Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Jump Jump

First period, the students are animated as they squiggle back and forth in their seats, excited to spew street bravado and yesterday's malicious gossip.

"Fool, I almost got jumped yesterday. Those homeys wanted to get down."

"Did you hear Junior got hit! I mean that fool got f---ked up."

I mark the student's name on the board. "Twenty five cents." I state laconically.

"What, I didn't say nothing! That's f...that's messed up."

I turn to Javier. "Why did you almost get jumped?"

"I don't know, those fools don't like me. Have you ever been jumped, Leiken?"

The class quiets to a hush as a dozen eyes face forward, directed with pin point accuracy on my face like a quantum laser. I pause for dramatic effect. "No."

The class is stunned. What, you never been jumped? I've been jumped like twice, once with my big sister. That's nothing fool, I've been jumped like six times, I was even robbed at gunpoint. I was like, take everything, and they did, even my cross. You know what really sucks, Mister? When they point the gun at your head! Yeah, I had one put in my mouth! Did you hear they're trying to get Robert! Man, that fool is always getting in fights.

The cacophony washes over me as I remain rooted in place, stupefied. For boys, fighting is a traditional right of passage, but the students aren't talking about fisticuffs, they are bragging about surviving a storm of fists, knees, feet and elbows. Nearly all of them have been "jumped" once, even the girls.

The ghetto is an embryotic vat that nurses children in a womb of violence and disgusted apathy, a viscious bile that is five parts blood mixed with one part tears. If you listen carefully, sometimes you can hear the ghetto emit a wordless scream.

As the students relate the times they've been jumped and brushed death's robe, I can hear the ghetto scream.

Teaching them how to write a research paper has never seemed more irrelevant.

I should be teaching them Joon Re, Self Defense.*

*Tae Kwan Doe School in Northern Virginia

When you take Joon Re Self Defense,
Then you too can say,
Nobody bothers me,
Nobody bothers me,
Call Joon Re 9000,
Joon Re means fight for right!

Nobody bothers me!
Nobody bothers me either!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Comedy Skits

The comedy club wants to perform skits.

I find this annoying - I didn't actually think we would have to do anything other then watch movies and crack jokes. Occasionally I might pontificate about my latest crazy theory, like Rene Zellweger as the gold standard of celebrity death - one Zellweger dying is worth the death of 1000 Americans in terms of media coverage.

But actually act, perform comedy? Bah!

Turns out that the students want to perform skits, and they want to do it in the next 5 days. The visual and performing arts academy is putting on a variety show for parents, and the director wants us to come up with 5 one minute skits to give time to the dancers to change.

We've got nothing, but the kids look at me with big hopeful eyes. I can no more tell them no then drown a puppy. We get to work.

First we brainstorm ideas, then we come up with five possible skits. I write three, the kids write two: Fight, Auction, Pink Slips, Geico and Singular.

The next day we do a read through.

On Monday I call them in to practice. I have to teach them the basics - don't block the main characters, always face the audience, and above all speak LOUDLY. If I can barely hear you neither will the audience. Don't rush your lines, savor them. Don't be afraid to overact, it's comedy.

After an hour and a half, everyone is exhausted.

On Tuesday the faculty has a meeting (see previous post) and we aren't able to practice.

On Wednesday we run through it again briefly. One of the students can't attend because he has other routines he's in during the show.

I shake my head, this is going to blow.

An hour later I spot the kid who couldn't practice - he's outside playing soccer with his friends.

Ticked, I call him out, but he just shrugs a half apology. "I just got here!" he shouts.

This is going to really blow.

I go over the schedule, try to get the kids ready. We recruit a dozen extras for the fight skit. I tell them to walk on stage and start shouting "Fight, fight, fight!" when they see the two main actors going at it.

Many of them are confused. "What do we do again mister? Where do we go?"

"Just walk on stage and when you see the two main characters start arguing, stop and turn. When they start pushing on each other, start shouting "Fight, fight, fight!" Got it?"

"But when do we turn?"

"When do we start shouting fight, fight, fight?"

I shut my eyes. Don't scream, Leiken. Don't scream.

The theatre teacher asks if I name for my troop.

"The Pirate Gang. The No Size Fits All Irregulars."

The theatre teacher walks out on stage to announce our first skit to the crowd.

The curtains close and my two comedy troupers go out on stage, ignoring one another. I do a five count and send out the rest of the students. As they cross by the main characters the two of them go at it.

"What you looking at esse?"
"You're face esse!"

"Do you even know how to spell essay?"

"Sure I do, complete with topic sentence."

"Maybe I need to concrete detail your ass."

"Well maybe you'd like some of my personal commentary."

The two of them begin to push on one another - the extras take their cue and start shouting "fight, fight, fight!"

I run out on stage and break the two of them up. "That's the third time this week. I better not see the two of you fighting again or it's straight to the Dean's! Got it!"

As everyone exits the two of them turn to one another.

"Same time next week?"

As they shake hands the crowd laughs.

It's the first and best skit of the night.

The second skit involves me pretending that I'm an auctioneer selling off a piece of graffiti for thousands of dollars. Entitled the pancake, or as the Latinos refer to it, the Pan-cay-ka, I ask the audience for bids. I have my comedy soldiers sprinkled throughout the audience to help fill in on the joke.

Little did I know that regular kids will start calling out their own bids.

"Bidding starts at $5000. Do I have any takers?" I ask the crowd.

"Sure Leiken!" Someone shouts towards the back of the auditorium. "I'll buy it for ten!"

Think fast Leiken. "I'm sorry, only those with established credit may bid. Do I hear $2500?"

"Six thousand pennies!"

"My car!"

"Yo momma!"
"Established bidders only please!" I call out, ignoring them. I can't believe I'm being heckled. Son of a bitch.

I keep lowering the bid until it reaches the absurd - I offer the "art" for a McDonald's Happy Meal, a half package of skittles, a life saver, and finally sell for a pencil sans eraser. The hecklers keep shouting out their own competing bids.

I tell the "winner" that he can pick up his art after the auction, that and the dean wants to talk to him.

It gets a chuckle.

It's a small mercy when the skit is over.

The third skit is right before intermission. It involves a doctor, the grieving mother, and a burn victim with a cloth over him. Unfortunately the actor playing the doctor is still busy changing and can't make it in time for the skit, so I go out and play the part for him.

My own theatre teacher had to do this back at Mclean High School.
I've turned into Mr. Duncan.
Son of a bitch.

In this skit I inform the mother (who bawls the entire time) that her son has lost 80% of his skin, part of an eye, and his jaw has to be rewired. There is a silver lining however.

"I saved 15% on my auto insurance with Geico." I proclaim, turning to the audience with a big thumb's up and toothy grin, the "body" gives a thumbs up as well.

This gets a huge laugh.

Not my skit, but then the kids know the audience better then I do.

During intermission the comedy troupe has a complaint.

"Mr. Leiken, why are we called the pirate gang?"

"Because I am your captain, Arrgh!"

"We're ninja's Mr. Leiken, and you know that ninja's and pirates are natural enemies."

"My troupe, my name. You're a pirate and you'll love it! That's an order."

"You know ninja's are tougher Leiken. They can do cool ninjitsu shit like slip through cracks and walk on air."

"That may be true," I growl, "but pirates have more fun. Looting, pillaging, wenching, sailing the ocean - pirates! Praying in a shao lin temple under a waterfall to find inner peace, ninjas. Which would you rather be."

One kid won't let it go. "Oh yeah, you know why you've never seen a ninja pillaging?" I stare at him. "Because you don't see ninjas."

Before the fourth skit, two of my comedy troupers disappear. One second I'm talking to them, the next second, they vanish. I'm trying not to get angry as I channel Geoffery Rush in "Shakespeare in Love," and his unshakable faith that somehow it will all work out.

The kids do eventually show up. This one involves extras as well, and they have to be coached through every minutia. The Pink Slip skit starts with an administrator coming out to tell people they are being laid off - my part in this skit is mercifully brief. First she fires the janitors, teachers will be mopping the floors from now on. Then she explains the coaches will be fired, and the counselors, and all teachers with less then 5 years experience, without a dual special ed credential, pan cultural degree, and who haven't been shot at.

"I've been stabbed?" one of the teacher's asks. "Does that count?"


"I was involved in a cross fire?"




Finally she reads to the end of the memo and ends up firing herself. The last senior teacher cackles - "Rules are rules!" then she falls over trying to pick up a pink slip.

This skits gets a big laugh.

The last skit of the night is a two person skit with a father complaining about his kids and how the only way he can communicate is through his phone. He can't even remember how many he has - finally his friends asks him about his cell phone plan.

"You must have Verizon, AT&T, no Singular!"
"Why do you say that?"
"Because with that many kids you must really be raising the bar!"

Surprisingly, this gets a huge laugh.
God knows why.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Teachers are Whiners Too

Tuesday: Professional Development

Kids love "short" Tuesday's; an hour and a half sliced off the end of the day so the staff can hold meetings. There are department meetings, PLC meetings, staff meetings, trainings, awareness meetings, accreditation meetings, and to top it all off: faculty meetings. Sometimes there are two meetings, or two-fer's, one for the department and a second one for the entire faculty.

Today we're in the middle of a scorching two-fer, it's 97 degrees outside, and the faculty just wants to go home. We file into the auditorium, the air conditioning runs full blast, causing the heat to evaporate from our bodies as it transforms into chilled sweat.

Most people sit towards the back. The first ten rows are almost completely empty.

"Maybe I should give this meeting from the back of the auditorium," the principal jokes.

Someone chuckles.

He has news on the pink slips - it turns out that the way the budget is falling out it looks like most teachers will be able to keep their jobs. Unfortunately, the school doesn't get to decide who will be teaching, it can only save the position, not the teacher.

Translation: If someone else in the district wants your job and you got a pink slip - time to move on.

The teachers grumble, no one knows what is going to happen, but at this point everyone is too tired to actively complain about it.

The principal brings up the next item on the agenda: the school schedule.

Four years earlier the school was founded on the 4x4 block schedule, four ninety minute classes taught over a semester. Half the year the kids are in math and science, the other half in English and History - on the 4x4 block schedule classes move at lightning speed. Miss one day, you might as well be missing two.

Many teachers prefer the traditional 6 period one hour schedule, they like having the same class all year round and feel they can cover more material. It is also better for testing because no one forgets what they learned months earlier.

The 4x4 has one huge advantage over the 6 period schedule: you can fail an entire year of classes under 4x4 and still graduate on time. (No summer school required.)

The principal states that on Friday we'll vote on whether we want to keep the 4x4 for two more years.

For the first time, a number of teachers start to wake up. What! We didn't know! Why didn't anyone tell us? Why does it have to be two years? What committee? This is absurd, you are ramming this down our throats!

The principal tries to explain that he likes the 4x4 system and that he doesn't think that with the uncertainty of the pink slip crisis it's unwise to change course admist all the chaos.

He's spitting into the wind.

The three teachers (out of 150) that joined the schedule committee explain that they made announcements weeks ago at other meetings to come sign up, but no one seemed interested in researching different schedules and the possible impact it would have on the school.

I can tell this is going to take awhile.

Wish I had a snickers.

I turn to Busamante and Duran - we're all in the back row. "Would you rather sit in traffic, wait in line at the DMV, or be at this meeting?" I ask.

Busamante's response is instantaneous. "Traffic. I can listen to music."

"What about the DMV?"

"At least there I can read a book."

I have to admit he's got a point.

One teacher is in the middle of explaining his daughter's schedule at her elementary school - his research consists of having her bring him a schedule. "It works for her fine," he states, "I don't see why it can't work for us."

Other teachers jump in, angry that other proposals are not being considered. That none of these teachers proposed alternatives when they had a chance is irrelevant, all that matters is that the administration screwed the faculty by not giving them more time.

"Would you rather have a colostomy, a root canal, or attend this meeting?"

"I've had a root canal," Duran chimes in. "They're not that bad."

"Colostomy." Busamante grunts. "At least they knock you out."

The bickering continues. Teacher after teacher gets up to gripe about why the 4x4 is a bad schedule - no reasonable alternative is provided. Einstein's theory of relativity kicks in and the minutes drag out to a crawl, then time literally stops.

"Would you rather be tortured by water boarding, or attend this meeting?"

"Water boarding."

"Water boarding."

I'm stunned. "You would both rather be tortured then go to this meeting?"

Duran disagrees. "Think about how you would be able to brag that you were tortured. Not many people can say that."

One of the special ed teachers rises like a sleeping leviathan, enraged by the stupidity of this pointless conversation. "This is bullshit!" he cries out. "At my last school people put serious time and effort into researching a schedule, we didn't just offer something up half-ass."

The principal jumps in. "I'm sorry, we don't use that kind of language here." He goes on to add he respects passion, but we have to remain civil.

On the one hand I applaud the teacher for voicing what most of us feel, on the other I'm grateful that I'm not the one getting in trouble.

The principal puts an end to it. "I propose we vote on whether we want to table this for next year." The staff agrees.

Postponement. Love it. The key to all good leadership.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009



There's an old joke that as far as Virginia is concerned, American history stopped with the Civil War in 1865 - it was Virginia's last gasp of glory before succumbing to a land of sleepy battlefields and evangelical churches. Virginia is conservative: it has no casinos, no strip clubs, and hard liquor can only be purchased at an official licensed government or "ABC" store. (Which closes at night and isn't open on Sundays.) When I was 20 the state decided to throw caution to the wind and allow scratch off gambling tickets in grocery stores - by a miracle society did not unravel.

I moved to Virginia when I was 10.

However, I'm not really from Virginia.

I'm from Northern Virginia, which is as different from Virginia as Virginia is from West Virginia.

Northern Virginia is an extended suburb of Washington D.C., filled with over educated government workers and immigrants with doctorates looking for work - I've worked retail alongside Polish physicists and Czech ballerinas while hitching cab rides with drivers who proudly display their masters degree on the back window. When people on the west coast ask where I'm from, I now just say D.C., it's more accurate and it stops them from thinking I grew up surrounded by gap toothed yokels.

Gap toothed yokels still live in Northern Virginia, but they have nothing in common with the bureaucratic automatons who pushed them out except that they both love the Cheese Cake factory.

It's been three years since I've last been here, but Virginia is not behind me in years, but lifetimes. The memories are there, but the emotional nostalgia is gone. The recollections are clear, but they are a stranger's memories, the person who lived there compartmentalized into my past along with college and child hood.

This time I'm headed back to work on an audio recording for my book with my wicked step-mother, Nancy. She is a voice over professional with her own studio, and she's offered to coach me through a read which can then be placed on the web to help promote the book.

Business Trip! Tax Deductible! Whooo-hoo! I purchase a round trip flight on American Airlines for $250, not aware that American Airlines is the new Southwest - a cattle car of human chattel.  LAX is worse then I remember, I'm asked to show my ID at the baggage counter, once to up the escalators to security, again before I can get in the security line, and a final time as I walk through the metal detector.

I'm asked to take off my shirt because it is too baggy.

On the ride to D.C. I'm surrounded by a middle school of hyperactive 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

At the car rental agency I pick up a black economy model Mazda for a whopping $420 a week, $405 after my triple A discount.  The Washington D.C. cherry blossom's are in bloom only two weeks out of the year, there's a festival, and everything has doubled in price.

Stupid Japanese cherry blossoms.

Traffic is slow, and compared to LA light, Virginians in the right hand lane believe in going the speed limit.   

I arrive at my stepmother's in Arlington, she's looking well. I'm tired, but we spend the next 4 hours talking.  Her cat Dwight dismisses me with a hiss, but being a cat person I hide my feelings - cats don't really care what you think of them anyway.


The first person I look up is an old college buddy named John, he works for a government contractor, which is the government's way of saving money by paying someone else more to do the same job.  John declassifies information for the public, a few years ago he worked at the Pentagon and joked he was one of the two liberals in the entire building - evidently the military hates giving up its secrets.

Naturally John can't tell me anything juicy - something about needing TOP SECRET clearance. He tells me that some people even have higher clearance then him, or TOP TOP SECRET. I ask him if there's a TOP TOP TOP SECRET, but he can't tell me because it's a secret.

Makes you wonder why they don't call spying HIDE AND SEEK.

Turns out that's what they call sub warfare.


Before I moved to Los Angeles I rented a room from a married couple I met in college.  Steve and Connie live in Dale City, about 20 miles south of D.C. - land of mass aluminum sided housing and the Potomac Hills mall.  Life in Dale City centers around the kids in school, the TV, and the mall - in that order. Steve still looks the same, I've joked that if he was a dungeons and dragons character he would be a dwarf, trustworthy, stable - but if you ever messed with him he'd chop off your head with an ax.

Connie doesn't even get up off the couch.

I take a look at the house - it has wood floors, otherwise it's unchanged. My old room is a mess of discarded furniture and cat litter. When I visited three years ago I felt disbelief, this time I feel nothing. Different lifetime - I've moved on.


The last time I saw Luke he had two kids, now he has three. He's a big ex-army fella that went from making peanut's to low six figures because he has TOP SECRET security clearance. Now he works for Microsoft, but complains he has less money then ever.

Three kids and a wife at home will do that to you.

Steve and I meet him for lunch at Red Robin - a burger joint known for it's infamous bacon double cheeseburger topped with a fried egg. I fondly refer to as the heart attack sandwich.

We catch up on all times. Luke's a conservative, but Bush has screwed up so bad he doesn't even bother to defend him. I ask him about his family - he tells me that one of his sister's married a mercenary working for a Blackwater type outfit out of Iraq. The mercenary got into his wife's e-mail account, discovered she was cheating on him. When she won't return his calls he decides to play the mother of all pranks:

He fakes his death over the phone.

First, he contacts his mother in law, explaining he has been shot and he is desperately trying to get a hold of his wife because the doctor's didn't think he would survive the operation.

The mother panics, contacts her daughter, and a few minutes later Luke's sister immediately calls her mercenary husband. First, however, she has to talk to a "doctor", a mercenary para-medic who hits her with medical jargon about the bullet wound. Then they put her husband on the phone and they speak for a few minutes while he says a tearful goodbye.

Then Luke's sister hears the doctor's scream, "CODE-BLUE, CODE-BLUE!" A second later one of the doctors gets on the phone and explains that they need to "operate".

Five minutes later one of the mercenaries' friends calls to tell her the bad news, he's dead.

Two weeks later she still hasn't heard anything from the defense department about her husband or when they will be sending back the body. She contacts the DOD (Department of Defense) and they explain they haven't heard anything, but they will immediately find out if anything has happened to him.

Thirty minutes later the mercenary contacts his wife, admits he faked the whole thing. His contract is being revoked.

You have to wonder if the mercenary was willing to do that to his wife, what the heck is he doing to the Iraq civilians?


Skippy is my token gay friend.

Everyone should have at least one token gay friend.

He's living in Arlington, unofficially married to a Russian economist out of St. Petersburg. I joke that I wasn't aware Russia had mail order brides in the male order variety.

"Russia's got everything." Skippy replies.

If I'm 50 and unmarried I might have to look into that.

Skippy works for DARPA, or Defense Research Advanced Projects Agency. The Cell Phone, the GPS, and the Internet we're all invented by DARPA for the military before they went for civilian use. (Sorry Al Gore, you didn't invent the internet, DARPA did.) DARPA is filled with brilliant scientists, most of whom think on a level so far beyond us it's like how we think compared to our dog.

(Your average dog, not Lassie, Benji, or Rin Tin Tin.)

Many of these same scientists, however, can't figure out how to work a remote control, run a slide projector, or drive a car. That's where Skippy comes in. He's their event planner, or party coordinator. He keeps all the caterers, minor officials, and junior officers in check. He's bossy enough to get the job done. He takes me by his office, it's full of empty rooms - but Skippy explains DARPA is expanding, they are busier then ever.

"So what's it like working with all these scientists?"

"They have nerf gun wars on the 2nd floor."

That sounds cool. "Can we go?" I ask. I've always secretly wanted to shout "Take that Einstein!"


"These guys are really smart?"

"Ever seen the Big Bang Theory? It's just like that. It's great when they all start yelling at each other."

It's good to see Skippy doing well.


Melissa is the girl that got away. I blew it with her 17 years ago, chose my friends over her and always regretted it ever since. The day before I left for Virginia I got an email from her on Facebook - she was living outside of Baltimore. I sent her an email back explaining I was in Washington and that I would like to see her.

On the drive to Baltimore, I get lost.

Stupid GPS. How could it guide me to a road that dead ends at a train track?

I call her from a nearby Checkers - and she immediately knows where I am, five minutes later I drive out into the middle of a grassy field beside a duplex. She rents the bottom while a group of her friends play a card game named "Munchkin" upstairs. Her place was sizable, bigger then I expected.

Melissa spent two years working in the stables at Pimilco, the famous Balitmore race track, home of the Preakness.   After taking care of horses for two years, she decided to quit and enter the work force - not much money in grooming.

Before that she had worked as a teacher. "I quit. It wasn't the kids, it was the adults."

I couldn't agree more.

Melissa explains she sets up websites to actors, she is currently a fan of Callum Keith Renee. When I stare at her blankly she tries to hide her exasperation. "Cylon #2. The one that's in love with Starbuck."

I ask her why she's a fan and she looks at me like I'm crazy. "He's awesome in everything he does. He's currently in Californification, he was the guy trying to kill Guy Pierce in Memento. He's awesome!"

Melissa sadly shakes her head. "I used to have the #1 fan site to Ted Raimi."

I stare ahead, ignorant.

"Joxer on Xena Warrior Princess!"

"Joxer? That loser guy who was always getting beat up?"

"He's also the brother of Sam Raimi, director of Spider Man. Ted's been in all three Spider Man movies."

"What happened?"

Melissa waves her hand. "We had a falling out."

We spend the night watching Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, a one hour special that aired in three parts over the Internet during the writer's strike of 2007-2008. Then we watch the commentary, which isn't really commentary but an hour's worth of additional songs that barely acknowledge what is happening on screen. Then we watch fan submissions by people aspiring to join the Evil League of Extraordinary Evil.

Melissa submitted one - she made third tier dishonorable mention - Ban Sidhe.   Her evil superpower was she could sing and make people bleed out the ears.  

I wanted to see it, Melissa wouldn't show it to me.

The next morning I wake up the couch and kiss her on the cheek to bid her goodbye.  I wonder for a moment if there is still something between us....

                                                                                             ....the moment passes, and I am the one 



I make the 260 mile trip to Roanoke, heading west on Rt 66, then south on Rt 81 through the beautiful Shenandoah - this year Virginia has had a late winter and the trees have not yet bloomed.  I turn on the radio seeking non-Evangelical radio stations, flip through a half dozen country stations before finding one that plays some AC/DC!


The track ends as the radio announcer blares: "BRINGING YOU THE MUSIC that JESUS MADE!  Jesus ROCKS!  Now let's rock out to the music Jesus made for me and you, W101, Jesus saves!"

I almost flip the channel, but stop myself - there's no reason why Christians can't enjoy classic rock.  

When they play Highway to Hell I know I'm getting old.

Larry lives just outside of Roanoke in a suburb that popped out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  There are big, east coast style colonial homes with white picket fences, kids on bicycles, pastures with grazing cattle and horses - it's an all American neighborhood.   Once again my GPS locater fails me - it won't work on smaller roads.  I get out of my car to manually check the address on some mail boxes when a truck pulls up beside me and stops.

"What are you looking for?" the driver calls out.

"Bivens.  Larry Bivens."

"Oh, well just go to the back of the driveway.  I think he owns some rentals back there."

"Thanks."   A minute later I find him standing outside the door, half smirk firmly in place.  

"What took you?"

"Traffic was a bitch."

Ever the capitalist, Larry's renting three rentals, living in half of one and using the other 2 and a half units to pay for the mortgage on the property.    He was fixing up properties and flipping them years before it was fashionable to do so, I think he does it just to give himself something to do when he gets home from work.   Larry does not believe in idleness.

I meet his wife Lisa who I have met once before, and get a good look at his newborn, Logan.   The baby stares at me with large blue eyes.   For a second, all I can think of is Wolverine, but refrain from asking where are Logan's adamantium claws?

Larry would have laughed, but I doubt his wife would have appreciated the comment.

We go out for dinner at the Outback.   For a Wednesday night, it's packed.  Larry is convinced that in spite of the recession, there are a lot of people who have money to blow.   Roanoke is not the wealthiest of cities, and it's been hit with economic bad times for years. 

So why is the Outback packed on a Wednesday night?

Before I head home I'll stop at Larry's school, he's a middle school teacher, and with the budget cuts in danger of losing his job.   He explains that the state of Virginia wants only people with computer science degrees to teach computers, but they are running into a small problem.

Most people with computer science degrees don't want to be teachers.

Between Roanoke's shrinking school population and the budget cuts jobs are being slashed everywhere in the school system, but Larry takes it in stride, he's a survivor.    His school is tiny by LA standards, a mere 350 students - when I explain to the faculty there that I'm from a LA school with close to 3000 students they gape in shock.

The school is clean, there is no tagging, no garbage, no ubiquitous smell of pot.  It makes me suspicious.  The students are a mixture of white and black, but I spot a cartoon drawing of the mascot on a bulletin board - it's a confederate soldier.

Larry's computer lab is in the basement, it consists of about 20 computers in a ring around the room.  Larry is stationed in the middle where he can keep an eye on the kids, he also has a master program that can spy on them and lock them out if they are not on task.

The kids eye me with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion, but when I tell them I'm from LA I earn about 100 cool points.   

I've taught in LA for long I've forgotten what it's like to see children who are not jaded.


Lorraina was born in the wrong century.   One hundred years ago, out on the prairie, she'd have been just fine with an ax and a gun.   She's a firm believer in getting rid of the courts and settling things with a duel, the day they got rid of the duels was the day the nation started going down hill.

I make it to her place late at night, she's left it unlocked.   Inside I spot her two boston terriers, Boots and Patches, both of whom proceed to lick me to death.   She gets home a few hours later, in-between raising litters of puppies, selling baked goods, and assisting with the local theatre she works as tech support at Dish Network.

She explains that Dish Network set up a base in South Western Virginia because their number one complaint from customers was they couldn't understand the Indian's in Delhi over the phone.   

Let's hear it for the American accent, the last defense against outsourcing.

We talk for hours, it's good to see her.   

Outside the air is clean, it hurts my lungs.

We visit her mother in the hospital who is recovering from knee surgery.   I tell her I'll pray for her, but it will be a Jewish prayer, so I'm not sure if it will work for a Christian.

"Why thank you, Brian." she gushes.  "I'll take any prayer I can get."

"Remember," I crack, "it's better to deal directly with the Dad then the son."

We eat at a surprisingly good Chinese buffet.   LA doesn't have many good Chinese buffet's - in fact I don't think it really has any good buffets.    I notice an attractive blonde at the next table checking me out, and for a moment I wonder if my fly is open.

Then I remember, I'm in South Western Virginia.   Here, I'm the good looking one.  (Liz Lemon also found this out when she went to Cleveland and people thought she was a model.)

A few women also check me out when we're at the Wal-mart to pick up food for supper.   It isn't my imagination.  

It's going to be sad going back to LA and being ignored.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Devil's Own

I hate 9th graders.

Ninth graders typically cruise through middle school, regressing backward towards elementary before being sling shot through puberty and colliding into the upper grades. They are typically immature and childish, puerile juveniles on hair trigger responses. Managing a ninth grade class is akin to handling nitro and glycerin, one wrong move and they explode in all directions at once, giggling and out of their seats, unable to sit still or concentrate.

Ninth graders typically have to be re-trained how to be students, it's as if the three years spent in middle school have been spent in a playground. Middle school isn't a school, it's a prison - do your three and you'll get released on good behavior. Don't sweat it, fail as much as you like, the teachers will pass you on, the system can't hold you back. The teachers have to make room for the new crop coming in.

This year I'm co-teaching with a strong, no-nonsense teacher named Bustamante. He has experience as a special ed aide, which is why I like putting kids in his class. He understands what special ed can and cannot do.

He's also built like a tank and has a 3rd degree Tae Kwan Do black belt.

Kids tend not to mess with him.

This year they loaded him up with three 9th grade classes, two of them honors English.

So far, not one kid in any 3 classes has yet to recieve an A. Even B's are few and far between.

My kids are placed in his second block class, general ed 9th grade English. There may be five kids in his class that try hard, another five with potential.

The remaining fifteen think it's one big joke.

Guess which group special ed is in?

Today Bustamante called out with car trouble, so it fell onto me to take over the class and give the periodic assessment. Twenty-five freshman, one periodic assessment, one grumpy substitute.

Hilarity ensues.

As soon as I walk in kids are out of their seats, scattered all over the room in clumps of two's and threes. I yell out a warning and the majority of them grudingly slump back to their seats. A few stubborn ones cling on, refusing to move.

I warn them that I'll give them 60 seconds to move, then they go to the Dean's. They try to argue, protest, appeal my decision though a combination of whines and convuluted logic. Mister, just let me sit here! I won't talk, I promise! Why won't you let me sit here, Mister? I'm not doing anything. C'mon Mister, can't I just sit here once today?

"Thirty seconds!" I bark.

They eventually move towards their seats. There is no reasoning with 9th graders.

I inform the class that the periodic assessment is the final test before semester grades. If they don't want to retake half of the class over, they had best try their best on the test. For a moment, I have their attention, but as I pass out the tests they are diverted by an unseen force, jerking in their seats.

I tell them not to talk, to try their best, but some of them are already more interested in the day's gossip or practicing their tagging skills on pieces of paper. The test has barely begun, and they've already given up.

I spend the rest of the period putting out fires as I valiantly attempt to answer questions and guide some of the slower students along - but when you've got twenty slow students it feels like you are shouldering a burden worthy of Atlas.

I send one of mine out, an ADHD student who continuously puts his hoodie up and his head down, refusing to even try. After the third time I catch him talking I take out a chair and have him sit outside. There is nothing he dislikes more then being forced to go outside and be by himself. He craves attention the way a fish craves water.

But first I collect his backpack as collateral, can't have him running off.

I rush about the room constantly, one problem after another. Mister, I need help! C'mere mister! Mister, can I go to the bathroom? Mister, I need tissue. Mister, my pencil broke! Mister, I don't get this? Mister, can I go get a drink of water? I can't determine what is worse, their immaturity or emotional neediness - many of them won't even attempt to write without me standing over their shoulder.

One of my student's makes wierd noises. Edmund. I cross over to him and stare. "You've got my attention." I state. "Work." I remain, eyes glued to his face. After a few seconds he gets nervous, asks me to leave. I remain, as silent and still as a statue. He asks me to leave again. I remain. After three minutes he finally puts pencil to paper and begins to write.

It will be the only sentence he writes the entire test.

I spot a pretty girl practicing her calligraphy for a future mural, which would be great, if we were in art class.

I sit down beside her, she stares at me wide, mascara eyes. I don't know her, I've never spoken with her, but my experience has walked me through this all before. She's the PYT who has just learned the power of her looks, trading in on her cute perkiness to slide through life.

It's an old cliche.

I ask her why she won't do the work. She won't answer. "Is it because you don't want to do it, or is it too hard?" I ask.

She shrugs. I still won't leave. "Don't you have to help someone else?" she asks.

"Right now I'm helping you. Answer my question."

"Because I don't want to do it."

"Why don't you want to do it?"

"Because I'm lazy."

"Why are you lazy?"

This stumps her. I ask her another question. "How can I help you so you can graduate?"

She refuses to answer, looks wildly about the room, unable to meet my gaze.

The circle of students around her have grown quiet, all of them focused on what is going to be said next.

"Has anyone in your family graduated?" I ask.

She shakes her head. "So," I continue, "Imagine yourself 3 years from now walking on stage in your blue gown, shaking the principal's hand, your family cheering along with all the teachers. Imagine how proud they'll feel."

The girl stares ahead, blankly.

"You do want to graduate, don't you?"

"Yes." she replies, irritated. "I am going to graduate."

"Not without passing this class."

"I don't need to take this class. I'll pass another class."

"Another class? You have to pass 9th grade English to graduate."

The girl rolls her eyes. "I'll pass a different teacher's class."

It is my turn to shake my head. "It doesn't get easier, it only gets harder."

But the girl has tuned me out, retreated deep inside to a secret place that only she herself knows. I stand up. "Today you passed up an opportunity. They'll be others, but they're fewer then you think."

She ignores me. I spare a glance for the kids around us. They are all silent.

I collect the tests. Although they've had an entire period, barely half of them are finished. It's hard to gossip and answer essay prompts about the dangers of video games at the same time.

If the kids don't give a flying fuck, why the hell should I?

Juiliet is Bleeding

Juiliet is miserable.

Shy, quiet, reserved, she has a hard time making friends and meeting people. For years she begged me to send her to South Gate, our rival high school because that's where her friends were. Like Rizzo is Drugstore Cowboy, Juilet was convinced if she went to South Gate everything would be wonderful.

Now in her junior year, she has finally began to make friends, and the clamour for South Gate has diminished. She even met a boy.

"Guess what, Mister? I met a guy."

"Is he in high school?" I grunt. I'm reading the morning news. Housing prices have dropped again.

"No. He dropped out."

I look up, attention diverted. "He's a drop out? How old is he?"

"I think he's like seventeen."

"Is he in a gang?" I ask, knowing that he already is.



"I don't know, Mister!" Juiliet whines. A moment later she rises to his defense. "I like him!

I shake my head and silently think to myself that this story can only end in one of two ways. Pregnacy, or jail.

I advise her to stay away from him, she ignores me. Attention from a boy is intoxicating, even if he is a little cholito two steps away from getting locked up.

Next Monday Juiliet enters my room, depressed. "Mister, he won't return my emails. I've texted him and MySpaced him, but he won't answer."

"How long have you guys been going out?" I ask.

"Since yesterday."

"Well...maybe a little early to start criticizing the relationship," I reply, holding in a chuckle.

"But why won't he answer?"

Because he's an idiotic gangbanger, he's a cholito looking for his cholita, he's a player and you're the mark, I think, mouth sewn shut.

The next day Juiliet is delighted. "Guess what, Mister? He returned my emails. We're going out."

"Great." I respond, sarcasm ten stories above her head.

"It is great, Mister. We're going to kick it today after school."

A week after that Juiliet is despondent. "Guess what, Mister?"

I know from the look on her face something happened to her boyfriend. Either they broke up or he's in jail, I think quietly. Probably jail.

"My boyfriend got locked up."

Leiken scores for 3 points, but he manages to keep his poker face. "What happened?"

"He got locked up for a violation."

"What kind of violation?"

"I don't know, we don't talk about that."

I shake my head and try to offer her words of encouragement, but then the story ended in one of the only two ways it could have ended. Break-up, or jail.