The Top Ten Poems I Love, #2

I love most everything Billy Collins writes.

I offer you a Billy Collins Pallooza. I was fortunate to be in the audience when he spoke at the National Writing Project’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia in 2009. This video is his entire talk of 38 minutes. His dry sense of humor is a joy. Here are the poems he reads in the video, in order:

“Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal”
“Grave”
“Palermo”
“Simile”
“Oh My God”
“Monday”
“The Trouble with Poetry”
“Litany”
“Migraine” or “Hangover”
“Hippos on Holiday”
“Schoolsville”
“The Golden Years”
“On Turning Ten”

Knowing that people are busy and sometimes only have time for one poem, here’s one of my favorite poems by Billy —

Walking Across the Atlantic

I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach
before stepping onto the first wave.

Soon I am walking across the Atlantic
thinking about Spain,
checking for whales, waterspouts.
I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.
Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.

But for now I try to imagine what
this must look like to the fish below,
the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.

– – – – –

So simple, so descriptive…and such a novel idea. Powerful in the way he takes me with him across the ocean. So few words, really, but quite the shared experience.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #1

National Poetry Month has begun and I decided that this year I will share 10 poems that have influenced me over time. Check back in a few days for the next one.

Poem #1

A Blessing
By James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

– – – – –

This poem touched me at a deep level. It was the first time that I recall thinking “that’s what a poem is supposed to do.” It was relatively newly written when I read it in the mid 1990’s. I was not familiar with Wright’s work but I felt like I was there with those ponies just off the highway. The blossom metaphor connected with me; in a short phrase, I suddenly understood both the joy of that moment and the importance of poetry in the world.

What it means to be “racist” and how accusing everyone of it doesn’t help

Part of the wonderful craziness of teaching middle school students is the perpetual existence of catch phrases. Young people hear adults and their peers use a word or phrase and its meaning is vague to them; after awhile, students are testing out the word in various contexts, trying to figure out its actual meaning. We start hearing the word used incorrectly and, as teachers, decide whether or not to stop everything and jump into “teachable moment” mode.

Sometimes the word is just a novelty — words like “dab” or “lit” come to mind — and are soon forgotten. We don’t spend time on those words. In the past, we have taken time with insensitive uses of “gay,” “fag,” and “queer” and I like to think that those talks had a little to do with a more healthy attitude toward our LGBTQ community, as well as the emergence of the Alliance club at the high school. Words like “creeper” and “foreigner” are also misused often and we may need to address those soon (fear of the unknown is a powerful thing). More recently, though, students have heard the word “racist” being tossed about (with our President being accused of racist remarks and some police being seen as racist toward minority groups) and have started casually accusing each other of being “racist.” This seems like one of those teachable moments to me.

The dictionary definition is a good place to start: racist — “a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.” (Oxford Dictionary) Some middle school students don’t recognize how serious this accusation is. They toss the word around quickly and freely without realizing it’s actually in the same intensity as yelling “FIRE!” or “RAPE!” The word racist carries a history with it that involves Native American displacement, white supremacist groups, hate crimes, and lynchings.

It’s a challenging topic but that isn’t a reason to ignore it; as an educator, I believe we can discuss almost anything with students as long as we do it in a sensitive, thoughtful manner. I understand that I need to be aware of my own biases and that I’m not expert on the topic, only an authority on my own experiences. These experiences are influenced by a multitude of factors, not the least of which are the culture in which I was brought up and the degree of privilege I have benefited from in my life.

I have never consciously thought that one race is superior to another (as the dictionary definition describes the word), but having taken the Implicit Bias Test and (at the same time I realize the test is not the whole picture) understanding a bit about the power of unconscious behavior, I am fully aware that I have my biases. I try to stay aware of them as I talk with people of color, but I really try to treat each person I talk with as a person first and listen to their concerns; some people say they “don’t see color,” which I think is ridiculous. I focus on the person in front of me and that means trying to take into account the little I know about his or her experience, asking questions to fill in the blanks in my head.

So part of my message, students, is to think before you accuse and to know your own biases, in general.

Instead of calling someone racist, “concentrate on why the person’s words or actions hurt you. Explain why you take issue with the person…” instead of attacking them with this strong, hateful word. (ThoughtCo) By calling someone racist, you are making an unfair, quick judgment about the person and situation — that judgment itself is a type of pigeon-holing or stereotyping that adds to the problem instead of trying to solve it.

We have been talking about using precise language in our poetry unit. The importance of our word choices is a theme you’ll see played out in The Giver, also, which we read next marking period. It carries over to many professions like law and advertising; the words you choose make a difference. And words have more than one meaning and connotation. If I was to say that I want you to discriminate, you might think I’ve lost my mind. The word, “discriminate,” however, means more than one thing. It’s actually an important skill in this sense. I would like you to discern or figure out when it’s appropriate and when it’s inappropriate to accuse people of things…that’s one definition of discriminating…to be a thinking person who distinguishes between right and wrong.

Just like when bullying happens, there are bystanders when the word “racist” is spoken. Those bystanders have a major role in what happens next, just like when bullying happens. They have to discern if the situation involves a suggestion that one race is superior or if it’s an exaggerated, inappropriate use of the word; in either case, the bystander has a responsibility to speak up — to see justice done or to tell the speaker that he or she is wrong. Their role is key to ending this misuse of the word.

Using language (whether thought, spoken, written, visual…) is a complex thing. Learning how to use it precisely and effectively is a lifelong process. My hope is that, throughout your life, you will accurately communicate your ideas. To do that, always think before you speak.

One Time at a Time

Time in the airport — staying calm amid the hustle and the bustle, sitting on the tarmac for one hour before the flight was cancelled, waiting 12 hours for the next flight, playing several games (Clubs, Five Crowns, Hearts…), and arriving in Seattle after having been awake for 24+ hours, dazed and grateful

Time in the rental car avoiding other cars and walking/biking/moped-riding people, as well as avoiding traffic jams with Rachel’s knowledge of the city

Time with family hiking up to Rattlesnake Ledge — only 4 miles roundtrip, but up 1200 feet in elevation for some glorious views

Time walking around Seattle seeing quite a few homeless people, wondering what their lives were like, are like, will be like

Time reading a novel about time-travel and, at times, wishing to jump into the story to experience the 18th century for a few hours or days

Time virtually dangling my feet over Washington (Snoqualmie Falls, breeching whales in Puget Sound, Olympic National Forest, the San Juan Islands, the Walla Walla Valley Balloon Stampede) as part of Wings over Washington

Time watching Arrival and wondering if time is the subtle, constant force I’ve always accepted it as being or if one can move forward and back within its vastness

Time with Judy listening to Ravel, Beethoven, and Gliere played by the Lansing Symphony Orchestra; Judy had worked with french horn soloist, David Cooper, decades before which made it even more special

Time standing in the hall outside my classroom at MacDonald Middle School looking at each student that passes and picturing each one walking across the stage getting their diplomas as graduating seniors

Time to construct a letter about an issue I care about and put it out there in the world — and having a friend make a meaningful comment about it

Time to candidly talk with a past student and see what he created from our talk

Time listening to a sermon entitled “Timing,” hearing a voice from the past say “Hell is truth seen too late,” and automatically thinking that the owners of Eastwood Towne Center will rue the day they didn’t work out a deal with Schuler Books, causing it to close; I’ll always remember one customer grieving the bookstore’s closing by saying,
“I mean,
we
lived
here”

Net Neutrality in the Balance

I wrote today’s Letters2Trump and I feel good enough about it to share it here.

Dear American Internet Users,

You probably put up with the high cost of your internet service provider, or ISP, (as many of us do) because you can bop around the internet at will. We’re Americans and we like our freedoms. We enjoy access to just about any website 24/7. And there’s the immediacy factor also; we don’t like to wait. The faster the internet, the better. Unfortunately, we Americans are also quite reactionary. We are often apathetic until things get out of hand and then we jump into action, too often too late. I am writing to you today to ask for your quick action on a topic that could squelch your much-loved internet freedom and speed: Net Neutrality.

This week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is voting on whether to change the regulation regarding Net Neutrality so that your ISP has the power to control your access to certain websites. They will also be able to slow the speed of your internet if they so choose. The commission that will decide is made up of three Republicans and headed by a Trump appointed Republican named Ajit Pai. It doesn’t look good for our free and speedy lives on the internet. If you are a fan of irony, the FCC has named the proceedings Restoring Internet Freedom, which is somewhere between ridiculous and sad.

My first request is that you get informed. I’ve included a few resources, below, and I suggest you search around for yourself also. When we start mixing technology, politics, economics, capitalism, government bureaucracy, and egos, the truth is elusive. From what I can tell, though, we have taken Net Neutrality for granted and if the FCC allows the ISPs to do what they want, they will. And it won’t be pretty.

A few resources:
* “What is Net Neutrality and What Will the Internet Look Like Without It” by KQED News
* “Net Neutrality Explained: What It Means (and Why It Matters)” by Fortune
* “Net Neutrality explained and why it matters” YouTube video by John Bain,the Cynical Brit
* “FCC explains how net neutrality will be protected without net neutrality rules” by ArsTechnica
* “Congress should block FCC’s Net Neutrality Vote” by USA Today

I also have a couple actions you can take. The first is to respond directly to the FCC. Here are some fairly straightforward steps for that process that I found on Facebook.

1. Go to http://gofccyourself.com (the shortcut John Oliver made to the hard-to-find FCC comment page)
2. Click on the 17-108 link (Restoring Internet Freedom)
3. Click on “express.”
4. Be sure to hit “ENTER” after you put in your name & info so it registers.
5. In the comment section write, “I strongly support net neutrality backed by Title 2 oversight of ISPs.”
6. Click to submit, done. – Make sure you hit submit at the end!

Link to John Oliver’s piece on net neutrality: https://youtu.be/92vuuZt7wak (f-word warning)

Finally, if you’re feeling a bit more revolutionary, go to the website called Break the Internet. If you scroll down on that page, you’ll find many ways to get involved over the next 48 hours in a phone call avalanche to get the point across to Congress.

I was an apathetic internet user like you at one time. I took the time to learn about the issue, which made me informed and angry. I’m participating in the push to keep Net Neutrality and I hope you will too. Thank you, ahead of time, for your efforts.

Sincerely,

Aram Kabodian

Big Brother Wished Me a Happy Birthday

Google has a creative group of people working tirelessly to celebrate some aspect of each day on their opening page. These Google doodles often highlight the life of someone I didn’t know existed from history. Today (my birthday), Google remembered my special day with this graphic (below) — when I clicked the play button, the candles moved as if lit.

It’s intended to make me feel like a celebrity, I suppose. For a second, it did feel good. Then, it fed into that creepy feeling that the world knows too much of my business. I also received birthday wishes via snail mail from our investment company, an email from Affordable Tours (the company we used to book a bus trip around Italy this year), and my dentist’s office texted me. And Biggby did send me my coupon for a free drink…so I got that going for me. It’s an attempt at contact, but it falls short.

I followed the link on the Google birthday wish and I learned about some historical things that happened on my birthday, which was nice. My favorite historical fact from October 28 is that in 1965 Pope Paul VI issued a decree absolving Jews of collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ; I was five that day and somehow my folks didn’t tell me about that earth-shaking moment in history (oddly it was the same exact day that the Gateway Arch along the waterfront in St. Louis, MO, was completed; maybe it’s not so odd since that first fact seems like a giant leap in logic).

The Internet’s awareness of my daily life bothers me during the rest of the year, too. I’ll buy plane tickets on Orbitz for a trip to Seattle; later that day, my Facebook feed will include statements like “while you’re in Seattle, check out the Space Needle.” WTF? Leave me alone. I don’t need your help. And I don’t like where this all seems to be going. I don’t want to be a character in a dystopian novel. My identity is too public, too easily available and that never ends well in those dark stories about the future.

My problem: it’s becoming impossible to disconnect from the internet for long periods. Am I addicted or at least too dependent? Life is too precious to tear away the personal, emotional, spiritual side and give it up to a machine. It reminds me of a sad video that a friend shared called “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” This sort of thing is happening in subtle, as well as dramatic ways every day. It’s up to us to keep in touch personally instead of just through —

As I was typing these words, my Boston cousin, Nancy, called me. We talked for a long time and made tentative plans to meet in the Spring. She balanced out all the techno-wishes I had received. And renewed my hope in the human race. It really is up to each of us to make life-giving choices every minute. Thanks, Nancy.

Visible Thinking

When I teach writing, I often make my thinking visible for students. Sometimes that takes the form of my reflection that we read together. Usually, though, it happens before, during, and after they look at a piece of my writing. I “talk it out” as a way to model being a purposeful, thinking writer (and person).

Below, you have some of my recent thinking. Like most thinking it sometimes follows logically and other times jumps around, apparently randomly, but with personally relevant tangents. I offer it to you as an explanation for a recent unexpected decision.

I’ve been retired from teaching for just over one year. It’s been a semi-retirement since I’ve continued to work several part-time jobs. I’ve enjoyed working for ASPPIRE (as job coach and Personal Finance teacher), for Schuler Books, as a tutor, and for the National Writing Project in various roles including assessing students’ online writing. Having so many very part time jobs was both satisfying and confusing. It seemed odd to me that I both appreciated having a flexible schedule and missed having structure to my days. How could both things be going on at the same time?

When I retired from full-time teaching, I would have taught part-time if it was an option. I still enjoyed teaching English and the energy of middle school students. I just wanted more time in my day to do other things (write, exercise, travel, read, go to the bathroom when I wanted to…). However, no part-time positions were available in my district. And so I retired, leaving the job in capable hands (Joie, a good friend and high school teacher).

Time passed and, for personal reasons, Joie (the teacher that replaced me) asked for a one-year leave.

Despite everything you’ve read so far, I didn’t realize I was waiting for the opportunity to teach again. A few friends have told me that they saw it coming (and other friends tell me I’m crazy to leave retired life), but when a colleague and friend told me there was a part-time opening teaching three 7th grade English classes, I was suddenly interested. Maybe not at first, but within a few minutes, even I could see it was what I wanted and needed at this point in my life.

Money is always an issue. I wasn’t sure at first that I could work (even 60% of a full-time job) for so little money. Once I got my head around using this (extra) money for a specific, fun thing (Hint: ALOHA everybody) that helped me move toward wanting to teach again. And I felt like they (at least on some level) wanted me back. Also, thankfully, the school district worked with me to make sure the salary I would earn would not interfere with my pension.

There were a few points along the journey that felt strange and uncomfortable. Texting with the administration instead of face-to-face meetings was odd; being asked to complete a criminal history check and an online application by the district that I worked 17 years for bordered on ridiculous. The fact that I never really heard anything from the Human Resources department along the way was disconcerting. Maybe they didn’t communicate with me because I didn’t complete parts of the online application (I couldn’t find my teaching certificate, for example) and the HR folks didn’t know what to do with me. On the other hand, I nailed the following question on the app:

What makes an outstanding teacher?

I wrote: A teacher needs to be a good listener and observer. Watching and hearing students as they work and participate, teachers can get a sense for their needs. Teachers need to assess students in reliable ways and use that information to present lessons that match student needs, abilities, and interests — while offering just the right amount of challenge. Outstanding teachers are also patient, clear, and consistent; they create behavioral and academic expectations, then follow-through on enforcing rules and providing opportunities for success. The best teachers are also fun and funny, cooperative and collegial, and reflective and always learning. Part of being a lifelong learner-educator is teaching students digital literacy skills and having them write for real audiences.

They were probably googling phrases from that answer to make sure I didn’t scam if from some online teaching reference.
:^)

And just as I finished the application and the three Professional Development days were about to start…I came down with a cold. I needed to plan for teaching 7th grade English and go to meetings, but instead I slept for hours and hours and drank gallons of water. (Some meds that we didn’t use on our Europe trip helped a bit too) It may have been a stress-induced cold, but it was real enough in my head, throat, and chest. And then, right in time for the last PD day, I felt mostly better.

Seven days into this nearly 10 month gig…
To the dozen people who have asked if I regret the decision, I say “no.” It feels right. I’m teaching a curriculum that I know (and I’m even coaching / working with the other part-time English teacher a bit) and I have received a lot of support from parents, colleagues, and board members. Heck, Joie had my favorite M.C. Escher print up (that I gave her) and a card on the wall that I had written to her to remind her to smile more often; I feel like I’m looking in a mirror most days. And I like what I see.

Moving On From the Surgery

I don’t think I can write about other stuff until I write about my surgery. I’m 99% better, so I think it’s time to share and move on. Each photo has a caption that you can see if you click on the small letter ‘i’.

A few photos of my first major surgery

There’s so much more I could say — about high health care costs, monstrous total costs, great doctors, my poor reaction to the anesthetic drugs, Judy’s support, throwing up, steady improvement, fluid collecting, going back to emergency, medication change, numbness, poor sleeps, pleased to have the growth out, scar healing well — but you don’t want to hear all of that.