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I’ve been reading almost all day today.  This is the first time I’ve done that in over a year.  I remember the list time I was reading all day was last summer–reading through some of the more appealing Pulitzer Prize winners.  I haven’t kept up that habit this summer, opting for the easier task of watching movies and going to weddings. And then there was the beach house, at this point a holy ground of my life.  I think if I ever thought I was going crazy that place would cure me.

While I was reading, I took a chance to smell my left hand’s fingertips.  They smelled like the handsoap in my bathroom–lavender, I think.  Something flowery like that, at least.  And for a moment I wish they smelled like cigarette or cigar smoke.  I wouldn’t take hookah.  Too sweet.  I could do without sweet right now.  I could do with bitter and dingy.   There was always something about cigarette smoke on the tips of my fingers.  I’d always smell for it in a shower, scrubbing all over my body but using my fingers as the litmus test.

When I smelled the right hand, it smelled clean like baby powder, I slap it on the back of my neck on warm days, and pretend it does anything for the sweat.  I used an spray can air freshener this year in my classroom, something called Powder Fresh.  It smelled exactly like baby powder.  I used to spray it at the floor around the kid who had just farted, and that always eased my worries–but that smell always smells like tabula rasa, indelibly blank and unbelievably clean, simple, and pure.

I wanted to smell used, and thought for a moment I’d go buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke one or three on the porch to ease my worries.  Then I’d take a shower and make sure my finger only barely smelled like impending cancer.

This is a strange thought because I’ve only ever smoked about a pack of cigarettes in my lifetime, and only a few more cigars.  And lately, I haven’t smoked anything but hookah and even that hasn’t been for months. That was my bargain with myself–just hookah, and I’d feel healthy.  Unfortunately, I did feel healthier.

So I thought about drinking, but I only have a bottle of nice wine, and all my other liquor is either sealed in my old bedroom in Tallahassee, sitting in a closed store in Philadelphia, or corked up and staying that way here in my month-old apartment.

Drinking alone and smoking.  Those are my ritualized habits of self-destruction and vice–the activities that will rot my brain and blacken my soul and one day probably send me straight to Lucifer himself for a one-on-one.  If only life would be so cruel to make those a little more popular, I think I’d be a happy man.  But drinking alone sounds a little alcoholic, so I’ve only had one drink this summer, outside the aforementioned weddings.  And a smoker has become such a pariah that even the places that promote public drinking have banned it.

So I was reading in bed, and have been all day, but that felt far too normal and banal and abominable.  I twitch my hands instead and think about ways to help my brain buzz into unfocused splendor.

I’m waiting for the school year to start, to start teaching again, but all I can really think about is the inevitable vice that stress will bring.  I guess I’m preparing my to-be-tarnished soul.  I would watch Jeopardy, or Wheel of Fortune, but I’ve decided to forgo cable this year, and don’t really miss it.  But the ritualized gambling of game shows would, by proxy, take a load off the feeling I have to do something unhealthy.

In waiting for the school year to begin, I’ve been making worksheets and copying out pages of workbooks for the students, to be on top of my game for the upcoming onslaught of inevitable stresses on my time management, patience, and professionalism.  I don’t know, but something about a 16-year-old high school freshman shouting obscenities at me or another adult seems to stretch my civility before 8 AM.  Instead, I wrote six quizzes, a three day project, and a homework sheet this morning before noon.  I hardly didn’t know what to do with myself.

So it goes–the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from my reading.  Thanks Kurt Vonnegut.

I mean, sure.  There are those wonderful themes about racism in To Kill a Mockingbird–but “to kill a mockingbird” doesn’t really sound right in any situation and doesn’t roll off the tongue so neatly as “so it goes.”  It’s become a motto of me, not in the original literary sense of accepting death, but in the sense that teenagers are always going to be teenagers, and teenagers do stupid things and they won’t be happy about the punishments of it.

But I won’t be happy about having to always be around the suck of it, and I won’t always be happy about doling out consequences, and I won’t be happy hearing the troubles of children who think so infantilely for having had such adult experiences, but most days they aren’t mollifying so I find myself stuck in another year that promises to be just as interesting as all the rest.

With students coming, I seem to be smelling my fingertips and wondering why they don’t smell like smoke, and I check up on my stock of liquor, and I think about Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and the $100,000 Pyramid and even Match Game–for no good reason other than that seems to be the show I watched most when I was home in high school and had the time to flip the channel to the Game Show Network.

All the while I try to imagine nothing.

So it goes.

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I hate, hate, hate people who look at movies–especially older movies–as just a step in the line to the movies we have today.  It’s a slap in the face to life, by extension, and I will explain why. (Foswi, this is primarily for you.)

I am a staunch historian, and I thoroughly believe in the value of studying history.  If you do not, you might as well stop reading this blog.  We’ll just never get along.  To that extent, is it useless to study ancient warfare in a modern context?  Are there no pracitical applicable lessons to be learned from tactics that defy era, technology, or weaponry?  I think you out there in someplacewhereyou’restaringatacomputerscreen should be thinking to yourself, “No, there is value in knowing that stuff…”  Because  you’re right.

Or, let’s think of this in terms of books.  Does it make sense to stop reading  Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, The Lord of the Rings, Black Boy, Brave New World, Romeo and Juliet, The Giver, etc. just because there are the Harry Potter series, the Twilight books, the Time Traveler’s Wife, and various James Patterson and Stephen King books topping the New York Times Bestseller list?  Should we leave the past behind and only allow only what is new and pretty and shiny to be let in?

I think not.

The problem is the genre of film allows this to easily happen.  And many people who watch movies (or passively read about movies) tend to think only the little that is said without thorough investigation into the actuality of history.

Point 1: Michael Bay is awesome…but not really.

The Island

Michael Bay, as many know, is the champion of all things pretty, and mind-numbingly explosive.  After all, you don’t make a name for yourself with blockbusters like Bad Boys, Bad Boys II, The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, The Island, Transformers, and Transformers II (directed all by Bay) without some level of skill.  I mean, seriously.  That’s an impressive list of movies, with impressive DVD sales, and everything.

But let us be honest.  The movies star nice looking people, blow a lot of things up, include heart-racing, adrenaline pumping, action and car chases (or meteorite destroying drill malfunctions, what have you), and fun technological advances.  They’re like James Bond films…just without James Bond.

These movies have made millions.  They have loyal fans of adults, teenagers, and children alike.  They’re fun to watch, made millions in the movie theaters.  But they suck.  They have no deeper meaning, make me thoughtful in no way, and generally make me dumber, because I actually could have been learning something while I was wasting time watching pretty people run around.

Point 2: There is more to history than just history.

Citizen Kane

A friend of mine (after reading a former post of mine) responded thusly:

I’ll disregard the opinion of anyone who thinks Citizen Kane is great for anything more than its innovative transitions and camera angles.

While said tongue-in-cheek, there is, I know, a part of him that believes this to be true.  And this is why I am angry.  I love Citizen Kane, in the same way I love Schindler’s List.  Sure it’s a little on the long side, but the story is great, the acting is believable, the direction is flawless, and the overall impact: unforgettable.

The ease with which Americans, modern people, I’m not sure who this list should (or actually does) include, forget the past when it comes to movies is disturbing.  Yes, movies are more entertaining today.  Movie from yore are a little boring.

Except that’s not true.  I defy anyone to watch The Apartment and not be complete enraptured.  Peeping Tom is one of the creepiest movies I’ve ever seen.  (If you have a Netflix account, I believe it is streaming live.   You should go watch it now.  Better than Drag Me To Hell.  Creepier.  Stranger.  More interesting.)  And you know what, It Happened One Night is the quintessential romance that cannot be improved upon in a modern way.  There are just old movies that age well, and have stayed good for a reason.  Citizen Kane is one of them.  Beyond the transitions and camera angles. (We’ve all heard the “Oh my gosh, there’s a ceiling” reaction.)  But let’s talk about the role the dining room table plays in the movie.  Did you ever think about that? Or how about the scene where Welles types out the rest of a horrible review of his wife’s disastrous operatic debut?  The acting is top notch, better than Sean Penn in Milk.

I am struck by many things.  Here’s a short list:

  • People today seem so averse to watching older, or just pain old, films.
  • People tend to devalue the impact of older movies because modern counterparts tends to be more engaging, which they equate with “better.”
  • People tend to devalue the fact that most older movies have a deeper theme than most modern movies, even modern movies based in classic stories.

This is why the market for older movies should be booming, not dying away.  This is why people should actually sit down and become their own movie reviewer.  If you take the time to watching a movie a week, you’ll watch AFI’s Top 100 movie list in less than two year.  Probably less than a year, considering you’ve seen a lot of them.

Why is it people are so ready to agree, or disagree with the statements of critics and film historians, but are so rarely willing to make their own original statements about the movies themselves.  People, you, staring at your own screen.  Say what’s on your mind.  Be willing to say Citizen Kane sucked, but don’t you dare say it’s boring without backing it up.  I’m not about opinion’s with no evidence.

Just have an opinion, and make it your own.

It seems appropriate that my year is ending as it began, stressing with no great sense of urgency about materials for To Kill a Mockingbird. 

And thus the year has come to an end.  I’m still here.  I feel self-deprecating about the success of my students.  However, I am confident that they are in a slightly better place than when they started.  However that might be, I know it was not only my work, but the work of the five other academic teachers the students had, and the two extracurricular teachers, the NTAs, the new Principal, the CEO, the office staff.  It was everyone.  I was a part.

Now I understand how first year teachers can be considered ineffective.  I feel ineffective.  I feel like unless I’m planning through the summer I will be ineffective next year.  I feel a lot of things these days.  But, with a paper to Ed Law looming on the horizon, with the parents coming in, with TTL duties beginning to expand, I’m doing my last work assignment: make a summer reading packet for the rising Juniors about To Kill a Mockingbird. 

I’m working.  I’m avoiding everything else.  Except this.  I’m not avoiding this.  But that’s because I’ve been avoiding this all year long.  I’ve been sucked into the idea that constantly working makes one a better teacher.  Potentially true, but no less easy to live with. 

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I need an outlet for my normally hectic mind.  Maybe I’ve learned to keep things in better.  Maybe I’ve learned to suppress it entirely.  Maybe I’ve learned to measure my words with a little more care than the day I began this job. 

Maybe.

There used to be nothing so annoying as the dreaded “Summer Reading List” my former English teachers used to put me through on an annual basis.  “Why?”  I would ask myself every time.  “Why would they makes us read these books?”  I would get the list and sift through its contents, saddened by the lack of legitimate content.  And then I would return to my scheduled reading.  Something along the lines of goodness knows what.  All I positively knew for a fact at the time was that I was reading literature, and what school was asking me to do was read junk.  I mean, maybe the junk was classical literature, or maybe it was really, really, good.  But it was forced.  It was cruel.  It was: You have no option in what you will be reading this entire summer because we will assign you so many books you won’t be able to do anything other than read the books we assign.  And then I get all resentful, and mad, and I don’t do the reading for two and a half months, and all of a sudden school’s starting, and Smash! Bang! Boom! I have to read three novels, write out 3 reports, design a new book cover (that assignment for the artsy kids, AKA not me), do character webs–whatever those are, and graphic organizers, create a 12 foot in radius stained glass rose window depicting all of the action of one book, cure the AIDS epidemic in Africa after all the knowledge you’ve gained from the summer reading experience, make a costume in honor of one of the main characters (using descriptive clues from the book!) and recite a speech or monologue from the book, save an orphanage of poor starving Indian children as inspired by one of your favorite characters from the books you read this summer, cook a five course meal representative of one of the cultures in the books we read for summer and make sure it’s ready for the first day of class with portions big enough for everyone to get some, and then you must make a map of one of the main character’s journey, change any chapter from any book into a scene from a play, and then please also write a 50 page research paper on the Freudian symbolism inherent in To Kill a Mockingbird.  That’s all.  That I can do before breakfast, in between erecting a to scale size copy of the Colossus of Rhodes in Cuba, and (on special order, not for the  Queen of Hearts to know) painting all of the roses red.

But…

Now that I am on the flip side of it I can’t stop myself from thinking along the following lines: “What can I do to make sure that the students pay attention to the descriptive details?  I know!  I’ll make them have to make a costume just like one of the outfits so vividly described in the book and then they’ll recite some lines said by the character they choose!  It fits perfectly.  It lets the students choose which character they want to be or admire, and it lets them choose their favorite part of the book, and what to say.  It really appeals to different modalities, and allows the students who like to be the center of attention the spotlight for a little while.  It fits perfectly!  And then for the rest of the students I’ll make them write a 50 page paper.  Those types of students love writing, right? Am I right?  I’m so right.”  I’ve fallen into the trap of making bad options for students with different learning styles.  And I’ve also fallen into the trap of being the lame teacher who accepts either really meticulous assignments or really froofy assignments, both with which are on opposite ends of the some spectrum summer reading assignments.

So wait?  Where was this assignment going in the first place?  Oh right.  So, to prepare myself for the year, I’ve been reading, yes actually reading, the reading for the upcoming semester.  I figure I’ll tackle Shakespeare and Homer over Christmas Break.  For now I’ve been dealing with Lee, Poe, Bradbury and more Bradbury.  Thank goodness I love Ray Bradbury–he is a really, really talented author, and surprisingly difficult to find in used book stores here in Philadelphia.  I’m also bad at finding used bookstores.  Tried to visit two the other day and one didn’t exist any more, and the other was “CLOSED — indefinitely permanently  …maybe.”  So maybe I’ll just stick to Amazon.com for all of my publishing needs.  Who knows.  But yeah, I’ve been partaking in summer reading and I have to conclude publicly that To Kill a Mockingbird is indeed a really, really, really good book.  Alright.  That moment’s over.  Good.  Got that out.  Moving on.  To other things.  Quickly.

TFA has quickly become a much smaller entity than I thought it would be.  I feel a little sad about that, although I am wholly appreciative of my school, my department, and the support they are giving me.  If TFA continues in its meaningful, useful, and encouraging support, I don’t think I could have any worse start to a year than any first teacher could have anywhere.  I feel very lucky sometimes.

I think if I were to assign a summer reading project it would be: make a movie out of a book.  Oh yeah?  Can’t do a very good job, eh?  So quit complaining about all the other movies where “they didn’t do a good job,” or “the book was so much better,” or “they just left too much stuff out” and consider yourself wiser for the experience.  Jerk.

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