Back to School -- I Wish
THE LEAVES HAVE just started to lose their vibrant green waxiness, and the yellow that plays at their edges will soon to give way to
crinkly oblivion. The beginning of Autumn always carries with it a throaty whisper of mortality, but it's somehow counteracted by the lively chatter of kids going back to school.
What grown-up can keep from feeling wistful and nostalgic at the sight of shining morning faces bobbing down the sidewalks of the city,
all decked out in fifty-dollar backpacks and seventy-dollar gyms shoes? Suddenly, your nostalgic daydream is interrupted. Where are the simple book straps that used to be made from your old man's belt? Where
are the simple canvas Keds?
Today's gym shoes look better suited for space exploration than basketball, with their streamlined contours, air-pocket heels, air
pumps, and gelatin soles. "That's not a shoe," I told my teenage daughter Jillian, "It's an orthotic device." "You should know," she said. Ouch.
Nowadays, the phrase "Back-to-School" strikes as much fear in the hearts of parents as the inane counting down of
"Shopping Days" until Christmas. The pressure to buy extravagantly priced merchandise is keenly felt and inescapable, because your kids play on the cello strings of your emotions like Yo Yo Ma.
"Nobody wears that brand," they whine, "Do you want me to be the only Dork in class?" Kids are as sharp as Ginsu knives when it comes to wheedling and cajoling clothing upgrades out of you.
The fortunate thing is, the more your kids care about their clothing, the less you care about your own. You find yourself rummaging
through the racks for your size (reminiscing about the time your inseam matched your waist size) and you like nothing better than seeing a "70% Off" sign planted firmly in the center of the chrome
stanchion. Your kids, of course, will not allow themselves to be seen within fifty yards of a sign like that -- it's just too humiliating. On the other hand, you start to adapt your taste. You pick up a bright
yellow shirt with dark brown stripes running down it, feeling for the tag. It was thirty dollars once, marked down to fifteen. And the ten is scribbled out and replaced by a five. "Five bucks!" you shout
triumphantly, while your daughter cringes. "Dad, you'll look like a big banana." "I like bananas," you say defensively (and not a little hurt) tossing the shirt in your cart like you're at the produce section of Dominicks. As for gym shoes, they have to meet one criteria only: do they fit? I have, in fact, bought gym shoes off a big table at a flea market, and wore them until the heel flapped like a recalcitrant tongue.
I have a feeling I'm not the only one. Take a look around next time you're at Harlem-Irving or the Brickyard. Who's dressed better --
the kids or the parents?
As the summer winds down, the leaves start changing their look. They are like kids in one significant way -- they all change at about
the same time until their "outfits" look exactly like each other.
Call it human nature.~
©Mark Andel 2001
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My Life as a Sub
Sub: below, under, submerged
- Webster’s Dictionary
“Phillip ate my quiz.”
- A NorthwoodsMiddle School student
Q. Why did the idiot fill the gym with water?
A. The coach told him to go in as a sub.
- A playground joke
When kids walk into the classroom, they give you an askance, wary look and size you up in an instant. The look you give back to them is
critically important. You smile, but with a sternness of upper lip that suggests you will not be a doormat.
You are the sub for the day, and in that brief visual exchange, you know who may give you trouble, you know who your helpers might be,
and you know who checked their focus by their bedroom door next to the Playstation 2 controller. This last group will be the ones who will need to go to their locker or the bathroom or the drinking fountain or “to
see Mr. Meyers in the lab.” They will want to be anywhere but where they are. If you let them, they will ruin you – or at least make you wish you were somewhere else, too.
To supplement various writing projects and to round out my teaching a couple of English classes at McHenryCountyCollege, I also
occasionally substitute teach for District 200, grades 6 through 12. It is a satisfying, not-too-difficult, and probably unusual way for a grown man to spend a good part of his day. But as Kanicki says in
“Grease,” It beats luggin’ boxes at BargainCity,Moron.”
Apart from certain students who do their level best to disrupt things and create a scene by flipping over a desk or scattering a
fellow student’s notebook contents on the floor, the generosity of spirit among these kids is impressive overall. They appear to be (to use a phrase my mother was fond of) “brought up well.” Most are clean and
polite and well-mannered, and are not out to stir things up or cause trouble.
When a high school art student cut her finger this past week on an X-acto knife while cutting out comic book figures for a Lichtenstein
study, she was apologetic. I recommended that she go to the nurse’s office immediately, to which she responded with a shrug. “I licked it already,” she told me, as though that were the only first aid required
to stem the tide of blood dripping toward her wrist. I advised her that the nurse might take other measures.
May God help you if you are given a video tape to play for your charges that appears to have been made for a much younger audience.
Anyone with a three-year-old at home knows the excruciating, mind-numbing, stupefying effect that repeated playing of any kid’s video can have on them. Try playing one of these tapes five or six times to different
groups of media-hardened eighth-graders who were weaned on Beavis and Butthead and SouthPark. The hushed commentary could make Tony Soprano blush. Last week, during a Revolutionary War video quiz that appeared to
have been made for preschoolers, complete with goofy pirate characters reading questions with bad accents (“Aaaarrgghh, Ahoy, Matey!”) one eighth-grader asked me in dead earnestness: “Are you playing this to
insult and humiliate us?”
Insurrection was afoot.
I had to make a choice. Should I blame the teacher who probably pulled the video off the rack without pre-screening it? Or should I
defend it? I called on my public relations background, and opted for the latter – with a twist. “There’s actually some very good information in here,” I said cautiously, “But I admit, the presentation of
it kind of sucks.”
With that, a full chorus of “It sucks! It sucks!” rang out, just as the Principal entered to the room to announce a meeting in the
gymnasium at which he was to address the alarming increase in the use of vulgarities among eight-graders.
Quick, someone fill the gym with water.
©Mark Andel 2002
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The Ghosts of Teachers Past
“The past is not a diminishing road but,
instead a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches.”
- William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily”
In last weeks’ column on Senior Moments, those bizarre lapses in memory that occur once in a while, I mentioned a memory test that my
wife and I gave each other. It involved recalling our teachers, from first grade through middle school. If you are of an age when middle school was still called elementary school, the challenge you face is a little
bit rougher. Perhaps you also carried a baked potato to keep your hands warm as you trudged through miles of snow-covered trails, and did your ciphering on the back of a shovel with a piece of cinder, using the glow
from the hearth as your only source of light.
Anyway, it seemed to resonate with some people, this notion of engaging in a kind of pleasant reverie about those people who shaped our
education and interests early on. The ghosts of teachers past still haunt us, delightfully in most cases, though not all, certainly. But apart from the horrors of cold-hearted, ruler-crazed nuns, most memories were
warm indeed, their portraits captured with a well-phrased detail. I am grateful for the reader responses, and would like to share some of them with you.
For Gay, who is herself a teacher of creative writing, it was not necessarily the personnel at the school, but the school bus itself
that triggered the mechanisms of memory. She writes: “The opening strains of "California Dreamin'" is all it takes to place me toward the back of a hot school bus with those odoriferous leatherette
seats, smelling my pimento-loaf and mustard sandwich in its reused brown bag, my lunch for the long bus field trip to big old wicked Chicago from my little town school. There's a little white plastic
transister radio with a blue and orange-striped grosgrain ribbon handle mixed up in there somewhere too.”
For Kristen, the list came easily: “Mrs. Ryan, who once popped me on the back of the head for shooting jello out through the spaces
between my teeth, Sister Paula of the perpetual bad attitude, Mrs. Francesco, whose daughter named Trixie had a pet white mouse, and who pitched to us when we played baseball at recess while wearing lots of jewelry,
Sister Meredith, who let us listen to the Mets win the World Series on a transistor radio, Mrs. Fox, who used to wring her hands when kids misbehaved.”
Anne-Marie’s list was more stream-of-conscious: “Mrs. Braden, young and pretty, with short, dark hair, who fed us cookies and
played nice music at rest time. She taught us the "Elephant Walk" song. Mrs. Matthews, my favorite, who let us raise gerbils and wrote a book about them with pictures of all of us in it, and who let us
paint and read to us in character voices. Mrs. Wallace, who was very petite and sweet and gentle and gray haired, with horn-rimmed glasses and didn't get grossed out when kids lost teeth. Mrs. Eichorn, who used
phrases like, “Chapeaus,gentlemen" if any of the boys neglected to take his hat off upon returning from recess, or "It's like pulling hen's teeth, people!" when we didn't answer her questions
promptly. And Mrs. Moscowitz, who rubbed red clay in Tom Kilbourn’s hair for playing with the clay during reading time, and who had us memorize poetry for prizes.
Finally, Denise recalls a few horror stories, including “an old
bird-like woman with side-laced black shoes, and twinkly eyes,” and another teacher with “vile personal habits” who “hit our
palms with a ruler whenever we left books in our locker.” But there was also Mr. Sidney in there, who, according to Karen, was “The last terrific math teacher I ever had. He was also the kind of teacher
that gets movies made of him. Inspirational, wonderful, positive, encouraging, all the great things teachers are supposed to be (and often are).”
Thanks for the memories.
Side note: I will be teaching a writing course for credit for the fall semester at McHenry County College between Woodstock and Crystal
Lake. It’s Composition 151, meeting on Thursday nights at 7:00 p.m., starting in late August. Anyone interested can contact the college for further information.
I can only hope that it will be somewhat memorable.
And I don’t carry a ruler or red clay with me.
©Mark Andel 2001
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The Twenty-Five Year High School
Reunion Weight Loss Challenge
OKAY, THIS IS SERIOUS now. I’m putting it in writing this time.
I’m losing ten pounds a month for the next three months, starting June 1st.
I’ve got my 25th High School Reunion coming up on Labor Day Weekend in Muscatine Iowa, and I don’t want to be one of those people that everyone there talks about in hushed tones, saying, “Didn’t HE put
on the weight?” I don’t want to have people force a quavering smile as they manage something like, “You look … good!” And I don’t want anybody offering me any “helpful” suggestions about what they do
to keep the weight off: “Oh, I drink lots of water,” “Oh, running is the key,” or worst of all, “Have you seen those Tae Bo tapes?”
Yes, I’ve seen those Tae Bo tapes. Sometimes I watch them in the basement rec room while eating a couple of those chocolate Hostess
cupcakes with the white swirls on top. Billy Blanks is charismatic – I’ll give him that. But what he’s doing is no different from any boxing instruction I had twenty years ago. It’s packaged well, and the
appeal is obviously directed more toward women than men.
In the first tape, there’s Billy Blanks with a bevy of women – punching and kicking at the air with frightening velocity. Not
another man in sight. Talk about finding a market niche! Back when I was boxing, women hated it. A former wife bawled me out when I came home with a broken nose that made me look even more like a drunken Howdy Doody
than I normally do. What’s different is, Billy Blanks talks about “opponents” and “being a warrior” and so on, but the only contact that happens is when he presses someone’s stomach, delighting in their
“abs.” It’s shadow boxing for the sake of gluteus maximus tightening, not training to fight.
Of course I wouldn’t say that too loudly in front of one of these Tae Bo converts – especially that one with the determined look
and six-pack abs. Attempt to steal a kiss from her and you could wind up in the hospital with a very embarrassing cast.
And now the Tae Bo tapes are in the cabinet with the other classics, including “Cycle Vixens” which my friend Jeff gave me when I
turned forty as a joke. They had pretty good abs too, if I recall. And the weight bench is good because it’s near the dryer and you can hang shirts on the barbell as you take them out.
It’s not going to be easy. I know that. To get down to my old high school weight, I’d need to lose fifty pounds. I’ll never see
that again. But I can make some progress, and ten pounds a month seems “do-able.” What people need when they are contemplating an ambitious weight-loss program is a community of encouragement. When people are on
their own it’s easy to sneak a candy bar while you’re driving somewhere.
And the gas stations don’t help, do they? They’re all snack shops with aisle after aisle of terrible temptations: three kinds of
Doritos, cheese popcorn, Crunch bars, Reese cups, cupcakes with swirls on top, cans of pop, and chocolate ”Chugs.” There are even pizza and hot dog displays on the counter tops. I made the mistake of looking at
the label of a Mounds bar that I finished in approximately three seconds: 11 grams of saturated fat. Gone in a heartbeat (well, maybe five heartbeats). No wonder I’m in the shape I’m in.
A few years out of High School, I was a lifeguard at an apartment complex pool. I imagine myself these days working at the same job,
having difficulty even climbing up into the chair, especially with that box of Snackwell double fudge cookies and Mountain Dew I would need to tide me over for the shift.
But the goal is before me now. Join me if you like. Let me know how you’re doing. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Together we can do it. Come Labor Day, we’ll all be thirty pounds lighter.
And when they pass around that platter of crab puffs and pot stickers at the reception, I’ll politely decline and say to my dear old
chubby friend in front of me, “Have you seen those Tae Bo tapes?” ~
©Mark Andel 2001
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Who’s to Blame for Truancy?
Very soon, parents all over Chicagoland will be begging their slothful teenaged offspring to go to school. Not because they feel that
they are enriching their kids with a valuable learning experience, but because they are trying to avoid the slammer.
With the new truancy laws enacted recently that Paul Vallas had the good sense not to endorse during his tenure, parents can be held
responsible for their children cutting classes this year. If a child misses too much, parents can be given a stern talking-to by the Chicago equivalent of Judge Judy and then sentenced to thirty hours of community
service. One can almost see the orange jump-suited chain gang of dejected 45-year-old parents cutting weeds with sling blades down the steep slopes of I-88.
Once in a while you could hear one muttering out of the side of her mouth
to the convict in front of her, “What are you in for?” And the reply would come back: “Biology. Couldn’t get Tommy to go to it.” And a collective sigh would riffle down the line, with an occasional low
whistle and an “I heard that.”
Perhaps I am a cynic, being the father of a 17-year-old daughter and
stepfather to a thirteen-year-old, but am I the only one who believes that this plan could backfire into a malicious game of blackmail between troubled kids and their equally troubled parents? What happens when a
child bargains for extra hours out on a weekend evening under the thinly veiled threat of being “sick” come Monday? And what happens when a parent goes to work at 5:30 a.m., semi-secure in the knowledge that
their own layabout upstairs will get up “in five more minutes” as promised, have his Frankenberries, and board the schoolbus instead of picking up the skateboard and heading over to the parking lot for some
There are those who suggest that parents should share the burden of
blame for their kids not going to school. That in this country we’ve let things slide too much and that, dog nab it, someone has to own up to the failure of these miserable excuses for parents out there now who
aren’t doing their job. A cover story in Time magazine recently decried the spoiling of the American child. Not long ago they decried parents who didn’t spare the rod. These are confusing times, always have
been, really, and there may not be a good solution for the problem of kids skipping school. This notion of punishing parents certainly isn’t a good one – and I am not trying to skip out on any blame here or
loosen the netting of parents caught in this dragnet. The kid who lives under my roof got straight A’s last year.
The central issue – the one that the new school chief and the
Mayor and everyone else should come to grips with is this: why do so many children in Chicago feel that school is irrelevant to them? Who poured water over the campfire while the tent was still standing? And what
can be done to inspire these disenfranchised students, to make them want to be there and soak it all in, to keep the flame lit for six hours a day?
Some tenured teachers put themselves on automatic pilot when they
walk into a classroom. Being inspiring to the assembled group in front of them is the last thing they are capable of because they are so thoroughly uninspired themselves. They’ve spent too many hours in the
faculty lounge, listening to the same low drone of overly familiar voices until it all becomes white noise, all of it, not a spark anywhere.
Perhaps to get kids to go to school, we need to make it worth going to.
Bear in mind that while Mom and Dad are picking up trash in some Chicago thoroughfare as their community service “sentence” instead
of helping their kids with their homework, their kids will, in the meantime, have some people over to learn how to kill the really big dude in Resident Evil.
©Mark Andel 2001
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