Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Random Encounter

Random Encounter

On Saturday morning, I get mugged. Like most muggings, it happened quickly and with no warning.
It’s my official last day at my old apartment. I’m moving boxes out of storage, mentally focused to getting the hell out of dodge, away from my low class neighbors, the pawn shops and liquor stores, the section 8 housing. I’m alone in the parking garage digging through a storage cabinet when two men round the corner, unmasked faces cloaked with menace. Similar to what a gazelle must feel to when it spots a lion on the Savannah, the minute I saw them I knew I was in trouble. They were not normal people, but hallowed men, empty receptacles filled with hungry avarice, souls scooped out and tossed away somewhere during childhood. They radiate rage and terror, mouths shut, demeanor and posture shouting violence.
It’s a random encounter; an unpredictable event that get hurled into life in an effort by the Creator to alleviate boredom and create excitement. In this, God functions much like a film or TV director who will toss in a bit of random “action” whenever they need to pick up the pace; Spider Man webbing a purse snatcher, Bruce Lee beating the crap out of a street gang, Arnold Schwarzengger mowing down a legion of minions in Commando. While I appreciate the “Big Man” trying to keep me on my toes, I am unfortunately not a super hero, martial artist, or indestructible action hero.

In fact, this encounter is blatantly unfair for several reasons, the first being that I’m unarmed, and the second being that I’m a dual class 8th level teacher/3rd level comedian. Some people choose to be soldiers, or hunters, or boxers; adventuring classes that can defend themselves. One example would be my friend George, a 3rd level marine corp sniper. Others like Vinnie are tough just by nature of where they live, (10th level New Yorker) armed with a protective aura of attitude.

So when God rolls invisible cosmic dice, determining that is time for one Brian Leiken, 8th level teacher/3rd level comedian to be robbed by a pair of 4th level thugs, I’m not prepared to handle it. A moment before the robbery I’m mentally focused on moving out of my old apartment, returning early Saturday morning to collect the last of my belongings, most of which remain stashed away in a small parking garage storage unit. (This is the exact same spot where my car was stolen, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised about what is going to happen next, even though it is broad daylight.) I’m digging through the storage cabinet for a box of old clothes, wondering if I should just throw them out when the dice are thrown.

The odds of getting robbed at 8 in the morning are extremely low, probably about 1%, but unbeknownst to me - God’s daily been rolling a d100, looking for that 01. Today, he rolls it. Two 4th level thugs materialize around the corner.

It reminds me of a time I was playing in a D&D game being run by Dan Kaplan, who randomly rolled up a pack of a dozen trolls against Dave, a 4th level thief armed with daggers. Having no chance against such fearsome enemies, Dave fled. It turns out that even against such overwhelming odds, his imaginary character had a better chance than I do.

The thug on the left is a bald Latino in white baggy t-shirt and shorts, the universal uniform of the LA cholo; he eyes me with the contempt of a schoolyard bully. His companion, eyes wild and amped, is African American, but has opted to don a gray sweater and black sweats, crack head approved drug user apparel the world over. Two feet away the pair of them stop; flanking me, bracing themselves for resistance or an attempt to escape.

Unlike Dave and the trolls, fleeing isn’t an option, I’m pinned into a corner of the parking garage, my only chance is to try and run through them. Standing over six feet tall, skin pock marked and crisscrossed with scars, they are physically intimidating. For all I know they could have weapons concealed beneath their baggy clothes.

I have no gun, no belt knife, not even a can of pepper spray. All I got is my fists – and a mouth. Perhaps I could offer to grade them, offer critical feedback on their technique by creating a four point rubric that assesses their mugging on intimidation, efficiency, risk, and professionalism. Alternatively, using my teacher powers I could lecture them about the history of crime, or use the Socratic method in an attempt to appeal to their higher reason.
Shit, as a character class teachers are more worthless than a D&D druid.

At least the Druid could turn into a bird and fly away; all I can do is grin and try not to sweat. Should have picked a modern day adventurer class, like a cop, martial artist, spy, or bounty hunter. I guess I could always try to joke my way out of it, make them laugh and hope they decide to let me go. It’s time to make a decision. Fight, run, or surrender.

Having gained the surprise round, the Latino speaks first. “You know the drill, empty your pockets.”

I attempt to make a skill roll to talk my way out of it. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I snarl angrily. That's it? You got to be kidding me? The roll fails.

Their turn, the Latino rolls for intimidation. “Do it, or you’ll get beat up.” He gets an 11 on a d20, not a great roll, but given the circumstances he only needs about a five or better. His friend assists, adding +2 to the roll by glaring menacingly. That makes it a 13. Shit! I pull out my wallet, phone, keys, and toss them to the ground.

“Is that it?” the Latino asks, rerolling his intimidation a second time. It works, but I got nothing left to give.

“That’s it!” I bite back, pissed at myself for failing my saving throw.

The Latino approaches and pats down my back pockets, but they’re empty. His friend snatches up my belongings.

I rally, roll a 15 and have the temerity to ask a question. “Can I at least keep my ID?”

Neither of them respond as they dart around the corner. I follow, suddenly afraid they might try and steal my car. At least it’s lo-jacked.

“Can I have back my keys?” I ask.

“They’re in the dumpster!” the black man shouts back. Neither of the thugs run, but they move at a brisk pace. I follow, not sure what I should do. “Hey, they’re in the dumpster,” he calls back again, “I swear.”

“Don’t follow us!” the Latino warns.

I stop to look in the dumpster. Sure enough, my keys are on the top of a pile of trash. I’ve never been more grateful to see them.

I look up, but the thugs are already a block away. I could pursue, but then what? I’m not armed; I don’t even have a phone to call the police with.

I run into the building and knock on a neighbor’s door. The apartment building I’m moving out of has turned into government housing, and not filled with the friendliest people. I can hear kids crying out from behind the door as I knock, a concerned mother’s voice telling her children not to answer it. I shout that I don’t mean to alarm her, but I’ve just been robbed and need to contact the police.

A black woman answers the door, her three kids behind her, all staring with wide eyes. I explain what has happened and she nods, dialing. I contact an operator and she tells me to sit tight while they dispatch a patrol unit.

A few minutes later a police car rolls up, I wave to them as one of the officers calls out that they’ll patrol the block to see if they can spot the thieves. I nod, hoping they’ll catch the unrepentant scum who took my belongings, the yellow bellied trash.
But in my heart I know they won’t.

The police return five minutes later, take a report; ask for a description and how much was stolen. Losing the wallet is painful, I had $120 in cash, $70 of which was going to a maid I had coming to clean out the apartment. The loss of the iPhone is near catastrophic, there is no insurance on it and it cost me $300. Because I’m in the middle of a move, I have no Internet and no way of immediately contacting anyone about what has happened.

I give the police a description, but while bald cholo’s and black crack heads might attract notice in small town USA, in Los Angeles I might as well be describing lampposts and freeway pavement. The cops are sympathetic, but there’s little they can do, expressing surprise only that I got my keys back. They call my phone number, but the thugs are smart enough not to answer.
I’m given a report and told that a detective will be in touch if they find anything. (Yeah, right.) Quivering with rage, I go back into the apartment and lock the door, waiting for my roommate to arrive to help with the rest of the move.

I play the event over and over in my head; wondering if I should have tried to fight or make a run for it. I’m not Jackie Chan, I can’t do back flips and spinning round house kicks. I didn’t have any weapons, I’m not particularly strong or massive or trained how to fight. Like a low level character being forced to fight a dragon, this wasn’t an encounter but a Kobayashi Maru, an unwinnable scenario.

But what If I had won? I would have gotten to keep my belongings, $120 in cash, my ID’s, and my phone. But if I had lost I would have lost not only my belongings, but taken a beating, possibly been hospitalized or killed. Any kind of rational analysis leaves only one correct solution: give up your belongings; it’s not worth it.

Then why do I feel like such a coward?

I log onto my laptop and piggy-back on someone else’s internet, leaving a message on Facebook that I’ve been robbed. My sister (10th level producer) arrives about an hour later with her husband (12th level entrepreneur); both are supportive and concerned. “You made the right move.” She exclaims, worried. “Things can be replaced, you can’t.”

I nod dumbly. All I really want to do is take a bat to the mugger’s heads and split them open until the red runs out like ice cream sherry. Friends and family alike contact me, are you okay, is everything alright? I tell them I’m fine. Really. Other then wanting to bury a couple of fools, I’m fine. I daydream in my head if I had just had one good friend with me, this might have worked out differently.

I decide to Skype Harry, a 10th level grad student/5th level professor. He tells me I did the right thing. I complain bitterly about being a teacher and feeling so helpless.

“You’re not a teacher,” Harry responds, “your a bard.”

“I should have fought back!”

“Fight?” Harry scoffs. “Over what? Some cash and a phone? Street trash like that is a dime a dozen, bards are rare. As a criminologist I can tell you that eventually they’ll be caught, or robbed by other thieves, or end up murdered in a crack house or a ditch. You did make one mistake though.”

“What’s that?”

“You should have called out that you’d pray for them!” Harry laughs.

The next day I get an email from my father, and although I’m still pissed about what has happened, he somehow still makes me feel better.

Remember these two assholes do not and never will have 1/100th of what you have. They are still losers and you are Brian Leiken, teacher, writer, and world traveler who is loved by hundreds of people you have touched.

Thank you for that Dad.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Old Man Rivers

“But you didn't prove that vanilla was the best.”

“I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong I'm right.”

“But you still didn't convince me”

“It’s that I'm not after you. I'm after them.”

- Thank You For Smoking

The Philippines, dusk. Sitting at the hotel bar with my father, enjoying a San Miguel Light, the official (and only) light beer of the Philippines. We’re discussing immigration, and both being of the liberal persuasion are expressing a point of view Democrats would readily agree with. It’s a lazy conversation, the kind people have when they aren’t really debating but more interested in agreeing with one another; many men use sports to bond with their father, but I use politics.

Drinking alone at a nearby table, an older man drinks by himself. The weather is humid and sticky, almost unlivable to anyone familiar with the comforts of air conditioning but like a stoic hero, he sweats in silence. Grizzled and weathered, the man wears a dark T-shirt and black jeans.

Face darkening, he rises from his table. “I once hired a crew to fix the roof of my house,” he barks, interrupting our conversation. “Other than the foreman, not one of them was white, all of them were Mexican.”

“How much money did that save you?” I crack.

“Probably a lot, but you interrupted me!”

I blink. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it, continue.”

“I was making a point! He should have hired Americans to do it!”

My father decides to leap in. “Hey, take it easy. There’s no need to be rude.”

But Old Man Rivers is already walking away, irritated. “You expats are all the same, you all think you know it all! Can’t talk to you people about anything!”

I’m surprised, but decide Old Man Rivers is just a crotchety real life version of a cartoon villain from a Scooby Doo cartoon. I let it go, but the next day I see him, and the day after that I see him again. Old Man Rivers scowls in my general direction, but I ignore him, which considering the small size of the hotel is not so easy to do.

Every day, Old Man Rivers comes to the bar to flirt with the serving girls, expounding about his life to anyone who will listen. A loner, he’s been retired for the past 13 years, hasn’t been married in thirty, and has no children, a man fond of bitterly focusing on his failures. When not reflecting on his life, Old Man Rivers spends the rest of his time complaining angrily about the decline of America, which is falling apart for any number of reasons, namely:

1. The federal government

2. Obama

3. Minorities

4. Immigrants

5. Bankers

6. The Chinese

7. Liberals

I like to think I'm a patient, kind person - that there is little, if anything, that gets under my skin. I listen with half an ear, trying to ignore the words that pour from his mouth, opinions based not on fact but Fox News. But hey, he’s entitled to his opinion – it’s not my place to judge.

But there are times some people take it a step too far.

A few days later Old Man Rivers is talking with a retired firefighter named Bob, as good natured and cheerful as anyone you'll ever meet. I walk out to the bar to get reception on my computer when Bob tells me that he heard on CNN that all teachers are losing their summer vacation. I politely laugh.

“He’s a teacher,” Bob explains, looking over to Old Man Rivers. “So is my daughter.”

"Well," Old Man Rivers begins, "I'll tell you one thing, I hate those teachers unions."

I close my eyes. Do I let this go? Old Man Rivers is just a crotchety old codger who speaks piss and vinegar, spouting words so sour lemons seem sweet in comparison. I should let it go, who cares what he thinks? But not this time. He might have been attacking “teacher’s unions”, but I can read the subtext.

He’s attacking me.

"Are you trying to start a fight?" I call out.

"What, I don't know what your talking about!"

"Are you trying to start a fight?” I say again, repeating myself. “When you make a statement about teachers unions after hearing I'm a teacher, I'm assuming you want to start an argument."

"You think you know me, eh?" Old Man Rivers snarls. "You deduced that I don't like you from one statement. You are so smart, I didn't know you were such a genius."

"No, I deduced it from your earlier behavior. You snapped at me, I apologized, and then you stormed off. Now I'm assuming you want to pick up where you left off."

"I don't remember any of that."

"Well I do," I continue. "And yes, you are looking to start something. Because you could have said anything, you could have said: "You know, you teachers do hard work," or "I don't know why anyone would want to be a teacher," or "I know there are some good teachers, but I don't like the teacher's unions," or you could have commented about the weather or said nothing at all. But you deliberately made a provocative statement."

"You don't know what you’re talking about," Old Man Rivers snaps. "You don't know the first thing about me."

"You're right! Have you worked in an inner school district, or as an administrator, or had a kid threaten to shoot you in the head, or threaten to rip out your teeth? Ever had a kid dribble spit all over your desk?” I snap back. “I have! If you haven’t taught, I don't think you have the right to be so critical."

"All you teachers are the same." Old Man Rivers responds. "That's what you all say, you think you are so much better than the rest of us, but your not. I guess then you don't have the right to criticize Viet Nam because you weren't there."

Viet Nam? Where the hell did that come from? "No, I don't have the right to be critical of the soldiers because I wasn't there - unlike how you are criticizing my profession."

Bob interjects, looking embarrassed. "I'm sorry I started something, I didn't know this was..."

"Don't apologize," Old Man Rivers interrupts, jerking a thumb at me. "This guy doesn't have good manners."

I rise from my seat and move over to Old Man River's table, sitting across from him. "I want to hear your opinion, but in return you have to listen to mine. But unless you've really experienced what is like to be a teacher, you can't understand the importance of the union and how it protects my wages and my benefits."

"So now we know the price of your soul." Old Man River's huffs. "A few benefits and wages."

The bar has grown quiet, both Filipino's and expats watching with wide eyes amazement. Evidently I'm not just a teacher, according to Old Man River's, I'm some sort of priest that's supposed to sacrifice everything for my students. From this point on the conversation revolves around refuting his half-baked facts while he counters with anecdotal evidence (probably from Fox news) about how teachers unions protect bad teachers. I tell him that a few bad teachers aren't the reason why kids fail, kids fail because of indifferent parents and byzantine regulations that make it impossible to enforce consequences.

Old Man Rivers changes topic to how the federal government has taken control of local schools, I inform that the majority of school funds come locally from the State, and that other than Title One and other limited programs, the Federal government has little influence how states run their schools. Old Man Rivers expounds that teacher's unions make it impossible to fire teachers, I tell him that we just lost 25% of our staff at my school, and that three other schools fired 50% of their teachers in my district.

"Well I don't know the case of your school, but I don't know why you are wasting your time talking to me, because I'm not going to change your mind and you aren't going to change mine." I spare a glance over to Bob and the Filipino's behind the counter. He's right, I'm not going to change his mind, but I have an audience, and he's played his part of the old fool to the hilt. Bob pays his bill, but approaches me, muttering. "You are a lot more patient than I am, after he cut me off I was ready to hit him."

It's rare to meet someone who really dislikes teachers and thinks we're spoiled, overpaid, crybabies, but it's clear to me that Old Man Rivers really hates my profession. Of course, I think he hates most people.

Why is it that if soldiers lose a war, no one calls them lazy or cowards? Why is it when crime rises in a city or district, hardly anyone says it’s because the police were eating too many doughnuts? But teachers are different. We’re supposed to give everything – even our own wages and benefits for the public good, and when we don’t we’re often labeled as greedy and selfish.

Maybe it’s not because people hate teachers, but it’s because when you badmouth a teacher, they don’t have any real power to hurt you. Badmouth a cop or a soldier, and you might get punched in the face.

I think as a profession we should start carrying nightsticks.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Slut Walk

Feminism: Organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests

SlutWalk first started in Toronto.

In January of 2011 Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti was invited to New York University to lecture to a group of young co-ed’s about safety and personal security. During the class Sanguinetti told the students who had gathered that: "Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized."

Local feminists Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis were outraged: Sanguinetti's blame the victim mentality infuriated them along with the insinuation that women who are sexually assaulted are somehow responsible for their own rape. True, neither Barnett or Jarvis were at the event where Sanguinetti made his comment, but this didn’t stop them from deciding to do something about it. Sanguinetti and the Toronto police department apologized, but Barnett and Jarvis still weren't satisfied, and a week later both they and three of their friends organized a five woman march - or SlutWalk, to protest victim blaming, sexual profiling, and to reclaim the word “slut”.

A Facebook page was created, and via Twitter a social movement was born. SlutWalk didn’t have the "official" support of NOW (National Organization of Women) or other major feminist organizations, but that hardly mattered. The movement went viral and within weeks dozens of protests were organized throughout the United States and Canada, including Australia and South Africa. Although the movement started small, some marches have already gathered thousands of protesters, many of whom dress in corsets, stiletto high heels and fish net stockings in an effort to attract attention. For the first time in twenty years the feminist movement was no longer on the defensive. SlutWalk had given feminism a much needed shot of adrenaline.

In 1999 I was a part time substitute teacher who had recently completed my MA in U.S. history, but with no job prospects I’d leap at any chance to earn a little extra cash. I was contacted by Barbara Drake, editor of the Peoria Journal Star, who was on an assignment for the paper to interview famous people who had grown up in Peoria, Illinois. Drake was going to be in Washington D.C. to interview Betty Friedan, author of the Feminine Mystique and the official founder of the post World War II feminist movement. Drake informed me that my job was to make sure the tape cassettes ran smoothly and ensure the interview wasn’t interrupted – Friedan had a reputation for being difficult and Drake didn’t want anything to break up the flow of the interview. After Richard Pryor, Friedan was probably the 2nd most famous person to ever hail from Peoria, a city with just over 100,000 people surrounded by farmland in the heart of the Mid-West. I was curious to meet Friedan, who for me wasn’t so much a person but a piece of living history, for over 40 years a woman endlessly referenced in text books and articles by scholars and academics. Just as you can’t talk about the Theory of Evolution without invoking Darwin, or discuss the Communist Manifesto without referencing Marx, you can’t have any legitimate understanding of modern Feminism without discussing Betty Friedan.

And I was going to get to meet her!

Although Friedan was an intellectual and an activist who had successfully founded NOW and staged a victorious campaign to help legalize abortion, increase women’s wages and fight for paid maternity leave, Drake was more interested in interviewing her about her childhood and what it was like to grow up in Peoria. In other words, it was a “fluff” piece; Drake wasn’t interested in being adversarial, all she wanted to know was what it was like to have been born and raised in Peoria. The interview, if you’re interested, can be accessed here:

Located in North West D.C., Friedan’s apartment was decorated in awards and honorary plaques, including a political cartoon of her dressed as a 19th century maid sweeping away playboy bunnies and Hugh Hefner, the caption reading: SWEEPING OUT THE TRASH! Friedan herself was frail but her mind was still sharp, eyes glittering in a weathered face. I set up the tape recorders as Drake introduced herself, asking Friedan questions about her childhood and what it was like to attend school in Peoria in the 1930’s.

At one point Friedan’s phone rang, disrupting the interview. I looked at Drake, afraid to ask if I should answer it. “Damn it! Friedan snapped, “Isn’t someone going to get that!” I nearly leapt out of my chair, scrambling to reach the phone which was in the kitchen, but as I grabbed for the receiver the caller hung up. “That’s it, this interview is over!” Friedan exploded as she pounded her couch in fury. “I can’t believe you didn’t get that for me!”

Drake and I tried to hide our astonishment, but Drake recovered quickly, calming Friedan down. After several minutes of coaxing, Friedan relented and allowed Drake to finish the interview. But something had changed; Friedan was angrier now, more sullen, more bitter. No matter how easy the question, Friedan’s remarks become more biting and cynical. She was angry at younger women for not appreciating what they have, for all that she and other feminists fought for. She was enraged at NOW for turning feminism into a gender issue and steering it away from equality, “Normal women don’t want to be associated with a group of lesbians.” Friedan fumed about masculine culture and its unfair standards of beauty; she complained about ageism, sexism, and the glass ceiling which no matter how hard women push against it, always seems to remain just out of reach.

She was a revolutionary, and like Patrick Henry after the American Revolution had found herself put out to pasture. Friedan’s victory for women’s rights was so complete that her brand of feminism is passé, even the most die hard misogynist would have a difficult time arguing that women should get paid less than men for doing the same work. Certainly there is still sexism, but the basic privileges that Friedan wanted have been obtained. To survive as a movement, feminism had to change, veering further and further to the left until it entered the territory of the absurd. Early feminists objected to being portrayed as sexual objects, campaigned hard against the abuse of sex workers; they burned bras and pornography and refused to wear nylons, heels, use hair products or cosmetics.

How far we’ve come; from the glory days where millions of activists marched for the Equal Rights Amendment, now handfuls of thousands march for the right to reclaim the word “slut.” Known as third wave feminism, post-modern feminists no longer abhor lingerie; they relish in it, and are completely unapologetic about what they wear or how they should behave. Like libertarians who claim they have no fiscal or social responsibility to anyone, post-feminists feel they shouldn’t be held accountable for how they dress; they are women who insist they not be sexually objectified even if they dress like sex objects. They demand the right to wear whatever they want wherever they want whenever they want without being labeled, insisting that their clothing, or lack of it, should have no effect on the viewer – but then wear sexy apparel that deliberately incites the viewer into labeling them “sluts.”

There is a SlutWalk being held at West Hollywood Park just off of Santa Monica , in an area of the city typically referred to as “Boy’s Town.” Boys Town is tasteful, full of trendy restaurants that serve delightful servings of what a friend of mine refers to as “gay-cuisine.” It’s a Saturday afternoon, and there are perhaps two hundred people in attendance, the majority of whom are young women holding signs and shouting slogans while a handful of men chant along half-heartedly.

“No matter what I wear or how I wear it!” a woman at the mike shouts.


“2, 4. 6, 8, stop the violence stop the rape!”


“Not the church, not the state, women must control their fate!”


“Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes, but no means no!”


Most of the women are dressed in sweats and jeans, but a handful wear bras and fishnet stockings, including a cougar in a black latex corset with thigh high boots. Other girls wear black T-shirts with the word SLUT emboldened across them: I would stare but most of them don’t have bodies worth staring at. A pasty skinned rape survivor takes to the podium and speaks about surviving rape; a feminist professor in blue shorts, knee high black socks and hiking boots informs the crowd two women are sexually assaulted every minute in the United States. I do a quick calculation and estimate that’s roughly a million American women every year.

While a few in the crowd appear to be true believers, the majority look like they’re attending just to be a “part” of an event. For them, SlutWalk might as well be Halloween, it’s an excuse to dress up like “sluts” and party. One full figured alternative girl in a black T-shirt wearing fifties rimmed glasses informs a news crew that at least for her, it’s all about reclaiming the word “slut” and making it good again, similar to what “stud” means for men.

If you want to see SlutwWalks around the world, click below:

I should stay, but truthfully, I’m bored. After the speeches there is going to be a march around the streets of Hollywood, culminating at the gayest Hamburger joint in West Hollywood, Hamburger Mary's. Normally I’d stay, but something about the combination of feminist dogma and unattractive women wanting to dress slutty acts like a repellent bug spray, and after fifteen minutes I find myself beating a hasty exit. The next speaker drones on about the patriarchy and how it must be overthrown if women are ever to be free from the reign of men, the crowd claps appropriately - I wonder how many of these young women are attending for "college" credit. No one misses me, and I'm glad I'm ignored - by nature of my gender and skin color I symbolize the "dominant-patriarchy" and there is no place for me here.

Post Modern Feminism isn't about gender equality, it's a hate group.

Not even 6 years past Friedan’s death, and the feminist movement which she started has become an almost unrecognizable parody of itself, a mockery of the values she fought to change. As long as post modern feminism continues to bash men and promote women as victims, is it any wonder why so few women want to identify themselves as feminists?

Perhaps all social movements are destined to become corrupted; would Jesus even remotely recognize the religion Christianity has become? Ancient Christians identified themselves through drawings of fish, the cross was not a holy symbol, but an image of pain and terror until it was co-opted by the Catholic church in the 11th century. Whereas Jesus was outspoken against usury and the excesses of the wealthy, Calvinism actively cherishes the pursuit of wealth as an act of divine grace.

Today, more women attend college and earn college degrees then men, while the wage gap has shrunk and almost disappeared. Divorce and abortions, which at one time were virtually unobtainable, are now everyday rights. Each year, more women enter the male dominated fields of law, medicine and science; the most popular candidate in the Republican party is ironically, a woman. (True she's not "officially" running and she is an idiot, but she draws massive crowds.)

But instead of continuing to push for equal rights, modern feminists tell women they should be proud to dress like "sluts". Instead of being embarrassed for dressing like a skank, they should "own" it, flaunt it, and actively parade their sexuality in open public space. Instead of promoting individual responsibility, the message of SlutWalk seems to be that you're free to act however you want and if something "bad" happens to you, well that's the fault of the man who assaults you.

If men were to organize a "PimpWalk," dressed in ghetto fabulous street wear in an effort to promote soliciting prostitutes to live off their earnings and reclaim the word "pimp", would anyone take a PimpWalk seriously? That feminists would have to resort to shock tactics to garner attention does not bode well for the future of the movement - perhaps feminism, having accomplished what it initially set out to do, is past its due date and should be tossed into the ideological trash bin. It's one thing to promote awareness, rape is a horrific crime, but its another to do it while wearing bunny ears and lingerie as it reduces sexual assault to the level of a surrealist joke.

And yet SlutWalk resonates, especially with younger women. Friedan was right, younger women don't appreciate the sacrifices that earlier generations made. SlutWalk isn't a protest movement, it's a costume party, a chance to be simultaneously risque and yet be socially "aware". The majority of these girls aren't protesting for social change, they're protesting to get attention. They want the privileges of equality, but not the responsibilities. Just because you can dress like a "slut," doesn't mean you should.

Feminist – An opinionated woman with a strong dislike of men: see Feminazi

Friday, May 27, 2011

Come back Khazani!

“If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.” – Bill Gates

There is near universal consensus that the single most important factor to student performance is having great teachers, so why can’t the United States hold onto its good teachers? New facilities, modern computers, small classes, and great administrators don’t make up for mediocre teachers; it isn’t quantum physics, you want good students, get good teachers.

A great reporter at this point would recite studies and statistics using documented evidence to prove how vital good teachers are, but taking a cue from Fox News I’ll settle for anecdotal evidence and tell a story about a great teacher who didn’t stay.

Sahar Khazani.

A stunning Persian girl of Jewish descent, Khazani could be Kim Kardashian's younger sister. A native to Southern California, Khazani’s family was forced to flee the Iranian revolution of ’79, and not wanting to be grouped in with turban scimitar wielding maniacs badly in need of a facial makeover, renamed themselves “Persians”.

But in my book they already get a pass for being Jewish.

A volunteer who had signed up to teach through Teach for America (TFA), Khazani was one of those rare individuals that proves there is still hope for humanity. The TFA organization recruits the best and the brightest college graduates, the typical TFA applicant has a 4.0 grade point average and comes from an Ivy League school; they're the public do-gooders, college graduates who want to dedicate two years of their life to help the underprivileged and downtrodden. So what if they've chugged entire gallons of left wing "kool-aid" and are socially educated to believe that they can build a rapport with inner city kids? It only takes a few weeks before most of them realize that being kind in the ‘hood’ is often equated as weakness, and that if you don't want to get chewed up into chum by the inner city piranha, you'd better have a soul of steel.

Most TFA'ers start gung-ho, but by the end of their second year, they're done. I mean, if you were an overachieving graduate that came from an Ivy League school, why would you stay in an inner city public school? They've given their service, and now that they can place TFA on their resume they are guaranteed admittance into almost any graduate program of their choice. Even so, I'm always amazed by the vigor and zeal of these short time teachers, they truly are among the best and the brightest, and Khazani was no exception.

Khazani's parents treated her decision to go into teaching with a mixture of apprehension and mild bemusement - a sideshow before she started her real career, preferably in law. (Among Jewish parents there is an old proverb: "You can be a lawyer, a doctor, or a failure!") Khazani not only volunteered to go work in the inner city for peanuts, but she decided to go into Special Education because she wanted to make a difference.

Although TFA only requires a two-year commitment, Khazani stayed for three, partly out of indecision but mostly to ensure that a number of students she had grown attached to graduated. Day after day Khazani would remain in her room after school, tutoring her students, teaching them not only English and math but basic study skills like note taking and how to remain organized. At Thanksgiving she brought them turkey, at graduation she treated her seniors to dinner. The kids insisted she take them somewhere really expensive: the first year it was Olive Garden the second year Islands.

By year three, however, Khazani was starting to fade, the day-to-day idiocracy of LAUSD was wearing thin. "This school is so retarded!" she'd complain. "I can't believe this place runs at all."

Being older and more experienced I'd just shrug and tell her not to let it get to her, but it's hard to explain that to someone in their twenties, they haven't developed the scar tissue that enables them to filter out the bullshit. By the end of the third year Khazani, like most TFA'ers, had decided to move on, she's opted for film school at USC to get into TV and film development.

But we have remained in touch. “Do the kids miss me? Sometimes I wish I was back in the classroom, teaching.”

“Yeah, they miss you. We all miss you.” Whenever a good teacher leaves a small black hole remains behind, a void of darkness that rushes in to fill the light and joy that disappears with their absence. There is a dearth of qualified people in any profession, but when a teacher like Khazani leaves the school dims and becomes less vibrant as it loses a touch of color. The kids adored Sahar, but most of the time our work relationship revolved around her chewing me out for all the times I said something that made her mad.

Leiken! Leiken! Leiken! Come to think of it, now that both she and Garcia are gone (another TFA do-gooder) my life has been a lot more peaceful. Boring, but peaceful.


I look up, startled. Parrish levels an iron stare that would give the giants of Jodenheim pause and freeze a semi-truck. "What is that smell?” she asks. "It smells like Ben Gay in here."

I sniff, it does smell like someone has rubbed medical ointment over the desks, as if we were standing underneath a pungent eucalyptus tree or beside a group of men smoking menthol's. I glance around the room; everyone is staring at me, as if I were somehow responsible for the menthol stench. I may not have to deal with Garcia or Khazani, but I do share an office with five women, and if something goes wrong, I'm the first to get blamed.

Kontofelas comes over to my desk and takes a long sniff. "Is that a new cologne?"

"No, it's not, I swear that smell wasn't here this morning."

"You were the first one here!" Parrish exclaims, leveling a finger at me like a district attorney fingering an accused murder. "Where did that smell come from?"

I shrug and turn back to the blog, I can ignore almost anything while I'm writing, but the ladies of C102 are bloodhounds. A minute later they track the odor to the room next door; our neighbor has decided to use an environmentally friendly bug spray to get rid of some ants. Unfortunately for his classroom and our office, the stench of the spray has poisoned the air with the unique aroma of medical ointment. A few minutes later the plant manager arrives, wanting to know who sprayed the room, an AP is notified, and we're told to evacuate.

"I'm sorry, you'll all have to leave the room until we can get rid of the smell," she apologizes. "I'm afraid this room and the one next door are quarantined."

Quarantined? What is this, Outbreak? I want to tell her it's just potent but environmentally friendly bug spray, but I know it's a waste of time. "I guess no one liked my new cologne." I crack. It's a clunker of a joke, but fortunately I have a forgiving audience - everyone laughs.

But now we have to leave our office. Even though we're on the ground floor, the windows are sealed shut, and we have no way to ventilate the room. The AP ends up contacting the district and has called for a HAZMAT team to investigate and test for poison. Screw radiation from Japan, this bug spray could be a bio-weapon! LAUSD has a strict policy that states we are only allowed to use 409 as a chemical disinfectant, whatever your problem is you better hope that 409 takes care of it because that’s all you are going to get.

Too bad no one told the ants.

Signs are posted stating that our office is off limits until further notice - and suddenly six teachers are made homeless.

Somewhere in some USC film class as Sahar sits back to watch Bergman’s the 7th Seal, I know she’s laughing. I can hear her signature voice now, a touch of California with just the slightest hint of exasperation: “This school is sooo retarded!” She claims she misses the school, that she wants to come back, but she doesn’t know if she can handle the daily dose of dumb that masquerades as intellect. Reason, logic, rationality – not in this district!

It’s no wonder we can’t hold on to good teachers, even if they were willing to accept ungracious teenage larvae and the low pay, they’d then have to contend with the bureaucratic inanity of the adults before finally being reamed in the press for doing a terrible job. Even in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression we’re still suffering a shortage of qualified teachers, you would think with all of our benefits, sick days, and time off people would be diving into the educational system head first.

What Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman neglected to tell you is that half of those that enter the profession quit within five years, and the lifespan of an inner city teacher is typically less than three. Even when a school is lucky enough to get a passionate and dedicated teacher like Khazani, it’s nearly impossible to hold onto them. Why should someone like her stay when with her talent and gifts when she’ll be better treated and more appreciated someplace else?

Even if you do decide to make a career out of teaching, you are ultimately forced to conclude that the public school system is a massive typhoon, a lightning storm of political ideology, lawsuits, poverty, and victimhood; there is no “winning” only navigating each day with grace and skill. I’d like to tell Sahar to come back, come and make a difference, but I know she would just get frustrated and ultimately annoyed by the “intellectual disability” of the school system.

But I’ll still be here, cracking my bad jokes, chuckling to myself, helping the new teachers as best I can.

Come back, Khazani! Come back and teach. Then run for president.

You want to fix the schools, then you need to hold onto the Khazani’s. It’s more than just the pay, you have to respect them too – and not making them evacuate a room because of bug spray is a good start. Teachers like Khazani give hope and inspiration to those who need it most, every student they manage to reach is one more future citizen who will in turn continue to spread their light and warmth. Great teachers cannot be quantified because great teaching is like art, like cooks they can all share basic skills but ultimately their end product will always be subtlety different.

Good teachers are costly, but bad teachers cost more. ~Bob Talbert

Nearly every student on Khazani's caseload graduated and passed the CA high school exit exam. When students had problems at home, they came to her for advice, when they were being bullied or having trouble with another teacher, Khazani reached in to protect them. When their behavior was inappropriate, Khazani never let them get away with it. Are they all going to be successful, who knows? But at least the teacher's like Khazani give them a chance to succeed.

None of this will ever be reflected on a test score, compared to the average student across California, Khazani's special education students would still score far below the standard. She'll receive no accolades, no bonuses, no special awards, no fountain, no statue. In a few more years at South East High School, after I and the other teachers eventually leave, she'll be completely forgotten.

But she'll never be forgotten by those she helped, Khazani will live on through those she aided and through them her kindness and her knowledge which will be passed down into future generations. If a parent helps a handful of children, then great teachers benefit thousands, a teacher's impact on the future is incalculable, no one will ever know where their influence will end.

So if you want to hold onto great teachers, pay them what their worth, give them a modicum of respect, and stay the hell out of their way. But even if you don't, it doesn't really matter...

....because great teachers are never poor.