Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"The Span of Life"

The Span of Life

"The old dog barks backward without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup."
-- Robert Frost

I couldn't resist -- the actor's
name is Gaten Matarazzo;
right time period and all. 
That's one of my favorite poems of all time. If I am, daily, a drag-racing car, that poem is the parachute deploying at the end of my rubber-burning run. Each time I see it, pseudo-paradoxically, my world slows down so that I can take in exactly how fast things pass.

Many, many summers ago, I was racing my orange, banana-seated bike around the newly-constructed bank that was built next door to my house in the middle-class town of Voorhees, New Jersey. The bank was equipped with two excellent features for kids: One was the big, windowless brick wall in the back that was perfect for practicing tennis or for a Wiffleball backstop. The other, of which I was taking advantage on this day, was the ebony-smooth, newly-asphalted space around the building which allowed impossible speeds that felt like pure floating.

Banks simply were not open for business on Sundays, then, so my parents had no problem with my hanging out there, especially because they could call me home for dinner from an upstairs window.

So, this particular Sunday, I was by myself, just "practicing" for the big races of the future. But having gotten bored, I started pulling stunts; practicing "wheelies" and generally zig-zagging and unsafe speeds in every direction with the kind of physical lunacy only kids can muster.

You'd think I would have noticed the big, white, concrete divider that jutted out next to the last parking spot, but...somehow it slipped my mind. I crashed hard into it, flew over the handlebars and slammed down with my arm stiff, which severely hyper-extended my right elbow. I left the bike behind, cradling my arm, and I walked back to the house in tears.

My parents expected a sprain, but our family doctor directed us to the hospital. It was pretty bad. The X-ray showed that a piece of bone in the elbow had cracked and detached. I honestly don't remember what they did -- whether they took out the fragment or not -- but I was casted with an old plaster-type tubular letter L and admitted to the hospital for a night of observation.

I was terrified, of course, of spending the night away from home in the hospital, even though -- maybe because -- I was surrounded by other unfortunate adventurers of my general age. My parents were going to go home and get me a few things and they asked me if I wanted anything in particular. What I really wanted was Snoopy -- a stuffed Peanuts character that I slept with every night. (He was an odd creature, stuffed with something relatively hard [sawdust?] and he had no tensile strength in his neck, so the head flopped over sideways. His ears were of black, floppy plastic. But I loved him.) As I say, I wanted Snoopy, but was afraid to look like a "sissy" to use the un-P.C. parlance of the day. As luck would have it, the kid in the bed next to me was provided, in that very opportune moment, with a blue, stuffed duck by his dad. I would have my companion that night. Shame averted.

It was a long night -- fortunately broken up by a Phillies game on TV in which Mike Schmidt hit two homers -- that lead into a long morning that lead into a barely edible lunch of peanut butter and jelly, after which my parents came to collect me. All-in-all, Snoopy and I made it through okay.

I wore the cast for quite awhile -- so long that my arm showed visible atrophy when it came off -- and, then, we followed-up with my pediatrician. I can still see his face, half-and-ruefully smiling, when my parents asked about possible long-term effects:

"You'll be fine, young man. You shouldn't have any problems unless you become a pitcher [I did] or if you get into anything that requires a lot of repetitive motion in your right arm [I became a drummer]. All that aside, though, you probably won't feel the effects until you are in your forties or fifties. You might have issues then."

Fifties? That was forever in the future. We all left feeling pretty good about the prognosis. There was a chasm of decades before us all before we needed to worry. We stopped at McDonald's on the way home for a merry feast and I spent the rest of the day watching cartoons, my mind free and clear...

Just now, I picked up a mug of tea and lifted it to my lips. My elbow was shot through with a recently familiar ache; it is a tooth-achey feeling that has been bothering me for the last four or five months. It's not getting any better. (I turned fifty last January.)

The span of life, indeed.

The setting of the story has changed. One of the characters is gone. But I can still smell the hospital room and and feel the firm pillow of Snoopy's sawdust body on my cheek. I can still hear the whisper of Harry Kalas's voice on the low volume TV as Schmidt's bat swept in a perfect arc: "The one's outta heeeeeere...."

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

You Are Probably Wrong about Special Education

I have watched the evolution of "special education" as a teacher and I have heard the supporters and the naysayers clash for nearly two decades.

In the beginning, the idea of granting extra time or extra help to kids who had proven processing issues, or other disabilities, was met with the typical "when-we-were-kids..." mentality. It also met (and is still met) with the "when-they-get-into-the-real-world" argument.

Sometimes, low I.Q. is the problem with a special ed kid. But, more often, special ed kids are smart. They just think differently than the mainstream; they walk different paths to the same destinations, as it were. Their intelligence might lead them into extreme anxiety. In other cases, they have weaknesses in one area that keep them from reaching a level at which they could do very well. For instance: a kid can't focus in a class discussion because of auditory processing issues, but, one to one, he might astound his teacher with his depth of understanding...

Sometimes, these young people are actually geniuses who can't do well in the same ways as the majority of kids. All that aside, having just come fresh from a workshop on special ed a few days ago, I'd like to debunk one of the most tiresome arguments against giving kids extra time on a test; that argument being: "When they get into the work world, they won't get 'extra time.' A deadline is a deadline." (Usually, this is said by an older teacher who is sitting with folded arms and a superior expression that God allows only to those with tenure...)

Bull pucky! Here is how "extra time" works for kids with testing:

I once gave an entrance/placement exam to a big group of incoming freshmen. One kid, who had an I.E.P. (individualized education plan) qualified for extra time. (Usually, they get an added 50%. So, if everyone else gets an hour, he gets an hour-and-a-half.) This student, after the normal time, scored at the bottom of the class. After the extended time, he was in the top six kids out of seventy.

To those who say this doesn't happen in the "real world;" that "a deadline is a deadline," consider this:

"The boss" says you need to have your project done by the end of the month. There will be no extension. (Everywhere satisfied archaic thinkers are folding their arms and grinning.) But...if you are not ready a week before the deadline, what will you do? Answer: you will extend your time. You will work late; you will work at home.

In short, with extended hours, you will reach the level of the "rest of the kids" who might be able to get things done by working 9-5. You will have gotten the job done, though. (For the record, extra time is just one example of many types of accommodations for kids with I.E.P's.) I rest my case.

Special education is not "hitting the ball" for the student; it's helping him find the batter's box. If a kid needs an extra half hour to complete his calculus exam, so what? If he can do calc, he can do calc. If he can't remember formulae, but does perfect math, what's wrong with him having a note card to help him remember? If he becomes a physicist, he can look up the formulae any time he wants. If he can't finish an essay in class, let him finish it at home... (I know...he could get someone to write it for him. Same old same old; he suffers in the end for his, whatever...)

My secretary makes fun of my because of the goofy ways I do things; how I need to spread big projects out on a giant table in order to make sense of them; how I check things three different ways before committing; how I need to see hard copies of certain things... All of this is me doing self-accommodations in order to succeed. I may do it differently than she does, but we both get the job done.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Righteous Beating

I'm pretty sure I was in the fifth grade when I beat the stuffing out of a kid in the middle of class and got in absolutely no trouble for it.

I was in class and we were doing some kind of independent seat work and a kid came back from the school's main office. He walked up to me and said, "Chris --- they told me you need to come to the main office. Someone in your family died."

I must have gone pale; how could anyone not? I can still feel the bottom of everything dropping and shattering underneath me. I went to the teacher -- he was a young man; whom we will keep anonymous, because this little tale is as much about him as me, in the end -- and I told him that the boy had said they asked for me in the office. He let me go.

I walked into the office, with much wringing of hands and embroiled in a Herculean battle within my throat, as speaking and crying contended like the sea and wind. The secretary asked me what I wanted and I told her I heard they needed me. She told me this was not true.

"Everyone in my family is ok?" I asked.

"As far as we know... No one called us..." (She did not call me "dear" or "honey." He lip might even have curled a little as she spoke to me. She was a middle school secretary. She was not allowed to treat children like human beings. I think it was part of their contract.)

I don't remember the walk back to class, but I do remember launching myself over a desk and the sound of my fists pounding the meaty face of the kid who had lied to me. I got in a good number of punches before the teacher waded through he desks and had us both clamped and nearly hanging by the collars.

"What's wrong with you?" he asked me, no doubt astounded by my actions. I'd never gotten so much as a rebuke in school since kindergarten.

I told him what the other boy had done.

He let go of me and turned the other kid around to face him. There was some blood. The teacher stared at my victim for what seemed a full minute. "Did you, or did you not deserve what you just got?" he asked the boy. The kid nodded once. "Go clean yourself up," the teacher said, and it was back to business as usual. (My hands hurt but I knew better than not to get right back to diagramming my sentences.)

Never another word was said about it. 

You might find it ironic if I were to say that this is a story from a more civilized time, but you would be wrong. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Talking to One's Self in a Crowded Room

It's easy to "slam" social media. In fact, it is so easy, I do it all the time. It has horrible effects on the world; more horrible than good, I think. But, on a personal level, social media can be fulfilling, in that it is a cool way to curate one's experiences -- not so much for the intended audience of others, but for one's self. (If one seeks fulfillment, in "likes" one is a pathetic creature, indeed.)

On the day I decided to take Facebook off of my phone (because I was tired of both distraction and negativity), I started using Instagram more. It feels less immersive, somehow. I linked Instagram to Facebook, so I could post without being sucked into the Facebook vortex. And it worked well. I am only ever on Instagram for minutes at a time.

Of course, the nature of my posting changed and became more visual. (After all: it's Instagram, right?) But what I found is that my Instagram posts are really a kind of gallery. I have started to take a little more pride in the photos I take; I even throw a filter on them from time to time, fancy fop that I am. On the flip side, since a photo is required in order to post on Instagram, sometimes I click a shot of something totally banal. If I hear something, for instance, on the radio, and want to make a point about it, I'll shoot a picture of my car radio. Somehow, it still works...

The visuals become a kind of tab for finding my "categories" of thought and I find myself, more often than with other media, going back to take a look through. I feel a certain amount of pride in my artistic attempts to marry images to words. Each post is a little story; a narrative memory with an accessible kind of depth that it feels harder to approach on other platforms and in other configurations.

Of course, this is all nothing but a "Where's Waldo" attempt to find myself in the overcrowded drawing of a bustling, noisy, group-think world -- to take private ownership of a public forum; to put a fence up around "the ranch" (one you can easily see through but one you are not encouraged to climb).

Sure, I want to share my ideas, or I would not write this blog or post things on social media. That doesn't mean, however, that I need to dilute myself, forever, into the Chorus of Too Many Voices. Or, rather, it doesn't mean that I can't sit back and thumb-flip through my memories of the last months, alone, thinking, feeling and exploring the Tardis-like expanses of my own mind; a world that expands as infinitely, for all of us, within, as does the universe outside.

Maybe, in the end, it's all just a high-tech version of talking to one's self in a crowded room. I can live with that.