Category Archives: teachers

The leader of the children of the damned

Through most of my teen years, I was a fairly quiet, bullied kid.

Except for the time I bullied someone myself.

And, because I have always been a go-big-or-go-home person, I didn’t choose a kid to bully. Oh, no, not me.

I chose a TEACHER.

Mr. P was fresh out of teachers’ college when he showed up in our seventh grade classroom. He looked like a J. Crew model. He was all preppy cashmere sweaters and perfectly blowdried blonde hair and way too many very-white teeth. He laughed heartily. He had pink cheeks and sparkly eyes.

Immediately, my class decided they must destroy him.

Why we came to this decision, I’m not sure. We were a small school in a farm town. Did he represent the other, and we feared that? Was he too gung-ho? Was he trying too hard? Was he just TOO DAMN BLONDE?

I’m not sure why the rest of the class didn’t like him, but my dislike of him was twofold.

First, historically, teachers had been my only safe place. Especially English teachers. They praised my writing and they called on me when no one else would answer their questions because they knew I’d done the reading (hell, I’d probably finished the book on the first day) and they were kind when the kids weren’t.

Mr. P. wasn’t. For whatever reason, he had no time to be kind to the quiet, bullied kid. He graded me more harshly than I thought I deserved (whether or not I was right, I’m not sure – I was twelve, what the hell did I know) and snapped at me quite often in class. He also forced me to participate in things that other teachers would let slide – things where I had to talk in front of the class. Which was my biggest fear. And when I asked him, as I always did, if there was a way I could get around such a thing, he SNEERED at me.

This didn’t fly with the shy, but snotty about her intelligence, kid that I was.

The second reason was a lot more selfish.

All of the other kids were doing it. Dammit, I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be cool SO BADLY. Even though I knew, on some level, I never would be, this seemed like a way to be cool.

It was hard to be cool when you were the school's Napoleon Dynamite, yo.

It was hard to be cool when you were the school’s Napoleon Dynamite, yo.

So I led the class in a campaign of terror against Mr. P.

See, I was quiet, and I was shy…but I was smart as hell. And I read. A lot. I had ideas about how to be cruel to people that the other kids hadn’t even THOUGHT of. (Mostly because they’d taught them to me by being cruel to me all those years.)

Things we did to Mr. P. over the two years we tormented him, that I can remember:

  • all brought apples back from lunch and, one at a time, loudly rolled them up the aisles at his desk when his back was turned and pretended we didn’t know where they came from
  • he brought in an “heirloom mug” to teach us the meaning of the word heirloom (I’m pretty sure seventh graders don’t need an object lesson for such a thing) and one of my classmates broke it (this was NOT on me, I’d just like to make that clear, but I did laugh along with everyone else)
  • we refused to answer any questions in class, raise our hands, etc., until he instituted “participation points” and we were FORCED to, but then we’d answer briefly and in snotty tones
  • we had a class spelling bee, and he was SO EXCITED, and I knew I could win, but just didn’t give a shit, so when it was down to me and another kid I refused to continue spelling and he was all “BUT THE PRIZE IS A CANDY BAR!” all sad-eyed and I laughed like he’d offered me a mudpie and said “you can’t do better than that?” and sat down
  • and, our coup de grace, another student and I took the musical thingy out of a musical birthday card and hid it under his desk, so there was this tinny “happy birthday” music playing all day, and he was all “WHAT IS THAT MUSIC” and everyone pretended they couldn’t hear it and we walked past on a free period and saw that he’d torn all the drawers out of his desk and was sitting in his chair and he was CRYING.

After that, it wasn’t as much fun anymore. I mean, seriously, we made this guy CRY. We BROKE an ADULT.

The worst part, though (I KNOW, there’s a WORSE THING) was that he’d started a junior-high drama club. He actually got me into acting. I should be thanking the poor guy for this, you know? So in seventh grade, we did Heidi. I was Heidi’s bitchy aunt. I sprained my ankle so badly the day before the show I couldn’t perform and my understudy had to go on for me and I was HEARTBROKEN.

In eighth grade, we did The Diary of Anne Frank (I know, this guy was really optimistic about our talent – well, until we got through with him) and I was Anne’s mother. (Yes, I always got cast in the parent roles, or the bitchy roles. I apparently have always looked old and always read bitchy.) In news of ZOMG, my crush was in the play, too (but I didn’t know at the time he was only in the show because HIS crush was playing his wife. Sigh.) At this point, we had bullied Mr. P. to a point of constant nerves. He was no longer cashmere sweaters and perfect hair; he was more often greasy and sweaty, he’d grown a weird, patchy beard, and he had this constant thousand-yard stare.

I’m not sure what, exactly, happened, the night he had the nervous breakdown. We were acting jerky, I’m sure…but keep in mind we were 13- and 14-year-olds. That’s how those kids act, usually. They’re bundles of hormones and jackassery.

I just remember him screaming “THIS PLAY IS CANCELLED!” and it was an hour before the afterschool bus was coming, and he stormed out of the auditorium, and we kind of whispered and then crept out into the lobby to use the pay phone to call our parents to see if they could pick us up early and he was sitting in the lobby, looking furiously through a phone book and rocking.

“What are you doing, Mr. P.?” one of the kids asked him.

“I AM LOOKING FOR BICYCLE STORES,” he said. “I’m going to RIDE a BIKE across the COUNTRY and eat nothing but BEANS for the rest of my LIFE.”

The kids we were thought this was HYSTERICAL. The woman I am now is HORRIFIED. (Seriously, though, we were kids. The word “beans” made us think of “farts” and “farts” was SO FUNNY. Come on, it still kind of is.)

This was near the end of the school year. He did finish out the school year, but the play didn’t happen, and he didn’t come back the following year (his tormentors – us – had moved onto high school at that point, so he’d have probably been safe, but I can’t blame him that he wanted nothing more to do with my school.)

I seriously think back on this time and cringe.

I was TERRIBLE. I wasn’t the only one – we were all little sharks who had scented blood – but a lot of these things wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t said “hey, why don’t we try…” because THOSE KIDS WOULD NOT HAVE THOUGHT OF THEM. I had no empathy for this poor man, who was new in town, new to his job, and probably trying really hard. And who knows why he was (what I perceived to be) dickish to me? Maybe he was trying to get me to work harder; maybe he wanted me to be able to talk in front of people, and thought this was the best way to go about it. Who knows.

I know. I was twelve, and I was a lonely bullied kid. I did a lot of things that were, in retrospect, not good choices. (I also made some brave choices, but the bad ones probably equaled those out.) But this poor guy, sincerely. And he talked me into acting! Which changed the whole course of my life! And my actions (well, mine and others, but I totally egged those other kids on) MADE THE MAN QUIT TEACHING!

I still feel terrible about this. I’ve totally tried to find him on Facebook and on Google and I cannot. I sadly imagine he is still riding solo across the country on his bike, subsisting on nothing but legumes, like a Forrest Gump without a Jenny to come home to. He’s probably about 50 now. Still pedaling. Trying to escape the mean kids and the tinkling “happy birthday” that won’t leave him alone and just…won’t…stop.

Mr. P., it’s too late, and it won’t fix anything now, but I am very, very sorry for the time I decided the best way to deal with an adult was to bully him into a nervous breakdown and to make him quit his job. As an adult now, I know how mean children can be, and I sincerely cringe at that child I used to be. You have no reason to forgive me (and I am quite sure you’re probably never going to read this – what are the odds, right?) but I do hope you’re well, and you found your happiness somewhere, and you were able to forget about those two terrible years in the late 80s when the children of the damned of upstate New York used you as a punching bag.

(I promise I’m doing penance for this on the regular, now. I’m nice to old people AND animals AND children and one time I found a lost kid in the Target and totally brought him up to the customer service desk so he wasn’t stolen by a pervert and his dad tried to give me money and cried. I REALLY AM TRYING TO MAKE UP FOR MY PAST TRANSGRESSIONS.)


The Lighting of a Fire

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” –William Butler Yeats

As you are all undoubtedly aware, I love English. And words. And language. And grammar. And all things related to such. Not just English, either. I love other languages equally as much. Yesterday, Andreas taught me the word Jötunn, which means a Scandinavian troll. HOW AWESOME IS THAT. The most awesome, is how. (Per Andreas, it is “the origin of the word giant – jätte in Swedish.” You all only WISH you had a friend as awesome as Andreas who knows about not ONLY science but ALSO geekily kickass foreign words with umlauts! Oh, how mouth-watering, a well-placed umlaut! I SWOON FOR YOU, UMLAUTS!)

I’m reading a book right now, which we will soon be discussing over at Insatiable Booksluts (OH! HEY! By the way, are you reading/following/obsessing over Insatiable Booksluts? Because you should be. It’s awesome, and me writing for them is only a teeny portion of that awesomeness. It’s all things that are amazing in the world of books and publishing and related things on a well-written, intelligent, humorous blog. So go, go go. Follow. Read. You’ll love it. I promise. I mean, I’d promise you your money back? But no money is expended, so that’d be an empty promise. Also, I have no money to give. THIS WELL IS DRY) so I don’t want to spoil that or anything, but anyway, this book has some of the most gorgeous phrasing I’ve come across since I read Swamplandia! last year. It’s got some sentences that I read, then I re-read, aloud, to myself, two or three times, just to hear them in the air, and to taste them in my mouth, it’s that well-written. I’m that much of a fan of the beauty of language, and the power of language. I want to be MOVED by words. I want to weep when reading, or become enraged, or laugh out loud. I don’t want it to be a passive experience; I want to be engulfed, I want to burn with the words on the page. I want to be swept away, I want to drown.

I was lucky enough to have parents who believed very strongly in books and reading, and instilled that love in me from an early age. My mother read to me until I was old enough to take that duty on myself (much to both her glee and chagrin, that happened earlier than expected – glee because who wouldn’t be proud of a child reading to herself at three? But chagrin because that three-year-old was all, “DO IT MYSELF!” and she became irrelevant in the world of book-reading.) I’ve talked about this here before. My father, not a big reader, read to me when she was unavailable, and taught me the value of making books fun, of using voices and gestures and facial expressions when reading to make the experience richer and more fulfilling for a child. So really, my dad was my first well-narrated audiobook, I suppose. I remember reading to my younger brother, making him laugh until my mother would beg me to stop because he was getting red in the face with giggles and having trouble catching his breath.

All of this to say, I’ve always been a reader. Once I learned how to laboriously print my name, then the intricacies and beautiful loops and whorls of cursive, I became a writer as well. Maybe not the kind of writer who gets published (or, at least often), but there haven’t been many times in my life that I haven’t been writing SOMETHING. Short stories. Unfinished (and, horrible) novels. Poetry. Diaries upon tortured diaries. Long letters to friends in far-flung locales. Plays. Emails that take up pages and pages. And, obviously, more recently, blogs and tweets and (non-emo, thank you very much) Facebook statuses. And I’ve never been happier. Do I think my words are moving people to tears? Not often, probably. But they seem to be making people laugh, most days. And that makes me (to quote The Bloggess) FURIOUSLY HAPPY.

So yesterday, All Over Albany (one of my favorite local blogs, and my favorite local news/happenings blog) posted this. And because it was from them, and because it had the word “poetry” in the title, and because it was grammatically incorrect (but in quotes, so obviously not All Over Albany’s grammatical inaccuracy), I of COURSE had to click through to the article and read what was happening.

Oh, ouch. OUCH MY BRAIN. On so many ouchy levels.

So for those of you who are not aware of how the New York State educational system is set up, I’ll give you a quick crash-course. As a junior-high/high school student, you can follow a Regents track, and I believe there’s also a BOCES/VOTECH track, where you attend BOCES and vocational technology classes off-campus (my mother works in a building where these students attend classes so I believe this is still occurring as it did when I was a student.) (When I was in school, there was a non-Regents option. This has been phased out.) (There are a lot of parenthetical asides in this paragraph. Hee.) Regents are exams given at the end of the year (or, in some cases, I think after a semester – I feel like our government Regents was only a semester-long course? I may be misremembering this, though, and now that I think of it, did we even HAVE a government Regents? It says there’s one now, but I don’t remember if there was one then. Man, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been a student!) in a variety of subjects – 3 separate math exams (Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry), 4 separate science exams (Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics), 2 separate Social Studies exams (global history/geography and US history/government) and an English exam. If you are a New York State student who passes the exams, you graduate with a Regents diploma (or, maybe since they changed it, it’s just a “diploma,” since everyone takes the exams now? Not sure about that, honestly.) If you graduate with high enough grades on them, you can get a Regents diploma with honors. (I’m not going to braaaag, or anything, but…yeah, that’s what I got. SHUT UP YOU KNEW I WAS A SUPERSTAR.)

If you want to know more (you probably don’t, it’s not all that interesting, I don’t think, to anyone but a New Yorker, or maybe people who get off on testing) here’s the Wikipedia page. It seems fairly accurate.

The exams weren’t easy, but I’m one of those annoying bitches who tests well (no, seriously, there really are people like this, we seem to have a sixth sense for what’s being asked for in test questions. I know. It’s annoying to others. Sorry), so I breezed them all but Algebra, Chem, Physics and Earth Science, which were my worst four subjects in school. Well, and Phys Ed, but you (THANK YOU ALL THE HEAVENS ABOVE) didn’t have to take a Phys Ed Regents exam. You can also re-take the exams as many times as you want to get your grade up, so I re-took three of those tests, and aced them the second time around. I did NOT retake Physics, because I had graduated high school at that point, already had my diploma, and wanted to hang out with my skeevy emo lead-singer-in-a-band skaterat boyfriend more than I wanted to study for an exam that had no bearing on my life, since I’d been accepted early into the college of my choice. Yep. Never looked back. Hated Physics. HAAAAATED IT.

Now, in that article from the New York Times I referenced like a million years  ago above, which I know you’re not clicking because a., you like me to recap shit for you, and I’m happy to do so, and b., you hate clicking on things, it’s like a phobia with you people, it talks about how the standards for the English Regents in New York State have fallen. OH HOW THEY HAVE FALLEN.

Teachers (again, I remember this from AGO, so correct me if I’m wrong) can make a little (WAY LITTLE, don’t even get me started on how much teachers get paid, don’t even) extra money if they sign up to score Regents exams. They’re given a sample scoring booklet. There’s a short-answer section on the English Regents (supposed to be a paragraph long) where the score is zero or one. According to the article, the following comes from a paragraph that would score a one, therefore the FULL POINT LEVEL, for one of these sections:

These two Charater have very different mind Sets because they are creative in away that no one would imagen just put clay together and using leaves to create Art.

Now, you do have to hand-write the exams, so yes, kids today are used to spell-check, I get that, even me, Queen of Spelling Bees (oh, I SO have to tell you all about my reign as the Queen of Upstate New York Spelling Bees someday), relies on spell-check a little more than I should, and even then, spells things wrong now and again, I AM NOT INFALLIBLE I AM NOT THE POPE. But reading this makes me think of the mythic “automatic 200 points” you were supposed to get if you put your name on top of the S.A.T. I mean, I guess, since the kid wrote SOMETHING, and it’s not GIBBERISH, and your choices in scoring are ALL THE POINTS or NO POINTS, you’d give him all, rather than none? But oh, my. Random capitalization! “imagen” and “charater” and “in away!” Run-on sentences!

(Please bear in mind that when you take this test, you are at the end of your junior year in high school. So you are between sixteen and seventeen years old. Not 12, as this sample might imply.)

According to the article, since the change where there is no longer a non-Regents track option, and all students must pass the Regents to graduate, the Regents board had one of three options: leave the tests difficult, leave the scoring as-is, and risk failing a lot of students; “dumb-down” the tests; or “dumb-down” the scoring. They seem to have gone for the third option. Scoring seems to be a very “just show up, Sally and Brian, and we’ll do our best by you” situation. And this is so, so sad to me. And it is failing our students. No, not “failing” them in a “you fail, repeat senior year” way; failing them in a “here, go forth unto the world without knowing how to write, spell, or think critically” way.

This one was my favorite. This was, according to the scoring booklet, supposed to get full marks on the long-form essay – four points. The assignment was to analyze Goethe’s quote “No two persons regard the world in exactly the same way.”

In life, “no two people regard the world in exactly the same way,” as J. W. von Goethe says. Everyone sees and reacts to things in different ways. Even though they may see the world in similar ways, no two people’s views will ever be exactly the same. This statement is true since everyone sees things through different viewpoints. 

ZOMG you guys. TOTAL FUTURE POLITICIAN. Every one of the sentences IS SAYING THE SAME THING. Just re-worded. Actually, I might be tempted to give this kid full marks for bullshittery. His grammar and spelling are perfect, though, I have to say. But the content in this? There is none. He (or it could be a she, don’t mean to be sexist) didn’t fulfill the assignment. I have no idea what the kid thinks of this quote. Because the kid just rephrased the quote FOUR TIMES. Brilliant way to get around doing any thinking, though. Gold stars for that.

And then there’s this, from the article: “Sad to say, during the Bloomberg administration, little if any progress has been made, if test results are to be believed. In 2003, 52.5 percent of fourth graders were proficient in English, compared with 51 percent in 2011. In 2003, 32.6 percent of eighth graders were proficient, compared with 35 percent today.”

Yes, I know test results are to be taken with a grain of salt. I know. And I know test results often don’t represent how much a child actually knows, and that some people test poorly, and on and on and on. But 35% of our eighth graders are proficient in English? THIRTY-FIVE PERCENT?

Here’s the thing. They don’t get any JOY out of language. They see English as I see Physics – a joyless soul-suck. And even I got some joy out of Physics – seeing how and why things worked the way they did was kind of cool, even though I couldn’t totally wrap my mind around it.

What’s the fix? Shit, I don’t know. I’m not an educational reformer. I just know that something’s terribly broken.

I have some ideas. They’re not fixes. Just ideas.

We need to bring the joy of language back to our students. We need to make it fun and cool again. We need to show them the worlds that books can open up for them and the magic in those worlds and the escape hatches contained therein. We need to show them the utter awe of having the exact right word available when needed. We need to teach critical thinking and debate skills. We need to show them the humor innate in any language, because you know what makes kids want to learn? HAVING FUN WITH IT. We need to drill the rules of grammar into their heads like we drill the multiplication tables in there, because they’re equally important. We need to cultivate a nation of children who will grow into a nation of adults who are proficient in the language they speak and write. Is this so hard? Is this so difficult to achieve? Obviously, it is. Why?

English teachers were some of my favorites, over the years. Because they, for the most part, absolutely dig what they do. They understood how a beautiful poem could burst in your mouth like a ripe fruit. They understood how a good short story took hold of you and shook you until you were limp when you closed the book. They loved when the students got something, really GOT something, when their little sponge-like minds soaked up knowledge and put it all together and were able to connect the dots.

What’s the fix? I don’t know. I couldn’t begin to tell you. But I’m despairing a little today. As someone who loves language as much as I do, who sees it as a constant companion and guide and friend? I’m despairing for the youth of America. They’re bereft, and this is a sad state of affairs. We’re failing them. There has to be a fix for this.


Fifty-five percent

Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,  
The lady of situations.

Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,  
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,  
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,  
Which I am forbidden to see.  I do not find  
The Hanged Man.  Fear death by water.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

One of the great ironies in my life is how much I love water, and, yet, how very afraid I am of it. I can’t swim, you see. I can float on my back, if I concentrate very, very hard. I can also do a very flailing doggy paddle that sort of gets me from one place to another. I can also do the survival float, which is something you learn in case you are ever dropped out a boat and are unable to swim yourself to safety. I put everything I had into that task because I can’t swim, and I knew, I just knew, that someday this would happen to me and the difference between me pulling an Ophelia and lasting long enough to be pulled from the water would be my ability to survival float until help came. 

(Slightly off-topic, but that movie Open Water? KILLED ME. Not so much for the sharks. I mean, yeah, the sharks were bad. But the water! All that water! And having to stay afloat in it for all of that time! I started hyperventilating about half an hour in and didn’t stop until it was over. And it wasn’t a happy ending, either. THANKS, MOVIE.) 

They say the average adult human female is 55% water. That’s more than half. So a person, you’d think, would float, on their own, wouldn’t they? I mean, that’s just science, right? 

In third grade, we started swimming classes. Our school was one of the lucky ones with a pool, and they started us early. Once a week, instead of gym class, you had swimming class. Now, this is not a problem, when you are in third grade. However, once puberty hits (and is kinder to some than others), imagine having to be in your swimming gear in front of your peers. You have no baggy clothes to hide behind. Your perfectly poufed 80’s Aqua-Net helmet of hair is ruined for the day. You stink of chlorine (and your eyes burn, because the levels of chlorine were off-the-charts in that goddamn thing.) And, if you’re me, you can’t see anything, because you have the vision, without your glasses, of a 90-year-old, pre-cataract surgery. 

It didn’t take the gym teacher long to realize I was not going to be a star student. She gave us all swimming aptitude tests, and, based on how well you did, you were sorted into groups – Beginners, Advanced Beginners, Intermediates, and Advanced. I could not make it across the pool, short-ways, with a kickboard. I was put in the Beginners group. The Beginners group was, at first, a decent-sized one. We stayed in the shallow end, and, basically, our tasks involved learning to swim without the kickboard. 

This wasn’t really an option for me, because I refused to take my hands off the edge of the pool. It was only four feet deep, but I knew about riptides. I just knew if I took one single step away from the edge, I would get sucked into the deep end, and that would be the end for me. I also refused to get my face wet, because every time I did, I ended up inhaling water and coughing like a patient in the lung cancer ward.  

Now, as an adult, I can look back on this in two ways: one, I was being a gigantic baby, and two, I think I was having a panic attack. The baby thing – yeah, I was. I totally was. I was scared, I refused to try anything new, even when the teacher promised me I’d be safe, and I just stood there and dug my feet in at the edge and wouldn’t move. The other kids just hated me. I held up lessons with my tantrums. So yeah, I was a little douche. But two – I was genuinely petrified. To the point of vomiting before swimming class, it scared me so badly. I would shake the minute I walked into the pool hallway. My stomach still clenches up now when I smell chlorine in an enclosed space. So I’m going to say it was about 60/40 – 60% genuine, balls-to-the-wall panic-induced stress disorder of some sort, and 40% general childhood douchery. 

(Also, it bears noting that I am stubborn. Insanely so. If I don’t want to do something, and I can find a way to NOT do the something, I will not do it. I just grit my teeth and refuse. I am a two-year-old having a hissy fit, even now, when I am not wanting to do something. So getting me to let go of the tiled edge of that pool of death was not happening.) 

The gym teacher – it was a small school, and she was our teacher from elementary school to senior year – never 100% gave up on me, although she did, after a while, realize I wasn’t ever going to win any swimming competitions. There was a day when we all had to jump in the deep end. Just jump in. We didn’t have to swim anywhere. I don’t know what this was supposed to teach us, or prove. But when it got to my turn, I just stood there, frozen, until she finally told me, gently, I could sit this one out. I gave her a bit of a hard time, back in the day, but all in all, she wasn’t a bad person. And, as mentioned, I was guilty of douchery. I can’t deny that. 

By freshman year of high school, the Beginners class was down to me, a transfer student who probably weighed 90 pounds soaking wet (no pun intended) and was also as blind as I was without his glasses, and one of the special-needs students who came to class with us. No one else even used the shallow end. They were my brethren, those two. We would grip the wall and hold on for dear life and watch the clock tick off the minutes until we could get out of the water and have another six days until we had to do it all over again. I don’t think we talked much. Once and a while, one of us would halfheartedly try something with the kickboard, then look sadly at one another, sigh, and go back to gripping the wall. 

One day, the gym teacher was absent, and we had a substitute. She was robust. She was young, energetic, and she took no guff. She told us, immediately upon entering the pool, that we’d be diving off the diving board that day. My two comrades-at-arms and I went to the shallow end to hang out while everyone did this and she screamed, “Where are YOU THREE GOING?” 

By “we’ll be diving off the diving board today,” she meant we would ALL be jumping off the diving board today. Not just the Advanced Beginners on up; all of us. Including myself and the other two guys who couldn’t swim. 

Kids started diving, having the time of their lives, because we weren’t ALLOWED to use the board. That board was for the SWIM TEAM. This was exciting! And forbidden! I kept moving to the back of the line. Maybe we’d run out of time before it got to my turn. Maybe something would happen. Someone could drown; it happened all the time on the nightly news. Maybe there would be a fire drill. Something could happen. The powers that be intervened, sometimes, right? That happened, right? 

Then, my turn. No one left but me. Somehow, the other two kids in the Beginners had already gone (or maybe passed out and been carted off; I wasn’t paying much attention to anything but my own over-loud heartbeat at that point.) The other students, standing around the edge of the pool, all leggy and lovely, started talking amongst themselves in hushed tones. They didn’t like me much, but they were well aware that I DID NOT SWIM. I mean, how could they not be? We’d been in the same swimming classes for almost a decade. 

“Well?” Sub said, bright eyed and avid. 

“I don’t swim,” I said. I was starting to shake. I couldn’t even get myself to climb the ladder. 

“Everyone swims. Get up there.” I didn’t move. “Class, look at this! She’s too scared to climb the ladder! Come on, baby, everyone can swim!” 

I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I stood at the base of the ladder, petrified, frozen, my eyes closed, wishing for the earth to open up, for something to happen. The regular gym teacher would not have allowed this. This was – this had to be illegal, right? For an adult to do this? In front of everyone? To not only force me to jump to my death, but to mock me? 

One of the popular kids piped up. “Um, she doesn’t? Swim, I mean? She can’t. She can’t even swim without a kickboard. She doesn’t even go in the deep end.” 

Sub rolled her eyes. “Fine.  Jump in from the edge, then.” 

I moved the few steps to the edge, but couldn’t make myself jump. I couldn’t. The water was too deep. I would sink. I would sink and drown. In this stinking, chlorinated, peer-pressure hell. 

She walked over, briskly. “You won’t jump in?” 

I shook my head no. The other children were, at this point, embarrassed for me. Which is possibly worse than being made fun of. 

“This is nonsense. You can swim. Everyone else jumped in. A big girl like you, acting like a baby.” 

Sub then, cocking her arms back, planted them in the center of my shoulderblades and shoved me into the deep end of the pool. 

I sank. Like a stone. When I finally bobbed to the surface, I could hear screaming, the other kids around the edge of the pool. I gasped for breath and went back under almost immediately. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to fix this. I was flailing and splashing and aware enough to be thinking, rationally, so this, this is what it’s like to drown. I didn’t think it would be so bright. I didn’t think it would be so loud.

The next time I surfaced, something smashed me where my neck meets my shoulder. Bright electric pain shot up into my head and down my arm. I grabbed at whatever it was. They say people who are drowning will pull you down; they will. I can attest to that. Because I pulled Sub, who was attempting to save me with the aluminum pole used for that purpose (and doing a bang-up job of almost knocking me unconscious with it) right into the pool with me. I bear-hugged her. I wrapped myself around her like an anaconda. If I was going down, goddammit, this bitch was going down with me. 

She somehow managed to haul me to the edge and get me out, where I sat, dripping, gasping, crying. She shook water off of herself, glaring at me, at her ruined clothing. 

“You should have told me you couldn’t swim,” she hissed. “Get up and get changed. You’re done here.” 

She didn’t come back. That was the last time she subbed for us. I don’t know if she was fired, or if she quit. I didn’t report her. The grapevine in a school is vicious; I’m sure the word got around what she’d done. Times were different then. Now she’d probably end up in jail on assault charges. Then, teachers were afforded a little more leeway. I just know she didn’t come back, and that our regular teacher never made me go in the deep end again. And that, surprisingly, to their credit, the other students didn’t mock me. I guess my near-death experience had saved me from that. 
I think back about this sometimes. I think, this couldn’t have happened like this. I do tend to put a spin on events; maybe I made it up and it didn’t happen at all? Maybe I fell in? Maybe she bumped me by accident? Memory is a funny thing, and I’ll never be accused of being a completely reliable narrator. All I can say is, this is how I remember it went down. This is what I remember happened to me. If it didn’t happen this way, blame my brain; lack of oxygen can play funny tricks, sometimes. If my body is 55% water, is my memory only 55% accurate?

I still don’t swim. I love the water, though. I love the ocean; I love lakes, rivers, mud puddles.  I’ll even get into the water, sometimes, but I won’t go over my head. Why court disaster? I walked away from it once. I can’t imagine I’ll be as lucky the second time.

There Once Was a Girl From Nantucket…(no, this isn’t going where you think it is)

When I arrived at college, I had grand plans. I was going to be a doctor! I was going to save the world! I’d done very well in high school math and science, so college would be a breeze!

In about a month, I realized the following things:

1.   Having friends means having a social life. Having a social life means less time to study (and, in my case, even go to classes, because daylight hours were prime sleeping time.)

2.   High school math and science weren’t difficult. College math and science were being taught in Swahili.

3.   I didn’t enjoy math and science courses half as much as my humanities courses, and if I continued on in my planned career path, I would end up being in school for approximately twelve years doing something I didn’t care that much for.

When it came time to declare my major, I chose theater and creative writing. Because if you want two completely marketable skills, those are the ones to choose!

My concentration in creative writing was poetry. I’d written quite a bit of poetry in high school and enjoyed the writing of it, and my stories weren’t anything I wanted to share with anyone (they’re still not – I write fiction like a third-grader. “I would like to go to the store,” Mom said. “The store?” I said. “Yes,” Mom said. We went to the store. We bought eggs. We came home. I like my puppy dog. He smiles with his tail.) (OK, before you’re all, “THAT LINE IS STOLEN AND YOU ARE A THIEF OF FUNNINESS!” I stole “My dog smiles with his tail” from one of the only two funny episodes of the television series Just Shoot Me, entitled “Slow Donnie.” So if you haven’t seen it, and are a fan of David Cross’s, go watch it, and when you’re gasping with laughter over “My pants are tight!” you can thank me. Now stop calling me a thief and continue reading, killjoy.) I believe journalism was also offered, but I think you have to be, oh, what’s the word, “serious” to write that? Or possibly “objective?” So that was a no. Poetry it was.

Those of us majoring in poetry – there weren’t many (I know! It’s surprising, right?) – were in the same core writing classes throughout the years. We were assigned a mentor, and she stayed with us and taught our writing classes and workshops. In these workshops, there would be some teaching, reading of major works, discussion of poetry, reading aloud of your own work, and discussion by your peers and the teacher of your work, in the hope of you re-writing it to improve it.
OK, first? I did not write rhyming poetry. I can’t rhyme for shit. I’ve written a few rhyming poems in my day, and they’re about as good as my fiction – not very. So don’t ask me to write a poem for your Nana’s 90th birthday, because it’s not likely to happen, or if it does, I’m going to call you up at 3 a.m. asking you to help me rhyme “nursing home” or “adult diapers” and you’re going to regret you asked.

How can I explain poetry class? Alright, there were some good poets in the class. Some poets that, when they read, I felt so daunted to read in front of them that I was afraid to read when it was my turn. (In their defense, they were all very nice. Surprisingly non-existent concentration of talented douchebags in my class.)

There were those of us (I include myself here, generously) that fell in the middle. We weren’t blowing anyone away with our talent, but we weren’t scaring anyone with our shananigans, or members of the class for the wrong reasons, either. We worked hard, we took the criticism to heart, we re-wrote, and we kept our heads down.

And then there was everyone else. Oh, my. No one really got turned away. There weren’t so many of us that they could afford to be choosy. The ones that stood out for me as being…um…note-worthy?

·    The metalhead who wrote lyrics for his “band” (I put this in quotes because when someone asked him if he had a band, he said no) as his poetry assignments; he also wrote very angry poems about the female anatomy of the members of the class who turned him down when he asked them out

·    The girl who couldn’t speak above a murmur, no matter how many times we asked her to speak up; we had trouble critiquing her work, because WE COULDN’T HEAR IT

·    The rabid feminist who only wrote poems about women – I’m sorry, “womyn” – and then, when that stopped being shocking, started spelling every word with an “en” with a “yn” in order to “regain the English language” – we got a lot of “childryn” and “downtroddyn” and “heavyn” and no one really had the heart to tell her (or the courage – she was ANGRY) that really the point of the “yn” was to take the word “man” out of female-centric words, not to replace the entire “en” letter cluster

·    The “sensitive” guy who was obviously there because he thought being a poet would get him laid (it didn’t) – he wrote a lot of “and then I gazed at her tender feminine beauty and was reminded of heaven’s gates” and would look up with bright eyes like “right, ladies? Right? So, you wanna come back to my dorm, see how tender I can be? Hmm? Anyone?”


Then there was our teacher. I’m not going to name names, because I’ve read her work, and at one point (and it wasn’t all that long ago), she was quite an excellent poet.  However, we’d gotten her late in life. Very late in life. Dementia-had-possibly-set-in late in life. In researching this, I’ve found out a lot about her, and admire her quite a bit – even more than I did then, knowing what I know now – and none of what I am about to say is an indictment against her talent, which is really quite prodigious.

Have you ever spent any time with poets? We’re an interesting bunch. If I could sum it up in one word, that would would be…eccentric. I don’t think any poet would argue that. I bet even Robert Frost, who was known to be salt-of-the-earth, had his eccentricities. I think it has something to do with forming your words into perfect phrases and shapes on the page. It does something to your mind, maybe.

Our teacher could not remember the time of our classes. Ever. We had many classes we ran ourselves, because honestly, we didn’t need her there to critique each other’s work. Names? Forget it. We were required to meet her once a week in her office for consultations senior year, so she could look over our senior portfolio. In that year, I was called Jamie (close), Amanda (not too far off), Autumn (same first letter, I guess), Janet (a number of times, I think perhaps I reminded her of someone with this name), Laura (I don’t know), and, a couple of times, her OWN first name, which would make her smile. She’d say, “Isn’t it funny how we have the same first name?” And what do you say to a 80-something-year-old woman who’s so pleased by this? I’d just laugh and nod. My first name was written on the cover of my portfolio, and she actually asked, “Who’s this? Why is this person’s name on here?” I wasn’t really sure how to respond to that without hurting her feelings (I used to care about these things a lot more than I do now – ah, youth, when people’s feelings mattered.) If I didn’t respond, though, I was pretty sure she’d think I was stealing someone’s senior portfolio. Then again, she’d probably forget it in the next twenty minutes. Or five seconds. Debatable.

She also sometimes would get incensed. About the environment, or politics, or something that we’d talk about in class. And she would erupt into a fury that was just something to see. If you’ve never seen a woman in her 80’s – a tiny little bird-boned woman with unnaturally colored hair and a lot of gauzy scarves – up on a classroom desk screaming that we were raping Mother Earth, well, you haven’t lived.

She also had stories about other famous poets. “I hate him,” she said once, in a light, musing tone, when a classmate mentioned another poet he admired, “because he murdered his wife. Oh, I know, I know, they say it was suicide. But I think we all know better, don’t we, ladies?” The “womyn” girl nodded sagely. She knew. She was convinced, evyn. I wasn’t so sure.

As for where my very prestigious degree in poetry has gotten me: I’ve been published. I have never been paid for it, but I’ve seen my writing in print. I’ve done two readings, in front of actual people (and, you’d think, as someone who acted on a regular basis for years, this wouldn’t be the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but it was. It most definitely was. Imagine pouring your heart out in front of a room full of people with only you onstage – not singing, not acting, just you. And a mike. It’s kind of like being naked and having people judge you. However, when you’re done, you feel like you can conquer the world, so there’s that.)

I would recommend, however, to up-and-coming poets: DO NOT MAJOR IN POETRY. If you are a poet, you can be a poet without a degree. Take the classes, by all means. Get a minor. But major in something sensible, like Accounting, so when the real world finally smashes you around the face and neck with a battering ram and you realize, hey, I have to pay these student loans BACK? What the HELL? You can provide for yourself and write on the side.

Also, watch out for men bearing bad poetry. I promise they just want to get in your pants. And once they’re there? They don’t know what they’re doing. Because no one else has ever been stupid enough to fall for that “I’m a sensitive poet” bullshit so they have no experience. Trust me on this one, okay?

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