Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Seven Faces of Dr. Leiken

There is an old Japanese proverb:
Every man has three faces...

One he shows the world.
One he shows his family.
And one only he himself knows.

As a teacher I have many different faces, persona's I adopt to cajole and persuade, educate and sway, discipline or embarrass. Persona's are my instruments, my tools, mechanisms of behavioral engineering. Each persona is tailor made for a specific job, a character invented to create a desired reaction.

Sometimes I am the Joker, the comedian, part stand up humorist, part clown. The joker is used to bring levity, to make light of a bad situation or to deflect potential embarrassment.

"Mr. Leiken," one of the girls flirts, eyes fluttering, "have I told you I love you?"

The class leans in, tongues lapping.

Out pops the Joker.

"I know," I respond cooly, checking my nails. "No need to state the obvious."

The class laughs, the situation is defused. I love the joker.

Other times I'm the Performer. Unlike the joker, he's mostly flash, eager to make an impact and put on a show. I pull out a banana, peeling off strips as I eat it. I explain that in the old days hogs traditionally cleaned the streets, eating all the refuse dropped by people.

I toss bits of banana peel down the central aisle of the classroom.

The class gasps. A second later they start giggling.

I ask rhetorically would would happen if no one picked the bananas up?

"The hogs won't eat them!" someone shouts. "People would slip on them!"

"So how would you solve the problem?" I ask.

The class debates this, finally one brave soul calls out, "Have people throw them in trash cans?"

I nod, picking up a waste basket as I toss in the banana peels. "Correct. The banana was the reason we have laws against littering, and public trash cans."

The class applauds. Ta da! The performer takes a bow.

Other times I am the Fixer, solving the unsolvable with workable solutions. He is a faciliator, a negotiater, resolving conflicts through the art of diplomacy and mediation. The Fixer is calm, cool, and manipulative; the proverbial velvet glove surrounding a fist of steel.

Failing a class? Being bullied? Need to change an elective?

The fixer takes care of it. He doesn't take no, he just finds a new solution.

Occassionally I am the Tyrant. The tyrant can't be bargained with. He can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until he has removed or disciplined his target. The tyrant is a robot dictator, a cold emotionless being with chilly eyes and an icy demeanor.

I don't like him much. The tyrant is a bit of a prick.

At least once a day, I'm the Coach. The coach is part counselor, part motivational speaker, all cheerleader. The coach never gives up, he constantly encourages and pushes his students to succeed. The coach is optimistic, upbeat, and relentlessly positive.

It's not a role I'm used to playing.

"Mister Leiken, I failed English and Math last semester!"
"But you passed Health and P.E! That's a 50% improvement!"
"But I'm not going to graduate on time!"
"That's what summer school is for!"
"But I don't know how to do my multiplication tables."

I pause. I got nothing. I duck the complaint. When you can't massage the truth, you ignore it completely.

"Try harder!" I grin. "You can do it!"

Rarely, I'm the Critic. The critic is the fault finder, the muck racker, the smug narrator that writes the blogs you are reading now. He used to appear often, but he gets in so much trouble that in recent years his cries have been largely silenced. The critic speaks only in truth, and there is nothing more poisonous than truth in the LAUSD school system.

The critic is a mean SOB. He's the one that makes kids cry.
Truth tends to do that.

Finally, I am the Father. He crosses the line between teacher and parent, possesses unshakable integrity, is eternally patient and just. The father promotes all that is good in others, he protects his charges and provides the emotional safety net the students desperately crave.

I have never adopted the personality of the father.
It's a persona that's been projected upon me.

It doesn't matter. Because the Father is the Joker, the Performer, the Fixer, the Tyrant, the Coach and the Critic. The father encompasses them all. Sometimes you choose your faces, but sometimes the faces are chosen for you.

So it goes.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Being robbed is a unique emotional cocktail, two parts fury mixed with one part helplessness and three drops of aggravation.

On Saturday night, someone broke into my first floor apartment.

At first I don't notice. The door is locked, nothing appears to have been ransacked, all of our clutter is still in the same miscellaneous haphazard mess that only single guys can create and would take an art director weeks to perfect. Weeks of mail is still stacked on the table, remote controls scattered about the room, books and papers piled up against book cases.

When I get to my room I habitually check my email before going to bed. I've been out all night drinking, but it doesn't matter. Like a cat that runs to the kitchen the moment it hears a can opener, when I get home, I check my email.

The key board is gone.
The key board is gone.

Not the computer, just the keyboard, along with the iPod Touch. The mouse has been disconnected. Now I'm confused. Who the hell takes just a keyboard? Did my roommate need to borrow it for some reason? I give him a call and leave a message at his work.

No, that doesn't make any sense. Why would he need my keyboard? He has a PC, and like most PC users holds a slight disdain that curls around the edges of his mouth when he looks at my Mac.

I do a quick check of the house. Checks are fine, cards are fine, TV, computers, phones are fine. I stick my hand in my pocket to put away my loose change in my pirate chest.

The chest is gone! They took my pirate booty! Sixty some odd dollars worth of silver and copper specie!

Arrgh, the bastards!

Now I know it was a thief, either a crack head or a kid. I search for points of entry. The screens to my windows are intact, nothing appears to be broken. They even left my X-Box.

I understand taking the Ipod touch, but why did they take my key board?
Then it hits me.
They need the keyboard to charge the Ipod touch. It won't charge out of a regular wall socket.

Now I know it's a kid.

Christopher comes home and quickly discovers that someone has crawled through one of his windows, but nothing has been knocked out of place. His monitor has been moved slightly, but that's it. He notes the alarm clock flashing at 9:02; its blinking, meaning someone inadvertently switched it off when they hit his light switch.

Little did they know that all of his light bulbs had burned out and he was on his way to the store to get a new ones. All they did was switch off the power to his room.

So they moved over to mine.

I move aside the screen covering Christopher's window in an effort to get a look.

"Don't touch that. They might want to dust that for prints."

I stare at him.

"We need to call the cops."
"So we can report it."

I shake my head. Let it go, Leiken. Let it go. I place a call to 911, and am reconnected with local LAPD. A couple hours later a young Latino officer comes in and dutifully takes down our report.

"Sir, what color was the keyboard?" he asks.
"The Ipod touch?"

"Maybe it had a serial number on it, so they can track it down?" Christopher adds hopefully.

I shrug. "I don't remember if it did."
"Didn't they give you a receipt for it? If it gets sold they might be able to trace it and you can get it back."

I bite my tongue. I'm sure the good pawn shop owners of the city will be diligent enough to call the police when a kid suspiciously shows up with a key board.

But he isn't going to show up with the key board. He took the key board so he could play games on the I touch.

The officer asks more questions, I dutifully answer them. This is not the first time I've been robbed. My former Honda Accord was broken into four times, and stolen once in Phoenix. After the fourth time I just gave up on ever having a car stereo system. I've made police reports before.

It's a ritual, you do it not because it's going to help, but because it's the "right" thing to do.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Better off Leiken

"Ladies and Gentleman," I begin, voice echoing with authority. "Can anyone give me one of three reasons why the United States is the most powerful country in the world today?" I write three numbers on the board.


I fully expect someone to call out the military, or the economy, but not the #1 reason. Culture.

"Culture, mister!" a girl shouts.

My marker drops. Who told her that? American culture, that all encompassing, hegemonic force that devours other cultures like the blob and replaces it with blue jeans, Disney, and McDonalds! How could she possibly know?

"Where did you learn that?" I ask, stunned.
"You told us that last year!"
"I did?"
"Yes, and then you went on about how people in other places like our movies and our music and how everyone wants to be like us!"

The class nods their heads. I taught them something and they actually remembered? From last year? How is this possible?

Its possible because of my work with Duran, who gives me free reign to teach one of his history classes. He facilitates, while I put on the show. I draw cartoons on the overhead, I sing songs, crack jokes, recite ancedotes, all the while prompting students to think for themselves.

I'm not just teaching history. I'm telling a story.

The difference between a good history teacher and a bad one is the ability to relate it to the students. They would call this "keeping it real," but I call it "making connections."
Pioneers, for example:

1. Pioneers
2. Davy Crockett
3. American Folk Lore
4. Popularization - Disney
5. Which leads to me singing...

"Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the Land of the Free,
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree,
Kilt him a b'ar when he was only three!
Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the wild frontier!"

The students stare at me with wide saucer eyes as I sing the lyrics off a power point with a picture of Davy Crockett and his trusted Indian side kick, Mingo.

"Hey Mister, wasn't Mingo the name of one of those 18th century slaves that escaped?"

Damn, how are they remembering this? "Yes, that's from the reward poster I showed you. No relation to Davy Crockett's side kick."

"Oh." the student replies, disappointed.

A week later I'll be covering the Civil War. I have several power points that I've created along with it, there is something magical about having a picture projected onto a screen to go along with a lecture. I finish the first part of the lecture a few minutes early.

The students look up, surprised. "What? Is that it Mister?"

"That's it for today, I'll start part two tomorrow."

"But you didn't tell us what happened to that Jackson guy!"
"Yeah, and you didn't even get to that big battle, Getty something."
"And did they ever stop calling Lee "Granny Lee?"

I smile and shake my head. "You'll have to wait until tomorrow."

The class lets out a sigh of disappointment.

There is a movie called "Better off Dead," starring John Cusack. In the film a high school math class loves their math teacher, clapping every time he shows them how to solve a problem on the board. When the bell rings, they let out a giant "AWWWW."

The teacher tells them not to worry, that he'll see them all again tomorrow. The class in the film cheers.

"I'll see you all tomorrow." I smile, expecting applause.

No one claps.

Damn, not quite that good yet.

The bell rings.
"See you tomorrow mister! This was cool!"
"Good lecture Mister Leiken!"
"You'll be here tomorrow, right?"

I nod. Someone pats me on the shoulder. A student approaches me and holds out his hand. I stare at it, and for a moment am unsure of what to do.

I reach out my hand and he shakes it.

"Thanks Mr. Leiken. You tell it like it is."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Biology Blues

Science classes are notoriously difficult to teach. They aren't held in classrooms so much as labratories, black countertop sinks surrounded by high chair stools. There are nozzles for both gas and water, ticking time bombs of temptation that almost no student can resist.

Taught in 9th and 10th grade, science classes are packed with fresh faced freshman and moronic sophmores. Biology is full of unresponsive, immature students conditioned like Pavlovian dogs by years of learned helplessness.

Earth science, a relic of the eighties, has been cut - it no longer fulfills the A-G college core requirements, so our school doesn't offer it.

Who needs to look at rock samples anyway?

Six of my special ed students have been programmed into a biology class full of unruly freshman.

We test the classes reading level: it comes back an average of 3.5. Somewhere between third and fourth grade.

My kids fit right in. I'm scheduled to be in Biology every day.

This is going to suck.

From the start the students can barely remain seated, their heads dart around the room, diverted by the smallest sound. Many stare ahead into space, dead to the world, unwilling to even crack open their books. Other kids hit each other, punching each other in the shoulder or back of the head, throwing pieces of paper as they duck tossed pens and pencils.

Half the class isn't even willing to bring a book.

"I'm sorry, I forgot it."
"I left it in my friend's locker."
"I left it here. It was right here."
"It's heavy, why do I have to carry it?"
"I didn't think we would need it today."

I smile and shake my head. "I'm sorry ladies and gentleman, no excuses."

I make them write letters home and have the letters signed by their parents about why they couldn't bring their books to school. If they forget the book a second time, I call home. Hope no one forged a signature....

Although there are two of us in the room, myself and a seasoned science teacher, we are outnumbered 22 to 1. I must use every trick I've ever used to maintain control and to teach this class. My voice oscillates like a roller coaster, my face becomes a canvas of emotion - I'm a marine in Afghanistan surrounded by a sea of potential terrorists.

The first experiment involves jello:

1. Pour 5 tablespoons of jello, mix into a beaker of water.

2. Pour 2 tea spoons of 8 different concentrates (orange juice, kiwi, lemonade, ect) into 8 differerent vials.

3. Mix 10 ml of jello mix into the 8 different vials.

4. Observe. Hypothesize which substances will mix and dissolve best into the jello mix. Write observations down.

This simple experiment falls apart from the moment the students are handed the jello. "Mister, how much do we put in again? He spashed me with water! How long are we suppossed to mix it? How much do we put in again? What spoon should we use? I'm confused mister, where does the jello go?"

One group doesn't even correctly perform the first step - they pour 10 tablespoons of jello into the beaker. I know this because after a few minutes they haven't made jello mix...

....they've made jello.

"Mister, how come it won't pour into the test tube?"

"Because you've made jello."

"What, but how are we supposed to do this?"

"You can't, you made jello."

"What about if we pour more water in, will that mix it up?"

"Dilute it? No, it's too late." I shake my head. "You've failed the experiment."

"But we just started!"

"You didn't follow instructions. Clean up. It's over."

The students stare at me in sullen silence. One of them pours more water into the beaker in an attempt to dilute the jello.

This turns the jello into wet jello. It's glued to the sides of both the beaker and the test tubes. It's going to be a bitch to clean it out.

One of them looks at the jello longingly. "Can I eat it?" he asks.

"No. Clean it up." I stare at the clock longingly.

Sixty days and fifteen minutes until the end of the semester. In prison this would be considered short time.

But there is no such thing as short time with an unruly class of barely literate students.