The Unknowns

Writing, like life, is funny at times and wrong turns often take you to just where you need to go. Today was a perfect example of this. For the week my role in life has been that of a taxi driver ferrying Lisa to Meredith College where she is teaching an AP Calculus workshop and transporting Peyton to her engineering camp at NC State. Meggie is sweltering somewhere in the woods at Girl Scout Camp. So for the past two days, we awoke, ate breakfast, roused Peyton from her slumber, dressed, and then drove to Meredith to drop Lisa off. Peyton and I have then proceeded to find a place for her to eat breakfast and kill the hour and a half before her camp began. I must confess that apparently I’m part Hobbit because I have partaken of a second breakfast at this point. Once Peyton was safely away at her camp, I found myself with time to kill. Time that has consisted of trying to find a safe place to write and not melt in the heat of day in the South. Being the more adventuresome eater of the family, I have also enjoyed exploring the food scene of Raleigh. It’s worth your time to investigate if you’re ever in the area. For me, it hasn’ been the hardest of weeks.

Today, I had decided to write during the cooler morning and then visit the NC Museum of Natural Science during the afternoon. My family will quickly point out that I have the directional sense of an amoeba trapped in a whirlpool. As a result, the GPS function of my phone has become invaluable and I must say that I believe me and Siri may actually start to like each other. Since I had a general direction in mind I waited until I had finished talking to Lisa during her lunch break to kindly ask Siri for directions. By kindly ask, I mean to scream at the top of my lungs because the Apple Execs failed to consider Southern when they programed the iPhone’s evil, yet melodious personality. Needless to say, she can’t understand a word I say. Most of the time I simply type in the address of the location. Not wanting to break the law and possibly my neck by typing and driving, I pulled into the first random parking lot I could find that didn’t resemble something from a horror movie. Little did I expect to find a gem of a spot to spend a hot summer afternoon. With spaces full except for those in the very back of the lot, my search for a safe area to communicate with Siri led me to discover the Historic Oberlin Village Cemetery. According to the historical marker, Raleigh contains four known cemeteries for African Americans that date back to the Civil War area. Deeded to the citizens of Oberlin Village in 1873, this cemetery was one of the four. Oral tradition states that this cemetery contains the remains of both slaves and freedman who impacted he Raleigh area.

The Oberlin community has been so thoroughly assimilated into the urban landscape of Raleigh that during the countless times I had driven on Oberlin Road, I never considered that it had once housed a vibrant community separate from the rest of the city. Seeing the ancient, crumbling grave markers extending off into a grove of trees, I parked the car and investigated.

Nestled within the hustle-and-bustle of the state capital, the cemetery sat amid a grove of pine trees, scrub oaks, and magnolias, typical for a southern forest on the border between the piedmont and the coastal plain. Situated beside a community fitness center pool, I felt as if I had stepped into a different world. While I could hear the sounds of kids at play in the indoor pool, I doubt if they were aware of the history that could be found mere feet from their recreational area. Outside of the few modern monuments erected to honor the dead by their known descendants, the site bore little resemblance to the cemeteries with their well ordered tombstones that I have visited in my lifetime. That was not surprising given the occupants of this hallowed ground. Slaves and freedmen of the South had little in the ways of literacy and even less in the ways of wealth. Their graves were often unmarked since the crude wood crosses that once served as headstones had long since rotted away. An eroded indention in the ground was all that reminded us that people once gathered around a freshly dug grave to both mourn and honor a life that was no longer with them.

Some graves had retained their markers and studded throughout the cemetery were large, flat rocks that served the role of a more permanent marker. However, all vestiges of the person interred beneath the rocks were lost for they contained no inscriptions to tell later generations the identity of the ones who slept eternally beneath their silent vigil.

Outside of the pitiful few marked graves, the cemetery was occupied by the unknowns. There was nothing to tell me who they were, how old they were when they moved into the next world, and if they were married and had children. No flowers adorned the graves to show observers that the deceased were missed by family and friends. The sleepers here are unknown to me. Their past was sadly silent with only the birds and insects keeping watch for them, telling the stories of the dead in a language I would never understand.

This fate awaits us all. The children who visited the graves aged and died, as well as their children. In the not-to-distant future mine will be a name inscribed upon the stone monument. It will be my children who will morn only to later die as well. Over time, my monument will erode so that only a standing rock with illegible script will proclaim that somebody was buried here. Possibly a future author will speculate upon my identity, but like my present day self, will be unable to deduce anything from the silent stone. Perhaps a few generations later, forces will cause the tombstone to fall and dirt and plants will cover it, erasing all semblance of my resting place from the landscape. There is a chance that an archaeologist from a future time may exclaim in joy over the discovery of my remains. Maybe enough DNA will survive that scientists could extract and sequence a sample so that my descendants could be tracked. I like to think it may be worthy of a news story or two, but nothing will be known of me, the son, the husband, and the father. Whether we are rich or poor, this fate awaits us all.

This drove home a basic tenant of life. On a personal level, the future is irrelevant. It is the here-and-now that is important. We need to make every moment mean something to those who love and cherish us. It truly is the only thing that matters.

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The Ten Days of Testing

I don’t usually write song lyrics but after watching kids taking tests for hours on end, my consciousness began to wonder and a song filled my mind. Of course it could have been a case of spontaneous insanity brought about by the sheer mind-numbing task of proctoring a state standardized test but who cares. Whether inspiration or insanity, a song in tribute to the entire testing process began to take shape in my mind. Based on the “Twelve Days of Christmas” I offer you the “Ten Days of Testing.”

On the tenth day of testing my students gave to me

Ten laptops spontaneously shutting down.

Nine sets of dead batteries.

Eight minutes of reading pre-prepared directions.

Seven sleeping students.

Six cellphones ringing.

Five Misalignments.

Four pools of drool.

Three misadministrations

Two sharpened #2 pencils

And one filled in Scantron sheet!

Here’s to standardized testing everywhere.

Reflections Upon the Southern “Blizzard” of 2015

I was recently called to task in the social media universe for complaining about the great southern blizzard of 2015. The South was inflicted with nearly three-inches of sleet and ice and we were brought to our knees. Schools shut down, businesses enacted emergency plans for employees, city and county workers put in massive amounts of overtime to clear the roads, and the mobs descended upon the grocery stores intent on buying those two items of dearest necessity for survival during a blizzard: bread and milk. We in the South are much maligned concerning the rush to acquire these items so I’m assuming my Northern friends apparently have not heard of that truly Southern delicacy known as the milk sandwich.

So with criticism taken to heart because I have no desire to contemplate, let alone experience a winter with nearly 100 inches of snow, I decided to reflect upon what I have learned from this momentous storm of 2015.

 

  1. Even my Northern friends admit that ice is far different from snow. Ice can cripple any city. While Winston-Salem, NC was only hit with a few inches of frozen water, it was more than enough to push the city, and much of NC, into a state of emergency. While I like a nice snowfall, preferably from inside my house while sipping a hot mug of tea, I can’t stand ice. I have the grace of a penguin with two broken legs when it comes to walking on the slippery stuff. Possibly spending the rest of the winter with my leg in a cast as a result of attempting a triple-axle as I tried to get to my front door does not rank high on my list of accomplishments I wish to claim for the year. This ice storm was made worse by the fact that Lisa, my wife, was trying to fly to Greensboro from Memphis. If you followed the news reports, the airport at Memphis was the hardest hit airport in the entire nation. Let’s just say it was an interesting journey. She did have one pleasant experience during the ordeal. When she finally landed in Greensboro and attempted to drive home, Interstate-40 was completely clear of cars and she slide all over the road.
  2. Cold sucks. Our temperatures dropped down to a low of 2°F Friday morning. I don’t care where you’re from, that’s cold, especially when you throw in a stiff wind. The highs for the week struggled to reach 20° This was the main reason schools in NC all but shut down for the week. Since we suffer from a lack of heavy snowstorms, as my Northern friends are keen to point out, we also suffer from a lack of heavy equipment to remove snow when it falls. We rely upon the warmth of the sun to do most of the work. Normally, this works fine. It snows, we get out of school, the sun comes out, the temperature rises, Frosty the Snowman melts, and we go back to school. It all works out just fine. This time, however, the temperature didn’t cooperate. It just stayed cold and the roads remained frozen. It was so bad one Tennessee town issued an arrest warrant for Queen Elsa of Arendelle on charges of wantonly freezing of the state. However, she claimed diplomatic immunity and the cold weather remained. I did, however, enjoy the week home with my family.
  3. I really like indoor plumbing. It was so blasted cold, the pipes leading up to all but one toilet in our house froze. Thankfully, our pipes are designed to expand so we were in little danger of them bursting. However, with four people trapped in a house during the great blizzard, it was frightening to face the possibility of not having a functional toilet in the house.
  4. Did I mention I hate ice-skating, especially in my driveway?
  5. I don’t own a tremendous amount of cold weather clothes, so I ran the washer a lot this week. That is, I ran it a lot until the pipes leading to the laundry room froze. In the twelve years we’ve lived in this house, this was the first time where that many pipes in our home froze. While I can appreciate that -29°F is $%^* cold, as my Northern friends liked to brag, it was pretty cold here too! So give us a break.
  6. Today Queen Elsa returned to her native land freeing the South from her icy grip. As water soaked into the hem of my sweat pants when I retrieved the morning paper, I smiled. Soggy pants is usually a source of irritation but today it was greeted as a marvel of physics implying that our world was indeed returning to normal. After church, my family left the confines of our home and walked the loop around our neighborhood. While patches of ice resisted, most were succumbing to the warm air’s embrace and were surrendering to the inevitable transformation into liquid. My ears were caressed by the sweet sounds of dripping water and my shoes were bathed in the runoff from the meltdown. As I removed my sweat shirt a  laugh escaped my lips. A laugh that very well could be described as the last laugh. Here in the South, winter’s icy grip was weakening. In a few short weeks, winter will surrender to the warmth of spring. So those of you who mocked the South’s “blizzard” can rest comfortably in their snow forts huddled under more layers of clothing than I own. I’ll take the South with its week off from school and our fanatical purchase of milk and bread any day over the months of subfreezing weather and endless supply of snow cream. A warm walk in February wearing a t-shirt just a few short days after a state stopping blizzard is worth a little bit of ridicule. Have fun digging out from all of that snow those of you not blessed to live in the Land of Dixie.

It’s Not That I’m Afraid of Heights; It’s Just That Whole Ground Thing That Bothers Me

I have never been afraid of heights, but I must admit that my first thought when my wife broached the idea of a zip line adventure was, “You want me to do what?”

As I said, I’m not afraid of heights, but I am a big guy. So the thought of dangling on a flimsy steel cable over fifty feet off of the ground did not endear warm and fuzzy feelings. I’ve watched enough action films to know that those cables break at a moments notice, especially at the exact moment that the hero is halfway across the line trying to rescue some damsel in distress. Never having been one to be able to say no to my wife, I reluctantly booked our reservations at the Big Woods Zipline in Boonville, NC. My next task was to meticulously research death rates, numbers of accidents, and most importantly of all the number of damsels in distress that could be found on a standard zip line course. Thankfully, I found that nobody had gotten killed or injured on this particular course and the person I spoke with on the phone assured me that damsels in distress were not normally found on the course but for an additional fee he might could persuade one of his friends to don a wig and scream for help somewhere near the 9th platform.

The only thing I found to be particularly concerning was the posted weight limit of 270 lbs. I’m a big guy weighing in at 240 lbs., which is far too close for my comfort, especially when you factor in variables such as the amount of breakfast consumed, the mass of a cheeseburger and fries, the air-speed velocity of a European swallow. With a posted maximum height of 65 ft. any collisions with a fast flying swallow, either European or African, could provide just enough force to tip the edge well into the negative range and triggering an unscheduled meeting with the ground. Not a comforting thought, but with the look of eager anticipation in the eyes of both wife and daughters, I wisely left my concerns unsaid.

The fateful day where I would meet my destiny finally arrived. I must say, routes to a possible execution could be far worst. We live in Clemmons, North Carolina a suburb of Winston-Salem. So our journey began by crossing the Yadkin River that separates Forsyth County from Yadkin County. The river also separated the hustle and bustle of the modern urban world with a land from a different time. For once you cross the Yadkin River, you enter into a realm from the past where the phrase small town is not a marketing term for yet another cookie cutter housing development. In Yadkin County small town is a reality. While the town of Yadkinville did host a commercial district directly off of the four-lane Highway 421, our route took us through the town’s heart where time seemed to move a little bit slower and you had the feeling that the residents would greet you with a smile and a handshake.

I hated to see the town slip away as we left its corporate limits. But the countryside was full of delights as well. The rolling hills of the Piedmont covered with fields of corn, soybeans, and tobacco brought back memories of my youth. Our trip through time was complete with a gravel road upon which I regaled my daughters with tales of bouncing along just such a lane in my younger days. I wisely chose to interpret their yawns as a heartfelt desire for similar stories of bygone days. Fortunately for Meggie and Peyton, my dialogue was interrupted by our arrival at our destination. We later learned by actually reading the travel directions posted on Big Woods’ website, that a much more direct route existed, but I’m glad our GPS was somehow set on the “scenic” option.

Big Woods Zipline is a part of Sanders Ridge Winery and as you enter the property surrounded by lush grapevines growing upon a few rolling hills that make up the Piedmont region of North Carolina, terms such as pastoral, idyllic, and just down right beautiful, describe its home. A wedding was being set up for later in the day upon the winery and restaurant grounds. The bride, groom, and official were to be housed within a gazebo situated beside a pond with the guests shaded by large oaks and hickories. It was such a scene that I expected small woodland creatures to suddenly start singing as they escorted the bride down the aisle looking radiant in an exquisite gown made by the same woodland creatures. You could spend a large fortune trying to find a better setting to begin a lifetime of matrimonial bliss than Sanders Ridge Winery.

However, Lisa and I said our vows more years ago than either of us wish to recall and she had her eye set on a far loftier goal. So we continued down the gravel road indicated by the small sign directing us toward the office of the Big Woods Zipline. Some people may be turned off by the tiny, clapboard office and covered picnic area, but I thought it was a natural fit for the situation. It even served the added benefit of the workers being able to fix their coffee in the office and then sitting out in the picnic area and enjoying the sunrise. I just wish my place of employment had similar benefits.

It was here that we met our two guides: Ben and Charlie. First impressions are often misleading and this was the epitome of that slogan. My first thought upon seeing the two people with whom I would entrust my life was, “Good grief, they’re just kids!” This is a reaction I have found myself reciting many times over the past several years. It’s one of those funny quirks of life. I don’t feel like I’m getting old, but everyone around me seems to be getting younger. While young, by my standards, both Ben and Charlie were in college and were fully competent in their jobs. Ben was the vocal one of the group and Charlie provided a stoic calm that countered my rising panic at the thought of trusting my life to a flimsy steel cable.

Both men soon proved their worth as we quickly donned our safety harnesses. One thing I can say about the harness is that it portrayed a sense of brute strength. Thick straps, bulky tackle, and sturdy helmets were quickly laid before us. My fears started to subside at the sight displayed before me. The calm reassurance of Ben that they had never had an equipment failure didn’t hurt either. With a series of quick, easy instructions, we were soon girded for battle. As with any endeavor, you must maintain a trust in your guides. The next step proved this point. Company safety regulations stated that you, the participant, could not adjust your equipment. The reality of the situation was the simple fact that unless you have years of experience tightening harnesses, you are completely clueless as to what to do. The flipside, however, was that some of those adjustment straps were in, how shall I say it, delicate locations. With calm professionalism, Ben and Charlie had us all suited up.

After our introduction to the joys of snug fitting safety harnesses we underwent a quick safety course that consisted of (1) Don’t touch your harness (2) Let us hook you onto the lines (3) Hold onto the strap with your left hand (4) Break with your right hand…the one with the big strip of leather so you don’t burn the living daylights out of your hand. At first I was upset over what I viewed was a paucity of instruction, but then I realized it was a one-way street with no exits. What else do you really need to know? We then climbed to first set of stairs to our first platform for our first line. On a side note, if you are worried about climbing stair after stair, you need not fear. The course at Big Woods has surprisingly few climbs. The course is designed so you glide to the next platform with a rare set of stairs worked into the routine. Even with a bad knee, I had no problem navigating the course.

With heart pounding –from fear, not from an impending heart attack caused climbing the first few steps- I spied the first line of the 12 lines. My fear of snapping the steel cable quickly evaporated. Made up of steel cable, the thing looked like it could support an elephant. Even after downing quite a large breakfast, I don’t think I approached that mass. Ben went down the line first in, what I believe, was an attempt to calm any fears the participants may have as to the structural integrity of the line and to be available to catch us to prevent anyone from slamming into a tree. Charlie stayed behind and hooked each person onto the line and gave a brief synopsis of how to stop, a useful skill to have. Meggie and Peyton went first. Giggles of excitement from both of them indicated their approval. Then it was my turn. I can’t say giggles escaped my lips, but neither did screams of terror. I did have a sense of relief when Ben caught me on the other platform. While the instructions we received were more than adequate, putting those instructions into practice was something else entirely. It took a couple of tries before I was able to perfect it.

As we progressed through the next couple of lines, both Lisa and I gained confidence in both our guides and our equipment. Meggie and Peyton took to the process like a couple of monkeys. I must also commend Ben and Charlie on how they treated the girls. It would have been easy for the guides to dismiss both Meggie and Peyton as necessary attachments to the people who were paying for the excursion, but they didn’t. Both guides took care to ensure the experience was enjoyable for our daughters. That small act was worth their entire tip.

After the first three or four lines, both Lisa and I started to relax. With a few helpful directions from Ben, we had both mastered the art of slowing as we approached the lower platform. It was at this point that I began to truly enjoy myself. The wind in your face as you zip down the line through a well established secondary growth forest was fantastic. Red oaks, white oaks, tulip poplars, and beech trees grew in abundance along the course. All of which could be enjoyed from a perspective I had not seen since I was a child climbing to the tops of trees: the canopy. Gliding along the lines was fun and easily the most enjoyable part of the entire day for the girls, especially the specified bouncing line where Ben wobbled the line up and down, but I marveled at the bird’s eye view of the forest. The lines, of course, were kept clear of branches, but from the platform I was able to observe the forest in its glory as the sun filtered through the canopy leaves to reveal an emerald wonderland. Simply put, it was beautiful.

If you happen to find yourself in Yadkin County with an afternoon to spend, then I would happily recommend Big Woods Zipline. It is ecotourism at its best.

A Night on the Town

We just arrived safely at home from our big night on the town.  Of course, in our house, the evening activities revolve around the under twelve crowd and tonight was no exception.  The last time Lisa and I spent any quality time together was waiting in line at Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving.  But hey, the girls are only young once and we were never much for partying.

Tonight’s festivities revolved around Meggie’s winter musical.  The school and the theme of the production are irrelevant.  They’re basically the same wherever you have a bunch of elementary kids singing Christmas music with a strictly secular theme having nothing to do with the actual holiday.  I think this one had snow and sleds in it, but I could be mistaken.  The white stuff could have been shaving cream and the theme may have been a barbershop quartet with sixty kids.  It would take someone far wiser than I to solve this mystery.  Whether the secularization of a deeply religious holiday is right or wrong, is fodder for a later date.  However, since there were kids on stage, who, if I were to hazard a guess to determine their religious preference, were most likely not Christian, it was nice for them to be able to participate without violating any of their religious beliefs.

As I said earlier, the school name doesn’t matter, nor does the theme.  These shows are all the same.  Groups of kids singing slightly off key broadcast over speakers that are spotty at best.  Disney on Ice they aren’t.  So to say I wanted to go would be analogous to saying Jonah was anxious to spend three days in the belly of a giant aquatic animal.  On top of the predicted acoustic inadequacy, I was suffering from a bit of an upset stomach.  With stomach rumbling and tired from fighting students desperate for the upcoming Christmas break, all I really wanted to accomplish tonight was to curl up on the couch and watch TV or possibly write bad poetry.  I experimented with Ode To Bile In My Throat, but realized it would make even a Vogon* retch.

In keeping with my foul mood, the program started with a PTA meeting.  It is a sad state that most people, myself included, would rather shove hot coals under their fingernails than attend a PTA meeting, so school officials tend to schedule them to conveniently coincide with school performances.  When the meeting started, my anger built.  Not for the content of the agenda, which was pretty standard fare, but for the behavior of the people around me.  If you want to understand why children are rude and disrespectful, simply look at their parents.  I could barely hear the speakers on account of the conversations surrounding me.  The behavior continued into the actual performance.  I honestly cannot say how Meggie’s first song sounded because a family was too busy talking about their disinterested middle school aged child’s day.  While I can’t tell you how my kid did, I can relate in great detail the events of this complete stranger’s day.  One lady sitting near me could not pull herself away from playing Candy Crush except when her child sang.  The take home message from this observation is that it is okay to totally ignore everyone else’s children.  Before I sound too critical, I do not believe anyone really felt like this, but that was the lesson imparted on the younger children in the audience.  I have to admit, it did explain the behavior I’ve witnessed in my students over the years.

As the program wore on, its magic started to seep into the crowd.  The conversations started to diminish, people started to focus upon the kids, and my mood began to lighten.  Yes, the kids were off key, but they were putting everything they had into the effort.  I found myself laughing at the obviously canned jokes told by two of the actors and humming along with the music.  While secular in nature, the meaning was all too obvious:  no matter your faith or your background, this is a time to be merry.  I can’t say that my heart grew ten times at this time, but I found myself enjoying the evening, sour stomach and all.  To see the kids enjoying themselves made for an enjoyable evening. #

*If you missed the Vogon pun, read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.   According to Adams, the Vogons are a race whose poetry is described as the third worst in the galaxy.

#Except for the lady playing Candy Crush.  She never could clear her level.  Oh, well.

Anatomy of an Educational Disaster

I read in the paper that the USA got its butt kicked by not only most European and industrialized Asian countries but also Vietnam.  Many people are crying “foul” over the tests while others are using it as validation of their assumptions that public education is broken. As a 20-year teaching veteran, I take offense to both claims.  The tests, as much as we would like to think otherwise, are probably valid but a broken educational system is not to blame.  No, the blame does not rest with the tests, nor the teachers.  I feel that the fault lies with too many people establishing too many mutually exclusive goals, which no human being could hope to accomplish.

Last year, I kept a journal of the events during the year and transported them into my fictional world featured in many of my short stories.  Hopefully, this journal will be made available to the general public soon.  Here is the entry I posted which addressed this very issue.  I stood by it last year, and I stand by it today.

10-9-2012       Tuesday         “Anatomy of an Educational Disaster”

People cry out that public education is dead.  I disagree.  It’s not dead, but I will agree that it is broken.  The breaking occurred as elected officials tried to fix something that wasn’t broken.  It began with a disturbing report that a large number of NC students were dropping out of high school.  Coupled with the scary prospect of only achieving minimum-wage positions for these students, public outcry was loud and furious.  So, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed a resolution that dropout prevention would be a major goal for every high school.  With this resolution, came the fact that the graduation rate was incorporated into the school’s annual report card.  In today’s world of no compromise, anything less than a perfect “A” is unacceptable to the general public.  And what’s unacceptable to the general public is unacceptable to the school board, which in turn ensures that it is unacceptable for the principals of the individual schools.  So, the orders were given that teachers would do everything within their power to ensure a student’s graduation.  (That statement is actually a part of our evaluation tool.  Note, that the burden is placed, not upon the student, nor upon the parent, but upon the teacher who sees the kid either an hour a day for an entire year, or ninety-minutes a day for a single semester.)  While this is a just and noble cause, you must understand that when your attendance book looks like it has developed a bad case of chicken pox from all the absences (I have several students this semester who have already missed over 10 days in a block class and we’ve only been in class for 12 school days.), it’s a trifling bit difficult to ensure the graduation of those students.

Now, the kicker came a few years later as North Carolina, and the United States in general, began to lag further and further behind the rest of the industrialized world on standardized tests.  A new cry arose.  How could the country that put men on the moon not outcompete the Asians and Europeans on a flimsy test?  The public demanded action and resolutions were passed from Washington to Raleigh that academic rigor would be our rallying cry.  The public cried out, “We demand the best for our students, lest they are incapable of competing in the international arena.”

Let’s sit back and examine this from a familiar point of reference.  Consider a coach who has been given the task of winning the NBA championship, the NCAA tournament, the state championship, or even simply the conference title.  Yes, that coach is going to work his/her players to their fullest.  “No pain, no gain!” will be the rallying cry for the team.  His/her leadership shall inspire the team to excel to new heights.  Plus, the coach is going to bloody well get rid of all the dead weight, good-for-nothing members on his/her team.

I can’t do that.  If you’re in my class, you’re in my class.  “We’re stuck with each other,” I often tell my classes.  So, I’m left with the mandate of producing college-level students regardless of their background or if they are even at school.  Considering that I have students who cannot identify North Carolina on a map (I had a student last year identify our state as England.  That explains my cravings for a spot of tea and my irresistible urge to sing “God Save the Queen.”) this can be a difficult task at best.  Coupled with the fact that I have students who have already missed ten days of school, the task becomes monumental, and this doesn’t address the twelve students in my classes who speak limited or no English.  To place it into the realms of sports, this is equivalent to our coach winning (insert tournament of your choice here) with players who cannot hit a basket no matter how many tries they are given and who don’t even bother to show up for practice.  The idea is ridiculous, but it is what I must accomplish.

So, I try to incorporate academic rigor into my curriculum.  For me this is no problem.  I’m a nerd who is also a sadistic bastard when it comes to tests.  Years ago, one poor girl told me she was struggling with Organic Chemistry in college and calmly recited to herself, “I’ve survived Mr. Gregory’s tests.  This isn’t so hard.”  Outside of AP courses, I probably give some of the hardest tests at Haversaw High.

To further muddle up the waters, remember our first mandate that we will ensure every student will graduate from high school.  In reality, the two goals, increased rigor and “No Child Left Behind” are mutually exclusive.  The politicians can wrap words around their fingers indicating that both can be accomplished, but I would like to see them try it for themselves.  As rigor increases, the academically challenged students fall behind.  When they fall behind, a many of the slower students simply quit trying.  As a result, they fall even further behind in a vicious self-inflicted cycle which I am utterly clueless how to stop.  If I knew, I would be an award- winning author and not the one struggling to get an agent to give my works the time of day.

All of the educational reforms that have haunted my existence stem from the politicians trying to fix the fact that they set education on a course that cannot be done.  The teachers are doing all that they can to promote high educational rigor while maintaining a high graduation rate.  But, let’s face it, when you have students who think we lost the Revolutionary War and are still a part of Mother England….well, that probably says it all.

Somewhat Late, Obligatory Thanksgiving Day List

As I was sitting on the couch, still stuffed from lunch and thankful that I had survived many a near death encounter trying to get out of Wal-Mart after the 6:00 sales had begun, I noticed that Facebook was littered with multiple listings of heartfelt feelings of thanksgiving.  Apparently there is a contract stating the requirement to post at least one “tug at the old heartstrings” comment on this day of thanks.  So, not wanting to anger the Facebook police, I felt that I should follow suit.

However, I’ve opted to take a look at my gratefulness by examining those things that have been annoying, but really aren’t.  You know, those minor things like having to toss out nearly $100 of food because the refrigerator door was left open and coming home from work nearly exhausted every night.  Things that, while annoying contain an underlying theme that is truly worthy of thanksgiving.

1.     Sitting at Wal-Mart at 4:00 pm on Thanksgiving.  After seeing my life flash before my very eyes braving the crowds of heathen scum who had the audacity to shop on Thanksgiving Day when they should have been sitting around a living room feeling bloated and burping the Star Spangled Banner in three-part harmony, I breathed a sigh of relief when we finally escaped the parking lot until my wife announced we were heading to Toys-R-Us.  My first thought was What on Earth am I doing?  But, seeing the look of glee on Lisa’s face, I reconsidered. We had a feast for lunch with family and friends.  Lisa’s mother and grandmother had left, to take a much needed nap.  Lisa’s brother had taken the girls to see Frozen, so the house was empty.  We didn’t have anything better to do, unless you count cleaning the disaster that was our kitchen.  Plus, money is tight.  Not having a raise for six years straight will do that to you.  Like adventurers of old, we set forth for king, queen, and the acquiring of booty (and by booty, I don’t mean the new pair of Uggs that Meggie keeps hinting would be a great gift).  Was the store crazy?  Sure, but Lisa and I rarely get to spend time alone with each other, unless you count collapsing on the couch at ten o’clock once all of the girls’ homework and activities have been accomplished.  While sitting on the cement floor in the Home and Garden/Christmas section of Wal-Mart wasn’t the most romantic of interludes, we had a lot of fun.  Plus, we saved over $200 on Christmas gifts.

2.     Constantly being interrupted with questions while great works of literature are trying desperately to travel from my brain to my computer.  It never fails that when the creative juices are flowing like a raging river and scenes of such eloquence that Shakespeare, himself, would rise from the grave to congratulate me are exploding in my mind, someone will intrude upon my contemplations.  Questions such as “Watcha doing?”  “Can I help?” and “What’s cinnamon made from?”  interrupt my train of thought and dam the creative river flowing from my soul.  While highly annoying, and I’m pretty sure I would have won a Newberry Award for literature with some of those lost thoughts, I am grateful for the attention.  You see, the interruptions usually come from Meggie, age 11, and Peyton, age 9, and I know it won’t be much longer before I’m filed away in the “lame” category by my two girls, if for no other reason than I used the word “lame” in a sentence.  I teach high school and I’ve seen this transition in the mindset of my students many times over the past twenty years.  At a certain age, children begin to expand their worldview, they begin to contemplate their futures, and their parents lose their place in the center of the universe.  I know this time is fast approaching, so any attention I get from Meggie and Peyton is cherished.

This is partly to blame for the fact that I’m posting a Thanksgiving Day blog three days late.  Of course the delay was also                    propagated by my wife having me do quite a few things around the house and never discount the amazing powers of turkey for inducing naps as well as a Star Wars marathon over the break.

3.      Having to throw out quite a bit of food because the refrigerator door was left open. This event happened a few weeks ago     when a certain malcontent left the scene of the crime without properly securing the evidence.  In other words, Peyton was rushing to get her lunch pulled together for school and forgot to close the refrigerator door.  By the time we returned home, I think a new form of life had evolved in the milk jug and had started forming an army for the assault upon the Grand Republic of the Sandwich Meat.  Let’s just say it was ugly.  While both Lisa and I probably won’t win any parenting awards for our handling of this situation, the incident demonstrated something for which I am thankful.  My girls are growing up and assuming more responsibilities.  It means that Meggie and Peyton are trying to be more self sufficient instead of yelling, “Mommy!  Daddy!  Get me (insert name of any object that happens to be on the mind of a young child here).  Do they succeed at all of their endeavors?  No, but you have to start somewhere.

4.      Stagnant pay for the past six years…Nah, I’m still pissed over that!

5.     The privilege of teaching kids no matter what the state does to my job.  I’m a teacher.  The past few years have been rough.  Class sizes have grown, expectations have grown, my paycheck has not grown, and many a fellow teacher has left the field.  However, it is still a privilege to teach my students and an honor to play a part in their lives.

6.     Getting kicked in the face while walking across my den.  I know life can be rough and sometimes you will be faced with adversity.  I understand this, but I never expected walking across the floor in my house would become a contact sport.  That’s what happens when you live with a dancer and a gymnast.  I’m just thankful that they are doing something they love.  I’m also thankful I wasn’t holding a plate of tomato sauce, which I’m sure would have stained the carpet.

7.     I mourned the loss of friends and family.  I debated putting this last thought in this post, but decided to do it.  With the recent passing of a coworker and the death of Lisa’s dad last June, death has been on my mind lately, so I think it is fitting to include this topic in a post concerning Thanksgiving.  Not because the day was dark and depressing, not because it reminded me of the empty chair combined with the missing food item cherished by a lost loved one.  I decided to include this topic because death puts things in perspective.  It makes you appreciate the simple joy of sharing a day with family and friends, knowing that some time, in the hopefully distant future, you will be parted by a barrier that cannot be overcome.  I am truly thankful for the chance to share yet another Thanksgiving with the people I love.