Friday, December 14, 2012

Making Sense of the Senseless

I first became at least vaguely aware of the tragedy in Connecticut this morning when, as my wife texted me to let me know she was safely landed in New York she mentioned, ever so briefly, "There was a shooting at an elementary school in CT."

Embroiled as I was all day in the usual string of emergencies that is my job as a high school administrator, I couldn't follow the story as closely as I would have liked.  At one point, at the end of the day, I caught a glimpse of President Obama on my secretary's computer.  As he fought back tears, describing the collective grief of his nation, I began to understand, for the first time, and in a very real, very visceral way, the severity of the situation.  I could see it on Mr. Obama's face.  His very demeanor made me understand the loss our country suffered today.

The real emotional work came when I picked up my sons from school.  As I said, their mother had arrived in New York earlier in the day, so the task of talking with them about what had happened fell on me alone.  Normally, Jeanette and I would have gotten together and discussed this first.  Today I didn't have that option.  I think my children knew, almost immediately, how heartbroken I was, and, before setting off in the car, I told them I needed to talk to them about something serious and horrible, and that I needed them to listen.

This got their attention, and both looked at me from the back seat of my car, a bit of fear in their expressions, as they strapped into their seat belts, just as they do each and every day I pick them up behind their school.

"A man went into a school today and killed some people, people who had done nothing wrong.  A lot of people died, including children."

I was a little shocked by my own words, and by how matter-of-fact they came out.  It was as though I needed these two boys to know that I was in control, that I was still their father.

And that they were safe.

The questions came fast and hard, one after the other.  "Who was he?"  "Why did he do that?"  "Is he still alive?"  "Will he come here?"

I did my best to answer all the questions, and I found this last one most interesting of all.  "No, Jackson,  he's not coming here.  He's dead now.  And you guys are safe in your school.  Your teachers make sure you're always safe."

We do lockdown drills at my school, just as they do at every single public school in the United States.  Always, there are those teachers who take it a little less seriously -- I had to speak to one recently, who seemed somehow put-upon as I asked him to find a classroom and hide with the students and teachers, instead of making the photocopies that were so important to him at that moment.  I suspect our next drill will be taken more seriously now.  I don't know how effective these drills are, but we do what we can, and I can do nothing more than hold my sons tight, tell them I love them, and reassure them that as their father I will do all I can to keep them safe.




Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What a Drag It Is Getting Old


Judge Number One, Daniela Fuchilicious
As soon as I put in my falsies last Friday, I knew I’d made a mistake.  They were too perky for a man of my age – not to mention I’d neglected to buy a brassiere, thus allowing the gals to float around like cosmonauts in the International Space Station.  (I eventually chose to "go natural," scrapping the falsies.)  In addition, I’d failed to anticipate how hot I would be in my XXL, ankle-length dress I’d just purchased at Goodwill, so I immediately sweated through it. 

Sitting backstage, waiting to go on as Judge Number 1 in the first annual Raiders and Tiaras pageant, I did find myself having second thoughts.  I wasn’t the least attractive man in drag, sitting back there.  In fact two of the three other staff members (who I won’t name here) were downright – well, I don’t want to be unkind.  Let’s just say they looked like people you might wake up next to in the local lockup’s drunk tank, just before being called in to appear in night court. 

Many of my colleagues have given me the impression, although they were too polite to say it out loud, that they felt it was a foolish move for me to agree to appear in drag in front of three hundred students and their families.  But you know what?  I disagree, and I do so for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost, this was a charity event, raising money for a cause about which I care as an educator, our PALS program, which trains our students to mentor and otherwise work with younger kids.  I don’t have any real data to back this up, but I’ll just bet you that when students found out there was an opportunity to see one of their male assistant principals in ladies’ clothing, it caused some to shell out the five dollars that got them in the door. 

My second reason for choosing to dress up as a woman was because I am a lover of the theatre, and have always been a frustrated actor.  If you ever get an opportunity to see a video of my performance as Daniela Fuchilicious, Judge Number One of the first-annual Raiders and Tiaras pageant, (and I hope that you do) you’ll see a full-on character, start to finish.  I did work on my character, and anyone who’s ever taken an acting class knows what I’m talking about.  Indeed, those of you who have studied theatre know that there is a long, rich history of male actors appearing in female roles on stage.  The Greeks did it, and so did Shakespeare. 

So there.

Finally, I’ll let you in on a little secret:  This was not my first time.  It was my third.  The first time was when I was 20.  My girlfriend and I were living in Provincetown, Massachusetts for the summer.  Provincetown is replete with drag queens, some of them world renowned.  We did it for no other reason than pure boredom.  As I remember it, the day was rainy, and we began with an outfit, then the makeup.  Amazingly, I fit into her clothes, and, in the end, I’d say I looked, well, kind of pretty. 

Fast forward ten years, and picture a staff and student Halloween fashion show in a tiny, alternative high school in New York City.  My advisory group came up with the idea, and they collaborated on a garish costume, with huge hind quarters and breasts, and overdone makeup.  They called me Juwakateema, and I embraced the part – sprinting around our tiny lounge, my dress billowing like a multi-colored sail behind me – much to the delight of my students and horror of a couple of colleagues. 
Interesting, now that I think of it, how I’ve appeared in drag every ten years for the past thirty years.  

The first time I was “kind of pretty,” the second I was “garish,” and this time I was “not the ugliest.”  I shudder to think what 2022 may bring.  

Saturday, November 10, 2012

My Life in Bondage. James Bondage.

Covering a class yesterday at my school, I asked the students what they had planned for the weekend.  Most said they would be catching up on sleep, one talked about a trip to see family down in the Valley, and another mentioned hanging out at the mall.  When they asked me the same, I told them I'd been considering taking my wife out on a date to see the new James Bond movie.

"It's so funny," a boy said, "how they, like, keep bringing him back every couple of years."

I didn't quite know how to respond to his comment.  I suppose it is kind of "funny," in the sense that our taste for this character has not waned since Dr. No was released fifty years ago.  Because I turn 49 next month, I can say that James Bond has been a part of my life during the whole journey, and yes, I have seen new incarnations come and go.

I'm particularly fond of Sean Connery, because I remember how close it made me feel to my father, watching those films.  Connery was always my dad's favorite, though I think had Dad lived to see our present Bond, Daniel Craig, he'd have approved.  Sean Connery had such style and power, and he didn't take himself overly seriously, which helped.  I have strong memories of lying in my parents' big king-size bed watching Bond films with them.  My father loved telling me about all the exotic locations in which they were shot.

Most of my memories of seeing Bond flicks in the theatre were of Roger Moore, in the late 70's and early 80's.  Barbara Bach fascinated me and all my friends, of course.  But I wasn't a huge Roger Moore fan.  He went too far to the tongue-in-cheek side, so that I didn't find his "license to kill" at all believable.  Also, by the time 1977 rolled around, and they came up with Jaws, his rival in The Spy Who Loved Me, it was clear they'd run out of ideas, in my mind.  My brother and I went to see Octopussy when it came out during my sophomore year in college, but we were so addled with all manner of controlled substance, I remember virtually nothing about the movie to this day.

I vaguely recall going to see Timothy Dalton as Bond, and liking him okay, but deciding, perhaps, that my life in Bondage was coming to an end.  Pierce Brosnan was a 007 for the ladies.  He was handsome and charming -- maybe even sexy, according to a few of my female friends.  But I never bought Pierce as an ass-kicker.  Also, 2002, when Die Another Day was released, happened to be the year I married Jeanette Reyes, and we had more important things to worry about -- like buying our first home and having our first baby a year later.  Yes, I took note of Halle Berry's Ursula Andress-inspired bikini, but nothing else stayed with me.

When Daniel Craig took over in 2005, I became interested again.  He was billed as a "darker" Bond, probably because he was really the first 007 who was actually scary.  I had no trouble believing that this man was an assassin.  So I watch Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace every chance I get, whenever they're replayed on TNT or TBS or some other basic cable station.

And I'm now more than ready for Skyfall.  The action is more frenetic than it once was.  The explosions are CG and much, much louder than they were in 1962.  The punches feel real, and the campinesss is still there, but much more subtle.  They still shoot in exotic locations, which I love, and, lying on my king size bed with Jackson, explaining the intricacies of one of the poker scenes in Casino Royale, brought pleasant recollections of my father.  I wonder what Bond will look like when Jackson is my age, in another 50 years......

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Travolta Effect

A colleague and I were recently chatting, killing time during lunch coverage, when we do nothing much more than provide an adult presence in the cafeteria and answer the occasional student question.  As it turns out, he and I were born approximately a month apart, so there is no cultural reference we can drop that the other will not get.  Despite being born 1,500 miles apart, we had many of the same experiences and influences growing up.

This says a lot about the power of American media and the Hollywood dream machine.  As recently as a hundred years ago, if you were to speak to someone from East Texas and someone from the well-to-do northern suburbs of New York City, it might have been like comparing beings from two different planets.  Don't get me wrong -- I'm sure there are aspects of our lives and attitudes that might confound each other.  But thanks to large helpings of mass culture, we grew up with the same rock and roll bands, songs, television shows, films and iconic actors.

John Travolta would not top any of my lists, were you to ask me who my favorites are, even though I saw him recently in Pulp Fiction (for the umpteenth time), and his performance, like so many others in that film, is spectacular.  His effect -- or maybe the effect of the dream machine that created his persona -- is undeniable.  When my friend and I discuss the "Travolta Effect," we talk about things like hair and clothes, and how he took us from Kotter to Saturday Night Fever to Urban Cowboy to Grease.  

Apparently John has fallen on more difficult times of late.  Since Pulp, his career has been hit and miss. He made an embarrassing, Dianetics-inspired movie, based on L. Ron Hubbard's book, Battlefield Earth, which may have been the low-water mark.  He's had a few mini-comebacks, including a drag musical (Hairspray) and an animated mega-hit in which he voices a dog who believes he is the super-hero Hollywood has created.

More notoriously, in one of the more lurid stories this past summer, John Travolta was rumored to have received some "questionable" massages from a rather shady masseur named Luis.  Then of course, many others came out of the woodwork to say they, too, had had massages that ended up being much more than a rubdown.

I don't pretend to know any of the gory details of what went on there.  Like my friend, and most men in our demographic, I'm sure, I have turned away from the uglier aspects of John's recent travails.  I did happen to notice that Gotti, in which Travolta will play the title role of John Gotti, Sr., is in post-production.  Barry Levinson is the director, and Kelly Preston, Travolta's real-life wife, plays Victoria Gotti, the spouse of the Dapper Don.

So we'll see.  Maybe Johnny T. has one more comeback left in him.  And who knows, maybe my colleague and I will start sporting shiny Armani suits and smoking big, fat Cuban cigars, and the Travolta Effect will once again be in full force.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Little Rebel

Every now and then -- usually after playing with his friend K'Jon in after school -- our seven year old son Jackson will make a play for a pair of earrings.  The idea mortifies my wife and amuses me.  She associates piercings with thuggishness.  I shouldn't make light of her concern.  I know where it comes from.  There's a path we want our boys to walk toward, and it's one of possibilities and healthy living.  And then there's that other path -- of rebellion, that winds its way through city streets at night, through tattoo parlors and after-hours clubs.

I'm not relegating Jackson to either life just yet.  He does have a rebellious spirit, however; anyone who knows him at all can tell you that.  He's not defiant, exactly, although he certainly has those moments.  He's what Katy Perry might call a "firework."  If there's any sign of anything even slightly resembling a party breaking out, he perks right up, wanting to be first in line.  As soon as the intro beats start pumping to a popular song, his face changes, and he becomes entranced, letting the music move him -- both figuratively and literally.  He dances like a dervish, throwing himself around the space in wild abandon.

His impulsivity is probably what scares his mother so much when he starts asking for earrings.  I wonder if he'll do what I did when I was seventeen years old.  Of course, I was anything but a rebel.  Sure, I did some things that, in and of themselves, might be considered rebellious or risky, even, but I was always a momma's boy, when it came right down to it.  But that summer after my senior year, before shipping off to Syracuse University, I decided to do something that would make a statement about me.  One day, after my lawn-mowing shift at the Arbors in Rye Brook was over, I found myself in the house of a young lady I had befriended.  I can't remember the exact circumstances, but I do recall her holding my face in her hand and staring into my eyes, as the ice pack she held on my left earlobe had its desired numbing effect.  She then positioned a potato she'd cut in half behind the earlobe, and said, "Little pinch," as she worked a needle straight through my flesh and into the potato.

I left her house with a stud earring, my stomach fluttering as I imagined my mother seeing this new adornment for the first time.  Funny, it didn't occur to me to wonder about my father's reaction, and sure enough, when my dad got home and finally saw it, he shrugged and said, "Hm.  Looks pretty good."

My mother had a slightly different reaction, however.  Her initial response was, "Okay Danny, joke's over."  We enjoyed a good prank in my family, and she was sure this was one of those (or maybe, like so many occasions, she was trying to convince herself of a truth she hoped existed).  Once she'd had a close enough look to realize this was no prank, she said something unexpected.

"What's her name?" she asked.

"Who?" I replied, knowing full well who.

"The girl who did this to you."  Her voice sounded different, ringing of a dead seriousness that was new to me.

"Why do you want to know who she is?" I asked cautiously.

"So I can put a hole in her, the way she put a hole in you."

I could easily imagine the same interaction between Jackson and his mom, as well as my reaction being quite like my father's -- a shrugging acceptance.  It occurs to me now that having my mother around to help bring up this little rebel might have been a helpful thing; however, in many ways, my mother, the late Carol Runyan Fuchs, was the biggest rebel I ever knew.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Beating Sol


In all three of the childhood homes that live in my memory, my mother had a nest.  There was always a special area where she stored the items that came to be emblematic – in my mind at least – of who she was.  My father described it in his foreword to her book, Poems on a Refrigerator Door:

Carol wrote most of her poetry late at night in a small bedroom alcove, surrounded by stacks of books and papers that grew untidily from an underbrush of pens, pencils, emery boards and ashtrays.

Like my mother, my father was a skilled writer, and it’s not surprising he did such a nice job describing my mother’s nest.  One detail that evaded him this time, however, was her playing cards.  My mother was an obsessive solitaire player.  When she wasn’t cooking, reading, writing, sculpting or drawing, she was playing solitaire.  Sometimes we would have to beg her to stop, so that she could help us with whatever it was – finding a lost sock or remembering the name of a movie we’d seen on television. 

“Wait a minute.  I haven’t beaten Sol yet.  I haven’t beaten Sol all day.” 

And she’d play on, until she had the cards in four neat, suited stacks of 13 each. 

I don’t really have a nest the way my mother did, and I’m not the cook, reader or visual artist she was.  I do have a certain urge to put words on paper, though.  And I’ve definitely inherited her tendency towards addiction.  Like her, I’m known to have a drink or two from time to time, and I was once a pretty heavy smoker.  I’ve inherited her love of solitaire, as well.  I can’t remember the last time I played with actual playing cards; instead, I spend much of my so-called “free” time on my iPhone or tablet, flipping over vittual cards, looking to put the red seven on the black eight, wating for that moment, when Sol gives up and the rest of the cards cascade out in bouncing fans, and the words “YOU WON!” appear on my screen, pixels forming triumphant fireworks, and reminding me it’s time to get back to whatever “important” task I was attempting, before taking on Sol. 

My mother was something of a purist, and I imagine if she’d lived long enough to see the technology we now take for granted, she might have thought it a poor substitute for real cards.  She took pleasure, I think, in the minutiae of all that she did, including solitaire.  Shuffling the cards, flipping them sequentially the proper way, were actions that might seem simple to the casual observer.  For my mother, however, they were the intricate machinations that brought her closer to peace.  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My "Voice"

I recently returned to Texas from a month-long vacation to my childhood home of New York.  I had the opportunity to visit with many good people, including family and old friends.  With my two sons, I spent the first two weeks or so tripping down Memory Lane, doing my best to give them a better idea of who their dad is.  This included a visit to my father's grave site in Valhalla.
My point here is that I had many "blogworthy" experiences while in New York.  Yet I wrote about none of them.  When I ask myself why I wasn't able to jot down Word One, I think about a conversation I had with one old friend, as we sat drinking beer in one of the East Village haunts of our youth.  He mentioned enjoying my posts in the past and wondered why I'd stopped writing my blog.

"I guess I'm just a little tired of my own voice" I answered wryly.  "'Yeah, yeah, this thing your kid did reminds you of this thing that happened in your past. We get it, Dan.'""

"Uh, okay," my friend said when I was done mocking myself. "Well I still thought it was good."

I don't mean to make light of praise.  Even though gratification comes more quickly than it did back in the days of sending short stories, along with a self-addressed return envelope, we writers still yearn for feedback.  Especially when it's positive.

Good and great writers find their voices and share them as much as they can, unapologetically.  I wonder, though, if the authors whose work I love ever went through a period of silence like the one I'm breaking with this post.

I'm sure my three-month hiatus is more complicated than I make it out to be here.  The reasons I've not been writing anything are probably numerous.  One of them may have been that I was too busy living my life to write about it.

Be that as it may, however, I am, apparently, back.






Underwater with Jackson and his cousin Andrew at Great Wolf Lodge
(One of the many fabulous experiences I DIDN'T write about while on vacation...)


Monday, April 23, 2012

A Baseball Dad is Born

The mid-season NAO tournament was this past weekend and man was that a lot of baseball!  It started on Thursday night with Diego's game.  Then two each for both teams on Saturday, then one more for Diego on Sunday, along with two more for Jackson's team (the Manor Hellcats), who made a nice run and ended up ranked fourth in their age group.  Both boys, in their first times out there playing the sport, have become important members of their respective teams.

Unlike their dad back in his day, both my sons seem to want the ball to come their way, to see what they can do with it.  Jackson is an infielder, like his Uncle Mike, and gets a good deal of action standing at the pitcher's mound during t-ball.  Diego is in left field, as I was at his age.  Unlike me, however, Diego gets disappointed when no balls get hit to him in the course of a game.  I always heaved a big sigh of relief when the defensive half of the inning went by without anything coming to me.

I did have a pretty strong throwing arm, which Diego seems to have inherited.  He has had a few nice put outs -- of kids rounding first, surprised to see the ball end up behind them in the first baseman's glove, of kids trying to stretch singles into doubles, thanks to overzealous first base coaches, and one beauty at home plate.  On this last one, Diego threw a strike from left, and it got there so quickly, the poor kid tried to run back to third before the catcher tagged him out.

Jackson stands at the pitcher's mound with so much confidence, I can't help but think it's where he belongs.  He's caught a couple of line drives for outs, and gobbles up ground balls with beautiful footwork, before tossing the ball to his first baseman, who almost always drops it. 

In the heat of competition I have had to check my responses.  I don't want to be That Dad, and never thought I would be.  Honestly though, he's in there, lurking near the surface.  When I watch either boy compete, I inch closer to the edge of my seat, palms sweating and I have to remind myself to keep breathing and keep smiling.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Little Things to Like About a Big School


With 3,065 students -- the largest reported enrollment  of any high school in Central Texas -- Cedar Ridge could soon become an athletics giant.
                                                                        -- Austin American Statesman

I'm finishing off my first school year as one of five assistant principals at Cedar Ridge, and am coming to terms with not being a "small schools guy" any more.

My standard sound bite has been that I try to bring a "small schools mentality" to the big school.  Honestly, I'm not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds good and folksy, like I'm coming from a tiny rural district in West Texas, where the principal doubles as the bus driver and the football players all play both offense and defense.

The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of little things to like about a big school. 

I love driving up to a big Texas high school in the fall, when the sun is hitting the parking lot hash marks, and casting long shadows on the marching band as they work out their formations.  The digital metronome clicks out a beat that can be heard for miles, and the amplified voice of the director, standing 50 feet up in the tower, barks out feedback. 

"Faster, Cody!  I need you to be faster than that!"

I love the sight of the choir, dressed in their formal wear of black tuxedos and dresses, loading on to cheese buses that will take them to the statewide UIL competition.

I love the SWAG.  Every new Cedar Ridge T-shirt I receive is like that Christmas present in back of the tree that I hadn't seen before, or the Easter egg that none of the other kids noticed behind the drainpipe.

Oh, and in the case of my particular large school, I love driving past the horse stables as I roll up at around 8 in the morning.  The only horses I ever saw at my small schools in New York were the mounted police who clopped by every so often, causing my students to ooh and aah and ask if they could put their horses. 

I suppose the one thing that remains the same is the attitude I try to bring through the door every day.  Humor, kindness and a positive pre-supposition that the rest of the people in the building -- adults and children alike -- are there for the right reasons are probably the three best things I bring (and have always brought) to the table.  My hope is that this will benefit the young people I work with, whether in a school of 300 or 3,000.  Only time will tell. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pledging Allegiance

Since coming to the state of Texas in 2008, I've been directly employed by two schools -- Austin High School and now Cedar Ridge High in Round Rock. I've also worked indirectly for secondary schools in Lubbock, Crosbyton, Dallas, Fort Worth, Haltom City, Everman, Atlanta (TX) and Manor. There have been awkward moments at all of these schools, especially now that I am more solidly "embedded" where I am at Cedar Ridge, when I'm in a classroom or some other public spot, and the announcements come on, normally at the beginning of the second block.

First comes the Pledge of Allegiance to the US flag, a droning liturgy of rote memorization that I hold deep in the recesses of my cerebral cortex. It rolls off my tongue, and I'm happy to recite it, not out of any excessive sense of patriotism (Lord knows I could never be accused of that) but because I respect the fact that my students may have relatives in the armed services and that some of my teachers have served as well. I figure these people deserve my respect, so I drone the pledge like everyone else, hand on heart, standing tall, as I guess a role model should.

Then comes the much stranger experience for me: the Texas pledge. Growing up in New York, I never had to learn a second pledge. Intoning to one flag -- the big one -- was enough. Texas, in all its self-adoring pride, pledges allegiance to its own flag. My boys do it every morning, facing the Lone Star flag.

I mention it now only because I caught myself yesterday morning at 10:44, standing in my office, and saying the words from memory for the very first time:

Honor the Texas flag,
I pledge allegiance to thee.
Texas, one state under God,
One, and indivisible.

I'm not sure why it happened or what it means. Perhaps I am now a Texan, despite that I'm "not from Texas," as Lyle Lovett sings.

Oh and by the way, if you just stood up, with your right hand in a pledge salute, you're a Texan too.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Unthinkable

Last Friday, on the morning of Friday the thirteenth no less, I came close to being in a serious automobile accident -- with both my sons in the backseat of the car. I had woken up exhausted and looking forward to the end of what had been a difficult work week. My usual obsessive concern about the children getting to school on time gave way to a carefree sense of "Ah, it's Friday. We've been early every day this week, so screw it. If they're a couple of minutes late, we'll live with that."

Lately I've been taking a new route, introduced by a friend, that takes me through the farmlands of "Old Manor," both to the boy's school and then to my job.

That morning, we were in the middle of the usual banter, with their music blaring through the car speakers. (I tolerate KISS-FM," or whatever it is until they get out, then switch back to KGSR -- my station.)

Rihanna or Katy Perry or somebody was emoting to a heavy beat, and we were talking about the likelihood of extraterrestrial aliens coming to our town, when I absentmindedly took a right on Fuchs Grove Road, which took us toward my job, rather than left to their school.

"Don't worry," I said, "I'll just turn around here. I don't think you'd have been on time anyway. It's already one minute past the late bell."

At that very moment -- 7:41 in the morning on Friday the 13th -- I made a leisurely broken U-Turn, and as I made a left onto the normally barren road, I totally failed to see a blue sedan coming at us in the right lane, at full speed.

Rather than lean on the horn, the driver did what most people do here instead: he flashed the headlights at me. I floored it and luckily no one was coming from the other direction. We made it out unscathed, the sound of the other car's tires skidding to slow down behind me. I watched him right himself and continue driving away in my rear view mirror.

"Holy shit we almost died," I said without irony. It was a moment of complete, unabashed, breathless sincerity.

The boys found this hilarious, of course, and giggled at my having uttered "the S word." My heart felt like it would leap up my throat and out my mouth, and I couldn't stop apologizing to my sons in the back.

"It's okay, Daddy," Jackson reassured me. "Nothing happened. We're all okay."

I knew that I had been granted a major reprieve, and that had the stars been aligned to even the slightest variation of where they were at that terrifying moment, my world, and that of my entire family, could have been changed forever. I had to shake off the urge to imagine the unthinkable -- shattered glass, misshapen metal, children's bodies broken, all because a weary father didn't do the one thing he consistently tells the boys to do -- look both ways when they cross the street.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Chess Connection


Suddenly and unexpectedly, our 9 year old Diego has become a chess enthusiast. He was introduced to it at school; our local Superintendent has a vision that every student in the district will become proficient in the game of chess. The thinking is that all of the skills one needs to do well in chess are the skills needed to exceed in school, and in life, as well. Apparently the research supports this.

Yesterday morning at about 9 I brought Diego over to Blake Manor Elementary, where he was to participate in the district's annual chess tournament. It was his first time competing in the game of chess, other than the games he and I play on my wife's iPad, or the games he plays with friends in his after school program, presumably.

I wasn't sure how he'd do; in fact, I was pretty sure he'd play one game and be vanquished by a more serious player. I had him dressed in full little league baseball uniform, so that we could hop in the car and head over to his game.

Six hours later, Diego was done. Bleary eyed, he came out of the heavily guarded elementary school gymnasium sporting two medals. Apparently he'd spent the day(the entire day) playing in two different brackets -- third grade intermediate, in which he'd won a bronze third-place medal, and third grade beginner, for which he'd won the silver, for second place.

To say I was proud doesn't quite do the emotions justice. It's one of those primal things, when a dad sees a son do well in competition. It's a joy that defies description, even by those who pride themselves in putting words together for effect.

I think the reason this particular activity hit me so hard is that it connects me, quite directly, to my past and to my family. When I picture my grandfather -- my Opa -- Bill Fuchs, I see him sitting in his chair in Larchmont, New York, at 42 Maple Hill Drive. He's wearing a cardigan and horn-rimmed glasses and is smoking a cigar. He's contemplating a book, the newspaper, or the chessboard. It was not unusual for him to have a number of games going via post; apparently one of his favorite opponents was a man who was incarcerated at Sing Sing, if I'm remembering right. I wish I'd thought to ask for more details.

My father, too, enjoyed chess, and taught my brother Mike and me at a fairly young age. I have a vague recollection of trying to watch one of the televised chess tournaments on ABC's Wide World of Sports. It may have been Bobby Fisher and Kasparov, I'm not sure.

Neither Dad nor Opa lived long enough to meet my children. I wonder if the intensity of my emotions can somehow be ascribed to this fact. Maybe some residual emotion, left over from whatever remains of their spirits, has joined with my own pride to make my heart swell, seeing my son contemplating his next move, cheek resting on his palm, much as I did at his age, and as my father did, and his father before him.

Friday, April 13, 2012

When "Salt-and-Pepper" is Just "Gray"

I just caught a glimpse of myself in the early-morning mirror of a plate glass window, and my beard was so gray it was striking. Okay, if someone were describe it kindly, they might say "salt-and-pepper." Not only do I have the usual, obvious reaction about aging, but I'm also reminded of the summer of 1980, when I was 17 and my father would have been 52 -- just a few years older than I am now.

I recall this moment because it was the one time in my life I remember my father intentionally growing a beard. We were staying in a rented house on Old Montauk Road in Montauk, Long Island. It was modern and on stilts and had a commanding view of the beach. Having two weeks off, my dad decided he would let the beard go, and we were all struck by how gray it was. It was a bit of a wake up call, I realize now -- a reminder of the time that had gone by without our having noticed.

So I'll need to do two things: First, I'll need to live life as I did back then at 17 -- with abandon and a sense of wonder. (Okay, not as recklessly.) And two . . . I'm gonna go shave this thing OFF.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Moment With My Father

Watching my sons playing Little League baseball for the first time this spring, I've been yearning to be able to have just a moment with my father. I'd like to be able to sit across from him at a booth, drinking coffee or beer, so that I could tell him one thing.

"I get it now, Dad. And I forgive you."

My father, like all of us, carried around his fair share of guilt. He had two children whose childhoods he'd essentially missed, due to his choice to move three thousand miles away from where they lived with their mother. I often felt he did his best to make up for how absent he was for the two of them by being as present as he could be for Mike and me. And he always was.

Another helping of guilt was layered onto my father's plate when it came to his relationships with us. Once my brother and I began playing organized sports, Mike showed an ease and coordination that eluded most kids his age -- it most certainly eluded me. (I've since figured out that I'm a pretty good athlete; my younger brother is just on a higher plane than most of us, athletically speaking.)

Hanno's guilt came from -- surprise, surprise -- his mother. She complained to him, sometimes loudly enough for me to hear, that he was spending an inordinate amount of time with his youngest, shagging fly balls, playing tennis, etc.

I was always embarrassed whenever I became aware of the well-meaning attention of my aunts or grandmother. (My mom stayed fairly silent on this matter, I believe.) To me, it felt like pity.

Of course I'll do what I can to learn from the ways of my father -- good and bad; that's what we do, right? I'll cultivate strong relationships with both my boys.

But as I watch Jackson out there on the ball field, grabbing up ground balls and gunning it over to first, my heart does swell with Daddy-Pride, and I want to tell my dad not to worry about all that attention he paid to my brother. He was, like my son Jackson, a sight to see after all.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A New, Bigger, Scarier Monster

Some time back in the mid-1990's Susan Dreyer and I sat together and proctored one of the Regents Competency Tests (RCTs) we were administering that year. We did our best not to distract our students as we passed notes back and forth to each other.

We came up with a little parable about a girl with a lisp who goes up against a horrible monster known as the Rancid, Clammy Toothasaurus (RCT -- get it?). She reaches out to educator and author of one of my favorite books about teaching and learning, Horace's Compromise, Theodore "Ted" Sizer ("Theth," as she calls him) who does battle with the beast.

(Our principal, who was friendly with Sizer, sent the piece to him, and Sizer wrote a very kind response, which I'm hoping Susan may still have somewhere.)

I thought of the Toothasaurus for the first time in years yesterday. If the RCT was some kind of menacing beast, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills is a Gargantua that could swallow it in one gulp. Maybe it's the "Titanic Ass-whoopin' Killer of Souls?" Ted Sizer has been dead for a few years, and one wonders whether even he -- the man himself -- could have vanquished this one.

Of course, it's not so much about the exam itself. I never even saw the actual test, which is more to the point. Thanks to No Child Left Behind (or "No Child Left Untested," as Debbie Meier calls it), the mechanism of organized testing has become the bully that shoves the educators out of the driver's seat and takes over a few times a year.

On these days, we the adults scamper around in fear of the Auditors who may come into our school and find us "out of compliance." We do our best to maintain a sense of control on testing days. What it really adds up to, however, is that our vehicle has been commandeered by the state and we're in the passenger's seat, winking at our students who sit obediently in the back seat, strapped in tightly to their car seats, where they dutifully fill in ovals on their bubble sheets with their number-2 pencils, hoping, as we do, that everything will work out all right and that we will arrive at our destination (whatever that may be) safe and relatively unscathed.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In Honor of Valentine's Day, Student T-shirts I Love

My Cedar Ridge students wear some awesome tees. Here are some of my faves, in no particular order:

I put the MAN in Romantic

Love Exists

I Heart Vampires

I'm a Keeper

I Heart Haters

Tell Your Girl to Stop Texting Me

(In big, white block letters on a black hoodie sweatshirt, worn by a sweet-looking little girl) NRA

NO MAN
(stick figure man, with prohibition slash)
NO PROBLEM
(This one was particularly good, because I saw it on Valentine's Day.)

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Inexorable Awkwardness of the High School Cafeteria

(Based on a tweet by Dan Fuchs)

Anyone who knows anything about high school administrators knows that lunch duty is a part of their job. You stand in the cafeteria and don't do much of anything, other than provide an adult presence, and maybe a sense of safety for those young people who find being in a gigantic, noisy room with 700 of their peers a bit intimidating. Occasionally you correct naughty behavior. Once in a great while, you prevent a fight from happening or escalating.

I actually don't mind my time in the cafeteria, each day from 12:45 to 2. In fact, it's kind of a nice break in the action, and I get to have good interactions with our students. I have good fun with them, like pretending I'm a waiter, either just after they sit down ("Good afternoon, ladies. Has anyone told you about our specials today?") or as they linger after the first bell has rung ("How was everything here, all right? Can you get you anything else? Coffee? Desert?") My experience brings the script right back, and there's always a moment where they're not quite sure what-all is going on. Then I let them off the hook, and tell them -- in the latter case -- to get to class. I even taught my "family handshake" -- the one I invented with my two young sons' help -- to a couple of kids.

There are a few features that make our lunchroom feel a bit less like a prison commissary (than say Evander Childs Campus, where I had my last AP Job). For one thing, there's a Java City at the south end of the room, where kids can sit and sip on a latte, a little removed from the din of the rest of place. Also, the chairs are individual and can be picked up and moved, which they are, daily.

As a result, you get the big, over-populated (and invariably LOUD) tables full of popular kids -- either the jocks, or the artists, or the skate geeks. There are a few tables that stand out -- the one with the very mature students who eat, calmly chatting, as though they're in a quiet Bistro somewhere, the singletons, who prefer to read a book as they eat, and the "Loud Nerds" table, where artsy kids need to continue their self-expression through primal scream therapy. The fumbling search for identity is undeniable, as these young ones figure out how they fit into this microcosm of an even more confusing world, just outside our doors.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Bite

I learned something crucial about myself, and my feelings around a very serious aspect of parenting last night.

I had joined my friend Neil, along with a couple of his friends from high school, in order to celebrate his 200th variety of beer at the Flying Saucer in Austin. Just as I mentioned her to the group, my wife called me.

"Hey, I just conjured you up!" I said, cheerfully.

Her voice was panicked. "Dan! There's something wrong with Ally. She won't stop crying and shaking, and she's panting really heavily." Ally is our one and a half year old shepherd mix that we rescued from the Town Lake Animal Center this past August.

I had just started eating a really delicious burger, and downing a lovely brew, so I tried to suggest that I would finish before leaving, but the desperation in her voice rose, when she said, "Come home now. Please."

I gulped down a bit more of the beer and put my burger and fries in a to-go box, then said good-bye to Neil and his friends, before making my way back home.

At 9:00 on a Saturday night, the only place you can take a pet in distress is the Emergency Animal Hospital of Northwest Austin. Like almost every other money-making concern in that area, it's a storefront in a strip mall. Its sign shines in bright red hospital block lettering and can be seen from Route 183, which flies by overhead at 65+ mph. My six year old insisted on accompanying me and Ally, the latter of whom had compliantly hopped up into the car and sat next to me in the passenger seat the whole way there.

Luckily there was no one else in the waiting room when we arrived. The receptionist, nurses and vet were all very kind to us and to Ally, and we were in and out of there in less than an hour. As it turned out, Ally had suffered an injury to the soft tissue in her tail -- maybe a torn ligament or something. When I questioned Jackson about it, he claimed that one of his friends had been pulling on Ally's tail earlier in the day.

There are a couple of strong reactions I found myself having, once I confirmed the story with his older brother. First, there's the whole complicity of watching someone hurt another creature, especially one who is thought of as a member of your family. I expect my children to step in and intervene -- to stop cruelty from happening, or to report it, at the very least. That being said, I was a kid once, and I can remember some dark things I did to animals that I'd rather not recount. Never, though, was a family pet the victim of any of this violence.

Also, Ally is such a sweet dog that it breaks my heart. The reason she'd been crying was that she could not resist the urge to wag her tail -- a dog's version of smiling -- despite her injury. Even as a child was pulling at her body, giving her extreme pain, she never struck back, never protected herself. Never bit.

I must reiterate for my boys that no one has the right to hurt them. There are people out there who may try and hurt you. When they do, you must strike back. Protect yourself.

"Bite."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Wait...is This MY Hand I'm Playing?

They say you play the hand you are dealt. This past Tuesday, I spent the day wondering whether the hand I'm currently playing makes me a sell-out.
Ridgeview Middle School feels like a pleasant place to be. It's a relatively new, clean building, and it's populated by Future Raiders -- the younger brothers and sisters of my students at Cedar Ridge High School, just a few hundred yards to the west. I'm here for a district-wide training of school administrators, and this latest one has to do with testing. . More specifically, they are giving us the information we need to successfully administer the state's standardized Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) and State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams. I sit through the worst kind of so-called "professional development," in which they read to you in the darkness from a wordy PowerPoint slide show. The last time anyone read to me in the dark I was six years old, and the expectation was that I would eventually fall asleep.
Now, I pinch myself in the arm to avoid doing so. But I get through it, and now have yet another binder to add to my extensive collection.
I have signed my oath as a Test Administrator. I am now an officially-sanctioned Giver of Tests, working in what the Austin American Statesman reports will -- as of next year, be the largest high school in Central Texas, with over 3,000 students.
It's a far cry from those Time Out from Testing Consortium meetings I used to attend at the Julia Richman campus as a representative of Satellite Academy High School, Chambers Street (which became Midtown), where we worked with approximately 200 students at a time.
I continue to marvel at where I have landed. There are many great things about Cedar Ridge High, despite its size, and I really do think I bring a small-school mentality to my work. But all this money and all these resources being spent on standardized testing, and my complicity in it, does, I must admit, keep me up some nights, and I imagine Ted Sizer, my education guru, turning in his grave.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Diarist Gene Has Been Passed Down

"No, Jackson!" I heard Diego say, with an urgency that made me brace myself for whatever conflict would come next. "That's Daddy's journal."

They were in our home office, at one of our desks, where they had been doing well for the previous ten minutes or son. I could hear them in there, engaging in imaginative play, which I love, because it requires them to actively use their minds, rather than sitting passively in front of the TV set.

This entreaty by Diego was louder than the banter had been up to that point, and I came in and saw Jackson with a pen, poised to personalize my personal journal, where I write things like this piece in longhand. Truth be told, I don't really mind finding Jackson's work in my journals -- within reason. He tends to draw odd little sketches, which I simply write around, and they end up being an interesting adornment to my work, when all is said and done.

"Here Jackson," I said, before he could start loudly pleading his case, and I reached up high on my shelf and handed him his own blank book. (I have a few extras lying around, because I'm an optimist and I count on the next day coming.) He immediately began work on a fascinating seascape, then asked me to draw him a shark, so that he could put a monkey in its toothy mouth.

"Look Dee-AY-go!" he said, all smiles, showing off his new journal to his big brother and before he could whine about not having one, I asked Diego if he would like a blank book too.

"Sure!"

He then wrote the first page of his new journal, which he dated, and titled "About My Life." His first sentence, which I put right up there with "Call me Ishmael" and "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" is "My name is Diego Reyes Fuchs and I got a dog in April."

And with that, a proud Fuchs tradition continues . . .

Friday, January 27, 2012

From Venerated to Vilified: Are We Asking Too Much of Our Teachers?

During a three-day workshop I just completed, our trainer, Chris O'Reilly at Region 13, showed us a case study classroom video. The featured teacher taught high school English in the Valley. He was the kind of teacher I loved having as a kid, and the kind I want my own children to have. His enthusiasm for his subject matter was so evident, as was his love for his students, and this is what I remember about all my best and favorite teachers -- that spark of enthusiasm, wanting to be shared and passed on. Ms. O'Donnell had that glint in her eye, as did many of my teachers.
That's what I'm looking for as I roam the classrooms of the teachers I appraise at Cedar Ridge. I want to see energy and enthusiasm. I want to see teachers helping their students open up their minds to new information. I want to see the light bulbs above the students' heads start lighting up.
I want the chill running up and down the back of my neck the way it used to when I knew all my students were fully engaged. I want the same urge to cry as I got watching the master teacher from the Valley, getting his students excited about a Walt Whitman poem.
Is this too much to ask?
I know it's the right thing to ask, but it may indeed, be too much to ask, especially during a time in our history when teachers are no longer venerated and are now vilified. We're having them open their doors and share curriculum that is less personal and humanistic every day, due to the pressure of having to cover content, and then chiding them for not going deeper. It's difficult to open a child's mind when the material you're asked to cover is so limited and so centered on where the graphite ovals fall on the next bubble sheet.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Trying to be "Good"

Back in the proverbial
saddle, riding the bike
through the dark
suburban morning,
eyes tearing,
legs and lungs
burning. I am
out of
gas.

And all this for what?
So I can limp into
Super Donuts in our
sad little strip mall,
barely alive in post-
Bush economic times,
and say hello to the cute
little henna-haired
hostess who works harder
than I'll ever have to.

"Hi there!" she says cheerfully
in her Korean-accented English.
(At least I think she's Korean.
Could just as easily be Vietnamese,
Cambodian or Thai, I suppose.)
My medium coffee steams
in Styrofoam;
she's poured it for me,
even before I asked for
it myself.

"Aww, you remembered,"
I say in mock emotion.
She laughs and says, "Ninety-
six cents, please," in her
sing-song way.

And the inhabitants of
this half-awake
world come shuffling
in and out, ordering
their Kolaches
("Warm it up for you?")
and their dozen
donuts. ("Okay, what
kind you like?") I
sit in the fluorescence
of this little slice of the
American dream, scribbling
words to no one, drinking
watery, over-priced coffee,
and wondering just how
the hell I'm gonna
pedal my fat ass back
home.