Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Nude - My Fear

I just noticed that I have not yet really discussed my photography in this blog; I supposed I haven’t discussed my photography anywhere for some time now. A couple of years ago amidst an artistic crisis (and a financial one) – I sold my cameras, and lenses, and flashes… all of them!
What would possess me to do something like that after 10 years and thousands of shots later?

Well, a creative block that lasted shorter than I perceived, but what at the time seemed like 2 years; I neglected to recognize that some of my favorite shots came from that time. This was also a time of repeated bouts of unemployment due to stupidity, pride, hubris and some more stupidity, which left me on the short end of the being-able-to-pay-rent stick. So instead of sucking it up and trying to get some commercial work, or going back to personal training I sold all of my shit!
One of the frustrating points always came when I began to think of nudes. In my head I would have visions, I would see the light, I would see the pose, I would understand the purpose and meaning behind the image. But whenever I even touched a camera it would all fade. I have gone through the trouble of getting the model, scoping the location, determining optimum natural light and timing the angle – all to freeze when it came time to direct or aim.

The viewfinder would go blank.

I would get confused, I would stumble, I would misdirect, then manage to get a couple shots off only to be confirmed of my incompetence when I got home to look at the proofs. I couldn’t figure it out; I have shot almost every style of photography and I never felt out of place, except at those moments when natures glory was before me, waiting, needing to be captured and sung.
For an artist this moment of impotence is the ultimate drain of creative and life forces; afterwords you feel limp and dejected, with only the desire to curl up on the couch and empty your mind of anything and everything.
But lately I have had a reawakening of the desire to shoot the elusive nude. I tremble at the thought of doing it, but I feel as though I must; perhaps this will be the key to re-opening photography as an avenue of my artistic expression. I have only to attempt and find out!

Have any of you felt this way?
How did you get over it?
Any thoughts on nude photography in general?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

TFA poems, chants #2

Imagine this scene, but on a school bus after a day of teaching and learning in the sweltering heat. As exhausted as we were we often found the energy to sing and chant.

As promised here are some more chants, medleys and poems from TFA summer institute:

(by the way m143 was the number of our school during summer student teaching)
Some of these are meant for the kids, others i wrote for our mentors, instructors and each other.

Call and response, or group chants to the tune of “mama, mama”:
We drive so far to teach our class, but with our kids you will not mess.
We backwards plan all day and night, cause we save time and do whats right.
m-1-4-3 we are the best, we mind the gap and all the rest.
Our expectations have much height, for our kids futures we fight! Fight! Fight!

Student oriented mama, mama chants:

We don’t come to class so late, we work smart and graduate!
Working hard we want no rest, we came here to pass the test

CS stands for Curriculum speacialist, she was our teacher, this is a song I wrote for her appreciation day:

CS appreciation song (Billy Joel: we didn’t start the fire)

Sarah sosby from CO, givin us a path to go, back planned, striving hard, making it work.
Teach the babies, pass the test, minor problems, all the rest, we don’t need them we will solve them, we will change our mindset!

We didn’t start the gap, its been widenin for as long as we’ve been,
We didn’t start the gap, but we will invade it and we’re going to fight it.

Sarah, sarah shows us how, doing SRAR and BLOOMS and more, Academic - Impact - Model, plaaning pitfalls. Our plans and goals are met, a feasible, ambitious set, practice matters, vision setting -uuup all night.
expectations with much height, no one’s future will we slight, Biases are blown away, sarah what have you to say?

We didn’t start the gap, its been widenin for as long as we’ve been,
We didn’t start the gap, but we will invade it and we’re going to fight it.

How the hell are we to know? Sarah sosby told us so, check-in, good bye, work around the clock.
Drinking dunkin, get no rest, thinking bout our kids success, 7th grade, 8th grade, time for high school.
Now that we are glad and spent, cause our kids to college went, time for rest, pump my chest, hang out at the board walk.
But one image springs to mind, its our sosby up all night, making posters, making calls, bringing kids to schools halls!

We didn’t start the gap, its been widenin for as long as we’ve been,
Sarah didn’t start the gap, but she’s been here long, so we’re singing her song, her song, song…

Sarah, sarah sosby, she’s our great CS, and with her you don’t mess,
Sarah sarah sosby, her babies are so bright, and for them she does fight.
Sarah sarah sosby, and we’ll take it all in, cause… good… babies… we’ve… been
We didn’t start the gap, its been widenin for as long as we’ve been,
We didn’t start the gap, but we will invade it and we’re going to fight it.


Tall and proud
Ancient temples
Where the gods reside
I’ve been there hence and
Long to be there since
That fateful day when on their tops
I stood, breathless, tired, with air too thin
And lungs so hungry, I gazed over the vastness
Of this magic place, where but one thing matters: survival.


I love shooting musicians. The synthesis for me is quite outer-worldly: I cannot live without music, it is my inspiration and support and release; and photography is my primary form of artistic expression (until i get good at writing), whose expression is a necessity for maintaining an internal equilibrium. That and I like getting into venues for free :)


So as many of you know I came to my class via Teach for America; an amazing organization with a very clear sense of purpose. As with any endeavor of great proportion there are a number of factors and units which do not get as much attention and are hence not as successful as others. On the whole though its mission is inspiring and whatever its faults and shortcomings it continues to bring positivity, hope and achievement where before there was despair and failure.
Everyone in TFA has to go through a summer institute of intense preparation before they can start teaching the following fall. This institute is intended on preparing you in 6 weeks for what “normal people” take 4 years and 6 months of student teaching to prepare! Stop and think about that for just a minute….
Got the picture?
Anybody want to wager on how many hours of sleep we averaged?
No? Common, give it a shot, just think, given the aforementioned data, how much we slept…
Ok, lets see how close you were: 2-3hours per night
Because it is an average this of course meant that some nights we slept as much as the luxurious 5 hours! And then some nights we did not sleep at all. Fun!
The hours we spent awake were filled with seminars, lesson planning, teaching, lesson planning, reading, research, classes and food on the run and then a little more lesson planning. Our minds were engaged 24 hours a day – which did not make for restful sleep.
For 6 weeks I slept in a dorm at St. Johns out in Queens; I came home only on Friday night and went back to institute Sunday early afternoon. During that day and a half that I spent at home I had to do as much as possible to remind my girlfriend why it is worth it to stay with me, though I was as distant as a 1950’s traveling vacuum salesman.
In retrospect, considering all I learned, all the time my mind was spent engaged in figuring out how the hell to teach my group of 8th grades, all that was achieved, and even more that was not: I would rather go through Marine boot camp than ever have to repeat TFA summer institute again.
It was a scarring experience, the result of which was me still being under-prepared when I entered my classroom for the first time. I had general ideas about things, but that is not good enough in the day-to-day of teaching.
With all that said it, as any stressful and PTSD inducing situation, gave fodder and inspiration to brief bouts of creativity. With your kind indulgence I would like to share these with you now:
These are some of the poems and chants that I came up with during the 2-3 minute intervals that I allowed myself for breaks:

This is a tough one. It’s a medley of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions. It may take a couple of tries to make sense, but trust me it does J
Queen medley (Bohemian rhapsody, we will rock you, we are the champions)
Is this the real class? (lead)
Is it just fantasy? (lead)
Caught up in institute, no escape from reality. (lead)
Open your eyes, look up at your class and seeeeeee, (chorus)
They are so bright yea, they need no sympathy, (chorus)
They need Just math all day, English all night, (lead)
Working hard, working right, (lead)
Anyway you choose your future, so it will be, for you, for you… (chorus)

Mama, we’re 1-4-3, we work relentlessly, we plan so purposefully, (chorus)
Never, is it too late to cry: “im gonna take control of my dear life”. (chorus)

Mama! Ooooo, im gonna pass the test, cause 143 is the best at (chorus)
Teaching me all I need to know, to be a citizen of this here world. (chorus)

we will, we will, teach you! (chorus)
We will, we will, teach you! (chorus)

Buddy you’re a scholar, you’re a reader and a writer, workin it hard to make college some day!
You got brain like mad, your movin’ ahead, gonna put all haters back into their bed.

We will, we will, teach you!
We will, we will, teach you!

We are the teachers my friends...(lead)
and we’ll keep on teachin to the end…. (chorus)
Our kids will learn yea, cause we’re 1-4-3 yea, (chorus)
we work relentless, (chorus)
cause they are our students…. To the end….. (chorus)

This is a poem I wrote the last week at Institute:

Its been a rough ride and
At moments we sank,
There were but a few on whom
We relied like a plank,
To get us over, to remember our dream
And that of the students, willing to dream.

So we grasped real hard, to strong arms extended,
We thought of the moments where despair seemed un-ended,
We marched forth with purpose, tenaciously driven,
Expecting the best, and no less being given.

Forthright on the mount we shall stand arm in arm,
Our brothers and sisters with whom our war wages on,
There shall be no rest, and no obstacle burden,
Such that our desire shall under-foot be trodden.

A difference we make, and seek in the midst,
A glimmer of hope and a prospect for bliss.
A time we shall make, by the sweat of our brow,
A time where we all shall sing our true vow:

Forever, pledge I, shall I toil and fight,
Against such injustice, no matter its might.
Alone I am not, my brethren abound,
The cracked bell shall toll that victory’s ours!

I will post some more tomorrow.
Let me know what you think!

Monday, March 22, 2010

American History X - a Success

Right or wrong, there are still places and people who look to the printed word - for its teachings of the past, for its stimulus of important discussions, as a source and impetus for thought and consideration.

American History X

“class, we are going to watch a movie together; this movie happens to be very violent and graphic, it’s got a bit of nudity and sexual content, but that is not what it’s about. It is about something that you do not know a lot about since your experience of America has been mostly confined to post-Giuliani liberal progressive, almost suburban, New York. There was a time when you could not walk down certain streets if you were of a certain color, and after a particular hour your chances of being robbed, kidnapped, raped, beaten up or murdered increased exponentially by every passing minute. The fact that this is not longer the case is good, however it has put a warming and diffusing filter on the reality of American race relations in the rest of the country.”

“Lincoln may have “freed” the slaves 140 years ago, but Blacks were not truly free and equal citizens until well into the 1960’s. This transitional period of 100 years has created an atmosphere of distrust, hatred, violence, inequality and prejudice; elsewhere in the world those hundred years gave birth to a number of leaders who made Nationalism a government supported and executed concept. These leaders, particularly Hitler, I hope you remember reading about him with your History teacher, right? Please say yes.”

“yes Mr. T”

“praise the lord! So this particular leader has spawned a movement across the world; white supremacy got itself an idol. You may have heard of skinheads, neo-Nazi’s, the KKK… these are all people who don’t think you have any business being here – you are a drag on our society, you are the cause of your own poverty, you bring disease, unemployment and violence, you pollute the pristine wombs of white women and you stand in the way of the progression of the white race. Did you know that about yourselves? This movie certainly represents the extreme manifestation of these sentiments, certainly not all “white supremacists” or racist would ever act to such a degree or even say such things as you will hear here, but they do represent a real and living sentiment shared by millions in this country, and the second you step out of New York, whether for college or work, you will discover just how real it is, and it is very possible someone may call you a nigger, not hire you, exclude you from a club or try to beat the crap out of you.”

This was the introduction I gave to the movie. We then proceeded to watch as the America flag was associated with exclusion, racism and inequality, as well as justification for all these things including murder. We saw the swastika; we heard kike, nigger, spic…; we saw everyone but the "poor victimized lower-class uneducated protestant scared" person accused of all things wrong with this country – we saw this done in very convincing Rhetoric.

What followed was an amazing discussion, filled with analysis and discovery, synthesis and problem solving. Brains were working, engaged, interested, scared, confused… My students (who are, for those who don't know, are all Black and/or are immigrants) own hatreds and prejudices were, not directly, brought to light; there was recognition and realization. What is important is that in light of all this there was no surrender to the difficulty of a situation, nor complaints about the need to engage a greater than unusual amount of their brains in order to really understand what is going on, as well as how and why the film was shot in that particular style.

After many failures and false starts we, as a class, found success. We had to employ a familiar medium, though not ADD inspiring as other movies, but a moving picture non-the-less. The class was fantastic, it was everything I envisioned an English class should be like… but it was not stimulated by reading a book, and that deflates me to no end.

Am I wrong? Are we coming to the end of the printed word, its importance, its use as a source for RELIABLE information? Can I not engage them sans violence, sexuality and “strong” language? Do the classics really no longer hold any of the valuable lessons they did in the past? Can Dickens tell us nothing? Nor Tolstoy nor Hemingway nor Byron nor Wilde nor Fitzgerald nor Shakespeare?

I hope you guys have some answers!

Is there a book with which you, other educators, have found success in the aforementioned degree? Even if you are not a teacher, is there a book you would recommend? Something that has meaning, something that can teach us about life… something that can stimulate good discussion and engagement.

I can’t wait for your ideas!!

Thanks for checking in!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Autobiographical 1 - an investigation as to the cause...

An average, everyday stroll would bring this sight as the closing crescendo to the symphony that is normal life in St. Petersburg

So far we have looked at the now and the adventures of the recent past; this is a look back, way back, if you will indulge me in my composition of an autobiographically focused look at immigration and refugeeism. This is only a rough draft of the start of chapter 1, the introduction I posted in:
is the opening to this collection of writing.

Untitled 1 - Autobiographical Investigation

It seemed the brightest day in memory; buildings aglow with that ever-fleeting sub-Arctic sun –blues, yellows, raspberry reds… the waters of the Neva glittering happily, refreshed after days of nothing but the gray of clouds to reflect. Yet the room seemed empty, cold, devoid of light and joy – it embodied a sense of “gray”. The walls were bare, as was the bed and the kitchen counter. We were lucky, we had our own kitchenette; though I don’t recall having our own bathroom, I did much of my pooping in a plastic toilet placed in the middle of our one room apartment whenever I had the need, so I did not pay much attention to the lack of facilities. One room, one happy room for my mother, grandmother, grandfather and myself to share; never cramped, never annoying, never intolerable… just happy.

After two years, of which I do not recall anything, my grandfather passed away leaving us an “abundance” of extra space. I don’t remember how he loved me, I don’t remember the soft of his long beard, the twinkle in his honest smile, the pain and tears he caused my grandmother (by way of a trait I would eventually inherit). All I remember is that there was no constant male presence in my life for the first 8 years, then a distant, strained and ill-fated one for the next 14. My grandmother did her best to make up for that, I am not sure whether intentionally, by representing the communist ideal 24 hours a day. Up at 6am to sing the national anthem along with the radio (I loved that part), then a breakfast of oatmeal or buckwheat, then to walking outdoors, learning to read, learning math, riding a bike… there will be no idleness! If ever I would exhibit my, now well developed and embraced, sense of laziness, there would be the callused from 40 years in a factory hand to remind me of my duty as a young commy to never commit the sin of idleness (or religion or democracy or the desire for justice).

“you don’t want to read? Well, one who has not put in a days work does not deserve bubbly water. You will still swim in the freezing waters of the Black Sea, but not for fun, only for your health, then we will go home without staying at the beach so that you can think about and consider perhaps learning to read sometime before your 4th birthday”

“but babushka, I love bubbly water, I will read tomorrow, I promise! I really want it! I really love it!”

“do I have to repeat myself?”

My ass already felt the kinetic potential of a hand that never required a belt to be effective.


I am no child prodigy, but I learned to speak, read, multiply and use a toilet before Einstein knew how to wipe his own ass. This is no credit to me, but to the lack of options which abounded my life. I don’t recall having any animosity towards this lack however (I was after-all a good soviet boy), I was happy in my simplicity, in my handful of toys, handful of clothes and handful of food options. I sought only the smile from my mother, the lack of woopin from my grandmother and the occasions when my mothers friends would gather and I would be witness to a congeniality and love that I have since after craved – needed – yet was never able to find. Sitting under the tables laden sparingly, but what seemed bountifully, encircled by doctors, engineers, scientists, actors, writers and directors; aglow with love and respect and creativity and friendship; I would bask in the emanating warmth, laugh at the jokes I could understand, follow the stories and the poems and the songs often written for just that occasion – a dinner with friends.

Though we were poor I knew no hardship, in part because I did not desire anything that my mother would have to tell me we could not afford, and in part because my mother never revealed our poverty to me. Our lives, as they were, seemed not only the norm but the ideal. My grandmother and I would even go to the Baltic or Black sea for the summer; we would stay with relatives or in small rented rooms, and we knew of no luxury in the traditional sense, but we had plenty of our own – then, fresh fruit and milk and vegetables and bread were a luxury. As simple as it all was it was still beyond what my mother could ever afford (grandmother by then was retired), I did not know at the time, in part because I did not know I had a father or that one was needed in order to conceive me, that my father supported these yearly summer excursions by selling the cases of cognac he would receive for taking patients ahead of the line and those that other doctors were afraid to anesthetize (the beauty of free health care was embodied in the multi-month long line you had to wait for even the simplest procedure).

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Ones Who Got Away

It too seems to be reaching back, maybe one last chance, one last flutter before the last leaf descends to its final form in dust, and its branches shiver unprotected from the Pacific breeze.

The Ones Who Got Away

We are often left thinking about the ones from whom we did not get that last kiss, to whom we did not explain the last concept in writing, from whom we never got the sign that they care.

It is often hard to bear the fact that that moment will never come again, that your last chance is gone and you may no longer affect that person (nor they you). My lips have burned from the lack of the final kiss, the last goodbye… my heart still aches from the hug my step-dad never gave me and the one my real dad never could when I was young. But could there really have been a last time that would satiate this thirst? Fill this void? I fear not. Every last anything is never the last you want.

This feeling is now growing its vines around my throat again – my fear grows that June 28th will come, I will say goodbye to my students for the last time and I will not have a chance to clarify again how to make a strong argument in the difficult expository essay; I will not have another chance to show them which information to extract from a reading and how to induce meaning from it; I will not have the opportunity to remind them again about the importance of keeping their work organized for the sake of saving time and performing better in college. And every day from which they drain precious minutes by coming in an yapping instead of taking out their work, by going off on nonsensical tangents during instruction, by not taking notes, by not paying attention, by talking during instruction… the minutes fade, the days go by – race by! – closer and closer to graduation, until I will have nothing left to say, until all remaining questions will go unanswered. Questions unanswered!

And so they will be stuck in a lecture hall, yet another cash cow for the college, no more mind paid them than what is the bare necessity for them to graduate and get out. Who will care then? Who will work 18 hours a day for their success? Who will be understanding and supportive and committed and invested? The professors who teach out of obligation? The TA’s who teach out of a need for tuition reimbursement?
It is not even the end of my first year, but as much as I plan for tomorrow, the lost yesterday gnaws at my sanity, begging to be brought back and given a second chance,(mista). I wish they could grasp that yesterday will never return and all the second chances in the world will not make up for knowledge tread upon and ignored from lessons past.

I try to do and say the things I wish were said to, and done for, me when I was their age, thinking that my path would have been less rocky given the knowledge, so theirs will be more evenly paved… but I fear a Wrangler with an 8 inch lift will have a hard time navigating the road they are building for themselves.
I just hope that during one of the tire blow-outs or burnt transmissions they will realize that consulting a guide and choosing a better route will save them the trouble, money and time that will otherwise drain them until they are embittered, old, poor and full of regret.

It has been some time since I have included a poem. Here is one from a few years back:


The Frames of brick model my perspective.
I see in tones of brownish red, black, tan...
The sky,
the sun as it rises between the high-rises to my east.
I see planes overhead, their dull drone bouncing to and fro,
my frames.
I see the clouds, tinged, shifting;
I see them framed from the heavens,
brought to earth and within seeming reach,
just climb high enough
on a side of the frame.
I see faces of colors and shapes, variety abundant in this great... frame.
A frame of mind... a state of mind... New York.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Lights flashing, horn blowing, crowd waving... a pause between notes, not the string of sound, contains all the spirit of the tune.


As I was trying to watch a video on-line I received the following message: “ you have watched 72 minutes of video today”, “please wait 54 minutes or click here to enjoy unlimited…” .

And what else would come to my mind besides my kids? You know, that whole “work-life” balance I wrote about a couple of weeks ago… yea, I can’t even not think about my students when I am trying to watch a damn show on-line. Anyway…

I am no expert at on-line anything, however I am pretty sure I know why this site would do this:

They are counting on the fact that their target market has a well developed ADD from being too accustomed to internet connectivity speeds of greater than 35kb/sec and commercials that flicker images at a rate of too many/sec. What this means is that these impatient lads will either opt to buy the unlimited package or get the hell off the site and stop taking up the bandwidth. They certainly do not expect a person to WAIT for the 54 minutes to continue viewing; well, they did not expect a broke-ass teacher who has papers to grade while he waits patiently until he can resume viewing, to take up their precious bandwidth. Ahahaha! Mwahahaha!

So, back to the kids. If basic marketing strategy for this form of entertainment is aimed at precisely the target market which abounds my classroom, then I can deduce that attention spans are being actively and purposefully shrunk by our mass media conveyer-belt-Jewish-mother like feeding machines. Information is more available than ever, though it is less reliable than ever, and no one under the age of 21 can possibly be hassled to go to a library and retrieve valuable, reliable information – information which takes more than 20 seconds to absorb. Unfortunately, until Google gets off its ass and takes over everything we know and do, most books are not yet electronically available – not the ones you need and definitely not for free!

This makes an academic writing class (based on non-fiction research) a hostage to information available on-line and the innate (or threatened) desire of the student to find it elsewhere.

So far the class is hungry, scared and there is little sign of negotiations making any progress.

How do we slow down and still keep up?

My students look only at bullet points, time-lines or headings; they find main ideas and think them details, they write only what comes to mind the moment a question is posed or information presented – they do not stop to think whether what they are writing is relevant or even accurate. They glance over paragraphs, they seek out websites that provide summaries, summaries, summaries; they love to read paraphrased thought, as long as it is shorter than the original text, but they are not willing to stop and paraphrase themselves.

“but mista, you give us mad work!”

“mad work? Guys I’m here to get you ready for college, this is nothing compared to what you will be expected to do when you get there (if you get there).”

“yea, but we aint in college mista”




Air sucking through teeth as though a piece of corn has lodged itself in there and is hanging on for the long fight, “sir, we aint in college”

“I know, but don’t you want to learn this now, make mistakes now, with me here to support and teach you, because I care, professors for the most part do not. The college will take your money, give you an F along with no credit and send you on your way! I don’t want that for you”

“yeah, but, we already get homework from other teachers”


“we don’t have time to do all of this”

“I assign you work for a week that a professor would assign you for a day! You want to go to college don’t you?”

“of course!”

“then you can appreciate that I am trying to keep you from falling behind, failing classes, getting placed on academic probation, losing your grants… IDON’T WANT WHAT HAPPENED TO ME, TO HAPPEN TO YOU!”


Slightly deflated, “anyway, this is not empty work, this article is from a university on how to write well academically, you want this information, just take the time to read it, it’s not even that long…”


One week later: “please take out your homework…, …, … one person?! Where is the rest of your homework?!” “do you guys even want to learn anything? Should I just play a video?”

“yeah! Yeah!”


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Interstate Nowhere

A lonely road in the hills of Judea

Interstate Nowhere

I ride.
I have ridden.
I ride.
I have seen.
I have seen not.
I have been removed.
I rip through the current, I see nothing. I go somewhere,
I’ve been nowhere.

Completely removed from the living and the breathing I have traversed a significant part of this country. I traveled 1200 miles to New York City, only to have seen the paint, yellow and white; the reflection of my light in the signs, green, blue, brown, red… ensconced in leather, surrounded by metal and concrete, others encased in cheap Japanese plastic.

I rode.

Alongside of them who have no idea of what or who they are, from where they are and where they might be going. I knew where I was going, they knew not that of me.
I passed through Wisconsin and have seen no cheese.
I rode through Illinois and saw only the silhouette of Chicago as the foreground, shadow covered opening act of Lake Michigan’s glimmer that night.

Do people live there?

How hath those towers arisen so high, and by whom?
I passed through Indiana, steel mills all around yet I saw no steel, I saw no glaring furnaces; the sweat drenched faces of men on their eleventh hour were as hidden to me as green lined promenades of the countless universities, the students… the composition of the state was to me an enigma, I believed that there must be some substance to the sate, but it exists in the minds of other men, to me it is just a story, one which I must believe but have no foundation on which to create an opinion, a bias, a love or hatred, Indiana passed me by.

As did Ohio.

As I entered the green, rolling hills of the Pennsylvanian valleys, big dips in the road, big winding road, fresh air, rivers, independence, where it was conceived and brought forth to the nation, the place from where we said: “let us not be ruled by some unseen, unheard force…” and yet I did not see and I did not hear, other than the gentle roar of my machine as it climbed yet another hill, I know not of what that fateful day has brought to the descendants who still live, somewhere here, in Philadelphia perhaps, in Pittsburg, in Erie…
The road gradually turned into New Jersey, I did not notice. It was just as hilly and winding as before, I smelled no difference, I felt no difference, I chanced upon a sign that said “welcome to New Jersey” and so I knew where I was.
Locked into the interstate, locked by semi’s driven by faceless men, surrounded by cars with faceless drivers, some mothers I’m sure with screaming kids in the back, some doctors on the way to an emergency, a lawyer just off from court, some mechanic analyzing what could be wrong with my black steel horse as I roared passed him…or maybe there were no people at all, maybe there were no cars, maybe I just got to New York by way of my imagination, perhaps there is nothing between here and Minneapolis.

How can I know?

The interstate has blocked from me all knowledge of our land, I am no more full of memories and insights, stories and dreams than when I left my house with my mother standing in the door step waving me off.
I traversed one half of my beautiful country, so diverse with…I don’t know what -
I wish I did - the interstate brought me nowhere.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The New Kid

Sometimes I wish I could welcome my new students like this, sans trembling hand holding a schedule and a lost, scared look with eyes begging to be understood

The New Kid

It has got to be tough to be a new kid in school… it has got to be that much tougher when the only phrase you know is: “I don’t speak English”. I was that kid once, a long, long time ago. I had the standard missing teeth and poor boy haircut and Goodwill clothes. My new student looked much more presentable, but still, all he could say was: “I don’t speak English”.

So I says to him, I says “welcome, my name is Mr. T, what is your name?”

“oh, I don’t speak English”

“I know, it’s ok, that is why we are here, you will learn. So, what is your name? I am Mr. T”

“I don’t speak English”

Thankfully I noticed he had a schedule with his name on it “oh, there we are, nice to meet you, have a seat”.

Clif is the fourth new student in my class; we have been getting a steady flow, room or not, ever since the earthquake in Haiti. The two who came before him spoke at least enough to understand that I wanted them to sit down, one could even tell me her name, how she felt and greeted me when she first came. They are of the fortunate few who not only had the chance to go to some school, but also pick up a bit of English via TV, Music or even a class - Clif was not so fortunate. The first new student this semester could also say about as much as a 10-month old, but she speaks Spanish so I was at least able to get her settled in right away, with Clif I had to rely on, and trust, the other Creole speaking students in my class. Clif does have one advantage when it comes to not being lost outside of class: almost the whole school speaks Creole or French, so come lunch time he should be alright. However come History time, and I mean History in preparation for a REGENTS exam – not “oh you know many things happened a long time ago, lets talk about it at our leisure” History. The curriculum that these kids MUST absorb within maximum a few years is… too much. Native English speaking kids struggle with learning everything for these extensive tests, English Language Learners have 3 times the battle: acculturation, language acquisition and content acquisition. Everyone in New York is in a hurry, so they feel that when new kids come from extremely different cultures they should be in the same hurry and should be able to keep up! And so I teach…

“Clif, this is a notebook… and this a pen. Please repeat, notebook”


“excellent Clif. Pen”


“very good”

“a pilgrimage is often a long journey that devout religious people take in order to pray at a sacred shrine, or tomb”

This is where I earn my money as a mime. I say the words alright, but Clif also gets a mini one act play, including a quasi-burial of me in a tomb”

Later on:

“those are kids from a different school Clif”

“I don’t speak English”

“I know Clif, it’s ok. We are in a school.”


“this is a school” I say wildly gesticulating a bubble and a geometric plane.


“yes Clif! A school… ecole”

thank god I knew a few words in French, and am able to deduce a few more via Spanish translation. “on this floor we have one school, un school, and upstairs deux school”

Smile, “yes, yes”

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Books, Leaders and Pants

Manhattan sun, Manhattan youth - her calm and confidence speaks volumes of what can be.

I just spent the early part of my Saturday rummaging through piles and piles of books in a ballroom of a hotel in Manhattan. I enlisted the help of a fellow teacher and together we collected 2 boxes, about 60lbs each, of books. I was not only happy to do it, but I was sad that I did not have more time and access to all the books donated so that I could pick as much as possible for my students. Project Cicero is quite amazing! All this was set up by them and the books were donated from countless sources, for the benefit of teachers (and students) at high needs schools. For two days straight the ballroom will teem with teachers, allowed one hour per person, hungrily snatching up whatever they think may possibly work for their students. It was touching to pause for a minute and observe – the efforts of the volunteers, the generosity of the donors, the selflessness of the teachers giving up their Saturday sleep to do this for their students; it was also a little sad to yet again, in yet another way, be reminded of the great divide. I started watching “Gandhi” today and his story and that of his work touches so closely to what is happening here. Thankfully we do have one law for one country, but it is surely not equally dispensed, and we do have opportunities in abundance, but they certainly are not equally accessible.

It seems we are getting complacent with the amount of progress made by previous generations and are coasting on their success. In the last two decades I, and perhaps I am not the most acute observer and if so I would love to hear your feedback proving me wrong, have not seen a shred of progress towards leveling the playing field for all citizens of this country. We no longer lynch, we no longer hose, we no longer segregate buses, restaurants, schools or theaters, but out failing schools are mostly populated with “minorities”, as are our jails and minimum wage jobs. Where is the leadership and effort? Where are the Black and Latino leaders? Where are the acts that lead to progress? Sometimes I hear angry words, mostly from people who care more about saying them than actually making a lasting difference, but I see no actions. I see organizations like Donorschoose.org and Teach for America and Teaching Fellows and Project Cicero and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation working their asses off, but these are mostly white founded and white ran organizations. Where are the Kings, X’s, Theresa’s, Gandhi’s, Tubman’s, Stanton’s, Park’s, Dessalines’s? Where are those to justify my efforts to my students? Who will say that I am not just another instrument of oppression? With all my good intentions and multi-cultural approach to education and respect I am still a symbol of a discriminating elite (little do they know how broke-ass and culturally oppressed I am – but I look white). Smart kids are still ridiculed and abused. Black teachers are still often seen as puppets of the system (or Oreos). Why?! White nerds are getting more and more tail and respect, while Blacks and Latinos who care about education are getting beat up and emotionally disemboweled. Who passes on the knowledge, the history of slaves risking their lives to learn how to read and write? We have museums and organizations making sure we don’t forget the holocaust so that it will never again be repeated, and we are well aware of these, but where is the secret stash of memorabilia that can remind these kids of the blood and lives lost to not only learn how to read but to give future generations the opportunity to do the same without risk of torture and murder? I am not saying we need to teach more “African-American” authors and artists, nor should we relegate another meaningless month to recognizing the contributions of Americans who happen to be Black. I am saying we need to focus our efforts on exposing the true history of our disenfranchised populations to give them hope and tools to grow, not humor them by reading about MLK in February and then harassing them for sagging their pants.
And I am not talking about leaders who happen to be Black or Latino (Barack Obama) I am talking about leaders of Black and Latino people. As a society we have thankfully progressed to allow politicians into D.C and students into Harvard, but as a community I long to see the Blacks and Latinos embody the spirit of their forefathers.

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Life-Work Balance

From the brief and only slightly regrettable stint in fashion.

Life-Work Balance
You tell me: I left school at midnight last night. Thoughts?
My previous records were 10:30pm and 11:30pm, I just squeezed past the last one for Gold finish in the “not knowing how to balance your life and work” event.
Though I am not entirely sure that it’s me not knowing how to find the balance; it could be that there is simply that much to do for a teacher who keeps growing and developing his methods. So many hours are spent just trying to figure out how to keep track of what I assign to which class and when. May seem trivial, you may say “move on man, just work on planning”, but I say that it is impossible to plan if you don’t know what you did today or yesterday, what you assigned, what you actually covered. The problem is that I have so many classes ! I have 6 regular classes and an advisory. Some veteran high school teachers may say that is nothing, but to that I would reply that each class is so different, that they all require separate planning (preps). I am blessed with being in charge of students that represent the entire spectrum (almost) of behavior, motivation, reading and academic standing levels. Even within each class I have students who have failed the regents, passed with an average score and nailed it - to say nothing of the other factors. These variations lead to each class, even those few that fall under the same prep, to never being on the same page; this effect is accentuated by each class seeing me a different amount of days each week – which is further exacerbated by random days off for snow, holidays, professional development… and so forth. AND, of course, our progress is daily impeded by disruptive behavioral issues which often simply do not allow us to cover all that must be covered in a class, and the gap widens ever more!
But, I am not complaining. I just can’t find the time to plan for each class, figure out how to do the little things that teachers do (like tracking, and other little systems of organization), study and write for grad school AND sleep. Can’t do it… not yet. What I notice though is that I am not angry about the fact that I have to stay so late, exhausted, but not angry. Nobody is making me stay; I actually choose to do this, almost every day. I miss the theater, the ballet, the opera, the philharmonic, the jazz, the dancing, the sports, the travel… but I never dwell on “what I am missing”. I keep telling myself that the first year is supposed to be like this, like hazing at a frat; perhaps my principal is the “Rush Chair” and is testing whether I have the true desire to wear the Iota Tao Alpha Upsilon Alpha (ITAVA High School) letters.
Anyway, every time I think of how much easier it would be to work from 9-5 and not have to do anything for work once I have left, and to have weekends to myself and my family… I am reminded of why I left that sort of work in the first place: because it doesn’t matter to me.

I have not mentioned the blacktop as much as I should and will in the future. But this brief recollection begins on the blacktop and brings me close to the doorstep of where I am now:

Listen!.............. a dull roar……….. growing louder…….Louder……LOuder…….LOUder ….LOUDER…….. silence……. The shaking , the nerves having had havoc wreaked on them are too slowly subsiding from the harsh reality of memories express bypass of realities brief station. The ride, the triumph, the collapse, all fading in and out. A heart too weak, a future too bleak, success and glory but fleeting caresses. I don’t suppose it was all supposed to be this way, some way, I guess it had to be one way and not another, regardless of what I did some way this would come around. The big move was made, New York was to be the land next conquered. A brief goodbye and the valleys and silvered lakes of the northland began to speck the horizon as it fell away behind the truck. A dull roar from this not so ancient Ford, the rambling of the worn down shocks, all served kindly to prepare me for what was to be nothing but the pure absence of smoothness and calm. I thought perhaps the big apple, with its juicy core, shiny, attractive skin, its baiting promise of sweet, sweet nectar, would be just that, a never ending bite of the promised joy and satisfaction that comes with your first sinking into a ripe apple afore the leaves start to fade from their glorious autumn hues and turn to dust shall the harvest of youthful freedom and carefree strolls with apples in mouths, thin, long fingers intertwined with your own, the youthful odor from summers lingering heat on supple, silky, caramel skin, with trembling down on which some beads of sweat hang as a reminder of consequence free love and childish joy at new sensations, at the slight tickle of long hairs as they slick threw your fingers, the breathless breeze of warmth and exhaustion as it reverberated on ears light coat and came to spiral to the innermost and drum up sounds that may or may have not been made, of convulsions that shook the earth coming to ease and subside with gentle flapping of wet hair across your labor beaten brow.

Gone forever it seemed would be those days, and yet once more awake, still mounted on steel I shuddered to think for how long had my repast taken my concentration off the road, the cars, the turns, it seemed as if by its own volition my body chose to make the necessary turns while I drifted away into forgotten valleys of my youth.

The spires of heights the numbers of which cannot be summed in my meager head began to show their grandeur as I came to a clearing from the hills of Jersey. Here it was, here is the unknown, here are the frames that were to enclose my existence for years to come, I felt no fear, I had no clue what they possessed in power and overwhelming draw and drain. I looked on happily if not slightly nervously at what was to be my home. The city of music and theater, of artists and writers, of money and money makers, of the center to world politics, or so it seemed, and its future. Actors working as bartenders, singers as waitresses, writers as messengers, poets as stock boys, hopeful Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, Caribbean’s as cab drivers, desperate Latinos as busboys and cooks, fleeing Asians as delivery boys, Mad Russians, Jews of a variety seen nowhere else on this planet, every color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, temperament, disposition, level of libido, degree of insanity, the faithful to the faithless, the bluebloods to the wretched refuse of far off shores, of wealth and poverty, of lethargy and industry, of gluttony and starvation, from Gucci to Pucci, from he who is to those without, the haves, the have-nots, the smiths and the Robinsons, the insky’s and the sczeski’s, to Wongs the Wangs, the Dangs, the Tangs, from Cruz’s and Ruiz’s to Fellini’s and Marbini’s, from Russo to Washington, from Brown to Said to Bin Mohamed to Virteux to Giraud to Morbier to Orlov to Black and brown and red and white and yellow and tan and pale and burnt rose to marmalade to pink to beige to…. Everything and everyone on a single subway car, going somewhere, in a rush to do something, filled with emotions and thoughts of balance, integration, saturation, acquisition, permutation, irrigation, conservation, condemnation, salivation, masturbation, expression, depression, elation, mortification, colonization, exaltation, happiness, sadness, madness, finesse, distress, fitness, nastiness… all completely unaware of each other, of the mutual purpose we inevitably share, the same goals and desires, we who are thrust thus into this bowl of concrete shit, of diversity and equality and revolution and subjugation, pretend we are the epicenter of existence and yet are fully conscious of our own deficiency to effect any more than the small group of groveling imps at our feet, the few who are less resourceful, more dependent, less opinionated and altogether worthless in their affect, those are upon whom we reveal our strength and courage and wisdom - finding it either satisfying or morbidly empty. Such is the turmoil we share in this brick oven of money and temptation.