Wednesday, September 07, 2005

How did our teachers get through the day?

Pay for teachers
Originally uploaded by Brite Lights photos.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - I just finished teaching two classes today, a total of about three hours of performance time and I'm exhausted.

For two separate undergraduate classes, I fielded questions about journalism, (why some stories are, well, stories and others ignored) and gave a brief lecture on the dismal state of ethics in the media.

It was short because my stomach rolls if I think about some of what's published and broadcast right now and labelled as news. (See O'Reilly Factor...)

But tonight I was thinking about our teachers in high school who stood up in front of frequently disinterested crowds - five days a week, maybe five hours per day - who then took home all those papers and tests and quizzes to grade in their off time.

How the hell did they do it?

How did Carl Rennells (Suddenly I remembered his name!) have the stamina to teach 9th grade algebra? In my class, a fellow named Don Dittman (I think) would wait for Carl to turn around to write on the blackboard and Don would hit him square in the back of the head with the neatly placed spitball. I was much more impressed with Don's accuracy than Carl's formulas.

One day, after we had gotten a test back (which nearly the entire class failed), Don talked most of the class into firing on poor Carl simultaneously. He turned his back was bombarded with wadded up paper from maybe 20 people, and the wet spitwads stuck to the board all around him, leaving kind of an outline like they draw on the floor around a corpse in one of the CSI series.

He turned around, sat down at his teacher's desk and put his head down like a kindergartener that day. He might have wept. I know the bell rang moments later and we filed out quite quietly.

Not my proudest hour, I think now.

But consider the energy that a guy like Harold Burgard poured into his classes. The guy was a maniac and waved those damn ditto sheets around like lethal weapons. My grasp of world history, I have him to thank for.

I got to know Harold after I graduated from high school. He hung out with my cousin, Gordy Puls (Gordy taught in the junior high) and when I dropped out of college I would sit and swill beer with Harold at Gordy's house while the two of them reloaded shotgun shells or cleaned the ducks they had just blasted apart out on the lake. (Drinking beer and loading shotgun shells might seem a little dangerous, but did I mention that Harold smoked, too?)

And that urban legend about Burgard breaking some kid's jaw at a high school before coming to SWCS to teach? I asked him once (after a few beers) if it was true. He didn't say yes or no. But remember that evil grin he had sometimes? That was his answer. Hmm...

After I started teaching years ago, I found I had a lot more respect for what our high school teachers put up with - and had to do. And in my case, I teach at a university where, in theory, everyone is in my classes voluntarily and, again in theory, at least curious about the topics.

I can't imagine what it took for, say, Ethel Goller, to every day stare down five or six advanced math classes of 25 students per class, classes full of kids whose minds were miles away from tangents and cosines, already wondering who they might be dancing with after the football game.

But those dances after football games I'll save for another posting, except to offer this number up as our song of the day - a favorite for those gym-class dance lessons that were either torture or heaven, depending...

Town Without Pity
by Gene Pitney

When you're young and so and love as we
And bewildered by the world we see
Why do people hurt us so
Only those in love would know
What a Town Without Pity can do..

If we stop to gaze upon a star
People talk about how bad we are...
Ours is not an easy age
We're like tigers in a cage
What a Town Without Pity can do..

The young have problems Many problems
We need an understanding heart..
Why don't they help us, try to help us
Before this clay and granite planet falls apart...

Take these eager lips and hold me fast..
I'm afraid this kind of joy can't last
How can we keep love alive
How can anything survive
When these little minds tear you in two..
What a town Without Pity can do..

How can we keep love alive
How can anything survive
When these little minds tear you in two..
What a town Without Pity can do..

Sunday, September 04, 2005

On the set of "Kate & Steve" in upstate NY

CAYUTA, New York - In my spare time, I'm learning to make videos, videos I call 'rockumentaries,' which, as you might guess, include a lot of music in the films.

I've completed a half dozen of the things in the last couple of years including Cruising For Croissants (a 10-day canal boat trip in France) Sailing with Bees (a bee infestation in Sabbatical's mast) and The Whales of Banderas Bay. (Can you guess what's the big feature in that one?).

All of which leads me to the wedding I shot a week ago when a second cousin of Admiral Fox was married and I spent the entire afternoon filming and interviewing the participants, interspersed with a little eating and drinking of course.

Not many of our class got married by the time I did - Dec. 23, 1969 - and I left that next August for the west, so I missed a lot of champagne punch and toasts and garters flying into the crowd.

But one wedding I did attend in the late 60s I was reminded of while filming. It was when Merle Butler was best man at a wedding of a woman from the Class of '67 (all I remember is her name was Jody) who married a fellow from Egypt. I remember that Jody's intended had sandy blonde hair, but definitely sported Arabic-Middle Eastern features and his accented English was fascinating to listen to. I attended the wedding with Sandy Carlson (Class of '67 also) who was one of Jody's good friends. I went wherever Sandy asked, but that's another story.

Merle was serving in Vietnam at the time and suggested that I should do everything possible to avoid going over and get shot at. He was killed a few months later. But that's another story, too.

At the time, I didn't think anything about the racial and/or cross-cultural elements of that wedding at all. I just remember Jody's father being fairly beet red most of the wedding and at a hastily arranged dinner right afterwards. I realize now that he was not a happy camper - and it wasn't bourbon that was bothering him. His little girl was likely to be going back to Egypt, though that wasn't certain, and, well, her husband was definitely not your average Jamestown boy. (I remember wanting to ask him a question about the pyramids and Sandy cutting me off before I could say a word. She had a lot more class than I did.)

At the wedding last week at the gorgeous Fontainbleau Inn on the shore of Cayuta Lake, my wife's mid-20s second cousin (who grew up in rural Hector, New York and holds a degree in genetics from the University of Connecticut), married a sophisticated architect (also mid-20s) who grew up in Indianapolis and it was the wedding of the summer for the east side of Seneca Lake, with people who hadn't been invited calling up the week before the wedding begging to attend.

The sophisticated architect (and now husband) is African-American, the second cousin (and now wife) of English and Irish background. But in a some measure of change from the 60s it was one of the happiest weddings I've attended in my life. There was singing, dancing, and a ceremony that was heartbreaker. If there was any tension about this architect marrying a geneticist, I didn't see it. And my right eye is still sore from the filming and my jaw weak from talking with everyone I could.

This is one rockumentary I am really looking forward to pulling together. I've even installed some new software on a second dedicated movie computer - Final Cut - to do it justice.

Now if I could just find someone to teach all my university classes this semester...

Any volunteers?