard cartons, twenty-five chairs, twelve tables, ten bookcases, five student desks, four filing cabinets, and a couple of miscellaneous storage cupboards-- sixteen years of teaching all packed up and ready to move. In forty-eight hours, my experience as a vagabond teacher will commence. On Saturday morning, I'll be surrounded by boxes in a temporary space, trying to figure out how to make do with what I have, mindful that I'll have to pack and move again in a few weeks.

The disruption has been enormous. We try to minimize it when the kids are around, but there aren't enough hours in the day to deal with the demands of moving seven fully-functioning classrooms and a team conference room AND to teach effectively.

I'm exhausted and my patience is thin. In my mind this is a good example of misplaced priorities. Much of the current talk of educational reform centers on ensuring that we have the best teachers for all students, but without optimal working conditions, any teacher is undermined. You want good teachers? Take anything that doesn't directly benefit students off our to-do list.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

She Got my Goat

I have a student who insists on re-reading books for her independent reading requirement. In theory, I don't have a problem with her practice, because I know that's what some readers do. An extremely able student, she reads far beyond the minimum requirement every week, but a lot of it is one Harry Potter book or another.  Despite the Potter fixation, she's read widely, and so it's rare she ever has a book that she's reading for the first time. I've worked hard to find other things she would like, but my suggestions hold no interest for her; they're like vagabonds asking for a handout-- she pretends not to hear them.
In fact, I think she likes to let me know that my opinion doesn't count, and so I've pretty much let it go, other than to gently tease her every now and then.

Last week, I was pushing her to engage a little more with a writing assignment that she was working on; I encouraged her to brainstorm several options before composing her draft, but she wanted to just write it and be done. In an uncharacteristically open show of defiance, she sighed in exasperation. "Why are we doing this anyway?" she snapped.

Despite myself, I felt irritated, but I kept my voice level. "If you go through the process, you might surprise yourself as a writer," I told her. "You may find an astonishing revelation." And then I made a mistake: "Trust me," I continued. "Do I usually give you just busy work?"

I had miscalculated the depth of her disaffection. "Yeah," she answered flatly, "sometimes."

"When?" I asked, a little less evenly.

She named an assignment and added, "We do that every week. It gets boring."

What she didn't mention was that the focus and the questions change every week, and the small groups they meet in are routinely re-shuffled as well. I took a deep breath and narrowed my eyes, ready to plunge in and defend my practice in a heated discussion with a disgruntled twelve-year-old, until I remembered who I was talking to.

"This from the kid who reads everything ten times," I shrugged. "You're going to have to dig a little deeper than that."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Today my classes read the poem Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye. Before we read, I asked the kids to name some ways people get famous. Not surprisingly, they focused on entertainment and sports celebrities. We took a vagabond's side trip into infamy before we ever made it to political leaders, social activists, inventors, artists, and plain old heroes.  

Would you like to be famous? I asked them, and their replies were mixed. They were aware of the downside of fame, but they wanted the associated fortune. "I want to be recognized for my accomplishments," one sensible child said, "and rich," she added, "but I don't want paparazzi following me around."

After we read the poem, I asked them to add some lines of their own. Here are a few:

The principal is famous to the bad kid.

The cleat is famous to the soccer ball.

The dandruff is famous to the shoulder.

The hands are famous to the clock.

The pencil is famous to the page, as is the eraser to the pencil. 

The home run is famous to the fans, but not as famous as the home run hitter.

I want to be famous like a blanket is famous to the bed--
covering it softly and keeping it warm.

    Monday, April 19, 2010

    Kids Today

    Those few minutes before lunch time are always a little hectic. The bell rings, but inevitably there are two or three kids who are rushing to finish this or that, clip everything into their binder, and then put it away. There were a couple of kids left in the room when one other student made a particularly dramatic exit today. "OMG! I have to go! I have lunch detention because my friend decided to pop a juice!" and she left in a flurry.

    "What does that even mean, 'pop a juice'?"

    You might think that it was me who asked this question, but honestly, I was preoccupied with other things. It was another student. "Kids today and their crazy slang," he continued without irony. "What could juice even stand for?"

    I looked up in bemusement. He is not what anyone would consider a nerdy kid, but he is a pretty metacognitive thinker. "I think it was really juice," I said, "but I hear what you're saying about the slang. It's hard to keep up with sometimes."

    He turned to me solemnly. "It's been said, and I agree, that every generation is just slightly less intelligent than the one before."

    I wondered whose grandpa he was channeling. "Why do you think that is?" I asked him.

    "Oh I know exactly what it is," he told me. "Technology. It makes us lazy. My father still knows his phone number from when he was a teenager."

    Unbidden, the ten digits of my own childhood number scrolled across my memory.

    "Today, we store numbers on our phone," he continued in genuine anguish. "Memory is like a muscle: it gets weak if you don't use it."

    He seemed so despondent; I wanted to help. "Maybe you use your brain in other ways, or remember other things," I suggested. "How about old passwords? I'll bet you remember those."

    I, myself, am constantly in need of password assistance and forever requesting hints; most of my passwords are vagabonds on the express train to amnesia.

    The other student in the room chimed in then. "Oh yes," she said rapturously, "I still remember my Club Penguin password, and my webkinz, and my..." she listed several mmorpg sites for kids as she, too, headed dreamily off to lunch.

    "See what I mean?" the first student said shaking his head. "Kids today."

    Sunday, April 18, 2010

    Humility and Comfort

    It's not often that I do things that are unfamiliar and hard. By this point in my life, I know what I like and what I'm good at, and many comfortable routines have developed. I'm not saying that I don't appreciate novelty-- I do; I actually get bored pretty easily-- but I prefer it within a familiar context. Is that a paradox? I don't think so. What's so wrong with staying in your comfort zone?

    Isn't that what we try to do in our classrooms, create safe environments where students feel comfortable taking positive risks?

    Anyway, the point of all of this is, once again, the garden: it all goes back to the garden. I want to do this, have a vegetable garden, but I don't know how. I have to humbly ask for and accept advice and help from others to accomplish what I want. That's a challenge for me, but I'm recognizing that it's good for me, too.

    Look, I'll never be a comfort zone vagabond roaming merrily into the untested, or even a comfort zone tourist gleefully exploring the untried, but I've realized that each time I successfully step out of my comfort zone, I expand it. So, yay! More comfort zone for me.

    Saturday, April 17, 2010

    Bill's Birthday Dinner

    roasted red peppers
    mixed olives
    oil-poached tuna nicoise

    lobster boulliabaise
    ciabata croutons with aioli

    rosemary roasted chicken thighs
    with yukon gold new potatoes

    vagabond spring greens,
    haricot verts, tomatoes,
    and lemon-mustard vinaigrette

    cream puffs

    served with a rose of malbec

    Friday, April 16, 2010

    A Few Friday Favorites

    Here are some of the riddle poems my students wrote this week:

    i hold a face.
    i make blackNess luminous.
    i circle green and blue.
    i Am Sometimes brimful, sometimes empty, sometimes in between.
    imprints Are made, but not removed.
    i spend almost all of my time in solitude.
    i can be auroral during witching hour,
    and vague during breakfast time.
    i never make a sound, and neither can anything around me.
    i am heavenly, but not made of anything special.
    what am i?
    (noom eht)

    I have plenty of energy but can not run
    Every body is spinning around me put I can't move
    I make everything sizzle and sizzle
    I am not the biggest and not the smallest
    And I am hot but no one likes me
    And I am the survival of life
    So when I die you will too
    Who am I?
    (nus eht)

    I speak not for the sky,
    and not for the sea,
    nor for the palace of eternity.
    I speak for the land of withered stone,
    and for the lands where the cacti roam.
    I roll to the side to show my back,
    I slide left and right,
    to slither on home to an old rock stack.
    What am I?
    (redniwedis a)

    And here's one of mine:

    I  hit the road, ride the rails,
    or travel along the open trails.
    I've set up camp at Walking the Dog,
    but when May comes I'll leave this blog.
    (dnobagav a)

    Thursday, April 15, 2010

    Three for Thursday

    There was a package at my door when I got home tonight. For participating in the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Challenge in March, my name was drawn to receive the Carl Hiassen trio. The package was sent from Random House, Broadway, NY, NY, and contained hardback editions of Hoot, Flush, and Scat. My students love these books; they are consistent favorites on the independent reading log, and I know they will be hot items in the classroom library.

    Short attention span theater: my class is doing a series of mini-units. Last week we looked at humor, next it was a quick little fly by on why on earth a sane writer would ever bother with semicolons, colons, dashes, and ellipses, and we're rounding it out with riddle poems. Here's an example of the third:

    I am inside you,
    and I am underground.
    I am thrown and broken.
    I am a protector.
    If you see me, you will cry.

    (senob ruoy)

    Last night I woke up at 3:30. Unfortunately, that's not as uncommon as it was when I was younger. Usually, I fall back to sleep within thirty minutes or so, but not this time. I have a lot going on right now, but unlike other nights when I lay awake as one vagabond worry after another tightened its grip on my gut, I felt no anxiety. Neither could I sleep though, and my to-do list was indeed present, if not actively stressing me out. It was around 4:15 that I realized I had forgotten a promised birthday cake, and at 4:30, with no hope for sleep in sight, I rose to bake same. It's been a long day.

    Wednesday, April 14, 2010

    Weeding on Wednesday

    We spent the first weekday evening in our garden tonight. A few more weeds have been dispatched. Truth be told, it was lovely to be outside in the slanting sunlight prying and pulling and shaking dirt from roots, taking care to leave all the worms behind-- and there are lots of worms vagabonding all through the soil, which I hear is a good sign. As the air cooled, we worked and chatted about our day, and a little more dark brown earth emerged from beneath the low sagey canopy. It was a minor accomplishment, but with an unexpected bonus: the chance to spend some time together away from the distractions that often preoccupy us separately on an ordinary evening.

    Tuesday, April 13, 2010

    Tuesday With Tony

    The doorbell rang not too long ago, and, being the closest to it, I went to answer. The dog was busy chewing on a bone-- it's rainy here, and that is her replacement for an evening walk; we figure it's stimulating and good for her teeth-- so I alone opened the door with only a half-hearted bark to warn whoever was on the other side that we have a dog.

    There stood a well-scrubbed young man in a gaudy lime and white windbreaker over shirt and tie. No vagabond he: pressed slacks and that tell-tale salesman's smile completed the look, and he took a deep breath before plunging into his spiel. As with any kind of in-person marketer, tele- or door-to-door, if I wanted to avoid being rude, I had to patiently wait my turn to speak before I could politely turn him down. Riveted to my own welcome mat, I made a conscious choice to be present to this other human being and to do my best to listen to his story.

    He was from Charlotte where, according to him, jobs are tough to come by right now. In fact, the only thing he really misses is the cole slaw and pulled pork. His mama taught him some common courtesy, though, so before we continued, he introduced himself, asked my name, and held out his hand. I opened the screen door to shake Tony's hand, and after that we chattered amiably for a few minutes before Tony got down to business.  He was selling magazines in the hopes of opening his own barber shop, but if I had no interest in a subscription for myself, then I could send it to our troops in Afghanistan.

    Short of asking him to wait while I stepped inside to google his organization, I had to make a judgment call on the spot. The dog burfed from the living room; Tony smiled; I shrugged. So many questions ran through my mind. "Tony," I said, "I'm going to trust you. If this is a scam, then it's on you." I gave him thirty-five bucks and noted that he was courteous and professional on his customer satisfaction sheet. I hope they enjoy The Sporting News in Kandahar.

    Monday, April 12, 2010

    Make-do Monday

    I've noticed that Monday evening is very busy at my local grocers. Like me, many of my neighbors must put off that chore in favor of enjoying their weekend. I wonder if, like me, too, they consider the grocery store optional on most days. We almost always have enough food in the pantry, freezer, and fridge that in a pinch, or if I can't find parking in the tiny grocery store lot, I can make a decent meal from our home ingredients.

    Tonight, after one unsuccessful lap of the lot and a near collision with a vagabond shopping cart, it will be a chipotle-buttermilk corn chowder with tossed salad for dinner, and tomorrow Isabel will be forced to make do with no egg in her breakfast, and Heidi will have to have an apple instead of an orange for lunch. I think we'll be fine.

    Sunday, April 11, 2010

    Sunny Sunday

    That garden is going to take lot of work. In two and a half hours, we cleared maybe a quarter of it, found some chard and carrots, and became closely acquainted with ground ivy, creeping buttercup, and mugwort, pretty nice names for a bunch of invasive weeds. I also found loads of tiny acorns, each with a pale green filament extended hopefully into the soil. I was sorry to disappoint them, but I gave them a vagabond's chance to put down roots somewhere else, tossing them into the bags bound for the county mulch pile.

    Their source was a big oak tree about 20 feet south of the plot. We began to fall into its shadow at about 2 pm. The gardener next to us said that's a good thing; the afternoon shade will keep everything from searing in the heat come August. Sounds reasonable to me. It was hard to shake the feeling that we didn't really know what we were doing, mostly because we didn't, and although I was totally done-in at the end, the hoe and the rake didn't feel quite so foreign as I replaced them neatly in the shed.

    And then I came home and took a nap.

    Saturday, April 10, 2010

    Satisfying Saturday

    I had a good day today. I woke up at 7, an hour and a half later than usual. I did a little reading, made breakfast, and showered before heading out to the community garden. We were not disappointed there. The place was bustling-- it was the spring membership meeting and clean up day, and everyone walked about with purpose and cheer. Within thirty minutes we were the custodians of Plot 47. Vagabond weeds had set up camp on the abandoned 15 x 20 rectangle-- it was solid green-- but it also had a hose, a compost bin, a few tomato cages, a huge rosemary shrub, some scrawny leeks, and several plants of bolting kale. It's partially shaded and located in one of the four corners of the garden, adjacent to the fence that runs along the road I take to work. I'll be right there twice a day on weekdays. Dogs are welcome in the garden, but there's also a dog park right next door. It's all good, especially since we haven't lifted a finger, yet. We couldn't stay at the garden, because I had already made arrangements to go into school to do some packing and pitching. It took less than hour for me to fill a large rolling trash bin and a full sized recycling can, but my storage closet is packed up. Next we turned to my actual classroom. Seven boxes down in there, probably 50 to go. I'm optimistic. The day was still young, so we got the dog and headed for a nearby state park. Three and a half miles was just the right ramble through washes and woods on this cool spring afternoon. Next up a quiet evening at home, and tomorrow morning the gardening gloves go on.

    Friday, April 9, 2010

    Urban Farmer

    I like the place where we live. Sure, there are definitely times when I wish we had more room for guests, but there's space enough for the two of us and our pets. A few years ago we were shopping for something bigger: property values were high, our home equity was burning a hole in our pockets, and sub-prime mortgages were too easy to qualify for. But nothing we liked worked out, and after a few months of unsuccessful house hunting, we sat down and had a heart to heart. We decided that although this place is not perfect, anything more would be somewhat wasteful... the phrase "carbon footprint" actually came up.

    After making the conscious choice to stay here, we decided to spend some time and money on making this place as close to what we want as possible. We re-did our kitchen, and we have a budget for some other improvement projects. We've worked at using our storage space more efficiently, and we're engaged in a one day at a time struggle with materialism: there's a lot of junk that needs to go. Sadly, we still haven't resolved the dilemma of where to keep our bikes-- poor vagabonds, they spent the winter outside, but I am going to take them for maintenance and tune-ups next week.

    One thing we'll never be able to add to our townhouse-style condo is a garden. There is no outdoor space for growing much more than a few hostas and hydrangeas, plus I don't think the owners association would be too keen on what I have in mind. One of my interests is buying food as fresh and local as I can, and so I have it in my head that I'd like to grow herbs and vegetables and flowers and maybe even keep bees someday.

    Fortunately, our county has a number of community gardens; unfortunately, there is a long waiting list for one. I put my name on it two years ago, and I haven't heard a word since. Until today! This evening I received an email, not that I had actually gotten a plot yet, but that I might get one this season. I practically jumped for joy at the prospect. Spring is here and this could be good.

    Thursday, April 8, 2010


    We knew this day was coming. Our school has been undergoing renovation since the beginning of the year. This extensive project is being conducted in phases and requires teachers to completely pack up our classrooms and move to a "swing space" for 4-6 weeks. Our instructions are to separate our materials into what can go into storage and what we will need in our temporary space. Oh yes, and we have to teach, too. School doesn't get out around here for another eleven weeks.

    My team's area is phase four. Back in September we had high hopes that the construction would fall behind schedule and our move would coincide with the end of school. No such luck-- we found out today that our rooms must be empty two weeks from tomorrow. As the year has progressed, we have heard our colleagues in earlier phases complain about the inconvenience, the poor planning and communication, and the fact that we are expected to do most of this on our own time, without compensation.

    I have dreaded the day when I would have to pack everything up. I've been in my classroom sixteen years, longer than I've ever actually lived anywhere in my life. I have a lot of stuff, too-- mostly books, but plenty of other things I've collected over my teaching career as well. So, how surprised was I, as I sat in the meeting this afternoon going over the logistics of our move, to feel a little vagabond smile sneaking across my face?

    Turns out that I'm kind of excited to be forced to go through everything and pare way down, and being in another part of the building for a few weeks will be novel and fun. Plus the room I'm moving to is huge-- literally twice the size of the one I have now, and when I took a quick walk-through this afternoon, I could only see the possibilities.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010

    In My Expert Opinion

    Last Friday was the deadline for the online adolescent development course that I've been presenting; all participants were supposed to have their work in by then. In my mind, it was a flexible deadline, more along the lines of a vagabond's ETA, but everyone who planned to complete the course met it. Teachers! Sheesh.

    So, I've been working my way through the assignments that have been submitted. It's a pass/fail course for re-certification points, and credit relies primarily on completion of the required assignments, but even so, I feel that everyone should get some feedback on their work, so that's what I've been doing.

    This afternoon I looked at one of the final projects. It was a two page paper arguing against K-8 schools. I read it with interest, especially because I have the opposite opinion. It was well-reasoned enough, but ultimately I was unconvinced. Based primarily on the author's fifteen years of experience as a middle school counselor, near the end she cited a source. I did a bit of a double take when I saw that this expert and I had the same last name. Wow, I wonder who that is? I thought. I'll definitely have to read that article. Upon finishing the essay, I glanced eagerly to the bibliography.

    Her source?

    Was me.

    She was citing the slide show that I authored which was the text for one of the units in the course.

    I laughed out loud. Believe me, I AM an expert... in my own mind. At first, it was cool to have some independent confirmation of that, no matter how small. But then... I realized that she used my work to support an opinion I disagree with.

    Hey! Is that even allowed?

    Tuesday, April 6, 2010

    Rear View

    Last week I smashed the hell out of the side view mirror on my new car. Regular readers will be relieved to know that it was the same mirror I damaged the first week I owned it, AND that I hadn't had it repaired yet. That first accident destroyed the trim on the mirror, and it looked a lot worse than it was-- the mirror itself was never non-functional, and once I popped a few pieces back in place, it wasn't even that noticeable.

    My second go at destroying it was much more effective. I heard a sickening crunch of plastic and glass as I backed down my sister's narrow driveway, just a little too close to the gate on the right. The mirror was shattered into at least twenty different fragments, and I was sooo mad at myself for not being more careful. The fact that it already needed fixing was only lukewarm comfort.

    Unlike the vagabond only concerned with the road ahead, I worried about making the 600 mile trip home without that rear view, but I did my best with what I had: I adjusted the other two mirrors and hit the road. Fortunately, we arrived without any problem, and the repair is scheduled for tomorrow.

    The other day I realized the strangest thing, though. When I looked at that mirror out of habit, I could clearly see what was behind me. Somehow, my brain filtered those twenty disparate perspectives into one, usable image. In amazement, I even used the switch to fine tune the view.

    What a marvel of adaptation the human brain is! Or is it? Because, quite frankly, objects in the mirror are still a lot closer than they appear.

    Monday, April 5, 2010

    Look at the Bright Side

    Today was our first day back from Spring Break and contrary to expectations, I invited students to tell the class something awful that happened over the vacation.

    Oh my... there was certainly no shortage of misfortune: they recounted all sorts of  falls and scrapes and bangs and bruises; there were tales of long car rides with unruly siblings, games lost at the last minute, vagabond pets, cousins who wouldn't leave, sightseeing in the pouring rain, parents who forced their children out of bed for all manner of sunrise services, grandparents who insisted that reading at the table was rude, and television shows that simply disappointed.

    Fortunately, those were the worst of it, and after all that, they couldn't very well complain about being back at school, could they?

    Sunday, April 4, 2010

    Hooked on the Book

    Sometimes when I finish a book I become a little obsessed with it. That's what's happened to me and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. As I type, I'm listening to an archived radio interview with Zusak from 2006, and he is reading an excerpt from the book. I have goosebumps.

    Yesterday, I looked up the Geneva Conventions and laws governing civilian targets during war; next I found a hamlet named Olching (but not Molching) on the Amper river, outside of Munich, near Dachau. I learned that 22 civilians were killed there in a stray Allied bombing near the end of the World War II. On another website, I saw postcards of the town-- images that span the 20th century. So that's what it looked like, I thought. Or did it? Zusack's description is never very literal.

    Last night, I paused the television show we were watching right in the middle. "I want to talk about The Book Thief," I said, and so we did: About how the reader comes to love the characters not in spite of their flaws, but because of them. About how although you know you will lose them by the end of the novel, you love them anyway. About how this book addresses the questions of why German citizens did not do more to oppose Hitler and the Nazi party-- in this way, it stands out against other WWII literature, especially for kids.

    But what haunts me most about The Book Thief, even as humans haunt Death within its pages, is the figurative language. The colors, the smells, the words, the narrator himself-- from the first page I was a vagabond aboard an express train, dusty and sweet. There was no stopping until we got to the end of the line.

    Saturday, April 3, 2010

    Sometimes, Focus Eludes Me

    I think the convention of nicknaming something by taking the first couple of letters of each part of its proper name-- think SoHo-- is wicked cool. It was definitely part of the appeal of NaNoWriMo for me.

    Right now, we're listening to the audiobook version of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This wonderful work of non-fiction tells a really good story and also raises a lot of important ethical questions about poverty, race, and medical research.  The famous immortal cells that were cultured without the title character's knowledge or permission are known world-wide as HeLa. As compelling as the book is, as we listen, my vagabond brain starts nicknaming all of her family members, too-- amused most by one of her sons, LaLa, and her youngest daughter, DeLa. I nickname myself, too, TraShe, but I am dissatisfied because it sounds like nothing more than a slurred rendition of my first name, so I think of my friends, MaBro, LeMc, and ElSmi, and my colleagues, LaBa, MeCo, KiMi, and AlPa.

    Next, I wonder if we should refer to my school as ThoJeMiScho... You have to admit-- it does have a certain Zen ring to it.

    Friday, April 2, 2010

    It's a Lifestyle Choice

    Vagabond sparks fly through the gathering dark, brilliant yellow on deep violet, and I know the coals will be hot enough to cook on in 20 minutes. Everything else is ready; this is my chance to steal some time to write. Today, I have been thinking about hobos. I had a conversation with friends last night about the resurgence in popularity that this term has enjoyed over the last few years. It is the name of choice among middle schoolers for anyone who appears to be living on the streets.

    I remember when I first heard a student use the word five or six years ago. It made all the other kids laugh as if he had said something naughty, and it caught me by surprise, probably because I hadn't heard it since I was in middle school myself. Then, "hobo" was a choice Halloween get-up, requiring not much more than a pair of torn pants, one of your dad's old jackets, and a burnt cork rubbed liberally around your face.  If you wanted to go all out, you could tuck a pillow in your over-sized shirt and smash a battered hat on you head, but those were totally optional. And what of that bandanna on a stick? It was widely agreed that the hobo bag, while a nice touch, made it much harder to carry your trick-or-treat bag, (and after all, we were there for the candy) so most of those were left at home.

    No doubt I scolded that child back then, probably more because of the way his peers reacted than anything else, but the term also seemed inappropriate to me. Over the years, its shock value has declined, and it's use is not much of an issue anymore, other than the fact that it's what kids usually say when referring to vagrants, and sadly, I'm pretty sure it's the people and not the name that they laugh at, but that's another blog post.

    Last night, my friends and I decided that hobo was too romantic a word to describe the situation of the folks around here who are homeless and on the street, and so not entirely accurate. Turns out that we were right. In the limited research I did today, I found that "hobo" refers specifically to people who choose to travel, usually by rail, and then look for work where ever they might land. There are rules for being a hobo, and they even have an annual convention, I kid you not. Hobos do not appreciate being confused with tramps (who travel but do not work) or bums (who neither travel nor work), and unlike most of the people my students refer to, hobos are not necessarily down on their luck.

    I think there's a lesson there.

    Thursday, April 1, 2010

    Ah, Springtime

    All my life I've preferred cool weather; there must be something in my temperament that makes it so. Therefore, the change of seasons from winter to spring, while welcome to so many others, makes me a little uneasy. At the other end of the year, when the days turn cooler, I like to bundle up in flannel and fleece, but the opposite is not so. Clothes that were so familiar when last the weather was warm enough to wear them seem a little scanty and fit a bit awkwardly, and the unaccustomed sight of my bare legs startles. Who let them out? I wonder. Summer is on her way, and what exactly is there to look forward to? Long days of eggish sun and unrelenting heat, where cool breezes are nothing more than vagabonds waiting to hop the next jet stream north leaving us to fan ourselves, sweating in our swampy southern clime.