Monday, March 30, 2009

Holy Pink Slips Batman!

In spite of the pink slip debacle, many students at South East decided to take matters into their own hands and hold a rally in support of their teachers.

However, saying you will support your teachers and actually supporting them are too different things. Many students were unsure and confused, not knowing what to do or where to begin or how to show support, which is where Ms. Jordan stepped in.

Ms. Jordan is a first year English teacher of caucasian background. Typically a first year teacher of caucasian heritage in the inner city follows a simple mathematical paradigm which can be summarized with the following equation:


In the case of an English teacher, this can be amended to:


Jordan breaks this mold, she has assimilated classroom management at a speed that would astonish the Borg. Students adore her, she guides a class like a master sea captain in charge of a 17th century clipper, cutting through the tides with a deft touch and open smile.

At this pace within 5 years she'll ascend to teacher Godhood.

Of course she's not really a first year teacher. She had practical experience managing teenagers when she worked as an assistant manager at an IN & OUT.

Maybe all new teachers should first work in fast food management first.

Jordan decided to help the students along by coordinating a pink slip rally. Close to forty of them volunteered as they made banners, posters, and pink hearts with bobby pins and ribbons for 2000 students to wear. It was a herculean task, but Jordan managed to pull it off in about two days. She contacted Leadership to help provide audio equipment and public speakers, and the band to provide drums.

She asked me if I would help promote it.

Being the attention whore that I am, naturally I said yes.

But since this was a student sponsored awareness rally, I wanted to include the students. It was time for the Comedy Club to launch its first humor assault. It's mission, operation "Student Pink Slip Awareness."

A week earlier at the club meeting one of the elite Comedy soldiers brought in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

At that moment she earned 100 respect points. Clearly, the comedy club was ready to enter the big leagues.

It was time for them to help promote the student awareness rally.

Initially I planned only to write one blurb for an "emergency" morning announcement. I settled on a 1960's TV show Batman parody entitled: Pink Slip of Death. We would start the announcement by singing the Batman TV theme, "Duh-nuh na-na, duh-nuh na-na - BATMAN!" Then Batman and Robin would talk about the evil Economy and what we could do to solve the problem.

I assigned two students to play the lead roles when I discovered that one of them could impersonate the Joker.

It was all working out. I asked the principal for permission, he referred me to the AP. "If it's okay with her, it's okay with me." I nodded..."ohh-kay."

Sometimes I'm amazed what the principal lets me get away with.

That Wednesday we practiced it. Robin was being played by a boy, Batman a girl. I told Robin that he needed to act more excited, every sentence uttered like Chicken Little with the utmost important news. After a few more dry runs, he still wasn't uttering the lines with enough emphasis.

"Think of Robin as a flaming gay guy." Batman cuts in.


"Piper down there Batman, you need to act tougher."

"Excuse me Mr. Leiken, but that's hard because I have a vagina."

That Thursday we read the announcement: "Duh-nuh na-na Duh-nuh na-na - BATMAN!" we sing. The secretaries in the office turn to stare as the comedy soldiers take their places besides the mike. The entire front office freezes.

For a moment, the comedy club has the school's attention.

"Tonight's episode: PINK SLIP OF DEATH!"

ROBIN: Leaping Lizard's Batman, teachers at South East have been pink slipped. They could lose their jobs.

BATMAN: Right Robin! It's a villian unlike any other we've faced.

ROBIN: The Joker's gone too far this time!

BATMAN: Sorry old chum! It isn't the Joker.

ROBIN: Then who? Is it the Penguin? The Riddler - Cat Woman!

BATMAN: No Robin, this time it's LAUSD and the financial system.

ROBIN: So it's the ECONOMY that's behind this!

I bump into Jordan the next day and she asks if we'll do a second announcement. I haven't written anything, I haven't spoken to the Comedy Club, and announcements are less then two hours away. I tell her I'll see what I can do.

Except I only know my comedy soldiers by their Christian names. I ask some of the other teachers if they see them to send them over. Not knowing if they'll show up, I start working on a second announcement.

Fortunately I'm in luck, Batman walks in. She's "slashed" herself in red lipstick for the protest rally. I order her to find Robin and ask the pair of them to finish writing the announcement. I've got a class to teach.

Normally when students write I have to go back and clean up their mess, but I figure that the pair of them will do an adequate enough job which will save me time.

Towards the end of class I walk over to see how far they've progressed. Then it happens.

Students have managed to improve on something I've done.

It hasn't happened since I've started teaching, in almost five years.

I'm stunned. This must be what it is like not to teach special ed!

We rush to get permission, then perform the second announcement. This time I'm the voice of Robin, casting the girl as Batman and the boy as the Joker.

"Da-nuh nuh-nuh, Da-nuh nuh-nuh BATMAN!"

"Tonight's Episode," I announce grandly, "PINK SLIP of DEATH! Last time on BATMAN we found our heroes struggling to fight the economy!"

JOKER: Hello Batsy! Just wanted to say that this time, the joke's on you!

BATMAN: Pink slips are no laughing matter Joker. We'll stop you.

ROBIN: Holy hand grenades. I knew that the Joker was behind this!

JOKER: Wrong again, boy wonder! It's the ECONOMY, stupid. I don't have to do anything wrong, this time it's LAUSD!

BATMAN: Haven't you learned by now Joker, evil never prevails.

JOKER: Ok basty and boy wonder, let's play the waiting game, lets see how many people join your rally. Tick tock goes the clock! (laughs)

ROBIN: Holy Guacamole! Time is running out!

Will South East defeat the Economy! Will they save their teachers? Can Batman and Robin flip the switch? Will they turn the tables on the joker? (laughs) Stay tuned next time, same Jaguar time, same Jaguar channel!

"Duh nuh nuh-nuh Duh nuh nuh-nuh BATMAN!"

Later in class I ask the students what they thought of the announcement.

"What announcement?"

"The Batman announcement."

"Oh yeah," one of them squints, "wasn't that about a rally or something?"

"Was that suppossed to be funny, Mister?"

"Yes." I reply. "It was."

An hour later I'm feeling slightly disheartened when a pair of students pass by in the hallway.

"Duh-nuh nuh-nuh nuh-nuh, Duh-nuh nuh-nuh nuh-nuh BATMAN!" they chant.

I turn.

They run out the door laughing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

BSG Blues

A few days ago I received an email from a reader who was disappointed in my blog.

He was upset by the blog content and my choice of subjects. "Leiken, where are the links to the pictures of hot chicks and scantily clad girls?  How come you don't write about your family or how cute your pets are, or scream about the president or comment about what you saw last night on TV?"

Well, my friend, today I will comment about something I saw on TV. Battlestar Galactica.

Battlestar Galactica was a remake of a corny 1970's TV show that first aired on ABC, starring Loreen Green (of Bonanza and Alpo Dog food fame). It tried to capitalize on the Star Wars phenomem that had seized the country. It was full of hack actors, humans in tin robot suits (the Cylons), factory produced story lines, and even included the annoying kid with his pet robot dog Muffit.

It lasted a season.

In 2003 it was remade into a two part TV movie, then turned into a series on the Sci-fi channel.

The new series was gripping, intense, believable. The Cylons were frightening, the surviving humans desperate. Gone were the paint by numbers plots, the cornball humor, the stupid kid and his idiotic dog. Other then character names and that there was still a human crewed battleship called the Galactica, it was an entirely new show.

The pilot was picked up and turned into a TV series, and the show rocked. The writers kept focused on stories where characters had to make tough choices, fixating on emotional payoff over standardized plot lines.  

The fanboys hated it. "It's nothing like the original!" they cried.

News flash boys, other then some camp appeal, the original wasn't all that great.

For close to 3 seasons, it was an unbelievable, can't miss show. Like the best science fiction, the show reflected our present day insecurities through the context of a futuristic fantasy. Battlestar Galactica became a metaphor for modern day jihad, religious dogma, Iraq, secret military tribunals, torture, terrorism, and racism. It never beat you over the head, the allegory was always subtle, and the show was great even without the additonal level of complexity.

Then we found out Colonel Tigh was a cylon, and the show jumped the shark.  

Still, I held out hope.  In the opening credits it stated that the cylons had a plan, the writers had pulled out episodes that were simultaneously shocking and brilliant.   The revelation that cylon hater Colonel Tigh was a cylon was a bad moment, but the show was still good.

Then came the final episode.

The first hour was good.  Lots of action.

Then came the second hour of the finale.  This was where everything was going to be explained, where all would be revealed in one final apocalyptic showdown catapulting science fiction from the den of the nerds and into the realm of serious programming that would force networks and viewers to admit that science fiction was no longer just for geeks and freaks.

At least until we discovered that Baltar and Caprica 6 were angels and that Starbuck was an avatar sent by a being with the power of God but doesn't like to be called God.  

Did I mention that this was supposed to be a science fiction show?   When did it turn into "Touched by an Angel"?    With the ending BSG gave us it could have aired on the 700 club, or PAX, or TBN.  

Here is a small list of some of the more glaring inconsistencies of the final episode.

1.  The crew engages on a desperate mission to find Hera, the half human/cylon hybrid that is somehow mysteriously the key to earth.  They die by the hundreds and the Galactica is nearly wiped out, yet against all odds they succeed.  Except Starbuck already had the coordinates to get to Earth, meaning they could have just left Hera behind and not had to sacrifice anyone.

Did I mention that this is the same crew that left behind tens of thousands of "innocent" civilians in early episodes because it was too risky to try and save them?

2.  Starbuck tells Apollo that she is ready to leave now that she has completed her "mission" and gone to Earth.  Apollo asks her where she plans to go and she vanishes.  Poof.  No explanation.   Yup, just plain vanishes into thin air.  

3.  Baltar has his big moment where he is supposed to save "humanity" - he gives a half ass speech about divinity convincing the cylon leader Cavil (Dean Stockwell) to call off the attack and save Hera.   Except.... the truce falls apart, the cylons attack anyway and Cavil, a canny survivor, abruptly shoots himself.

Everything Cavil has done to that point is to extend his own mortality.   Does this sound like a creature that would suddenly shoot himself?

Added to the fact that even though Baltar saved Hera, they didn't need her in the first place because they already had the coordinates to get to Earth.  All Starbuck had to do was punch them in.

4.  The survivors get to Earth and find it populated by cave-men.  So naturally they ditch all their technology to live with them, forgoing all their equipment, weapons, medicine, and science to live in "nature".     All 38,000 survivors agree to this insane idea because Adama claims everyone wants a "clean-slate."  

These are the same 38,000 survivors who fought Adama on nearly every decision he made, most of them a hell of a lot smarter then giving up all your tech to live with cave-men.

Who knew that they were all secretly granola, tree-hugging members of Green Peace?

Actually, Green Peace would have at least kept the medicine.

5.  Adama decides to fly the Galactica and the rest of the fleet into the sun, leaving Earth defenseless if the cylons ever do decide to come back.

6.  Adama, Galen and Apollo all decide to live alone in exile.  Why?  Not really explained.

7.  The final minute we find out that that Caprica 6 and Baltar truly were "angels" sent by a divine force that doesn't like to be referred to as "God."

Did I mention that this was a sci-fi show? 

I thought I would never say this, but Galactica 1980 was actually a better premise then the ending of this show.

In the immortal words of comic book guy:  "Worst ending of a great science fiction show gone bad...EVER!"

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Death of a Math Teacher

After the pink slip fiasco, the school plunged into a tail spin of stunned apoplectic bitterness, some teachers didn't even bother to show up to work the next day.   Thirty out of 150 teachers were notified that their services would not be needed next year for trivial courses like English and Math.  

Art, band, and sports, however, were untouched.   School needs its electives and sports.

Special Ed was also unharmed.  School needs its Special Ed.

Just increase the class size for English and Math from 25 students per teacher to a mere 40, then bump a few junior teachers without their "credential" to make room for the experienced fossils, and bingo - economic crisis adverted.   

For 2009.   

I get on the phone and talk to Alfonso about it, worried.  "Leiken," he reprimands, "stop overreacting.  You are such a pussy.  You know that most of those teachers who got pink slips will keep their jobs, this is just LAUSD's way of scaring the state into coughing up dough.   You know that at the end of March the stimulus money will come through."

"But what about the junior teachers?"

Alfonso snorts.  "You know with all the retirees and quitters we're short every year.  Didn't you tell me that your school has three permanent subs on rotation just to cover for classes they can't find anyone to teach.  I'm telling you, no one is going to lose their job."

Come Monday I'm a little more cheerful.  Alfonso is right, it's all a ploy, a maneuver by cunning bureaucrats to squeeze every dime they can out of Uncle Sam.  At the end of March, we'll be in the clear.

On Thursday I'm making the rounds when I come across Roberts, a stellar math teacher finishing up her 3rd year.  We share a common bond, we've both been through and survived the DI program.   I ask her how she's doing as she one of those to get a pink slip,  it takes two years after you earn your credential to be put on permanent status.  

"I've had it!" she expounds.  "That's it!  I'm leaving.  There are so many jobs in other districts, I don't know why I even bother to stay here!"

The idea of Roberts leaving fills me with dread.   The other math teacher in our academy, Ms. Kim enters.  "You ready to go?" she asks.


"We're going to get letters of recommendation from Angulo." Robert explains.  "I'm not waiting on the district, I'm going to have a job next year, somewhere closer to my home!"

My stomach sinks.  Kim too?  Both of our math teachers, leaving?   Apathetic teachers are as common as the thick Los Angeles air we loving refer to as the "marine layer," competent teachers are rare, and competent teachers who truly love what they do and inspire their students are hunted to extinction.

Kim and Roberts fall into this last category.   

Where the hell am I going to place my Special Ed kids?   The though of what will come in to replace them does not fill me with confidence.   Most likely either a newbie so green you can spot the stains on their pant legs, or a walking zombie from district head quarters who doesn't have the decency to die before retirement.  

I make a valiant attempt to convince them to stay.   We have a great school!  The kids are polite, respectful, the school is clean.  The staff is supportive, everything (mostly) works, the administration keeps the students in check and listens.  Every year we improve from the year before, our academy had the most kids pass the CAHSEE, (AP not included) and that's in large part to both your efforts.  

I'm spitting into the wind.   

Roberts just laughs and shakes her head.  "It's not the school, it's LAUSD."


"Did you know that last year they only gave me $400 dollars in a paycheck, and I had to go to Beaudry and beg them for the rest of my money?"

"No.  I didn't know that."

"Not to mention the DI program and all it's stupid rules, the idiocy of all the mandatory training's, the constant wrangling for materials, the endless testing.   Do you know how far away I have to drive to get here every day, and you know I have a kid at home!"

I stay quiet.  It's hard to argue when you are on the losing side.

"I visited a charter school the other day.  Can you believe the kids were at grade level?  That they knew their multiplication tables, not to mention division.   The teacher I spoke to told me that almost all of them turn in their homework, it's the exception, not the rule when one doesn't."

I try to think of a comeback.  "Hmmmm."

"Seriously Leiken, why should I keep teaching here?  Now they give me a pink slip?  They're going to fire me because I give a damn?  Get rid of some of the senior teachers who don't care if the kids learn.  Shouldn't my performance at least be a consideration?"

"Well...have you tried to me more apathetic?  You know, doing a half ass job isn't half ass bad."

"I have tried!" Roberts cries out.  

Kim nods in agreement.  "We've both tried."

"But we can't, we can't!   I can't stand to see a kid not learn."

Kim looks at the clock.  "We really need to go get those recommendations from Angulo."

With a heavy sigh I leave the room. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


California High School Exit Exam. The CAHSEE.

Exit exams are nothing new, they've had them for years. The students at Mclean High School were all required to take one, the test was a joke. We weren't even sure why we had to take it. "You have to be a real moron not to pass this test," the student's cracked, "how could you fail this test? My little brother could pass this test."

Of course, few if any school at Mclean were illiterate. The school consistently ranks in the top 100 high schools in the country. (According to Forbes, it's #58. Mclean's rival, Langley, is #56.)

So exit exams aren't traditonally a big deal, or at least they weren't until No Child Left Behind made them mandatory.

Suddenly, kids all across the country found they were incapable of performing the most rudimentary of tasks. You could no longer charm your way through classes, or be such a pain in the ass the school would push you through matriculation just to be rid of you. Mandatory exit exams made it readily apparant that many students did not have even the most basic, academic skills.

It absolutely crushes special ed.

I'm not a fan of No Child Left Behind, there are big problems with mandating schools perform higher, but then not providing the funds to ensure that the schools rise to meet those standards. Worse, a failing school that doesn't improve automatically loses Federal funds, ensuring it has little to no chance to ever pull out of the tail spin it finds itself in.

After 6 years, the Department of Education has found that while both whites and minorites have improved, the gap between them continues to widen.

Despite this, I still like the idea of an exit exam - it forces students to examine the decisions they've made in school and accept the consequences. The exit exam gives the school teeth, it enforces a standard and pushes students to strive harder.

"Mister, can we ditch the test?"

"Certainly, but then you won't graduate high school."

"But what if we pass all our classes?"

"Good for you, too bad you won't get a diploma."

"But that's not fair."

"Why isn't it fair?"

"Because the test is hard."

At this point I nod thoughtfully. "You are aware the test is typically at a 7th-9th grade level. That means every 10th grader should have the skills necessary to pass."

This normally kills the argument.

Pink Slips

Early Friday morning, it's dark outside, my favorite time of day. Peaceful, restful, no kids.

I cluck my tongue as I input student grades, more then a few of them are dangerously close to failing, but then not turning in assignments tends to have that effect. In many ways, an incomplete is much easier to grade, you don't have to judge, assess, or evaluate the work because there is no work - just mark a zero and move on, when Mrs. Borquez enters the room.

"Why aren't you wearing pink?" she asks, eyes full of disapproval.

I pause to look up. "Sorry, I don't wear pink." As a rule, I don't like wearing bright colors, the 80's was all about garish colors: bright yellow, neon green, and hot pink. Somehow I missed the rainbow and went straight to the nineties dark blues, browns, and blacks, becoming a fashion victim ahead of my time.

I once had a girlfriend who tried to get me to wear pink by "accidently" washing a white and red shirt at the same time.

I tossed the shirt. We broke up.

"Didn't you hear the news? Thirty teachers got pink slips yesterday at the meeting."

"What meeting?"

"The meeting to determine who they were going to have to let go because of the budget crisis."

For the first time I'm taken aback. "Thirty teachers? That's like 20% of all the teachers at our school. Was special ed hit?"

Borquez shakes her head. "No, but they targeted all the new teachers without credentials."

My heart sinks. Our school is new, and full of new teachers, teachers who still have the energy and will to care. "How can they fire thirty teachers? Someone has to teach the classes."

Borquez frowns. "They will get teachers to teach the classes, older vets from other schools who will bump the news ones. Seniority comes first."

My heart drops into my stomach. Anytime I've ever had a problem with an experienced teacher it has always been someone older with a dim approval of special ed. "This is bullshit!"

"Which is why you need to wear pink!" Borquez continues, adamant. "We need to show our solidarity."

"I don't own anything pink."

A minute later Ms. Owens enters carrying a handful of pink scarves. "I have scarves if anyone needs one."

I hold out my hand. "Give me one."

Owens hands me a half pink, half leopard spotted scarf. I fling it around my neck, prentend I'm Tom Baker from Dr. Who.

School morale the rest of the day is low. Six of the teachers in my academy have been targeted, including the academy lead, Mr. Bustamante. He's been teaching four years, but hasn't completed his credential.

It's infurating to think that not having competed a series of unimportant, unrealistic, irrelevant educational pedgagogy courses are the difference between how the state determines if you are "qualified." But that's how it's done....

.....and people wonder why the education system is failing.

Other teachers try to make a more positive spin on it. Don't worry, these teachers will be fine, the money from the stimulus package will come through and they'll all keep their jobs. The state just has to notify them now in case the "worst" happens.

Alfonso, the teacher whom I affectionally refer to as "The mountain that moves," has a different take. "You worry too much, Leiken. This is all just a game, this is how the district scares the state into getting money. Threaten to let a large group of teachers go so you can get a big chunk of stimulus."

I'm not so sure. "Yeah, but thirty teachers? You know some of them are going to get bumped."

"No one is going to get bumped, there is a teacher shortage."

"What about all those bureacurats at Beaudry? Many of them are going to lose their jobs and have to go back to the classroom."

Alfonso scoffs. "They aren't going back to the classroom. Those fossils will retire."

I'm glad he's so confident. But I'm not so sure.

What happens next year when there is no stimulus?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bridges of Destruction

It started on a Wednesday with popsicle sticks and glue.  

I'm at the weekly academy meeting.  One of the joys of working in education is the meetings: there are meetings for professional development, PLC meetings, WASC meetings, faculty meetings, department meetings, parent meetings, student meetings, blood-pathology/sexual harassment meetings.    This does not count all the IEP meetings, parent conferences, or the joy of attending "optional" bonus meetings if you belong to the student council or are lucky enough to run a department.  

At the weekly academy meeting I  sit back and crack jokes in an attempt to divert the meeting off topic on absurd tangents.

The academy lead, Busamante, reigns me in.

We all have to do our part.  

"Some of our students our building bridges out of popsicle sticks and glue with Barragan." Bustamante begins.  "We want to do a contest in front of the auditorium, with the best bridge the one that can hold the most weight before it breaks.  Does anyone have any ideas how to promote it?'

"Bridges of DESTRUCTION!"  I crack.

Bustamante nods in appreciation.  "I like it."

"I'd go see that."  Andres adds.

"Good.  Leiken, you're in charge of promoting the contest."

Damn it!  I hate responsibility.  "Are you sure?" I ask, grumbling.  

"Yes, type something up and I'll get Angulo to approve it for the announcements."

The announcements at South East are a powerful sedative.   "Only if I get to read them."

Bustamante looks offended.  "As if anyone else would do it."

 I enlist Mr. C.  and we rehearse, mimicking a monster truck rally.  One of the special ed teachers looks annoyed.   "I hope you guys know that you aren't that funny.  No one is going to listen to it."

I shrug.  Everyone's a critic.

The next day Bustamante hands me back the one sheet with the Principal's approval, his signature on the bottom of the sheet.  "What did Angulo say?" I ask, slightly surprised.

"He just shook his head."  Bustamante smiles.  "Remember, read it with pathos."

Now it is my turn to look offended.  "As if I would I read it any other way."

The next day Mr. C and I walk into the main office and patiently await for the students to read through the announcements.  The announcements are drier then death valley and flatter then Kansas, but its not the students fault, they are just reading from a bulletin, but I'm not sure anyone in the school is listening.    

A student finishes and hands me the phone.  I hold the receiver a foot away from my mouth as Mr. C positions himself by my side.  

"BRIDGES OF DESTRUCTION!" I intone in my best announcer voice.

"Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday.  March 10th!"   Mr. C cries out as his voice reverberates throughout the school.

"See a one pound bridge made of popsicle sticks and glue hold several hundred pounds of weight!"

"THEN SEE IT, DESTROYED!" we cry out in unison.

"This is not your parents bridge building contest!"

"Tuesday, March 10th, in front of the auditorium.  Be there or be square!"


I end the announcement in a whisper, mimicking a thousand car commercials.   No tickets or reservations necessary, no popsicles sticks were harmed or eaten.  All bridges must weight less then 1 pound.  Brought to you by A&E, all rights reserved. 

The secretaries in the office all crack up.   The students gape.  "Think anyone listened?" I ask my aide.  Mr. C shrugs.  

The special ed teachers tell me it was loud.  
Everyone's a critic.

Bustamante is thrilled.   Barragan, who is the one in charge of the contest and responsible for teaching the students how to build the bridges, creates a digital image poster, BRIDGES OF DESTRUCTION is written across the top in burning letters.  It's plastered over the school.

The principal wants to put up a prize.  We decide to refine the contest with a raffle, pick the winning bridge and have a chance to win cash.    A week later Mr. C and I come back with an even more obnoxious plug.  



Come Monday March 9th to see the bridges displayed in front of the auditorium!   Pick the winning bridge and you have a chance to win fifty dollars, cold hard cash!


Then Tuesday, March 10th, see if you're bridge survived for a chance to win the raffle!


No bridges will be spared, but there will be only one winner.  See the bridge, pick the bridge, share in the VICTORY!   All for your chance to win!


I end the announcement in a whisper.  Cash is not hard or cold, students may participate only.  Bridges will be on display Monday in front of the auditorium, then destroyed Tuesday March 10th!  Brought to you by A&E, all rights reserved.

Fifty Dollars Cold Hard Cash becomes the temporary catch phrase of the school.   Many of the students recognize my voice and shout out "Hey Leiken, Bridges of Destruction!" as I pass them in the hallway.  Mr. C's voice, however, is more of a mystery.   Many people at the school believe it's another student.  

Bustamante approaches, beaming.  "I told the superintendent about it at a meeting, and he's notified the local news.  I think we're going to get a news crew to cover it."

"That's great!"

"Yeah, but we need you to MC it."

Damn it!   I hate responsibility.   

On Monday we display the bridges in front of the auditorium.  There are four of them, all about a foot long made out of unaltered popsicle sticks stuck together with Elmer's glue.   The bridges are the Herete, the Clockwork, the F.A.B (for Fabulous Awesome Bridge) and the Whopper.   A blue box with a slot in top with the A&E logo is in front of each bridge.  We play Guns & Roses "Appetite for Destruction" as Mr. C and I MC the opening day event.   Many students are hesitant to come up and vote.   I crack jokes, I make inane comments, I pour energy into the mike in a valiant attempt to get more students to come up, examine the bridges, and win a prize.  

One of the students approaches.  "Hey Mister, maybe you should tell the students it's free.  They think they have to pay."

I slap my forehead.  "Come on up, this event is FREE!  For only a moment of your time, you too can come up and win fifty dollars!"

"COLD HARD CASH!"  Mr. C. shouts.

"That's right, fifty dollars.   How many hours would you have to work in McDonald's to get that fifty dollars?"  I ask rhetorically.   "That's a lot of burgers you have to flip!"

"THAT'S RIGHT!"  Mr. C. calls out.  "That is a lot of BURGERS!"

"Or you can win FIFTY DOLLARS, right here, right NOW!  There is no charge, there is no fee.  All it takes is a moment of your time."

Students swarm forward.  Later I'll tally the votes.  We get a total of 213.    Fifty dollars and we only got 8% of the student body.  What does it take to get teenagers to show interest?

On Tuesday Barragan brings out a black and red painted platform entitled "The Bridge Ripper" in bold red letters.  There is a space in the middle of the platform to place the popsicle stick bridge, which is then attached to a wooden platform with a metal hook.   Weights from the weight room are then placed on the platform until the bridge shatters.    

No one expects the bridges to last past 300 pounds. 

A news crew from Channel 7 (ABC) arrives to film the event as a throng of students encircle the contestants and their bridges.  We have cordoned off the area with police tape and tables.  A number of faculty and administrators gather, including an accreditation committee who is there on a three year visit to make sure our school is academic.  I announce the event, but for the most part, my job is done.  The event takes on a life of its own as the students cheer on the contest.  

The first bridge is the Herete, an anagram of the two last names of the two students who built the bridge.   Unlike the other bridges, it has no arches, instead it is built with a solid foundation down its center.   I don't expect it to last long.

It holds up to 405 pounds before breaking.

I'm in shock.  I call out the weights, find myself shouting "Good gosh!  That sure was a heck of  a bridge!"    Walt Disney would be proud of my lack of ability to swear.  

The next bridge is the Lockdown.  It only makes it to about 240 before it shatters,  popsicle sticks flying everywhere as the weights tear it apart.  

"Behold the power of mathematics!" I intone.  "Behold the power of architecture and engineering.  If these students could make a bridge that can hold hundreds of pounds of weight with no more then popsicle sticks and glue, what could they do with stronger materials?"

The F.A.B. is next.  It breaks around 270.

"Yes, ladies and gentlemen!  These bridges are made out of nothing more then popsicle sticks and white elmer's glue.   The glue of choice of LAUSD for all your glueing needs.   Horse free since 1976!"

The teachers laugh.  Most of the kids don't get it.

Finally we come to the Whopper.  It's gotten the most votes of any single bridge, it simply looks stronger, with a double supporting arch.   Around 350 it begins to creak alarmingly.  The students keep adding weights: 370, 380, 390, 400.   The Whopper holds.   Team Herete is jumping up and down, praying for the Whopper to break.   The kids who built the Whopper can't look.  405, 410, 415, 420.   The bridge holds.  It's beaten the record!

We've run out of weights.    

"WE have a winner!" I cry out.  "The Whopper!  Amazing!  It has held 420 pounds!  A miracle of engineering and mathematical principles!"

Suddenly, the bridge creaks one final time before shattering into a thousand pieces as the weights plummet to the mat.     The crowd goes wild.  

The news crew wants to interview me and the students.   I try to keep it short, remembering when I worked at On The Scene that all anyone wants is a sound bite.  The students are stunned.  The news crew asks them why they named the bridge the "Whopper."

"Because like, we were eating whoppers when we built it, so the name fit."

A number of teachers congratulate me.  "Great job, Leiken."

I know.  

That night, at 5:53 PM, Bridges of Destruction makes the nightly news.   I'm introduced as a high school junior and contestant winner, but at least they get my name right.

Maybe I should crack more jokes at meetings.

For more, go to channel 7 online the NEWS THAT IS ON YOUR SIDE!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Comedy Club

"Mr. Leiken! Mr. Leiken!"

A group of students rush up breathlessly, eyes gleaming with mischief. "Mr. Leiken," one of them gushes, "would you please sponsor our club?"

I look them over, I've seen them in the hallway, but I barely know these kids. Why the hell would anyone want me to sponsor a club?

Our school has a number of clubs: A dance club, a drama club, a chess club, a bible club, a gay and straight alliance club, a students run-LA club, a poetry club, a school spirit club, a leadership club, but to get a club you have to have a group of willing students and a teacher who is willing to sponsor them.

There is no way I am going to sponsor a club. Clubs require a tremendous amount of time and energy - organization, planning, an agenda. I briefly consider how to politely turn them down when Andy cuts me off.

"It's a comedy club."

"And we want you to run it," Brenda chimes in, "because you're funny."

My teeth clench into a rictis grin. Damn! They know my secret weakness! They told me I'm funny! Damn them! Damn them to hell!

How can I turn down the chance to teach the finer points of farce, the sublime of satire, the joy of a well told joke? I have become "Comic Book Guy", for now I can point out the difference between why King Arthur being covered in crap in The Holy Grail is humorous but Eddie Murphy farting in The Nutty Professor is not.

Running a comedy club is not work, it is a religious cause, a chance to train disciples in the essence, the wit, the gospel of humor. I cannot, will not turn them down. This is a crusade.

"Alright." I respond laconically. "How did you hear about me?"

The students gape. "Everyone knows about you. You're the pirate teacher!"

This is true. I am the pirate teacher.

The first day we meet in another teacher's room. We listen to George Lopez, Dane Cook, and Dave Chapelle, analyze how their routines work and why they are funny.

"Humor," I lecture, "is based on one simple concept. Surprise. If you can surprise your audience with something unexpected, you can invoke a laugh."

Next week we decide to meet again. This time the jokes on me. No one shows up.

I spot Andy in the hallway, he falls over himself apologizing. "I'm sorry Mr. Leiken, we forgot!"

I sadly shake my head, tell him I'm not interested in running a club if no one is willing to put in the time.

A few days later I receive a note in my mailbox:

Dear Mr. Leiken,

We miss you. Come back to us. We beg you to forgive us. We shall grovel at your feet. We need your funnies. We are not worthy. WE are worms. We are lower than worms. WE are awaiting your guru wisdom to teach us the way of the grasshopper.

We have four new people and a fifth grader.
We use him as a baseline for our intelligence.

Damn them! Damn them to hell! They know my other secret weakness! My ego and vanity!

A week later we meet again. This time we read aloud a famous Abbot and Costello skit: "Who's on First?" The students are blown away. This is funny mister, where did you get this? You are amazing.

Eyes afire, I gather my comedic soldiers.

In the public school system, the half-educated man over 30 is king.